I don’t like Mondays

Photo by stock.xchng user Simeon. Click for sourceThe defenders of Bullshit Blue Monday tend to suggest that even if the formula is nonsense, it promotes awareness of mental health at a time of the year when people are feeling particularly low. In light of this, today’s Bad Science column discusses the research on mood and time of year and finds there’s no reliable link between season and depression.

The piece looks at studies of suicides, depression, prescriptions of antidepressants, mood changes and hospital admissions – and none show a reliable connection.

Goldacre concludes:

And worst of all, we know that lots of things really are associated with depression, like social isolation, stressful life events, neighbourhood social disorder, poverty, child abuse, and the rest. Get those in the news, I dare you. Suicide is the third biggest cause of life years lost. Anything real you could do to study the causes, and possible preventive measures, or effective interventions, would be cracking. Making stupid stuff up about the most depressing day of the year, on the other hand, doesn’t help anyone, because bullshit presented as fact is simply disempowering.

By the way, during previous Bullshit Blue Monday posts, I alluded to a researcher who was threatened with legal action by Cliff Arnall for criticising the formula.

As it happens, it was psychologist Petra Boyton and you can now read her account of being subject to below-the-belt nastiness.

To lighten the tone a little, I must point out my highlight of the whole media debacle: an article in The Scotsman who gave the date of Blue Monday as the 23rd 21st of January – a Wednesday.

Link to Bad Science on season, mood and Bullshit Blue Monday.
Link to Petra Boyton on formulas, science reporting and legal threats.

2009-01-23 Spike activity

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

New Scientist has an interesting piece on progress in human-like interaction by machines. Check the impressive video.

UK psychologist Oliver James discusses his polemic book on the psychological effects of materialism on BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub. See programme page and sidebar for listen again.

Discover Magazine has a Carl Zimmer article on the extended mind hypothesis and technology entitled ‘How Google Is Making Us Smarter’.

Do you believe in free will? asks PsyBlog.

BPS Research Digest reports on research suggesting it’s the quality, not just the length, of sleep that is important for learning.

Articles related to topics and themes in the book Understanding Psychology are collected by Time magazine. Not sure why, but a good collection nonetheless.

The Boston Globe has an article on CBT pioneer Aaron Beck and how the therapy for depression is being updated to include the role of genetics and neurobiology.

The neuroscience of the emotional instability of <a href="
http://sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/40028/title/Neural_paths_for_borderline_personality_disorder”>borderline personality disorder is discussed by Science News.

BBC News has an excellent article on mental health in Afghanistan.

On-the-ball science writer Jonah Lehrer’s new book on decision-making, called How We Decide is out now!

PhysOrg has an article on recent research looking at differences in default network activity in schizophrenia.

Research showing differences between men and women in the ability to control hunger is covered by Time magazine.

The Wall Street Journal discusses the emerging role of neuroscience and brain imaging evidence in the legal system.

Psychopaths ‘manipulate’ their way out of jail, reports New Scientist although the study shows no evidence of ‘manipulation’, just the fact they get parole more often. Careful with the labelling.

Neurophilosophy has an excellent write-up of a somewhat pedestrian review paper on the neuroscience of delusions after brain injury that concludes with a ‘new’ theory that already exists.

Dog On Anti-Depressants Mauls Former French President. That, is why Furious Seasons is so good. See David Dobbs’ excellent piece for several other good reasons.

Simulating hysteria for fun and profit

I’ve just found pages from a 1941 French hypnotism manual on the (tastefully NSFW) Au carrefour √©trange blog that has some wonderful illustrations of hypnotism ‘in action’.

A few are particularly curious because they seem to be directly mimicking famous images of hysteria from the 1800s.

Hysteria is the presence of neurological symptoms without any detectable neurological damage that could account for it (see previous) and the top image on the right is taken from a late 1800s book ‘Lectures on the Diseases of the Nervous System’ by Jean-Martin Charcot who argued that patients with hysterical epilepsy can show this type of body posture he called the ‘Grande Hysterie Full Arch’.

It’s an iconic image and can be seen to the left of the famous painting entitled ‘A Clinical Lesson with Doctor Charcot at the Salp√™tri√®re’ by Andr√© Brouillet that Freud had hung above his couch. You can still see it there in fact, in Freud’s old house, now the Freud Museum in London.

The image below is taken from the 1941 French hypnotism manual. In fact, all the images of the woman mimic Charcot’s famous photos or drawings of hysterical patients.

For example, here’s the Charcot original of a woman between two chairs, and here’s the image from the manuel d’hypnotisme.

Unfortunately, the Au carrefour √©trange website doesn’t have text from the book, but the images suggest that it is encouraging practitioners to simulate these famous poses.

Interestingly, Charcot was the first to suggest that hypnotism and hysteria may rely on similar neurological and psychological processes owing to the fact that it is possible to temporarily simulate hysteria with hypnosis.

Over 100 years later, there is growing evidence that this is the case, as neuroimaging studies have shown that hysterial paralysis and hypnotically-induced paralysis activate remarkably similar brain areas.

However, his classifications of the different body postures of hysteria are now thought to useless, and likely caused by Charcot’s own suggestions to his patients.

The pages from the hypnotism book are on a site with tasteful but NSFW images, so be cautious at work, or be ready with your excuse about a historical interest in Charcot.

UPDATE: The same blog has images from another French hypnotism book called Nouveau cours pratique d’hypnotisme et de suggestion from 1929. Dig that cover!

Link to pages of ‘Manuel pratique d’hypnotisme’ (via MorbidAnatomy).

The cutting edge of robotics

Singularity Hub has reviewed the best commercial and research lab robots from 2008 and has videos of each and every one.

It’s a fantastic collection that has everything from exoskeletons, to violin playing humanoids, to ultra-lightweight robots that fly by flapping gossamer-thin wings.

The most curious is probably the robot self-reassembling chair or maybe the robo-shapes from the ISI Polymorphic Robotics Laboratory.

Anyway, a fascinating collection and great to see how AI and mechanical engineering are being applied to create the latest in cutting-edge robotics.

Link to ‘A Review of the Best Robots of 2008’ videos.

The shock of the few

Monsters existed in the 1800s. They were not mythical creatures, but children born with birth defects who were widely discussed in the medical literature and sometimes cruelly paraded in the travelling freak shows of the time. Curiously, one of the most popular explanations for these congenital deformities concerned the psychology of the expectant mother.

If you had asked a 19th century doctor why some children were born with unusual bodies, or even fairly common birthmarks, you might have been told that they were caused by a frightening incident experienced by the mother during pregnancy.

The theory, known as ‘maternal impression‘, suggested the trauma could symbolically imprint itself on the foetus. The 1896 book Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine described many such cases in their chapter on obstetric anomalies, and this is a fairly typical example:

Parvin mentions an instance of the influence of maternal impression in the causation of a large, vivid, red mark or splotch on the face: “When the mother was in Ireland she was badly frightened by a fire in which some cattle were burned. Again, during the early months of her pregnancy she was frightened by seeing another woman suddenly light the fire with kerosene, and at that time became firmly impressed with the idea that her child would be marked.’

In another case history, a child with hydrocephalus with a “small and rabbit-shaped” face and deformed eyes is explained by the fact that a rabbit jumped at its mother during pregnancy where she was frightened by its ‘glare’.

Perhaps one of the most curious cases was published in 1817 and concerned a recalcitrant father who denied being responsible for an unwanted pregnancy, causing the mother a great deal of distress. The child was later born, reportedly with the name of date of birth of his father clearly visible in his eyes.

This is a curious mirror of the first, probably mythical, case of maternal impression, where Hippocrates reportedly saved the honour of an adulterous princess by explaining her dark skinned child as due to her having a portrait of a ‘negro’ in her room.

Although the theory enjoyed a long and colourful life, it peacefully passed away in the late 19th century when it became clear that the mind of the mother had no influence on birthmarks or congenital deformities.

For many years the psychological state of the expectant mother was thought to have virtually no effect on the developing child.

But then the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939, and that all began to change.

The quickly assembled Finnish force was vastly outnumbered and ominously outgunned but, unlike their Soviet counterparts, they were quick and comfortable in the Artic conditions and made swift and deadly attacks.

In one of history’s great military victories, they defeated the Russians but suffered heavy losses. Many of the dead were young men, and many of the grieving were young pregnant women.

Nearly 40 years later, two Finnish psychiatrists decided to look at the mental health of the children who grew up without fathers. They compared children born to women who grieved during pregnancy, to those born to women who lost their husbands after the child had been born.

Their study, published in 1978, found that mothers who had lost their husbands during pregnancy were much more likely to have children who later developed schizophrenia.

Many similar studies have found that severe maternal stress during pregnancy affects the developing brain of the child, increasing the risk of cognitive or psychiatric problems later in life, possibly due to the effect of the hormonal response of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system.

Thankfully, we no longer think of people as monsters, whatever their size, shape or mental state, and we have long banished the monstrous myths of ‘maternal impression’.

But we do know that the mind of the mother is connected to the development of the unborn baby, and that maternal experiences can still echo through the life of the child.

Cocaine nights, moral relativism, orgasms and gangs

BBC Radio 4’s wonderfully eclectic and vastly under-rated social science programme Thinking Allowed has had some fascinating programmes lately, covering the concern of ‘cocaine girls’ in 1915 London, the history of the orgasm, moral relativism, gang culture, the social meaning of scents and the culture of detectives, to mention just a few of the topics.

The programme is a mixture of social history and the latest in sociology research on contemporary issues that looks at the most amazingly diverse range of issues.

Although there are no mp3 downloads, you can listen to all of the programmes online as streamed audio.

Some of my recent favourites have included an exploration of the social panic about the cocaine scene in 1915 London, evidence for the existence of ‘gang culture’ in the UK and the psychology of the police interviews but you’ll find discussions on pretty much anything you can think of (and probably plenty you’d never have thought about before) in the archive.

Some of the most interesting points relate to how our concerns of ‘new threats’ to society, for example the influence of popular culture or new technology, are old acquaintances but are presented as new by every generation.

Other interesting programmes often reveal a new angle to something I’d never considered. The programme on the sociology of smell discusses the ‘language’ of scents and perfumes. It asks why we think some scents are ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ and how have we come to associate certain smells with specific social meanings.

Link to Thinking Allowed website and archive.

Encephalon 62 – the straight dope

The 62nd edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just appeared on The Mouse Trap as a remarkably well-written guide to the latest in the last fortnight’s online mind and brain discussions.

A couple of my favourites include a nuanced look at the neurobiology and culture of addiction from Neurophilosophy and a look at a recent study on the psychological effects of the first human face transplant from Brain Blogger.

There are plenty of other great articles in this latest edition, all enthusiastically presented by Sandy’s engaging write-up.

Link to Encephalon 62.