Putting the fun in dysfunctional

I’ve just found an interesting letter to the British Journal of Psychiatry by A. J. McBride who noted the high level of mental illness in professional comedians.

Perhaps most well-known is the British comedian Spike Milligan who suffered from bipolar disorder and was frequently admitted to hospital.

In fact, a ward at the Maudsley Hospital in London, where he was admitted at least once, was opened by Spike. A plaque still commemorates the occasion.

The letter in the BJP was a comment on an earlier paper that noted the exceptionally high level of mental illness among jazz musicians.

Link to BJP letter on mental illness in comedians.
Link to BJP paper on mental illness in jazz musicians.

the society of mind

minsky.jpgMarvin Minksy, one of the founding figures in Artificial Intelligence, in his Society of Mind (1985):

People ask if machines have souls. And I ask back whether souls can learn. It does not seem a fair exchange – if souls can live for endless time and yet not use that time to learn – to trade all change for changelessness. And that’s exactly what we get with inborn souls that cannot grow: a destiny the same as death, an ending in a permanence incapable of any change and, hence, devoid of intellect.

We start as little embryos, which then build great and wonderous selves – whose merit lies entirely within their own coherancy. The value of a human self lies not in some small, precious core, but in its vast constructed crust

What are those old and fierce beliefs in spirits, souls, and essences? They’re all insinuation that we’re helpless to improve ourselves. To look for our virtues in such thoughts seems just as wrongly aimed a search as seeking art in canvas cloths by scraping off the painter’s works.

Art for all senses

Seed Magazine has an article on Marcia Smilack – a photographer and video artist with a rare form of synaesthesia in which all her senses intermingle.

Smilack aims to capture this experience in her work and express it for people without the condition.

The article discusses why art may be such a good expression of synaesthetic experiences and describes some current research that demonstrates that synaesthetes’ drawings of music were also thought to be a ‘better match’ by people without the condition.

This perhaps suggests that we all have some sort of innate ability to make sense of inter-sensory cross-overs.

Smilack’s films are a particularly striking attempt to capture part of the experience.

The video for Coldcut’s Music 4 No Musicians always struck me as particularly synaesthetic if you’re after an interesting (and very mellow) attempt to link sound and vision.

Link to Seed article ‘The Most Beautiful Painting You’ve Ever Heard’.
Link to Marcia Smilack’s website.
Link to Coldcut’s Music 4 No Musicians (takes a while to get going).

Prison officers issued knives to ‘cut suicide rate’

In a wonderfully twisted solution to poor mental health care, prison officers in UK’s Winchester Prison are being issued knives in an attempt to reduce suicide rates by allowing them to cut down prisoners they find hanging in their cells.

Mental health care in prison is notoriously bad (a recent reported noted one third of UK young offenders are mentally ill), and many operate as little more than surrogate psychiatric facilities – without the psychiatry or the facilities. There is a similar situation in the USA.

I’ve spent some time trying to track down the latest reports on HMP Winchester but with very little success, although from what I can find Winchester seems to be a particularly bad example.

This news story incidentally mentions that a recent report “attacks the policy of keeping people with mental health problems locked up in prison healthcare wings when they should be receiving treatment from trained staff.”

This written response to a 2001 parliamentary request for a information on suicide rates in the prison shows them spiralling out of control to almost eight times the national average. More recent figures show it to have one of the highest number of prison suicides in the country.

The spectacularly broken website of the Independent Monitoring Board, the body that reports on prison conditions, lists the last published annual report as 2004.

This report notes that “The problem of prisoners with severe mental disabilities is raised time and time again” and also notes the lack of mental health care facilities “leaves Prison Officers no choice but to deal with these prisoners even though they are not medically trained so to do”.

It seems prison suicides have been a more recent matter of parliamentary concern and the actual prevention guidelines (which seem remarkably sensible) are available online as a Word doc.

Link to article ‘Prison issue knives to officers to cut suicide rate’ from Hampshire News (via TWS).

Beautiful images from PsicoCaf√©

I’ve stumbled across a wonderful collection of mind and brain artwork, collected by the author of the Italian website PsicoCaf√©.

Unfortunately, my Italian isn’t what it should be but the site’s blog is updated daily, has a podcast and video section, and, not surprisingly, looks beautiful.

If your language doesn’t hold out, however, the image gallery is well worth a browse as it’s quite a stunning collection.

Link to PsicoCafé image gallery.
Link to PsicoCafé.

The buzzing blooming life of William James

The Boston Globe has a review of a new biography of William James. He is often called the ‘father of modern psychology’ and is equally well-known for his work in philosophy.

Not quite as well-known is his drug-experimentation, fascination with parapsychology and interest in numerous women.

It’s almost a clich√© that psychology talks will start with a quote from James. Largely because his work, most notably the book The Principles of Psychology, touched upon almost every area now part of mainstream cognitive science.

His interests were truly eclectic, however, and his writing explores a diverse range of thoughts and experiences.

One of my favourite James quotes is a sentence he wrote after taking nitrous oxide (‘laughing gas’), recorded in an essay on the experience:

“There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference.”

James also experienced terrible depressions and suicidal thoughts throughout his life, giving him first hand experience of a mind gone awry.

Perhaps a combination of natural curiosity and an interest in altered states led James to radical and still-influential theories of mental life.

A recent review from The New York Times summed it up like so:

It is hard to maintain the illusion of the disembodied philosopher in the face of this larger-than-life and fascinatingly cracked personality, who pragmatically turned the very fissures of his soul into metaphysical positions.

There’s more in the reviews, and the book itself, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (ISBN 0618433252), has recently hit the shelves.

Link to Boston Globe review of James biography (via 3Q).
Link to review from LA Times.
Link to extensive review from The New York Times.

Confabulated Memory t-shirt

Online t-shirt retailer and design free-for-all Threadless have just released a t-shirt based on the theme of ‘confabulated memory’.

In neuropsychology, ‘confabulation’ usually refers to a condition where people produce streams of false memories.

It is distinguished from lying in that affected people do not seem to be intentionally trying to deceive. In fact, they seem to have little control over their recall.

Although we all confabulate without realising it to some degree, the clinical condition is most striking after brain injury.

The following example is from a study on a 56 year-old man who developed the condition after brain surgery to remove a tumour.

You were at school together?
We still are.

You and Val? Really? I didn’t know that. When you say you still are, do you mean you are still at school now?
Well not at school, at university.

Oh. So the two of you are at university together?
Yes. She is doing third year and I am doing computers.

The t-shirt is a wonderful graphic portrayal of this free-wheeling fountain of memories with themes mingling and overlapping in a confused and chaotic state.

Link to Threadless t-shirt ‘Confabulated Memory’.