Asylum from the modern world

prison_cage.jpgPBS have put an award winning documentary about the number of mentally ill people in America’s prisons online.

The programme recently won the Grand Prize in the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards and asks difficult questions about why so many people with severe mental illness are inmates in the US prison system.

Fewer than 55,000 Americans currently receive treatment in psychiatric hospitals. Meanwhile, almost 10 times that number — nearly 500,000 — mentally ill men and women are serving time in U.S. jails and prisons. As sheriffs and prison wardens become the unexpected and often ill-equipped caretakers of this burgeoning population, they raise a troubling new concern: Have America’s jails and prisons become its new asylums?

The programme makes an interesting contrast to Diary Written in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum written in 1885 by Mary Huestis Pengilly, and now available online as a Project Gutenberg EBook.

Pengilly describes the experience of being treated like a prisoner in the asylum, which used handcuffs and restraints for the ‘patients’ resident there.

While a century ago, asylums were virtually prisons, it seems increasingly, that prisons are now becoming asylums.

Link to PBS show The New Asylums.
Link to Diary Written in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum (via Dana Leighton).

Psyche on consciousness and self-representation

sculpture_face.jpgA new issue of respected online consciousness journal Psyche has just been published with a special issue on self-representation and consciousness.

The issue debates the idea that mental states are only conscious when they are structured both to represent a particular object of thought and themselves.

Take the ticking of a clock. The brain will support a mental representation of this sound, even when you’re not conscious of it.

The self-representation hypothesis argues that for the ticking to be consciously available, the mental representation must ‘describe’ both the sound, and itself (“I’m a mental state of a ticking clock”) so the rest of the conscious mind can access and manipulate it.

However, some have argued that this theory requires an infinite number of descriptions and redescriptions and so can’t be plausible.

The various articles in the issue are written by some of the most active philosophers of mind and make for fascinating reading.

By the way, the use of ‘iff’ in the introduction is not a typo, it’s a shorthand used by philosophers for if and only if.

Link to Psyche journal.
pdf of introduction to special issue.

Pentagon memo lists homosexuality as mental disorder

According to a news report from NBC, it seems the Pentagon are still stuck way back in 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders:

WASHINGTON – A Pentagon document classifies homosexuality as a mental disorder, decades after mental health experts abandoned that position.

The document outlines retirement or other discharge policies for service members with physical disabilities, and in a section on defects lists homosexuality alongside mental retardation and personality disorders.

Link to article ‘Pentagon memo: Homosexuality a disorder’ (via BB).

The science of empathy

baby_foot_in_hand.jpgThe Times recently published a curious article on the science of empathy after a case where an eight year-old girl broke her leg and several drivers apparently drove past without caring to stop and help.

Apart from the grating “empathy has a physical location” (the spirit of phrenology lives on…) it’s a brief but interesting look at some of the emerging research into empathy, although doesn’t do a great job of tying it together into a coherent overview.

For those wanting a more in-depth (and more accurate) look at the neuroscience of empathy, a 2003 review article (pdf) by Drs Jean Decety and Philip Jackson is a fantastic four-page romp through the recent research in the area.

Link to article ‘In a sorry state of mind’.
Link to Decety and Jackson article on empathy.

Kandinsky’s roaring colours

KadinskyCompositionVII.jpgThe Telegraph has an article on an upcoming exhibition at London’s Tate Modern gallery that shows how Kandinsky used his synaesthesia to create the world’s first truly abstract paintings.

Kandinsky discovered his synaesthesia at a performance of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin in Moscow: “I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.” In 1911, after studying and settling in Germany, he was similarly moved by a Schoenberg concert and finished painting Impression III (Konzert) two days later. The abstract artist and the atonal composer became friends, and Kandinsky even exhibited Schoenberg’s paintings in the first Blue Rider exhibition in Munich in the same year.

The exhibition will run from June 22nd to October 1st and has a number of accompanying educational events.

Link to article ‘The man who heard his paintbox hiss’ (via 3Quarks).
Link to details of exhibition from Tate Modern.

Better living through neurochemistry?

ritalin_tablets.jpgThe use and abuse of psychiatric medication has been a hot topic in the news recently with discussion about whether we are too keen to medicate ourselves, and too keen to medicate our children, all in the hope of improving performance and behaviour.

The Washington Times Post recently published a widely circulated article, on the extent of ‘smart pill’ abuse on US college campuses. These ‘smart pills’ are largely pharmaceutical drugs designed to treat conditions where attention or alertness is impaired, such as ADHD and narcolepsy.

They include amphetamine-related drugs such as Adderall, Dexedrine and Ritalin; and non-amphetamine drugs such as Provigil and Strattera. These are often acquired from people who have genuine prescriptions.

The other side of the coin is that these drugs are available illicitly, partly because of the massive increase in prescriptions of these sorts of drugs to children and young people.

NPR’s Talk of the Nation show discussed the extent and effects of prescribing psychiatric drugs for young people in a recent show with guests David Cohen, professor of social work from Florida International University and Jeffrey Lieberman, director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

Link to Washington Post article ‘A Dose of Genius’.
Link to NPR Psychiatric Medication Debate (via World of Psychology)