Category Archives: Psychology

Rehearsing Abstinence

First there was methadone. Then came bupropion, naltrexone, acamprosate, varenicline and a host of other promising drugs. But the latest anti-addiction medication doesn’t come in a pill; it runs on your PC. ScienceDaily reports on two interesting studies that attempt to help addicts using computer software. Both rely on cognitive behavior therapy, the psychological technique that involves identifying and modifying dysfunctional thought processes that lead to unwanted behaviors.

In the first study, researchers created a virtual reality environment in which alcoholic patients could be exposed to the same cues and stimuli that normally elicit cravings.

[The]┬áVR environments, developed with a company called Virtually Better, feature different scenarios that an addict may find challenging: a bar with imbibing patrons, a house party with guests drinking and smoking, a convenient store with cigarettes and alcoholic beverages within reach, a designated smoking section outside of a building or a room with an arguing couple. The environments use actors in each scene as opposed to computer-generated characters. In addition, the study added another layer of realism. A device sprayed the air with scents the participant may encounter in the various scenarios–cigarette smoke, alcoholic beverages, pizza or aromas associated with the outdoors.

In the second study, researchers developed a computer program that places patients in hypothetical situations and coaches them on how to avoid relapse.

Those assigned to computer-assisted training were exposed to six lessons, or modules, that they accessed from a computer located at the treatment program. Each module included a brief movie that presented a particular challenge to the subjects’ ability to resist substance use — such as the offer of drugs from a dealer. The narrator of the module then presented different skills and strategies to avoid drug use and also show videotapes of individuals employing those strategies.

Unlike the first study, the second scored participants for successful abstinence. Researchers found that subjects who received computer training had fewer positive drug tests compared to traditional counseling alone.

One problem with pharmaceutical interventions like varenicline or naltrexone is the way in which they shift responsibility away from the patient (It’s not me, it’s my brain!). By conceptualizing addiction as purely biological, patients may lose faith in their own willpower. Emerging computer-based interventions are promising because they encourage addicts to take control of their own cravings. Some combination of these approaches may prove most useful in the long run.

Francis Crick and LSD

I just found this obituary from the Mail on Sunday (London) via Reddit.

The author suggests that Nobel Laureate Francis Crick experimented with small quantities of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) during his days at Cambridge, and that these experiences played a role in his discovery of the double helix.

The assertions are relatively unsubstantiated because Crick refused to go on the record about his drug use. However, Crick did publicly support of the legalization of cannabis in a 1967 advertisement in The Times. He also commented on LSD in an interview with Jeffrey Mishlove:

CRICK:…In the case of LSD, for example, you only need 150 micrograms to have all these funny experiences, you see. It’s minute. And that’s because they fit into special places, these little molecules, these drugs which you take. They fit into special places in these other molecules. They’ve been tailored to do that.

MISHLOVE: Do you have a sense of the process by which hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, or psychedelic drugs, actually affect the brain? What is going on there?

CRICK: Well, I don’t have a detailed knowledge, no, I don’t, and I’m not sure that anybody else really knows. They have a rough idea.

MISHLOVE: We know that obviously there’s a chemical influence.

CRICK: Well, typically, different ones act in different ways. But a common thing is to see colors more vividly, for example, and often to see things move in a way when they’re not actually moving, and things of that sort. So they boost up in some way the activities of what you might call the color parts of the brain and the moving parts of the brain and so on. But the government isn’t very keen on giving money for research on that sort of thing.

In his later years, Crick moved to the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA, where he shifted his focus from molecular biology to the architecture of the visual cortex and the nature of consciousness. There he met psychologist David Marr, who recorded their conversations in the final chapter of his seminal book Vision.

Conceptualizing the double helix must have involved substantial visual imagination, and it seems that Crick spent the second half of his career in search of the neuroscientific basis for the discoveries he made in the first half. Whether Crick’s natural faculties were augmented by use of LSD is ultimately besides the point. He was a great scholar who was interested not only in scientific discovery, but also the cognitive mechanisms that underlie it.

Pinker on Grammar, Swears and Innuendo

In case you haven’t heard, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker is touring the country in a thinly veiled campaign to sell his new book, The Stuff of Thought. Yesterday I heard him speak at the Philadelphia Free Library. It was very entertaining, though in retrospect, perhaps not super cohesive.

The first third of the lecture was about language as a window into human cognition. For instance, Pinker discussed how verb tenses reveal a primitive theory of physics. Things can either be determined and unchangeable, present and part of conscious experience, or undetermined and changeable. Though this tripartition does not really supervene on scientific truths, conventional use of tenses does allow us to communicate our ideas effectively. Pinker also stressed how we compartmentalize time with spatial metaphors; for instance, we are relieved when a difficult exam is ‘behind’ us. Pinker suggests that spatial metaphors help us separate events conceptually, but that some ambiguity remains. As an example, he asked whether “9/11” refers to one event (a terrorist attack) or two (each plane as a separate event). This question seems besides the point, until you realize that the owner of the World Trade Center was supposed to receive 3.5 billion dollars for each destructive event that befell his property. In case you are wondering, a jury decided that it was only one event.

The second third of the lecture was filled with gratuitous swears. I’m not kidding. Pinker was trying to make a point about how language can serve as a window into our emotions, though in reality this point may have been obscured by the furious laughter that erupted every time the the distinguished professor uttered words like “fuck” or “doo-doo.” He delineated five contexts in which we swear, devoting most of his discussion to cathartic swearing. Pinker dismissed the so-called hydraulic theory in which we swear to “let off steam.” Instead, he suggested that crude interjections are analogous to situations in which lower-order animals let out a yelp or squeal to startle attackers. According to Pinker, swearing is mediated by the same primitive rage circuits, but over time these circuits have hijacked our language systems to produce expletives. He stressed the automaticity of these outcries, suggesting that they may have evolved to alert bystanders about our misfortunes.

Lastly, Pinker discussed how our use of innuendo might reveal interesting information about how we navigate social relationships. He brought up an example from the movie Fargo, in which Steve Buscemi’s character hands over his wallet to a cop who pulls him over and asks for his driver’s license. Buscemi lets a fifty dollar bill peak out of the wallet and suggests, “I was just thinking we could take care of it right here, in Brainerd.” Buscemi’s character hopes to bribe to cop, but chooses to veil his offer. Pinker examined this situation through the lens of Game Theory. While failing to offer a bribe brings about a moderately negative outcome no matter what (paying a fine) an overt bribe carries a high risk if the cop is honest (arrest). Innuendo provides a third option, in which Buscemi’s character preserves a degree of plausible deniability while successfully suggesting a tit for tat. Thus, the cop is allowed to choose between a relationship of domination and one of reciprocity.

The lecture was very clean and well-rehearsed. In fact, it seems like the same one that he gave in New York. My summary leaves much to be desired, so I highly recommend checking out His Highness for yourself. Perhaps the most engaging part of the lecture was also the least scripted: Pinker does a fantastic job of answering questions pitched from all levels of sophistication.

You can find the schedule for his lecture tour here.

UPDATE: Pinker has a piece in The New Republic that explains his theory of swearing much better than I could ever hope to do.