Painting through Alzheimer’s

Utermohlen_Alzheimer's.jpgThere’s a short but fascinating piece in the New York Times on how the work of artist William Utermohlen was affected by the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Utermohlen produced some striking pieces during his career and continued to paint after being diagnosed with the degenerative brain disorder.

The impact of the disorder on his creativity can be seen in a web slide show created to accompany the article.

It’s particularly interesting that the impact of the paintings don’t always seem to diminish with his reduction in technical skill, with some of the later paintings (particularly the one from 1998) remaining both vivid and haunting.

Link to NYT article ‘Self-Portraits Chronicle a Descent Into Alzheimer‚Äôs’.
Link to William Utermohlen gallery.
Link to information on Alzheimer’s disease.

Travelling with…


“In the Revised Confessions de Quincey tell us how much he suffered from ‘the pressure on my heart from the incommunicable.’ This pressure, no doubt, is known to us all; but it may approach the most agonising level in patients whose sufferings are not only intense, but so strange as to seem, at first, beyond the possibilities of communication.

Such difficulties in communication, clearly, can arise from the very strangeness, the extraordinary quality, of patients’ problems, their experience; but an equal, if not greater difficulty may be created by physicians themselves who, in effect, decline to listen to their patients, to treat them as equals, and who are prone to adopt – from force of habit, or from a less excusable sense of professional apartness and superiority – an approach and language which effectively prevent any real communication between themselves and their patients.

Thus patients may be subjected to interrogation and examination which smack of the schoolroom and courtroom – questions of the form: ‘Do you have this… do you have that…? which by their categorical nature demand categorical answers (yes and no answers, answers in terms of this and that).

Such an approach forecloses the possibility of learning anything new, and prevents the possibility of forming a picture, or pictures, of what it is like to be as one is.

The fundamental questions – ‘How are you?’ and ‘What is it like? – can only be answered analogically, allusively, in terms of ‘as if’ and likeness, by images, similitudes, models, metaphors, that is, by evocations of one sort and another.

There can be no reaching out into the realm of the incommunicable (or scarcely communicable) unless the physician becomes a fellow traveller, a fellow explorer, continually moving with his patients, discovering with them a vivid, exact a figurative language which will reach out towards the incommunicable. Together they must create languages which bridge the gulf between physician and patient, the gulf which separates one man from another.

Such an approach is neither ‘subjective’ nor ‘objective’; it is (in Rosenstock-Hussey’s term) ‘trajective‘. Neither seeing the patient as an impersonal object nor subjecting him to identifications and projections of himself, the physician must proceed by sympathy or empathy, proceeding in company with the patient, sharing his experiences and feelings and thoughts, the inner conceptions which shape his behaviour.

He must feel (or imagine) how his patient is feeling, without ever losing the sense of himself; he must inhabit, simultaneously, two frames of reference and make it possible for the patient to do likewise.”

Oliver Sacks discusses the psychology of communicating with distressed or impaired people, in footnote 104 of Awakenings.

Neuropsychology of hypnosis

hypnosis_pocket_watch.jpgSeed Magazine discusses how researchers are exploring the neuropsychology of hypnosis to understand this curious state of mind.

Hypnosis fell out of favour in psychological circles as it got taken up by ‘stage hypnotists’, and researchers found out that, contrary to the movie stereotypes, hypnosis actually increases the number of false memories recalled, rather than making remembering more accurate.

Furthermore, ‘hypnotherapy’ seems not to be hugely effective on the current evidence. For example, trials of hypnosis for pain relief when giving birth and smoking cessation have shown mixed results, although it is known to be difficult to design effective trials because hypnotisable individuals are known to be psychologically different from others.

What is a reliable finding, however, is that in particularly susceptible individuals, hypnosis can be used to cause unusual experiences.

Particularly, it is being used as a model of what is alternatively called ‘conversion hysteria’ or ‘conversion disorder‘, where a person might show physical symptoms, such as paralysis, but where they arise from a psychological cause.

Recent experiments have used hypnosis as a way of causing a temporary and reversible paralysis. Participants are then put in a brain scanner to determine which parts of the brain are active, and compared to people with diagnosed conversion disorder.

It turns out that hysterical paralysis may involve similar brain areas to hypnotic paralysis, but shows different patterns of activation to people asked to ‘fake’ a paralysis.

These are interesting findings and may provide an insight into the operation of how the unconscious influences our conscious life.

Nevertheless, thorough investigations into the neuroscience of hypnotic states will still need to be conducted, and Seed Magazine tackles some of the latest research in this area.

Link to article ‘Science finally tackles hypnosis’.

Encephalon 9 arrives

red_bg_brain.jpgThe latest edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just arrived on the net with plenty of musings on the mind and brain to keep you occupied.

Favourites include an article on the balance of activation in the cortical hemispheres and the link to paranormal experiences, and a discussion of a recent critical article on the cognitive neuroscience of education.

SciAmMind on microexpressions and gestures

sciammind_oct2006.jpgA new issue of Scientific American Mind has arrived on the shelves with a couple of freely accessible articles on microexpressions and communication through gestures available online.

Microexpressions are like any other facial expression, but they are very subtle and occur incredibly quickly, coming and going in several hundred milliseconds.

Paul Ekman, largely known for his discovery that many facial expressions of emotion were universal, has been particularly keen on researching microexpressions in recent years.

It is thought that these fleeting expressions give away the inner emotional state (and maybe whether someone is lying), because they are under less conscious control than more obvious facial expressions.

The other freely available article is on the gestures we make when talking, that potentially give an insight into the hidden psychology that belies our words.

Our body movements always convey something about us to other people. The body “speaks” whether we are sitting or standing, talking or just listening. On a blind date, how the two individuals position themselves tells a great deal about how the evening will unfold: Is she leaning in to him or away? Is his smile genuine or forced?

The same is true of gestures. Almost always involuntary, they tip us off to love, hate, humility and deceit. Yet for years, scientists spent surprisingly little time studying them, because the researchers presumed that hand and arm movements were mere by-products of verbal communication. That view changed during the 1990s, in part because of the influential work of psycholinguist David McNeill at the University of Chicago.

Link to contents of October 2006 SciAmMind.
Link to article ‘A Look Tells All’.
Link to artice ‘Gestures Offer Insight’.