February 27, 2013

Raising An Issue in Indian Psychology

A recent literature search threw up an interesting-looking paper; a randomised controlled trial (RCT) on the effect of yoga on gunas (personality) in healthy volunteers (free to read). I was surprised as I rarely come across academic papers on yoga, that too with explicit reference to 'gunas' in the title. . I couldn’t help noticing at the outset that the study appeared to have been carried out at the Department of Yoga Research, Swami Vivekananda Anusandhana Samsthana, a deemed-to-be yoga university. The study was also published in the International Journal of Yoga, which appears to be the university’s own journal publication. So there is plenty of scope for bias to creep in.

Despite that RCTs are the 'gold standard' of psychological research when done properly, the stated aims of this paper didn't exactly fill me with confidence. The study itself wasn't what interested me, but rather one of the tools that the researchers used to assess the participants' personalities. In psychology, personality is assessed using specific scales or questionnaires that have been designed to measure a particular construct, say, anxiety or depression. The Beck Depression Inventory is probably the best known and widely used example of a scale to measure depression, and you can find information about other scales at Wikipedia.

An important concept in the construction of such scales is known as construct validity, the ability of the scale to measure what it is supposed to measure. Using the BDI as an example, can it be that a set of questions is capable of measuring the presence and intensity of depression in a person? All other things being equal, the answer is that it is probably the most reliable tool we have for measuring depression at the moment and that it has been consistently used in a number of different medical fields. Much research has been done in the field of personality psychology in an attempt to construct a real-term workable scale with which to assess personality. Many scales exist, but generally speaking researchers have come to agree that personality can be defined in terms of the "Big 5" factors: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Psychopathy, and that all of our personalities can be measured in different ratings of these. The Reliability of such scales is another important issue that also means something different to the popular sense of the word, and we'll get to that at some point.

For this study the research team wanted to analyse the effects of a yoga course on personality and self-esteem, and they measured these with Karunanidhi's Self-Esteem Inventory (1996) and, wait for it, the Gita Inventory of Personality (Das, 1991). According to this paper, the GIP (referred to as GIN within the paper) was to measure three dimensions of personality: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.

There is reason to suspect that, at least in the case of the GIP, something mischievous is afoot in the name of psychology. The Gita referred to is of course the Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu scripture (traditionally believed to be 5000 years old), and the three personality dimensions being assessed are described in the 14th chapter of the text. I'm aware of issues of sensitivity surrounding cross-cultural research in psychology, the importance of accepting cultural boundaries, and so on. If you were to rely on Wikipedia, cross-cultural psychiatry (or transcultural psychiatry) is that which is "concerned with the cultural and ethnic context of mental disorders and psychiatric services".

I have to wonder, though, are cases like this something that ought to be a concern or to be praised? On one hand we have here a different outlook on personality that is independent of Western-oriented psychology, but on the other we have to wonder about the appropriateness of assessing people's individual personality traits on the basis of definitions provided in an antiquated religious text. Psychological research is frequently slighted or condemned (depending on who you listen to) as being overly WEIRD - analysing and assessing people that are dominantly Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic, and that is a fair criticism in context. In general, the field is crying out for fresh perspectives.

However, it remains unclear if ethnically contextual research from the other end of the spectrum will be able to provide new insight into the field of personality psychology if little to no effort is made to work collegially, and using similar standards of measurement with which to assess people and carry out much needed research.

Deshpande S., Nagendra H.R. & Nagarathna R. (2009). A randomized control trial of the effect of yoga on Gunas (personality) and Self esteem in normal healthy volunteers., International Journal of Yoga, 2 (1) 13-21. PMID:

February 15, 2013

Before We Hear Of 'Neuropuncture' In The Commons

Late last month, it was announced that David Tredinnick MP had been appointed to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. The Times rightly described the collective gasp of despair and arms exasperatedly thrown in the air by British scientists in response to this news.

For Tredinnick is known to believe in and advocate for a variety of peculiar beliefs relating to superstition and alternative medicine. Namely, that biological mechanisms behind blood clotting - as well as pregnancy and hangovers - were dependent on the phase of the moon. He is also an avid believer in homeopathy and acupuncture, suggesting that they should be provided by the NHS in spite of extremely little evidence of medical efficacy.

In a recent Q&A he was provided the opportunity to clarify his position on these and other issues, but instead used the occasion to confirm his views defiantly. This part caught my eye; in response to what Tredinnick thinks the STC should look at:

"Looking at healthcare, one of the mysteries of Western medicine is acupuncture. And there’s a lot of criticism of it saying it doesn’t work. But I’ve used Chinese medicine for years, and I cannot work out why this isn’t more widely used in the health service. The same for herbal medicine, we need to get back to some natural remedies that have stood the tests of time."

Although he didn't specificy what for, presumably Tredinnick suggests that acupuncture may have some application for psychotherapeutic strategies and neurological conditions too? In which case, I need only point to James Coyne's two-part sparkling rebuttal to claims that acupuncture may have any special efficacy for mental health conditions such as depression. And as for the neuroscience (the more research-minded can enjoy this 2007 review), I recently acquired an online copy of Val Hopwood & Clare Donnellan's Acupuncture in Neurological Conditions (2010), and it's a very interesting read. Especially this amazingly revealing little tidbit listed as a 'key point' of Chapter 1:

"The concept of ‘neurology’ is a relatively modern one, with no real place in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). This is only partly because there is no historical concept of the ‘brain’ in TCM physiology. There have been many schools of Chinese medicine: some included ideas that we would recognize as ‘neurology’, whereas others did not."

Y'know, when something this damning is admitted in the first chapter, it may be time to give up and put the book down and realise that you're not going to get very far with this. And if the House of Commons actually plan to consider these things, it can only be a colossal waste of time, energy and resources. What to speak of the possibility of garnering dubious expenses.

February 13, 2013

Terminator Vision: I Can Haz It?

You've all seen The Terminator film and it's sequels and, admit it, you loved them. Not just because of the creepy futurealistic storyline but because of the stunts, the camerawork, the casting, and the sheer action of it all. And, of course, the special effects. As an example of the best sci-fi films out there, the Terminator films franchise has grossed nearly $1.5 billion worldwide. Some of the iconic scenes in the movies related directly to the Terminator itself, that ice-cold stare as a mistaken victim was brutally gunned down in pursuit of the target. But what was it about that scary stare? Surely it was the gleaming infrared light in the robotic eyeball that was shielded most of the time by the humanlike exterior. That infrared light enabled the Terminator itself to view its own surroundings:

Composite image. Credits: odysseyart.net and Orion Pictures
 In the emerging field of neuroprosthetics, the most well-known examples of the technology are cochlear implants for the deaf and retinal implants for the blind. Generally speaking, they work by receiving auditory and visual signals and then transmit them to the relevant brain areas after being transformed into electrical impulses. Obviously, these tools are extremely useful in restoring hearing/vision functions to those who weren't born with them or who have lost them due to injury. In some cases, depending on the nature and extent of the absence/injury, it may be necessary to augment rather than restore the functions fully.

Now a new study by researchers at Duke University suggests that 'Terminator Vision' could one day be a reality for some, after successful experiments on rats found increased learning and perception skills when prosthetics were fitted into their brains. Eric Thomsen, Rafael Carra and Miguel Nicolelis trained a cohort of six rats on a simple visual discrimination task: Rats were placed in a circular chamber that had three reward ports. On each trial, a visible LED was activated in a particular port and rats who poked their noses in the correct port were rewarded with a drink of water. After three weeks of training, the rats managed to be 70% correct on average. They were then fitted with an infrared detector as well as implants into the whisker region of the S1 cortex, a touch-sensitive area of the parietal lobe which is largely responsible for spatial navigation.

Bearing in mind that rats are normally blind to infrared light (as are we), it would be worth putting them back into the chamber to see if they could perform the task as well as before. As for how it works: The IR detector transmits electrical impulses directly into the rats' S1 cortex if the rat moved towards the infrared light, which were increased as the rats moved closer or oriented their heads in the light's direction. And here's where it gets interesting: Not only did the rats perform better on the task as before by finding the infrared lights with greater accuracy, but other interesting behaviour was noticed too. Namely, "they learned to actively forage through the behaviour chamber, sweeping the IR sensor on their heads back and forth to sample their IR world".

Read that again: They learned to incorporate their new IR vision relatively quickly into their normal sensory range as a type of "IR vision". And they did this by taking the time to re-orient themselves and make sense of their surroundings. They didn't immediately associate the new stimulation with the task but just assumed it was "something new" for them, scratching their faces in response to the electrical microstimulation. Isn't that awesome?!

It is possible that criticism of this study may cite 'training effects', that the rats had an idea of what to do in the experimental condition because of their previous training with the LED light. But this can be rebutted by how the rats learned to navigate their way with normally invisible infrared light purely by their movement and guidance, what to speak of more additional difficulty layers being added to the original task which were relatively aced by the rats (above 93%) in the IR condition.

In conclusion, the researchers felt that the rats learned to treat microstimulation as an external stimulus originating in the surrounding environment rather than within their body, which is an interesting finding that reflects the understanding of vision in humans too. Even though we have innate eyeballs that look 'out', vision occurs by light entering 'into' the eye. So even though the rats' brains were being stimulated in (correct) response to invisible infrared light, they appeared to act as if the light was shining at them in order to attract them. It was beyond the scope of this study, however, to determine if the rats thought of microstimulation as a separate sense, although the researchers suggest that a potential application of this technology could be in developing motor neuroprostheses - artificial(?) limbs that would be improved in terms of reaction times and accuracy because of the closed-loop bidirectional interaction that the technology can offer.

And of course, a plethora of possibilities that offer the curious possibility of sensory augmentation, the potential to expand sensory range to see forms of light that are normally invisible to human eyes. So it is entirely possible for Terminator Vision to emerge one day.

UPDATE Feb 13th: Coverage of this paper at Scientific American has fallen into the trap of describing the augmented vision as a "sixth sense", oddly proclaiming it as a seventh sense too. Minor but amusing errors.

UPDATE Feb 14th: Wow, now BBC coverage has also fallen into the "sixth sense" trap. Makes you wonder as to who has actually read the paper.

Thomson E.E., Carra R. & Nicolelis M.A.L. (2013). Perceiving invisible light through a somatosensory cortical prosthesis, Nature Communications, 4 1482. DOI: