Magic Mushrooms Lift Depression

Saturday, May 21st, 2016

Nature reports that “magic” mushrooms do indeed lift depression:

Researchers from Imperial College London gave 12 people psilocybin, the active component in magic mushrooms. All had been clinically depressed for a significant amount of time — on average 17.8 years. None of the patients had responded to standard medications, such as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or had electroconvulsive therapy.

One week after receiving an oral dose of psilocybin, all patients experienced a marked improvement in their symptoms. Three months on, five patients were in complete remission.

This study was not easy to administer:

Magic mushrooms are categorized as a Class A illegal drug in the United Kingdom — the most serious category, which also includes heroin and cocaine.

The ethics committee that granted approval for the trial was so concerned that trial volunteers could experience delayed onset psychotic symptoms that it requested a three-month follow-up on the subjects.

“This was unprecedented,” says neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt at Imperial, who is senior author of the study.

It took 32 months between having the grant awarded and dosing the first patient, says Nutt. By comparison, it took six months “to get through the machinations” for his team’s previous studies using the equally illegal drugs LSD and MDMA, he says.

“Every interaction — applying for licenses, waiting for licenses, receiving the licenses, applying for contracts for drug manufacture, on and on — involved a delay of up to two months. It was enormously frustrating, and most of it was unnecessary,” says Nutt. “The study result isn’t the remarkable part — it’s the fact that we did it at all.”

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

Ecco the Dolphin

Saturday, May 21st, 2016

I never played Sega’s Ecco the Dolphin, but I’m not surprised that it would be linked to John C Lilly:

Lilly was once a renowned and respected American scientist, with a particular interest in marine biology and interspecies communication. In the early 1960s he was given funding by NASA to research whether it was possible to teach dolphins to speak. NASA’s logic was that if we could learn to communicate with dolphins, we would have a better understanding of how to converse with extra-terrestrials if they were to ever pop down for a visit.

Lilly flooded a house in the Caribbean so that dolphins could live as closely as possible with him and his team, amongst them Margaret Howe Lovatt, who apparently had sex with one of the animals. The experiment fizzled out as, unsurprisingly, nobody was able to get any of them to talk – although check out YouTube for one of his subjects attempting a pretty close “Hello Margaret”. Useful, if all aliens were called Margaret. Lilly lost funding for the project, moved away from traditional science and threw himself further and further into 1960s pseudo-mysticism and chemical experimentation.

Around 1971 Lilly was looking for a cure for his chronic migraines, and a friend suggested that ketamine could help get rid of them. Back then ketamine wasn’t a widely used drug, probably only used recreationally by a small group of dedicated trippers, quite unlike its status today as a popular party drug. When he was under the influence of a small dose of K, Lilly said that he felt the migraine being pushed out of his body and, miraculously, he never had one again. Encouraged by this, he developed a longstanding affection for the substance he dubbed “Vitamin K”, and started taking it regularly, gradually injecting it in higher doses.

Just shooting up ketamine on its own wasn’t enough for Lilly, though, and soon he was IV-ing it inside a sensory deprivation tank with the help of his friend, Dr Craig Enright. They thought that by using the tank external stimulation would be significantly reduced, giving a psychedelic or, in this case, a dissociative experience at a higher level of intensity. Neither appreciated that what they were doing was incredibly $#@!ing dangerous – tranquilising drugs and floating on water aren’t to be mixed under most circumstances, and sure enough Lilly’s wife, Antonietta, had to resuscitate him on one occasion where he nearly drowned. These experiments would form the foundation for Paddy Chayefsky’s 1978 novel Altered States, later adapted into a movie by director Ken Russell.

During his sessions, Lilly came to believe that he was being contacted by an organic extra-terrestrial entity called the Earth Coincidence Control Office – ECCO. This alien group was benevolent, omniscient and in control of all earthly matters. Except for when they weren’t quite so friendly, as at one point Lilly thought they’d made off with his penis.

The similarities between Sega’s Ecco the Dolphin and Lilly’s ketamine fantasies are undeniable. It’s almost like the game’s story is an amalgamation of his interest in dolphins and the wacky philosophy he spouted when returning to reality from his phenomenal K-hole trips.

Alongside ECCO, Lilly encountered another alien life force, which he called the Solid State Intelligence. Unlike the entities from ECCO, the SSI were spawned by a mechanical solar system, and their main aim was to ravage the earth and destroy mankind. It’s not unlike the much-documented cinematic battles between us fleshy creatures and advanced AI turned malevolent, and it’s no stretch to compare the SSI with Ecco’s Vortex enemies, those evil, dolphin-kidnapping, interstellar villains.

(Hat tip to Scott Alexander.)

It should stop evolving

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

Nick Land shares this passage from Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye (from the end of Chapter 3):

“They used to teach us that evolution of intelligent being wasn’t possible,” she said. “Societies protect their weaker members. Civilizations tend to make wheel chairs and spectacles and hearing aids as soon as they have the tools for them. When a society makes war, the men generally have to pass a fitness test before they’re allowed to risk their lives. I suppose it helps win the war.” She smiled. “But it leaves precious little room for the survival of the fittest.”


“You were saying about evolution?”

“It — it ought to be pretty well closed off for an intelligent species,” she said. “Species evolve to meet the environment. An intelligent species changes the environment to suit itself. As soon as a species becomes intelligent, it should stop evolving.”

He adds:

It makes you think (or rather, the opposite). The original sin of intelligence — falling back in blind homeostatic antipathy against its own conditions of emergence — isn’t so hard to see.

Punished by the Universe

Saturday, May 14th, 2016

Are you being punished by the universe?

Mishaps make people feel anxious and uncertain, and often lead them to look for patterns as a way to regain a sense of control, according to a 2008 study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Northwestern University.

At these moments, it is worth remembering that misfortune is often a random event. There is always a probability that several bad things will happen at once, says Jane. L. Risen, an associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a researcher on judgment and magical thinking.

Many people, however, have a tendency to see cause-and-effect relationships where there are none. They might interpret neutral events as negative or fall back on a magical belief, such as, “I’m being punished by the universe.”

People who see themselves as lucky might also engage in counterfactual thinking of a different sort. They imagine worse things that might have happened but didn’t, and feel grateful, according to an oft-cited study of 400 people years ago by British researcher Richard Wiseman. If another car crushes your back fender, soften the blow by thinking, “I’m lucky my car wasn’t totaled.”


At times we get so rattled by a bit of bad luck that we make things worse. A belief that you are unlucky has been linked to deficits in decision-making skills, self-control and shifting from one task to another, according to a 2013 study led by John Maltby, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester in England.

In a series of four studies, the researchers asked 334 participants whether they believed they were lucky or unlucky, then surveyed or tested them on several cognitive tasks related to executive functioning, the high-level mental processes involved in pursuing and achieving goals.

Participants who believed they were unlucky saw themselves as lacking in executive-function skills. They performed poorly on timed task-switching tests, which required them to classify letters, digits or symbols in a random stream of characters, as well as on a test of their ability to control impulsive responses and a gambling task that tested their ability to learn from mistakes and make wise decisions. It wasn’t clear which condition–feeling unlucky or lacking mental skills–caused the other, but researchers wrote the relationship might go both ways.


Research has found that thinking about cherished values can allay stress and improve performance on challenging tasks. Participants in the UT-Northwestern study were less rattled, and less likely to see imaginary patterns in their misfortune, when they were given an assignment that allowed them to affirm values that were important to them, researchers found. Other studies have shown that students who write about things they value before a high-stakes exam tend to perform better.

Another helpful technique is mental time travel, Dr. Risen says. Imagine yourself in the future; think about how, after the misfortune is over, you’ll have a good story to tell.

Superstitious rituals, such as knocking on wood, can actually help, by instilling positive expectations. Some rituals encompass a phenomenon called embodied cognition, wherein a person’s thinking is shaped by his or her physical movements. The pushing-away motion involved in knocking on wood, or simply throwing a ball away from one’s body, causes people to visualize anticipated misfortunes as less likely to happen, according to a 2013 study co-authored by Dr. Risen. Similarly, wearing a good-luck talisman or picking a four-leaf clover may create positive expectations, as if you’re shielding yourself from bad luck or drawing good fortune your way.

Flu and the Microbiome

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

Human influenza viruses replicate almost exclusively in the respiratory tract, yet infected individuals may also develop gastrointestinal symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhea:

Using an influenza mouse model, we found that influenza pulmonary infection can significantly alter the intestinal microbiota profile through a mechanism dependent on type I interferons (IFN-Is). Notably, influenza-induced IFN-Is produced in the lungs promote the depletion of obligate anaerobic bacteria and the enrichment of Proteobacteria in the gut, leading to a “dysbiotic” microenvironment. Additionally, we provide evidence that IFN-Is induced in the lungs during influenza pulmonary infection inhibit the antimicrobial and inflammatory responses in the gut during Salmonella-induced colitis, further enhancing Salmonella intestinal colonization and systemic dissemination. Thus, our studies demonstrate a systemic role for IFN-Is in regulating the host immune response in the gut during Salmonella-induced colitis and in altering the intestinal microbial balance after influenza infection.


One Minute All Out

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

It still surprises people that one minute of all-out exercise may have all the benefits of 45 minutes of moderate exertion:

[The scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario] began by recruiting 25 out-of-shape young men and measuring their current aerobic fitness and, as a marker of general health, their body’s ability to use insulin properly to regulate blood sugar levels. The scientists also biopsied the men’s muscles to examine how well their muscles functioned at a cellular level.

Then the researchers randomly divided the men into three groups. (The scientists plan to study women in subsequent experiments.) One group was asked to change nothing about their current, virtually nonexistent exercise routines; they would be the controls.

A second group began a typical endurance-workout routine, consisting of riding at a moderate pace on a stationary bicycle at the lab for 45 minutes, with a two-minute warm-up and three-minute cool down.

The final group was assigned to interval training, using the most abbreviated workout yet to have shown benefits. Specifically, the volunteers warmed up for two minutes on stationary bicycles, then pedaled as hard as possible for 20 seconds; rode at a very slow pace for two minutes, sprinted all-out again for 20 seconds; recovered with slow riding for another two minutes; pedaled all-out for a final 20 seconds; then cooled down for three minutes. The entire workout lasted 10 minutes, with only one minute of that time being strenuous.

Both groups of exercising volunteers completed three sessions each week for 12 weeks, a period of time that is about twice as long as in most past studies of interval training.

By the end of the study, published in PLOS One, the endurance group had ridden for 27 hours, while the interval group had ridden for six hours, with only 36 minutes of that time being strenuous.

But when the scientists retested the men’s aerobic fitness, muscles and blood-sugar control now, they found that the exercisers showed virtually identical gains, whether they had completed the long endurance workouts or the short, grueling intervals. In both groups, endurance had increased by nearly 20 percent, insulin resistance likewise had improved significantly, and there were significant increases in the number and function of certain microscopic structures in the men’s muscles that are related to energy production and oxygen consumption.

Autism, genius, and the power of obliviousness

Monday, May 9th, 2016

Eric S. Raymond discusses autism, genius, and the power of obliviousness — while asserting that he’s not-at-all autistic:

Yes, there is an enabling superpower that autists have through damage and accident, but non-autists like me have to cultivate: not giving a shit about monkey social rituals.

Neurotypicals spend most of their cognitive bandwidth on mutual grooming and status-maintainance activity. They have great difficulty sustaining interest in anything that won’t yield a near-immediate social reward. By an autist’s standards (or mine) they’re almost always running in a hamster wheel as fast as they can, not getting anywhere.

The neurotypical human mind is designed to compete at this monkey status grind and has zero or only a vanishingly small amount of bandwidth to spare for anything else. Autists escape this trap by lacking the circuitry required to fully solve the other-minds problem; thus, even if their total processing capacity is average or subnormal, they have a lot more of it to spend on what neurotypicals interpret as weird savant talents.

Non-autists have it tougher. To do the genius thing, they have to be either so bright that they can do the monkey status grind with a tiny fraction of their cognitive capability, or train themselves into indifference so they basically don’t care if they lose the neurotypical social game.

Once you realize this it’s easy to understand why the incidence of socially-inept nerdiness doesn’t peak at the extreme high end of the IQ bell curve, but rather in the gifted-to-low-end-genius region closer to the median. I had my nose memorably rubbed in this one time when I was a guest speaker at the Institute for Advanced Study. Afternoon tea was not a nerdfest; it was a roomful of people who are good at the social game because they are good at just about anything they choose to pay attention to and the monkey status grind just isn’t very difficult. Not compared to, say, solving tensor equations.

Mammoth Hunt

Sunday, May 8th, 2016

Russian paleontologists have pieced together the story of mammoth hunt but studying the long-dead beast’s bones:

He was around 15 years old and in good shape but not as wily as an older bull. The humans surrounding him were smaller but much smarter and better armed.

Spears breached his rib cage in several places, sinking through skin and muscle, scoring the bone on their way to vital organs. Three pierced his left scapula, at the height of a human shoulder, entering hard on a downward path after they were thrown. The spears were seeking his heart, and the men throwing them would make the tosses of a first-rate quarterback look weak and sloppy.

The last of their talents was to finish off the goliath after he fell at their feet, still full of rage and strength. One of them thrust a bone- or ivory-pointed spear into the mammoth’s cheek. He would not have been aiming there but at the arteries feeding the trunk, as modern elephant hunters, like the foragers of the African tropical forest, still do. Surprisingly, the point did not break off.

How do we know all of this? Because the Russian scientists deployed tools of their own—CT scans to peer into bones and organs, radiocarbon dating to establish the time frame, stratigraphy to analyze and order the soil and rock layers where the fossils were found—in that same clever old human way. Like their prehistoric forbears, they reasoned through the problem, developed a strategy and cooperated to nab their quarry.

The men got all they could from the beast. Damage to a tusk shows that they sliced from it slim, sharp knives and scraping tools of the hardest ivory. Other evidence suggests that the men took the tongue as a delicacy or for some ritual, though they left the penis behind.

The Sweet Spot for Intermittent Fasting

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

Mangan shares some research that suggests that the sweet spot for intermittent fasting occurs between 18 and 24 hours:

Fasting Sweet Spot

Non-Shared Environment

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

Non-shared environment doesn’t just mean schools and peers, Scott Alexander reminds us:

The “nature vs. nurture” question is frequently investigated by twin studies, which separate interpersonal variation into three baskets: heritable, shared environmental, and non-shared environmental. Heritable mostly means genes. Shared environmental means anything that two twins have in common – usually parents, siblings, household, and neighborhood. Non-shared environmental is everything else.

At least in relatively homogeneous samples (eg not split among the very rich and the very poor) studies of many different traits tend to find that ~50% of the variation is heritable and ~50% is due to non-shared environment, with the contribution of shared environment usually lower and often negligible. This is typically summarized as “50% nature, 50% nurture”. That summary is wrong.

I mean, it’s tempting. All these social developmentalists were so sure that the way your parents praised you or didn’t praise you, or spanked you or didn’t spank you, had long-lasting repercussions that totally shaped your adult personality. The underwhelming performance of shared environment in twin studies torpedoed that whole area of study. But at least (these scholars of social behavior could tell themselves) it provided a consolation prize. The non-shared environment contributes 50% of variation, just as much as genes. That means things like your friends, your schoolteachers, and even that time you and your twin got sent away to separate camps must be really important. More than enough there to continue worrying about how society is Ruining The Children, right?

Not necessarily. Non-shared environment isn’t really “non-shared environment” the way you would think. It’s more of a dumpster. Anything that isn’t genetic or family-related gets tossed into the non-shared environment term.

Claude Shannon

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

Today would have been Claude Shannon‘s 100th birthday. What did Claude Shannon do? Quite a bit:

Claude Elwood Shannon (April 30, 1916 – February 24, 2001) was an American mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer known as “the father of information theory”.[1][2]

Shannon is noted for having founded information theory with a landmark paper that he published in 1948. He is perhaps equally well known for founding digital circuit design theory in 1937, when, as a 21-year-old master’s degree student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he wrote his thesis demonstrating that electrical applications of Boolean algebra could construct any logical, numerical relationship.[3] Shannon contributed to the field of cryptanalysis for national defense during World War II, including his basic work on codebreaking and secure telecommunications.

Why Iron Is the Most Underrated Factor in Health

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

Mangan explains why iron is the most underrated factor in health, summarizing his book, Dumping Iron:

In the course of our long evolutionary history, iron has not always been abundant in our food; for this reason, as well as its critical necessity, our bodies have evolved mechanisms to grab iron and hold on to it. But we have not evolved any way of getting rid of it.

When humans are growing, they require plenty of iron for their development, but after maturity, the iron accumulates, often to high enough levels to damage cells and lead to disease.

Iron is a reactive element. When exposed to air and water, it rusts, and when inside our bodies, it can react with components of our cells — lipids, proteins, cell walls — and damage them. That’s how it leads to illness and premature aging.

A Thought Collective

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Scientific inquiry is prone to the eternal rules of human social life:

In a 2015 paper titled Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?, a team of scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research sought an empirical basis for a remark made by the physicist Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

The researchers identified more than 12,000 “elite” scientists from different fields. The criteria for elite status included funding, number of publications, and whether they were members of the National Academies of Science or the Institute of Medicine. Searching obituaries, the team found 452 who had died before retirement. They then looked to see what happened to the fields from which these celebrated scientists had unexpectedly departed, by analysing publishing patterns.

What they found confirmed the truth of Planck’s maxim. Junior researchers who had worked closely with the elite scientists, authoring papers with them, published less. At the same time, there was a marked increase in papers by newcomers to the field, who were less likely to cite the work of the deceased eminence. The articles by these newcomers were substantive and influential, attracting a high number of citations. They moved the whole field along.

A scientist is part of what the Polish philosopher of science Ludwik Fleck called a “thought collective”: a group of people exchanging ideas in a mutually comprehensible idiom. The group, suggested Fleck, inevitably develops a mind of its own, as the individuals in it converge on a way of communicating, thinking and feeling.

This makes scientific inquiry prone to the eternal rules of human social life: deference to the charismatic, herding towards majority opinion, punishment for deviance, and intense discomfort with admitting to error. Of course, such tendencies are precisely what the scientific method was invented to correct for, and over the long run, it does a good job of it. In the long run, however, we’re all dead, quite possibly sooner than we would be if we hadn’t been following a diet based on poor advice.

The Sugar Conspiracy

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

The sugar conspiracy seems so brazen in retrospect:

Robert Lustig is a paediatric endocrinologist at the University of California who specialises in the treatment of childhood obesity. A 90-minute talk he gave in 2009, titled Sugar: The Bitter Truth, has now been viewed more than six million times on YouTube. In it, Lustig argues forcefully that fructose, a form of sugar ubiquitous in modern diets, is a “poison” culpable for America’s obesity epidemic.

A year or so before the video was posted, Lustig gave a similar talk to a conference of biochemists in Adelaide, Australia. Afterwards, a scientist in the audience approached him. Surely, the man said, you’ve read Yudkin. Lustig shook his head. John Yudkin, said the scientist, was a British professor of nutrition who had sounded the alarm on sugar back in 1972, in a book called Pure, White, and Deadly.

“If only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive,” wrote Yudkin, “that material would promptly be banned.” The book did well, but Yudkin paid a high price for it. Prominent nutritionists combined with the food industry to destroy his reputation, and his career never recovered. He died, in 1995, a disappointed, largely forgotten man.


When Yudkin was conducting his research into the effects of sugar, in the 1960s, a new nutritional orthodoxy was in the process of asserting itself. Its central tenet was that a healthy diet is a low-fat diet. Yudkin led a diminishing band of dissenters who believed that sugar, not fat, was the more likely cause of maladies such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. But by the time he wrote his book, the commanding heights of the field had been seized by proponents of the fat hypothesis. Yudkin found himself fighting a rearguard action, and he was defeated.

Not just defeated, in fact, but buried. When Lustig returned to California, he searched for Pure, White and Deadly in bookstores and online, to no avail. Eventually, he tracked down a copy after submitting a request to his university library. On reading Yudkin’s introduction, he felt a shock of recognition.

“Holy crap,” Lustig thought. “This guy got there 35 years before me.”


Look at a graph of postwar obesity rates and it becomes clear that something changed after 1980. In the US, the line rises very gradually until, in the early 1980s, it takes off like an aeroplane. Just 12% of Americans were obese in 1950, 15% in 1980, 35% by 2000. In the UK, the line is flat for decades until the mid-1980s, at which point it also turns towards the sky. Only 6% of Britons were obese in 1980. In the next 20 years that figure more than trebled. Today, two thirds of Britons are either obese or overweight, making this the fattest country in the EU. Type 2 diabetes, closely related to obesity, has risen in tandem in both countries.

At best, we can conclude that the official guidelines did not achieve their objective; at worst, they led to a decades-long health catastrophe.


We tend to think of heretics as contrarians, individuals with a compulsion to flout conventional wisdom. But sometimes a heretic is simply a mainstream thinker who stays facing the same way while everyone around him turns 180 degrees. When, in 1957, John Yudkin first floated his hypothesis that sugar was a hazard to public health, it was taken seriously, as was its proponent. By the time Yudkin retired, 14 years later, both theory and author had been marginalised and derided. Only now is Yudkin’s work being returned, posthumously, to the scientific mainstream.

Read the whole thing.

An American Anthropologist with a Fantastic Name

Thursday, April 7th, 2016

When the Human Terrain System came up recently, Grasspunk dug up an old Adam Curtis piece on the subject:

The project was created by an American anthropologist with a fantastic name.

Montgomery McFate.

She was born in 1966. Her parents were counterculture radicals in the heart of the experimental art scene in San Francisco so she is very much “second-generation cool”. She became a punk in the Bay Area in the early 80s.

Back then she was called Mitzy Carlough.

Read the whole thing, which is actually part 9 of an article that I cited three other times: Boetti & Boetti (part 1), Astrakhan Coats and Techno-Utopianism (part 3), and Progressive Afghanistan (part 4).