Awesome vintage hypnotist posters

The ephemera assemblyman blog has a mesmerising gallery of last century stage hypnotist posters that are an irresistible combination of camp send-up, schlock horror and roll-up roll-up razzmatazz.

If you’re familiar with the history of hypnosis you’ll notice more than a few passing references to George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby, titled after a beautiful but tone-deaf young woman who is transformed into a breathtaking singer through through the power of hypnosis.

But Trilby is unaware of her transformation and is not a willing participant, being under the thrall of the manipulative hypnotist Svengali.

Indeed, we still used the word ‘svengali’ to refer to a manager or music mogul, although it has lost many of its more sinister associations.

The novel is notable for its anti-semitic undertones, as the hypnotist fulfils the racist stereotype of the ‘cunning Jew’, but it has also been the basis of hypnosis myths to the present day – not least the idea that it can be used to ‘enthrall’ people against their will.

I also suspect that the novel is largely responsible the remarkably extensive hypnosis fetish community who get kicks from roleplaying sexual ‘mind control’ fantasies.

Link to hypnotist posters gallery (via @mocost).

Neuropod on stress, genes, hobbits and hearing

The latest edition of the neuroscience podcast Neuropod has just hit the tubes and has sections on stress, genetics and culture in birdsong, the ongoing debate about homo florensis and hearing.

One of the most interesting sections is the part on stress, and accompanies a special collection of articles on stress in Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

It also contains the phrase, ‘the frontal lobes are the goldilocks of the brain’, which I can’t help but love.

mp3 of latest Neuropod podcast.
Link to Neuropod homepage with audio stream.

The English and the magical properties of tea

From p312 of anthropologist Kate Fox’s entertaining book Watching the English:

Tea is still believed, by English people of all classes, to have miraculous properties. A cup of tea can cure, or at least alleviate, almost all minor physical ailments and indispositions, from a headache to a scraped knee.

Tea is also an essential remedy for all social and psychological ills, from a bruised ego to the trauma of a divorce or bereavement. This magical drink can be used effectively as a sedative or stimulant, to calm and soothe or to revive and invigorate. Whatever your mental and physical state, what you need is ‘a nice cup of tea’.

If you’re not from the UK, you may be interested to know that what the medical literature calls social support is often referred to as ‘tea and sympathy’ by the Brits.

Actually, the paragraph above is not particularly representative of the book’s careful observations of the English but I can’t resist the opportunity to discuss the mental health benefits of tea.

But even if you’re not particularly interested in the English themselves, the book is also wonderful if you’re intrigued by how social anthropologists think and work.

However, the book is more like sitting in the pub with a social anthropologist than being in a lecture with one, as it’s a combination of an academic approach to the study of the implicit rules of English culture and Fox’s subjective opinion about what these rules mean.

After downing a few chapters, the author gets a little more opinionated and less observational. Although the book is no less entertaining as Fox becomes a bit loaded, you can see she isn’t taking herself too seriously by the end.

Which, as she notes, is a very English trait.

Link to details of Watching the English.

Revenge is sweet but corrosive

Photo by Flickr user Andrew EbrahimRevenge may be a dish best served cold but it will probably leave you with a nasty aftertaste, at least according to an article in the latest edition of the American Psychological Society’s Monitor magazine.

The piece looks at some of the growing number of studies on the psychology of retribution, examining cultural differences in triggers for revenge and explanations for why it is so common.

One of the most interesting bits is where it covers a study finding that while we think revenge will make us feel better after an injustice, it seems to have the opposite effect and makes us feel more unhappy.

The study in question involved participants taking part in a group investment game where, when it came to the crunch, one of the participants deliberately acted selfishly and took a whole lot of the money at the others’ expense.

Then Carlsmith offered some groups a way to get back at the free rider: They could spend some of their own earnings to financially punish the group’s defector.

“Virtually everybody was angry over what happened to them,” Carlsmith says, “and everyone given the opportunity [for revenge] took it.”

He then gave the students a survey to measure their feelings after the experiment. He also asked the groups who’d been allowed to punish the free rider to predict how they’d feel if they hadn’t been allowed to, and he asked the non-punishing groups how they thought they’d feel if they had.

In the feelings survey, the punishers reported feeling worse than the non-punishers, but predicted they would have felt even worse had they not been given the opportunity to punish. The non-punishers said they thought they would feel better if they’d had that opportunity for revenge‚Äîeven though the survey identified them as the happier group.

Link to article ‘Revenge and the people who seek it’.

The benefits of blushing

Photo by Flickr user marinnazilla. Click for sourceThe New York Times has a short-but-sweet article on the social function of blushing, looking at several studies that have found that a flushed face has a placating and cohesive effect on those around us.

The article reports on studies where blushing has been found to soften other people’s judgements of bad or clumsy behaviour and subsequently reinforces social ties.

Interestingly, it’s not just when someone makes a mistake, one study looked the effect of blushing on friendliness after a blokey bout of name calling and piss-taking:

In a 2001 paper that contrasts teasing and bullying, an act of aggressive isolation, Dr. Keltner and colleagues from Berkeley discuss one experiment in which members of a fraternity at the University of Wisconsin came into his lab, four at a time, to tease one another, using barbed nicknames. Each group included two senior house members and two recent pledges.

The young men ripped each other with abandon, calling each other “little impotent,” “heifer fetcher” and “another drunk,” among many other names that cannot be printed. The researchers carefully recorded the interactions and measured how well individuals got along by the end. The newer members were all but strangers to the more senior ones when the study began.

“It was a subtle effect, but we found that the frequency of blushing predicted how well these guys were getting along at the end,” Dr. Keltner said. Blushing seemed to accelerate the formation of a possible friendship rather than delay it.

Link to NYT piece on blushing.

What makes a headline suicide?

Photo by Flickr user jk5854. Click for sourceThere’s good evidence that media reporting of suicide can have an influence on the likelihood of further suicides, something known as the ‘copycat suicide effect’. In light of this, a new study examined what makes a suicide likely to newsworthy and whether media reporting reflects the actual demographics of people who kill themselves.

The researchers, led by psychologist Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, looked at all 2005 press reports of suicides in the Austria and compared them to the national suicide statistics.

Additionally, the details of all Austrian suicides are recorded in a national database but not all get reported in the media. This allowed the researchers to see which characteristics of a suicide made it most likely that it would get written about in the press.

It turns out that suicides involving murder or murder attempt were over-represented in the media whereas reporting on mental disorders was under-represented.

In terms of which attributes made a media report more likely, younger people who killed themselves were more likely to hit the headlines, as were foreign citizens.

While hanging is the most common method of suicide in Austria, these cases were under-reported, while drowning, jumping, shooting and unusual methods were more likely to make the papers.

Media reporting of suicide is a serious public health issue because numerous studies, most recently in 2006, have found that these news reports are likely to increase the suicide rate.

For this reason, there are guidelines for journalists writing about suicide, although I sure you can remember cases high profile cases where the guidelines get ditched and the more sensationalist angles get the media focus.

Link to study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

The Psychologist on virtuality, siblings, giftedness

The June issue of The Psychologist has been made freely available online and has articles on psychology in virtual worlds, sibling rivalry, the neuroscience of giftedness and Albert Bandura’s plan to apply psychology to global problems.

The interface is a little bit clunky (you need to click on a page to see it in readable size) but gives you the full layout of the magazine as it appears in print.

The main articles start here and kick off with one on psychology (and, indeed, psychologists) in virtual worlds, but I always turn to the news section first and it’s a great place for quick updates and summaries of interesting new studies from the last month.

Link to June edition of The Psychologist.

Full disclosure: I’m an occasional columnist and unpaid associate editor of The Psychologist and I want to look like Albert Bandura when I’m fully grown up. True.

Underworld rituals through the lens of autopsy

An upcoming article for the Journal of Forensic Sciences gives a fascinating insight into the rituals and methods of the Sacra Corona Unita (United Holy Crown) Mafia group from Southern Italy through the post-mortem examination of the bodies of their victims.

Many of the victims are members of the Sacra Corona Unita themselves, giving an insight in the organisation’s “mystical approach to all ceremonies among members. Tribal rituals, secret codes, and theatrical punishments transformed the ‘onorata societ√†’ into a kind of distorted Masonic lodge”.

The article recounts the oath of the criminal fraternity and the significance of their tattoos, as well as describing a study on 83 murder victims. Strikingly, each of the victims who were Mafia victims themselves had a ritual object left with them.

As usual in mafia organizations, each member had a nickname, and ritual symbolic objects were found beside the buried bodies that referred to the member’s lifetime. For instance, the horns of a bullock were found beside the body of the son of an SCU member named the “Bull” and a mouse beside the body of a member known to be a police informer, known as the “Prostitute.

The murder and burning of the bodies of the victims conformed to the symbolic code understood by all the members. It made explicit reference to the membership ceremonies that warn that the unfaithful will be burned to ashes (just like the holy picture burned during the ceremony).

This technique, obviously, also has some strategic advantages because it makes the possibility of identifying the victim more unlikely and eliminates any traces left by the executors. This mode of operation is called “lupara bianca” (white lupara): “lupara” is a gun with a sawn-off barrel with a high lacerating power at short distance, “white” means a “murder with disappearance of the body.”

Link to article.
Link to DOI entry for same.

Warning: brain underload

Photo by Flickr user star5112. Click for sourceThe Times has a long and tiresome article about how the ‘digital overload’ is affecting our brains which is only notable for one thing, it mentions not a single study on how digital technology affects the brain.

Imagine that. You can write 2,000 words for one of the world’s leading newspapers without a single established finding in the whole piece. Not one.

Actually, it’s worse than that, as this article contains an anti-fact. It cites the ’email damages IQ’ PR stunt as the results of a legitimate study when it was a marketing exercise for, ironically, a computer company.

Rather oddly, a recent article from New York Magazine followed exactly the pattern (no relevant studies, email damages IQ gaff), but came to the opposite conclusion.

As we mentioned at the time, the studies on the effect of digital technology support none of this public pant wetting.

Journalists. Have you been affected by the economic downturn? Are you finding that it’s difficult to get your work in print?

Don’t waste your time writing about politics or the economy and be imprisoned by the tyranny of evidence – write whatever the hell you want about technology and the brain and get the world’s finest publications to pay your bills. Your editor clearly can’t tell the difference.

…and breathe. In with anger, out with love.

No, it’s not working.

Link to where do they get these people from?

Rapture of the deep

Photo by Flickr user SteelCityHobbies. Click for sourceWhen scuba divers start swimming deep under water they can sometimes start feeling dreamy, light-headed and mentally fuzzy, an effect nicknamed ‘rapture of the deep’ but better known as nitrogen narcosis.

It is caused by changes in the way nitrogen, one of the gases in the divers’ air tank, dissolves in the body when under high pressure from the depth of the water.

No-one is quite sure exactly how it affects the brain, but many divers have noted the similarity between nitrogen narcosis and being drunk.

Psychologist Malcom Hobbs was intrigued by this connection and conducted a study [pdf], published last year in Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine, to investigate the psychological similarity between the two states.

The experiment compared the subjective experience and effects on problem solving of alcohol and narcosis, but, also rather elegantly, looked at whether the two effects could be caused by a similar neurobiological process by seeing whether people with high alcohol tolerance also had a high narcosis tolerance.

Hobbs divided a group of divers into experienced and novice divers, as those with more experience should be more tolerant to narcosis, and made a further division between those who drank a lot of booze and those who drank very little, to look at differences in alcohol tolerance.

In the first experiment, they found the interesting effect where experienced divers adapted to the subjective effects of narcosis, but not the behavioural effects. While they felt more in control than novice divers, they actually weren’t. This chimes with an identical effect seen in heavy vs light drinkers.

But crucially, Hobbs also found that those affected to a greater degree by nitrogen narcosis are affected to a greater degree by alcohol on both subjective experiences and performance on the problem solving task (and vice versa), indicating that there is cross tolerance between the two states.

This suggests that they may affect the brain in similar ways. Although more research needs to be done on the actual neurobiology of the two states to be sure of the exact relationship, this study suggests that divers may indeed be ‘drunk’ when experiencing the rapture of the deep.

UPDATE: I just got emailed this interesting snippet by an experienced diver friend (thanks Ben!):

Something extra which happens with narcosis (which deviates from the alcohol analogy) is that, unless you’re already dead, the effects are completely reversible with no discernible side effects (eg hangover). One of the tricks divers use if they recognize narcosis (most often in their buddy than in themselves) is that ascending a few metres will often bring immediate clarity.

Even more interesting is that once clarity is achieved, descent back to the narcotic depth doesn’t necessarily bring back the narcotic effect of the nitrogen, which hasn’t really been explained yet. Theories abound regarding rate of descent and physiological effects of increasing ppN [partial pressure of nitrogen] and how it’s dissolved into various tissues.

Divers have known for years about this and have developed practical methods to deal with its effects (decreasing N content in breathing gases, replacing N with other inert gases etc). Actually, it’s known that oxygen also has a role to play in narcosis (as in nitrous oxide) but since some of it is metabolized, it’s effects are considerably less than the inert gas it accompanies.

I quite like the feeling of a little narcosis; but it does make time fly, and unfortunately time is the real enemy underwater!

pdf of full-text scientific paper.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Scintillating zigzags and surrealism

I’ve just found this interesting 1988 article from the British Medical Journal on how surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico took inspiration from visual distortions he experienced as part of his migraines.

According to the article, he clearly recorded experiencing the symptoms of migraine, including the marked visual disturbances, and these can be seen in some of his paintings.

One of the most common visual disturbances in migraine aura is scintillating zigzag edges, but it can also commonly induce sparkling, dazzling, dancing, or flickering lights, fire rings, stars, and moving lines.

There are three sets of de Chirico’s pictures that closely resemble patients’ illustrations of classical migraine attacks. In a set of prints illustrating Cocteau’s Mythologie the jagged effect of the water is very similar to the advancing edge of a scotoma and may be compared to a painting from the national migraine art competition.

The second example, a painting from the 1960, has as its central feature the silhouette of a man with a spiky edge, while figure 4, a lithograph from 1929, shows a black sun motifintruding into an interior scene. Both of these are reminiscent of drawings of negative scotomata by patients suffering from migraine. Other migrainous phenomena, such as the distortion of space, may be discernible in a series of paintings known as “Metaphysical interiors.” This association, however, is more tenuous.

The article is illustrated with some of de Chirico’s paintings and comparison pictures by people who were deliberately attempting to illustrate their migraine aura.

Link to article on PubMedCentral.