The highly regarded neurologist, psychologist and author Oliver Sacks has released a podcast with the New Yorker and a video on his blog (embedded below), describing some of his experiences with cannabis, amphetamines and LSD. In the podcast Sacks describes the inspiration and insights he gained from using the drugs, including the effect on his writing and the increase in his ability to be empathic with patients, but in the video Sacks issues a stark warning in which he describes amphetamines as “the most dangerous drugs physiologically” due to the powerful impact on the reward pathway and the cardiovascular system.
The media coverage comes in the run up to the release of Sacks’ new book “Hallucinations” (due for release in November), which if his previous writings are anything to go by should prove to be a truly fascinating read. If Sacks’ work inspires you to want to know more on the topic, Henry Lester a professor of neuroscience at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is coincidentally unveiling an introductory course on “Drugs and the Brain” this November which is completely free and available right from your home computer.
One of my all time favourite bloggers, Oxford Neuroscientist Prof. Dorothy Bishop, or DeevyBee as she is known on Twitter has performed an amazing open access lecture focusing largely on the misunderstanding of neuroscience (click down to the “Emanuel Miller Lecture” to play the video). The talk is incredibly informative and digestible, even those with no understanding of neuroscience or psychology whatsoever will take a great deal away. The problem of the poor understanding of neuroscience is one of the main reasons why I started this blog, so if you like this blog then you’ll love this lecture.
The talk begins with a reasoned explanation of how and when we should be sceptical of neuroscience research, Bishop goes on to cite 4 key reasons why certain kinds of scientific research will inevitbaly result in false-positives:
“The four horseman of the apocalypse”
1. Maturation – People develop naturally over time.
“There seems to be an implicit assumption that the brain, because it is a physical organ is somehow not going to change unless you give it some intervention – that it is there as a static thing. This is completely untrue… as evidenced by this series of images.”
2. Practice effects – when people keep doing the same test again and again, they get better at it.
“…purely to do with the fact that you have got better at doing the test and nothing to do with your abilities… People forget that this can apply to language tests and thing like that. It also applies to some extent to the brain, often we don’t know how important this is because brain imaging is so new.. clearly if you get brain responses to novelty, that means if you do something twice – the first time round you will get different responses to the second time round when it is no longer novel”.
3. Regression to the mean - a statistical artefact of longitudinal studies that is exacerbated if you select participants on the basis of a low score on a test (for example participants with developmental difficulties). Bishop does an outstanding job of explaining the problem at about 18 minutes in to the talk.
“Regression to the mean is as inevitable as death and taxes”
Campbell and Kenny (1999) A primer on regression artefacts
4. The placebo effect. This is the obvious consideration that continues to impact poorly designed research but according to Bishop, the three issues listed above could actually be having an even greater impact than the placebo effect.
Bishop explains that a control group is vital in order to achieve valid findings, but a control group alone is not enough, we should also be asking questions such as:
- Are the groups randomly assigned – or is there some other factor at play?
- Is the control group given an alternative treatment? If not, why not?
- What causes drop out? People don’t tend to drop out at random and this can have a very big effect on results.
Weisberg, Deena Skolnick. (2008). The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18 (3), 229-477 DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2008.20040
Campbell and Kenny (1999) A primer on regression artefacts
Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”
…The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the “takeaway”—the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.
Zimbardo has served as the president of the American Psychological Association and has written a number of bestsellers and textbooks… and then this distinguished psychologist came to TED and delivered a rapid-fire bombardment of disconnected statistics and sweeping generalizations without any serious evidence backing them up. In this talk, he ends with a warning that our species will descend to the level of banana slugs. It’s like the punchline of a joke.
I’m not a fan of over-generalising, and as rampant over-generalising is one of my biggest criticisms of TED, I’m going to try not to do the same thing here. I’ve seen some tremendous TED talks and I’ve seen some horrendous TED talks. TED has it’s problems but TED is only a platform, though a powerful platform it may be. It’s not a source in itself and it’s clearly not where people should be headed for their sole education – there are far more promising on-line destinations for this than TED, but there again – TED told us that already.
If I were to be in charge of TED, I would not necessarily ask for higher quality-control, I’d ask to see better referencing, I certainly don’t want to see TED reacting to criticism by policing what speakers can say. As long as sources are adequately provided, I’m happy to do the leg work and fact-check myself, or let the hive-mind do it for me – but this becomes a nightmarish task when you can’t find a source to start with. Another thing I’d like to see is questions from the audience. I’ve heard people say time and time again that the most interesting part of lectures is the Q&A. This has certainly been my experience and I think it’s sad that TED does not allow its audience the freedom to question the speakers at the pulpit of ideas. As Zimmer so eloquently put it, “When a TED talk ends, the lights go out. There’s no time for questions”.
For all its faults, TED remains a great springboard for ideas and inspiration. I’m not convinced that its style is really as bigger problem as has been made out by some, it serves (or at least it should serve) a very different purpose to true on-line learning. I see TED much the same way as I see Twitter, never as a source – but often as a doorway to discovery. I do however agree that we need to change the attitude that TED is somehow a stamp of approval for fact-checked information, that it is not. The attitude we should have to TED is no different to the attitude we should have to all things – a healthy scepticism. This TED talk (ironically), sums up both this attitude and the purpose of TED (as I perceive it) just perfectly:
It’s an inspiring talk, it’s from someone from a strongly academic background but who is not chiefly an academic. It’s not particularly well referenced but that’s sort of the point. It’s not meant to be a lecture, it’s meant to kick-start you in to thinking for yourself. A little inspiration can go a very long way, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always check, question and challenge our sources. Always, always, always. Even.. no.. especially when, our source is TED.
Alcohol is the fourth most dangerous drug after heroin, crack and crystal meth and the second most damaging to society, according to a study published today in the British Medical Journal (PDF). It is the largest ever study of its kind. This follows Prof. Nutt’s controversial lancet paper which in 2010 rated alcohol as the most dangerous drug to society.
This latest study is a pretty weighty verdict, the study used responses from 292 individuals sourced from responders from the membership list of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland as well as a range of addiction professionals. The parameters used were:
(a) physical harm caused by acute, chronic and parenteral use.
(b) psychological harm; physical harm and intensity of pleasure linked to dependence.
(c) social harm from intoxication; other social harms and associated healthcare costs.
It’s worth noting that the study only assessed the drugs listed and doesn’t address research chemicals that are increasingly moving from the grey market to the black market as a result of recent government bans. The authors make a damning indictment of the recent bans of research chemicals, citing evidence that the mephedrone ban has done nothing to affect use and “may only act to drive up the price”. The authors do not mention that a ban has a range of knock on effects inherent to black market supply such as effects on purity, the “gateway” effect of having to visit an illegal dealer and the societal implications of criminalising the user. Only today, London police have issued a blanket drug warning after one person has died and two remain hospitalised after taking a white powder that still has not been identified. The authors state that drug use should be treated as a medical issue and “should be separated from the criminal justices system and associated penalties”.
Taylor M, Mackay K, Murphy J, McIntosh A, McIntosh C, Anderson S, & Welch K (2012). Quantifying the RR of harm to self and others from substance misuse: results from a survey of clinical experts across Scotland. BMJ open, 2 (4) PMID: 22833648(PDF)
Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past decade you’ll already have heard of on-line courses. Probably in the form of spam emails and banner ads. Until recently they’ve been relatively expensive and not very highly regarded.
Over the last few months a large number of heavyweight universities have entered the playing field in a big way. Stanford, Princeton, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Edinburgh, U.Penn, U. Michigan, U. Virginia, U. Washington, Caltech and a host of other universities have all unveiled completely free offerings using the shared Coursera platform. Harvard, MIT and now Berkeley have teamed up to unveil EDx, a suite of completely free top level courses that promise the added bonus of interactivity. The courses will obviously lack important elements for some disciplines such as lab time and one-to-one tuition however if these courses are able to capitalise on their interactive potential they could even prove to be more conducive to learning than traditional methods in many respects.
The giddying introductory video to MIT’s flagship computer science course set for launch in October:
The Edx project trailer (which the title from this piece was pinched from):
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