Mass hysteria and dancing manias

The July edition of the The Psychologist has an absolutely fantastic article on the ‘dancing manias’ that swept through Europe in the middle ages and triggered an exhausting compulsion to dance.

The piece looks at the history of these manias and discusses them in terms of dissociation, the ‘unconscious compartmentalisation of normally integrated mental functions’, which is something we discussed the other day with respect to modern day possession and trance rituals.

Dissociation is usually discussed as something individual, whether the person induces it deliberately through ritual, lets themselves be affected through hypnosis, or is affected involuntarily, as in the case of ‘conversion disorder‘.

However, there are hundreds if not thousands of cases of ‘mass hysteria’ or ‘mass psychogenic illness’ that have been documented and are that are thought to involve a similar mental process.

Unfortunately, these ‘mass hysterias’ tend to be widespread but fleeting affairs, meaning they’re hard for researchers to study.

One of the commonest findings, however, is that they often occur where people find themselves in an intolerable situation that they’re not able to influence or otherwise complain about.

If you’re interested in learning more, I really recommend a 2002 article from the British Journal of Psychiatry by sociologist Robert Batholomew and psychiatrist Simon Wessely as an excellent introduction to the field.

Otherwise, Batholomew’s books are excellent. My favourite is his 2001 book Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illnesses and Social Delusion (ISBN 0786409975).

Anyway, The Psychologist article is a great place to start and one of the most enjoyable articles I’ve read on the topic for a while.

Link to The Psychologist on ‘Dancing plagues and mass hysteria’.
Link to article from the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Full disclosure: I’m an occasional columnist and unpaid associate editor of The Psychologist. I also love dancing manias.

Like tears in the rain

Forbes magazine has an excellent special issue that is rammed full of diverse and interesting articles on artificial intelligence.

It’s a large collection of short articles that covers everything from the mathematics of free will to the likelihood of there being a robot war in the future (see, it’s not just me).

There are a fair few speculative pieces, so those who like their transhumanists with a pinch of salt may have to be ready with the seasoning, but wide variety of articles means there should be something for everyone.

Each intends to introduce an idea rather than explore it in detail. I liked the pieces on whether AI can help fight terrorism and another on how the use of AI to explore theories of the mind has declined, and I’m still reading through the rest.

The only slight annoyance is that the series starts with the clich√© question “Can machines think?”

Perhaps the single most sensible response I ever read to this was a quote from a speech but the much missed Dutch computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra:

“The question of whether machines can think… is about as relevant as the question of whether submarines can swim.”

Link to Forbes ‘AI Report’.

Stalkers and assassins of the US President

I’ve just found this fascinating 2006 article by a consultant psychiatrist to the US Secret Service that classifies the types of stalkers and assassins that have troubled the President of the United States.

The piece, by psychiatry professor Robert Phillips, reviews past classifications of presidential harassers and cases from the literature to produce a list of main types.

In my work as consultant to the U.S. Secret Service on protective intelligence cases, it is my clinical assessment that aids in their ultimate determination of who poses a potential risk to a protectee.

In performing evaluations of persons who have either threatened or attacked presidents, pursued them without nefarious intent, or appeared at the White House without invitation, I have searched for a framework that would allow me to integrate my diagnostic opinion of an individual subject with a conceptualization of what is known about others who have acted similarly.

Phillips’ classification includes:

* The Resentful Presidential Stalker or Assassin
* The Pathologically Obsessed Presidential Stalker or Assassin
* The Presidential Infamy Seeker
* The Presidential Nuisance or Presidential Attention Seeker

But perhaps most interesting is the part where he illustrates each type with examples from past cases.

These include famous cases, such as John Hinckley – the man who shot President Reagan but was apparently also a stalker of Carter, to less well known cases such as one woman referred to only as ‘Ms Doe’ who “possessed a delusional love interest” in Clinton.

It’s interesting to compare this classification with the independently created typology of stalkers of the British royal family drawn from the Metropolitan Police’s Royalty Protection Unit files.

Link to full text of article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Tooling up the body

Photo by Flickr user Darren Hester. Click for sourceNot Exactly Rocket Science covers an intriguing study that provides further evidence for the theory that the brain treats tools as temporary body parts.

Using tools has lots of interesting effects on our perception. In one of my favourite studies, psychologist Dennis Proffitt found that we perceive distances as shorter when we have a tool in our hand, but only when we intend to use it.

This latest study found that using a tool for only a few minutes modified the body’s action settings. In the experiment, participants were asked to repeatedly pick up a block that had been placed in the middle of the table.

Then, they had to repeat the same actions with a grabber – a long, mechanical lever tipped with a two-fingered “hand” – and then a third time, with their own hand again.

Small LEDs on the volunteers’ hands allowed Cardinali to track their movements and calculate the speed and acceleration of their arms. She found that they reached for the block differently after they had been accustomed to the grabber, taking longer to accelerate their hands more slowly and to seize the block (although once they actually touched the blocks, they grasped them in just the same way as before). The delays even affected the speed at which they pointed at the block, a behaviour that wasn’t “trained” by the grabber.

To Cardinali, these results suggested that after using the grabber, the volunteers’ had included it into their mental representation of their own arms. Because of that, they felt that their arms were longer than they actually were and reached for the block more slowly.

Link to Not Exactly Rocket Science on tools as body extensions.

Into the ancient mind

Newsweek has an interesting critique of evolutionary psychology that tackles some of the main areas of contention.

The article claims to question the whole field of evolutionary psychology but really only deals with specific studies, largely because has quite a limited view of the approach and is strangely wed to biological determinism.

From the biological determinism angle, contrary to what the article implies, even if specific antisocial traits have evolved this doesn’t excuse the behaviour or suggest that it is inevitable, as the history of violence tells us.

The article is clearly influenced by the work of philosopher David Buller, who has been a long-time critic of the field.

But what the article also doesn’t mention is that it is largely addressing a certain form of thinking on evolutionary psychology – namely an approach chiefly promoted by Buss, Tooby and Cosmides, sometimes called the ‘Santa Barbara’ approach.

This view is characterised by the idea that we have evolved specific mental modules (like individual ‘units’ of behaviour or thought) that have been shaped by selection pressures to address problems most important for survival over the time span of human existence – typically characterised as the ‘stone age’.

This is only one form of thinking however. In its weaker form, evolutionary psychology is much less controversial in that we know that genetics, and even single genes, can influence cognition and behaviour, and that selection pressures are equally likely to have been exerted on these genes.

The difficulty is deciding in what cases selection pressure is working through mind and behaviour and at what psychological level the selection pressure manifests itself.

For example, is it best to think of selection pressure as operating on low level cognitive mechanisms such as speed of processing, visual perception and working memory, or on more complex processes such as perception of beauty, relationship style or emotional range.

The critics of evolutionary psychology usually focus on the latter. David Buller clearly specifies this in a recent and recommended article that he wrote for Scientific American but this is not clear in the Newsweek piece.

Buller himself has his critics and there is an excellent page with rebuttals of his claims from the Center for Evolutionary Psychology, many of which focus on his use of evidence to support his arguments.

Recently, a new twist in the tale has come from a study just published in Science that used computational modelling to suggest that major changes in human behaviour during the stone age could be entirely accounted for by cultural changes and there is no need to suggest a fundamental change in the structure of our minds.

The Newsweek article is definitely worth reading, but it’s not the whole story and is best supplemented with responses from some of Buller’s critics.

Link to Newsweek article ‘Don’t blame the caveman’.
Link to Buller’s article for SciAm.
Link to Buller rebuttals.
Link to Science paper on culture and cognitive changes.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

March of the robot t-shirts

Dapper British t-shirt blog Hide Your Arms have collected 101 of the best robot t-shirts available anywhere on the net.

It has every type of robot reference you can possibly think of and there are some genuinely beautiful garments hidden amid the torrent of mechanised irony.

Enjoy them while you can because when the robot war comes we’ll all be naked except for a bar code tattoo.

It’ll be worse than it sounds. I promise.

Link to Hide Your Arms 101 robot t-shirts.

Hushed thunder

ABC Radio National has a fantastic programme on El, a 27 year old woman with selective mutism – essentially a speaking phobia that enforces an anxiety-driven silence with everyone except her family.

The documentary is deeply poignant but has several moments of sublime irony that really stopped me in my tracks.

El stopped speaking to anyone except her family as a young child and has spent the large part of her life not being able to utter a word to anyone else.

The programme details the painful impact this has had on her life, how she was verbally attacked by pupils and staff in school, and how she has found it difficult to get a job, or hasn’t been respected in the work she’s done.

In one aside, she mentions she has a degree in communication.

In my mind, a thousand stories were unfurled by the breeze of this simple fact.

El, by the way, is an incredibly articulate communicator. The photo to the right is one of her own artworks and her words, spoken by an actress, are clear and evocative.

The ending to the programme is like hushed thunder.

The documentary is part of an innovative ABC Radio National series entitled Stories of Silence that explores the many meanings of quiet.

Link to El’s story (via AITM Blog).

Out of control decision-making

I’ve just noticed that TED has recently put another talk online by the entertaining and thought-provoking behavioural economist Dan Ariely where he discusses why our feeling of being in total control of our decision-making may be false.

We mentioned an earlier and similarly interesting TED talk on the psychology of cheating previously, but this one is more concerned with what we might call decision-making inertia, where the ‘default’ options or red herrings have a huge sway over our reasoning

This is despite the fact that most people are completely unaware of how irrelevant information has such a profound impact on our choices.

Link to Dan Ariely TED talk on whether we’re in control of our choices.

A phantom head

I’ve just been reminded of one of the most remarkable case studies in the psychiatric literature, of a patient who believed he had two heads and who seriously injured himself with a gunshot wound trying to remove the ‘second’ head.

He described a second head on his shoulder. He believed that the head belonged to his wife’s gynaecologist, and described previously having felt that his wife was having an affair with this gynaecologist, prior to her death. He described being able to see the second head when he went to bed at night, and stated that it had been trying to dominate his normal head.

He also stated that he was hearing voices, including the voice of his wife’s gynaecologist from the second head, as well as the voices of Jesus and Abraham around him, conversing with each other. All the voices were confirming that he had two heads; the voice from the second head had been telling him that it was the ‘king pin’, and would also say to him that it was going to take his wife away. He did not describe any other hallucinatory or delusional experiences.

“The other head kept trying to dominate my normal head, and I would not let it. It kept trying to say to me I would lose, and I said bull-shit.” “I am the king pin here” it said and it kept going on like that for about three weeks and finally I got jack of it, and I decided to shoot my other head off.”

He stated that he fired six shots, the first at the second head, which he then decided was hanging by a thread, and then another one through the roof of his mouth. He then fired four more shots, one of which appeared to have gone through the roof of his mouth and three of which missed. He said that he felt good at that stage, and that the other head was not felt any more. Then he passed out. Prior to shooting himself, he had considered using an axe to remove the phantom head.

I was reminded of the case study by McKay and colleagues chapter in the academic book Delusion and Self-Deception. I’ve been sent a free copy to review for an academic journal and am currently ploughing through it. It’s not very accessible for the general reader but is full of thought provoking theories on the cognitive science of delusions.

Link to case study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

2009-06-19 Spike activity

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

PsychCentral awards its 2009 Online Mental Health Journalism Awards. Mind Hacks makes the list. Still no word from Shakira.

The wonderful Dr Mezmer’s Psychopedia of Bad Psychology is released as a full free edition.

The Economist on a study finding that repeating positive statements to oneself has a negative effect of people with low self-esteem. Is this the death of Émile Coué?

An excellent article on the curious pharmacological properties of the curious hallucinogen salvia divinorum is on Terra Sigillata.

BBC News covers a new call to rethink how courts should handle eyewitness testimony in the light of the science of memory.

Stereotypes about the drivers of certain cars affect our perception of how fast we think the car is going, according to a study covered by BPS Research Digest.

The Guardian Book Club podcast discusses Steve Pinker’s The Blank Slate.

There’s an excellent special issue of ye olde Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on predictions in the brain – using our past to prepare for the future.

The Telegraph wees itself in public.

Mental time travel and the importance of remembering forward in time are discussed by the ever excellent Neurophilosophy.

The New York Times has a rough guide to borderline personality disorder.

Patients with schizophrenia least likely to commit suicide after being treated by young female psychiatrists, according to a study in Schizophrenia Bulletin. Via the excellent Spanish language blog Nietos de Kraepelin.

Frontier Psychiatrist has an excellent piece on the complexities and depression and antidepressant prescribing.

Can a <a href="
“>lack of sleep drive you mad? asks The Independent. Correlation-causation warning applies for some of the points.

The New York Times reports on a recent study finding a higher rate of mental illness in the Chinese population than previously thought.

Hooked on a feeling. Newsweek discusses the science of placebo.

Rethinking Autism has produced a series of sexy videos to promote sensible science on autism. A strange brew indeed.

Booze to brain in six minutes. Live Science covers a study of people getting pissed in brain scanners.

An article for the ACLU Blog delves into the history of the American Psychological Association’s collusion with war-on-terror interrogation / torture / shadyness. You may be interested to know that the APA are currently focussed on backpeddling.

The New York Times tackles the ‘a glass of wine a day is good for you‘ meme, which doesn’t actually have a lot of solid evidence backing it up.

There’s a good in-depth review of Flynn’s new book on intelligence and the Flynn effect over at American Scientist.

The Kinsey Institute has a twitter feed! Make your own coming thick and fast jokes. I’m above that sort of thing.

A dodgy study that, despite its claims, didn’t find antipsychotic aripiprazole is particularly associated with increased subjective well-being is tackled in an excellent analysis by Neuroskeptic.

Discover Magazine has an excellent Carl Zimmer article on the benefits of the wandering mind and the brain’s ‘default network’.

A Harvard psychiatrist writes a spoof article on zombie neurobiology – sadly we only have a secondhand <a href="
“>write-up from io9. If only those scientists in Day of the Dead had a copy, maybe it wouldn’t have turned out so bad.

Neuron Culture has the best write-up anywhere on the recent metanalysis of the link between the 5-HTTLPR gene and depression: The (Illusory) Rise and Fall of the “Depression Gene”.

To the bunkers! New Scientist covers a plan to teach military robots the rules of war. Don’t you realise, that’s exactly what they want you to believe!

The Splintered Mind has a philosophical dream.

Unloaded dice

Photo by Flick user Darren Hester. Click for sourceA new edition of the beautifully produced RadioLab has just hit the airwires with an excellent programme on the science of randomness.

The hour long science trip largely focusses on how we make sense of random or unpredictable events, from coincidences to statistical white noise.

There’s a wonderful part where the presenters visit statistician Deborah Nolan who has a neat party trick to demonstrate the properties of random sequences to her students.

She asks one group of students to write down the results of 100 coin flips, and another to write a list of imaginary coin flips. She then leaves the room, waits while each sequence is written down, returns, and tells the students which sequence was imaginary.

It works because humans are bad random number generators. Nolan looks for longer runs of heads or tails which are not included in imaginary sequences because we underestimate the variation in randomness.

In fact, there’s been quite a bit of research on how we generate ‘random’ number sequences, and it turns out that far from being a messy and effortless function of the brain, it requires some heavyweight intervention of the frontal lobes.

Brains are very good at stereotyped routines but it’s breaking these learned patterns which takes the real effort. To generate ‘random’ sequences, we need to check we’re not repeating ourselves and match the sequence against a model of randomness in our heads.

In fact, asking people to generate a sequence of random numbers is a good test of frontal lobe function, the more mathematically random it is, the better functioning the frontal cortex. And if we dampen down frontal cortex function using electromagnets, we see a drop in actual randomness of the numbers.

There are plenty more fantastic insights into the science of the unpredictable in the programme with the constantly surprising RadioLab team.

Link to RadioLab on randomness.

The holy grail of military psychiatry

Photo by Flickr user Click for sourceNeuron Culture covers a new study on predictors of PTSD in deployed American combat troops. Predicting whether a soldier will break down through combat has been one of the Holy Grails of military psychiatry and the impressive results of this study suggest that this may be getting closer.

World War One was the crucible of military psychiatry as it became clear that even the bravest and best soldiers could break down due to combat stress.

When World War Two arrived, the British and American militaries invested a great deal in psychological screening to attempt to distinguish which soldiers would break down more quickly.

The project was widely regarded as a failure as the only reliably predictor seemed to be the duration and ferocity of the combat the soldier was exposed to.

However, as Dobbs notes, this new study finds that a simple measure of physical health could be a powerful way of preventing half of all PTSD cases in combat deployed troops.

The study found that the least healthy 15% of the troops in the study who saw combat accounted for well over half — 58% — of the post-combat PTSD cases, as indicated by either the study’s own criteria or by self-report of a PTSD diagnosis from the soldiers during follow-up.

This is a pretty stunning result. And it certainly suggests that, as the study put it, “more vulnerable members of the population could be identified and benefit from interventions targeted to prevent new onset PTSD.” The beauty of this finding is that fairly general measures of health are the indicators, so you can predict a lot from fairly simple and easy-to-collect data.

Obviously not all of the 15% who scored lowest on PTSD; but that bottom 15% accounted for more cases than do the entire remaining 85%. So at a time when we are much concerned with reducing PTSD in combat troops, it seems fairly plain that we could cut the PTSD rate by more than 50% simply by keeping the least healthy 15% — as measured by fairly simple health questionnaires we already have in any and — out of combat zones.

He also notes a curiosity that while the study was on US troops, the paper was published in the British Medical Journal, and wonders whether there were some PTSD politicking that meant it was rejected from American journals.

As we’ve discussed before, PTSD is perhaps the most politicised psychiatric diagnosis. It was originally called post-Vietnam syndrome and was created to allow the US healthcare system treat Vietnam veterans.

The direct effects of trauma where never previously thought to be a mental illness in itself, although it was known to be a risk factor for a number of conditions.

Psychologist Dave Grossman, author of On Killing, convincingly argues that Vietnam was particularly conducive to combat trauma for US troops, owing to the fact that US forces had no front line and hence no ‘safe’ areas to relax in, and that they often found themselves fighting a irregular army of civilians including women and children.

Link to Neuron Culture on predicting PTSD in combat troops.
Link to full-text of study from BMJ.

Possession and trance

Neuroanthropology has collected videos of trance states in religious rituals, where intense movement, music and mental involvement lead to profoundly altered states of consciousness.

Trance is a fundamental part of many (probably most) religions. Although it is typically associated in the popular mind with ‘voodoo’ it’s also common in many Christian denominations.

Indeed, there’s a video of trance states in Candombl√©, a fusion of Catholicism and voodoo-related Orisha worship, and one of trance states in a charismatic Christian church in the US.

Trance is usually described as involving ‘dissociation’ – originally defined by the French psychiatrist Pierre Janet as the ‘unconscious compartmentalisation of normally integrated mental functions’.

Dissociation is thought to underlie a wide range of phenomena, including hypnosis, reaction to trauma, trance and some forms of spirit possession, hysteria, conversion disorder and, more controversially, multiple personality disorder.

One of the best guides to the range of experiences and the possible neuroscience behind these states is an excellent article by anthropologists Rebecca Seligman and Laurence Kirmayer.

One notable omission from the list on Neuroanthropology is video of the female possession rituals of the Zar Cult from Northern Sudan which has been quite widely discussed in the anthropology literature.

There’s some brief footage of it online and in another video anthropologist Gerasimos Makris discusses the structure and social meaning of the possession rituals.

Link to Neuroanthropology collection of trance videos.
Link to article on trance, dissociation and neuroscience.
Link to good page on anthropology of possession.

Alien lipstick syndrome

Photo by Flickr user Foxtongue. Click for sourceI’ve just found this remarkable case study of a woman with an unpredictable form of ‘alien hand syndrome’ that was triggered when she had a seizure.

The syndrome, where you lose conscious control of one of your hands while it carries out unbidden actions, is normally associated with permanent damage to the brain, often in the frontal lobes, but this version only occurred when an epileptic seizure was in progress.

A 65-year-old right-handed Cuban woman experienced her first seizure while driving. She described an initial tonic posturing of her left foot with march throughout the leg.

This was followed by a counterclockwise truncal contortion and repetitive clonic movements of the foot, followed by her left hand viciously slapping her face, “as if it was fighting with me.”

Subsequent seizure semiology

This slideshow could not be started. Try refreshing the page or viewing it in another browser.

has been similar, although her nondominant left hand has refined its movements as to pretend it is applying lipstick.

Because of the embarrassing smearing of her preferred loud cherry-red lipstick, the patient has been forced to use more natural colors.

Link to PubMed entry for paper.

In vino veritas

Photo by Flickr user rogersmj. Click for sourceWine Psychology is a curious new website dedicated to the pleasures, analysis and cognitive science of our favourite grape-based booze.

It’s been launched by psychologist Miles Thomas who has written a number of successful articles on the psychology of wine tasting, including one we featured last year.

The website’s blog looks the most promising, and the recent post on passive perceptual learning in wine tasting is a good place to start.

There’s a small but surprisingly active research community focussed on wine psychology, largely, I’m guessing, because it is a huge business with lots of dedicated fans.

Rather unusually, I seem to be uniquely affected by wine. From my observations it tends to make other people poorly coordinated and socially unskilled whereas after a few drinks my dancing vastly improves and I become increasingly witty.

Apparently this anomaly has not yet been reported in the literature, so I look forward to a full scientific investigation.

Link to Wine Psychology.

Full disclosure: Miles Thomas and I are both unpaid members of The Psychologist editorial board. He has not paid me, twisted my arm or plied my with booze to write this post.

Don’t stand so close to me

Photo by Flickr user dollipoptart. Click for sourceThere’s a neat study in Perception finding that listening to music through headphones warps our comfort zone of interpersonal space.

The researchers asked participants to walk up to another person from various angles until they reached the edge of their comfort zone.

Without them knowing the researchers measured the distance, and this was compared between times when participants were listening to music through headphones, were wearing silent headphones or were without headphones.

When listening to music, participants maintained a greater interpersonal distance and this was particularly true when their back faced another person. In other words, people needed more distance behind them to feel comfortable.

This is likely because we use hearing to track objects, particularly behind us, and when we can no longer rely on a sense to give us this information we tend to err on the side of caution.

The researchers drop a tantalising hint that the type of music may also have an effect.

While in this study, all participants listened to unfamiliar music, they mentioned that “we have pilot data suggesting that people change their interpersonal space area when listening to music they like compared with music they dislike or no music at all”.

Turn down the Barry White buddy, you’re crowding my space.

Link to page with full text of paper.
Link to PubMed entry.