It is scientists who seek to get heaven in their heads

The wonderful image is an original drawing by the artist Masonic Boom, aka Kate St.Claire, as part of her series of psychological self portraits.

The quote in the image is from the author and philosopher G.K. Chesterton.

He was once asked by The Times to write an article on ‘What is wrong with the world?’ and send the following piece:

Dear Sirs,

I am.

Sincerely yours,
G. K. Chesterton

Thanks to Katie for allowing us to feature the image and it’s really worth seeing full size at the link below.

Link to full size image on Flickr.
Link to Masonic Boom collection.

The theatre of hysteria

I’m currently reading Elaine Showalter’s book Hystories, a cultural history of the concept of ‘hysteria‘, a term which has variously described the supposed effects of a ‘wandering womb’, unexplained neurological symptoms, panic, nervousness or just ‘making a fuss’.

She describes where medicine and media have collided, and highlights how popular interest in the condition has driven a long-standing tradition of fictional interpretations that have developed alongside medical understanding.

Showalter has a feminist angle although is generally even handed with the evidence and is not shy in highlighting the excesses of some past feminist writing on the subject.

One particularly interesting part is where she discusses how theatre interpreted the work of 19th century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot as it was happening.

Charcot is perhaps most famous for his work on hysteria and held regular Tuesday lectures at the Salp√™tri√®re hospital in Paris where he would theatrically demonstrate the symptoms of hysteria in favourite female patients who apparently ‘performed’ with an equal flourish.

As we mentioned previously, one of the reasons Charcot’s work was so widely known is because he used the newly developed technology of photography to create striking and sometimes pseudo-erotic portraits documenting the bodily contortions of his (largely) female patients. The picture on the right is of Augustine, one of his ‘star patients’.

These have been the inspiration for numerous contemporary plays, ballets, exhibitions and novels.

What I didn’t know was that these are not a modern phenomena, shows based on Charcot’s work work were popular since Charcot first began publishing his work and giving lectures (from p100):

As Charcot’s clinic achieved celebrity in the 1890s, images of hysteria cross over to theatre and cabaret. At the Chat Noir and Folies Berg√®re, performers, singers, and mimes who called themselves the “Harengs Saurs √âpileptiques” (The Epileptic Sour Herrings) or “Hydropathes” mimicked the jerky, zigzag movements of the hysterical seizure…

The poses of grande hyst√©rie enacted at the Friday spectacles of the Salp√™tri√®re closely resembled the stylized movements of French classical acting. Indeed, hysterical women at the clinic and fallen women in melodrama were virtually indistinguishable; the theatre critic Elin Diamond comments that both displayed “eye rolling, facial grimaces, gnashing teeth, heavy sighs, fainting, shrieking and choking; ‘hysterical laughter’ was a frequent stage direction as well as a common occurrence in medical asylums”…

Arthur Symons regarded the Moulin Rouge dancer Jane Avril as the embodiment of the age’s “pathological choreography.” These resemblances were not coincidental: writers, actresses cabaret performers and dancers like Avril attended Charcot’s matinees and then worked the Salp√™tri√®re style into their own performances.

An interesting twist is that Avril was actually treated by Charcot as a young girl after she ran away from an abusive mother and was admitted to the Salp√™tri√®re for ‘insanity’.

Link to details of Showalter’s book Hystories.
Link to first chapter.

The Maudsley cat

The not very good photo is of Coco, the Maudsley Hospital cat and one in a long line of felines who reside in psychiatric hospitals. Not all psychiatric hospitals have cats, but they’re not uncommon and exist as a sort of informal tradition of live-in feline therapy.

They’re very popular with both staff and patients, but their presence tends to drive managers up the wall, which just makes them all the more endearing. I’ve worked in three hospitals that have cats and almost invariably they live in the older adults ward, keeping the older folks company (and vice versa, of course).

The older adults ward at the Maudsley is called the Felix Post unit, after the distinguished psychiatrist of the same name. Coco’s predecessor was naturally called Felix, leading to occasional confusion where people assumed the ward was named after the cat.

As I hadn’t seen Coco all summer I enquired and it turns out he’s “gone to Liverpool”, which I’m assured isn’t a euphemism to protect those of fragile mood, but a genuine change in his location as the ward manager moved with Coco in tow. So for the first time in decades, the Maudsley is without a hospital cat.

Promising Alzheimer’s drug announced

The results of a moderate sized trial on a new Alzheimer’s drug have just been announced and the results, if reliable, may suggest that the treatment is one of the most important medical breakthroughs of the century.

Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, a degenerative disorder of where the brain starts to degrade more quickly than would be expected through normal ageing.

One of the common features of Alzheimer’s disease is the accumulation of neurofibrillary tangles in the brain. These are clumps of tau protein that accumulate inside dying neurons. There have been debates about whether these cause the problems or are just the result, but most researchers are now coming round to the idea that tau protein tangles are the main problem.

The drug has been given the tradename ‘remben’ and was initially thought to be useful as it dissolved tangles in the test tube. It has just been tested in a Phase II trial which have been announced at an Alzheimer’s research conference.

The results of the first announced trial has not been published but there are details on the conference press release which I’ve included below the fold.

What’s most impressive from the preliminary details, is that the drug seemed to both slow or even stop cognitive decline in some cases, as well as eliminating the decline in blood flow in the areas usually most affected by the disease suggesting that it is halting the spread of tangles.

Interestingly, the company behind the drug, TauRx, have just launched their website today to catch the wave of publicity.

However, I’m wondering whether there’s more to it than meets the eye because, if I’ve got it right, the drug isn’t actually new.

Its chemical name is methylthioninium chloride but it’s also known as methylene blue and was synthesised way back in 1876. It was shown to be active against malaria by Paul Ehrlich in 1891 and later as a useful antibacterial drug (have a look at this fascinating NYT article from 1910).

In the late 1980s it was tried as a treatment for manic-depressive disorder and found to be useful.

Is this seems surprising, you may be interested to know that methylene blue was the basic compound from which the first antipsychotic drug chlorpromazine or Thorazine was made (in case you’re wondering, this family of antipsychotics can also work as anti-bacterial drugs, but have not been used due to other drugs having less side-effects).

If this is really just methylene blue, what this means in financial terms is that the drug can’t be patented.

In other words, anyone can make the drug which means its much harder to make money on it as pricing becomes competitive. In contrast, a patent gives you a time-limited monopoly – albeit one that can earn billions.

A widely available cheap generic drug that treats a major disease is actually a fantastic thing for society, but developing them is not typical behaviour for pharmaceutical companies who tend to shun unpatentable drugs.

Also, it’s probably true to say that the history of drug development shows a typical three stage process:

1. We’ve found a miracle cure!
2. We’ve found a miracle cure, but it can kill people.
3. It’s not a miracle cure, it can kill people, but it’s worth the risk in many cases.

So, time will tell how useful it is in the real world, but pretty much everyone has their fingers crossed that it will work out as a useful treatment.

Link to write-up from The Telegraph.

Continue reading “Promising Alzheimer’s drug announced”

Is the cinematograph making us stupid?

I’ve just found an eye-opening 2003 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the work on 19th century neurologists George Beard and Silas Weir Mitchell, who thought the pace of life and the effect of new technology was harming the mind and brain of citizens in 1800s America – echoing similar concerns we still hear today.

The two physicians were influential in pushing the idea that these effects resulted in ‘neurasthenia‘, a kind of fuzzy catch-all diagnosis for mental or emotional malaise.

What’s interesting is we’re experiencing something almost identical over 100 years later.

As we’ve noted several times, leading scientists or commentators can make international headlines by simply suggesting that new technology is harming the mind, brain and relationships of the modern citizen, despite a general lack of evidence or flat out evidence to the contrary.

The JAMA article notes how neurasthenia was associated with the cultural concerns of the time:

Families migrated from the countryside to the city, men left traditional jobs as tradesmen and farmers to join the growing ranks of businessmen and office workers, women went from being mothers and daughters to also being university students and physicians, and technological developments such as telegraphs, telephones, and railroads became increasingly common parts of everyday life. As a diagnosis, neurasthenia commanded an intuitive legitimacy because it incorporated the anxieties that arose from these changes into the way people thought of their health. It could attribute a bank manager’s headaches to his hectic schedule and the obsession for detail his job demanded.

Similarly, a young woman’s depression could be understood as neurasthenia brought on by the mental drain of attending a newly founded coeducational university, where she competed for grades. In many cases, diagnoses of neurasthenia attached themselves to traditional ideals, such as the restorative virtues of farming vis-√†-vis the fast-paced stress of modern business or the Victorian belief in women’s disposition for motherhood rather than scholarship. For Beard and Mitchell, neurasthenic patients were casualties of modern society whose bodies and minds simply could not keep up with the seemingly accelerated lifestyles of men and women in the latter part of the 19th century.

It’s a lovely illustration of the fact that since the dawn of popular medicine, our cultural concerns about changes in society are likely to be expressed in the language of illness and disease.

The article also notes that then, like now, the concerns are accompanied by an encouragement to return to the traditional ways of doing things (in this day and age – encouraging kids to ‘play proper games’ or have ‘genuine relationships’) rather than highlighting ways of healthy adaptation to the new technology.

This is not to say that all fears about new technologies are unfounded, but its clear that they are quickly medicalised and get far more prominence than the evidence supports, both in the 19th century and in the 21st.

Link to JAMA article ‘Neurasthenia and a Modernizing America’.

A party game that goes down like a red balloon

I just found this clever advert for The Economist which has an immediate impact but kinda becomes a bit awkward if you think about it for too long.

Presumably, it’s meant to convey the idea that the magazine is ‘mind expanding’. But as we mentioned in an earlier post, we tend to ascribe different sorts of properties to the mind and brain.

One key difference is that we don’t ascribe physical properties to the mind, which is a bit of a pain when you’re trying to create a visual advert. So the designers went for a brain.

But ‘brain expanding’ is just kind of awkward. It makes me think of hydrocephalus – a condition where faulty fluid drainage causes internal pressure which literally balloons the brain.

In young children with soft skulls this causes skull deformation, in adults it just tends to squash the brain against the side of the skull. Either way, it usually needs surgical intervention to insert a shunt valve to treat the drainage problem, else brain damage and death follow in a high proportion of cases.

Nevertheless, if you can get your hands on any of these balloons you’ve instantly got yourself a neurosurgery party game for kids. The first kid to fashion a shunt out of a drinking straw gets a special John Holter prize.

Yes, I know I should get out more.

Link to Economist advert.

Juggling can change brain structure within 7 days

A new study just published in PLoS One reports that learning to juggle alters the structure of motion detection areas in the brain within as little as 7 days.

Led by neuroscientist Joenna Driemeyer, the study builds on a previous research that also found juggling could alter brain structure, although this previous study waited three months before the brain was checked for alterations using high resolution structural MRI scans.

This new study also took 20 non-jugglers and asked them to learn to juggle, but scanned them after 7, 14 and 35 days.

After only 7 days, a motion specialised part of the occipital lobe known as V5 had increased in density. In both studies, the changes were maintained over the subsequent weeks of practice, but these areas returned to their pre-learning state after several weeks without juggling.

This is an interesting example of rapid ‘neuroplasticity‘, the ability of the brain to adapt structurally to new situations.

However, the authors are careful to note that they can’t tell whether the brains of the participants had generated more neurons, or whether existing cells grew in size, or additional glial cells were developed, or maybe there were just changes in how much blood or other brain fluids packed the area.

Also, the fact that changes seemed to occur at the beginning of the learning cycle but that further practice maintained but didn’t cause additional changes led the researchers to speculate that learning a variety of new things, rather than simply practising old skills, may be most effective in terms of brain structure alterations.

Link to ‘Changes in Gray Matter Induced by Learning ‚Äî Revisited’.
Link to PubMed entry for paper.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid member of the PLoS One editorial board.

Detecting suicidal intent in the unconscious mind

The Situationist has just alerted me to a fantastic article in the Boston Globe on the development a cognitive test for suicidal thoughts that doesn’t rely solely on the conscious mind.

The test is a variant of the Implicit Association Test (IAT) that has been used to look at our automatic associations between different concepts, based on how quickly we can categorise them.

We’ve discussed in it more detail previously but it essentially relies on the fact that if you have an pre-existing association between two concepts, say, the concepts ‘blonde’ and ‘stupid’, making similar associations will be faster than associating ‘blonde’ and ‘clever’ because you’re going to be quicker doing whichever classification best matches associations you already have.

Most of the research has been done on implicit social biases, finding that even people who have no explicit prejudices against blondes, foreigners, men or whomever, might find they automatically associate certain negative concepts with these groups.

However, as the test purely measures associations between concepts, it can be used to look for other implicit biases. In fact, the researchers featured in the Globe piece have used it to test for implicit associations between the concept of self and suicide.

Most suicidal patients will admit they are at risk of harming themselves. Contrary to popular belief, suicidal patients don’t necessarily want to die, they just want the pain to stop and will be upfront if they think professionals can help.

Some, however, may have decided that death is the only relief, or they may be unable to see clear alternatives owing to the effects of mental illness on thinking.

Suicide risk is assessed on the basis of people’s actions and what they say, so a completely determined person can talk their way through a risk assessment.

This new research is testing the IAT as a way of assessing suicide risk, even if the person is denying they are suicidal.

The study, led by Dr. Matthew Nock, an associate professor in the psychology department at Harvard University, is called the Suicide Implicit Association Test…

But critics question whether the test is actually practical, and up until now no one has tried to apply it to suicide prevention. As part of his training, Nock worked extensively with adolescent self-injurers – self-injury, such as cutting and burning, is an important coping method for those who engage in it, though they are often unlikely to acknowledge it. Nock thought that the IAT could serve as a behavioral measure of who is a self-injurer and whether such a person was in danger of continuing the behavior, even after treatment.

In their first major study, Nock and Banaji asserted that the IAT could be adapted to show who was inclined to be self-injurious and who was not. And more important, they said, the test could reveal who was in danger of future self-injury.

It’s an interesting idea and the early results look intriguing, although as the article notes, the proof will be how well it actually works in practice.

One difficulty with risk assessment in psychiatry is its almost impossible to do ‘ideal’ outcome studies because of the ethical implications.

For example, lets say your new risk measure predicts someone will kill themselves. From a statistical point of view, you’d want to wait and see if they do, so you can compare these positive predictions with the negative predictions and get an accuracy measure.

But from a purely humane point of view, you’re going to intervene and try and help the person, meaning risk assessments are not always based on ‘ideal’ statistical information.

The article has an excellent discussion of some of the wider ethical and practical issues involved, drawing on the writers own experience of his brother’s suicide.

Link to Boston Globe article ‘On the Edge’ (via The Situationist).

Waterfalls, adaptation and light

Firstly, you’ll have to excuse the somewhat ‘in house’ nature of this post, as it’s me writing about Christian writing about Tom. It’s an account of Tom giving an address to the Association for the Teaching of Psychology where he conducted a fantastic demonstration of how you can test out whether your brain adapts to certain visual conditions ‘locally’ on an eye-by-eye basis, or ‘centrally’ in eye independent perceptual brain areas.

Moments into the keynote talk, the teachers and I found ourselves blinded by darkness. As our eyes adjusted, we were told to cover one eye with our hands before the lights were raised again. A little wait for our open eyes to become light-adjusted and then the lights re-dimmed. What would happen to our vision this time? The answer depends on whether adaptation to light levels occurs centrally, in the brain, or locally in each eye. The audience tested this, looking through each eye one at a time and discovering the strange experience of having one eye adapted to the light and one to the dark, thus showing that light adaptation occurs locally. Both eyes open led to a strange, grey, grainy, effect. ‚ÄúWhoever said psychology isn’t useful is wrong,‚Äù Stafford said. ‚ÄúYou now have the perfect strategy for visiting the toilet in the night and finding your way back to your bed in the dark.‚Äù

Light adaptation may well occur locally, but what about adaptation to motion? A huge video of a waterfall filled the screen. After a minute staring at the cascading water, the video was stopped and the audience experienced the well-known illusion of the water appearing to flow upwards. But what if the flowing water was watched with just one eye (with the other covered), with the paused video then observed through the previously covered eye? The illusion was still experienced, thus showing that in this case, adaptation to motion had occurred centrally, in the brain.

If you don’t have a waterfall handy, you may be interested to know it’s a form of ‘motion after effect‘ illusion and there’s a similar demonstration online that you can try. If you go to that link, click ‘detach’ and resize the window to get a bigger version.

You’ll need to supply the room and light yourself though. The hall full of teachers is optional.

Link to BPSRD on visual adaptation.
Link to motion after effect example.

Silence, but for the clouds moving across the sky

Lee Tracy is an artist who creates poems out of brain scans.

The image is from a 2006 exhibition called Negative to Positive that was shown in the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago.

Each image is an CT scan of the artist’s brain, mounted in a light box and etched with a statement of the profound to the whimsical.

If you’re a neuroscientist and your lab needs more poetry or you’re an artist and your studio needs more neuroscience, you can purchase the pieces from the artist through Etsy.

Link to Lee Tracy’s poetic CT scans on Etsy (thanks Sandra!).
Link to Time Out review of ‘Negative to Positive’.

Whatever happened to symptom substitution?

Symptom substitution is at the core of Freudian psychology but according to a new article in Clinical Psychology Review there is virtually no evidence for its existence and the concept should be abandoned.

The idea is that if you treat a symptom, say a phobia of social situations, without addressing the underlying conflict, another symptom will just appear because the core problem is unchanged. It is based on the Freudian theory that all symptoms of mental illness are simply a reflection of an underlying unconscious conflict.

Freud was inspired by the first law of thermodynamics that says that energy cannot be created or destroyed just turned into another form. His psychology, and much Freudian-inspired psychodynamic psychotherapy that follows, applies a similar idea to emotions.

In this model, a conflict is caused by a forbidden unconscious impulse being held back by our conscious ego. Supposedly, we want to banish them from our conscious mind to maintain a positive self-image, so we repress them into our unconscious. But because they can’t just disappear they are expressed in other ways – i.e. as neurotic symptoms.

However, this model also plays an important symbolic role in the politics of mental health. It suggests that psychoanalysis is the only truly effective treatment, because it supposedly deals with the ‘root cause’, while drugs, behaviour therapy and CBT just alleviate symptoms and leave the patient open to further suffering.

Rather unusually for a Freudian idea, it leads to a directly testable hypothesis. Psychoanalytic treatment should lead to a better long-term prognosis, whereas we should see other other symptoms appear after treatment with other approaches.

Psychologist Warren Tryon decided to look at the medical literature to see whether other approaches were more likely to result in the appearance of other symptoms, and found no evidence from relevant empirical studies.

In fact, Tryon found only two cases studies that claimed to provide direct evidence for symptom substitution and one of them didn’t even fulfil the definition, it just reported that the same symptoms came back – therefore describing a relapse rather than a substitution.

Despite their being a lack of evidence so far, he does note that not many studies have directly addressed the issue, but proposes a direct test:

The following experimental design could identify genuine psychoanalytic symptoms. Form two groups of demographically matched patients displaying a hypothesized symptom. Provide psychoanalytic treatment to one group and symptomatic treatment to the other group. The hypothesized symptom can be considered to be a bone fide psychoanalytic symptom if patients receiving psychoanalytic therapy get better and symptom substitution occurs in patients receiving symptom oriented therapy. Helping these patients to get better by providing psychoanalytic therapy would provide additional supportive evidence and be ethically responsible. The literature review reported above indicates that the presence of bona fide psychoanalytic symptoms has yet to be demonstrated.

Link to ‘Whatever happened to symptom substitution?’ (thanks Karel!).
Link to PubMed entry for article.

Strippers for taxation reform

Frontal Cortex has an excellent post on the near futility of election coverage and why people tend to vote with what they feel, rather than what they know.

The piece reviews a whole range of studies that have highlighted possible non-issue influences on people’s voting preferences, from the weather to the facial expressions of news presenters.

One other line of research has found that facial structure can predict leadership, allowing people to reliably pick out business leaders or political winners just from a photo of their face.

Advertisers have long known that marketing products on the basis of facts is a lot less effective than marketing on the basis of appeals to emotion, desire and self-image.

While this is often labelled ‘sex sells’, ‘you-can-be-sexy sells’ is just as widely used.

Traditionally, this avenue has not been open to political candidates since it leaves the candidate open to the emotional counter-attack of accusations of impropriety.

After seeing the popularity of the ‘Obama Girl’ video, it struck me that the internet opens up this avenue, as supporters not officially associated with a candidate can now make their own wide-coverage sex sells promotions without ‘sullying’ the name of the official party machine.

As Frontal Cortex notes:

The problem, as political scientist Larry Bartels notes, is that people aren’t rational: we’re rationalizers. Our brain prefers a certain candidate or party for a really complicated set of subterranean reasons and then, after the preference has been unconsciously established, we invent rational sounding reasons to justify our preferences.

Link to Frontal Cortex on ‘Rational Voters?’.

Is banking on neuroscience a false economy?

The Economist has a great article taking a wide-angle view of neuroeconomics, asking whether it actually contributes anything useful to our understanding of economic systems or whether its just a personal psychology of gains and losses that won’t actually scale.

The fiercest attack on neuroeconomics, and indeed behavioural economics, has come from two economists at Princeton University, Faruk Gul and Wolfgang Pesendorfer. In an article in 2005, “The Case for Mindless Economics” [pdf], they argued that neuroscience could not transform economics because what goes on inside the brain is irrelevant to the discipline. What matters are the decisions people take—in the jargon, their “revealed preferences”—not the process by which they reach them. For the purposes of understanding how society copes with the consequences of those decisions, the assumption of rational utility-maximisation works just fine.

But today’s neuroeconomists are not the first dismal scientists to dream of peering inside the human brain. In 1881, a few years after William Jevons argued that the functioning of the brain’s black box would not be known, Francis Edgeworth proposed the creation of a “hedonimeter”, which would measure the utility that each individual gained from his decisions. “From moment to moment the hedonimeter varies; the delicate index now flickering with the flutter of the passions, now steadied by intellectual activity, low sunk whole hours in the neighbourhood of zero, or momentarily springing up towards infinity,” he wrote, poetically for an economist.

Part of the scepticism seems to originate from more general reservations about the results of brain scanning studies being over-interpreted, echoing wider concerns in cognitive neuroscience.

What’s interesting though is that the article mentions that neuroeconomics researchers are turning to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – a technique that alters brain function for a few hundred milliseconds while people are actively completing tasks.

Because TMS alters brain function, it’s not just showing you a correlation like brain scans do. If task performance changes when you’ve altered that brain area you can infer that the particularly part of the cortex you’ve targeted is causally involved in the psychology of the task.

Along these lines, one recent high-profile study [pdf] managed to alter participants’ fairness behaviour in the Ultimatum Game (a common experimental task) when the function of the upper outside surface of the right frontal lobe was disrupted.

Link to The Economist article ‘Do economists need brains?’.
pdf of ‘The Case for Mindless Economics’.
pdf of TMS study on fairness in the Ultimatum Game.

2008-07-25 Spike activity

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

Neurophilosophy has a beautiful quote from the great Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal.

The miseries of losing one’s sense of smell are covered by an interesting Slate article on this neglected sense.

Cognitive Daily looks at a study which attempts to answer the question ‘Why do more Asians have perfect pitch?‘.

Two novels on identity theft are touched on by My Mind on Books.

The New York Times has an excellent multimedia feature on ‘The Voices of Bipolar Disorder’ where people affected by the condition discuss their experiences.

Delusions reflect Hollywood movie ‘The Truman Show‘.

Nature reviews the latest Disney animated feature about an artificially intelligent robot Wall-E.

The Female Brain or one female’s perspective? Neuroanthropology reports from a recent ‘critical neuroscience’ conference and a discussion about popular books on sex difference.

Scientific American on why anecdotal evidence can undermine scientific findings for most people.

SciAm’s Mind Matters blog on the neural energy drain of decision-making.

The BPS Research Digest looks at a study that reports novelty seekers have a right-sided spatial bias.

The neuroscience of insight is discussed in a tantalising excerpt from a New Yorker by The Frontal Cortex.

Psych Central has an interview with the insightful psychiatrist Daniel Carlat.

BooYaa! Straight-talking judge has some hard words for Eli Lilly in the ongoing court case over antipsychotic olanzapine (Zyprexa).

Misdirected magic

Just one more on the magic. I just got this email from Mind Hacks readers Stefano suggesting that stage magicians that use psychological language actually pollute the public’s understanding of science. He also gives a much better, and, I’m guessing, more accurate explanation of the hand-raising trick in Keith Barry’s TED performance.

As a psychologist, I have to say I dislike the new sort of mentalism that we’re seeing nowadays. Derren Brown (an incredibly talented performer, as you said) tries to portray his show as something more than old-fashioned magic by introducing psychological terms and studies, somewhat erratically. I understand that his use of scientific terminology might be part of the misdirection, but it really makes me cringe to see he perform ridiculous feats and justify it by citing things like the Milgram study, concentration abilities or persuasion techniques. Almost every time he mentions a psychological concept, he either misrepresents it or uses it to explain absurd stuff that he did with stooges or simply old magic tricks.

I didn’t know Keith Barry, but I have to say his TED lecture made me put him on the same category as Derren Brown: old mentalist tricks disguised as “persuasion and psychological techniques”. He even managed to fool you, it seems: the trick that you attributed to hypnosis has nothing to do with it, being achieved simply by the performer applying pressure on the feet of the subject instead of his hand. Notice how he never says where the pressure will be, and his left leg is covered by the table. His other live tricks are equally simple, and have nothing do with psychology, except for the fact that everything you do to an audience – even cheating/fooling them – is part of it.

Stefano makes an interesting point that these acts rely, in part, on misinforming people about psychology. Derren Brown is a classic example where he often gives explanations after the trick so the viewer feels they are being let in on the secret, but which are obviously misleading and so are part of the more general misdirection that the feats are achieved through the ‘power of the mind’.

In terms of the hand raising trick that Stefano mentions, looking back at the video, this seems a much more likely explanation. In which case, this is a ‘theory of mind‘ illusion, where we are fooled into attributing a different mental state to the person picked from the audience than they actually have.

I hope you don’t mind me publishing part of your email Stefano, I did try and email and ask but unfortunately the address wasn’t valid. Do get in touch if you have a website or blog and I’ll happily link to it and many thanks for your interesting commentary.