NB: I’m unable to verify the mathematical claims made in this piece but research is ongoing and according to Jason, is due to be published shortly. Watch this space.

Jason Padgett is currently purported to be the only person in the world who can accurately draw fractals by hand which are mathematically correct. You are probably familiar with computer generated fractals such as the interactive one below but creating them by hand is a different task entirely.

A number of years ago Jason received a brain injury from a severe blow to the back of the head in a mugging. As a direct result of this Jason acquired a form of synaesthesia in which fractals can be seen in every part of the world. What is astounding about Jason is that he claims to be able to apply this insight to his number sense and draw mathematical phenomena in a completely unique way.

Jason has very kindly given permission for me to reproduce some of his works below. The drawings are without doubt strangely compelling. I should note here  that I’m not a mathematician and seeing as there is absurdly little debate of Jason’s work on-line I’d advise you to take this with a “pinch of salt”. I’d be fascinated to see some academic debate on the theory behind the concepts presented here.

All images remain copyrighted (©JasonPadgett, 2011). Copies of his work are available from fineartamerica.com.

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Thanks to Mo Costandi for the detailed post on this story, I highly recommend his always excellent blog.

MSNBC: Crow “spy network” to catch Bin Laden

It’s just emerged that as part of the US effort to hunt down Bin Laden, US researchers were given Bin Laden masks and made to run around while crows were trained to recognise them. The original plan being for the army to then release the crows to hunt down the real Bin Laden before presumably returning to the the handlers who would be led to their target. The research is a year old now but the real aim of the project and the fact that Bin Laden masks were used is only now emerging.

Bin Laden Mask US Hunted Bin Laden with CrowsIt turned out that rather than returning to base and informing the military where the doppelgänger was hiding the crows could only be trained to swarm in and attack the doppelgänger (Marzluff et al, 2009).  Leaked photos now demonstrate that Bin Laden got wind of this plan and decided to mask up in the safest way possible, with a mask of Dubbya.

Osama Bin Bush US Hunted Bin Laden with Crows

It is perfectly possible that the story that Bin Laden was killed in an AK-47 fire fight in which he used his wife as a human shield is in fact a cover story. Only now are rumours surfacing that Bin Laden was in fact picked to death by a swarm of crows. This would explain the bizarre US decision to dump the body at sea out of sheer embarrassment.

birdswarm 550x362 US Hunted Bin Laden with Crows

In all seriousness, the amazing finding from this study is that the crows, trained to recognise a mask not only remembered and attacked the mask wearer a whole three years later but somehow transmitted the information to their offspring  and the rest of the flock who would also instinctively attack the mask wearer (Marzluff et al, 2009).

A fascinating related Ted-talk

Marzluff, J., Walls, J., Cornell, H., Withey, J., & Craig, D. (2010). Lasting recognition of threatening people by wild American crows Animal Behaviour, 79 (3), 699-707 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.12.022

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chuck The Intriguing Case of Chuck CloseA self portrait by Chuck Close

In doing some research on Prosopagnosia, a psychological condition which distorts the perception of faces I stumbled across the fascinating and inspiring case of Chuck Close, a man more famous for his spell-binding art than his prosopagnosia. Prosopagnosia doesn’t actually affect the ability to see in any way but rather the ability to recognise faces in the normal uniquely human way.

822850 face recognition The Intriguing Case of Chuck Close

The current consensus in the literature is that we can remember such an extroardinarily large number of faces beause we use a vector based mathematical model called the “Face Space model”. According to this model we remember faces by what makes them specifically different from the average face rather than having a photographic memory for faces as a whole. This explanation has been used to generate the powerful face recognition algorithms we are beginning to see employed in intelligent CCTV systems.

face recognition The Intriguing Case of Chuck Close

For some however, the part of the brain (the “fusiform face area”) that handles this information is damaged. This can cause an individual who is intelligent and able in every sense of the word fail to be able to distinguish their closest friends and family. This became common knowledge for many after the famous “case of the man who mistook his wife for a hat” by Neuroscientist Oliver Sacks. Oliver Sacks has only recently with his book “Inside The Mind’s Eye” declared himself to suffer from a milder case of prosopagnosia.

Until now I’ve read much on prosopagnosia but been quite unable to remotely grasp how it must feel. It’s been described as being like a human trying to distinguish sheep based on their facial features, something simply incomprehensible in the same way as human faces. Taking a look at Chuck Close’s artwork however gives us a window in to how it must feel. Chuck draws faces by taking a photograph and then dividing it in to pixels and painstakingly copying the shading from the pixels on to huge canvases. The effect of this is somewhat amazing. If you stand directly infront of the canvas it is almost impossible to discern anything apart from a seemingly random blur of colour. It is only when one steps back that the amazingly intricate features of the human face become apparent.

I found the following Chuck Close piece on an art blog that gives a wonderful description of the piece yet remains starkly oblivious to the mental condition that enabled it…

“I cannot even imagine the creativity, design sense and fabric knowlege needed to construct this spectacular rug/portrait out of silk and linen.  It is an amazing experience to stand in front of it and back up little by little until the montage of colors becomes a face full of character.”

chuck close rug 1 The Intriguing Case of Chuck Close

Upon understanding exactly how this work came to be makes the piece just that bit more beautiful. I find humbling to be able to take a glimpse out of the eyes of someone with this condition. At the same time it is strangely awe-inspiring, in a way that compels the viewer to want to explore their consciousness that bit further (than perhaps is, technically, legally allowed). Until now I thought the art work of individuals with synaesthesia was likely to be the most (naturally) psychologically influenced art to provoke that effect, but that discussion is for another day.

If you think you might have prosopagnosia you can participate in current research virtually in an online test with the prosopagnosia research centre here.

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I almost forgot how nuts US TV got. Then I watched “The OCD project”. When I stumbled across a clip I thought it was just a charlie brookeresque satirical skit on quackery but on closer inspection it’s actually real. This program is different however, it’s so bad it’s good. In the show MTV’s Dr. David Tolin takes a group of individuals with OCD and has them “face their fears” complete with a pounding heartbeat sound track and enough “24” style video editing to convince you the show is pure fiction. On first appearances it would be fair to assume the method  of treating OCD presented in the show would quite easily turn the most cool-headed of people into raving lunatics. Interestingly however it appears the methods used by Tolin are relatively effective.

ocd Throwing babies at wind shields and kissing petrol pumps

Tolin begins by taking a woman with an irrational fear of running over children with her car (admittedly that’s a bit of an understatement) and has her drive around in a carpark while he runs around with handfuls of toy babies throwing them at her wind-shield.

toy baby Throwing babies at wind shields and kissing petrol pumpsNext our friendly doctor decides to confront a fellow patient’s fear of murdering people by having the man clutch a knife to his (Tolin’s) throat before a bizarre scene where they are introduced to a man with HIV. In the following scene Tolin takes one of the women out to french kiss petrol pumps to desensitise her to her fear of contamination.

prison bars andkeys Throwing babies at wind shields and kissing petrol pumps

After this a pair of the patients are arrested, have their hand prints and DNA taken and are thrown in jail in a scene that would make even Stanley Milgram wince. In the meantime the remaining members of the group take a bath together in a jacuzzi infused with urine. The show closes with the doctor organising a mock funeral for the son of a woman who has an obsessive fear that she will kill her son.

grim reaper wall grabber Throwing babies at wind shields and kissing petrol pumps

The wonderful thing about this show is how blissfully unaware it’s participant’s seem of it’s truly monumental irony. It successfully parodies every single US stereotype. Beginning with the US hockey mum with questionable driving ability riding her kids to school in a borderline monster truck 4X4, swiftly moving on to oil addiction and finishing with the prison industrial complex and stockholm syndrome. The cherry on the cake is the  perfect demonstration of the ambulance chasing, wallet raiding image we have of the US medical profession, apparently confirmed under 20,000 volts of Hollywood stage lights.  This is a perfectly stage managed festival of irony that will leave you thinking about far more wider issues than OCD. On the other hand I’m sure this show has trailers rocking up and down across America with rednecks howling with laughter at the “*insert curse interspersed sequence of pejorative terms here*” but personally that’s not what I got out of it, though there’s no denying it makes for amusing TV. So either this is a masterpiece of stupidity, a masterpiece of genius or the producers are just trolling.

ObviousTroll1 Throwing babies at wind shields and kissing petrol pumps

I’m aware I haven’t given any kind of critical review of the therapy here, that can be for another day (or someone else, any psychotherapist bloggers up for a challenge?).  Tolin’s therapy itself actually seems vaguely reasonable, it’s just the cringeworthy nightmarish delivery that will have you squirming in your seat. In fairness to Tolin, I’m fairly sure that’s far more MTV’s fault than Tolin’s; but hey, I doubt any one ever expected Jerry Springer to solve their relationship. On first appearances it at least seems that he’s achieved far more than that. It will be interesting to see how well supported the initial open-trial findings are supported in the long term.

Gilliam CM, Diefenbach GJ, Whiting SE, & Tolin DF (2010). Stepped care for obsessive-compulsive disorder: An open trial. Behaviour research and therapy, 48 (11), 1144-9 PMID: 20728075

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Update: Serious methodological concerns have been raised about the Debattista paper, check out Neuroskeptic’s coverage here.

In 1996 we witnessed a computer beat the world chess champion, something many never thought would be possible. Is it possible that in 2011 a computer could actually beat psychiatrists in something as intrinsically human as diagnosing mental disorder and even deciding the most effective medication? According to preliminary results from research currently being conducted by a team at Stanford University this is already rapidly becoming a reality.Kasparov vs Deep Blue One Nanostep for Technology, One Quantum Leap for PsychiatryThe key question for psychiatrists today is not the naming of the disorder but deciding (when a prescription is necessary) which prescription is most likely to be effective. The wrong prescription can do much more harm than good. It is accepted that to a large extent psychiatrists still rely on trial and error. Unlike other areas of medicine, psychiatric problems tend to lack biomarkers that inform pharmacotherapy such as bacterial assays that guide antibiotic treatment or histological and genetic tests that guide chemotherapy. The massive STAR*D clinical trial of antidepressants demonstrated just how much of a lottery the choice can be.

lottery One Nanostep for Technology, One Quantum Leap for PsychiatryA study published in the January volume of the Journal of Psychiatric Research by a team at Stanford demonstrates a computer system that appears to be able to tackle this problem in the precribing of anti-depressant medicaton . The method used is called “referenced EEG” (rEEG). This uses mathematical algorithms to compare the brain patterns of a patient to a database of the brain patterns of previous patients with a similar condition and their treatment outcomes. Essentially the patient is given the treatment that is demonstrated to work best for patients with similar brain patterns.

computer doctor One Nanostep for Technology, One Quantum Leap for PsychiatryThis technique has been suggested before but only now is it seriously beginning to present a major challenge to the traditional method. In November a research group in Canada demonstrated an rEEG method that categorised depressive, bipolar and schizophrenia patients with 85% accuracy. A month later the same researchers published another paper demonstrating that the program successfully classified whether Schizophrenia patients would respond positively to clozapine, again in 85% of cases. Now the Stanford team led by Charles DeBattista has published preliminary findings that appear to demonstrate rEEG can select notoriously hard to predict depression medications with 65% accuracy. This is significantly higher than the 38% score achieved using the STAR*D approach which is widely considered best practice amongst Psychatrists.

The critically minded amongst you may well baulk at the methodological conundrums involved in comparing an rEEG diagnosis to a human one. If these results are valid, they are truly astounding. In 1949 Ash demonstrated that only 20% of Psychiatrists agreed on diagnosis, as recently as 1962 that figure was only 42%. More recently the “DSM” has assured agreement is now closer to 90%. Whether the DSM diagnosis is valid is another debate however. The suggestion that rEEG may be able choose an appropriate prescription after a human psychiatrist has performed a diagnosis certainly seems more tangible a possibility at this point in time.

It is important to recognise the findings are only preliminary. There are always methodological issues inherent in a pilot study that prevent results being as earth shattering as they may sound. The medications prescribed by the rEEG program were far more varied and qualitatively different from the limited selection of STAR*D. The issue may be that psychiatrists are exercising greater restraint in prescribing higher risk medication at the expense of better results. (This is in no way a criticism of psychiatrists, caution is obviously of paramount importance when dealing with such powerful medications.) Regardless, research groups around the world are joining the race to test and expand the method. Psychiatrists (and EEG technicians) will doubtless be awaiting these results with bated breath.

If this news came as a shock to you I’d recommend taking a look at the work of Ray Kurzweil, a remarkable professor who has made some amazing discoveries himself and continues to make astounding technological predictions.

Khodayari-Rostamabad A, Reilly JP, Hasey G, Debruin H, & Maccrimmon D (2010). Diagnosis of psychiatric disorders using EEG data and employing a statistical decision model. Conference proceedings : … Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. Conference, 2010, 4006-9 PMID: 21097280

Khodayari-Rostamabad, A., Hasey, G., MacCrimmon, D., Reilly, J., & Bruin, H. (2010). A pilot study to determine whether machine learning methodologies using pre-treatment electroencephalography can predict the symptomatic response to clozapine therapy. Clinical Neurophysiology, 121 (12), 1998-2006 DOI: 10.1016/j.clinph.2010.05.009

Charles DeBattista, Gustavo Kinrys, Daniel Hoffman, Corey Goldstein, John Zajecka, James Kocsis, Martin Teicher, Steven Potkin, Adrian Preda, Gurmeet Multani, Len Brandt, Mark Schiller, Dan Iosifescu, Maurizio Fava (2011). The use of referenced-EEG (rEEG) in assisting medication selection for the treatment of depression.  Psychiatric Research, 15 (12), 64-75 DOI: The use of referenced-EEG (rEEG) in assisting medication selection for the treatment of depression

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