The ghost of moral madness

Only the morally weak and degenerate became mentally ill in the 18th century. At least, that’s what the popular theories of the time suggested. Madness was caused by moral failings and those who lost their mind were sinners.

We like to think that we live in enlightened times and that only in the far outskirts of the religious fringe are mental disorder and immorality thought to be (presumably gay) bedfellows.

Politics is one of the few areas were accusations of mental illness are considered fair game. I don’t mean simply calling someone or their ideas ‘mad’, ‘loony’ or ‘crazy’. I mean suggesting a politician or a political group has a diagnosable mental disorder.

US psychiatrist Lyle Rossiter published a book in 2006 claiming that liberalism was a form of clinical mental illness. Bang up to date with the latest in 1920s Freudian analysis, Rossiter claims that liberalism is caused by problems with relationships as a child, leading to a pathological fear of abandonment and an obsessive need for an omnipotent control of others.

Presidents fair little better. A 2004 book claimed George W Bush is an untreated alcoholic, while a 2000 book claimed Clinton was racked with compulsions.

In the UK, so many people accused Tony Blair of being insane that an article was published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine that gathered the accusations and wondered why otherwise respectable clinicians feel the need to diagnose public figures.

It seems this is one of our last bastions of publicly acceptable prejudice against mental illness. We would be horrified if politicians were labelled epileptic because of their views, but barely blink an eyelid when they’re called schizophrenic.

This makes it all the more ironic that numerous successful politicians have been genuinely mentally ill. Winston Churchill was famously pursued by his ‘black dog’ throughout his time as Prime Minister and a recent biographical study by Duke University found evidence for psychiatric problems in 37 US Presidents from 1776 to 1974.

One of the most remarkable stories from recent years comes from Scandanavia, where Kjell Magne Bondevik, the then serving Prime Minister of Norway, announced he needed three weeks sick leave owing to an episode of depression.

Bondevik returned to work and was re-elected in the subsequent election. He’s now retired from politics, campaigns to fight the stigma associated with mental illness and was recently interviewed (realvideo) about his experiences on BBC’s Newsnight programme.

It’s a optimistic story for many reasons, but the fact that the Norwegian electorate seemed more concerned with his past record than his diagnosis gives us genuine hope that we’re slowly banishing the ghost of moral madness.

Link to JRSM article ‘The Madness of Politics’.
realvideo of Kjell Magne Bondevik interview.

Maternal disorder

The drowning of five children by their mother, Andrea Yates, was a case that forced many to confront an issue that most would rather ignore. Yates was one of the rare cases of women with puerperal (childbirth associated) psychosis who kill their children.

This week’s ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind talks to three forensic clinicians who research and work with women who have either killed or injured their children while mentally ill.

It’s an extraordinarily emotive issue, both due to the cries of condemnation from those appalled by what they consider ‘evil’ acts, and the concerns of others worried that focusing on the issue will strengthen the largely unfounded stereotype of the ‘dangerous mentally ill’.

All in the Mind manages to tackle the issue incredibly sensitively, a rarity in a world where these tragic situations only ever seem to get attention as sensational news stories or political point-scoring.

The programme looks at the sorts of mental states which have led to these tragedies and talks to two female forensic psychiatrists about how they deal with the strong emotions that these cases stir up.

If you’re interested in a more academic approach to the research in this area, psychiatrist Margaret Spinelli wrote an important 2004 article on maternal infanticide in the American Journal of Psychiatry that’s freely available online.

The programme also tackles the difficult subject of female sex offenders and how clinical science is being applied to preventing and treating this subset of the forensic population.

Link to AITM on maternal disorder.
Link to AJP article on maternal infanticide.

War apparently boosts Iraqi teenagers’ self-esteem

Who would have guessed the Iraq war would be so uplifting to the children of Baghdad? According to research funded by the US Military, the invasion boosted the self-esteem of Iraqi teenagers.

The BPS Research Digest covers the study which took place in the summer of 2004, a year after the invasion.

With this new found benefit of invasion, the next target seems obvious – those self-deprecating Canadians!

Link to BPS Research Digest write-up of the study.

Psychology Today, every day

Psychology Today is a bimonthly US magazine that’s traditionally been thought of as a ‘pop psychology’ publication but has made efforts in recent years to be more scientific. They’ve just launched a blog network and have attracted some big names in academic psychology to contribute.

Authors include psychiatrist Peter Kramer, evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa and MIT media lab cognitive scientist Dan Ariely, as well as the regular editorial staff from the magazine.

Some of the authors aren’t due to start in earnest until the beginning of March, but there’s some good material on there already and looks very promising.

Link to Psychology Today blogs.

2008-02-22 Spike activity

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

The New York Times tackles the debate about whether psychiatric drugs can increase suicide in some instances.

To the bunkers! Agent Kurzweil at work again: Machines to match man by 2029. Virtuality and reality to merge.

Yale psychiatrist Charles Barber argues in the Washington Post that healing a troubled mind takes more than a pill.

PsychCentral covers a new guide on how to apply research findings to treatment with psychological therapies.

How the Media Messes with Your Mind: Scientific American has a brief article on how recognising two common fallacies can help you separate fact from media fiction.

Neuroanthropology asks whether studies on culture and neuroscience are all brain and no culture?

Philosopher and New Mysterian Colin McGinn reviews Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia in the New York Review of Books.

The non-sight senses of blind people are not more acute but they may develop new skills to compensate, reports PsyBlog.

Vivid but inconclusive examples vs ambiguous scientific data: The New York Times on the renewed debate over drug side-effects in light of latest school shooting.

In some very limited circumstances a laser could be used to transmit sound to the ear with a recently uncovered military technology, reports Wired.

Artists create a humanoid robot which uses brainwave activity recorded during sleep to playback an interpretation of your dreams.

Powell’s has an in-depth review of ‘The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder’.

The end of the Flynn effect? The BPS Research Digest on a study that found a decline in IQs when measured in 2004.

Cognitive Daily looks at a study which asks whether music preferences are a guide to personality.

An Unquiet Lecture

Someone’s uploaded a video to YouTube of the fantastic Kay Redfield Jamison discussing her own experiences with bipolar disorder.

Jamison is a psychologist and one of the world’s leading experts on the science of the condition that’s often called manic depression.

She was known for her groundbreaking work on the disorder for many years before she ‘came out of the closet’ and described her own experience in her powerful and lyrical autobiography An Unquiet Mind.

Having attempted suicide and become quite psychotic at times, she has experienced the most extreme edges of the condition.

In this lecture, rather than presenting any of her considerable scientific research, she discusses the subjective experience of the highs, lows and distortions of thought that can occur in this mood disorder.

Link to Kay Redfield Jamison lecture (via AHP/WoP).

Child’s play is a tough problem

Children’s play has long fascinated psychologists. The post-Freudians saw it as a direct expression of the human unconscious and its often been seen an essential, if not slightly mysterious, element of a healthy childhood.

The New York Times has a wonderfully in-depth article on the latest scientific discoveries on the role of play in development, most of which attempts to answer the question ‘if play is so energy consuming and dangerous, why do almost all mammals engage in it when young?’.

One fascinating bit discusses ‘play signals’, body postures that are specifically used by humans and other mammals to advertise the fact that they’re playing, and so none of the rough-and-tumble is mistaken for aggression:

Social play has its own vocabulary. Dogs have a particular body posture called the ‘‘play bow’’ — forelegs extended, rump in the air — that they use as both invitation and punctuation. A dog will perform a play bow at the beginning of a bout, and he will crouch back into it if he accidentally nips too hard and wants to assure the other dog: ‘‘Don’t worry! Still playing!’’

Other species have play signals, too. Chimps put on a ‘‘play face,’’ an open-mouthed expression that is almost like a face of aggression except that the muscles are relaxed into something like a smile. Baboons bend over and peer between their legs as an invitation to play, beavers roll around, goats gambol in a characteristic ‘‘play gait.’’ In fact, most species have from 10 to 100 distinct play signals that they use to solicit play or to reassure one another during play-fighting that it’s still all just in fun. In humans, the analogue to the chimp’s play face is a child’s smile, an open expression that indicates there is no real anger involved even in gestures that can look like a fight.

…[in humans] Brown could detect some typical gestures that these 2- and 3-year-olds were using instinctively to let one another know they were playing. ‚Äò‚ÄòPlay movement is curvilinear,‚Äô‚Äô he said. ‚Äò‚ÄòIf that boy was reaching for something in a nonplay situation, his body would be all straight lines. But using the body language of play, he curves and embraces.‚Äô‚Äô

The article also looks at the possible benefits of play for brain development, and what role play takes in the learning of social roles and moral behaviour.

Link to NYT article ‘Taking Play Seriously’.