PBS on outsider artist Henry Darger

darger_image.jpgHenry Darger was only known as a janitor for the majority of his life, until it was discovered, shortly before his death, that he had been working on an a 15,000 page manuscript since the age of 19.

PBS has put a website up to accompany a TV programme about Darger, with commentaries, audio, video and images of Darger’s paintings.

His manuscript, entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, contained an epic story and several hundred water colour illustrations.

The story is fantastic, bizarre and disturbing and recounts the tale of an ongoing and sometimes graphically bloody war between the Vivian Girls, sometimes aided by winged creatures called the Blengens, against child slavery imposed by the Glandelinians.

Darger was diagnosed with a mental illness in his youth, although his diagnosis was reportedly ‘masturbation’, which was thought by some doctors at the time to cause madness (not an uncommon belief throughout history).

It’s not clear whether this was thought to signify the likely cause of an obvious mental illness, or whether this was considered reason enough to justify a clinical diagnosis.

He is considered one of the most important of the ‘outsider artists‘, people who have had no formal training or contact with the mainstream art world, but produce highly regarded works.

Many significant outsider artists, such as Adolf Wölfli, were diagnosed as mentally ill or had experience of serious mental distress.

Link to PBS website ‘In the Realms of the Unreal’.
Link to Wikipedia page on Darger, with links to online galleries.

An embryonic science

fetus.jpgWhat were you doing for the 38 weeks before you were born? A hell of a lot actually, according to Professor Peter Hepper at Queen’s University, Belfast, who’s written about the nascent field of fetal psychology in the latest issue of The Psychologist magazine.

The article is packed full of fascinating observations including the fact that the fetus demonstrates handedness by 10 weeks of gestation – before any signs of hemispheric asymmetry, thus suggesting a predilection for movements on one side might lead to brain lateralisation, rather than the other way around.

Hepper also mentions the controversy surrounding whether or not the fetus feels pain. Of course it can’t be asked, but by 23 weeks gestation, the fetus does show a biochemical stress response to a needle puncture (during a blood transfusion), which suggests it hurt.

Doctors have no way of directly assessing the brain function of a fetus, but advances in fetal psychology mean aberrant patterns of behaviour can increasingly be used to identify neural problems the fetus may have.

The article is locked to subscribers but will be freely available after six months.

Link to The Visible Embryo
Link to videos of the fetus

BBC Material World on Chloroform

ChloroformMask.jpgBBC Radio 4 science programme Material World investigates the science and history of chloroform, one of the the original anesthetics, first synthesised in 1831.

Linda Stratmann, author of Chloroform: The Quest for Oblivion, and clinical toxicologist Professor John Henry, discuss its accidental discovery, early recreational popularity, original medical uses, how it is thought to work, and, of course, its reputation as a knock-out agent for the criminal underworld.

The section on chloroform starts 13 minutes into the programme, which is archived as a realaudio stream.

Link to programme webpage.
Realudio archive of programme.

Francis Crick has left the building

roses.jpgThe final paper of the late DNA pioneer and consciousness researcher Francis Crick has been published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Written with his collaborator Christof Koch, it concerns a little known part of the brain called the claustrum. The claustrum is a thin sheet of grey matter that is parallel to and below part of the cortex, as illustrated by images from Crick’s paper here.

Crick and Koch argue that the claustrum is probably connected to all of the cortex, and has a significant role in emotion, suggesting it may be involved in the ‘binding’ of emotion and the senses into a single conscious experience.

They give the example of holding a rose, smelling its fragrance, seeing its red petals and feeling the texture of its stem, now made more poignant by Crick’s passing.

How the brain achieves this (known as the binding problem) is one of the great problems of consciousness research.

Several researchers have argued, most notably biologist Gerald Edelman, that consciousness arises from ‘maps’ of neural activity distributed across the brain.

The co-ordination of this distributed neural activity is something that Crick and Koch aim to explain in their paper, proposing that the claustrum may be the mesh that connects disparate brain areas.

PDF of paper ‘What is the function of the claustrum?’ by Crick and Koch.
Link to summary from The Economist.
Link to press-release from the Royal Society.

How culture shapes illness


Media analysis magazine Stay Free! has an interview with medical historian Edward Shorter on how psychiatric symptoms have changed over the years, showing, he claims, how we subconsciously express culturally acceptable distress.

The interview was conducted in June 2003, which I missed it at the time, but Shorter’s work is usually too good to pass up when you get the chance.

Author of the acclaimed A History of Psychiatry, he is not easily pigeon-holed into the simple labels usually given to those who pitch into the psychiatry debate.

Although a strong believer in the reality of mental illness, he presents evidence for the influence of culture on how symptoms express themselves, and how doctors’ expectations affect what they diagnose and treat.

In contrast to the usual tempered and cautious claims made by academics, he is not afraid to state his point of view in clear terms, making provocative points, even if you don’t agree with him.

STAY FREE!: You wrote about how some of the most fashionable people have the most cutting edge symptoms, the ones that are most medically up to date. Can you give me an example?

SHORTER: If we’re talking about today, new illnesses appear first among educated people simply because they are more plugged into medical media. These middle- and upper-class people are the first to begin monitoring themselves or their children for evidence of peanut-butter allergies or excessive tiredness. It is from these relatively small social groups that the symptoms radiate out.

Shorter reflects a growing trend in understanding the social dimensions of psychopathology.

Anthropologist Roland Littlewood’s Pathologies of the West, and sociologist Robert Bartholomew’s Exotic Deviance both examine the issue from different angles with refreshing insight.

Link to interview with Edward Shorter from Stay Free! magazine.
Link to article ‘Protean nature of mass sociogenic illness: From possessed nuns to chemical and biological terrorism fears’ from the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Mixing Memory

A recent discovery of mine is the Mixing Memory blog that is choc-full of well written, carefully referenced posts about psychology and neuroscience.

A couple of my recent favourites include a post about the neuroscience of morality and one discussing racial attitudes and how they’re reflected in the brain.

Chris, the blog’s maintainer, has even set up an email list to run a cognitive science reading group. Enjoy!

Link to Mixing Memory.

Confusing symbols and reality

lego_block.jpgThe latest Scientific American discusses the development of symbolic thinking in children, in an article by child psychologist Judy DeLoache.

Professor DeLoache was intrigued as to why young children sometimes try and pick up or use items in pictures, or fail to make sense of miniature objects – an error she calls ‘symbol confusion’:

Pictures are not the only source of symbol confusion for very young children. For many years, my colleagues and students and I watched toddlers come into the lab and try to sit down on the tiny chair from the scale model – much to the astonishment of all present. At home, Uttal and Rosengren had also observed their own daughters trying to lie down in a doll’s bed or get into a miniature toy car. Intrigued by these remarkable behaviors that were not mentioned in any of the scientific literature we examined, we decided to study them.

DeLoache thinks that ‘scale errors’ involve a failure of dual representation: children cannot maintain the distinction between a symbol and what it refers to.

To help children solve this problem, the researchers told the children they had a ‘shrinking machine’, that replaced toys with miniature versions.

When children were told that the toy had been shrunk, they no longer needed to represent it as a symbol of another object, they simply assumed it was the same object, and no longer made ‘symbol confusion’ errors.

This work has had important legal implications, as young children giving evidence in cases of abuse are often given dolls – symbolic representations of themselves – and asked to describe or point out what happened.

Knowing at what age children are likely to make best use of this technique might be essential in obtaining reliable evidence.

Link to Scientific American article ‘Mindful of Symbols’.