Like being struck by lightning: Musicophilia

The July 23rd edition of The New Yorker has an article by Oliver Sacks on people who suddenly experience a passion and irresistible urge to listen to music after brain injury. The article itself is only available online as a brief summary, but there’s a freely available podcast where Sacks discusses the topic in more detail.

The article has some fascinating examples of how people have, literally, been struck by the condition:

A neurologists’s notebook about Tony Cicoria, who after being struck by lightning became obsessed by piano music. In 1994, when Tony Cicoria was forty-two, and a well-regarded orthopedic surgeon, he was struck by lightning. He had an out-of-body experience. “I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, ‘Oh shit, I’m dead.’ …Then‚Äîslam! I was back.” Soon after, he consulted a neurologist‚Äîhe was feeling sluggish and having some difficulties with his memory. He had a thorough neurological exam, and nothing seemed amiss.

A couple of weeks later, Cicoria went back to work, and in another two weeks, his memory problems disappeared. Life had returned to normal, seemingly, when “suddenly over two or three days, there was this insatiable desire to listen to piano music.” This was completely out of keeping with anything in his past. He started to teach himself to play piano. And then, he started to hear music in his head. In the third month after being struck, Cicoria was inspired, even possessed, by music, and scarcely had time for anything else.

The article and podcast are in lieu of a new book by Sacks, entitled Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain due out on October 17th.

Link to article summary.
Link to page with Oliver Sacks podcast (thanks Justin!)

SciAm special on the science of children and teens

Scientific American have just released one of their special editions of collected articles. This one is on ‘the early years’ and looks at the psychology and neuroscience of children, from infancy to the teenage years.

The SciAm specials are just collections of their previously published articles, but put in one themed issue with no adverts.

The printed edition of this new edition can be bought on newstands at the moment, or it can be bought online as a DRM-free PDF file for $4.95.

It follows on from a previous (and equally good) special issue on ‘The Child’s Mind’.

There’s a full content’s list on the issue’s webage but I’ve noticed that several of the articles are already freely available online, so have a search if you want to get a feeling for the theme.

Link to SciAm special edition on ‘The Early Years’.

Junkies and victims: addiction and the disease debate

Slate has an article by a psychologist and a psychiatrist who argue that addiction is not a ‘brain disease’, contrary to much of the recent rhetoric about drug abuse. This is one side of the debate that is driving our attempts to understand addiction.

The ‘brain disease’ concept (also known as the ‘disease model’) is one that is often thrown around in debates about mental distress or behavioural problems, but it is far from the neutral, scientific term that many of its supporters might believe.

In a sense, every problem of mind and behaviour is a ‘brain disease’, because we’ve identified it as a problem and it involves the brain, as does everything else related to thought or action.

However, a comprehensive explanation requires not only neuroscience, but also psychology and social factors to make it complete and meaningful.

Calling a mental problem a ‘brain disease’ often implies that these other factors aren’t important, and, most tellingly, suggests that the person isn’t responsible for the effects of the disorder, and, consequently, their actions.

The level of personal influence varies by condition, but, importantly, psychologists now know that the effects of all illnesses, from Alzheimer’s disease to the common cold, can be influenced by how we understand them and what we believe about our own ability to influence the effects.

There is no doubt that genetics and the development of nervous system significantly influence the risk of becoming an addict, but addiction, perhaps more than many other disorders, is amenable to personal choice, albeit to varying degrees at various stages of its course.

Theodore Dalrymple (the pen name of psychiatrist Anthony Daniels) noted in The Wall Street Journal that many people are quite able to choose to give up their addiction when sufficiently motivated and argues, in his usual provocative style, against the excess medicalisation of substance abuse:

It is not true either that addicts cannot give up without the help of an apparatus of medical and paramedical care. Thousands of American servicemen returning from Vietnam, where they had addicted themselves to heroin, gave up on their return home without any assistance whatsoever. And in China, millions of Chinese addicts gave up with only minimal help: Mao Tse-Tung’s credible offer to shoot them if they did not. There is thus no question that Mao was the greatest drug-addiction therapist in history.

However, we shouldn’t forget that there is now a large body of evidence highlighting the importance of inheriting a vulnerability to become addicted, and the most addictive drugs tend to modify exactly the bits of the brain that are involved in desire and wanting, making them less amenable to ‘will power’.

This research was recently highlighted by a Time magazine article on the neurobiology of addiction and Dr Nora Volkow’s recent radio interview on the drugs and the brain.

Both spin the ‘brain disease’ angle, and many argue that this reduces stigma. The trouble is, research has found that purely biological explanations of mental problems tend encourage stigma in the public, patients and mental health professionals.

One of the key findings of these studies is that purely biological explanations of mental disorders imply that people are less in control of their actions.

Psychological therapies are known to be effective treatments for drug addiction and one of the key components is to boost the patients ‘self-efficacy’ – that is, their belief that they can take control of their life.

We know that self-efficacy, essentially a scientific term for a sense of personal responsibility and control, is one of the most important predictors of recovery from addiction.

Genetic research has shown us that some people, through no fault of their own, have inherited an increased risk for addiction. Neurobiology has shown us that drug use modifies the brain to make resisting temptation harder.

Nevertheless, describing addiction as purely a ‘brain disease’ is neither useful nor meaningful, and may actually reduce the likelihood that someone will overcome their difficulties.

We need to understand addiction as a problem of mind, brain and society, and make sure everyone knows they play an important role in overcoming problem drug use, whether it occurs in each of us individually, or in the neighbourhood that we live in.

Anti ‘disease model’:
Link to Slate article on addiction.
Link to Theodore Dalrymple article in WSJ.

Pro ‘disease model’:
Link to Time article ‘The neurobiology of addiction’.
Link to Dr Nora Volkow radio interview

2007-07-27 Spike activity

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

Lifting someone’s mood makes them more likely to believe in the supernatural, reports the APA.

New Scientist reports on research presented at a conference suggesting an oxytocin spray can boost the effect of cognitive therapy treatment for anxiety disorders.

A website called We Feel Fine tracks the <a href="
“>mood of the internet.

Spatial brain circuits are used to track references during conversation, according to a new study published in Neuroreport.

How we know where our lost keys are. Scientific American investigates new findings on memory.

BBC News reports that the prescription of antidepressant drugs to children soars in the UK.

Obese girls less likely to attend college but weight and body size does not influence college attendance in boys, finds study published in Sociology of Education.

Another good obituary for cognitive therapy pioneer Albert Ellis, this time in the LA Times.

BBC News reports that a study on the health effects of mobile phone masts finds (wait for it) no link between emissions and symptoms (just like all the others).

Scientific American reports obesity more common in people with obese friends, and study finds the strength of friendship seems to be key.

The Guardian has an interesting piece on the difficulty of applying population-derived violence predictions to individuals. Original study abstract here.

New Scientist has a story on a poker playing computer that only narrowly lost to two pros.

Stephen Pinker writes in defense of dangerous ideas.

Couples’ faces grow more alike as they age

PsyBlog has picked up on a neat study from way back in ’87 that found that couples faces look more alike the longer they stay together, and the researchers suggest that empathy might play a part.

The study asked a group of participants to judge how similar pairs of photographs were. Some of the photos were taken after 25 years of marriage, some on the wedding day.

Couples were more likely to be judged as looking similar at the 25 year mark than when first married.

Couples were then asked to complete a questionnaire about how satisfied they were with their partnership. The study found that the couples who grew more alike were more likely to report being happy, share worries or concerns with each other, and perceive themselves to have similar attitudes.

The researchers suggest that empathy might play a part in the increased facial similarity.

Interestingly, now we know that more empathetic people tend to mimic other people’s facial emotional expressions more readily.

So after 25 years, the effect of more frequently copying another person’s face, might mean it would it would take on similar features.

There’s other explanations and some caveats, of course, and PsyBlog considers some of them as it looks at the study in more detail.

Link to PsyBlog on ‘Empathy Causes Facial Similarity Between Couples to Increase Over Time’.

War causes trauma, death, satire

This week’s edition of satirical newspaper The Onion has a cutting ‘news’ story on both the Iraq war and psychology, highlighting the absurdity that arises from trying to quantify the bleedin’ obvious and discussing the shortcomings of the study in the press.

The story supposedly concerns a study investigating the psychological impact of the Iraq war on civillians.

“Almost all the Iraqis we interviewed said the war had ruined their lives because of the incalculable loss of friends and family,” Pryztal said. “But to be totally honest, these types of studies can be skewed rather easily by participant exaggeration.”

Psychologists and anthropologists have thus far largely discounted the study, claiming it has the same bias as a 1971 Stanford University study that concluded that many Vietnamese showed signs of psychological trauma from nearly a quarter century of continuous war in southeast Asia.

“We are, in truth, still a long way from determining if Iraqis are exhibiting actual, U.S.-grade sadness,” Mayo Clinic neuropsychologist Norman Blum said. “At present, we see no reason for the popular press to report on Iraqi emotions as if they are real.”

Pryztal said that his research group would next examine whether children in Sudan prefer playing with toys or serving as guerrilla fighters and killing innocent civilians.

The Onion has a long and proud history of satirising psychology and psychologists, inspiring stories that are often as funny as they are painful.

Link to story ‘Iraqis May Experience Sadness When Friends, Relatives Die’.

40 years on: Experiences of ‘gay conversion therapy’

This Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the first major decriminalisation of male-male sexual acts in the UK. Dr Petra Boynton looks back at how the change came about and has dug up some fascinating articles on the experience of <a href="
“>patients and professionals who took part in ‘gay conversion therapy’ in the 60s and 70s.

At one time, homosexuality was considered both a criminal act and a mental disorder.

It was decriminalised in both the US and the UK before it was removed from the diagnostic manuals, and treatments to change homosexuals into heterosexuals peaked in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Two articles were published in the British Medical Journal in 2004 that highlighted the experiences of patients and professionals who were involved in ‘conversion therapy’ either voluntarily or because of a court order.

One paper describes some of the methods:

In electric shock aversion therapy, electrodes were attached to the wrist or lower leg and shocks were administered while the patient watched photographs of men and women in various stages of undress. The aim was to encourage avoidance of the shock by moving to photographs of the opposite sex. It was hoped that arousal to same sex photographs would reduce, while relief arising from shock avoidance would increase, interest in opposite sex images. Some patients reported undergoing detailed examination before treatment, while others were assessed more perfunctorily.

Patients would recline on a bed or sit in a chair in a darkened room, either alone or with the professional behind a screen. Each treatment lasted about 30 minutes, with some participants given portable electric shock boxes to use at home while they induced sexual fantasies. Patients receiving apomorphine were often admitted to hospital due to side effects of nausea and dehydration and the need for repeated doses, while those receiving electric shock aversion therapy attended as outpatients for weeks or in some cases up to two years.

Oestrogen treatment to reduce libido (two participants in the 1950s), psychoanalysis (three private participants and one NHS participant in the 1970s), and religious counselling (two participants in the 1990s) were also reported. Other forms of treatment were electroconvulsive therapy [ECT], discussion of the evils of homosexuality, desensitisation of an assumed phobia of the opposite sex, hypnosis, psychodrama, and abreaction. Dating skills were sometimes taught, and occasionally men were encouraged to find a prostitute or female friend with whom to try sexual intercourse.

The professionals interviewed in the study present mixed views, but “most doubted the treatment’s efficacy, however, and came to question whether they were acting in patients’ best interests. They began to think that treatment was underpinning questionable social values and that patients might say anything to convince them that it had worked to avoid yet more treatment or further legal repercussions.”

As we reported earlier this month, this is currently a hot topic for the American Psychological Association, who are currently re-assessing their guidelines on whether they should explicitly denounce ‘conversion therapy’.

If you want to know more about how homosexuality was de-listed as a mental illness, there’s a fantastic radio programme online which looks at how the campaign was intricately tied up with one woman’s remarkable family history.

Link to Dr Petra on 40 years of decriminalisation.
Link to BMJ article on patients’ experience of ‘conversion therapy’.
Link to BMJ article on professionals’ experience of ‘conversion therapy’.
Link to radio programme ’81 words’.