Documentary on 1950s Soviet psychiatry

Channel 4 have been putting a number of classic documentaries online, including an optimistic film by legendary American documentary maker Albert Maysles on Soviet psychiatry in 1950s Russia.

The film is interesting historically for a number of reasons, perhaps, most pertinently, because it presents a counter-example to the known abuses of Soviet psychiatry of the time. It is also a striking contrast to American psychiatry of the same period.

Apart from a few isolated examples, the department at Washington University being the most famous, American psychiatry was dominated by Freudians and a psychoanalytic approach to understanding mental illness.

This meant it was largely led by office-based psychiatrists who mostly eschewed biological and scientific approaches to treatment and who mainly treated depression and anxiety.

In contrast, the Maysles documentary notes that Russian psychiatry was largely based on a Pavlovian (behaviourist) approach to mental illness that put a significant emphasis on neuroscience (e.g. the image is of a Russian psychiatrist checking a child’s Babinski reflex – a test of brain or spinal cord damage).

It was also heavily hospital-based, used drug treatments and was more likely to deal with people with schizophrenia and psychoses.

While the treatments themselves now look outmoded, it’s notable that American psychiatry now much more closely matches the Russian model.

Psychoanalysis is now on the fringes and mainstream orthodox psychiatry is largely drug-based, while most practitioners are likely to think of themselves as, at least in part, ‘applied neuroscientists’.

The film is also notable for being so positive about Soviet psychiatry when it was presumably deeply unfashionable, perhaps even career-limiting, for American film-makers to promote Russian initiatives.

Link to page and video link for Maysles film ‘Psychiatry in Russia’.

RadioLab on the science of morality

I’ve just discovered another episode of the excellent WNYC RadioLab – this one on the psychology and neuroscience of morality. It tackles everything from the development of moral reasoning as a child, to the neuroscience of ethical decision-making, to the psychology of prisons and solitary confinement.

If you’ve never heard RadioLab before, have a listen, not least because of the beautiful production. It often contains some wonderfully illustrative moments – something akin to the radio equivalent of the ‘hip hop montage’ film editing technique.

One segment looks at how researchers are attempting to tackle moral reasoning in the lab, something which is becoming an increasingly important research area – as demonstrated by the popularity of Marc Hauser’s book Moral Minds.

This research, as well as observational studies on non-human primates, has suggested that some moral behaviour may inherited.

The idea that pro-social behaviour may be the result of evolution has led to the cover story in this week’s New Scientist to pose the related question “If morality is hard-wired in the brain, what’s the point of religion?’

Sadly, the article isn’t open access (pro-social behaviour not being fully evolved in the NewSci offices) but it’s an interesting review of some recent studies on the psychology of religion, with some speculative commentary on the possible evolutionary roles of spiritual faith:

Psychologists Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, found that by presenting people first with a word game unscrambling either religious or non-religious phrases, even atheists could be primed to be more generous to an anonymous partner by exposure to the religious words [pdf]…

So why do religious concepts provoke moral behaviour even in non-believers? It’s because both religion and morality are evolutionary adaptations, says Jesse Bering, who heads the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University, Belfast, UK. Morality does not stem from religion, as is often argued, he suggests: they evolved separately, albeit in response to the same forces in our social environment. Once our ancestors acquired language and theory of mind – the ability to understand what others are thinking – news of any individual’s reputation could spread far beyond their immediate group. Anyone with tendencies to behave pro-socially would then have been at an advantage, Bering says: “What we’re concerned about in terms of our moral behaviour is what other people think about us.” So morality became adaptive.

Link to RadioLab on the science of morality.

Law professor on life with schizophrenia

Elyn Saks is a law professor at the University of Southern California and adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego. She’s also been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has experienced some intense psychotic episodes.

She’s just published a book about her experiences called ‘The Center Cannot Hold’ (ISBN 140130138X) and was the subject of a recent Newsweek article.

Saks also gave an interview to mental health blog Treatment Online where she recounts some of the insights she has gained through her experiences about herself, the mental health system, and the possibilities of living with a mental disorder.

How do you feel that we as a larger society can mitigate the belief – and we feel a lot of people believe this even though they claim not to or can rationally move beyond it – that mentally ill individuals are somehow broken or incomplete?

I guess one way would be having examples of people who have mental illnesses who are doing well. People hear of schizophrenia and they think someone is never going to be able to live independently and work, and then you have people like me who stand up and say, “No, it doesn’t have to be that way.” Some people say well aren’t you unique, and I’m actually doing a study with folks at USC and UCLA on high-functioning individuals with schizophrenia. We’ve got an MD, we’ve got a Ph.D. psychologist, we’ve got some high-level consumer advocates, full-time students and stay at home parents. Just in LA in the past couple of months we’ve already recruited ten people, and we’re going to try to hear their stories and find out if there are things they do to master their illness that we might teach to other people so other people could become higher functioning.

Link to Newsweek article.
Link to Treatment Online interview.
Link to excerpt from book ‘The Center Cannot Hold’.

Moving time

Please excuse the interruption… I’m doing a little site maintenance today and is moving over to a new server.

Since you can see this message, you’re looking at the new server which means the maintenance worked. If you notice anything broken around the place, please do let me know (matt at mindhacks dot com). Thanks!

Oxytocin and understanding other minds

The Scientific American’s Mind Matters has a special on whether key bonding hormone oxytocin boosts our ability to understand other people’s beliefs, intentions and desires.

Oxytocin seems to play a role in bonding between mother and child, and between romantic couples.

The article discusses recent research that found that using an oxytocin nasal spray boosted participant’s performance on a task that measured ‘theory of mind‘ – the ability to infer other people’s beliefs from their actions.

Like ‘mirror neurons‘, oxytocin is something which is currently overhyped but still genuinely interesting.

The article is by psychologist Prof Jennifer Bartz and psychiatrist Prof Eric Hollander and discusses this new study, and some of the theories that attempt to explain how oxytocin has its effect:

Both our lab and the Domes lab have found that oxytocin facilitates the processing of social information gathered through at least two different sensory modalities — that is, through both hearing and vision. This raises questions about just how oxytocin actually facilitates social cognition and theory of mind.

Previous research indicates that oxytocin plays a role in regulating stress and fear reactivity. Thus oxytocin may facilitate theory of mind by reducing the social anxiety that is inherent in many social encounters — and which is felt keenly by many individuals with autism.

Another possibility is that oxytocin may increase motivation to attend to social cues by reinforcing social information processing.

Link to article ‘The hormone that helps you read minds’.
Link to abstract of scientific study.

Mind and brain disorder encyclopedia now free online

The Dana Guide to Brain Health is a fantastic book that contains a wealth of practical information about keeping your brain healthy, maintaining mental sharpness, and dealing with problems when they arise. Even better, the section on mind and brain disorders has now been made fully searchable and freely available on Dana’s website.

In fact, the book is incredibly comprehensive, and in addition to discussing health and illness, covers how the brain develops, functions normally, interacts with the body, and supports social interaction, emotion and cognition.

However, its coverage of disorders is excellent. Each one described, and is accompanied by a review of what’s currently known about the causes, diagnosis and treatment, so you know what to expect if you, a friend or relative need professional help.

It’s written in a straightforward jargon-free way and is remarkably comprehensive. It covers everything from hearing problems to schizophrenia to the neurological complications of AIDS.

This is the section has now been made freely available and is searchable by topic or keyword. A truly valuable addition to online mind and brain resources.

Link to Dana brain health database.
Link to book details.