Reframing mental illness

mental_health_page.jpgA recently concluded confererence at London’s Institute of Psychiatry has been debating the classification and boundaries of mental illness and has been challenging the traditional views of psychiatric medicine.

There have been longstanding critics of psychiatry, notably people like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, who have argued that the medical concepts of mental illness are flawed, or that they are used to unjustly silence society’s outsiders.

More recently, psychiatric classification, and particularly the separation of mental disorder into diagnoses such as ‘schizophrenia‘ and ‘bipolar disorder‘ have been challenged by mainstream psychiatrists on the basis of scientific discoveries.

For example, an editorial in May’s British Journal of Psychiatry argued that that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are on a continuum, based on genetic evidence that is increasingly showing that similar genes are found in people who receive either diagnosis.

Other criticisms, echoed at the recent London conference, have been based on the coherence of psychiatric definitions and how well they reflect the diverse experiences of people who live through mental distress.

The conference discussed how understanding the first-person conscious experience of mental illness (as opposed to, or in combination with, scientific measures) can make for a more accurate understanding, and hopefully, treatments for those in need.

This approach is known as phenomenology and was championed by a number of continental philosophers who argued that science will only ever give a partial explanation because objective measures always leave something of the ‘lived experience’ missing.

One increasingly popular view of psychosis, the reality-bending mental state that can involve hallucinations and delusions, suggests that it is not an all or nothing state as psychiatric diagnosis suggests, but a range of experiences that are distributed throughout the population.

Recent studies have typically reported that about 10-11% of the general population score about the average of psychotic patients in psychiatric wards, on measures of unusual thinking or perceptual distortion, despite not needing psychiatric help or becoming significantly distressed or disabled.

Link to details of the recent conference on ‘Phenomenology and Psychiatry for the 21st Century’.
Link to BBC News on the conference and the boundaries of madness.

The robots are coming

sexyrobot.jpgThe Turing Test is where a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with two other parties, one a human and the other a machine, if the judge cannot reliably tell which is which, then the machine has passed and is deemed intelligent. Sex, it seems, turns the Turing Test on its head.

Blogger Jason Striegel found out that someone had advertised his instant messager address as belonging to a dirty-talking software sex bot. Frustratingly, no-one believed him when he protested his humanity.

the people who contacted me fell into one of two camps: people who thought they were contacting a celebrity and people who thought they were contacting a robot. As I talked to more and more of these folks, I began to discover something really disturbing about myself:

I consistently fail to be perceived as human.

fratburger86: hey. so you’re a sex bot?
jmstriegel: umm, no. who the hell are you?
fratburger86: yeah you are! i found your im online
jmstriegel: that’s fine and all, but i’m pretty sure you have me confused with someone else.
fratburger86: just a normal chat bot then?
jmstriegel: nope. i’m human
fratburger86: ok. sure.

jmstriegel: seriously, i think you want to talk to someone else.
fratburger86: i knew it!!!
fratburger86: you are totally a robot!

In contrast, real-life sex bot software Jenny18 consistently fools chat-room users who seem oblivious to the fact that she is nothing more than a few hundred lines of code, hacked from the original simulated chat software ELIZA, designed to repeat set phrases and reflect simple sentences back to the user.

jenny18: u r getting me hot =)
GoldenBoy2222: Ride me
jenny18: mmm i want 2 ride you..
GoldenBoy2222: yeah… of course
jenny18: MMmmm.. yes!
GoldenBoy2222: What r ur measures?
jenny18: yep.
GoldenBoy2222: yeah… What r ur measures?
jenny18: yep.
GoldenBoy2222: Say… What r ur measures?
jenny18: i bet lol
GoldenBoy2222: yes? An what r ur measures?
jenny18: mm hmm?
GoldenBoy2222: Good…

The archives of chat sessions contain many more examples of humans exciting themselves at Jenny18’s dirty, nonsensical (and definitely not safe for work) sexy chatter.

Link to ‘How I failed the Turing test’.
Link to Jenny18 description and chat archives.

Noel Sharkey on robot intelligence

noel_sharkey.jpgABC Radio’s In Conversation has an interview with cognitive scientist and AI researcher Professor Noel Sharkey who discusses his life, his work and the creation of robot intelligence:

“Noel Sharkey left school at 15, became a singer and took substances. It was while reflecting on the effects of an acid trip (he had taken LSD) that he began wondering about the limits of the mind. Since then he has explored the nature of machine intelligence, experimented with robotic evolution and mused on what kind of thinking is beyond computers. Professor Sharkey, from the University of Sheffield, is here for National Science Week.”

Realaudio of interview.
Link to In Conversation website.

Tribute to neuropsychology pioneer David Marr

visual_swirl.jpgCognitive science site Mixing Memory has a tribute to David Marr, a pioneer in understanding visual perception, and in combining neurological and psychological levels of explanation, who died tragically early at the age of 35.

Marr wanted to understand how the brain could start with two-dimensional arrays of light spots on the retina and subsequently produce a rich three-dimensional visual experience.

He argued that the final visual experience is produced by a series of computations that extract important information, such as edges, object groupings and depth information, from basic visual data.

Crucially, he also gave the mathematical procedures, based on an understanding of the biology of the visual system, that might perform these operations.

As well as producing one of the most influential theories of vision, he also influenced how neuroscientists and psychologists think about how the brain works. He proposed that the biology of the brain serves to process information, and that brain cells can be modelled with accurate computational models.

Marr died of leukemia at the age of 35, and produced his most influential work (the book Vision) in the knowledge he had little time left to complete it.

It was published two years after his death in 1982 and is prefaced by the statement “This book is meant to be enjoyed”.

Link to article on Mixing Memory (including link to Marr’s work)
Link to biography of Marr.

Thumbs down to baby signing

baby.jpgLast Tuesday‚Äôs Independent carried a feature by Lucy Cavendish, mother of one-year-old Jerry, on ‚Äòbaby signing‚Äô: the idea that teaching and communicating with your (hearing) pre-linguistic child via sign language speeds their language development, enhances their IQ and allows them to communicate with you before they can talk. The UK launch of leading baby-signer Joseph Garcia‚Äôs new book also spawned a similar feature in the Guardian, in July, by Lucy Atkins, who also happens to have a baby. The baby signing idea has apparently taken the US by storm, and now, in time-houroured fashion, has come over here to Britain where we’ve got over 100 baby signing classes of our own.

From reading the movement’s UK website, I gather the idea is that babies have some latent linguistic ability before their vocal chords have developed, which they can tap into using sign.

In the spirit of the Guardian’s Bad Science column I did some database searches on Joseph Garcia and he doesn’t seem to have published any research on baby signing, at least not since 1985.

However, the baby signing website says there’s masses of research and cites a load of articles in support of its claims. Most of the peer-reviewed research that’s directly relevant (for example see free PDF here) seems to have been conducted by California based psychologists Drs Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. Have they got a vested interest? Well, they’ve published over 10 popular books on the subject between them!

In 2003 the Royal College of Speech and Language therapists issued a statement that read ‚Äúit is not necessary for parents to learn formal signing such as British Sign Language for children with no identified risk of speech and language development‚Ķ The College is concerned that the use of signing does not replace/take priority over the need for parents to talk to their children”.

2005-09-02 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:


Brain areas associated with pleasure and anxiety are activated when assessing risk.

Early research suggests that emotion can increase the risk of an attack in people with asthma.

The first book on vetinary psychiatry is published.

Safety Smock‘ – especially designed clothes for preventing suicide (nicked from BoingBoing).

More on Edinburgh University’s Koestler Parapsychology Unit, this time from The Guardian.

Computer scientists devise algorithm to ‘learn’ languages unaided.

Circadiana discusses the interaction between sleep cycles and Bipolar disorder.

Iron Maiden’s d√©j√† vu

eddie-figure-somewhere-l.jpgWhilst looking for an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry I came across this curious letter, noting an accurate description of déjà vu in the lyrics of an Iron Maiden song.

Sir: Sno, Linszen and De Jonge have <a href="reviewed a number of descriptions of d√©j√† vu in poetry and literature (Journal, April 1992, 160, 511-518). There is another particularly striking example. It is the song “D√©j√† vu” by Dave Murray and Steve Harris (1986) from the album Somewhere in Time by the rock group Iron Maiden. It vividly illustrates many of the points made by Sno et al in their article. The song gives an accurate phenomenological description of d√©j√† vu. It implicitly suggests reincarnation as an explanation and it refers explicitly to precognition (“And you know what’s coming next”) and to feelings of depersonalisation (“And you feel that this moment in time is surreal”). The full lyrics are reproduced here with the kind permission of Iron Maiden Publishing (Overseas) Ltd, administered by Zomba Musica Publishers Ltd.

When you see familiar faces
But you can’t remember where they’re from
Could you be wrong?

When you’ve been particular places
That you know you’ve never seen before
Can you be sure?

‘Cause you know this has happened before
And you know that this moment in time is for real
And you know when you feel déjà vu.

Feels like I’ve been here before (rpt. four times)

Ever had a conversation
That you realise you’ve had before
Isn’t it strange?

Have you ever talked to someone
And you feel you know what’s coming next
It feel pre-arranged.

‘Cause you know that you’ve heard it before
And you feel that this moment in time is surreal
‘Cause you know when you feel d√©j√† vu


Sno et al suggest that psychiatrists “should be encouraged to overstep the limits of psychiatric literature and read literary prose and poetry as well” because “novelists and poets excel in [the] ability to depict subjective experiences”. While agreeing with this point of view, I would go further. Literature and art are capable of an emotional response in the person who experiences them. This can lead to a far deeper empathic or subjective understanding of an experience than is possible from a scientific description. Wide reading and exposure to the arts enables us to share, if only partially and in completely, the experience of our patients. We can understand them better, not just at an intellectual level, but as people like ourselves.

Bill Plummer
Mental Health Advice Centre, Folkstone, Kent.

Rock on Dr Plummer. Even more intriguingly, the following letter in the same issue is about hypnotised lobsters, but I think that will have to wait until another time.

Link to letter’s PubMed entry.