Monday, December 31, 2012

10 Least Popular Posts of 2012

While everyone else rings in the New Year by commemorating the best and brightest of 2012 in formulaic Top Ten lists, The Neurocritic decided to wallow in shame. To mark this Celebration of Failure I have compiled a Bottom Ten list, the year's least popular posts as measured by Google Analytics.

Methods: The number of pageviews per post was copied and pasted into an Excel file, sorted by month with each month placed into a different tabs. Then the total pageviews for each post was prorated by month, to give an estimate of monthly views.

Results: The posts are listed in inverse order, starting with #10 and ending with #1 (least popular).

10 Most Unpopular Posts of 2012

10. (Every Day Is) Halloween - A list of 15 posts from The Neurocritic's Halloween and Horror archive.

9. Blow Your Mind with Hostile THINKIES (Brain Filled Hostile THINKIES!) - From the Wacky Packages 8th Series.

8. All about the brain and its workings. - This one hurts, because it's a Very Short Review of this blog in the New York Times Magazine by Professor Tyler Cowen. I very rarely brag, and this just reinforces its pointlessness for someone poor at self-promotion.

7. Last Chance to Vote in the Neuro Film Festival - This is the final post in a series of four that attempted to promote the Neuro Film Festival. Unsuccessfully, I might add.

6. Sister Rose Pacatte Explains It All For You - The story of Sister Rose, a very entertaining nun living with MS.

5. Scrumptious Skulls - Delicious chocolate skulls handcrafted by artist Marina Malvada. Chocolate? Skulls? What more could you want?

4. 2012 Neuro Film Festival - Sponsored by the American Academy of Neurology.

3. Morbid Curiosity in Chicago - An exhibit of the Richard Harris Collection, which included a lot of skulls.

2. Speaking of Aphasia... - Aphasia Speaks, a short film about Kristen, a 34-year-old physical therapist, who suffered a stroke.

   ...and bringing up the rear:

1. Nineteenth Annual Cognitive Neuroscience Society Meeting - Unless you're advertising a party, don't write blog posts to announce a conference, even if you include an abstract of Your Brain on Food.

Discussion: We can see three major themes emerge: Halloween and Skulls, the Neuro Film Festival, and the Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting.

Conclusion: People do not like documentary films about neurological illnesses, skulls of any kind, and the CNS Meeting or morbid cultural events when held in Chicago.

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Sunday, December 30, 2012

More Music, More Empathy

Fig. 1 (Molnar-Szakacs & Overy, 2006). Model of the possible involvement of the human mirror neuron system in representing meaning and affective responses to music. ... The shared recruitment of this neural mechanism in both the sender and the perceiver of the musical message allows for co-representation and sharing of the musical experience. Music notes from ‘The Lady Sings the Blues’ by Billie Holiday and Herbie Nichols.

The previous post examined the relationship between music and empathy, including the emotional connection that can occur between musician and audience. My thoughts on the issue were originally inspired by a quote in the book Rat Girl, a memoir by musician Kristin Hersh:
...We'd play what the audience felt and feel it at the same time and they'd feel it reflected back to them in sound and we'd all care about each other's stories and clouds of feeling and ... good luck with that I think miserably through my stage fright, trudging past the knitters, hippies, junkies, drunks, painters and psychos.

-Kristin Hersh, Rat Girl, p. 43

Molnar-Szakacs and Overy (2006) suggested that these profound human experiences are mediated by activity in the supercharged mirror neuron system (Fig. 1).2 Although the box and arrow model is lacking in explanatory value, the hypothesis raised two questions: (1) Are musicians more empathetic? and (2) Do they engage the mirror neuron system to a greater extent than those without musical training?

Are Musicians More Empathetic?

Self-absorbed rock star stereotype aside, it would be difficult to determine causality if this were the case. Do more empathetic people choose to take up music (à la the tortured artist), or does musical training make one more empathetic?

The best way to address question #1 is to look at those undergoing musical training. One such study reported that a 9 month-long program of musical group interaction (MGI) increased emotional empathy in 8-11 year old children (Rabinowitch et al., 2012). The MGI program consisted of musical "games" that seemed [to me, at least] designed to increase empathy, rather than musical prowess: entrainment games to be as rhythmically coordinated as possible, imitation games to repeat the musical phrases or gestures of the previous participant, and other games that called on the constructs of shared intentionality and intersubjectivity.

Along with a passive control group that received no training, an active control group engaged in a verbal storytelling and drama version of group interaction that didn't involve music, singing, or gesture. It's notable that 33% of all children did not play a musical instrument (which included singing), so the study didn't really ask whether musical training per se can make you more empathetic. Nonetheless, there was a p=.054 level interaction of time (pre- vs. post-training) and group (MGI vs. both controls, who did not differ) on the self-report measure of empathy [which might have resulted from a higher pre-training empathy in controls, along with less improvement].

Fig. 3 (Rabinowitch et al., 2012). Index of Empathy scores.

However, the MGI and control groups improved to an equivalent extent on an emotional face matching task, also designed to measure emotional empathy. While it's probably beneficial for children to engage in these group activities, we do not yet have a positive answer to question #1.

Do Musicians Show More Mirror Neuron Activity?

This question has a trivial element to it: of course a trained violinist will have a greater understanding of the movements and sounds involved in Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major, so you'd expect differences in brain activity somewhere to reflect this.

There are at least two studies potentially relevant to question #2 (Chapin et al., 2010; Babiloni et al., 2012). In neither case, however, do we need to invoke the existence of the mirror neuron system.

In the first, BOLD signal changes in response to two different versions of the same musical piece (Chopin's Etude in E major) were compared in an fMRI study (Chapin et al., 2010). One version was an expressive piano performance with dynamic stimulus fluctuations, and the other was a synthesized "mechanical" version. In addition, the participants had varying levels of musical training: 7 were experienced (mean 9.2 yrs training) and 7 inexperienced (0.7 yrs training), with 7 more thrown out for various reasons. These are very small groups by modern fMRI standards.3

Participants rated their emotional arousal and emotional valence while listening to the pieces before and after scanning, but not during the fMRI experiment. The combined arousal and valence ratings were not consistently correlated across the two time points, so making inferences about what the participants were feeling during the experiment is dicey.

The fMRI results showed different activation patterns according to the main effects of performance type and musical experience (shown below). Mirror neuron-ish areas (inferior parietal lobule, inferior frontal gyrus but too anterior) showed greater activation for the expressive piece in both groups (A), but these regions didn't differ as a function of musical experience (B).

Fig. 4 (Chapin et al., 2010). fMRI ANOVA results. Brain activations (F-maps) showing a significant main effect of a) performance type (F (1,24) > 7.19, corrected p < .02), SCG = subcallosal gyrus, PHG = parahippocampal gyrus, vACC = ventral anterior cingulate, FPC = frontopolor cortex, DMPFC = dorsal medial prefrontal cortex; and b) main effect of musical experience, BG = basal ganglia, vStri = ventral striatum.

But there was an interaction between performance type and musical training, with experienced participants showing greater activation for the expressive piece in the too-anterior-for-mirror neurons IFG and the inferior parietal lobe. Importantly, activation in the mirror neuron-ish areas related to tempo changes in the expressive piece did not differ according to musical training:
An unexpected finding of this study was that, for all participants, the tempo fluctuations of the expressive performance correlated with dynamic activation changes in brain regions that are consistent with the human mirror neuron system, including bilateral BA 44/45, superior temporal sulcus, ventral PMC, and inferior parietal cortex, along with other motor-related areas and with insula.

Thus, the ability to perform a piece of music did not make a difference in the mirror neuron system BOLD response, so we do not have a positive answer to question #2. 4

Do Emotionally Empathetic Musicians Show More Mirror Neuron Activity?

Finally, the study of Babiloni et al. (2012) actually asked a third question: do trained musicians with more emotional empathy show greater mirror neuron system activity while watching their own performance, compared to musicians with a lower emotional empathy score?

The participants were the members of three internationally renowned saxophone quartets (n=12) who played a classical music piece by Domenico Scarlatti while their EEG activity was recorded. They also watched a video of their own ensemble performance while EEG was recorded.

Fig. 1A (Babiloni et al., 2012): Overview of the four musicians playing in ensemble during simultaneous EEG recordings.

The participants completed Baron-Cohen's Empathy Quotient Test (EQT) to assess emotional empathy ("emotional contagion" - the ability to mirror an emotional response observed in another person and to experience it vicariously) and cognitive empathy (perspective-taking or theory of mind). Skipping over all the technical details to the bottom line, emotional empathy scores correlated with the degree of alpha wave desynchronization over a "mirror neuron" area in the right inferior frontal cortex during observation of their own performance:
Results showed that the higher the empathy quotient test score, the higher the alpha desynchronization in right BA 44/45 during the OBSERVATION referenced to RESTING condition. Empathy trait score and alpha desynchronization were not correlated in other control areas or in EXECUTION/CONTROL conditions. These results suggest that alpha rhythms in BA 44/45 reflect “emotional” empathy in musicians observing own performance.

Finally, we have a winner! The answer to question #3 is yes. Granting all the authors' assumptions and disregarding the relatively low n (for now), a higher emotional empathy score was associated with greater cortical activity in a mirror neuron area when a musician observed his own saxophone performance (as indexed by the percentage reduction, or desynchronization, of EEG alpha power).

Did this have anything to do with their proficiency in playing with a musical ensemble? Probably not, but it might have made their music more powerful. Many punk musicians, for instance, were not very proficient, but their music was very emotionally intense and resonated with listeners.

ADDENDUM (Dec 30, 2012): An important condition that was not included in this study is the observation of OTHER sax ensembles. Although watching one's own performance includes self and close colleagues, a true test of empathy would be to watch the performance of OTHERS. Watching a video of yourself involves a distinct memory of playing the piece, as well as emotions related to self-consciousness (e.g., pride, modesty, embarrassment at a minor slip, etc.). 5

ADDENDUM #2 (Dec 31, 2012): An anonymous commenter said that the EEG paper is totally bogus due to major unavoidable artifacts and to the uncertainty of EEG source localization. I address these technical problems and limitations in a subsequent comment.


1 I was also struck by this passage, which sounds a lot like synesthesia for pain:
...people should be able to touch one another and feel each other's pain. Physically, like you should be able to touch someone's cheek and feel their toothache; and emotionally, if you move someone, touch them deeply, you have to take responsibility for that depth of feeling and care about them.

-Kristin Hersh, Rat Girl, p. 42
Some have suggested that synesthesia for pain is mediated by (wait for it...) mirror neurons! But Hersh actually does have color-music synesthesia. E major is red, for instance. And this: "New song is done. It's burgundy and ochre with a sort of Day-Glo turquoise bridge—another tattoo on this pathetic little body." (ibid, p. 90).

2 The human mirror neuron system extends well beyond the traditional ventral premotor and inferior parietal areas of monkey neurophysiology fame.

3 The scanner is a very noisy environment, and in case you're wondering the authors used a sparse temporal sampling technique to increase the signal and to avoid interaction of the scanner noise with the music.

4 Five of the seven experienced participants were trained pianists. They were unfamiliar with this specific piece, but I'm assuming they have the ability to perform it themselves.

5 This was pointed out to me by Sandra Kiume of Channel N.


Babiloni, C., Buffo, P., Vecchio, F., Marzano, N., Del Percio, C., Spada, D., Rossi, S., Bruni, I., Rossini, P., & Perani, D. (2012). Brains “in concert”: Frontal oscillatory alpha rhythms and empathy in professional musicians NeuroImage, 60 (1), 105-116 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.12.008

Chapin, H., Jantzen, K., Scott Kelso, J., Steinberg, F., & Large, E. (2010). Dynamic Emotional and Neural Responses to Music Depend on Performance Expression and Listener Experience PLoS ONE, 5 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013812

Molnar-Szakacs I, Overy K. (2006). Music and mirror neurons: from motion to 'e'motion. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 1(3): 235-241.

Rabinowitch, T., Cross, I., & Burnard, P. (2012). Long-term musical group interaction has a positive influence on empathy in children. Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735612440609

Rizzolatti G, Sinigaglia C. (2010). The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: interpretations and misinterpretations. Nat Rev Neurosci. 11:264-74.

I have a gun in my head
I'm invisible
I can't find the ice

-Throwing Muses, "Hate My Way"

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Music and Empathy

I've been reading the book Rat Girl, a memoir by musician Kristin Hersh, who started the band Throwing Muses in 1980, at the age of 14 (along with Tanya Donelly, Leslie Langston, and David Narcizo). The book recounts an eventful year in her life (1985-86) when, among other things, she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and her band is signed to record label 4AD.

Below she describes the intense empathic connection between the band and their music and their audience, which struck me as a profound (and idealistic) way to live:
Our band was started on these two bullshit principles -- well, they're more like bullshit wishes, but here they are:

    1. That people should be able to touch one another and feel each other's pain. Physically, like you should be able to touch someone's cheek and feel their toothache; and emotionally, if you move someone, touch them deeply, you have to take responsibility for that depth of feeling and care about them.
    So it isn't just pain we should feel in each other -- happiness should seep out of pores, and clouds of jealousy and all the different kinds of love and disappointment should float around us. We could walk in and out of people's clouds and know what they're feeling. That'd be the kindest way to live on planet earth.

    2. That maybe our essential selves are drunk -- not wasted, just kinda buzzed enough to let go. If we were always a little tipsy, we'd be light, nonjudgmental, truthful. Our hang-up'd be shaken off, there'd be no second-skin barriers to honesty. Oh, and also no hangovers.

    We figure if those two things are true, then it'd be OK for a band to sound like we do: sorta painful and a little out of control. We'd play what the audience felt and feel it at the same time and they'd feel it reflected back to them in sound and we'd all care about each other's stories and clouds of feeling and ... good luck with that I think miserably through my stage fright, trudging past the knitters, hippies, junkies, drunks, painters and psychos.

-from Rat Girl, p. 42-43.

It's hard to maintain that level of emotional empathy without collapsing from the weight of pain and joy and exhaustion. One would need superpowers to hold up under such unguarded transparency and depth of feeling.

I'm wiped
I'm so tired

Carry me for a little while
Carry me for a little while
Carry me for a little while
Carry me for a little while

-Kristin Hersh, "Your Dirty Answer"

Music and Mirror Neurons
The mirror neurons, it would seem, dissolve the barrier between self and others. I call them "empathy neurons" or "Dalai Llama neurons".

by V.S. Ramachandran

Even the most ardent reductionists might be at a loss when contemplating how to reduce profound human experiences to a map of hemodynamic or electrical changes in the brain. But don't despair! Of course we should all know by now that music's ability to transmit emotion and elicit empathy is mediated by mirror neurons (Molnar-Szakacs & Overy, 2006):
It has recently been proposed that music is best understood as a form of communication in which acoustic patterns and their auditory representations elicit a variety of conscious experiences (Bharucha et al., 2006). Here we review some recent evidence on the neural basis of musical processing in relation to two other modes of communication, language and action, both of which have been described as supported by the human mirror neuron system. We hypothesize that the powerful affective responses that can be provoked by apparently abstract musical sounds are supported by this human mirror neuron system, which may subserve similar computations during the processing of music, action and linguistic information.

So the magical mirror neuron system is responsible for understanding very diverse types of stimuli (music, action, and language) and for evoking concomitant emotional responses to them. Such accounts always extrapolate from single unit recordings of mirror neurons in ventral premotor area F5 and inferior parietal lobule of monkeys to fMRI results in humans. In monkeys, a mirror neuron increases its firing rate when the animal performs an action, and when the animal watches someone else perform the action (Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2010). As far as I know, no one has recorded mirror neuron activity directly from inferior prefrontal or parietal regions in humans.1

This is not to say that mirror neurons do not exist in humans, just that the scope of the human "mirror neuron system" has expanded beyond recognition into an unfalsifiable theory: 2
"Now wait a minute," said Professor Patricia Churchland [as paraphrased by Prof. Greg Hickok in Talking Brains]. "If mirror neurons are all over the brain then don't they lose their explanatory power? Aren't we now just back to our old friend, the How Does the Brain Work Problem?"

A recent post at Brain Myths even suggests that mirror neurons might be The Most Hyped Concept in Neuroscience. Despite the hyperbole from Ramachandran, the reality is more mundane. For instance, we can understand actions we cannot perform:
The ubiquitous idea that mirror neurons “cause” us to feel other people’s emotions can be traced back to the original context in which they were discovered – the motor cells in the monkey brain that responded to the sight of another person performing an action. This led to the suggestion that mirror neurons play a causal role in allowing us to understand the goals behind other people’s actions. By representing other people’s actions in the movement-pathways of our own brain, so the reasoning goes, these cells provide us with an instant simulation of their intentions – a highly effective foundation for empathy.

...The biggest and most obvious problem for anyone advocating the idea that mirror neurons play a central role in our ability to understand other people’s actions, is that we are quite clearly capable of understanding actions that we are unable to perform.3

In the case of music, Molnar-Szakacs and Overy (2006) suggest its traditional relationship to motion (drumming, singing, etc.) engages the mirror neuron system.  Indeed, a recent study has claimed that music and movement share a dynamic structure that supports universal expressions of emotion. Nonetheless, we can appreciate an energetic drum solo without being able to play the drums.

But this general line of reasoning raises the following questions: (1) Are musicians more empathetic? and (2) Do they engage the mirror neuron system to a greater extent than those without musical training?

We'll examine these questions in a subsequent post...


1 "Mirror neuron-like" activity has been recorded from the human hippocampus (Mukamel et al., 2010), but that's another story...  Archives of mirror neuron criticism can be found at Talking Brains and The Neurocritic.

2 Or in the words of Dr. Greg Hickok:
I think the mirror neuron folks have a serious problem on their hands: there is apparently no empirical result that can falsify the theory. If a mirror neuron shows up in an unexpected place, it is a new part of the mirror system. If a mirror neuron's activity dissociates from action understanding, it was not coding understanding at that moment. If damage to the motor system doesn't disrupt understanding, it is because that part of the motor system isn't mirroring.

3 Some have even claimed that mirror neurons can account for "certain listeners' misattribution of anger in the music of avant garde jazz saxophonists" (Gridley & Hoff, 2006). Is this because these listeners cannot play avant garde jazz saxophone?


Molnar-Szakacs, I., & Overy, K. (2006). Music and mirror neurons: from motion to 'e'motion. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 1 (3), 235-241. DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsl029

Rizzolatti G, Sinigaglia C. (2010). The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: interpretations and misinterpretations. Nat Rev Neurosci. 11:264-74.

I don't judge people
I just watch them 'til it's time to look away
I want to look away now
Somebody's coming
I don't want to live backwards
I don't want even to look backwards
It's not my fault...

-Kristin Hersh, "Your Dirty Answer"

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Your Brain on Coupons?

Are you incredibly stressed out by last minute Christmas shopping? Can you feel your heart race and your blood pressure rise as your evil competitor swipes the last MONSTER HIGH® SWEET 1600™ CLAWDEEN WOLF® Doll out of your hands? Well try shopping with coupons!

That's right, Paul Zak and have scientifically proven that coupons make you happier and more relaxed:

CGU researchers discover that coupons can make shoppers happier and more relaxed

Monday, November 26, 2012

Researchers from Claremont Graduate University (CGU's) Center for Neuroeconomic Studies have discovered evidence to suggest that coupons can help make shoppers happy and relaxed.

Their new study, “Your Brain on Coupons: Neurophysiology of Couponing” is the first known scientific research performed in a laboratory setting measuring the physiological and psychological effects of coupons on the human body. The study, expected to be formally published in the coming months, is based on research conducted by Professor Paul Zak and his team, who are widely credited for popularizing neuroeconomics and studying the effects of hormone oxytocin.

And the study has found a solution for the challenge of creative gift giving: no more racking your brain for a personalized selection for your spouse. Coupons are even better than Christmas presents!!
Zak’s team looked at the neurologic effects of couponing to find out what really happens when people receive a savings offer, such as a coupon or coupon code. They found that oxytocin, a hormone that is directly related to love and happiness, spikes when people receive a coupon, and, in fact, increases more than when people receive a gift. The data shows that coupons make consumers happier and more relaxed, underscoring that the holidays don’t have to be as stressful as people think.

“The study proves that not only are people who get a coupon happier, less stressed and experience less anxiety, but also that getting a coupon—as hard as it is to believe—is physically shown to be more enjoyable than getting a gift,” Zak said. “These results, combined with the findings of other research, suggest that coupons can directly impact happiness of people, promote positive health and increase the ability to handle stressful situations, all of which is particularly valuable as we head into the holiday season when stress levels tend to be at an all-time high.”

Be sure to quote this surprising finding when your father expresses disappointment upon opening his present and discovering coupons to save $1.50 on Hershey's Simple Pleasures, $3.00 on (1) AXE holiday pack, and 50¢ off Pampers. He's out of touch with his own body, which clearly exhibits greater joy with these beauties than if he had received that highly coveted Titleist 910D2 driver.

Oxytocin is the Love Hormone

And we all know that oxytocin is directly related to only love and happiness, right Ed Yong? 1 has conveniently provided a sneak preview of these exciting results, well in advance of their publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Isn't that what Open Science is all about?? 2

Don’t Worry, Be Happy: Oxytocin on the Rise

During the study, some participants received a $10 coupon while grocery shopping online while others did not. The findings resoundingly show that women3 who received coupons during the study had significantly higher levels of oxytocin and dramatically reduced stress. Key findings include:
  • Higher Oxytocin Levels. Up 38 percent, this marked response is higher than levels associated with kissing, cuddling and other social interactions related to this hormone that is known to be associated with happiness.
  • Decreased Stress. Coupons were associated with reductions in several different measures of stress in the heart, skin, and breathing in those who received a coupon over those who did not. Specifically:
    • Respiration rates fell 32 percent compared to those who did not get a coupon.
    • Heart rates dropped 5 percent from 73 beats per minute to 70 beats per minute.
    • Sweat levels on the palms of the hands were 20 times lower for those who received a coupon.
  • Find Your Happy Place. Those who received coupons were 11 percent happier than those participants who did not get coupons.
    • This was measured by participants rating how happy they were on a scale from 1 to 10 at the end of the experiment. This research, coupled with existing data, shows that happiness is dependent on a person’s physiological state and that social activities that relax us, like coupons, make us happier.

Previously in The Neurocritic, I've written about how Professor Zak used to have a more circumspect view of oxytocin, calling out the Liquid Trust folks for their hyperbole (see Paul Zak, Oxytocin Skeptic?). Not any more...
What happened in the last few years? Was it the TEDification of academic media success and book deals? Repeated use of the first person singular when referring to work done by a multitude of people?

"...The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity details how I discovered a brain chemical, oxytocin, that makes us moral."

But really, with only a few more shopping days left before Christmas, who can resist the seductive allure of Your Brain... on Coupons? 4

BONUS! Special offer for readers of The Neurocritic! Use coupon code OXYTOCIN at checkout for 10% off everything in the AllTheFrills shop. Have a happy, relaxed day!


1 #Schmoxytocin

2 I'm sure they'd provide all their raw data if you asked them for it...

3 Hmm, the Claremont press release didn't specify that the findings applied only to women. No wonder Dad was so unhappy...

4 The HuffPo piece misidentifies Dr. Paul Zak as a neurologist. He has a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania {PDF}.

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Gennie Messages at Manteno State Hospital

Manteno State Hospital was a behemoth psychiatric hospital located in the Manteno Township of Illinois. By 1936, the total acreage was 1,200, and in 1954 the population reached its maximum of 8,195 patients. According to The Manteno Project:
In 1930 the Manteno State Hospital received its first 100 patients and by the end of 1985, the hospital was closed and remaining patients were sent elsewhere. For over 50 years Manteno State Hospital was an institution that cared for the mentally and physically ill, the developmentally disabled and veterans of various wars. With a peak population of over 8,000 patients, Manteno State Hospital was a self contained city with little reliability on other municipal resources.

The Manteno Project maintains a detailed timeline of events, including the 1939 Typhoid Fever Epidemic (which killed up to 60 patients), the 1957 initiation of "Art-O-Rama", the severe bed shortage of 1960, charges of immorality in 1966 [despite those charges the hospital went coed the very next year], and finally the MSH Scandals [and revelations] of 1970's:
  • Experimental surgeries on patients without consent in 1950s
  • Chinese-speaking patient kept in custodial care at MSH because no one could speak his language
  • High percentage of deaths among patients and charges of sexual assaults
  • Nearly 50% of all admissions are "voluntary" alcoholic patients

Elsewhere, myths and ghost stories about its former inhabitants abound. Most noteworthy is the story of Genevieve "Gennie" Pilarski, "who lived and died as a ward of the State of Illinois." Gennie: Setting the Record Straight provides the greatest detail of her tragic life:

“Gennie” was committed to MSH, by her parents in 1944 at the age of 25 when she had a “disagreement about where she would live“.  She had previously completed 3 years of college at the University of Illinois, majoring in chemistry and suffered from episodes of manic-depressive disorder.

By 1950, “Gennie” was placed in a research ward at MSH where she was “experimented on” involuntarily.  This was not uncommon at MSH even though I find nothing stating that it was ever officially proclaimed a “research hospital”.  (At Elgin State Hospital, they conducted “human radiation experiments“.)

According to the *Tribune article, in 1955 she was lobotomized:
On February 18, 1955, the chart noted: “Has had extensive neurosurgery with bilateral extirpation of most of frontal and temporal lobes. . . . Now mute, totally dependent on commands for functioning of everything from toilet urges on up. To be given an experimental course of (electric convulsive therapy) to see if any affective change can be brought about.

For the rest of Ms. Pilarski’s life, she was schlepped about from ward to ward and nursing home to nursing home.  It was at one of these nursing homes, at the age of 80, that she died, a ward of the state.  For the last 20 years of her life she was “incapable of any kind of human interaction” and spent her last days “buried under her bedclothes or roaming the halls of her nursing home, drooling and babbling“.
. . .

* DRIVING HER CRAZY IT’S TOO LATE TO HELP GENNIE PILARSKI. BUT WE CAN MAKE SURE THAT NO ONE NOW UNDER OUR CARE WILL SUFFER HER FATE, by Patrick T. Murphy, Cook County public guardian.. Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Ill.: Nov 15, 1998. pg. 1

A desire to tell the truth about Genevieve Pilarski, and to commemorate her life, led to the gennie messages, an art project by Kristyn Vinikour. The story was told in a dramatic fashion using a friend who posed as Gennie, with words painted on her naked body. Although not explicitly stated, it seems the artist had access to Gennie's medical records or to previously written accounts (perhaps that Chicago Tribune article?) that used the psychiatrist's notes as source material.

Upon her admission, a physician noted that Gennie was neat, clean, tidy. Extremely quiet, but friendly and agreeable, cooperative in ward and routine. Later, he charted "No active signs of pathology."

This contrasted with progress notes from a later point in time, after 40 insulin coma treatments and 14 bouts of electroconvulsive therapy.

"She is not especially neat or clean"

I recommend viewing the gennie messages in their entirety (with larger images available here).

The writings have remained on the walls and bathtubs of the abandoned asylum, and others have photographed the site (with prints for sale on etsy, where you can find most anything).

Abandoned Asylum - Manteno, Illinois - Rural Decay Photography

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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Want to Be Happier and Avoid Auto Accidents? A TED/BMJ Mashup

Are happy people responsible for fewer accidents? Should positive psychology be a mandatory module in high school Driver's Ed classes? Taken together, a new paper in the 2012 Christmas issue of BMJ and a recent TEDx talk tell a potentially interesting story about happiness, car crashes, and mind wandering. Let's see how this dangerous idea holds up to scrutiny.

Driving and Daydreaming

It seems rather obvious that distraction is not good for driving, regardless of whether the offending diversion is from external or internal sources. Daydreaming (now known as "mind wandering", its more formal and scientific-sounding name) is a very common state of mind while driving. We'll often travel 10 miles down the road without being aware of our surroundings at all. But does this make us more prone to accidents? Galera et al. (2012) asked this question in a study designed to determine who was responsible for a motor vehicle accident (a "responsibility case-control study"). In other words, was the driver in question responsible for the auto accident? And what were they doing at the time?

The authors interviewed 955 patients in the emergency room at Bordeaux University Hospital within 72 hours of a motor vehicle accident. They used a standardized instrument to determine if the patient was at fault (8-12 = responsible; 13-15 = contributory; >15 = not responsible). Notably, eyewitness reports were not considered. The interview protocol is described below (Galera et al., 2012):
During the interview, patients were asked to describe their thought content just before the crash. ... Each thought was classified in one of the following categories: thought unrelated to the driving task or to the immediate sensory input, thought related to the driving task, no thought or no memory of any thought. To capture the intensity of the thought when the mind was wandering, the participant filled in a Likert-type scale (0-10) for each thought, answering the question: “How much did the thought disrupt/distract you?” 

Scores were then categorized into three levels of mind wandering:
  • mind wandering with highly disrupting/distracting content (unrelated to the driving task or to the immediate sensory input)
  • mind wandering with little disrupting/distracting content (unrelated to the driving task or to the immediate sensory input)
  • none reported (no thought or no memory of any thought or thoughts related to the driving task)

Also considered were possible confounding variables such as age, sex, season, time of day, vehicle model, amount of sleep (less than 6 hrs was considered sleep deprived), and use of any psychotropic drug in the previous week (sleeping pills, anti-seizure medications, and drugs for various psychiatric disorders).  Blood alcohol level was obtained from the medical record. Sources of external distraction were assessed (e.g., use of a mobile phone, texting, grooming, eating, watching TV, etc.), as was mood or emotional valence at the time of the crash (pleasure-displeasure on a 9-point Likert scale).

The major finding was that mind wandering with highly distracting content was associated with a significantly higher likelihood of crash responsibility than if the driver reported no mind wandering. Also significantly related to responsibility were the expected factors of alcohol use and sleep deprivation, as well as the "emerging risk factors" of external distraction [which seemed expected to me], negative affect, and psychotropic medication use (see figure below - click for a larger view).

Fig. 1 (Galera et al., 2012). Odds ratios for responsibility for road traffic crashes, adjusted for age, sex, season, time of the day, and location.

Thus, internally distracting thoughts were clearly associated with a greater risk of causing an auto accident, with a higher odds ratio than for external distraction and even alcohol use. But what are we to make of the association with negative affect (a "displeased" mood)? Do happy drivers make better drivers??

Matt Killingsworth gave a talk at TEDxCambridge (MA) about mind wandering and happiness, based on results obtained from an experience sampling study in thousands of people. An iPhone app and a web-based reporting system ( were used to record the data, and the findings were published as a short report in Science (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010).1

Participants were randomly cued by the app to answer questions about their current state of happiness (“How are you feeling right now?” rate from 0-100), their current activities (“What are you doing right now?” report one or more of 22 activities), and whether they were mind wandering (“Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?” one of four options: no; yes, something pleasant; yes, something neutral; or yes, something unpleasant).

Want to be happier? Stay in the moment (Filmed at TEDxCambridge.)

Results suggested that the participants were less happy when they were mind wandering, and this difference was significant for neutral topics and (not surprisingly) for unpleasant topics.2

Crucially, the authors postulated that mind wandering caused unhappiness, even though the data were correlational in nature.3 In fact, other studies have shown the opposite: that negative affect can lead to mind wandering (Smallwood et al., 2009, 2011). This would make sense, for example, in cases of depression (rumination) and anxiety (excessive worry).

Mindfulness Training for Happy, Safer Drivers?

Or should it be the Driver's Ed module on positive psychology? OK, I'm being a little ridiculous here, although this might make a good topic for an Onion talk. Correlation does not equal causation, and we don't know whether the emotional valence of "displeasure" in the Galera et al., 2012 driving study was anger or unhappiness (or disappointment, embarrassment, fear, etc. for that matter). What we do know is that self-reported internal distraction, rated retrospectively after an accident, was higher when the driver was responsible for the accident than when they were not at fault. Now all we need is a trackyourhappiness study for drivers to get accurate, moment-by-moment experience sampling. Oh, wait...


1 Although this was not mentioned in the talk... Perhaps it had something to do with the large discrepancies between some of the variables that were stated in the talk vs. published in the journal article (e.g., the frequency of sampling was "over the course of a day, minute to minute in some cases" in TEDx vs. a minimum of once a day and default of 3 times a day in Science, Supporting Online Material):
Next, participants were asked to indicate the times at which they typically woke up and went to sleep, and how many times during the day they wished to receive a sample request (default = 3, minimum = 1).
2 Participants were mind wandering 46.9% of the time: pleasant topics in 42.5% of samples, unpleasant topics in 26.5% of samples, and neutral topics in 31% of samples.

3 In the Science paper, they explained it thusly: "time-lag analyses strongly suggested that mind wandering in our sample was generally the cause, and not merely the consequence, of unhappiness."


Galera, C., Orriols, L., M'Bailara, K., Laborey, M., Contrand, B., Ribereau-Gayon, R., Masson, F., Bakiri, S., Gabaude, C., Fort, A., Maury, B., Lemercier, C., Cours, M., Bouvard, M., & Lagarde, E. (2012). Mind wandering and driving: responsibility case-control study. BMJ, 345 (dec13 8) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.e8105

Killingsworth, M., Gilbert, D. (2010). A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science, 330 (6006), 932-932. DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439

Smallwood J, Fitzgerald A, Miles LK, Phillips LH. (2009). Shifting moods, wandering minds: negative moods lead the mind to wander. Emotion 9:271-6.

Smallwood J, O'Connor RC. (2011). Imprisoned by the past: unhappy moods lead to a retrospective bias to mind wandering. Cogn Emot. 25:1481-90.

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Friday, December 07, 2012

The Not So Seductive Allure of Colorful Brain Images

We all know that the mere presence of a brain scan image or a neuro-prefix adds instant credibility to any news story, right? And that the public (i.e., undergraduates) is easily swayed into believing in bogus psychological findings if accompanied by pretty colorful brains? Well count me in! But wait...

Neuroscience Fiction Fiction?

The day after the high-profile Neuroscience Fiction article by Dr. Gary Marcus appeared in The New Yorker, a stealthy blog post in Brain Myths summarized an unpublished paper (Farah & Hook, in press, PDF) that  refutes this notion.1

Are Brain Scans Really So Persuasive?
New evidence suggests the allure of brain scans is a myth

Published on December 3, 2012 by Christian Jarrett, Ph.D

A pair of psychologists at The University of Pennsylvania have highlighted a delicious irony. Sceptical neuroscientists and journalists frequently warn about the seductive allure of brain
scan images. Yet the idea that these images are so alluring and persuasive may in fact be a myth. Martha Farah and Cayce Hook refer to this as the “seductive allure of ‘seductive allure’” (PDF via author website).

Most of their evidence against the "seductive allure" is from unpublished data described in their in press article (which we can't evaluate yet):
Two series of as yet unpublished experiments have failed to find evidence for the seductive allure of brain images. Michael, Newman, Vuorre, Cumming, and Garry (2012, under review) reported a series of replication attempts using McCabe & Castel’s Experiment 3 materials. Across nearly 2000 subjects, a meta‐analysis of these studies and McCabe & Castel’s original data produced a miniscule estimated effect size whose plausible range includes a value of zero. Our own work (Hook & Farah, in preparation) has also failed to find evidence that brain images enhance readers’ evaluation of research in three experiments comprising a total of 988 subjects.
However, one published paper did fail to find an effect of fMRI images on how participants judged the scientific reasoning and credibility of a fake news story titled, “Scientists Can Reconstruct Our Dreams” (Gruber & Dickerson, 2012).2  The study was designed to replicate the previous study of McCabe and Castell (2008) with some notable exceptions. Rather than using a bar graph or an ugly and cluttered EEG topographic map as the comparison images in separate groups, Gruber and Dickerson used:
...a fantastical, artistic image of a human head and a cyberspace-esque background with swirly lines. The final group was given an image from the popular science fiction film Minority Report in which three children’s dreams of the future are projected on a screen and used to prevent crime.

Very io9... But both studies did have a no-image condition.

The Gruber and Dickerson study also added additional questions to explicitly assess credibility and authoritativeness, in addition to whether the scientific reasoning made sense. Results showed that in all cases, ratings did not differ statistically across the conditions, including the fMRI vs. no-image comparison.

Hmm... Farah and Hook also debunked the study of Weisberg et al., (2008), which didn't use images at all but added neuroscience-y explanations to 18 actual psychological phenomenon. The problem was that the neuroscience-y paragraphs were longer than the no-neuroscience paragraphs. The author of the excellent but now-defunct Brain In A Vat blog had a similar objection, as explained in I Was a Subject in Deena Weisberg's Study:
So how does it feel being held up to the scientific community as an exemplar idiot? Well, it’s a bit embarrassing. One of my coping mechanisms has been to criticize the experimental design. For instance, I think its problematic that the with neuroscience explanations were longer than the without neuroscience explantions. If subjects merely skimmed some of the questions (not that I would ever do such a thing), they might be more likely to endorse lengthier explanations.

Neuroskeptic also raised this point in his otherwise [mostly] positive evaluation of the study, Critiquing a Classic: "The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations":
Perhaps the authors should have used three conditions - psychology, "double psychology" (with additional psychological explanations or technical terminology), and neuroscience (with additional neuroscience). As it stands, the authors have strictly shown is that longer, more jargon-filled explanations are rated as better - which is an interesting finding, but is not necessarily specific to neuroscience.

He noted that the authors acknowledged this objection, but also that the conclusions we can draw from the study are fairly modest.

What does this mean for Neuro Doubt and Neuroscience Fiction and Neurobollocks? The takedowns of overreaching interpretations, misleading press releases, and boutique neuro-fields are still valid, of course, but the critics themselves shouldn't succumb to the seductive allure of seductive allure. But we must also remember that the most thorough critiques of seductive allure still await peer review.3

UPDATE 12/13/12:  I had e-mailed to Dr. Deena Weisberg to get her response to the Farah and Hook paper. Here is her reply (quoted with permission):
I have indeed seen the paper that you sent and I think it's a very interesting piece of work. Like many other researchers, I was under the impression that images play some role in making neuroscience appealing, but I would be perfectly happy to be proven wrong about that. I think the case that Hook & Farah make is compelling, although we should reserve final judgment about what exactly is going on until we have more data in hand.

I have a few minor points to add:
First, I stand by the results from my 2008 study, which showed that neuroscience jargon can be inappropriately persuasive in the absence of images. I can't (yet!) claim to know exactly why this is the case, but something about neuroscience information does seem to be unusually alluring. That said, I completely agree with the argument that you and others have made about the with-neuroscience items being longer than the without-neuroscience items, although I would be surprised if length can account for the entirety of the effect. Obviously, more work needs to be done here, and again, I would be happy to be proven wrong.

Second, it's possible that neuroscience images do have some effect on people's judgments, but perhaps the studies that have been done so far just haven't found the right dependent measure. Maybe images don't affect how credible someone thinks a finding is, but do affect how much they want to read a news article that contains that finding or provide funding for the research program, for example.

Third, all of this suggests that it might be even more interesting to study the sociology of this phenomenon --- why do so many people think that neuroscience images are persuasive when they aren't?

Happy to be in touch if you have any further questions, and keep up the good work on the blog!

I'd also like to quote this comment from ‏@JasonZevin, which is relevant for the issue of not quite having the correct dependent measure yet:  "...IMO the effect seems both real, and hard to produce in the lab."


1 And makes me feel a little silly.

2 The experiment must have been designed before these actual 2012 headlines: Scientists read dreams (Nature) and Scientists decode contents of dreams (Telegraph).

3 I wrote to two of the authors of the original studies (Weisberg and Castel) to get their reactions, but haven't heard back. Very, very tragically, we cannot hear from Dr. McCabe (tribute in APS Observer, PDF). In retrospect, my latter inquiry may have been gauche, so I apologize for that.


Farah MJ, Hook CJ (in press). The seductive allure of "seductive allure". Perspectives in Psychological Science. PDF

Gruber, D. & Dickerson, J. (2012). Persuasive images in popular science: Testing judgments of scientific reasoning and credibility. Public Understanding of Science, 21 (8), 938-948 DOI: 10.1177/0963662512454072

McCabe DP, Castel AD. (2008). Seeing is believing: the effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition 107:343-52.

Weisberg DS, Keil FC, Goodstein J, Rawson E, Gray JR. (2008). The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. J Cogn Neurosci. 20:470-7.

Scientists read dreams 
Brain scans during sleep can decode visual content of dreams.

Mo Costandi
19 October 2012

Scientists have learned how to discover what you are dreaming about while you sleep. A team of researchers led by Yukiyasu Kamitani of the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, used functional neuroimaging to scan the brains of three people as they slept, simultaneously recording their brain waves using electroencephalography (EEG).

NOTE: The image from Minority Report was not used in the actual Nature News article...

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Monday, December 03, 2012

The Mainstreaming of Neurocriticism

Will it strengthen the field of neuroscience? Or is it hurting its image in the eyes of the public? Or both? 

Another article on the limits of neuroscience has appeared in a high-profile media outlet aimed at a general audience. In The New Yorker, NYU Psychology Professor Gary Marcus writes about What Neuroscience Really Teaches Us, and What It Doesn't. As usual, the focus is on the seductive allure of colorized brain images:

Neuroscience Fiction

Posted by
December 2, 2012

...Brain imaging, which was scarcely on the public’s radar in 1990, became the most prestigious way of understanding human mental life. The prefix “neuro” showed up everywhere: neurolaw, neuroeconomics, neuropolitics. Neuroethicists wondered about whether you could alter someone’s prison sentence based on the size of their neocortex.

And then, boom! After two decades of almost complete dominance, a few bright souls started speaking up, asking: Are all these brain studies really telling us much as we think they are? A terrific but unheralded book published last year, “Neuromania,” worried about our growing obsession with brain imaging. A second book, by Raymond Tallis, published this year, invoked the same term and made similar arguments. In the book “Out of our Heads,” the philosopher Alva Noë wrote, ”It is easy to overlook the fact that images… made by fMRI and PET are not actually pictures of the brain in action.” Instead, brain images are elaborate reconstructions that depend on complex mathematical assumptions that can, as one study earlier this year showed, sometimes yield slightly different results when analyzed on different types of computers.

Last week, worries like these, and those of thoughtful blogs like Neuroskeptic and The Neurocritic, finally hit the mainstream, in the form of a blunt New York Times op-ed, in which the journalist Alissa Quart declared, “I applaud the backlash against what is sometimes called brain porn, which raises important questions about this reductionist, sloppy thinking and our willingness to accept seemingly neuroscientific explanations for, well, nearly everything.”

I wrote about Quart's op-ed piece in Meet The Neuro Doubters, where I tried to strike a balance between justified criticism of flawed studies and bad press releases versus trendy overhyped trashing of 'neurobollocks' and neuroscience research in general. Professor Marcus tries to maintain this distinction as well:
Quart and the growing chorus of neuro-critics are half right: our early-twenty-first-century world truly is filled with brain porn, with sloppy reductionist thinking and an unseemly lust for neuroscientific explanations. But the right solution is not to abandon neuroscience altogether, it’s to better understand what neuroscience can and cannot tell us, and why.

The first and foremost reason why we shouldn’t simply disown neuroscience altogether is an obvious one: if we want to understand our minds, from which all of human nature springs, we must come to grips with the brain’s biology. The second is that neuroscience has already told us lot, just not the sort of things we may think it has.

Judging from reaction on social media, the position of abandoning neuroscience can be seen as a straw man, but Raymond Tallis takes his neurotrash rather seriously; so do many liberal intellectual media outlets. The danger of professional neurocriticism is that it will be used by the anti-science crowd to discredit a reductionist enterprise.

What have we learned?

In the wake of the 2009 voodoo correlations brouhaha (Vul et al., 2009), which caused some to dismiss all neuroimaging as garbage, I stated that...
...I am not a complete neuroimaging nihilist. For examples of this view, see Coltheart, 2006 and especially van Orden and Paap, 1997 (as quoted by Coltheart):
What has functional neuroimaging told us about the mind so far? Nothing, and it never will: the nature of cognition is such that this technique in principle cannot provide evidence about the nature of cognition.
So no, I am not a Jerry Fodor Functionalist. I do believe that learning about human brain function is essential to learing about "the mind," that the latter can be reduced to the former, that fMRI can have something useful to say, and (more broadly, in case any anti-psychiatry types are listening) that psychiatric disorders are indeed caused by faulty brain function. But there's still a lot about fMRI as a technique that we don't really know. The best-practice statistical procedures for analyzing functional images is obviously a contentious issue; there is no consensus at this point. Our knowledge of what the BOLD signal is measuring, exactly, is not very clear either [see the recent announcement in J. Neurosci. that "BOLD Signals Do Not Always Reflect Neural Activity."] The critics among us are not trying to trash the entire field of social neuroscience (or neuroimaging in general). Some of us are taking concrete steps to open a dialogue and improve its methodology, while others are trying to rein in runaway interpretations.

And really, cognitive neuroscience is not the only guilty party here. All sorts of scientific findings are overhyped by the media, university press releases, even scientists themselves. Why do scientists do this? Because it's very difficult to get funding these days, and positioning one's basic research in mice as leading to an imminent cure for schizophrenia or autism is de rigueur. Then when it doesn't happen the public becomes disillusioned with science and politicians lobby for cuts in research funding.

I'll leave you with this cordial Twitter debate that concisely summarizes the problem.

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