Monday, July 30, 2012

Lili is happy to help by pointing out so many things that you've done wrong

(This post added to Wednesday August 1st 2012and also Thursday August 2nd 2012)

Rothen, Nicholas, Meier, Beat and Ward, Jamie (2012) Enhanced memory ability: Insights from synaesthesia.  Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. Received 19 February 2012. Revised 7 May 2012. Accepted 15 May 2012. Available online 23 May 2012.
["In Press, Uncorrected Proof"]

This paper was presented to the 13th International Multisensory Research Forum at the University of Oxford from June 19-22 2012.

Two of the authors of this paper have apparently written a chapter titled “Synaesthesia and memory” for the upcoming academic book Oxford Handbook of Synaesthesia.

In a post that I wrote a while ago I asserted that there were many problems with this in press journal paper. It has taken a while but I’ve finally found the time to explain my claim.

There are two major aspects of this journal paper which I find the most objectionable, but there are many things to be annoyed about in this inexplicably sloppy paper. One is the disappointing fact that Rothen, Meier and Ward have joined the crowd of gullible researchers who have discussed Daniel Tammet at length uncritically as a synaesthete memory savant, in the face of abundant and easily-accessible evidence that practically every aspect of the story of Daniel Tammet (formerly Daniel Corney) has been called into question. Daniel Tammet omitted his past as a World Memory Championship (WMC) competitor in 1999 and 2000, and his participation in 2002 as a subject in a study of WMC participants from his autobiography and self-descriptions in media interviews. These omissions are highly questionable and important.  Rothen, Meier and Ward’s ostrich-like ignorance of the evidence for scepticism about Daniel Tammet is highlighted in the way that they have discussed in their paper a study of which it is known that Tammet was one of the subjects, but they show no awareness that he was included in the study, and they starkly fail to note that the findings of that group study directly contradict important aspects of the official account of Daniel Tammet’s cognitive exceptionalities. The authors have made the same mistake that researchers have been making for a long time, in spite of the efforts of myself and others to highlight the fact that Daniel Tammet was one of the subjects studied in the often-cited “Routes to Remembering” study by Maguire, Valentine, Wilding and Kapur published in 2002-3. Rothen, Meier and Ward discuss this study of World Memory Championship participants on page 4 of their paper, and also Anders Ericsson’s commentary on that study, and point out that most of the superior memorizers used the method of loci memory method. The authors mentioned faces as one of the types of memory tasks that were studied in the “Routes to Remembering” study, so I must presume that they are aware that nothing unusual was found regarding face memory in the study. Unfortunately there is nothing in the paper to indicate that Rothen, Meier or Ward had any awareness that Daniel Tammet was one of the people studied in the “Routes to Remembering” study, even though there is ample evidence that he was.  The “Routes to Remembering” study was discussed in a separate section from Rothen, Meier and Ward’s lengthy discussion of Daniel Tammet.

In addition to failing to connect Tammet with the “Routes to Remembering” study, the authors of the review also managed to misrepresent one of the findings from a study of Tammet in a way that obscures one of the starkest contradictions between the official account of Tammet and findings of the “Routes to Remembering” study. The reviewers asserted that in a test of Tammet in a 2007 study “A recognition memory test for faces yielded unremarkable performance”. Not true. When Baron-Cohen and his team studied Tammet in the study published in 2007 in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Tammet’s memory for faces was tested and the conclusion was that it “appears impaired”. Tammet’s face recognition rate was barely above chance level, while his accuracy in identifying faces as unfamiliar was somewhat better. Tammet’s subnormal performance in face memory in this study is inconsistent with the finding in the “Routes to Remembering” study that the superior memorizers as a group performed better than the normal control group in face memory, and I think their score in the face recognition test was significantly superior to the controls. I could find nothing in the “Routes to Remembering” paper to indicate that any individual in the study showed a deficit in face memory, or any type of cognitive deficit. Rothen, Meier and Ward failed to report this important inconsistency.

In their discussion of a study of Tammet, researchers Rothen, Meier and Ward asserted that “Whereas controls show a benefit of chunking of verbal material in memory tasks, associated with increased activity in lateral prefrontal cortex (Bor et al., 2003; Bor and Owen, 2007), Tammet failed to show this chunking-effect either behaviourally or in terms of neural correlates (Bor et al., 2007). This is consistent with the idea that he is able to impose his own internal organisation on ‘unchunked’ sequences, thereby benefiting less from an externally imposed strategy.” I think this is a confusing and misleading way to present the facts of what was found in the 2007 study of Tammet by Bor, Billington and Baron-Cohen, in which Tammet is generally known to have been the subject but was given the name DT. The results of the digit span task are not presented in a table, and the description of results by Bor, Billington and Baron-Cohen is as clear as mud, but they do assert that “DT showed hyperactivity in bilateral LPFC compared to normal controls” when presented with numerical stimuli, LPFC being the lateral prefrontal cortex. They then go on to explain that this activation pattern can be associated with chunking processes and “it is possible that the over-activity in LPFC in DT reflects chunking processes.” There is no reason to dismiss the possibility that DT was using a conscious memory strategy such as chunking, in fact the evidence indicates that he was, but in a way that was different than the controls, who presumably were not former World Memory Championship competitors, so that should surprise no one, not even Rothen, Meier and Ward.

The authors’ ignorance of Tammet’s past colours every aspect of their review of research about him. On page 13 they cite Tammet’s supposed autistic interest in numbers as an explanation of why he showed some superiority in the digit-span task in contrast with performance by other grapheme-colour synaesthetes. The authors failed to consider the use of mnemonic strategy as a probable explanation for Tammet’s advantage.

It is worth noting that one of the authors, UK synaesthesia researcher Dr Jamie Ward, is a serial offender in terms of writing accounts of Tammet that ignore important information about his past. In Ward’s 2008 popular science book The Frog Who Croaked Blue Dr Ward wrote about Tammet and there is some indication that he had spoken to Tammet. Amongst his discussion of Tammet Dr Ward explained that extraordinary memory feats can be performed with the use of the method of loci, and it is clear from the details in this paragraph that Ward has read the “Routes to Remembering” study by Maguire, Valentine, Wilding and Kapur but disappointingly Dr Ward showed no awareness that Tammet was one of the subjects of that study (Ward 2008 p.113), and Ward showed no scepticism about Tammet’s self-account. Dr Ward also failed to caution the book’s readers that the face memory findings of the “Routes to Remembering” study directly contradict Tammet’s self-account of his face memory ability: “As with other people with autism, he is little interested in faces and he believes that his memory for faces is poor.”

Perhaps it might seem like I'm making too big a deal of Daniel Tammet, but I can't get over the fact that Rothen, Meier and Ward wrote more about Tammet as a single case study of memory superiority associated with synaesthesia than any other case except Shereshevskii, while it is known that both Shereshevskii and Tammet have performed as mnemonists and most likely both used established memory techniques that don't require nor necessarily involve synaesthesia, while there are many who doubt that Tammet is a synaesthete at all, and while completely ignoring at least one well-documented and researched case study of superior memory who apparently is a genuine synaesthete. In addition to failing to note that Tammet/Corney was a study subject in the “Routes to Remembering” study, Rothen, Meier and Ward also failed to note that another of the superior memorizer participants in that study, given the anonymous name of TM, has reported in another document as reporting coloured and flavoured numbers, most likely an experience of synaesthesia. TM (whose real name appears to be Tom Morton) was written about in a 1994 journal paper and in the 1997 book Superior Memory by Wilding and Valentine, and in that book a brief description of TM’s synaesthesia can be found, if you have a sharp eye. Perhaps Rothen, Meier and Ward could be excused for completely overlooking TM as an interesting case study of a synaesthete elite memory performer, even though they have clearly read the paper of one of the studies in which he was a subject. The authors of the “Routes to Remembering” study couldn’t have done less to indicate that TM was included in their study, and to my knowledge Wilding, Valentine and colleagues never explicitly identified TM as a synaesthete. But on the other hand, if an Australian housewife can eventually put the pieces of evidence together to conclude that an interesting case study of memory superiority is also a synaesthete and that he was studied in the “Routes to Remembering” study, then why shouldn’t a team of university academics writing a review paper about memory superiority and synaesthesia also be aware of this very pertinent fact? At the very least, if they had been regular readers of my blog, they would have discovered this interesting fact. 

Rothen, Meier and Ward’s careless and incomplete but state-of-the-art accounts of Daniel Tammet and the “Routes to Remembering” study are my biggest gripes about this paper, but these flaws are certainly not isolated issues. There’s so much more in this paper that is questionable. I’ve only identified issues that have jumped out at me - I have not made an exhaustive check of the facts as presented in Rothen, Meier and Ward’s paper.

On page four of the review paper the authors had already strayed well into questionable territory before they blundered upon Tammet: “However, it is to be noted that rather than expertise, memory deficits are more common in autism which, in contrast to synaesthesia, is a developmental disorder (cf. Happé, 1999).” Only one old journal paper is cited to back up this assertion, but I think it is a claim that requires much greater explanation, support and qualification. It appears that not all autistic individuals display memory deficits and not all studies find memory deficit as a characteristic of autism, and to assert that memory deficits are more common in autism than memory expertise, one would need to have at hand good evidence about the rate of savantism or memory expertise in autism, and that is itself an area of controversy.

On the next page the authors asserted that “More recently, it has been suggested that Shereshevskii may also have had autism which together with his synaesthesia may have been the basis for his exceptional memory (Baron-Cohen et al., 2007; Bor et al., 2007).” Those papers do include discussion of the idea of a combination of autism and synaesthesia as a basis for exceptional memory or savantism, but there’s no speculation about Shereshevskii and autism or Asperger syndrome (AS) in those papers. In the Neurocase paper it is only stated that “(It is unknown if Shereshevsky had AS, as his case predates the recognition of AS.)”

Just about every journalist or researcher who has written about Jill Price, known as AJ in the neuropsychology literature, has made a hash of it. It is no surprise that this review paper conformed to the general pattern of a lack of care. From page five of the review: “AJ reported having synaesthetic mental calendars that she was able to use for virtually perfect autobiographical memory and a perfect memory for world events (Parker et al., 2006; Simner et al., 2009b). However, as with Shereshevskii and Tammet she appeared to train herself to use this system, in this case when she was traumatised by a move from the East to the West coast of the USA at the age of 8 years.” The reviewers make it sound like AJ/Price is very much responsible for and knowledgeable about her own superior autobiographical memory (also known as hyperthymestic syndrome). I’ve read the 2006 journal paper about Price and her autobiography and many other documents about her, and I’ve found nothing to support this idea. Here is a quote from her book The Woman Who Can't Forget: "Perhaps one reason that I remember days so well is that my brain seems to love to organize time. One of the unusual ways it does so, which intrigued the scientists because again it was so unprecedented, is with visual that I just "see" in my mind." Of course, there was nothing unprecedented about mental  number-forms for months and years - Sir Francis Galton published illustrations of this type of synaesthesia in 1880. One matter needs to be set straight; Price/AJ never reported herself as being a synaesthete nor claimed to have synaesthesia. Even though descriptions of her time-line synaesthesia can be found in both her book and the 2006 Neurocase paper about her, neither Price nor the researchers identified it as synaesthesia. It was presented as a mystery in both pieces of writing. One could presume that this incomprehension was not sincere, but maybe one shouldn’t. It seems odd that here the reviewers assert that Tammet is self-trained, an idea that they hadn’t already explored in their review. To get another fact straight about Jill Price; even though the researchers who first wrote about her described her mental representations of time as "mental calendars" they are not calendars at all. Rothen, Meier and Ward have thoughtlessly copied the sloppy description of other researchers, who should have known better, because they had all the facts at hand to see that Price was experiencing a type of "number forms" or number lines, but applied to the representation of time, and they also should have been aware that this is regarded as a type of synaesthesia. Synaesthesia researchers Rothen, Meier and Ward should certainly have been knowledgeable enough about this subject to know that time-space synaesthesia is not the same as a calendar, it is a line or a collection of different lines for different units of time. Price included hand-drawn illustrations of her time-space synaesthesia on pages 30 and 31 of her autobiography. They are completely typical of time-space synaesthesia; linear representations with idiosyncratic forms. 

The reviewers continue, on the subject of Jill Price/AJ: “Moreover, the superior recall was limited to events of interest to her which might suggest some autistic traits. Nevertheless, her memory was superior in general (on the WMS – Wechsler Memory Scale), although her IQ was normal (on the WAIS – Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale) and other cognitive abilities (executive functioning, language and face recognition) were impaired.” The reviewers failed to mention Price/AJ’s perfect score for face perception in the Benton Face Test, which is apparently a group of tests of facial emotion recognition. This piece of information doesn’t sit well against the picture of autistic tendencies that the reviewers have painted.

I suspect that I could sit here for a week or more writing a full account of everything that is wrong with Rothen, Meier and Ward’s paper, but I think I have made my point. It’s a pity, because I thought there were a lot of interesting ideas presented in their examination of competing theories as explanations of memory advantage in synaesthesia. But elegant theories aren’t worth a cup of spit if they conflict with the evidence, and evidence isn’t much use to science if researchers don’t know about it, or won’t acknowledge it.

Other References

Wilding, John M. and Valentine, Elizabeth R. (1997) Superior memory. Psychology Press, 1997.

Maguire, Eleanor A., Valentine, Elizabeth R., Wilding, John M. & Kapur, Narinder (2002-3) Routes to remembering: the brains behind superior memory. Nature Neuroscience. Volume 6 Number 1 January 2003 p.90-95. Published online: 16 December 2002 doi:10.1038/nn988

Parker, Elizabeth S., Cahill, Larry, & McGaugh, James L. (2006) A case of unusual autobiographical remembering. Neurocase. Volume 12 Issue 1 February 2006. p. 35 – 49.

Baron-Cohen S, Bor D, Billington J, Asher JE, Wheelwright S and Ashwin C. (2007) Savant Memory in a Man with Colour Form-Number Synaesthesia and Asperger Syndrome. Journal of Consciousness Studies. volume 14, number 9-10, September-October 2007, p. 237-251.

Bor, D, Billington, J, Baron-Cohen, S. (2007) Savant memory for digits in a case of synaesthesia and Asperger syndrome is related to hyperactivity in the lateral prefrontal cortex. Neurocase. 2007 Oct;13(5):311-9.

Lili's thought for the day

The journalists at Four Corners invited the Police Commissioner to an interview about their investigation into inadequate responses by police to domestic violence and breaches of restraining orders, but he was too busy to attend. I saw that coming.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A celebrity with hyperthymestic syndrome explains

"For all these seemingly amazing capabilities, people who have HSAM are not classified as savants or autistic. We are not calendar calculators with a system. For people with HSAM, the knowledge of days and dates is almost built in. We aren't using mnemonic or memory strategies to remember events. When asked how we do it, we all say the same thing: "I just see it! It's just there."

- an excerpt from the recently published book Total Memory Makeover by the American actress and author of several self-help books Marilu Henner, who has also been identified as a case of the memory gift syndrome formerly known as hyperthymestic syndrome, hyperthymesia, superior autobiographical memory, highly superior autobiographical memory and now known simply as HSAM. What it might be known as in 2013 is anyone's guess. 

A few things in this quote strike me as interesting. Firstly, there is the almost-universal impulse in high profile people identified with interesting cognitive gifts to distance themselves from autism, which is understandable considering how the autistic spectrum has been vilified for as long as it has been defined. And it is indeed fair enough for any person  who do not see them self as disabled to distance them self from a condition that is defined as a disability. An odd thing about this quote is the supposed basis of the claim that people with HSAM are neither autistic nor savants, the assertion that they do not calculate nor use a memorizing system. My understanding of savants, including autistic savants, is that they are thought to have mysterious powers and are incapable of explaining how they do their feats, so therefore can't be said to be calculators or mnemonists. The supposed world authority on savants, Dr Darold Treffert, asserts often that savants have mysterious, inexplicable and natural powers. I don't believe for a minute that this is an adequate explanation of savantism, but many people take his views seriously, so Henner seems to be using a definition of an autistic savant that is the opposite of the dominant view of how savants operate. Why?

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this quote is a bit that many people might fail to appreciate the significance of. Henner claims she and co-HSAMs don't calculate, but simply see. I guess she is referring to seeing memories, but one wonders how one could literally see a day's date, which is an aspect of autobiographical memories that HSAMers apparently remember, along with what happened at the time. I hope Henner explains exactly what she sees in her book, but the important thing is that she says her memory takes the form of a sensory experience, not an abstract idea or a verbal experience. She apparently has visual memories. Would that be visual thinking? Can't be, because visual thinking is supposed to be autism, isn't it? Whenever I think of the concept of visual thinking I see the celebrity autist Temple Grandin, with her cowboy-styled shirt buttoned right up. 

Another couple of interesting things that I've noticed, about Henner's book in general. One is the way Henner barely acknowledged Jill Price in her book as the first ever case of HSAM/hyperthymestic/whatever-you-want-to-call-it-today to be identified officially. Another thing to wonder about is the way that Henner has used yet another new term for the same memory gift syndrome that was described in a 2006 journal paper. That makes six different terms for it so far, seven if you consider the fact that this type of feat was pre-2006 simply regarded one of the many interesting things that savants (acquired, autistic, disabled) do.  There's a description of a case in Stephen Jay Gould's 1997 book Questioning the Millennium, but of course he used terms such as savant rather than hyperthymestic or HSAM. Why is the same neurological/psychological concept being renamed so often? Researchers become famous when they publish the first description of an effect or a phenomenon, so they have a motivation to deceptively compete to be associated in the discovery of a new "syndrome". Of course, it is a form of lying (plagiarism?) to write a research report claiming to have discovered a new thing, when they should have been aware that the thing is nothing new and has already been written about, even if this is only in pop science books or other "non-scholarly" publications. There are lots of liars working as scientists.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lili's unsporting thought for the day

How many times will some totally tedious amateur endocrinologist working as a sports commentator piffle on about adrenalin during the media coverage of the 2012 Olympic Games? I've already counted one example, and I'm not really watching at all. 

Lili's thought for the day

I'm curious to try Carmelina brand "Explosive Mixture", with eggplant and chillies, but I'm a little bit concerned about what might happen if I do. 

Synaesthete musician featured in the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony

“Music represents life. A particular piece of music may describe a real, fictional or abstract scene from almost any area of human experience or imagination. It is the musicians job to paint a picture which communicates to the audience the scene the composer is trying to describe.”

“The several hundred articles and reviews written about me every year add up to a total of many thousands, only a handful accurately describe my hearing impairment.”

“For some reason we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration, in reality they are the same thing.”

“It is worth pointing out at this stage that I am not totally deaf, I am profoundly deaf.”

“Eventually I managed to distinguish the rough pitch of notes by associating where on my body I felt the sound with the sense of perfect pitch I had before losing my hearing. The low sounds I feel mainly in my legs and feet and high sounds might be particular places on my face, neck and chest.”

“So far we have the hearing of sounds and the feeling of vibrations. There is one other element to the equation, sight. We can also see items move and vibrate. If I see a drum head or cymbal vibrate or even see the leaves of a tree moving in the wind then subconsciously my brain creates a corresponding sound.”

“I need to lip-read to understand speech but my awareness of the acoustics in a concert venue is excellent. For instance, I will sometimes describe an acoustic in terms of how thick the air feels.”

– some quotes by Dame Evelyn Glennie taken from her fascinating, clear and concise1993 Hearing Essay

Even though Dame Evelyn has described what appears to be a collection of different types of synesthetic experiences, including an interesting combination of perfect pitch with pitch-body part synaesthesia, she has not used the word synaesthesia once in this essay. In fact, I have failed to find any mention of synaesthesia anywhere in her personal website. All the same, her writing gives me the impression that she would have a tougher time trying to imagine the experiences of a non-synaesthete than she would have trying to imagine the experiences of a fully hearing person.

Glennie, Evelyn (1993) Hearing essay.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Spatial music; a less-well-known type of synaesthesia experienced by very-well-known musicians

"when I write a song , i see a tunnel , and then the chorus is an open space , or the bassline is doing this shape . i see songs as a more of a geometric , spatial experience ."
- Bjork on Facebook

"When I listen to Bach I hear architecture ... chambers ... towers ... buttresses ... domes ...”
- Sting in the documentary The Musical Brain

Lili's advice for the day

In case you aren't a regular reader of this blog, be advised that I often go back and endlessly edit and add to past posts - so sue me - I'm an obsessive. 

Lili's appalled thought for the day

Had enough of guns yet, Americanos?

Lili's thought for the day

Please enough of using the word "unwell" as a euphemism for "insane". You politically-correct fools have not given a nice image to psychiatric illness, you twerps have only succeeded in buggering up another once-useful word in the English language.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

To find the truth you need to click, click, click and check, check, check

This is the page for Daniel Corney (AKA Daniel Tammet) at the website of the World Memory Championships (WMC):

According to the book Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer, Daniel Corney "won the gold medal in the names-and-faces event" in the World Memory Championships, presumably a reference to winning this event in the competition of year 2000, and I have verified this is true from other sources, but at the above linked to web page there is no mention of this event. Corney's triumph in this part of the competition is a matter of controversy because he has claimed in media interviews and also in at least one of his books that he has a serious disability in recognizing faces, which is a scientifically recognized disability known as prosopagnosia. In one journal paper co-authored by the apparently quite eccentric University of Cambridge professor Simon Baron-Cohen it is revealed that Daniel Tammet (AKA Corney) performed at an "impaired" level in a test of face recognition with was a part of investigations of Tammet. Prof Baron-Cohen has probably done more to popularize the idea that autism and Asperger syndrome is linked to poor face recognition ability than any other autism expert. Baron-Cohen also diagnosed Tammet with Asperger syndrome, so he'd have a thing or two to explain to everyone if Tammet didn't display and claim to have inadequate face recognition ability. Baron-Cohen's idea is far from safe because Foer and I have found an abundance of evidence that Tammet/Corney actually has face recognition ability that works just fine. This is one reason why I'm feeling quite disappointed at the way that the website of the WMC appears to be less than forthcoming with one crucial fact about former competitor Daniel Corney.

Click through from the Daniel Corney page, on the link that leads to the details of his results in the year 2000 competition, and you will find this page:
and what do you know? The controversial event is listed here, in red, apparently because it is an "old" event, and the full name of the event is not used. I'm guessing that this event was left out of Daniel Corney's personal page on the premise that it is an "old" event. I can't see why this is a reason to omit a record of a long-past event. It was a current event in 2000, and surely that is all that matters in a record of this past championship. That event was Corney's highest achievement in the WMC, he won the event in the year 2000, so it seems doubly odd that mention of it is left out of the page that is a record of his participation in the WMC. Corney's fantastic performance in this event wasn't just a "flash in the pan" because he did also well in it in the previous year's competition, coming in at rank number four in 1999, which was the first year that he participated in the WMC. Corney seems to have a natural talent in this event! How very strange, considering his later claims. At the above linked page the event in question is named "Names" and the controversial word "faces" is left out of the whole thing. I think is really quite misleading, because, as I understand it, this event is primarily a task of memorizing names linked to faces. In the book Buzan's Book of Mental World Records by Tony Buzan and Ray Keene this event in the 2003 championships is described on page 45: "Discipline four was Names and Faces in which competitors are presented with sheets of photographs to memorise. This time Andi Bell took first place with Astrid second and the reining American Champion, Scott Hagwood, in third." This is definitely the same event as "old 15 min Names" written in red. It certainly looks like this event is a test of face recognition. For a WMC participant to show a consistent talent in this event and winning ability, but in later years to claim to have a face memory impairment most certainly requires an explanation. Perhaps the event can be won using some other type of memory besides pure face memory. I have only been able to find the scantest descriptions of how this brief event was conducted, and I'm not sure whether or not the memorized names and faces were tested in the same order that they are memorized. If they were, that could possibly allow for this event to be done using a mnemonic strategy rather than face recognition. An explanation is needed. I'm not asking for a public hanging, just an explanation of how Daniel Tammet managed to win this event in 2000. 

To help to conceal the truth about any person who has been incorrectly diagnosed as having Asperger syndrome, prosopagnosia, "savant syndrome", synaesthesia or exceptional natural memory ability is an evil thing to do, because this misleads the grand project of science, including the medical and psychological sciences. In the modern world science is the means by which people and essential human institutions understand the world. To f***-up science is to f***-up human knowledge, upon which human society bases many very important decisions affecting the welfare of citizens. Sure, it is a great laugh that so many scientists have been so severely fooled (or kept deliberately silent) for so long, and it is an education to see the extent that the Tammet story has become a part of scientific knowledge, but it is still wrong, a lie. When anyone makes a fool of science, they award free kicks to the many powerful and dangerous interests and groups in society whose business it is to attack science - the climate-change deniers, the anti-vaccine flake-bars, the alternative medicine shonks. There are real and frightening consequences when people trash the reputation of the scientific enterprise. 

Arguably, the most immoral aspect of this joke is the way that so many people, some of them vulnerable, have apparently been misrepresented. There are plenty of people in the world who actually do have a serious issue with recognizing faces, who do genuinely meet diagnostic criteria for autism or AS, who do display genuine savant skills, or who do experience genuine inborn or acquired synaesthesia. If Tammet is indeed a fake in all these areas, then we can say that for a bunch of different disabilities or psycho-neurological variations the most famous representative in the world is a faker, a grand misrepresentation. I know that if I were a prosopagnosic I'd be totally f***ing fuming if I knew that I was being represented in the public eye by a pretender who wrote the sentence "A familiar face, my friend Rehan, was waiting for me at the airport.” in his autobiography. You can have a severe disability in face recognition and still be able recognize a friend at an ariport? Doesn't sound like too much of a disability, does it? Maybe it is just another bit of nonsense that people make up, like restless legs or ADHD, don't you think? And this Daniel Tammet character is supposed to be autistic, but he's hugely popular and has a successful career and handles media interviews with great skill and grace. Makes one wonder if this autism thing is a bunch of nonsense. Disability? Where is the disability? Don't you think this autism caper is a bunch of rot? Actually, I think a lot of the stuff written about it is rot, but in my opinion, the WMC is just as big a pile of piffle. Its high time that everyone cut the crap and owned up. 

Lili's thought for the day

Lady Gaga sees songs in their own colours, Bjork has a spatial experience when writing a tune and Tori Amos sees the results of her songwriting in patterns of light. Ordinary is not a word that one would use to describe the synaesthete female singer-songwriter. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lili's next question for the day

What records exist of the World Memory Championships of the years 1999 and 2000? Were there photos taken of the event? Was there any media reporting? Are there any documents relating to these events? 

Where have these dozens of studies been published?

"He also contributes to our knowledge base by volunteering to participate in dozens of brain studies."
Ernst VanBergeijk writing about Daniel Tammet in a 2009 book review published in the scientific/medical/autism journal the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Lili's thought for the day

Daniel Tammet is not a synaesthete, he's just a very naughty boy!

Don't be too impressed by that testing of Tammet

One by one many of the apparently amazing feats of Daniel Tammet have been exposed by various different individuals as false or suspect or exaggerated. One type of scientific study of Tammet that has been held up as proof that Tammet is a genuine synaesthete is the study of memory for items that are coloured in colours that are inconsistent with the synaesthete's experienced colours for those items. A genuine synaesthete is supposed to show a relative or an absolute difficulty in memorizing items displayed in colours or displayed with some other type of sensory characteristic that clashes with their synaesthesia. I believe this type of test is called a Stroop test. I'm no expert. Some time around the year 2005 a study of this type with Daniel Tammet as the subject was done by American researchers Shai Azoulai, Edward Hubbard, and V.S. Ramachandran. Azoulai and Ramachandran both appeared in the Brainman documentary, but this particular test was not shown in either version of the documentary. Tammet performed worse at memorizing items that were incongruent with his synaesthesia, and this was interpreted as suggesting “that Arithmos might directly correlate numbers and his synesthetic sizes / shapes” and thus be a genuine synaesthete.

I think it has been generally assumed that Stroop testing of memory in synaesthetes is a well-established test of the genuineness of synaesthesia. I was surprised to read a synaesthesia research paper from 2011 that appears to show that this isn’t the case. I came across this paper in my search for journal papers and other published items which mention Daniel Tammet. Tammet is still in the year 2012 being cited by some researchers as a genuine case of savantism, autism and/or synaesthesia, and this shouldn't be happening because there is way too much doubt surrounding Tammet, and I'm trying to highlight that this is still happening. All the evidence about the real Daniel Tammet and his past can be found in my book Daniel Tammet: the Boy with the Incredible Story. A journal paper by Australian researchers Radvansky,Gibson and McNerney that was published last year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology does not name Daniel Tammet but he is referred to in the paper as a case study subject in the 2005 paper by Azoulai, Hubbard and Ramachandran. Once again, I have found that this highly suspect study subject has been written about in a science journal as a case that has revealed useful scientific data. 

The Australian researchers sought to replicate a 2002 synaesthesia study by Smilek et al which appears to be a Stroop-type study, but they also note that two other studies have failed to replicate the effect in which synaesthetes are supposed to perform worse with incongruent colours. The two studies that apparently failed to show this effect are a 2009 study by Rothen and Meir and a 2007 study by Yaro and Ward. The Australian researchers did not exactly replicate the 2002 study, because while they did find that the synaesthete subjects performed less well on memorizing the incongruent items, their performance on these items was still above the level of the performance of the non-synaesthete controls. The synesthete studied by Smilek et al performed worse than the controls when faced with incongruently coloured digits . It should be noted that Smilek et al’s 2002 study had only one synaesthete subject tested in the study. Such a small study is of questionable value because of its low statistical power. In that study digits, not words, were memorized, and the syanesthete’s performance was far superior to the controls when memorizing digits presented normally in black ink. Regardless of whether or not a Stroop test is a proven method of testing the effects of grapheme-colour synaesthesia on memory, one still needs to be mindul of the fact that Tammet’s performance when tested by Azoulai, Hubbard and Ramachandran was distinguished from a performance typical of a (presumably) non-synaesthete control group by Tammet’s poorer performance. If Tammet had known or been able to guess that a deterioration in performance was required when presented with items that conflicted with his reported synaesthesia, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to simply not put in an effort during that particular phase of the testing. Any test that is based on deterioration in performance can be faked, and this is why the “gold standard” of testing for synesthesia, The Synesthesia Battery, requires superior performance as evidence of genuine synaesthesia.

While I’m grateful that the 2011 synaesthesia studies paper by Australian researchers has informed me about Stroop-type testing and synaesthesia and other interesting memory effects, I’ve got to admit that the more I read this paper the less I liked the authors. They started out in their paper by defining synaesthesia as “a condition in which a person reports inappropriate and involuntary sensory experiences in addition to the standard ones...” I find their use of the word “inappropriate” in this definition to be, well, inappropriate. The researchers made much speculation about various ways in which the experience of synaesthesia might possibly influence memory. Like so many synaesthesia researchers, they appear to be hung up on the idea of synaesthesia as an experience that can be used as a mnemonic device, rather than thinking about synaesthesia as a different type of brain that might have different functionality. The idea that the synaesthete brain might simply be better connected and more efficient at remembering things was resisted rather than entertained by the authors of this paper.

I’m sure these Aussie researchers were plenty miffed when they found that the ten synaesthetes in their study consistently performed so much better than the non-synaesthete control group of forty-eight psychology students in all four of their studies that they were unable to conclude that synaesthesia impaired performance in any real and absolute way. “There are a couple of concerns that may be raised about the data from this study. One is that it appears that our synesthetes have superior memory for everything, and that this is influencing the pattern of results.”  My condolences to the researchers! They refuted this proposition by making reference to some unpublished data, much of it of a type that isn’t relevant to memory. I've got to give the researchers points for trying, as they managed to put a negative slant on the clearly superior performance of the synaesthetes by characterizing the synaesthetes' processing of memory for words as based on shallow, superficial and meaningless information, a conclusion which I thought was nothing more than speculation. The authors were also willing to speculate that synaesthetes might be found to slip up when memorizing more complex items such as narratives and events in future studies. They appear to be blissfully unaware that the world’s best-known case of the memory gift syndrome “superior autobiographical memory”, Jill Price, is also a number form synaesthete. Don’t tell them. It would be unkind.

Radvansky GA, Gibson BS, McNerney MW. (2011) Synesthesia and memory: color congruency, von Restorff, and false memory effects. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 2011 Jan;37(1):219-29.

Azoulai, Shai, Hubbard, Ed, & Ramachandran, V. S. (2005) Does synesthesia contribute to mathematical savant skills? Proceedings of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. 12, 69 2005 Abstract No. B173.
[It is known that Daniel Tammet was the "Arithmos" tested in this study, which was partly shown in the Brainman documentary.]

Smilek, D., Dixon, MJ, Cudahy, C, Merikle, PM (2002) Synesthetic color experiences influence memory. Psychological Science. 2002 Nov;13(6):548-52.

David M. Eagleman, Arielle D. Kagan, Stephanie S. Nelson, Deepak Sagaram, Anand K. Sarma. (2007) A standardized test battery for the study of Synesthesia. Journal of Neuroscience Methods. 2007 Jan 15;159(1):139-145.

Don't ring true to me

"I experience numbers in a very visual way, using, colours, texture, shape and form, sequences of numbers form, landscapes in my mind. It just happens. It's like having a fourth dimension."

That is a quote from the Brainman/The Boy with the Incredible Brain documentary, Daniel Tammet describing his number synaesthesia. One word in this quote makes me feel that it is not a genuine description of a synaesthete's own experiences. It is the word "using". I feel that a real synesthete wouldn't have used the word "using" here, because synaesthetes don't use or apply colours, textures, shapes or forms to their sensory experiences to transform our normal thought processes into synaesthetic thought processes. We simply experience these additional sensory experiences. We do not create our own synaesthesia. We do not perform our synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is natural to us. We do not use visual characteristics in our synaesthesia. 

Two other elements of this quote strain credulity. The first is the unnatural rhythm of the way it was spoken, which is a fad that was once common in TV commercials. I think the advert people thought that if they got actors to speak in an unnatural rhythm it would subconsciously grab the TV viewer's attention. I just found it very annoying and contrived. 

The other element that I find hard to believe is Tammet's claim that sequences of numbers (spontaneously) form landscapes in his mind. This could certainly be interpreted as a description of number forms (known also as a type of spatial-sequence synaesthesia), but the problem is that this type of synaesthesia involves spatially experienced lines of numbers or sequential items, not landscapes. People who have number forms generally describe it as lines, not landscapes, for a very good reason. The fantastical shapes that they describe often could never be the shapes of landscapes. An oval ring that hangs in the air could never be the shape of a landscape. This is only one of many aspects of Tammet's self-descriptions of his own supposed synaesthesia that differs from typical reports of synaesthetes, which even the most simple Google search can retrieve in scores. I am a synaesthete, and I believe that Tammet is not one of our type. 

Lili's thought for the day

Tis a pity that one can't earn a living as a beachcomber or a social gadfly.

Has anyone noticed this?

The Wikipedia is currently telling us that the authors of the journal paper that first described "hyperthymestic syndrome" are Elizabeth Parker, Larry Cahill, Dr. Paul Tejera, and James McGaugh. That's a funny thing. Dr Paul Tejera appears to have snuck in there some time since I last looked at this Wikipedia article, because his name is new to me. And just take a look at the journal paper itself, or the PubMed record for it, and look! - no Paul Tejera! I suspect that Dr Paul Tejera's moment of Wikipedia fame as a big time memory researcher might not last very long.

And has anyone else noticed this? An apparent case of hyperthymestic syndrome or Superior Autobiographical Memory in the Brainman doco

At 8:50 in the video of the doco Brainman linked to below, a docoumentary which was produced some time around 2005, the story of "acquired savant" and African-American Orlando Serrell is recounted. He apparently sustained an untreated head injury as a boy, and appears to have acquired an ability to recall the day of the week and also the weather for "any date since his accident". Wikipedia tells us that he can also recall what he was doing on dates in the past, to a degree that varies. I've got to wonder why such a big hoo-ha has been made of the case of Jill Price, who has demonstrated similar memory abilities, while the memory researchers who wrote a journal paper about Price (given the pseudonym AJ) and unconvincingly claimed that she was the first known case of "hyperthymestic syndrome" have apparently had nothing to say about the case of Orlando Serrell. Parker, Cahill and McGaugh have also had nothing much to say about the many autistic cases of hyperthymestic syndrome which can easily be identified. It appears that hyperthymestic syndrome, recently unnecessarily renamed as Superior Autobiographical Memory, is a neurological condition reserved for white middle-class American women who have agents, women like the American actress Marilu Henner and the Jewish-American author Jill Price, while "Savant syndrome", with its down-market associations with autism, epilepsy, brain damage and intellectual disability, is seen as an appropriate label for males from less privileged backgrounds.To his credit, savantism researcher Darold Treffert has identified Serrell as a case of hyperthymestic syndrome.  Treffert also identified the autistic Lyman Twins as cases in his book about savantism. Like everything shown in the Brainman documentary, the story of Orlando Serrell should be approached with a degree of skepticism.

Can you find this press report?

I've chased down many little details of the story of Daniel Tammet, and like many other people who have looked into this subject, I've found interesting discrepancies. One thing that I have not been able to track down is one of the newspaper stories shown briefly in the documentary Brainman, specifically the one with the title "Easy as Pi for Memory Man" with a photo of Tammet deep in thought next to it. It can be seen at 7:38 in the video of the doco that can be found at the link below. A Google search retrieves a press report from Scotland from 2006 about a Australian Pi attempt, which could not be the story shown, because, I believe, the doco was made well before 2006. I've tried searching some media article databases for this story, to no avail. Can anyone give me the bibliographic details of this story, and maybe also let me know about the content? It would probably have been published in 2004. I'd be grateful.

Lili wonders..........

will the upcoming Oxford Handbook of Synaesthesia include any uncritical references to Daniel Tammet as a case study or a savant?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

It's a shame what they've done to Google search

It's a pity they've buggered up Google search. In the good old days it would have been easy to look up my political blog, just type in blond ambition, and maybe the term blog, and you probably would have seen a page from this blog in the first page of results, with no need for the use of quotation marks to bossily direct the search engine in how to do it's job. It would have stood out from all the stuff on the net with the title blonde ambition, all the girly blogs and Madonna paraphernalia, because I chose to spell this blog without the E at the end of blond, to denote the male meaning of the word blond.

But they had to screw up the perfect search engine in the quest of making it idiot-proof, and now Google search takes all manner of misspellings and also legitimate and distinctive spelling variations and makes the assumption that they all mean the same thing, and now the default search is an incredibly vague search which does allow for spelling errors, but also squashes and disregards useful and important information. I'm not sure if this is the same methodology that was used to stuff up PubMed many moons ago. I've given up trying to figure out how PubMed works, I just muddle on with it and throw as much relevant info at it as possible, and now look upon it as an unwilling servant to be beaten into submission.

So now, it appears that the best and possibly only way to quickly retrieve my political blog using Google search is to do a search that is part phrase search, part regular search, thus:

"blond ambition" blog

and there it is at numbers one to four of the first page of results. These days you've got to be a little bit smart to use the new, improved, idiot-proof Google search. That's progress!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Some 2012 journal papers that cite Daniel Tammet uncritically as a case study

Rothen, Nicholas, Meier, Beat and Ward, Jamie (2012) Enhanced memory ability: Insights from synaesthesia.  Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. Received 19 February 2012. Revised 7 May 2012. Accepted 15 May 2012. Available online 23 May 2012.
["In Press, Uncorrected Proof". Astonishingly the authors discuss Tammet as a savant synaesthete diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and also discuss Maguire et al's "routes to remembering" study with nothing to indicate an awareness that Tammet was one of the subjects in that study. Many inexplicably odd or wrong representations of the findings of studies can be found in this ambitious but disappointing paper. Two of the authors of this paper have apparently written a chapter titled “Synaesthesia and memory” for the upcoming academic book Oxford Handbook of Synaesthesia, which is a worry.]

Cottenceau, H., Roux S, Blanc R, Lenoir P, Bonnet-Brilhault F, Barthélémy C. (2012) Quality of life of adolescents with autism spectrum disorders: comparison to adolescents with diabetes. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2012 May;21(5):289-96. doi: 10.1007/s00787-012-0263-z. Epub 2012 Mar 1.

[French translations of Tammet’s two books listed as references]

Mercer, Sarah (2012) Dispelling the myth of the natural-born linguist. ELT Journal. (2012) 66 (1): 22-29.doi: 10.1093/elt/ccr022
[Sadly, the author’s zeal for myth dispelling does not extend to the subjects of Daniel Tammet or savantism. Tammet is described as “a well-known savant”, his opinions on talent and savantism are recounted and his second book is listed in the references. K. Anders Ericsson’s work on expertise is discussed and Darold Treffert’s work on savantism is uncritically mentioned.]

Do you have any questions that you'd like to ask Daniel Tammet?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The unique and amazing legacy of Alan Turing

Graham-Cumming, John (2012) Instant expert: Alan Turing’s legacy. New Scientist.  June 2nd 2012 No 2867 p.i-viii.

Alan Turing – thinker ahead of his time. Science Show. ABC Radio National. Broadcast  June 16th 2012.

Kennedy, Maev (2012) Alan Turing: the short, brilliant life and tragic death of an enigma. Guardian. June 20th 2012.

Turing is one of the amazing individuals included in this list of mine:

A referenced list of 175 famous or important people diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition or subject of published speculation about whether they are or were on the autistic spectrum 

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Lili's thought for the day

With some definite exceptions, in the long run, there is a good correlation between the amount of effort that I have put into writing posts and the rate of hits on posts. I find this gratifying. I can honestly say that there are few other areas in my life in which effort so reliably yields results. This is probably why I'd rather be blogging than out there in the rat-race doing a real job, even though I receive no monetary rewards from blogging at all.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Is empathy necessary for morality? asks philosopher Jesse Prinz

The other night on the Australian TV show Q and A the Gillard Government Minister and union man Greg Combet impressed many viewers when he promptly showed concern when Simon Sheikh keeled over and collapsed on the panel's desk, while the Liberal pollie who was seated beside Sheikh, Sophie Mirabella, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research has been condemned by the masses for her unheartwarming response of leaning well away from Sheikh while wearing a look on her nasty, pouty face that defies description really. So many people have read so much into Mirabella's and Combet's contrasting responses, but there's no denying the fact that both politicians belong to parties that have asylum-seeker policies that have been criticized as inhumane and serious breaches of human rights, which makes me wonder, is personal empathy such a big deal anyway, and how does it influence moral actions, if at all? Sure enough, Mirabella is a festering blight on humanity, but aren't most pollies arseholes in suits?

Prinz, Jesse (accessed 2012) Is Empathy Necessary for Morality? Jesse Prinz.

Prinz, Jesse (2009) Is Empathy Necessary for Morality? Forthcoming In Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie (eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford University Press. Philpapers.

Brooks, David (2011) The Limits of Empathy. New York Times. September 29th 2011.

Philosopher, economist and possible autist Adam Smith on empathy

"As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations."

That I agree with.

"Whatever is the passion which arises from any object in the person principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up, at the thought of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator."

That bit I'm not so sure about, but I find it interesting that Smith possibly identifies attention as a prerequisite for empathy. Those two quotes are from the book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part I, Section I, Chapter I by Adam Smith, published in 1759, quite a few years before the current fad of glorifying empathy as the psychological antidote to all of mankind's moral flaws and evil deeds.

The interesting thing about Smith is that he wrote at length about empathy and morality and he has also been identified by two professors of economics (Profs. Vernon Smith and Tyler Cowen) as possibly having been on the autistic spectrum. Debate that if you wish, but it is beyond dispute that Smith was in some ways quite a strange duck, which is true of many extremely smart people. 

About Adam Smith 
Cowen, Tyler (2010) The Age of the Infovore: Succeeding in the Information Economy. Plume, 2010.
[Apparently this is the same book as Create your own economy published in 2009 retitled. Vernon Smith, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Peter Mark Roget, Adam Smith, Hermann Hesse, Warren Buffett, Tim Page, Hikari Oe, Craig Newmark, Bram Cohen, Temple Grandin, Glenn Gould, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson are all discussed in this book with reference to the autistic spectrum] 

Cowen, Tyler (2009) Create your own economy: the path to prosperity in a disordered world. Dutton, 2009.

[Adam Smith and many other famous people discussed in this book with reference to the autistic spectrum. The author of this book is an economics professor.] 

Rae, John (1895) Life of Adam Smith. Macmillan & Co., 1985.
[see also Google Books for previews and various editions, no mention of AS or autism. Echopraxia episodes recounted on pages 157-158.]

Smith, Adam & Stewart, Dugald (editor) (1853) The theory of moral sentiments: or, An essay towards an analysis of the principles .... H. G. Bohn, 1853.
[The biographical essay about Smith by Stewart in this volume can be read through Google Books] 

Smith, Vernon L. (2009) Rationality in economics: constructivist and
ecological forms.
Cambridge University Press, 2009.

[In a footnote on page 19 Vernon Smith speculates that Adam Smith “may have had some of the earmarks of high-functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome”.] 

Smith, Vernon L. (2008) Discovery - a memoir. Author House, 2008.
[brief speculation about Adam Smith and autism on page 190]

Stewart, Dugald (1973) ACCOUNT of the LIFE AND WRITINGS of ADAM SMITH, LL.D. From the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh [Read by Mr Stewart, January 21, and March 18, 1793] - Adam Smith, Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence Vol. 3 Essays on Philosophical Subjects [1795]
Edition used: Essays on Philosophical Subjects, ed. W. P. D. Wightman and J. C. Bryce, vol. III of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982). Author: Adam Smith, Editor: J.C. Bryce, Editor: William P.D. Wightman
Part of: The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, 7 vols. 

["The more delicate and characteristical features of his mind, it is perhaps impossible to trace. That there were many peculiarities, both in his manners, and in his intellectual habits, was manifest to the most superficial observer; but although, to those who knew him, these peculiarities detracted nothing from the respect which his abilities commanded; and although, to his intimate friends, they added an inexpressible charm to his conversation, while they displayed, in the most interesting light, the artless simplicity of his heart; yet it would require a very skilful pencil to present them to the public eye."]