The science of ‘voodoo death’

Can you die from a voodoo curse? Physiologist Walter Cannon was better known for his work on emotion but was fascinated by the idea that someone could die from fright – something he nicknamed ‘voodoo death’.

He collected anecdotes from around the world of people who had died after being cursed in a now classic 1942 article.

But rather than simply recount the tales as curiosities, he speculated on the medical basis of how someone might die of fright – triggering a whole line of research into neurocardiology, the study of how the brain and heart work together.

Cannon’s ideas were recently revisited by physician Esther Sternberg who looked at whether scientific developments since 1942 have made us any the wiser to this intriguing phenomenon.

While there is no clear idea on whether the belief in a curse directly kills many people, it seems Connon’s ideas on fear’s effect on the body had remarkable foresight and preceded many later discoveries about body-brain connections.

If you’re interested in hearing more, psychiatrist Stuart Brown gave one of the prestigious 2006 ‘TED’ talks on play, which is available to view on the National Institute of Play’s website.

Link to Cannon’s 1942 “Voodoo” Death article.
Link to Sternberg’s 2002 update.

Three impossible things before breakfast

The Guardian has a insightful piece by journalist Rik Hemsley describing his personal experiences with Alice in Wonderland syndrome, where the ‘body image’ or ‘body map’ becomes distorted, leading the affected person to feel like particular parts of the body, or the whole of it, have changed size or shape.

It doesn’t usually involve direct visual hallucinations, but can lead to the sensation that the world around you has grown to an enormous size, or that you have shrunk.

It was first described by psychiatrist John Todd in a 1955 article that you can read freely online, which I discovered when writing an previous post on the neurology of Alice in Wonderland.

It’s usually associated with epilepsy or migraine although is actually quite common, although not always in such an intense form as The Guardian article describes.

Children often experience it but grow out of it as they reach adulthood (both of which happened to me).

Link to Guardian article ‘I have Alice In Wonderland syndrome’ (via BB).
Link to full-text of Todd’s original article.

Five auditory illusions

In one of its rare fits of generosity, New Scientist has put a feature online that demonstrates five cool auditory illusions.

Possibly the freakiest, is psychologist Diana Deutsch’s illusion called ‘Phantom Words’. For me at least, I began by a hearing certain phrase, only to hear it transform over time into something else.

The ‘temporal induction of speech’ illusion is a wonderful example of how our brain fills in missing information better when there’s sound rather than silence in the way.

All of them are well-worth checking out and accompany this week’s special issue on the psychology and neuroscience of music, all of which is sadly behind a pay wall.

Link to NewSci ‘five great auditory illusions’.
Link to music special issue table of contents.

Personality plagiarism rife on internet dating sites

When you present yourself to potential suitors in an online dating profile, you are, in the terminology of psychology, ‘constructing the self’. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that the most attractive profiles are being ripped off and plagiarised by lazy daters wanting to freeload on the most creative members’ personalities.

The Wall Street Journal has an article which looks on how this practice has developed and uncovers several cases where romantic lines, funny descriptions and personal reflections are copied over and over again.

Psychologist Sherry Turkle’s ground-breaking book Life on the Screen looked at the online construction of the self during the days of text based communication, MOOs and MUDs.

As we become increasingly tied to our online profiles, owing to the popularity of sites like MySpace, Facebook and numerous dating services, it’s not surprising that they become more intimately associated with our own ideas about who we are.

They are also more easily copied than offline ways of expressing ourselves, leading to the situation where daters wanting to get lucky can just remix other people’s personalities to maximise their chances of success.

Link to WSJ article ‘The Cut-and-Paste Personality’.

A bait and switch trick on torture and psychologists?

A poster on Metafilter has collected together news reports on the growing number of psychologists leaving the American Psychological Association in protest at their failure to condemn members who take part in the ‘War on Terror’ interrogations.

One of the most surprising aspects is from a contributor who suggests that the APA released a different text to the one approved by a 2006 committee vote that was intended to condemn abusive practices by psychologists.

The campaign group Coalition for an Ethical Psychology released a report [pdf] claiming that the original statement reviewed by the committee defined torture in terms of the United Nations criteria, but the published resolution had been changed to refer to the US Constitution, providing a definition of torture that is being used to allow abusive interrogations.

Strong public protests over the PENS Report [which condoned psychologists participating in interrogations, without mentioning torture or other abuse] prompted the APA Divisions for Social Justice and others to craft a new resolution prohibiting psychologists from participating in abusive detainee interrogations. In August 2006, after much discussion and debate, the APA’S Council of Representatives passed a Resolution Against Torture, Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment.

However, the version published by the APA differed from the version discussed and passed by the Council, in at least one significant respect: in the document reviewed by Council, psychologists were instructed to look to the United Nations Principles of Medical Ethics and international instruments for definitions of unethical behavior and “torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” In the published document, the definition of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment instead was taken from the 5th, 8th and 14th amendments to the US Constitution, precisely the same definitions that had been used by the CIA, the DoD and the Bush Administration to assert that the abusive interrogation techniques in use at Guant√°namo, CIA black sites, and elsewhere were not “torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

The more recent August 2007 resolution refers to both the United Nations and the US Constitution criteria, presumably making for a much stricter definition, although still fails to define some key definitions concerning distress.

However, the fact that an earlier version was ‘switched’ is quite concerning as it has become clear that psychologists are an incredibly valuable part of interrogation or ‘Behavioral Science Consultation Teams’ (aka ‘biscuit teams’).

In contrast, psychologists’ colleagues in both the American medical and psychiatric associations have outright banned their members from participation.

In practice, this hasn’t stopped some physicians becoming complicit in these interrogations, but many US psychologists are embarrassed by their parent organisations unwillingness to take the equivalent ethical line when the profession is increasingly seeking equal status to doctors.

Link to MeFi on psychologists leaving the APA (via BoingBoing).

Diagnostic handshake

Mark Gurrieri was diagnosed with a brain tumour after shaking a doctor’s hand. BBC News has an interesting piece on the incident, where the doctor noticed that Gurrieri’s hand was spongy and swollen, suggesting a growth hormone problem that can be caused by a tumour on the brain’s pituitary gland.

Mr Gurrieri underwent tests and was found to have acromegaly – caused by a tumour in the pituitary gland which leads to excess growth hormone.

The condition is seen in just three people per million, and can have serious effects if left undiagnosed.

It causes problems with vision and can lead to diabetes and blood pressure problems.

If untreated acromegaly can also cause premature death.

Mr Gurrieri thought his hands were getting bigger because of too much DIY and working in his restaurant kitchen.

Link to BBC News article ‘Handshake diagnosed brain tumour’.

Encephalon: the new dawn

If you’ve been wondering what happened to the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival, it’s been on a brief hiatus while its management has been passed on to new hands.

It was previously managed by Mo at Neurophilosophy, whose time has now been largely captured as a neuroscience postgrad.

Luckily, the ever capable Alvaro Fernandez from Sharp Brains has taken the helm and just published the first edition of its return.

Fittingly, it’s a bumper issue, and contains articles on everything from Renaissance brain look-alikes to whether robots can feel emotions.

The next edition will be hosted on Mind Hacks on March 3rd so if you want to submit an article, just email a link to


and we’ll feature it.

Link to new Encephalon.