Anvil therapy

The following passage is from p107 of the excellent but sadly out-of-print history book Mental Disorder in Earlier Britain (ISBN 0708305628) that explores mental and neurological illness in times past.

As well as discussing the theories of the times, it also charts many of the treatments used to try and cure disturbances of the mind and brain.

This is a particularly terrifying example of a (probably 16-17th century) folk treatment for depression that involved the local blacksmith pretending he was going to flatten your head on an anvil:

A highly specific treatment for ‘faintness of the spirits’ was attributed in a well-known passage by Martin Martin to a blacksmith in the Skye parish of Kilmartin. Like other shock treatments which have tried to elicit a ‘natural’ total reaction by creating a physical or physiological emergency, it had its risks.

“The patient laid on the anvil with his face uppermost, the smith takes a big hammer in both his hands, and making his face all grimace, he approaches his patient; and then drawing his hammer from the ground as if to hit him with full strength on his forehead, he ends in a feint, else he would be sure to cure the patient of all diseases; but the smith being accustomed to the performance, has a dexterity of managing his hammer with discretion; though at the same time he must do it so as to strike terror in the patient; and this they say, has always the desired effect.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a little vague on what the ‘desired effect’ was supposed to be.

It wasn’t all hammer wielding blacksmiths though, some gentler treatments are noted. Apparently, dried cuckoo was used to treat epilepsy.

Haunted by Dracula’s Teeth Syndrome

This case report from a 2001 study describes a patient with persistent headaches who experienced ‘phantom teeth’ – the sensation of non-existent vampire-like teeth in her mouth.

Phantoms‘ are often the result of having a limb or other appendage removed and can affect almost any part of the body (indeed, phantom penises have been reported in the medical literature).

In this case phantom teeth seem to have occurred after surgical removal of the gums, although this case is particularly interesting because the phantoms are for teeth that were never there in the first place.

Phantoms are thought to arise when the brain’s map of the sensory areas becomes distorted during re-organisation, after the actual sensations from the removed appendage stop.

A 52-year-old woman was referred to a neurologist because of right facial pain radiating from the malar region diagonally to the right upper lip area. She had pain for several months following upper and lower surgical resection of hypertrophic gums. The pain was severe, constant, and interfered with her sleep. She had no gustatory sweating or flushing of her face or neck. She developed symptoms of depression because of the chronic pain…

She reported a constant sensation of having two long extra upper canine teeth growing in front of her normal canines that felt like they were pressing on her tongue. The sensation was experienced as someone with vampire-like long upper canines (“Dracula’s teeth”)…

There was no family history of gum hyperplasia or supernumerary teeth. She complained of poor taste, forgetfulness, sleep fragmentation, and high-pitched ringing noises in her ears of long-standing. She had no burning of her tongue.

Link to abstract of scientific study.

Kissing, corporate evil and a pat on the head

The new Scientific American Mind has just arrived online with its customary couple of feature articles freely available online. The issue also has a review of psychology and neuroscience blogs, which kindly features Mind Hacks.

According to the review SciAmMind “offers up a hearty helping of science” whereas blogs offer “extra crumbs of brain candy”. Nothing like getting patronised by the best I guess.

Apart from that though, they actually say some pretty complementary things about a number of online mind and brain blogs, so it can’t be all that bad.

One of their freely available feature articles is on the psychology and neuroscience of kissing.

Human lips enjoy the slimmest layer of skin on the human body, and the lips are among the most densely populated with sensory neurons of any body region. When we kiss, these neurons, along with those in the tongue and mouth, rocket messages to the brain and body, setting off delightful sensations, intense emotions and physical reactions.

Of the 12 or 13 cranial nerves that affect cerebral function, five are at work when we kiss, shuttling messages from our lips, tongue, cheeks and nose to a brain that snatches information about the temperature, taste, smell and movements of the entire affair. Some of that information arrives in the somatosensory cortex, a swath of tissue on the surface of the brain that represents tactile information in a map of the body. In that map, the lips loom large because the size of each represented body region is proportional to the density of its nerve endings.

The other freely available article apparently discusses what capitalism and the corporate world can tell us about the psychology of competition and altruism, but seems largely an enthusiastic description of Google’s business practices – novel as they may be.

Link to article ‘Affairs of the Lips’.
Link to article ‘Do All Companies Have to be Evil?’.

The bitchy world of online match making

The New York Times has an interesting yet ironically funny article about the curious world of online dating companies who use ‘psychological profiles’ to try and make love blossom, but who can’t get along with one another.

These are sites like eHarmony, Chemistry and PerfectMatch that instead of letting you browse members’ profiles, ask you to fill in questionnaires and suggest dates based on your ‘psychological compatibility’.

They use various methods to make the matches that are supposedly based on psychological science, but which haven’t been published or released so others can see how valid they are (is that the distant sound of alarm bells I can hear?).

Most amusingly, they seem to be constantly putting each other down in a bid to get the most attention from potential lovers.

In the battle of the matchmakers, has been running commercials faulting eHarmony for refusing to match gay couples (eHarmony says it can’t because its algorithm is based on data from heterosexuals), and eHarmony asked the Better Business Bureau to stop from claiming its algorithm had been scientifically validated. The bureau concurred that there was not enough evidence, and agreed to stop advertising that Dr. Fisher’s method was based on “the latest science of attraction.”

Dr. Fisher now says the ruling against her last year made sense because her algorithm at that time was still a work in progress as she correlated sociological and psychological measures, as well as indicators linked to chemical systems in the brain. But now, she said, she has the evidence from users to validate the method, and she plans to publish it along with the details of the algorithm.

“I believe in transparency,” she said, taking a dig at eHarmony. “I want to share my data so that I will get peer review.”

And Bravo to that. Largely because, as the article notes, the information from the millions of people filling in these questionnaires is a potentially valuable source of scientific data.

If the questionnaires become scientifically validated and the algorithms tested, these sites could make an important contribution to understanding the psychology of attraction.

I doubt very much whether they will improve the chances of a long-term relationship (John Gottman’s fascinating work suggests the crucial aspects are in interaction style, not the attraction) but they may tell us a few things about how we get drawn towards potential mates.

Obviously though, the companies will have to be a little more open and stop being so defensive. Learn to trust one another. Open their hearts. Stop in the name of love.

And if you’re still cynical, you may want to check out an article in this month’s Time by the fantastic Carl Zimmer, looking at the evolution of romance.

Romance, it seems, is not a uniquely human pursuit, as it occurs throughout the animal kingdom – unaided by technology. A beautifully romantic idea if you think about it.

Link to NYT article ‘Hitting It Off, Thanks to Algorithms of Love’.
Link to Time article ‘Romance is an Illusion’.

The highs and lows of brain doping

Today’s edition of Nature has some commentary from scientists responding to their recent feature on ‘optimising’ the healthy brain with pharmaceutical drugs.

I suspect the letters have been edited a little though, as the first, from developmental psychologist James M. Swanson and neurobiologist Nora Volkow (who is also director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse) seems to suggest that enhancement drugs risk being addictive because:

…cognitive enhancers such as the stimulants methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine amplify the activity of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that increases saliency, making cognitive tasks and everyday activities seem more interesting and rewarding. This learned experience can lead to abuse of the drug and to compulsive use and addiction in vulnerable people.

These drugs are widely used for cognitive enhancement, but the issue is hardly new as these are relatively old drugs that almost solely target the dopamine system, whereas the newer ‘cognitive enhancement’ drugs (most notably modafinil) work in a quite different way (modafinil alters dopamine, among other effects, but it’s hardly comparable).

Hence, they do not have the same pharmacological potential for abuse and simply aren’t found to be as addictive as the amphetamines in the ‘real world’.

In fact, when the Nature article asked the hypothetical question whether you would take an enhancing drug if it had no side effects, it was almost certainly inspired by modafinil.

While the drug isn’t side-effect free (several are common) it tends to be significantly less risky than your typical high-charge dopamine agonist such as amphetamine, which can cause cardiovascular problems and psychosis to name but a few of its dangerous effects.

That issue aside, one of the most interesting points is made in a letter from philosopher Nick Bostrom who argues that drug companies should be allowed to develop enhancement drugs without having to specify an illness to treat.

He argues this is because the current system demands that drugs are licensed for a specific disorder, which means new disorders get invented (‘disease mongering‘) as a way of legitimising the sale of drugs which are helpful but for less serious problems of living, such as low-level anxiety, persistent tiredness or normal memory decline, but are not significant medical treatments.

So maybe the solution to the drug companies warping medicine is to allow them to sell drugs as ‘tonics’, rather than medications. Certainly food for thought.

There’s several other responses on the ethics and experiences of cognitive enhancement from some of the leaders in the field, so well worth a look through.

Link to ‘brain doping’ correspondence in Nature

False trails in the pursuit of consciousness

Seed Magazine has an excellent article by Nicholas Humphrey on understanding consciousness and why current attempts may be failing because we’re asking the wrong questions.

Humphrey suggests four questions which he feels are more relevant to the problem, and, with a rhetorical flourish, suggests some answers to them.

However, one of the most interesting parts is where he discusses philosopher Jerry Fodor’s interest in what consciousness is useful for:

Fodor has stated this aspect of the problem bluntly: “There are several reasons why consciousness is so baffling. For one thing, it seems to be among the chronically unemployed. What mental processes can be performed only because the mind is conscious, and what does consciousness contribute to their performance? As far as anybody knows, anything that our conscious minds can do they could do just as well if they weren’t conscious. Why then did God bother to make consciousness?”

Fodor is undoubtedly asking the right question: “Why did God‚Äîor rather natural selection‚Äîmake consciousness?” Yet I’d suggest the reason he finds it all so baffling is that he is starting off with the completely wrong premise, for he has assumed, as indeed almost everyone else does, that phenomenal consciousness must be providing us with some kind of new skill. In other words, it must be helping us do something that we can do only by virtue of being conscious, in the way that, say, a bird can fly only because it has wings, or you can understand this sentence only because you know English.

Yet I want to suggest the role of phenomenal consciousness may not be like this at all. Its role may not be to enable us to do something we could not do otherwise, but rather to encourage us to do something we would not do otherwise: to make us take an interest in things that otherwise would not interest us, or to mind things we otherwise would not mind, or to set ourselves goals we otherwise would not set.

Even if you don’t agree with Humphrey’s take on consciousness (of course, in consciousness research, it’s de rigeur to disagree with almost everyone) it’s a thought-provoking and clearly written piece.

As an aside, the cover story on the same issue of Seed Magazine is a piece by Jonah Lehrer on IBM’s large-scale low-level brain simulation project Blue Brain. It’s not freely available online, however, so you’ll need to hit the news stands or the library to have a read.

Link to Seed article ‘Questioning Consciousness’.

The significance of day dreams

From p353 of The Psychology of Day-Dreams by Dr J. Varendonck, published in 1921:

Like nocturnal dreams, day dreams betray preoccupations with unsolved problems, harassing cares, or overwhelming impressions which require accommodation, only their language is not as sibylline as that of their unconscious correspondents…

But they all strive towards the future; they all seem to prepare some accommodation, to obtain some prospective advantage to the ego; in fine, they are attempts at adaptation: such is their biological meaning. They complete the functions of consciousness without our mental alertness.

Varendonck was attempting to apply Freud’s theory of dreaming to daydreams, and, as was customary at the time, largely based his theories on ideas generated from his own daydreams.

I had to look up ‘sibylline’. Apparently it relates to the Sibylline oracles and in this context it means ‘knowledge giving’.