Synaesthesia in Frankenstein

One of the new ideas in synaesthesia research is that affected people perhaps don’t develop mixed senses as their brains develop, they just fail to lose them. It seems most children might start with naturally mixed senses before perception becomes segregated through pruning of the fuzzy neural pathways.

I’ve just noted an interesting article in Cognitive Neuropsychology on how this idea actually has long historical routes, and even influenced Mary Shelly’s cryopunk classic Frankenstein.

Although Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote her timeless novel, Frankenstein (1818), she combined contemporary philosophical and moral issues with a vision of the danger of emerging sciences that still has relevance today. The specific idea of early unity of the senses, very likely inspired by Rousseau, was articulated by Frankenstein’s creation in his first-person account of his early experiences:

“It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being: all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses. [Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818), chapter 11]”

Shelley goes on to present the creature as very humanlike, and it appears here that she wished to show that this extended to the earliest moments of his mental life. With the publication of Frankenstein, the unified-senses idea was thus brought into the popular culture, and Shelley’s words were probably read by some cognitive neuropsychologists in elementary school, even if they paid little heed to the sentiment. The idea also lived on within philosophy and, later, in the science of psychology.

In their professional career, very many cognitive neuropsychologists become acquainted with William James, and indeed the majority should recognize the phrase “one great blooming, buzzing confusion”. Most also recognize this as referring to the world of the infant, but few are probably aware that James was writing about his view that information from different senses is first fused in a child before later segregation.

Link to article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Mad honey

Photo by Flickr user Purrpl Haze. Click for sourceI’ve just discovered there’s a form of neurotoxic honey, genuinely known as “mad honey“, created by bees taking nectar from the beautiful rhododendron ponticum flower, pictured on the right.

The nectar from these plants, prevalent around the Black Sea region of Turkey, occasionally contains grayanotoxins, a class of neurotoxin that interferes with the action potential (electrical signalling) of nerve cells by blocking sodium channels in the cell membranes. This leads to problems with the muscles, peripheral nerves, and the central nervous system.

Mad honey apparently causes “a sharp burning sensation in the throat” and poisoning leads to dizziness, weakness, excessive sweating, hypersalivation, nausea, vomiting and ‘pins and needles’ although severe intoxication can cause dangerous heart problems.

Luckily, most cases aren’t fatal and resolve after 24 hours.

Mad honey was known to the Romans, and was specifically discussed by Pliny the Elder.

Link to brief review article on mad honey.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

The demon drink

Oh dear. It looks like psychologist Glenn Wilson has fallen off the wagon again. From the man who brought you the ’email hurts IQ more than cannabis’ PR stunt before repenting, comes the ‘the way you hold your drink reveals personality’ PR stunt.

This time it’s to promote a British pub chain and God bless those drink sodden journos who have gone and given it pride of place in the science section of today’s papers.

Even the BBC (who should know better but rarely do) have put it in their health section:

Dr Glenn Wilson, a consultant psychologist, observed the body language of 500 drinkers and divided them into eight personality types.

These were the flirt, the gossip, fun lover, wallflower, the ice-queen, the playboy, Jack-the-lad and browbeater.

Dr Wilson, who carried out the work for the [get free advertising somewhere else] bar chain, said glass hold “reflected the person you are”.

I would point out that it’s not published, or even sensical, but is there really any point when the whole premise is so ridiculous that you’d have to be virtually paralytic to take it seriously.

Wilson has actually done a great deal of serious research and is well known for his work on personality but occasionally seems to go on inexplicable media binges on the tab of corporate advertising.

Sadly, we’re the ones left with the hangover.

2009-05-29 Spike activity

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

HBO launches the awesome Alzheimer’s Project online. Video, documentary, facts, stories. Very nicely put together.

Teen mental health and mindfulness are the focus of a recent ABC Radio National Health Report.

The LA Times has more on the ongoing <a href="Psychiatrists rewriting the mental health bible
http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-sci-mental-disorder26-2009may26,0,3081443.story”>revision of the psychiatrists diagnostic manual, the DSM.

God bless ’em. The British Journal of Psychiatry publish a letter (scroll down) in which I complain about people ignoring research when talking about ‘internet addiction’ and other fictional monstrosities. The original authors write a lovely reply and I feel a bit sheepish.

The BPS Research Digest has a great post on simulating déjà vu in the lab.

If you haven’t seen it somewhere else, the excellent Mary Roach does a fascinating TED talk on ’10 things you didn’t know about orgasm‘ (although she doesn’t mention that the case of toothbrushing triggered orgasm was due to epilepsy).

People are universally optimistic according to a survey of over 140 countries reported in Science Daily. “At the country level, optimism is highest in Ireland, Brazil, Denmark, and New Zealand and lowest in Zimbabwe, Egypt, Haiti and Bulgaria.”

New Scientist has an interesting ‘science of the female orgasm’ series but drops the ball (if you’ll excuse the pun) with a ‘brain shuts down during female orgasm because I can’t critically evaluate the results of brain imaging studies’ piece.

There’s an interesting discussion on differing conceptions of the self, Jekyll and Hyde, and the modern of historical concept of criminal responsibility on ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone.

New Scientist has an excellent article on eight ancient writing systems that still haven’t been cracked. Where’s Fairlight when you need them?

An article on how meditation alters brain activity and structure appears in Scientific American.

Frontier Psychiatrist has an excellent piece on the concept of a rational suicide.

It’s raining fantastic essays on mind, brain and culture over at Neuroanthropology!

The New York Times has an article on the recent ‘super-recogniser‘ research on people who have spectacularly good memory for faces.

Graph theory slinging, network mongering, sociologically inclined mathematician Steven Strogatz has an excellent short piece in The New York Times on the mathematics of love.

New Scientist reports on a twin study that suggests intellectual confidence is inherited, predicts grades, and is independent from IQ.

The better trust and communication style between father and daughter, the better it is likely to be between the daughter and her partner, according to research reported by the new-to-me but seemingly excellent Child Psychology Research Blog .

The Times Higher Education Supplement notes concerns over the falling numbers of UK medical students who start training to be psychiatrists.

A big budget TV drama series about psychiatrists called ‘Mental‘ has just launched and you can watch the first episode online. Apparently being filmed in Bogot√°, Colombia.

Scientific American has another Jesse Bering column, this time on adolescent girl social aggression, or, in more colloquial terms, bitchyness.

Women are more likely than men to suffer feelings of inadequacy at home and at work and have perfectionist tendencies, according to a US study reported by BBC News.

Cerebrum, Dana’s excellent neuroscience magazine, has a great piece on the limits of neuroimaging.

Replicant Roy Kurzweil furiously responds to recent Newsweek article that apparently contained inaccuracies over his predictions, opinions, incept date.

Advances in the History of Psychology discovers that Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner has posted an electrogroove mashup that incorporates sampled snippets of the recordings of Stanley Milgram‚Äôs famous obedience experiments of the early 1960s. Like a disturbing social psychology 70’s porn soundtrack.

Valuing the unusual illness debate

One of the particular joys of psychiatry is the regular ritual where a small but determined group of researchers try and get their idea for a new diagnosis accepted into the DSM. The most recent outbreak has hit the LA Times where a short article notes the proposal for ‘posttraumatic embitterment disorder’.

The idea for the disorder, where people are impaired by feelings of bitterness after “a severe and negative life event”, is not new. A small group of German researchers have been proposing the disorder in the medical literature since 2003 and have recently released a psychometric scale which they argue can diagnose the condition.

The last incarnation of this debate to hit the mainstream press was discussion over whether extreme racism could or should be diagnosed as ‘racist personality disorder’.

The discussions are interesting because they cut to the heart of how we define an illness. This is usually discussed as if it is a problem specific to psychiatry, as if diagnoses in other areas of medicine are more obvious, but this is not the case.

Implicit in medical diagnoses is the concept that the change or difference in the person has a negative impact.

Importantly, the biological ‘facts’ have little to do with this, because whether something has a ‘negative impact’ is largely a value judgement.

An infectious disease is not defined solely on the basis that it is a bacteria or virus, as we have many bacteria or viruses in our bodies that cause no problems. It’s only when they cause us distress or impairment that they’re classified as an illness.

In fact, there are some bacteria or viruses that are completely harmless in certain areas of the body, but cause problems in others. Like in cases of viral encephalitis where otherwise benign viruses can cause problems when they get into brain tissue.

In some cases the definition is partly based on a comparison to what’s average for a person of this type. Differences in brain structure, such as some white matter lesions, may be considered medical problems in young people but normal in older people.

But there are many human characteristics that we could equally classify as being ‘not normal’ and ‘negative’ but we don’t currently accept as illnesses.

Being left-handed is clearly a statistical deviation from the average, has been associated with a greater risk of breast cancer, an increase in accidental injuries, and has been genetically linked to schizophrenia. But left-handedness is not considered an illness.

In other words, there is no definition of an illness which is divorced from a subjective interpretation of what counts as ‘negative’.

We also have some subjective and fairly fuzzy cultural ideas just about what sort of things count as medical conditions and require attention from doctors. Someone born with a missing thumb – yes, someone born left-handed – no.

Many of these assumptions are not about the properties of the ‘illness’ but about what we think doctors should be doing and what we feel the place of medicine in society should be.

Psychiatric disorders are just another instance of this. So when you hear proposals for seemingly wacky mental illnesses, think to yourself, why is this not an illness?

Importantly, we should do the same for widely accepted mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or depression. Ask yourself, on what basis is this an illness?

It’s not that all new diagnoses are useful or all existing ones are nonsense, it’s just that the process of questioning highlights our assumptions regarding the relationship between normality, human distress, impairment and the role of medicine in society.

Link to LA Times piece on bitterness as a mental illness.
Link to brilliant Stanford Philosophy Encyclopaedia entry on mental illness.

Winning the vaccine wars

PLoS Biology has an excellent article on the social factors behind how recent vaccination scares sparked off and continue, despite them having no scientific basis and having been repeatedly proved incorrect.

I’m morbidly fascinated by the autism scares because they are meeting of two very different forms of systems in which to think about knowledge.

Broadly, scientists think about how well a belief is supported by looking at its justifying evidence, whereas the antivaxxers decide on the conclusion often based on what they believe about their children and then bend or reject any evidence to fit the mould.

The piece focuses on the American antivaxxers and looks at how the US media amplified the scare story through focusing on personal stories and presenting them heavy weight scientific evidence.

Rachel Casiday, a medical anthropologist at the Centre for Integrated Health Care Research at Durham University, UK, who studied British parents’ attitudes toward MMR, says scientists should not underestimate the importance of narrative. People relate much more to a dramatic story‚Äî‚Äúhe got his vaccination, he stopped interacting, and he hasn’t been the same since‚Äù‚Äîthan they do to facts, risk analyses, and statistical studies.

‚ÄúIf you discount these stories, people think you have an ulterior motive or you’re not taking them seriously,‚Äù she explains. Casiday suggests providing an alternative, science-based explanation or relating emotionally compelling tales about counter-risk‚Äîsuch as helplessly watching a young child die of a vaccine-preventable disease‚Äîin the same narrative format.

While scientists have been (for years now) presenting the facts to people, it has really made very little difference and this is the first article I know of that suggests that science uses the power of the narrative to gets its vaccine safety message across.

UPDATE: I really recommend a post on the Providentia blog where psychologist Romeo Vitelli describes how the first life-saving smallpox vaccinations were opposed by a fledgling anti-vaccination movement that bear remarkable similarities to their modern day counterparts. The series on the historical antivaccination theme will continue, so look out for further posts on the same blog.

Link to PLoS Biology article (via @bengoldacre).

The phantom from the battle field

The Lancet recently published a fantastic article on one of the earliest cases of phantom limb. It was written by American Civil War surgeon Silas Weir Mitchell but not as a study in a medical journal, but as a short story in a popular magazine.

The story was titled The Case of George Dedlow in which Mitchell gives a careful medical description of sensations coming from a recently amputated limb, a portrait of how the amputation affected the soldier, and some musings on what it means about our relation to reality.

At this stage in the story, Mitchell uses his fictional character to muse on the neurological phenomenon of phantom limbs. Phantom limbs had been described in the mid-16th century by French military surgeon Ambroise Paré, but very little was known about what caused stump neuralgia (in the 1860s, the only treatments were electrotherapy, leeching, irritation of the surface of the stump, and re-amputation, none of which were very successful).

In The Case of George Dedlow, Mitchell speculates freely about what caused absent limbs to itch and feel pain. According to him, sensory impressions were transmitted through nerves to spinal nerve-cells and then to the brain. When a limb was removed, and until the stump healed, nerves continued to accept sensory impressions and to convey these impressions to the brain. If the stump never fully recovered, the result was constant irritation or a burning neuralgia. As Mitchell later explained in his famous textbook, Injuries of the Nerves and Their Consequences (1872), phantom limbs made “the strongest man…scarcely less nervous than the most hysterical girl”.

Somewhat poignantly, it seems Mitchell was haunted by his own phantoms from the war. In his later years he was troubled by ‘ghosts’ and intrusive memories from his gruesome years as a military surgeon.

It’s a fantastic short article that really conjures up the feel of the time as well as giving an insight into this important point in medical history.

Link to Lancet article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.
Link to text of short story The Case of George Dedlow.