Do you have IDS?

June 19, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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For information about IDS, UK politician Iain Duncan Smith, click here.

For information about IBS, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, click here.

What is IDS?

IDS (Irritating Doggerel Syndrome) is a common and hugely under-diagnosed phenomenon. It afflicts all ages, though it may be more common in older people. The causes of IDS are not well understood and there is currently no treatment. However, recent research has opened up some promising avenues for future therapy (see Treatment, below).


IDS is characterised by obtrusive automatic thoughts in response to the perception of certain words or phrases (‘triggers’). These ‘autoresponses’ are similar to those which occur in depression, but they are not necessarily either self-related or negative in content. They are however often linked to negative emotionality, social anxiety and externalising behaviours, though the latter tend to be context-dependent.

The content of autoresponses typically incorporates cultural references such as lines from songs, advertising slogans, political soundbites or poems. (Note that the term ‘doggerel’ should be interpreted not as a judgement of cultural value, but as a reflection of the persistent, involuntary, and often unwanted nature of the thoughts.)

Example (Patient A, male, 52): “My IDS is weather-related. Whenever there’s a thunderstorm, my head’s full of the chorus from that song Knock on Wood that Amii Stewart sang. “It’s like thunder, lightning, the way you love me is frightening.” I don’t even like the wretched song! Lightning sets me off with Queen’s music for Flash Gordon <Patient sings> “Flash! Ah-ah!” When the sun comes out, it’s, “The sun has got his hat on“. When it rains: “The rain it raineth on the just …”

“The trouble is, once it starts, the whole lot goes through my head, as much as I know of it anyhow. Sometimes I find myself saying the words aloud, which is embarrassing. Especially the second verse of “The sun has got his hat on” – it’s terribly incorrect. Thank God I only know that one line from the Amii Stewart song.”

Example (Patient B, female, 45): “I’ve had IDS for years but never knew what it was. It’s such a relief to know it’s a recognised syndrome, even if they can’t cure it yet. Mine’s triggered by all sorts of things. For birds, I get, “Toity poiple boids, a-sitting on da koib, a-choiping, an’ a-boiping, an’ eating doity woims”. For buses, “What is it that roareth thus? Can it be a motor bus?” It does get in the way, because it’s hard to stop until you’ve said the thing through. And you have to be careful not to say it out loud.”

Example (Patient C, male, 33): “I’ve had severe IDS as long as I can remember. I was exposed to a lot of T.S. Eliot as a child, my dad loved his stuff. Not that Eliot wrote doggerel, but you can get a bit cheesed off with anything if it won’t stop. My friends are used to me suggesting we do things with, “Let us go then, you and I,” but it can be awkward with strangers – I’ve been known to greet random women with, “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree!” My worst trigger is April. “April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land …” The Waste Land>.


There is little research into IDS, but some studies have suggested that it is associated with education, cultural consumption, and with having wider social and cultural networks. Individual factors linked to IDS include the personality factor ‘Openness to Experience’, working in a language-related profession such as academia, and higher-than-average scores on tests of verbal intelligence and fluency. Some IDS patients are also particularly susceptible to ‘ear-worms’ – catchy tunes – but not all. Exposure to bad poetry, especially in youth and young adulthood, is a well-established risk factor. Parental occupation has also been linked to IDS, with children of writers, teachers and academics particularly at risk.


It is thought that IDS involves over-activation of the brain’s semantic networks. Neuroimaging studies show activation of parietal and temporal brain areas involved in processing language and emotion. There are two major hypotheses of how IDS develops. Some researchers have suggested that the link between trigger and autoresponse is abnormally strengthened by, for example, concurrent strong emotion (the ‘Single Hit’ hypothesis). Others propose a more gradual formation, with weaker positive reinforcement repeatedly serving to strengthen the link (the ‘Slow Burn’ hypothesis). Most studies agree that positive, rather than negative, reinforcement is more likely to be involved in IDS.


There is no current treatment for IDS. Studies are underway into whether methods developed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder may be effective. These involve altering intrusive memories, either with drugs, repetitive brain stimulation, or – as a last resort – deep brain stimulation. Anecdotally, some patients have found hypnosis helpful.

In the 1960s it was thought that IDS could be treated with aversion therapy: associating the trigger word with an alternative, highly unpleasant experience such as electric shock. However, this line of research was discontinued, on ethical grounds after some patients suffered serious side-effects, such as anxiety and psychosis.

In short, insufficient evidence currently exists to recommend any of these treatments.


Much clinical attention has therefore focused on prevention, rather than cure. Current guidelines for IDS patients, and for parents wishing to reduce the risk of IDS in their children, are as follows:

  • Parents should refrain from teaching their children poetry, or rewarding them if they recite it. Access to poetry books should be restricted. In many households this will already be the case, but Internet access should also be monitored.
  • Access to pre-2000 popular music should be restricted. (Much of the more recent music in this genre is entirely concerned with dance and rhythm, so the words tend to be inaudible or unmemorable, posing less of a risk for IDS.)
  • Listening to classical music should be encouraged, as any words are often foreign, or complicated, and are thus less easily remembered.
  • Media channels which carry advertising should be avoided. Any temporary discomfort will be offset by the increase in viewing quality.
  • People with severe IDS should be quarantined where possible, as the condition can be highly contagious.
  • If avoidance is not possible, at least try not to smile when someone with IDS says something bizarre. It only makes them worse.



In which I fail to break a habit …

May 29, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Old computer

Alas, no interweb!

Owing to a technical fault, I have only just got back online. Yes, from Sunday to this morning I had no Internet access. No email, no Twitter, no Skype. No BBC news website, no science news updates. No iPlayer to download programmes I then forget, or don’t have time, to watch. No instant fact-check or query-satisfaction or just another look at the inbox.

I couldn’t even find out whether my niece’s hamster, boarded out while the family go on a proper holiday, can be safely left alone with a piece of cucumber, or should be restricted to carrot.

I exaggerate somewhat, because on Tuesday morning — Monday was a Bank Holiday here — a friend went back to work with a list of things to check. Of course, a good person shouldn’t be using work time to look up hamster diets. Then again, in my book a good person shouldn’t be using weekends, evenings, and national holidays for work, yet I’ve never heard the friend’s employers complaining. So they can put up with a little extramural research. (With such small steps is the path to corruption taken, but until my friend’s employers stop expecting apparently endless working hours, I’ll stay corrupt.)

I work at home. And BT take their bank holidays seriously, so they couldn’t possibly do anything about the problem for almost a whole working week. Or so they said. They sent me an email. I know this because the friend checked — another thing you’re not supposed to do. The email told me that they were investigating the problem. That’d be the same problem which stopped me checking email … at least, officially.


To be fair, they sent a “We know you’ve got a problem” text on Sunday. Then an engineer turned up, completely unannounced, this morning, just as I was about to brave the local library in a desperate hunt for internet facilities. Hey ho. They did fix the problem. We’ve stuck with BT for the reason Churchill recommended democracy: other telecoms firms have always looked worse. I’ll stay with that judgement for now.

There’s been one glorious upside to all this. I’m doing background research for a new book, and it hasn’t taken long to discover that the literature I ought to know about is catastrophically massive. Every week far more new articles come out than I can possibly read, and I’d already built up a to-do list of over 500 which I really ought to do something about. There’s no way this is going to happen, but at least this week I’ve started catching up on some of the backlog: ruthless weeding’s got it down to around 460.

People who don’t run internet providers or telecoms companies often say cutting down on internet use makes you more productive, happier — all the things you’re supposed to be when you’re not consuming news, being bullied by capitalism, chasing links across the web, and being distracted by cybertrivia. In four days, I can only hint at increased productivity, but maybe I should look into voluntarily restricting my internet access. Anyone know a good freeware programme that does this?

Meanwhile, once this blog post’s up, I’m disconnecting once again. Honest.

So, enormous heap of biochemistry papers, it’s just you and me now.


A link, a link, my kingdom for a link …


“Revolutionary!” “Controversial!” What media talk about science really means

October 14, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Like science itself, mainstream media reporting of scientific findings can be confusing, not least because ordinary words are given specialised meanings. To help the perplexed, here’s a light-hearted gloss of some of the commonest terms used by media folk to talk about science and scientists.


“Expert” – knows more than we do.

“A leading …” – we’ve heard of this person (and we can barely spell their research discipline), so they must be important.

“Professor” – can mean either a) a professor or b) anyone with a doctorate.

“Scientists believe …” – the ones we asked said …

“X says [something controversial]” – and so they did, with a little judicious editing. Whaddya mean, out of context?

“New” – almost certainly not, but if even the researchers aren’t thorough about their literature searches, you can’t expect us media types to know about previous work. We can barely remember what happened yesterday.

“Extraordinary” – it sounded weird to us (but then, so does most of this science stuff).

“Important” – we can see how this might have something to do with the real world.

“Groundbreaking” – it’s in Nature, Science, or PNAS. Or, it’s female, disabled, or ethnic minority.

“Breakthrough” – something useful may possibly result from this at some point in the future.

“Landmark” – every scientist we asked, the press release, and the journal’s editorial all said this might make a difference.

“Revolutionary” – contradicts something said by somebody else.

“Controversial” – we suspect the only researchers who think this are the study’s authors, but hey, it’s eye-catching.

“A study suggests” – even we recognize that this one’s so provisional we need to say so.

“Abstract” – we haven’t a clue what this means, let alone if it’s any practical use.

“Theoretical” – see Abstract.

“Challenging” – we have no idea what they were banging on about.

“Developing” – we’re pretty sure they haven’t either.

“Theory” – anything more than a guess, put forward by a scientist.

“Hypothesis” – an irate scientist complained about how we misused the word theory.

“Anecdote” – a term of abuse used by scientists to complain about the media. We prefer to see anecdotes as baby datapoints.

“X causes Y” – X has been linked Y to by some statistical method. You don’t want to know the details, do you? Good.

“Correlated with” – a patient scientist explained to us that correlation is not causation, so now we can show off.

“X doubles the risk of Y (no baseline risk given)” – trust us, we’re headline-writers. And we’re not telling you what the original risk was because it’s so tiny that you’d realise this is a total non-story.

“X doubles the risk of Y (baseline given)” – we know you can’t make any sense of this statement without knowing what was doubled, so we’ve fed you the number. What we haven’t told you is that there are probably so many other factors causing Y that you don’t need to panic over X, at least until you’ve stopped smoking, changed your diet, done more exercise, moved to somewhere less polluted, and stopped worrying about all the crap in the media.

“A gene for X” – this gene produces a protein which may have some small influence on something in the body which eventually has something to do with X.

“Brain regions associated with X” – these brain regions seemed to be doing something when the few people tested in the study were X-ing, so they may have something to do with X. They’ve also been associated with lots of other things, but we like to keep the story clear and simple.

“Brain activity” – some complex statistical measure which some specialised research-folk think may be quite highly correlated with changes in brain cells, and a lot more less specialised folk think may have something to do with the mind, whatever the hell that is.

“Neurologist” – anyone who does anything related to actual brains (i.e. not a psychologist).

“Neuroscientist” – any person working on brains who’s explained to us that they’re not a neurologist.

“Remarkable” – a scientist who shows signs of being successful despite being a woman.

“Brilliant” – this guy’s a better self-publicist than most of his colleagues.

“Maverick” – weird even by scientific standards, and quite likely to be wrong.

“Confident” – probably a bully, and even more likely to be wrong.

“A lone voice” – the probability of wrongness is close to 1.

“Professor X could not be contacted …” – Professor X has had dealings with the media before.

“Fluent communicator” – wow, a scientist who doesn’t just stare at their feet!

“Engaging communicator” – this one smiles!

“Brilliant communicator” – this one can talk and they’re not bad-looking, for a geek.

“Difficult” – we suspect this one has autism.

“Dedicated” – you really chose to spend your career doing that?

“Committed” – it’s ridiculous how seriously you take this stuff.


So you want to be a university manager?

October 1, 2013 at 11:12 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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So you want to be a university manager? You’ve come to the right place! This short guide is all you’ll ever need to make a success of your new role as a steersperson of one of our great institutions of learning. Once you’ve worked through the Five Key Areas, and memorised the Six Key Messages, you’ll be ready and raring to set out on your new, exciting career path.

In fact, if you’ve got any other management guides (OMGs), you can chuck them in the garbage can right now. You’re a university manager (UM). The usual rules of management don’t apply to you.

That’s because OMGs are all about how to manage normal people. But being a UM – the privileged state of UMhood, as UMs like to think of it – isn’t about managing normal people. It’s about managing academics.

Key Message 0: Academics are not normal people.

In any management guide, there are five Key Areas you need to think about: Morale, Incentives, Listening, Respect, and Communicating. This guide will help you improve your managerial practice in all five areas. We’ll start with the slippery concept of staff morale.

Key Area 1: Morale

OMGs will tell you that good management needs to focus on staff morale. This is nonsense. Academics pride themselves on being rational thinkers. The scientists among them, especially the economists, will give you a useful tip: they don’t work with anything they can’t measure. Neither should you!

Staff morale is notoriously hard to measure. That’s because it’s touchy-feely, not rational. Even mentioning morale, let alone trying to improve it, will upset your more autistic academics, provoke the cynical ones, and make all of them less likely to read your emails. Besides, most academics are left-wing contrarians who don’t want their morale improved, because then they might have to approve of ‘the System’.

This is why you can’t just measure staff morale by asking the staff.

Important Note:  Student morale is another matter, because students haven’t been at your institution long enough to turn into academics. So student morale can be measured by asking the students. As you know, it is measured, and it matters for funding. Staff morale isn’t, and doesn’t. So if you’re keen on morale, focus on the customers who pay your salary, not the people who take up too much of your time already.

Key Message 1: Leave academics’ morale to academics. They’re smart, aren’t they? They can figure it out.

Key Area 2: Incentives

OMGs say that a good manager needs to reward staff. They often quote research which is supposed to show that people respond better to positive incentives (rewards) than to negative ones (punishments).

Important note:  ‘Reward’ doesn’t necessarily mean money – which is just as well, since your institution probably doesn’t have any. It means social rewards. A social reward can be anything from a smile, an honourable mention at a departmental meeting, or praise in an annual review, right through to rewards that will actually cost you: biscuits for committees, free drinks, or a departmental party.

Ignore the temptation to be nice. Academics are smart and will see through your attempts to conciliate them. Negative incentives are much more effective. Some UMs employ both, but carefully: an initial brief commendation followed by a long list of criticisms. Academics pride themselves on seeing both sides of an argument, and this move will make them feel uncomfortable about actively hating their UM.

Key Message 2: Never praise an academic if you can avoid it.

Key Area 3: Listening

OMGs say that a good manager is one who listens to staff, walking the floors, knocking on doors, inviting open, informal communication.

With academics? Are you joking, OMG? Given half a chance, most of these people would talk for hours on their specialist subject. You don’t have time for that.

Besides, many academics are introverts who are afraid of human contact. They’re also hugely overworked. They’re not going to thank you for coming and bothering them, especially as their natural left-wing cynicism leads them to believe you won’t pay any attention to what you hear.

For the same reasons, there’s no point encouraging social occasions, or, if they do take place, attending them.

Unfortunately, the idea that managers should listen has gained ground in recent years. So a good UM will occasionally schedule ‘listening forums’. If you plan to do this, make sure the setting is formal and that there are plenty of senior academics present. And be careful not to make any clear statements about how – or whether – the information you get will be processed at higher levels. (Promises are hostages.) That way you’ll deter people from making complaints that you might have to do something about.

Key Message 3: Academics don’t want to be listened to. They want to be left alone. If they were that social, they wouldn’t be academics.

Key Area 4: Respect

It’s a favourite OMG mantra: respect your staff.

Why? If they were worth respecting, they wouldn’t be academics. They’d be managers, like you, earning your salary. These people are grunts. They wouldn’t last an hour in the real world.

On the other hand, it is important that they respect you.

Some management theorists insist that respect is gained by soft skills: emotional intelligence, sociability, and so on. For normal people, this may be true, but remember: as an UM, you’re dealing with academics. They’re most at ease with abstractions, so make yourself an abstraction! Your people will respect you more if they hardly ever see you. At the same time, you need to make them feel that a word from you could ruin their future.

UMhood isn’t about soft soap. It’s about power.

Key Message 4: Respect, in academia, should flow one way only: from the bottom to the top.

Key Area 5: Communicating

OMGs will tell you that good communication is essential to successful management. Let’s unpack that a little.

Management jargon is often sneered at by people who say that language should be about communication. These people are idiots. They don’t understand what management jargon is for.

Besides, academics love jargon. For them to complain about your jargon is pure hypocrisy!

Remember, most of your institution’s recent funding increases have been spent on either your salary or your new office, not on hiring more academics. Academics know this. They see the UM as the enemy. They are also ideologically indoctrinated to perceive ‘the System’, and anyone who supports it, as evil.

You can’t sweet-talk these people. As that great management theorist Niccolo Machiavelli said, your only option is to crush them before they crush you.

Management language is about two things: making yourself look powerful, and making yourself look efficient. It’s a weapon in the fight all UMs have to fight, every hour of every day. The language you use is the headlock by which you subdue your staff.

Efficiency is why you’ll hear managers saying ‘actioning’ instead of ‘putting into action’, ‘progressing’ instead of ‘making progress’, and ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’. Less syllables = more efficient.

Power is why a smart UM will often appear to act inconsistently. If you’re inconsistent, you’re unpredictable, and that makes people uncertain. As they get more anxious, they see you as more powerful.

Important note:  Inconsistency also works with the OMG notion that managers should immerse themselves in details. You can’t possibly get your head round all the details of managing a set of academics, so don’t kill yourself trying. Instead, make sure you master a few details efficiently. That way, you’ll be able to make excellent use of random micromanagement.

A good UM is a master of this art. By micromanaging only a few aspects of your institution’s systems, you can ignore the constraints which, in practice, prevent the kind of changes you demand from actually happening. Then you can criticise the academics for not making those changes. Meanwhile, you display a hopelessly disorganised grasp of other institutional processes. This reminds your staff that life isn’t fair, thus lowering their expectations to realistic levels.

Remember, people who are depressed often slide into learned helplessness, so a depressed academic is likely to be an inert academic. And inert academics are much, much easier to manage.

Key Message 5: Management jargon is there for good reason. Use it well.

Congratulations! You’ve now reached the end of the only guide you’ll ever need to being a university manager.

That’s it. That’s all you need to know.

The path to UMhood lies before you. Go for it!

And remember, with great power comes …

Most OMGs would end that sentence with a boring old cliché: ‘great responsibility’. Not this guide. As an UM, you’ll learn to end it with ‘greater salary’. Enjoy!

A pronunciation guide to great men (and the obligatory token woman)

April 3, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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If you’re like me, when you’re reading about someone it helps to know how their name’s pronounced. Just seeing it on the page isn’t enough; there’s always that slight mental hiccup as your inner voice tries to say the word, and fails.

And for some of the great names who’ve shaped the history of Western thinking (see the slideshow below), pronunciation ain’t so easy to figure from the letter mix. If you’re learning about them in lectures and seminars, well and good, but what if your first acquaintance is purely visual?

To help out, and maybe raise a smile along the way, I’ve done a little guide to some of the trickiest stars of philosophy, psychology and literary theory. If there are other names, from other disciplines, whom you’d like to see included, let me know!

Continue Reading A pronunciation guide to great men (and the obligatory token woman)…

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