Finding myself at a loose end yesterday I decided I’d try and track down one of London’s mafrishes – a type of cafe where people from the capital’s Ethiopian, Somali and Yemeni community chew the psychoactive plant khat.
I’d heard about a Somali cafe on Lewisham Way and thought that was as good a place as any to try. The cafe owner first looked a bit baffled when I walked in and asked about khat but he sat me down, gave me tea, and went out back to ask his associates.
“Sorry, there’s no khat in Lewishman. We have internet?” he suggested while gesturing towards the empty computers at the back. I kindly declined but in reply he suggested I go to Streatham. “There are lots of restaurants there”, he assured me.
Streatham is huge, so I arrived at one of the rail stations and just decided to walk south. Slowly I became aware that there were more Somali-looking faces around but there were no cafes to be seen.
Just through chance I noticed some Somali cafes off a side street and walked into the first one I saw. “There’s none here, but next door”, I was told. The people in the next cafe said the same, as did the next, and the next, until I came to an unmarked door.
“Just go in” a cafe owner called to me from across the street, so I walked in.
The place was little dark but quite spacious. My fantasies of an East African cafe translocated to London quickly faded as my eyes adjusted to the trucker’s cafe decor. Inside, there were four guys watching the news on a wall-mounted TV.
The cafe owner greeted me as I entered. I asked my usual question about khat and he looked at me, a little puzzled.
“You know, khat, to chew?” I ventured. A furrowed brow. Thinking. “Oh, chat. Yes, we have bundles for three pounds and bundles for seven. Which do you want?”
“Give me one for seven” I said. “No problem” he replied cheerily. “Have a seat”.
This wasn’t the first time I had tried khat. Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate in the Midlands, I discovered khat in an alternative shop. It was sold as a natural curative soul lifting wonder plant from the fields of Africa.
I bought some, didn’t really know what to do with it, and just began to ‘gently chew’, as the leaflet advised, while walking through the streets of Nottingham.
So when my bundle of khat arrived, I just picked out some stems and began chomping on one end. “Wait, wait, stop!” they shouted in unison. “We’ll help you” said one and I was joined by the cafe owner and a friend. “Anyway, he said”, “you’re not allowed chew alone, it’s a social thing.”
I was given a bin to put beside my table, was shown how to strip off the stems and pick out the soft parts, and how to chew slowly. I was provided tea and water on the house and told to keep drinking fluids. Apparently, it can be a little strong on the stomach and the plant makes you go to the toilet a lot as, I was told, ‘it speeds up the body’.
I had the company of the cafe owner, a Somali Muslim, and his friend, an Ethiopian Christian.
Over the next two hours we chewed and talked. Ethiopian politics, football, living in another country, khat in Somalia, Haile Selassie, religion, languages, Mo Farah, stereotypes of Africa and family life in London.
People strolled in an out of the cafe. Some in jeans and t-shirt, others looking like they’d just walked in from the Somali desert. Everyone shook my hand. Some bought khat and left, others joined us, all the while chewing gently and drinking sweet tea. At one point I asked the Christian guy why he wore an Islamic cap. He whipped off his hat. “I’m bald” he said “and it’s the only cap you can wear inside” which sent me into fits of laughter.
Khat itself has a very tannin taste and it is exactly like you’d imagine how chewing on an indigestible bush would be. It’s bitty and it fills your mouth with green gunk. The sweet tea is there for a reason.
The effect of the khat came on gently but slowly intensified. It’s stimulating like coffee but is slightly more pleasurable. There’s no jitteriness.
It reminded me of the coca plant from South America both in its ‘mouth full of tree’ chewing experience and its persistent background stimulation. But while coca gave me caffeine-like focus that always turned into a feeling of anxiety, khat was gently euphoric.
My companions told me that it lifts the spirits and makes you talkative. They had a word, which for the life of me I can’t remember, which describes the point at which it ‘opens your mind’ to new ideas and debate.
The active ingredient in khat is cathinone which has become infamous as the basis of ‘bath salts’ legal highs which chemists have learnt to create synthetically and modify. But like coca, from which cocaine is made, the plant is not mental nitroglycerine. It has noticeable effects but they don’t dominate the psyche. It’s a lift rather than a launch.
The guys in the cafe were not unaware of its downsides though. “Don’t chew too often” they told me “it can become a habit for some”. I was also told it can have idiosyncratic effects on sexual performance. Some find it helps, others not so much.
Not everyone was there for khat. Some guys chewed regularly, some not at all, some had given up, some only on special occasions. Some just came to hang out, drink tea and watch the box.
Towards the end when I felt we had got to know each other a bit better I asked why the cafe was unmarked. The owner told me that while khat is legal they were aware of the scare stories and were worried about the backlash from less enlightened members of the community. ‘Immigrants sell foreign drug’ shifts more papers, it seems, than ‘guys chew leaves and watch football’.
Eventually, I said my goodbyes and decided I could use my buzz to go for a walk. I made London Bridge in a couple of hours. But I think my newfound energy came as much from the welcome as it did from the khat.
Link to Wikipedia entry on khat.
Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:
“Ever since I learnt about confirmation bias I’ve started seeing it everywhere”. Genius line from a Jon Ronson blog post.
The Dana Foundation research showing the genetic risk for psychiatric conditions can be seen early in development.
The fantastic Neuroskeptic blog has moved to Discover Magazine. Update your bookmarks!
Kurzweil AI reports on the latest generation of AI robots with intelligence developed by genetics algorithms. Check the creepy video. To the bunkers!
The Independent has a piece on why our memories are not always our own.
Micro hallucinations in the film Black Swan discovered by Cinematic Corner. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.
The New York Times has an obituary for a little known industrial psychologist who has had a massive impact on our lives – he designed the telephone dialler.
New study finds that violence on YouTube is less common and less glamorised than on TV. Kittens also cuter, bases belong more to us.
The Atlantic covers the possibility of deep brain stimulation for Alzheimer’s disease.
“Embodied cognition is not what you think it is” An article in Frontiers in Cognitive Science on radical embodied cognition.
The Atlantic argues that economists need a council of psychological advisers to help with the ‘human being’ thing.
Will We Ever… Simulate the Brain? Not Exactly Rocket Science covers the billion euro attempt to not quite simulate the brain.
The Times Literary Supplement has a review of Oliver Sacks’ new book ‘Hallucinations’ by street-fighting Ray Tallis.
Munchausen syndrome is a common name for facticious disorder where people consciously fake illnesses for their own gain.
This is distinguished from malingering – where the gain would be something obvious like money, drugs or missing military service – and instead the gain from factitious illness typically includes the indirect benefits of faking – like being cared for, avoiding family conflict and so on.
The person is deliberately faking but they may not be fully conscious of all the emotional benefits – they might just say ‘it feels right’ or ‘it helps me’.
Obviously, this has been a problem for millennia but there has been an increasing recognition that the phenomenon happens online. People take up the identity of someone with an illness that gives them a special place in an online community.
This could be a standard online community where their ‘illness’ becomes a point of social concern, or their pretence could allow them to participate in an online community for people with certain disorders or conditions.
The article gives lots of example and some ways of spotting Munchausen fakers that also gives an insight into their thinking:
The piece gets quite wordy at times (well, it is an academic article) but it’s an interesting insight into a motivations of people who ‘fake sick’ on the internet.
Link to full text of article.
A new study on the chemicals in the latest batch of legally sold ‘synthetic highs’ has found what looks like an unintended hybrid drug.
As regular Mind Hacks readers will know, I’m a keen watcher of the murky ‘legal high’ market.
We seem to be in the unprecedented position where sophisticated grey-market pharmacologists are rapidly inventing completely new-to-science drugs in underground labs for thrill-seeking punters.
A study just published in Forensic Science International looked at the chemicals in a new wave of ‘fake pot’ herbal highs sold over the internet.
Firstly, the research identified 12 new synthetic cannabinoids. That’s twelve completely new untested cannabis-like drugs. The turnover in the market is both stunning and scary.
Curiously though, one ‘legal pot’ sample contained both a new synthetic cannabinoid (identified as URB-754) and a cathinone (4-Me-MABP) in it.
What was most surprising though, was that these substances had chemically reacted with one another to create a completely new combination drug. It has the chemical name (N,5-dimethyl-N-(1-oxo-1-(p-tolyl)butan-2-yl)-2-(N′-(p-tolyl)ureido)benzamide) if you want to sound sexy.
In other words, while the makers intended to put both a cannabinoid and a stimulant in the same product, they probably never knew that the substances had chemically combined to produce a hybrid compound with completely unknown properties.
The legal high market is becoming an informal opt-in drug-testing experiment with paying subjects.
Link to locked study.
A team from Japan has just published a study of patients who experience cenesthesias in the mouth. Here are a selection of the hallucinations:
“Feels like gas is blowing up in his mouth”, “feels like something is struggling, as if there is an animal in his mouth”
“Feels the presence of wires in the mandibular incisors [front teeth in the jaw] when removing dentures”
“Feels something sticky coming up rapidly in her mouth”, “feels like a membrane is covering and squeezing her incisors”
“Feels like trash is coming up behind her dentures”, “feels sliminess in her mouth”
“Feels slimy saliva”, “feels like her teeth are made of iron and is sore from chewing”
The study used a type of brain scanning called SPECT (essentially, injecting your brain with radioactive glucose, seeing where it ends up with a gamma camera) to look at the balance of activity over the two hemispheres when the patients were just resting.
They found that activity was relatively greater in the right hemisphere, which is a common, but not very reliable finding in psychosis research.
Link to locked study.
A revolutionary new medication for Hyper Involuntary Panic Stress Tension Elevation Response (HIPSTER Disorder) has become available.
Now available from all good lo-fi dubstep jazz lounges (via BoingBoing)
Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:
The New York Times covers the recent upsurge of robots-taking-over-the-world anxiety. To the bunkers!
The dodgy practice of psychologists trying to patent therapeutic techniques is covered by Neuroskeptic.
The Humanist discusses the explosion of the unhelpful concept of sex addition.
Forensic psychology nerds: In The News covers the latest in the debate on the accuracy of violence risk assessments.
The Bangkok Post on the bizarre Thai government announcement that calculators, phones “and even karaoke machines” could damage memory, lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Bryan Adams covers, screaming fits. 80s hair metal, unfortunately lycra incidents.
People without an amygdala can experience fear. Neurophilosophy covers an intriguing new study.
Wired Danger Room on the cost of war to the US: currently, at least 253,330 brain injuries, 129,731 cases of PTSD – and counting.
Missouri Public Radio on how ex- Abu Ghraib chief psychologist Larry James wants to launch a national gun violence prevention center. Presumably, by waterboarding assault rifle owners.
Short-term exercise boosts body image without making any physical difference. The BPS Research Digest on the short-term psychological effects of exercise.
Scientific American has an important piece on the science of what life events can trigger depression.
After a nonsense article on ‘girls and the science gap’ two neuroscientists write a stirling reply on why pseudoscience and stereotyping won’t solve the problem in Notes and Queries.
The New York Review of Books has a reflective piece by Oliver Sacks on the swirling mists of memory and how false recall has affected authors and artists throughout history.
[Science] is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened—or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others’ suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten.
Similarly, while I often give lectures on similar topics, I can never remember, for better or worse, exactly what I said on previous occasions; nor can I bear to look through my earlier notes. Losing conscious memory of what I have said before, and having no text, I discover my themes afresh each time, and they often seem to me brand-new. This type of forgetting may be necessary for a creative or healthy cryptomnesia, one that allows old thoughts to be reassembled, retranscribed, recategorized, given new and fresh implications.
Sacks reflects on some of his own shift sans of memory and the thin line between ‘literary borrowing’ and unrecognised remembering.
The Barbican Centre in London has a Cinema and Psychosis event on the 17th March where we’ll discuss how the silver screen can represent the altered states of psychosis.
Rather than focus on ‘how films depict mad people’, which usually just involves appalling stereotypes, we’re interested in how cinema can depict delusions and hallucinations.
The event will include presentations by film folks, psychologists and people who have experienced psychosis – including the brilliant artist Dolly Sen.
I’ll be talking with psychologist and novelist Charles Fernyhough on how the psychology of psychosis is reflected on screen.
The full programme is here where you can also book a ticket. Otherwise, £5 on the door or free for the unwaged.
It’s part of The Barbican’s Wonder neuroscience season so if you don’t catch us there’s plenty of other great events in March and April.
We’ve covered some dodgy neuroscience journalism in our time but The Daily Mail has such as amazing piece of tosh, I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be serious or the result of huffing bathroom cleaner.
Now I try and avoid writing about The Daily Mail because it’s so science impaired it’s a bit like complaining that your pantomime horse won’t gallop properly.
But this is just amazing.
Where evil lurks: Neurologist discovers ‘dark patch’ inside the brains of killers and rapists
Hmmm, this sounds like it’s going to be a sensational piece of nonsense. I wonder what the ‘dark patch’ refers to?
A German neurologist claims to have found the area of the brain where evil lurks in killers, rapists and robbers.
It’s not looking good. Evil doesn’t ‘lurk’ in any part of the brain.
Bremen scientist Dr Gerhard Roth says the ‘evil patch’ lies in the brain’s central lobe and shows up as a dark mass on X-rays.
Evil patch? X-rays? Dark mass? But sweet Jesus in heaven. WHERE THE FUCK IS THE CENTRAL LOBE?
Screw the ‘dark patch’ these evil-doers have grown another lobe. The man has discovered mutant three-lobe killer rapists.
Believe it or not, it actually gets worse.
I could explain where the article has gone wrong but I’m too busy pushing furniture up against the windows. You won’t take me alive creatures of darkness!
Link to it’s not satire if written while high on cleaning products.
Your mind loves it when a plan comes together – the mere act of planning how to do something frees us from the burden of unfinished tasks.
If your daily schedule and email inbox are anything like mine, you’re often left a state of paralysis by the sheer bulk of outstanding tasks weighing on your mind. In this respect, David Allen’s book Getting Things Done is a phenomenon. An international best-seller and a personal productivity system known merely as GTD, it’s been hailed as being a “new cult for the info age”. The heart of the system is a way of organising the things you have to do, based on Allen’s experience of working with busy people and helping them to make time for the stuff they really want to do.
Ten years after the book was first published in 2001, scientific research caught up with the productivity guru, and it revealed exactly why his system is so popular – and so effective.
The key principle behind GTD is writing down everything that you need to remember, and filing it effectively. This seemingly simple point is based around far more than a simple filing cabinet and a to-do list. Allen’s system is like a to-do list in the same way a kitten is like a Bengal Tiger.
“Filing effectively”, in Allen’s sense, means a system with three parts: an archive, where you store stuff you might need one day (and can forget until then), a current task list in which everything is stored as an action, and a “tickler file” of 43 folders in which you organise reminders of things to do (43 folders because that’s one for the next thirty-one days plus the next 12 months).
The current task list is a special kind of to-do list because all the tasks are defined by the next action you need to take to progress them. This simple idea is remarkably effective in helping resolving the kind of inertia that stops us resolving items on our lists. As an example, try picking a stubborn item from your own to-do list and redefining it until it becomes something that actually involves moving one of your limbs. Something necessary but unexciting like “Organise a new fence for the garden” becomes “ring Marcus and ask who fixed his fence”. Or, even better with further specifics on how to move your fingers, “dial 2 626 81 19 and ask Marcus who fixed his fence”.
Breaking each task down into its individual actions allows you to convert your work into things you can either physically do, or forget about, happy in the knowledge that it is in the system. Each day you pick up the folder for that day and either action the item, or defer it to another folder for a future day or month. Allen is fanatical on this – he wants people to make a complete system for self-management, something that will do the remembering and monitoring for you, so your mind is freed up.
So what’s the psychology that backs this up? Roy Baumeister and EJ Masicampo at Florida State University were interested in an old phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect, which is what psychologists call our mind’s tendency to get fixated on unfinished tasks and forget those we’ve completed. You can see the effect in action in a restaurant or bar – you can easily remember a drinks order, but then instantly forget it as soon as you’ve put the drinks down. I’ve mentioned this effect before when it comes to explaining the psychology behind Tetris.
A typical way to test for the Zeigarnik Effect is to measure if an unfulfilled goal interferes with the ability to carry out a subsequent task. Baumeister and Masicampo discovered that people did worse on a brainstorming task when they were prevented from finishing a simple warm-up task – because the warm-up task was stuck in their active memory. What Baumeister and Masicampo did next is the interesting thing; they allowed some people to make plans to finish the warm-up task. They weren’t allowed to finish it, just to make plans on how they’d finish it. Sure enough, those people allowed to make plans were freed from the distracting effect of leaving the warm-up task unfinished.
Back to the GTD system, its key insight is that your attention has a limited capacity – you can only fit so much in your mind at any one time. The GTD archive and reminder system acts as a plan for how you’ll do things, releasing the part of your attention that it struggling to hold each item on your to-do list in mind. Rather than remove things from our sight by doing them, Allen, and the research, suggest we merely need to have a good plan of when and how to do them. The mere act of planning how to finish something satisfies the itch that keeps uncompleted tasks in our memory.
I’ve got a piece in The Observer about why dopamine isn’t a ‘pleasure chemical’ but how this idea is likely to stay because it’s too useful for the media.
It provides a simplified explanation for a whole range of behaviours and sexes-up science stories, regardless of whether it makes sense or not.
If there were a celebrity among brain chemicals, it would be dopamine. Supposedly released whenever we experience something pleasurable, it’s forever linked to salacious stories of sex, drugs and wild partying in the popular press. The Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters, it gives instant appeal to listless reporting and gives editors an excuse to drop some booty on the science pages.
There are too many bad examples to mention in detail, but I have some favourites. The Sun declared that “cupcakes could be as addictive as cocaine” because they apparently cause “a surge of the reward chemical dopamine to hit the decision-making area of the brain”. The article was topped off with a picture of Katy Perry, apparently a “cupcake fan” and, presumably, dangerously close to spiralling into a life of frosted-sponge addiction.
The piece goes on to mention another particularly bad example of dopamine reporting among many and explains why the ‘pleasure chemical’ cliché just doesn’t fit the science.
Unfortunately, one of my best lines (definition: I laughed at my own joke) got edited out.
The original line was “It was clearly just a smokescreen for the views of gun and, er, cupcake hating liberals” which has just been edited down to “gun hating liberals”.
It’ll make sense when you read it.
Link to ‘The unsexy truth about dopamine’ in The Observer.
At last, the scourge of catnip has got the attention it deserves with this hard-hitting film. It reveals the mind-bending effects and devestating impact of this feline street high.
Do you know where your kitties are?
New Republic has an interesting piece on how corporations enforce ‘emotional labour’ in their workforce – checking that they are being sufficiently passionate about their work and caring to their customers.
It focuses on the UK sandwich chain Pret who send a mystery shopper to each outlet weekly and “If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does.”
The concept of ‘emotional labour‘ was invented by sociologist Arlie Hochschild who used it to describe how some professions require people to present as expressing certain emotions regardless of how they feel.
The idea is that the waiter who smiles and tells you to ‘have a nice day’ doesn’t really feel happy to see you and doesn’t particularly care how your day will go, but he’s asked to present as if he does anyway.
The idea has now moved on and this particular example is considered ‘surface acting’ or ‘surface emotional labour’ while ‘deep acting’ or ‘deep emotional labour’ is where the person genuinely feels the emotions. A nurse, for example, is required to be genuinely caring during his or her job.
‘Surface emotional labour’ is known to be particularly difficult when it conflicts too much with what you really feel. This ‘emotional dissonance’ leads to burnout, low mood and poor job satisfaction. In contrast, ‘deep emotional labour’ is linked to higher job satisfaction.
The New Republic article links to a deleted but still archived list of ‘Pret behaviours’ written by the company to state what is expected of the employees.
Apart from some classic corporate doublethink (‘Don’t want to see: Uses jargon inappropriately; Pret perfect: Communicates upwards honestly’) you can see how the company is trying to shift their employees from doing ‘surface emotional labour’ to ‘deep emotional labour’.
Cynics would suggest this is a form of corporate indoctrination but you could also see it as part of drive for employee well-being. You say tomato, I say “smell that Sir – wonderful isn’t it? Fresh tomatoes from the hills of Italy”.
Those of a political bent might notice an echo of Marx’s theory of alienation which suggests that capitalism necessarily turns workers into mechanistic processes that alienate them from their own humanity.
However, the concept of ‘deep emotional labour’ is really where the approach can start becoming unhelpful as it has the capacity to denigrate genuine compassion as ‘required labour’. I doubt many nurses go into their profession intending to ‘monetize their emotions’ or feel they have been ‘alienated’ from their compassion.
And as armies are loathe to admit, soldiers serve for their country but fight for their platoon mates. Is this really a form of ‘deep emotional labour’ or it is just another job where emotions are central?
Link to New Republic piece ‘Labor of Love’.
Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:
Do amusing titles affect the perception of research? Some initial findings from Rolf Zwaan.
The New York Times celebrates fifty years of The Feminine Mystique. Feminist classic or Britney album? You decide.
Humans are flocking everywhere notes Wired Science. With a particular flocking tendency to get in the way on the London underground.
Providentia starts a three-part series on the Kinsey revolution in sex research.
Boredom explained in under 300 words by PsyBlog. Hey. Is that an aeroplane?
Aeon magazine discusses mourning and ritual. “The dead are no longer welcome at their own funerals”. Not sure why. At least they don’t get drunk and start a fight with Uncle Peter.
Dame Uta Frith. In the house.
The New York Post has an in-depth piece on the lucrative world of ecstasy smuggling. Refined, sublime, he makes you do time.
Neuroskeptic takes a critical look at people who are mental health advocates putting descriptions after people.
A new study in Social Influence has found that flirting works better on sunny days. British history, in a nutshell.
If you’re following the replication carnage in social psychology: grants of up to $2000 available for replication attempts.
Neurocritic finds that the winner of one of the Association for Psychological Science’s top awards has a dark past in unpleasant gay aversion therapy.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an in-depth article that explores the controversy over social priming, which suggest that our behaviour can be changed by exposing us to certain concepts.
The most famous study in the genre was led by psychologist John Bargh, who is the focus of the story and who found that people walked more slowly down a corridor after reading words associated with being old.
A failed replication of this study and the subsequent online reporting led Bargh to get a bit hot under the collar which was the tipping point for growing skepticism concerning social priming.
The article is a very good account of that, although one drawback is that it doesn’t distinguish very well between ‘priming‘ – an extremely well replicated effect and one of the bedrocks of psychology, and ‘social priming’ – the subtype which is now in doubt.
The idea behind classic priming is that if you activate a meaning, perhaps just by experiencing it, related meanings will also become activated. This activation will be less strong for less related meanings.
Because we access meanings that are activated more quickly, you can test effect in reaction time tasks.
For example, if you see the word ‘apple’ you will subsequently identify the word ‘orange’ more quickly because they are related in meaning. The word ‘aeroplane’, however, will be unaffected. In other words ‘apple’ will prime ‘orange’ but not ‘aeroplane’.
There are various ways of testing this but it boils down to the fact that in terms of priming meaning, the effect is not at all controversial. It’s extremely reliable and can be seen in many sorts of tasks – verbal, visual, auditory and so on.
However, social priming suggests that concepts about people or identity (such as being old or being a professor) affect complex behaviours (such as walking speed or test performance).
Furthermore, several of these experiments have suggested that the meanings can be primed in ways that rely on analogy or metaphor – for example, that people who feel lonely will spend more time in a hot shower as they are primed to need ‘warmth’.
Many people find some of these effects implausible and, as the article makes clear, the skeptics are now attempting to replicate some of the most well-known experiments to very mixed results.
If you’ve not been following the wires, when a research team couldn’t replicate Bargh’s study everything kicked off and hangbags were flailed around by Bargh, a Belgian research group, Nature, a Nobel prize winner and the internet.
Bin your copies of Kuhn people, this is how science really works.
Link to Chronicle article on social priming.
Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman has spent several years researching hacker culture, hanging out with coders, geeks and cypherpunks to understand the beliefs and boundaries of the community they inhabit.
You can buy it from your regular tax-avoiding online retailers but in the spirit of the culture it discusses it has been open licensed so you can download the full version online as a pdf.
Coleman is currently researching the culture of Anonymous and you can read a brilliant article by her on the revolutionary online chaos collective which has just been published in triplecanopy.
Expect more from her on this in the near future.
The BBC Radio 4 programme The Life Scientific has just broadcast programmes on two of the most interesting cognitive scientists in the UK – developmental psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith and robotocist Noel Sharkey.
Karmiloff-Smith is a psychologist who has made an important contribution both to the deep theory of infant brain development and has been active in many down-to-earth debates about child development.
In the programme she makes a fascinating case for why banning TV for infants isn’t really helpful but how kids TV programmes could be made to be much more useful for their cognitive development.
The Noel Sharkey programme is also fantastic. Apparently before becoming a specialist in artificial intelligence and robotics, he was an electrician, gigging musician and psychiatric nurse.
In his interview he discusses how AI has evolved in its approach during his time as a researcher and where it falls down in terms of capturing the human mind.
Both definitely worth listening to.
One of the things I quickly discovered while working for Médecins Sans Frontières in Colombia, was that while there is lots of research on people who have experienced armed conflict in the past, there was very little information on the mental health of people living in active conflict zones.
With MSF colleagues, we’ve just published a study that goes a little way to correcting that.
The majority of research on how war effects civilians is done on refugees or in post-conflict situations. Practically, this makes sense, as collecting data during an armed conflict can be both difficult and dangerous.
However, MSF in Colombia runs almost all its clinics in exactly this situation. The fact there was little research on which to base our interventions made my job a little challenging at times, but as we were also collecting systematic data on each consultation this also gave us a great deal of internal information on which to base decisions.
During my time there, we set ourselves the task of analysing and publishing some of this data to make sure others could benefit from it. This study has just appeared in the journal Conflict and Health.
The study looked at how symptoms of mental illness were related to experience of direct conflict-related violence (exposure to explosives, threats from armed groups, deaths of loved ones etc), violence not directly related to the conflict (domestic violence, child abuse etc) and what we called ‘general hardships’ – such as economic problems and poor social support.
We predicted that the more someone was exposed to violence from the armed conflict, the worse mental health they would have, but what we found was a little different.
Experience of the armed conflict was more linked to anxiety while non-conflict violence was more related to aggression and substance abuse. Depression and suicide risk, however, were represented equally across all of the categories.
This is interesting because a lot of conflict-related mental health interventions are focused on trauma and PTSD, where as our study and various others have found that trauma is only one effect of being caught up in an armed conflict.
It’s worth saying that being ‘trauma obsessed’ is really just a American and European condition – as I’ve discussed before, Latin American psychology in particular has a strong tradition of looking at problems on the community level rather than always aiming to treat the individual victims.
It’s worth saying that the study used clinical data, rather than data from a specifically designed study, so there is still a need for a systematic approach to the problem. But as study of over 6,000 patients who were seen in areas of active conflict, we hope it’s a useful contribution.
By the way, MSF’s work continues in Colombia. Everyday there are medical and mental health teams spending days, weeks or months in conflict zones to work with the local population who would otherwise have no access to healthcare. In over 60 countries around the world the organisation does something similar in very difficult conditions.
They also do lots of important research particularly into medical problems that often get neglected.
The majority of the staff are from the local country and they invest a lot into training.
Do drop them a donation if you get the chance.
Link to MSF Colombia study on the armed conflict and mental health.