A Trance of Pleasure

Photo by Flickr user ubiquity_zh. Click for sourceA 2003 study in Epilepsy and Behavior has some descriptions of the ecstatic seizures experienced by some patients with epilepsy.

They include intense erotic and spiritual experiences, feelings of become close to and blending with other people, and some sensations that couldn’t be fully captured in words.

I’ve put some of the descriptions below because they sound absolutely wonderful:

Patient 1
The first seizure occurred during a concert when he was a teenager. He remembers perceiving short moments of an indefinable feeling. Such episodes recurred and a few months later evolved into a GTC [generalized tonic–clonic seizure]. He characterizes these sensations as “a trance of pleasure.” “It is like an emotional wave striking me again and again. I feel compelled to obey a sort of phenomenon. These sensations are outside the spectrum of what I ever have experienced outside a seizure.” He also describes cold shivering, increased muscle tension, and a delicious taste, and he swallows repeatedly. He enjoys the sensations and is absorbed in them in a way that he can barely hear when spoken to. When in a particular, relaxed mood, he can sometimes induce seizures by “opening up mentally” and contracting muscles. He denies any religious aspects of the symptoms. “It’s the phenomenon, the feeling, the fit taking control.” It lasts a few minutes and afterward he is tired with difficulties expressing himself for about 1 hour.

Patient 6
This man has a multifaceted symptomatology and a tendency to interpret bodily sensations as supernatural phenomena. Nevertheless, from the beginning of his forties, he experienced distinct, stereotypical attacks with a “change of concept of the surrounding world.” He reports an “oscillating erotic sensation, like twinkling polar light” in his pelvic region and down the inside of his thighs. This is described as different from sexual excitement, more like “an erogenous charge of the skin.” He may also have a clairvoyant feeling of a “telepathic contact with a divine power.” These sensations are of short duration and may be accompanied by faintness and followed by drowsiness. With carbamazepine treatment, the frequency of these attacks has been considerably reduced.

Patient 11
The attacks started in his first school year. The experiences are beyond what can be described in words. “I can sense the colours red and orange without seeing them. The feeling has an erotic aspect. It starts in the stomach and spreads upwards. It is pleasant, but not similar to ordinary joy. It is like an explosion.” In the close presence of another person, he can feel a sort of peculiar unification. An intense déjà vu sensation, a queer taste, and “gooseflesh” are also components of the seizures. As a child he was surprised that his friends denied having similar feelings, and he learned to keep them to himself. Sometimes these attacks evolved into CPSs with reduced consciousness and complex automatisms and afterward he had transient difficulties speaking. Before the diagnosis of epilepsy was made in his late teens, he was referred to a psychiatrist. A right-sided temporal lobe calcification was diagnosed by computed tomography at about 30 years, but he refused surgery. At 42, an expansion in the same region was found by MRI, and he was operated for an anaplastic oligodendroglioma. He was seizure-free for 6 years until recurrence of the tumor.

One of the striking things about epilepsy is how different each person’s experience of having a seizure can be.

While it is stereotypically assumed to be a negative experience, some aspects can be remarkably beautiful.

The Russian author Dostoyevsky famously said of his epilepsy “I would experience such joy as would be inconceivable in ordinary life – such joy that no one else could have any notion of. I would feel the most complete harmony in myself and in the whole world and this feeling was so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss I would give ten or more years of my life, even my whole life perhaps.”

There are several more case descriptions in the article, all of which have some aspect which touch at least the edge of ecstasy, if not the very heart of the experience.

Link to article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Beautiful butterfly brain

This is a beautiful butterfly brain greetings card, created by graphic designer TweeK. I’d never would have imagined that an MRI scan and butterflies would go together so effortlessly, and the effect is quite stunning.

You can buy copies of the card online, so you can impress the hardest-to-impress of your brain-inclined friends, or you can just visit the page to see it in more detail.

I can’t stop looking at it.


Link to TweeK’s butterfly brain greetings card.

Dodging the border agency of the brain

Photo from Wikipedia. Click for sourceI just noticed that neurotechnology analyst Zack Lynch has a forthcoming article in Epilepsy and Behavior on the latest developments in the commercial brain science field. Avid neuroscience fans may be familiar with most of it but the section on new technologies to cross the blood-brain barrier was eye-opening.

The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is a sieve-like border crossing that allows only certain molecules to pass from the blood into the brain.

It’s remarkably restrictive and many molecules are just too big to get past, meaning that many drugs that could affect the brain are virtually useless, simply because they can’t cross the border.

This has led neuroscientists to think of ways of smuggling, tunnelling and sneaking this these molecules past the barrier, and Lynch’s article lists some of the latest technologies which aim to jump the fence.

• Implantable devices: Implantable pumps bypass the blood–brain barrier (BBB) and deliver highly accurate amounts of drugs to specific sites in the brain or spinal cord.

• Expression systems: A French company is circumventing the BBB using encapsulated cell technology (ECT), a polymer implant containing cells that provide continuous, long-term release of the therapeutic protein to the brain or eye.

• Receptor-mediated transport: Receptors that transport nutrients to the brain from the blood can be tricked into transporting therapeutic chemicals, peptides, and proteins across the BBB. Insulin, transferrin, and lipoproteins, for example, cross the BBB by facilitated transport, and can be combined with therapeutic proteins or other molecules to promote access to the brain.

• Cell-penetrating peptides: During the past decade, several arginine-rich peptides have been described, such as SynB vectors, which allow for intracellular delivery and BBB transport. The mechanism for this transport is unknown. A Swiss company is using cell-penetrating peptides to develop treatments for stroke and myocardial infarction.

• Focused ultrasound: Some research shows that focused ultrasound can temporarily open the BBB in a targeted area for a window of time. A seed stage company is working to commercialize this technology and improve it for use in humans.

• Nanoparticle formulations: Nanoparticle formulations refer to therapeutics encapsulated in nanoscale particles that can pass the BBB. Although there is great interest in using nanotechnology to improve neuropharmaceutical delivery to the brain, it will take some time to overcome challenges of this platform, including the need for intravenous delivery, manufacturing, and clearance by the liver.

Link to summary of article.

Turn left at the surge of excitement

We covered Christian Nold’s brilliant project to create emotion maps of cities before, and I had the pleasure of going to the launch of his new book on Emotional Cartography on Friday. It’s awesome for lots of reasons, but one of the best ones is that you can download it free from the project website.

Nold came up with the idea of fusing a GSR machine, a skin conductance monitor that measures arousal, and a GPS machine, to allow stress to be mapped to particular places. He then gets people to walk round and creates maps detailing high arousal areas of cities.

The biomapping website has some of the fantastic maps from the project.

His book, called Emotional Cartography: Technologies of the Self contains some of the wonderful maps images, but also chapters by artists, psychogeographers, designers, cultural researchers, futurologists and neuroscientists who examine the relationship between space and the self.

One of the chapters is written by our very own Tom Stafford who explores the neuroscience of the self through a case study of an amnesic patient from the scientific literature called SS, who seemed to be unaware of his own depression because of his profound memory problems. Tom also gave a great talk at the launch, which you can also read online.

If you want to read the books, and I highly recommend it, you can download the book as a screen quality or print quality PDF, and its released under a Creative Commons license so you can take it to your nearest copy shop if you want a hard copy.

Link to Emotional Cartography website.
Link to Biomapping website.

The beautiful baby brain

Jonah Lehrer has an excellent piece in today’s Boston Globe about how babies’ brains develop and what psychologists are starting to understand about the infant mind.

It’s largely riffing on the work of Alison Gopnik, one of the world’s leading developmental psychologists, who has long argued that babies might be more conscious than adults and that we learn to filter the world and mentally manage its initial chaos.

While this less focused form of attention makes it more difficult to stay on task – preschoolers are easily distracted – it also comes with certain advantages. In many circumstances, the lantern mode of attention can actually lead to improvements in memory, especially when it comes to recalling information that seemed incidental at the time.

Consider this memory task designed by John Hagen, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan. A child is given a deck of cards and shown two cards at a time. The child is told to remember the card on the right and to ignore the card on the left. Not surprisingly, older children and adults are much better at remembering the cards they were told to focus on, since they’re able to direct their attention. However, young children are often better at remembering the cards on the left, which they were supposed to ignore. The lantern casts its light everywhere.

I’m a bit sceptical of one bit of the article though, where it claims that babies have more neurons than adults, as researchers have only very recently attempted to make this estimate and, in fact, found that babies and adults have about the same in the cortex, which makes up the vast majority of the brain.

In terms of synapses, connections between neurons, this varies on the age of the infant. For example, have a look at this graph of synapse density as we grow, taken from a study of the human cortex.

Newborns start with fewer synapses than adults but this number rockets, so by six months of age we have approximately twice as many connections. This tails off as the brain prunes connections on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis.

I’m always slightly awestruck whenever I view that graph as it is a vivid illustration of the incredibly rapid changes changes that take place as we grow and learn to make sense of the world.

It’s this same sense of awe that the Boston Globe manages to capture as it explains how understanding the baby’s brain can help us make sense of the adult mind.

Link to Boston Globe article ‘Inside the baby mind’.

Should we be trying to stop dream violence?

The Onion has a video of a funny spoof news report on “Should We Be Doing More To Reduce The Graphic Violence In Our Dreams?”

It gets a little bit gory towards the end, so if that’s not your thing, you may prefer another one of their recent reports on the news that “70 percent of all praise is sarcastic”.

Link to ‘Should We Be Doing More To Reduce The Violence In Our Dreams?’
Link to ’70 Percent of All Praise is Sarcastic’.

CIA psychology through the declassified memos

I’ve been reading the recently released CIA memos on the interrogation of ‘war on terror’ detainees. The memos make clear that the psychological impact of the process is the most important aim of interrogation, from the moment the detainee is captured through the various phases of interrogation.

Although disturbing, they’re interesting for what they reveal about the CIA’s psychologists and their approach to interrogation.

General framework
It is clear that empirical psychological science is core to interrogation-based intelligence gathering on both the individual and general approach levels. In clinical psychology, this is known as the scientist-practitioner model, where scientific research is used to understand types of problems and design interventions, but also where an iterative hypothesis-testing information-gathering process is applied to each individual.

The memos state that psychologists are involved in both directing interrogations and mental health assessments, making it likely that the majority of military psychologists are originally trained as clinical psychologists.

Indeed, after a visit to Guantanamo Bay, American Psychological Association president Ronald Levant wrote about his trip in an article for Military Psychology noting “I turned to see a former doctoral student in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University (NSU), who is now a military psychologist”. NSU strongly emphasises the scientist-practitioner model and it this style of clinical psychologist which probably makes up the bulk of the CIA’s ‘Behavioral Science Consultation Teams’ (BSCTs).

It is also clear that the CIA are interested in finding out two types of information: one, intelligence from the detainees, and two, which methods are most effective in doing so. It is interesting that all references to the impact and effectiveness of the interrogation methods are based on single cases (x has started giving intelligence after the use of y) or data from the US Military’s own SERE interrogation resistance programme, run on its own personnel.

There is no significant blacked out text in these sections, indicating that there are unlikely to be other key sources of evidence (such as secret research on the effectiveness of torture). In other words, Guantanamo and other interrogation facilities are as much interrogation labs as they are interrogation centres.

Integrated physiological monitoring
The memo [pdf] that discusses the interrogation of ‘al-Quaeda operative’ Abu Zubaydah has an interesting part where it states that “in an initial confrontational incident, Zubaydah showed signs of sympathetic nervous system arousal”. This would suggest that the detainees are wired-up to a system that detects physiological arousal – probably GSR, blood pressure, heart rate or a similar combination.

This would allow the interrogators to look for patterns in stress responses and focus on areas where stress was present despite an outward appearance of calm. The memo also notes that Zubaydah “appears to have a fear of insects”. Assuming that detainees would not voluntarily disclose their phobias, we can assume that likely phobias are detected by exposing the detainee to photos or situations related to common fears and then monitoring the detainee for abnormal stress responses.

The summary of the psychological profile of Zubaydah is notable for the fact it doesn’t use the psychoanalytic or psychodynamic language more favoured by FBI profilers, instead using the relatively plain language of cognitive and psychometric approaches. For example, it describes his “coping resources”, rather than his ‘defences’, “problems” rather than ‘conflicts’ and makes no reference to any unconscious desires or motivations.

The profile is apparently “based on interviews with Zubaydah, observations of him, and information collected from other sources such as intelligence and press reports”. As with the FBI, there is likely to be formal psychometric methods for analysing self-written text to help inform the personality profile, although the complete profile is probably put together by a psychologist who integrates the various sources of information with only a conservative level of interpretation.

Confused understanding of ‘learned helplessness’
A couple of the memos note that the whole interrogation procedure and environment is designed “to create a state of learned helplessness“. This is a concept originally developed by psychologist Martin Seligman who found that dogs given inescapable electric shocks would eventually just give up trying to avoid them and remain passive while electrocuted. The theory was related to depression where people with no control over their unpleasant lives supposedly just learnt to be withdrawn and passive.

The concept is not particularly well validated, but even if it was and you were an interrogator, you’d want to avoid learned helplessness at all costs, because the detainee would see no point in co-operating. Furthermore, the acceptance of the theory is in direct contrast to the claims that the interrogations should not cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” Learned helplessness is, by definition, the effect of chronic uncontrollable suffering.

What the interrogators want, and indeed, what the memos describe, is not learned helplessness, but where the detainees know and can demonstrate that co-operation is the only method that allows them control over their environment. This is more akin to sociologist Ervin Goffman’s concept of a total institution.

Clues and curiosities
One memo [pdf] mentions the concept of ‘resistance posture’, meaning the act of resisting the interrogators demands. The fact that this a specific term is used, and that it is additionally referred to as something that could be measured (‘This sequence “may continue for several more iterations as the interrogators continue to measure the [detainee’s] resistance posture”‘) suggests that this might be a specific psychological concept that is being empirically measured, perhaps through a combination of behavioural and physiological responses, presumably to help distinguish between resistance and genuinely not knowing the answer to a question.

It’s interesting that there is no reference to any neuroscience-based research or monitoring to justify conclusions, despite the widespread reports of the US secret services funding billions of pounds of research in this area. This may be because it’s too secret to release to the public, but it is just as likely that, as with other brain-based ‘prediction’ methods (neuromarketing, brain-scan ‘lie detection’) the data is less useful than more straightforward and better validated psychological and physiological methods.

As has been picked up by Wired the claims that 180 hours of sleep deprivation is not harmful in the long-term is based on a selective and limited reading of the scientific literature and is disputed by the people who carried out the research.

Link to PDFs of released memos.