Last night, I discovered the wonderful Professor Hans Rosling (@HansRosling), completely by mistake. I must have had the telly on idly in the background whilst I was working, and then The Joy of Stats came on. Gradually, I was pulled away from my desk and towards the sofa. I set the telly to record – The Joy of Stats really DID make stats a joy.
I have never really had much academic exposure to statistics before now, but as I get myself smothered in the world of psychology, I find myself surrounded by numbers. A few weeks ago it was correlations between personality traits and tendency to plan (or not – procrastinators!), and at the moment I’m researching the belief bias effect. All of this NEEDS stats to work – I can’t support any hypothesis without statistical significance.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of people have a mental block when it comes to numbers, especially stats, which is traditionally viewed as being horribly dry. Step in Prof. Rosling.
In this one hour documentary, he had me thoroughly gripped with – dare I say – excitement about stats (and not just because his Swedish accent is really fun!).
The key to making stats exciting and realistically useful (for everyone aside from hardcore statisticians) is application and visualisation. You may not know this, but Florence Nightingale was an enthusiastic statistician (her first “stats” work she produced aged 9). Below is one of her most famous statistical diagrams, showing causes of death for soldiers in the Crimean war. The blue wedges are deaths caused by preventable infections, the red wedges are deaths from war wounds and black wedges deaths from other causes. The visualisation is pretty compelling, really.
We are all bombarded by stats every day, especially in the news. And it’s obvious that certain stats are more clear when presented graphically.
Plus, with emerging technologies, we can have MOVING stats! Really good fun. As a final illustration of how compelling stats can be, watch this clip of Rosling from the documentary. Maybe that will convince you to watch the full 60 mins.
Image credits: dexigner.com, fijincf.com
This book took me a long time to read. I had to put a lot of effort in to reading it. Usually, that is a sign that I am finding the book boring, or a chore. That is not true in this case: the sheer effort involved here was to overcome the deep sense of sadness held within the pages.
Andrew Solomon’s comprehensive masterpiece on depression is an incredibly painful read, especially if the experiences described are familiar to you. I’m fairly certain that everyone knows someone who has at some time suffered from clinical depression (whether mild or major), and it is still even now treated with some awkwardness, to say the least. As Solomon points out, “our society has little room in it for moping” – a common phrase thrown at depressives is “pull yourself together”. Solomon relates an incredibly provocative life event (which lead to his third breakdown) in which he dislocated his shoulder pretty badly: knowing his own body and how he reacts to prolonged physical pain (they are a large cause of his depressive episodes) he calmly asked the doctors at A&E to look up his psychiatric history in order to hurry along pain relief. He knew that without pain control, he was likely to plunge into a deep depression. Rather than listen to their patient, and be sympathetic to his suffering by offering a psychiatric consult, doctors told him: “Pull yourself together and stop feeling sorry for yourself”. He was also accused of being “uncooperative” and “childish”. Solomon later lapsed into suicidal ideation and later ended up having a minor breakdown.
Solomon bases this book around his own experiences of major depression (including three breakdowns, thousands of dollars worth of therapy and a rainbow of medications) but this is by no means a self-indulgent, autobiographical look-in. He relates stories from many cultures and classes, from people of all walks of life, all sharing a terrible common ground. Solomon shows us the world of self-help groups, animistic rituals to cure depression in Senegal (the ndeup ritual, in case you want to pursue further reading), the quiet world of Greenlandic depression and the ignored population suffering below the poverty line. All are fascinating. All are equally distressing. Much of it made me angry. All of it moved me deeply.
You know what you’re getting in to from the first page of the first chapter: Solomon tells us, truthfully, that “no matter what we do, we will in the end die”. It does not get any cheerier, even when Solomon devotes a chapter to statistics. But it is illuminating: within the first ten pages, I was already thinking that this should be essential reading for anyone working with depressives, be they psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, helpline volunteers… It explains an awful lot, and does so without fear and without apology.
Solomon mentions in the foreword that he is not a doctor or a psychologist, and this is a purely personal book, with interpretations only, and is not a substitute for appropriate treatment. However, early on, he throws away common misconceptions about depression: for example, that it is “just chemical”. Well, if you want to be accurate, EVERYTHING is “just chemical”, but that doesn’t make it any less personal or painful.
Depression isn’t intrinsically linked to suicide, but a lot of depressives do think suicidal thoughts (even if they do not enact suicidal acts). It’s incredibly sad to consider the logic behind suicide: the pain so great that you wish everything could just go away, forever. Solomon includes a beautifully poignant quote from one of my old favourites, G. K. Chesterton:
The man who kills a man kills a man.
The man who kills himself kills all men.
As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.
But it is not all doom and gloom (hah!). Solomon also shares with us his journey towards managing his depression, as well as the stories of others, and how their lives were turned around by patience and treatment. The final chapter of the book is lovingly titled “Hope”, and Solomon ends his work beautifully, asking us to “Hold on to time; don’t wish your life away. Even the minutes when you feel you are going to explode are minutes of your life, and you will never get those minutes again”.
In his foreword, Solomon warns us that he is “not a doctor or a psychologist or even a philosopher”. I disagree with the last part, and I urge you to read this book.
The Meaning Of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist
I was a wee bit disappointed by this book. I think Richard P Feynman is brilliant, and therefore maybe I was expecting something utterly ground breaking. Maybe it’s important to remember that this book is actually a transcript of three John Danz lectures which professor Feynman delivered in April 1963 at the University of Washington. As a result, the book tends to be a little fragmentary, a few points are repeated, and a little unfocussed. Perhaps, had Feynman gone back to this and refined it, we would be left with a more comfortable and satisfying read. As it stands, it might benefit from you reading it aloud (as if you were giving it as a lecture, live).
That said, this small work does reflect on some important topics, mainly the use of science to society. What makes for good scientific practice? What is the true value of science? Can scientists really believe in God? And, my personal favourite, why is it, that with the advances of scientific research in the modern world, is there such widespread belief in flying saucers, homeopathy and astrology?
Feynman also discusses scepticism at length, and in the final lecture he explores how science has been abused. Whilst nothing strictly ground-breaking, Feynman is a hugely respected scientist but also a great teacher and philosopher. A nice quick read for anyone interested in science, philosophy, scepticism, and the philosophy of science.
And as another reviewer has pointed out: Yes, it rambles, but then so do scientists!
Phew. OK, my first lab report of the semester is away, out of my hands, done.
It was a tricky one to churn out: not because it was difficult to write, but because I have been rather busy. From Cambridge to Hastings, I have been running around a lot the last few weeks. But no matter – that’s what laptops are for, right?
I love my laptop. It means I can work pretty much everywhere. I have a little HP number (with a missing Alt key, but it’s still my baby). I hear stories of people’s laptops (particularly Macs) breaking down, but I have always used HP and they have never failed me (touch wood!)
I’ve been writing on the tube, in cafés, in museums, in bed. I tend to get a lot of work done “on the run” – I’m sure a lot of students do, even if it’s “just” reading. I always have a book in my bag.
Recently, I’ve adopted the bed for doing work at home, because my desk in the living room is simply too close to the kitchen, and I find myself procrastinating. So, I prop myself up with four pillows, and arm myself with a cup of tea, and get a lot done.
Outside the house, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time at the Wellcome Collection, sitting in their café/restaurant. Not only do they have free wifi, but their caterers, Peyton and Byrne, produce delicious, wholesome food. I finally tried one of their Mainly Frosting cupcakes the other day…. Yum.
But where is your favourite place to get work done? Where do you usually study? What’s the WEIRDEST place you’ve set up in to get your work done? Maybe I’m not the only one who writes lab reports in museums!
Image credits: I took it. ME. MY cake.
Yesterday, I had my head examined.
Seriously though, after the Packed Lunch at the Wellcome Collection a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been in contact with the charming Dr. Joe Devlin and his assistant Magdalena and (very suddenly) I found myself at UCL, Bedford Way, yesterday afternoon.
Signing in as a visitor, I asked for directions to BUCNI, (the Birkbeck-UCL Centre for Neuroimaging) and was all set to wend my way into unknown territory when I heard my name called. It was Magdalena, and one of her fellow UCL neuroscientists (a lovely MSc student called Manali). Apparently they had seen my picture on this blog, so knew who they were looking for. So if you’re reading, hello! *wave*
We headed down to the basement – lots of codes and locks and passwords – there are warning signs all over MRI suites, “WARNING: no entry for those with pace makers” etc. MRI is essentially a huge magnetic field, so going in their with anything that could be affected by such a field is generally considered a Bad Idea. I had deliberately avoided wearing any jewellery for the event, but I was also asked to remove my belt and, just to be on the sure side, my shoes. And no mobile phones or credit cards please: they will die a horrible, horrible death.
After a screening and information process (and the customary signing of a form), the cheery, friendly trio ushered me into the MRI room. Joe then set me up on the MRI bed, explaining what he was doing and why he was doing it. He gave me lots of cushions to make sure I wouldn’t get too crampy lying in the machine, and a set of headphones too block out some of the noise of the machine (despite these, it was still incredibly noisy).
Joe told me what sort of noises I could expect, and that there would be a 2 second pause halfway through – so don’t worry, it hasn’t broken down, but at least I’d know it was halfway done. He asked that I stay as still as I could, for clarity of the image, and gave me a “squeezy thingy” that I could squeeze to set off an alarm if anything was wrong. I didn’t need to use it at any point, but it was reassuring to know it was there if I did need it. He did mention that people do sometimes fall asleep whilst in the scanner (the scan takes 12 minutes, so just enough time for a power nap) and it was fine if I felt like doing the same. I considered it, but it was so blinkin’ loud, I’m not sure how anyone ever manages to.
The scan itself was quick and painless. Definitely do not go for this if you are claustrophobic though: when you are wheeled in to the machine, that is pretty much it. You, in a big metal tube. Fortunately, I feel quite comforted by enclosed spaces, and I liked to imagine I was in a cocoon.
When the machine starts up, trust me, you know it. A series of loud, pulsing hums, of various speeds, and some undertones of cranking and beeping. Like most repetitive noises (especially when there is more than one layer of sound), my mind liked to rearrange this into some sort of music – it was like being at a new age rave. That, or it was a bit John-Cage-y.
The 2-second pause came, then another 6 minutes of John Cage. And then it was over. I had a bit of pins and needles from lying perfectly still for quarter of an hour (I say perfectly still – I did wiggle my toes once or twice), but that swiftly went. Joe wheeled me out of the machine, asked me how I felt and said, with some sciencey delight, “Do you want to see your brain?”. Of course I did
And then..? Well, you’ll have to wait and see. I’m hoping to get some jpegs through from Joe soon, so I can share with you the “uncommon” shape of my brain. Pure, unadulterated, geeky joy.
Image credits: UCL Bedford Way building from e-architect.co.uk, MRI scanner from BUCNI’s own website
OK, I’m going to do a series of posts leading up to Christmas: thematic gift ideas. Today’s theme is: BRAINS!
A bit of an odd one this. Brains aren’t for everyone (in fact, I’ve met many people who have given up on their own entirely), but I for one think brains are cool. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be on the road to neuropsychologydom.
First up, some neurons. Very, very important little blighters, these. So why not have a cuddly one? OK, the cell-plushies may not be news to some of you, but they are utterly adorable. My favourites at the moment are the “brain cell” and the “nerve cell” – look at their wee faces!!
You can buy these little guys from a variety of places, but notably I saw them in the Natural History Museum only recently. Very cool. Priced at around £7, but they do come in a few different sizes, so shop around.
Still on the subject of neurons, I had a quick search on Etsy for “brains” (you’d be amazed at how much comes up!!) and I found the beautiful creations of toybreaker. Including this gorgeous silk-screened design, priced at $30 (about £19):
Staying with Etsy for a moment, there seems to be a craze for vintage anatomical drawings in the crafting community. Fine by me, as they can be made into pretty fridge magnets such as this one from CrowBiz, priced at a mere $6 (about £4):
Here’s a find that went straight on to my Amazon Wish List – a brain colouring book?! Genius!! Get yours quick – it’s only £8.99!
Here’s one for the dinner table: brain shaped salt and pepper shakers! I wonder which hemisphere corresponds to what seasoning… It’s on ThinkGeek, and is therefore in dollars, at $9.99. Just over £6.
And finally, probably my personal favourites (because I love novelty shaped things, and I have many ice cube trays to attest to this): BRAIN FREEZE. Brain shaped ice cubes. Would make for the most awesome cocktail party ever. Why do psychology conferences not have these? It’d break the ice at parties (whaaa whaaaaaa… That’s the bad pun trumpet, by the way). I have seen these turn up in a lot of different shops – Hunterian Museum gift shop, the Science Museum shop (do I spend too much time in museum gift shops? Oh well…). They’re available on all sorts of websites, so browse around. The cheapest I could find them was on the website linked below, a mere £4.99.
So concludes the first instalment in my Quirky Christmas Gift Guide. I have a few more ideas for themes lined up, but as always, your feedback is always welcome. Got a theme you want me to explore? Suggest it in comments! And happy shopping
That’s more like it! After having a rather disappointing time with Daniel Levitin last week, Oliver Sacks delivered. Like his famous The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (and most of his other books), Musicophilia follows various case studies – this time, evidently, all related to music. Sacks offers us a potted history of each of his patients, with touching personal insight into their plight. It feels to me that Sacks is getting more sensitive with age – he used to be accused of being too detached from the humanity of his patients, treating them as oddities rather than people, but Musicophilia defies this accusation. Sacks connects with his patients, and some of the passages are not only very poignant, but show Sacks’ deep admiration for their ability to overcome adversity, sometimes in ingenious ways.
To give an example, Sacks talks of the famous amnesic, Clive Wearing who, despite not being able to remember anything that has happened more than a minute or so ago, is still able to play the piano and organ with the same fluency and skill as he could before he suffered the brain damage he bears today (as a result of severe encephalitis). This musicality is Clive’s link to his “former self”, as attested to by his wife.
Sacks also relates strange tales of musical hallucinations, of amusia and musical dystonia. He lets us in to the musical world of people with Williams syndrome and of the musical savants. But for me, the most incredible and moving thing of all is the obvious relief that music brings: helping people with Tourettes to channel their energy, giving people with dementia a pathway to their past, giving rhythm and the gateway to movement to people with Parkinsons, and expression to aphasics, who are unable to connect with language in any other way.
I have a couple of very minor issues: firstly, with the fact that Sacks revisits a lot of previously covered cases (ones mentioned already in his other books, which he could then ask you to read as well), and secondly Sacks really over uses footnotes. There was a footnote ever few pages, and some were incredibly long. In fact, some pages were more footnote than main body text. However, as I said: minor issues. These did not detract from the book’s wonderfulness.
It is a beautiful book, tempering science with humanity, and giving us an insight into worlds far detached from our own – some cases may be familiar (the stories touching upon depression were quite uncomfortable for me) but others are other-worldly. It gives a true appreciation of the breadth of human experience, and the wonder of music that connects us all.
This has been on my “to read” list for literally years, but I have to be a honest: I was a little disappointed. It is by no means a bad book: it is a very, very good book. The simple problem is that it was so heavily “talked up” for me – I have had people telling me I have to read this book, it’s amazing, etc. etc. Even on the cover, Classic FM Magazine claims I will “never hear music in the same way again”. Huh.
So… You will excuse me if I found the whole experience a bit of an anticlimactic let down. I fell like I should reiterate my previous disclaimer: This IS a good book. I just did not feel it was ground breaking.
OK, so, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s focus on the positives.
Levitin writes a wonderful, clear and comprehensive guide to musical structure and basic theory. And more: he goes into the science behind how we process sound, and what it is about musical structure, above mere noise, that makes us sit up and listen.
It’s obvious that Levitin knows his stuff: as a music producer turned neuropsychologist, you would hope so. Unlike some music/science researchers, he uses practical, real-world examples, and offers to let you listen along on his website. This definitely brings Levitin’s sometimes theory-heavy text to life: I worry that without these working examples, he would lose the interest of the impatient lay-person.
Interestingly, Levitin doesn’t focus solely on music 100% of the time. He draws parallels with other human-specific phenomena, particularly language and art – I found this especially reassuring, because it makes the overall concepts of the book more accessible to non-musicians.
Levitin also touches upon many interesting neurological and developmental cases – amnesia, Williams syndrome, Aspergers. But he only touches. Not enough to satisfy. I find the same frustration that I felt with Pinker’s “Language Instinct”.
But one thing that Levitin returns to, several times throughout the book? p. 127 “As reported by Oliver Sacks…”, p. 243 “as Oliver Sacks describes it…”, p. 260 “…in a movie narrated by Oliver Sacks…”. Strangely, Sacks finds the book “Endlessly stimulating”, which the publishers chose to emblazon on the back cover.
A good, comprehensive and engaging read. But I don’t feel I learnt anything brand-spanking new.
I have a strange urge to read Oliver Sacks next…
A bit of a cop-out comedy post today, simply because I’m about to set off for the day to galavant about town with one of my old school friends (who I haven’t seen for about 3 years!)
So, what’s this? Ben and his dinner last night?
He looks way too happy. What is that? It can’t be healthy if he’s that pleased. And he made it himself…
That’s right folks. It’s cheese on toast, in a bagel. Ben will eat anything in a sandwich. Even if it’s another sandwich. Scratch that, ESPECIALLY if it’s another sandwich.
It’s so wrong. So very wrong.
But it does look tasty…
It’s yours, apparently.
Fairly intuitive, you might say. It’s all my DNA, mapped out. Why should it belong to anyone but me?
But with genome mapping projects really gathering speed now, many people are beginning to worry about a new scale of identity theft.
This was the topic touched upon last night at the Royal Institution of Great Britain: why map the human genome? Who owns this genetic information? What are the risks?
Guest curator Mark Henderson facilitated the discussion, between Dr Daniel MacArthur, Dr Caroline Wright and Professor Sir Mark Walport (director of the Wellcome Trust). The speakers held quite different stances on how genetics should and shouldn’t be handled, which naturally made for a far more interesting discussion (no one likes a discussion that consists of a lot of “yes, I agree”. Far better is the: “I’m just going to stop you there…”)
We began with Dr MacArthur, outlining the new Genomes Unzipped program. This is an online program where MacArthur and 11 colleagues have publicly released parts of their sequenced genomes online, for all of us to peruse. Not just that, but that show them in a variety of “easy to read” formats, with some explanations of what we’re looking at. He and the team are trying to help inform the public, and help them to analyse their own data without having to disclose it to anyone else. MacArthur states that he and his colleagues are doing this to open up the discussion about genetics: he argues that at the moment, everyone has a very anxious attitude towards genetic information, but that this fear is without reason.
In fact, he argues that genetic information is very useful – it can tell us a lot about ourselves, about our history, and about the history of the entire species. Genetic tests are now available directly to consumers (in the form of such companies as 23&me, GeneTrack and many others), which means we could receive “personalised medicine” – just by looking at our genetic sequence, we can tell what drugs may be effective for us. This technique is already being used in some cancer treatments.
Dr Wright then backed up his claims (she too is a part of the Genomes Unzipped project), and tried to answer the question “how will it change clinical practice?”. She argued that some sweeping claims have been made in the past about the future of genomics – that, once perfected, everyone will have their genome sequenced at birth, and that this will replace the current infant screening process for illness and defect. But Wright says the genome should be used more selectively – after all, even genes cannot predict the future with certainty, as environment plays a huge role as to how we will develop. Genome sequencing should be used for clinical testing rather than a screening process. Screening looks at everyone, even relatively “healthy” people, whereas clinical testing looks at people who may be at risk from genetically inherited diseases such as cancer – by mapping genes in these select cases, we can see what is driving the illness and develop personalised medicines to treat them.
Screening healthy people is fraught with risks and problems – there are bound to be errors, or we may see problems where there are none. Plenty of people live their lives with “defects” they never knew they had, because they simple don’t cause a problem. A lot of lumps and bumps are benign, but genome sequencing will reveal them, and then doctors seem to have this urge to remove it, instantly. And who wants an invasive surgical procedure if they don’t need one? It’s traumatic and unnecessary. We need to balance out the risks and benefits of genomics.
And then there is the issue of informed consent – we need freedom from coercion and deception. I think one of the great issues surrounding genome mapping is that everyone assumes that the government will, one day, force us to all have our DNA on file. No plans for the immediate future. But what if we decide to sequence our genome anyway, voluntarily? The Genomes Unzipped team obviously have, and have been very public about it. Fine for them, but what about their blood relatives? Remember, you share 50% of your DNA with your 1st degree relatives (parents, siblings, children…) so if you decide to share your genetic information online, you’re also sharing a lot of your family’s information as well. And what if your genome reveals something you didn’t previously know, or didn’t want to know? It can have sensitive implications: what if you find out that you have a genetic predisposition for schizophrenia, or Huntington’s? Your children possibly do too. Then what? Do we have a Duty of Care? Yes, we can’t predict the future, we’re just “at risk”, but this new information does amount to something.
And what about data storage? Who is allowed to see it? Family? Doctors? Police? Researchers? In the case of Genomes Unzipped: everyone? Sir Walport stepped up to the mark to alert us to this. And it’s not just the mad conspiracy theorists either – what if insurance companies get hold of our genetic data? We could get higher insurance rates (or even denied insurance) if our genes suggest we are particularly susceptible to an illness. He showed explicit disbelief at the behaviour of the “Facebook Generation”, sharing very personal information with all and sundry – and once it’s online, it’s too late. What genomes can tell us might be a nasty shock. We might learn something we didn’t want to know, and certainly didn’t want to tell anyone else! This really confuses the ethical debate.
Fingerprints are a form of individual identification, but they tell you nothing ABOUT the person they belong too – they don’t tell you age, height, hair colour, socioeconomic background… But now? The informational content of DNA is going up, and sharply. An anonymised database, says Walport, is fine, but as soon as you attach a name to a sequence, there is bound to be discrimination.
As far as the Insurance Company question goes, Walport seemed to be undecided: remember, insurance is part of a two-way form of public protection, as it works on a basis of pooled risk. If you claim, the payout comes from the pool. There has been a genetic bias in insurance for a long time, not just since the dawn of genome sequence: we may have a family history of cancer, Huntington’s, and so forth, and we have a duty to disclose that to the insurance company. But, as Walport argues, we can pool genetic information without having to put namebadges in the mix.
Tricky stuff. Then followed some questions by Mark Henderson, and an open Q&A with the audience. I wanted to ask those taking part in Genomes Unzipped, “are you not scared, publicising this information online? You realise that it is now too late. If that information reveals, later on, something that you don’t wish everyone else to know, that you can’t “take it back”. That’s the beauty of the internet. Someone’s already downloaded it.” but I didn’t. Nevermind. Something for the rest of us to ponder, perhaps.