Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning

I’ve just finished reading the wonderful Man’s Search for Meaning, a 1946 book written by psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor E. Frankl, where he discusses his experiences and observations as a Nazi concentration camp inmate.

The book comes in two parts, the first recounts Frankl’s experience as an inmate in two concentration camps; the second discusses the ideas behind the form of psychotherapy he developed, called logotherapy.

Unlike narrative accounts of concentration camp life, such as Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, Frankl describes scenes rather than a story and uses them to explore the psychology of both the oppressed and the oppressors in the camp.

The book is particularly outstanding in that it explores the social complexities of the concentration camps with remarkable subtlety, noting when the failings of the inmates and the humanity of the guards were present. He highlights that these seemingly out-of-place responses had the most impact amid the brutality of camp life.

It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils. Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camp’s influences, and, on the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible. Obviously the prisoners found the lack of character in such men especially upsetting, while they were profoundly moved by the smallest kindness received from any of the guards. [p93]

In a sense, Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment just re-iterated what Frankl was saying years before – that coercive systems breed their own conformity and that average people need extraordinary courage to step outside the norm.

Frankl’s form of psychotherapy is influenced partly by his wartime experiences and draws on the fact that some concentration camp inmates could still find purpose in their lives despite the hellish conditions.

The therapy attempts to help people who are experiencing inescapable suffering to cope better, by looking at ways in which they can find meaning in their lives.

Paradoxically, suggests Frankl, for some the experience of suffering is the one thing that inspired a discovery of meaning in a previously superficial existence. Accepting that all life involves some suffering allows us to use the experience to better understand ourselves and others.

Frankl was not the only mind doctor in the concentration camps, indeed he was among a long list of professionals who were interred.

Psychologist Bruno Bettleheim famously wrote the article ‘Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations’ after his experiences.

Bettleheim, best known for his work on child psychology, was a complex character whose reputation has fluctuated greatly since his death.

Even the story of his article on concentration camp psychology is fascinatingly complex, as recounted in a 1997 article [pdf] by Christian Fleck and Albert Müller.

Link to Wikipedia article on ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ (thanks Ceny!)
pdf of article ‘Bettleheim and the Concentration Camps’.

My mind on my money and my money on my mind

This is an excerpt from quite possibly the geekiest forensic pathology article I have ever read. Three pathologists discuss the physics of how a Mexican coin ended up in the brain of a dead shooting victim.

They speculate he may have been holding it in his hand while shielding his head and the bullet impacted on the coin and both ended up deep in the brain. Oh, but with maths.

The images on the left are an artist’s reconstruction of the position of the man when shot and the path of the bullet, and a photo of the coin in the dead man’s brain.

Items that become accessory or secondary projectiles usually possess a minimal amount of energy, producing superficial or insignificant wounds. The secondary projectile in this case, a coin, gained sufficient kinetic energy to penetrate the scalp, skull, and brain. We believe the coin was being held by the decedent in his left hand next to his head at the time of the shooting. The bullet passed through the hand, producing the described injury and picking up the coin as a secondary projectile before entering the head.

The coin, a 1970 Mexican 50-centavo piece, was 25 mm in diameter with a weight of 6.4 g. In comparison, the diameter of a 1970 U.S. quarter dollar coin is 24.3 mm with a weight of 5.6 g. Both coins contain a mixture of copper and nickel, and the U.S. coin is coated with silver. The mixture of nickel and copper is relatively soft and permits deformation, as seen in this case. The primary projectile, a .380-caliber automatic Colt pistol 9- √ó 17-mm Winchester Silvertip bullet, weighs 5.1 g, with a rated muzzle velocity of 304 m/second (1000 feet/second). The mass of the conjoined projectile more than doubled with addition of the coin, yet retained sufficient velocity to produce the described lethal injury.

We attempted to see if this would be theoretically possible using some simple physical principles. Under ideal conditions, this event represents a form of an inelastic collision. We assumed that there was conservation of momentum between the oncoming bullet and the departing conjoined bullet-coin mass that subsequently penetrated the skull and brain. If momentum is conserved during this collision, then the mass of the bullet multiplied by its velocity would equal the mass of the conjoined bullet and 50-centavo coin multiplied by their departing velocity. The velocity of the bullet just prior to striking the coin is unknown and could not be determined.

For our calculations, we used the known muzzle velocity of this ammunition, understanding the limitations of such an assumption. We also calculated the kinetic energy and momentum of the oncoming bullet and exiting conjoined bullet-coin before and after collision. The results indicate two things: as expected in an inelastic collision, the kinetic energy of the conjoined bullet and coin is much less than that of the oncoming bullet, and the velocity of the conjoined projectile drops by greater than a factor of two. No doubt some of this loss in kinetic energy resulted from the energy expended in deforming the Mexican coin. The calculated loss in velocity of the bullet postcollision slows this projectile (i.e., the conjoined bullet/coin) to <150 meters per second (<450 feet/second). However, this velocity would still be well in excess of the minimal velocity needed to penetrate skin and bone, which has been reported to be about 66 meters per second (200 feet/second).

Forensic pathology has this morbid deadpan geekiness about it which just makes it so interesting to read.

You can just see them in the pathology room, arguing about what happened and sketching calculations on the back of envelopes.

Link to PubMed entry for article.

The history and psychology of wine

The May issue of The Psychologist has a freely available cover article on wine which takes a suitably meandering route through the history and psychology of the fermented grape.

It’s full of fascinating facts from times past mixed in with recent findings from research studies.

I particularly liked this section, which starts with an ancient Persian decision-making technique (still widely used during weekends in London) and goes on to look at the influence of music on wine purchasing:

Many psychoactive substances have been associated with creativity, and ancient Persians are reported to have used wine to facilitate decision making. An issue would be explored whilst intoxicated and, the next day, the conclusions that stood up to sober scrutiny were adopted.

Some psychologists have demonstrated associations between music played in retail outlets and subsequent wine purchases. Playing classical or pop music does not influence the amount of wine purchased but appears to influence the average price of bottles selected, with classical music leading to sales of more expensive wines (Areni & Kim, 1993). It also appears that playing French or German music influences selections, with more purchases of wines from the same origin as the music (North et al., 1999).

There’s also plenty more ammunition in the article for anyone wanting to convince themselves that wine snobbery is bunk. For example, adding red food colouring to white wine is enough to convince wine masters that they can ‘nose’ red wine scents.

Unfortunately, the article on the webpage is almost impossible to read because of the broken formatting, so I suggest just reading it straight from the pdf.

Link to article ‘On vines and minds’.
pdf of same.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor of The Psychologist but am ignorant about wine!

2008-04-25 Spike activity

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

BBC science programme The Material World has a great feature on the blood-brain barrier. I love the blood-brain barrier!

In light of the recent resurgence of a penis theft panic in Congo, here’s a link to an old article of mine on the psychology of penis theft beliefs.

Sharp Brains rounds up a fantastic series of interviews with neuroscientists.

Professor Semir Zeki has a posse, sorry… blog.

The Times has a review of a new book on the behavioural genetics of personality.

A remarkably comprehensive article on the drug industry’s underhand tactics with antipsychotic drugs is published by the St Petersburg Times.

Cognitive Daily looks at the desensitising effect of violent video games.

Research to test human brain implants to control robot arms is submitted for review in Japan, reports Pink Tentacle.

The New York Times has an interview with Daniel Gilbert on the curious psychology of happiness.

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg writes about brain science and the biology of belief.

ABC Radio National have had a couple of good shows on food and the evolution of the brain; and hearing, lip reading and language perception.

Does language shape cognition? The New York Times re-examines the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in light of new research.

Discover Magazine has an interesting short article on how earthquake prediction algorithms also apply to epileptic seizures.

The ‘top ten mind myths‘ series is concluded by PsyBlog.

Frontal Cortex has a fascinating discussion of how society regards MRI scans, compared to the limits of the science.

Current tools are not very good at identifying ‘kiddie psychopaths‘, reports the BPS Research Digest.

Treatment Online looks at a study that tracked how the balance of genes and environment differs on women’s paths to alcoholism.

Some recent books on consciousness are discussed by My Mind of Books.

Sexy serotonin tattoo

Carl Zimmer has been collecting science tattoos for a while now, but recently posted this tattoo of Hayley who has the molecular structure of serotonin tattooed elegantly over her body.

I’m sure there’s some relevant chat-up line for exactly such a situation when you meet someone with serotonin tattooed across their butt, but I’m too tired to try and formulate it, so I shall leave it as an exercise for the reader.

Of course, if you’ve been drinking, refrain from trying to incorporate G coupled receptors into your chat-up line, it’s obviously going to end with someone getting a slap.

Link to serotonin tattoo (thanks Sandra!).

I’m on the drug that killed Paul Erdős

In the wake of the Nature survey that found that 20% of scientists admit to using brain enhancing drugs, Wired has just published an article detailing what drugs their scientist readers use to keep on keepin’ on.

Although the drugs issue is obviously the headline-grabber, the publication also has a great feature on cognitive enhancement that largely covers tips, tricks and techniques to boost your mental skills that aren’t drug-related.

The article itself is anecdotally interesting, but has a curious tone throughout:

Surprisingly large numbers of people appear to be using brain-enhancing drugs to work harder, longer and better. They’re popping pills normally prescribed for narcolepsy or attention-deficit disorder to improve their performance at work and school.

“We aren’t the teen clubbers popping uppers to get through a hard day running a cash register after binge drinking,” wrote a Ph.D. research scientist who regularly takes a wakefulness drug called Provigil, normally prescribed for narcolepsy. “We are responsible humans.”

Whenever people talk about using drugs, they’re always keen to distance themselves from that sort of drug user. You know, the ones that aren’t responsible.

This belies the fact that most people use most drugs with few problems. Even teen clubbers popping uppers.

While all drugs have risks and illicit street drugs increase the health risks and definitely have an impact on body and brain function, it’s only a minority of drug users who have problems that interfere with their daily lives.

For example, a recent study found that 4% of Australian workers use the (fairly nasty) drug methamphetamine. The figure rises to over 11% for 18-29 year olds. That more than 1 in 10.

While the study found that using methamphetamine significantly increases chances of a range of health problems, it’s still the minority of users that report significant problems. This is the typical pattern for studies on drug use.

In other words, drugs are bad for you but most people manage the risks. A small minority, of course, don’t, and die instantly or suffer long-term consequences.

The benefit and using and abusing prescription drugs for ‘brain doping’ is largely in the fact that you can be sure of the purity of the product and that probably (depending on how you acquire them) you’re not funding a vicious criminal network.

At the end of the day though, the process is the same, whether you’re using legal drugs, illegal drugs, for recreation or for performance.

Just make sure you’re educated about the risks and know the consequences. Just like everything else in life.

Link to Readers’ Brain-Enhancing Drug Regimens.
Link to Wired ‘Give Your Intellect a Boost’ techniques.