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 …


Why Good Writing Matters

January 9, 2013 at 10:56 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 120 Comments
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A hand about to write

Years ago now, I recall a senior scientist who’d read a piece of my work saying doubtfully, ‘It’s very well-written. Very literary.’ The implication was clear: ‘But is it good science?’

With hindsight, I can agree: that particular effort wasn’t ace. I can’t even remember its title, and the obscurity’s well-deserved. What did stick was my surprise that my colleague (undoubtedly a good scientist) saw good science and good writing as not just independent, but even perhaps opposed, since science is all about precision and language is irretrievably vague.

Years later, I still have a problem with this. Continue Reading Why Good Writing Matters…

Academic careers: survival of the fittest?

December 10, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Disability and a scientific career

And yes, I do mean physically fit, not fit as in RateMyProfessors’ hotness scale.

For a profession which involves so much sitting in meetings and staring at computer screens, academics are an amazingly fit and healthy bunch. I have figures from the UK which make the case. Take a look. Continue Reading Academic careers: survival of the fittest?…

Have you read The Swerve?

September 20, 2012 at 11:59 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Not directly neuro-relevant, but I’m taking a broad-church approach here, if that isn’t too provocative a metaphor. I’ve just finished reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve – really interesting history of ideas and a great read! It’s about a lost text by a controversial Roman writer, Lucretius, which was almost lost for ever, but amazingly survived to help ignite the Renaissance and the scientific revolution. Greenblatt’s description of the death of the mathematical genius Hypatia made my skin crawl, and he writes beautifully about the text, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), showing how its ideas are key to the ways physical scientists now think about the world. I was disappointed to finish it because there wasn’t any more. Does anyone know of other, similar books on the history of ideas?

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