The Lives They Left Behind

PsychCentral has alerted me to a wonderful online exhibit based on the lives of several psychiatric patients whose belongings were found in suitcases in an old asylum attic years after they had passed away.

All the individuals were patients at the Willard Asylum, some for as long as 62 years.

Unfortunately, the site is a bit over-Flashed which means it’s not the most intuitive to navigate, but it’s worth grappling with the menus at the bottom of the screen as the stories are incredibly touching.

The photo on the right is of ‘Frank’:

On June 7, 1945, Mr. Frank #27967 went into the Virginia Restaurant on Fulton Street in Brooklyn and was served a meal on a broken plate. He became upset and caused a disruption outside the restaurant, yelling and kicking garbage cans. The police were called, and, instead of arresting him, brought him to the psychiatric ward at Kings County Hospital. From there, he was transferred to Brooklyn State Hospital, and on April 9, 1946, he was admitted to Willard, one of a growing number of African American patients transferred to Willard from New York City in the 40s, due to over-crowding…

Mr. Frank # 27967 never escaped the consequences of that day outside the restaurant in 1945. In 1949, he was transferred from Willard to the Veterans Administration hospital in Canandaigua, NY, and in 1954 to the VA hospital in Pittsburgh. He died there 30 years later, having spent more than half his life in an institution.

The site also has a great deal of information about the hospital itself, audio recordings of memories of the institution and more information about the book and touring exhibition which is on the road right now.

In fact, it’s currently on show at the Cayuga Museum of History and Art in Auburn, New York.

Link to The Lives They Left Behind online exhibit.

Where angels no longer fear to tread

The Economist has an article which serves as an interesting summary of some of the recent work on the psychology and neuroscience of religious belief.

It’s a little bit clumsy in places. For example, it summarises some of the work on the role of the temporal lobes as saying that “religious visions are the result of epileptic seizures that affect this part of the brain”.

Certainly, temporal lobe seizures are associated with religious experiences. A recent review reported that about 0.5% to 3% of people with the condition experience them.

But this work suggests that this is only one factor and actually minor functional changes are probably more important in the general population [pdf].

It’s also important to note that this sort of neuroscience research typically looks at beliefs and experiences concerning the ‘supernatural’ elements of religion.

However, the Economist article also discusses some recent psychological research looking at the influence of religion on social reasoning and touches on the possible evolutionary explanations for the widespread and persistent nature of religious ideas.

Link to Economist article ‘Where angels no longer fear to tread’.

Common scents and the psychology of smell

Nerve has a brief but interesting interview with psychologist Rachel Herz who talks about her research on the sense of smell and how it can influence our mind and behaviour.

I’ve not encountered Herz’s work before but it turns out she’s done a great deal of scientific research on the psychology and neuroscience of smell and has just written a book, The Scent of Desire, which seems to present the science of smell in an accessible format.

The interview contains a number of gems, but this particularly caught my eye:

Why do we grow accustomed to odors, but not to something like sound? In other words, why is the stench of garbage outside my apartment nowhere near as distracting as the drilling?

When we experience olfactory adaptation, the receptor literally stops responding to a chemical in the air after about twenty minutes. We adapt to all the sensations that are out there, but when the drilling starts and stops, your attention focuses on it and you’re irritated.

Smell is a fascinating area, perhaps because it is relatively unstudied (especially compared to vision).

We previously covered an interesting review article that talked about the fact that the brain has two smell networks – something that came us a complete surprise to me.

Link to Nerve interview with Rachel Herz.
Link to more info on The Scent of Desire book.

Seduction of the Innocent and the myth of Wertham

The New Yorker has a wonderful article on the famous American crackdown on horror comics in the 1950s, a campaign sparked by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham.

Wertham wrote the influential book, Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that the comics of the time caused juvenile delinquency.

He listed themes that supposedly ran through various popular story lines, highlighting homosexual themes (Batman and Robin), bondage (Wonder Woman) and numerous examples of what he considered to be extreme violence.

It became a best-seller and eventually led to a Congressional inquiry into the morality and effect of comic book industry on young people.

Fearing state censorship, the comics book industry imposed their own code which, for years afterwards, virtually eliminated depictions of violence, gore, most supernatural themes, or anything that might be considered to hint at sexuality.

As a side-effect, it did lead to some curious titles that were deliberately intended to be more ‘wholesome’. As we discussed previously on Mind Hacks, one of these was the ‘Psychoanalysis’ series of comics.

The New Yorker article is so interesting because it looks at a new book which suggests that Wertham was not some sort of crazed censorship-fiend, as he’s sometimes depicted, and notes that he was actually against the subsequent censorship of comics.

Despite his concerns about delinquency and homosexuality, which seem a little odd in modern light, he had other more laudable aims which seem equally as relevant today and may have been hijacked by others:

He was against the code. He did not want to censor comic books, only to restrict their sale so that kids could not buy them without a parent present. He wanted to give them the equivalent of an R rating. Bart Beaty’s “Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture” ($22, paper; University Press of Mississippi) makes a strong case for the revisionist position. As Beaty points out, Wertham was not a philistine; he was a progressive intellectual. His Harlem clinic was named for Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law. He collected modern art, helped produce an anthology of modernist writers, and opposed censorship. He believed that people’s behavior was partly determined by their environment, in this respect dissenting from orthodox Freudianism, and some of his work, on the psychological effects of segregation on African-Americans, was used in the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education.

Wertham thought that representations make a difference—that how people see themselves and others reflected in the media affects the way they think and behave. As Beaty says, racist (particularly concerning Asians) and sexist images and remarks can be found on almost every page of crime and horror comics. What especially strikes a reader today is the fantastic proliferation of images of violence against women, almost always depicted in highly sexualized forms. If one believes that pervasive negative images of black people are harmful, why would one not believe the same thing about images of men beating, torturing, and killing women?

Interestingly, Wertham was not the only mind doctor involved in comics.

Psychologist William Moulton Marston was the creator of Wonder Woman and a lot of his personal and scientific interests appear in the stories.

He lived in a polyamorous relationship with two women (one, Elizabeth Marston, a noted psychologist herself) and was particularly interested in using blood pressure as part of lie detection technology (his ideas are still used in the polygraph test today).

Consequently, William and Elizabeth created Wonder Woman to be a strong, liberated female character who had a Lasso of Truth which would wrap itself around villains and prevent them from lying.

Link to New Yorker article ‘The Horror’ (via BB).
Link to info on book ‘Fredric Wertham And The Critique Of Mass Culture’.

Little known, and even less forgiven

The picture is of the memorial to Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, a 17th century treatise on depression and still one of the greatest books in the history of medicine.

It is built into one of the pillars in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, as he was both a vicar in the city and one of the governors of Christ Church college.

While Burton demonstrated his remarkable scholarship in the book, he had more than simply an academic interest in the subject matter.

He suffered severe depression during his life and admitted in the preface to the book (writing under the pen name Democritus Junior), that it served to keep his spirits up by keeping him busy.

His final piece of advice to sufferers of melancholy was “be not solitary, be not idle”, which holds equally well today as it did in 1621.

The book was a huge success and was highly regarded among Burton’s peers, but he was obviously down on himself until the end, as his monument contains a curious Latin epitaph which he wrote himself. It reads:

Paucis notus, paucioribus ignotus,
Hic jacet Democritus junior
Cui vitam dedit et mortem
Ob. 8 Id. Jan. A. C. MDCXXXIX.

It apparently translates to “Little known, and even less forgiven, here lies Democritus Junior, who gave his life and death to Melancholy. Died 9th January, 1639”.

The book is still widely read and can regularly be seen on the shelves of high-street book shops.

Link to Wikipedia article on Burton’s book with link to full-text.

Playing mind games, off the shelf

PhysOrg has a brief article on the various ‘mind reading’ headsets that are in the pipeline and could make it onto the gaming market this year.

The article mentions several systems that are apparently close to release and notes some of technology which is intended to allow ‘thought control’ of games:

Emotiv, a company based in San Francisco, says its mind-control headsets will be on shelves later this year, along with a host of novel “biofeedback” games developed by its partners.

Several other companies Рincluding EmSense in Monterey, California; NeuroSky in San Jose, California; and Hitachi in Tokyo Рare also developing technology to detect players´ brainwaves and use them in next-gen video games.

The technology is based on medical technology that has been around for decades. Using a combination of EEGs (which reveal alpha waves that signify calmness), EMGs (which measure muscle movement), and ECGs and GSR (which measure heart rate and sweating), developers hope to create a picture of a player´s mental and physical state. Near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), which monitors changes in blood oxygenation, could also be incorporated since it overcomes some of the interference problems with EEGs.

I’ll be intrigued to see how well they work, but I suspect they’ll be more of a novelty than a genuinely useful addition for avid gamers, at least at first.

This is largely because the main technology for reading brain activity is EEG.

Even with thousands of pounds worth of kit, neuroscientists get participants to do the same task over and over and then average the results to get a reliable waveform.

This is partly because this technology is a relatively crude measure of the total electrical activity that happens over a large area (so on any one occasion the wave will be influenced by a number of other brain functions going on at the same time), and partly because the electrical activity from something as small as the eye-blink muscles drowns out the signal from the brain.

It’s interesting that the article mentions near infrared spectroscopy as another possible way of reading brain function (as used by Natalie Portman).

This involves beaming near-infrared light into the head, where it penetrates the skull and gets absorbed by brain to differing degrees, depending on how much blood is in the area. The amount of light that bounces back can be used to infer blood saturation and, hence, brain activity.

However, changes in blood flow lag behind the activity of the neurons by up to 5 seconds (and interestingly, this varies as we age). This is because blood is ‘called in’ to replenish the local nutrients that are instantly available but in short supply.

Similarly, systems that measure skin conductance or heart rate (a proxy measure for arousal or stress) have a similar problem with lag.

So gamers wanting to control games at the ‘speed of thought’ are likely to be disappointed. EEG is too noisy, NIRS is too slow.

What the headsets might do well, however, is something quite different.

The MIT Affective Computing group have spent several years looking at how computers could present information differently depending on the emotional state of the user.

According to Jonathan Moreno’s book Mind Wars this is also something that the US Military has great interest in, and you can also see how it would enhance games.

The readings from the headset will probably do a better job of keeping track of the easier to measure and relatively slow moving responses like arousal and stress, and these could be used by game designers to enhance your experience (maybe to slow things down if you’re too stressed and under-performing to avoid frustration, or to pump-things up at tense moments).

One of the most interesting possibilities is what might happen when hackers got hold of the systems.

Suddenly, they’ll be thousands of people with standard kit for reading physiological responses and, to a certain extent, brain function.

As soon as someone finds a way to reliably read a novel type of brain function, even with this limited technology, everyone will be able to use it.

Furthermore, it might lead to some fascinating home cognitive neuroscience experiments and demonstrations. Imagine having a home NIRS system – rock on!

Link to PhysOrg article on ‘Mind Gaming’ (via 3QD).

Normality bites

BBC Radio 4 has just concluded another run of its fantastic series Am I Normal? which looks at the science of differences in our minds, brains and abilities.

The series has done a remarkably good job in exploring the psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience of common human concerns and how they differ across the population.

This stretches from distinct pathologies and medical disorders at one end, to normal variation at the other – although ‘normal variation’ itself contains a diverse array of differences.

The latest series looked at shyness and social phobia, dyslexia, maths and selective mathematical difficulties and, finally, insomnia and sleep.

Insomnia is particularly interesting because psychological concerns are known to play a huge role in maintaining the patterns of broken sleep and subsequent anxiety.

For example, a well-replicated finding is that people with insomnia vastly under-estimate the amount of sleep they get during the night, sometimes sleeping several more hours that they think they do (Tom discussed some of this research in on Mind Hacks back in 2004, and the full text of a recent scientific paper on the topic is available online as a pdf).

Evidence also suggests that worry feeds into this biased perception of sleep, and that there is also quite a discrepancy between how people with insomnia perceive the impairments they experience in their waking life, and what neuropsychological tests actually find.

This isn’t to suggest that people with insomnia are exaggerators (it’s worth noting that they do have genuine sleep difficulties), simply that one of the main difficulties is how they evaluate their sleep and its impact – which tends to prolong or make the problem worse.

This is why psychological and behavioural treatments (such as cognitive therapy or changing the environment or daily routines) are particularly effective in treating sleep difficulties.

Link to BBC Radio 4 Am I Normal? series (via BPSRD).