Richard Dadd and the madness of an artist

Below is an excerpt from the novel Bedlam by Jennifer Higgie which gives a fictional account of the travels and madness of Victorian artist Richard Dadd.

Dadd was eventually confined to Bethlem Hospital and subsequently to the then ‘Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane’ (now Broadmoor Hospital) for the murder of his father and attempted murder of a tourist while being tormented by paranoid delusions.

Dadd was allowed to keep painting in hospital and produced some of the most important artwork of the era.

From p144 of the novel:

I find myself gazing at sand and seeing green hills.
I notice hideous faces glaring at me from the faces of sweet young girls.
I the silhouette of a pig in the mild eyes of a camel.
I lie stuck to my bed, covered in sweat as the mattress breathes and groans beneath me.
I have forgotten the names of my own sisters and brothers.
I speak happily, for hours, with my dead mother, whose hand I feel stroke mine, and curse the breath of my father, who is revealed to me as an impostor of the highest order.
I walk in sunlight and feel the hot glare of the moon burn my skin.
I see scorpions the size of men haunting ruins.
I crash into walls I do not see.
I pluck poisonous flowers and dream I boil them for tea.
I spend hours polishing teaspoons I do not need.
I long to dilute my colours with mirages, to make them hot and trembling.

Link to details of Higgie’s Bedlam.
Link to Wikipedia page on Dadd.

Lost in space

What do you do with a psychotic astronaut? If you’re not sure, the Houston Chronicle notes that you can look it up in NASA’s manual for dealing with psychiatric emergencies in space.

Despite being surrounded by billions of dollars of high technology, the procedure is pragmatic and definitely low-tech:

The guidelines were developed to respond to an attempted suicide or severe anxiety, paranoia or hysteria aboard the international space station. Astronauts are instructed to bind the stricken flier’s wrists and ankles with duct tape, restrain the torso with bungee cords and administer strong tranquilizers.

There’s actually a project, named Human Interactions in Space, which specifically studies the psychological impact of space travel, headed up by psychiatrist Dr Nick Kansas.

There are further details of NASA’s policies for psychiatric emergencies in the Houston Chronicle article.

Link to story in Houston Chronicle.

Famous for amnesia and the history of memory

NPR Radio has a fantastic programme that charts the story of famous amnesic patient HM and how research into his impairments have revolutionised the way we understand human memory.

HM became densely amnesic after an operation removed the hippocampus on each side of the brain to treat his otherwise untreatable epilepsy.

Epilepsy can often be triggered by disturbances in the hippocampus, and removing the site of this disturbance is one way of treating life-threatening seizures.

We know now, largely because of HM, that removing one hippocampus has relatively small impact on memory, while removing both causes a profound antereograde amnesia.

This means HM cannot remember new information, meaning that he has relatively normal memory for the time before his operation, but can remember virtually nothing since.

This was one of the first and only times the operation to remove both hippocampi was conducted because of the effects that were discovered.

However, because the removal of the brain areas was done surgically, it allowed a very precise understanding of how the removed areas might contribute to normal memory processes.

A discipline called cognitive neuropsychology studies damage to the brain to work out normal function, by matching up which areas are damaged by what patients can no longer do.

Using these methods, HM has provided a huge insight into the neuropsychology of memory.

The first study on HM was published way back in 1957 [pdf] by brain surgeon William Scoville and neuropsychologist Brenda Milner.

He has been anonymous and kept from the public eye, but his family has now agreed to release audio tapes of him made in the 1990s.

The NPR programme is their first broadcast.

HM is still alive and has been the focus of studies on the neuropsychology of memory until the last paper [pdf] in 2002 although now has reportedly ‘retired’ from research.

Link to ‘H.M.’s Brain and the History of Memory’ with audio.
pdf of first paper on HM by Scoville and Milner.
pdf of 2002 review on HM’s contribution to memory research.

Eyes-closed fantasies

An excerpt from the entry for the psychedelic drug 4-TASB from the book Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved (otherwise known as PiHKAL).

The drug was one of many developed by chemist and psychedelics researcher Alexander Shulgin. As with hundreds of other compounds, the chemical structure and effects of this new drug are described in the book.

From the experiences of testing this compound, it seems 4-TASB was not a success:

Music was lovely during the experiment, but pictures were not particularly exciting. I had feelings that my nerve-endings were raw and active. There was water retention. There was heartbeat wrongness, and respiration wrongness. During my attempts to sleep, my eyes-closed fantasies became extremely negative. I could actually feel the continuous electrical impulses travelling between my nerve endings. Disturbing. There was continuous erotic arousability, and this seemed to be part of the same over-sensitivity of the nervous system; orgasm didn’t soothe or smooth out the feeling of vulnerability. This is a very threatening material. DO NOT REPEAT.

Link to 4-TASB entry from online PiHKAL.

Subliminal messages on slot machines

CBC News is reporting that Ontario’s gambling regulator has removed almost 90 slot machines from use because they appear to show subliminal jackpot displays every time the game is played.

Information displayed very quickly, or within a sequence of other images (known as ‘masking’ in psychology), can be found to have a detectable effect on the brain and measurable mental processes, despite the fact that people may be unaware of seeing them.

For example, one study found that images of fearful faces displayed at a rapid rate changed activity in a brain area called the amygdala, despite the participants having no conscious experience of seeing the fearful expressions.

It is not clear how much this sort of thing actually changes anyone’s behaviour, although the practice is outlawed in many countries as being dishonest.

Link to CBC News story on subliminal slot machines with video segment (via BB).

The benefits of inheriting despair

The LA Times has an interesting article on evolutionary theories of depression that also discusses how these might lead to new and improved treatments for the condition.

The fact that mental illness is both widespread and disabling is a puzzle in evolutionary terms, if you believe that a vulnerability to psychological disorder is strongly inherited.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that there is a significant inherited component in mental illness, although the extent of this influence is debated.

If this is the case, the question arises ‘why do we still have mental illness if inheriting the risk for it makes you much less likely to reproduce?’. Surely it should have been ‘bred out’ of the population?

Some use this as an argument to suggest that the role of genetics in mental illness has been overstated, and that the majority of risk arises from environmental factors, particularly those that cause stress and trauma.

Others suggest that the same inherited attributes that increase risk for mental illness can be beneficial when they don’t result in serious impairment.

For example, research has suggested that people who are at high risk for schizophrenia, or have slight or fleeting psychosis-like thoughts, are more likely to be creative or original thinkers [pdf].

More recently, it was reported that a gene called DARPP-32 increases risk for schizophrenia as well as being linked to the more efficient use of a key brain circuit in the frontal lobe.

This might explain why genes that increase these tendencies are still in the gene pool, and only when too many of these traits are inherited is the person very likely to suffer ill-effects when confronted by severe life stresses.

A similar theory was put forward by the late Dr David Horrobin is his book The Madness of Adam and Eve: How Schizophrenia Shaped Humanity (ISBN 0593046498).

As an aside, Horrobin was famously the subject of a controversy after a critical obituary was published in the British Medical Journal, leading to an angry reaction and the journal publishing an apology.

The LA Times article is a great overview of evolutionary theories of depression that might help answer questions about why someone might inherit a tendency to be depressed.

If this tendency is understood as an exaggerated form of something that might be beneficial in small doses, it may give clues to new treatments, and the article looks at what treatments researchers are considering with this in mind.

Link to LA Times article ‘The mind, as it evolves’.

Encephalon 17 ahoy

The latest edition of psychology and neuroscience writing carnival Encephalon has been been published, this time ably hosted by Pure Pedantry.

A couple of my favourites from this curiously pirate-themed edition include a demonstration of an effect known as ‘boundary extension’ and an article on the sometimes paralysing effects of choice.

Head on over if you want more of the latest articles from the online mind and brain community.

Link to Encephalon 17.