The suicidal attraction of the Golden Gate Bridge

I’ve just found this morbidly fascinating article from a 2003 edition of The New Yorker that discusses the attraction of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to people who are suicidal.

It’s full of interesting snippets, like the fact that suicidal people tend to ignore the nearby and equally fatal Bay Bridge in favour of its more famous and more attractive cousin.

It also has quotes from some of the very few people who have ever jumped off the bridge and survived, and describes exactly what impact such a jump has on the body.

The article also touches on the debates over the erection of a suicide barrier on the landmark (it was finally decided in 2008 to put one in place) and the people-based suicide prevention methods.

It also has this lovely snippet about one of the police patrolmen, who has a wonderfully gentle way of talking to suicidal people:

Kevin Briggs, a friendly, sandy-haired motorcycle patrolman, has a knack for spotting jumpers and talking them back from the edge; he has coaxed in more than two hundred potential jumpers without losing one over the side. He won the Highway Patrol’s Marin County Uniformed Employee of the Year Award last year.

Briggs told me that he starts talking to a potential jumper by asking, “How are you feeling today?‚” Then, “What’s your plan for tomorrow?‚” If the person doesn’t have a plan, Briggs says, “Well, let’s make one. If it doesn’t work out, you can always come back here later.”

Apparently the article was the inspiration for the 2006 documentary film The Bridge which covered similar territory.

Link to New Yorker article ‘Jumpers’.

2009-04-24 Spike activity

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

The first Neuroanthropology Conference kicks off in October and looks awesome.

Twitter causes immorality nonsense deftly dispatched by bloggers. Most mainstream press lost the plot although Time did a good job and Wired Science were keeping it real.

The Guardian review neurophysiologist Kathleen Taylor’s new book on cruelty.

AI system examines mysterious and ancient symbols from the long-lost Indus Valley civilization and suggests that they may represent a spoken language, reports Wired.

The Financial Times has a look at the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition on ‘madness and modernity’.

The links between autism and genius are explored by The Economist.

Not Exactly Rocket Science has a brilliant article on how touch-related brain activity reduces after only a couple of weeks of having your hand in a cast.

There are a couple of wonderful girl-with-exposed-brain paintings here.

The New York Times reports on mental illness, the musical! (thanks Daniel!)

BBC Radio 4’s Health Check has a programme on meningitis and supernumeray phantom limbs.

Newsweek has an interesting Q&A on the psychology of memory.

An extended and interesting article on the psychology of how we related to the environment is published by The New York Times.

NeuroImage has an article arguing for community neuroimaging databases. Hallelujah and amen!

Is there a link between autistic traits and anorexia? asks New Scientist.

Frontal Cortex has an excellent piece on the commuters paradox – where we consistently underestimate the pain of a long commute.

Rapid emotional swings could predict violence in psychiatric patients suggests new research covered by Science News.

BBC News on the impressive ‘Blue Brain‘ project but who seem to like talking themselves up rather a lot. Apparently just a “matter of money” to simulate a whole brain (oh, and a good conceptual understanding of how the brain actually works beyond simplified models of the neocortical column).

18 ways attention goes wrong. PsyBlog continues riffing on attention by listing several related problems.

Psychiatric Times has an excellent article on the philosophy of psychiatry and how we define what counts as a mental illness. Bonus ‘internet addiction’ slapdown included.

Neuronarrative on a study suggesting that TV may be a surrogate for social interaction.

New ‘mind reading’ consumer EEG headsets about to hit the shelves with dull-looking games, according to New Scientist. They look fantastic, but don’t believe the hype – the fun will be in equipment hacks and data aggregation projects.

The Economist has a couple more good articles: one on the cognitive benefits of bilingual babies and the other on preconscious action selection and free will.

Makes of antidepressant Lexapro (escitalopram) may be gearing up for the latest in a long line a heavy weight US government fines for illegal promotion, reports Furious Seasons.

From the four humours to fMRI

The excellent Cognition and Culture blog found a fascinating lecture by the energetic medical historian Noga Arikha about the four humours theory of medicine and how its legacy influences our modern day ideas about the mind and brain.

The four humours theory suggested that the function of the mind and body was determined by the balance of four fluids in the body: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood.

While specific diseases were explained in this way, so were character traits and, in their excess, mental illness.

Indeed, some of the old names for these fluids still survive as descriptions of character traits (for example, we can still describe someone as phlegmatic or sanguine) even if we’re unaware of their origins.

However, Arikha outlines that its possible to trace the thinking behind humoural theories right through history into our current ideas about mind and brain in the age of brain scans and cognitive neuroscience.

The talk is based on her book, called Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, and the video is a bit shaky at times but worth sticking with as it’s an engrossing lecture.

Link to video of talk by Noga Arikha.

Phantom portraits

I’ve just found a gallery of one of my favourite art science projects of all time which used digital photo manipulation to illustrate the phantom limbs of post-amputation patients.

The images are incredibly striking, because they vividly illustrate that phantom limbs are often only phantom part-limbs. Sections can be missing, even in the middle, so a phantom hand can be felt even if a phantom elbow cannot.

Or perhaps a phantom hand can feel as if it protrudes directly from the point of amputation at the shoulder, or perhaps it feels distorted, or perhaps has no intervening phantom arm, or perhaps it is stuck in one position, and so on.

The project was the brainchild of neuropsychologist Peter Halligan, neurologist John Kew and photographer Alexa Wright. Actually, Peter is an ex-boss and I spent several years of my PhD with a huge picture of RD (above) in my office and it never failed to amaze me.

Unfortunately, the pictures in the online gallery are a viewable but a little small, although there are some larger versions if you scroll down in this essay.

Link to After Images online gallery.

Reverse psychology in a pill: anti-placebo

Photo by Flick user ArneCoomans. Click for sourceYou may be aware of the placebo effect, where an inert pill has an effect because of what the patient thinks it does. You may even be aware of the nocebo effect, where an inert pill causes ‘side-effects’. But a fascinating 1970 study reported evidence for the anti-placebo effect, where an inert pill has the opposite effect of what it is expected to do.

Storms and Nisbett were two psychologists interested in attribution, the process of how we explain the causes of events and the impact this has on how we feel.

We know that attributions have a big impact on our level of physical and emotional health. For example, your heart is racing when you’re about to give a talk. If you attribute it to a weak heart, you may start worrying whether you might pass out and become incredibly stressed, but if you attribute it to the situation, you might just think its a natural reaction for the event and feel primed and ready.

In anxiety disorders, we know that people often attribute natural bodily reactions to frightening causes, which makes people feel more on edge, and hence, their body kicks into an even higher gear, and so on. The cycle continues, to fever pitch. In essence, it’s anxiety-fuelled anxiety.

Insomnia has an element of this. People can be worried that they’re not sleeping, and so get anxious thoughts when they go to bed, and so feel on edge, ad nocturnum, until the early hours.

So rather than getting people to fill in questionnaires about causes of insomnia, a typical method in attribution research, Storms and Nisbett wanted to test these ideas in the real world.

They recruited a group of patients with insomnia and told them they were doing a four-night study on dreaming and asked them to rate their difficulty in falling asleep each night.

The first two nights were exactly that, a sleeping and rating exercise, but on the third night the participants were given pills. One group was told that the pill would make them feel more aroused, like a shot of caffeine, while the others were told that the pill would make them feel more relaxed, like a sleeping pill.

On the fourth night, the group were given the ‘opposite’ pill, but in reality, all the pills were identical and completely inert, containing nothing more than sugar.

Now here’s the thing. The insomnia patients taking the ‘relaxation’ pills slept really badly, and the patients taking the ‘arousal’ pills slept much better.

What seemed to be happening was that patients taking ‘uppers’, normally trapped in a cycle of anxious self-monitoring, could attribute any arousal they had to the pill. Any sign of feeling wired wasn’t them, it was the pill, so they could relax and fell asleep easily.

In contrast, those who had taken the ‘downers’ thought that any arousal must be their insomnia causing them problems, and it must be really bad, because it was getting to them despite the supposed sleeping pill they’d taken. In other words, they were freaking out because they couldn’t sleep despite the ‘medication’.

It turns out that this simple experiment wasn’t easily replicated but the problem was solved in 1983 when it was realised that this effect only held for people with insomnia who obsessively self-monitored.

But what these experiments tell us is that the effects of medication, the symptoms of illness and even the process of ‘being sick’ is partly dependent on our own ideas about what’s happening.

Link to PubMed entry for original Storms and Nisbet study.
Link to 1983 replication.

Taking pride in your posture

A simple but elegant study just published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that getting people to generate words about pride caused them to unknowingly raise their posture, while asking them to generate words about disappointment led to an involuntary slouch.

The research team, led by psychologist Suzanne Oosterwijk, asked people to list words related to ‘pride’ and ‘disappointment’, and some emotionally neutral control categories of ‘kitchen’ and ‘bathroom’, while being secretly filmed.

‘Pride’ caused a slight increase in posture height, while ‘disappointment’ caused the participants to markedly slouch.

The researchers suggest that the activation of the concept of disappointment led to a spontaneous bodily simulation of the feeling. They link this to the idea of embodied cognition that suggests that our mental life is fundamentally connected to acting on the world.

As we discussed last year, research has suggested that bodily expressions of pride and shame are the same across cultures, indicating that this connection between action and emotion may be a core part of our emotional make-up.

Link to abstract of study (via the BPSRD).

The medieval senses and the evil eye

The latest edition of neurology journal Brain has an extended review of three books about the history of the senses which gives a fascinating insight into how the meaning of our sensory experiences has changed over the centuries.

This paragraph is particularly interesting as it relates medieval theories of perception to the superstition of the ‘evil eye‘ where you could curse someone by looking at them.

While we now think of vision as a system for interpreting passively received light, the ‘evil eye’ makes much more sense when you realize that medieval people thought that light rays could fundamentally influence what they touched and even that the eyes actively sent out rays that could influence the objects within sight.

In 1492, learned debates also influenced how the world was perceived. As medical historians Nancy Siraisi and James T. McIlwain, also a neuroscientist, point out, medieval scholars would have located sensory perception in the brain (Siraisi, 1990; McIlwain, 2006). However, they would have perceived the five senses as active entities conveying information about the outside world to the internal senses of common sense, imagination, judgement, memory and fantasy (the ability to visualize).

Scholars differed considerably over how this worked in practice: for example, were rays emitted from the eyes towards the viewed object or was it the other way round? Either theory allowed for these rays to influence both viewer and object, thus explaining the widespread concept of the evil eye, or a belief still current in the 18th century that what a mother saw affected her foetus. The brain, however, was not the only sensitive organ of the body.

The heart was believed to be the centre of the animal soul, and thus closely associated with more carnal senses such as touch. The brain, the centre of the rational soul, was more closely associated with sight; the eyes often viewed as the ‘windows of the soul’. Sight, therefore, was given pre-eminence in the pre-modern world as it is today, but often for spiritual reasons due to the inter-dependence of religion and rational knowledge (scientia).

Thus even if the brain functioned in the past very much as it does today, the emotional and moral meaning of sensory experience differed dramatically.

The whole review is worth reading in full, not just because of the insights into medieval psychology, but also because these new books introduce ‘sensory history’ – a history of ideas about how we experienced the world through our bodies.

Link to review.
Link to DOI entry for same.