Hypnosis and criminal mind control in 1890s France

The 19th century French neurologist Georges Gilles de la Tourette is best known for Tourette’s Syndrome, but a fascinating article in European Neurology traces his interest in the criminal uses of hypnosis.

It is full of surprising facts, like that he was shot in the head by a delusional patient who believed that she had been hypnotised against her will, and that he eventually died in a Swiss asylum after developing psychosis caused by syphilis.

We now know that hypnosis cannot be used to make people do things against their will, but at the time it was widely believed that women could be hypnotised to be easy prey to sexual predators, and even that otherwise innocent people could be hypnotised to be killers against their will. Sort of like a 19th century Manchurian Candidate.

The murder of a public notary by Michel Eyraud and Gabrielle Bompard in 1889, in which Bompard said she was hypnotised to be a murderer, made headlines around the world (you can still read The New York Times coverage online) and also served as a public battle over whether hypnosis could be used for criminal ends.

France was the centre of hypnosis research at the time and many experiments were carried out where hypnotised people were asked to ‘kill’ people with prop weapons to test their compliance. Neurologists Gilles de la Tourette and Jean-Martin Charcot were famous for their work on hypnosis and hysteria and weighed into the heated legal debate.

The patient who shot Gilles de la Tourette was not hypnotised, however, although was delusional and believed that she was. Hypnosis is a common theme of psychosis even today and your average inpatient psychiatric ward may well contain a patient or two who believe they are being ‘controlled’ or ‘mesmerised’ by hypnosis.

In Gilles de la Tourette’s case, the incident is notable not least because he suffered a bullet in the brain, had it yanked out, and was writing to his friend about the experience later in the day.

…he was shot – for real – at his home in Paris by Rose Kamper-Lecoq, a 29-year-old former patient from La Salp√™tri√®re and Sainte-Anne who later claimed that she had been hypnotized from a distance…

Rose asked him for some money, claiming that she was without resources because her hypnotism sessions had altered her will, and shot him when he refused. There were three shots, with only the first one reaching its target. Fortunately for Gilles de la Tourette, it resulted in only a superficial occipital wound, and he was even able to write to Montorgueil about the event the same evening.

The article has a copy of the letter with the description “The writing is uneasy, but Gilles de la Tourette reassures Montorgueil and explains that the bullet has been removed, ending the letter with the comment ‘What a strange story’ (‘Quelle dr√¥le d’histoire’)”.

Anyway, a fascinating article, freely available, and full of fantastic images and illustrations from newspapers of the time.

Link to full-text of article (scroll down).
Link to PubMed entry for same.

AI predicts poker bets to three decimals places

Photo by Flickr user Jam Adams. Click for sourcePoker is considered one of the most skillful of betting games, but a new study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies reports on an artificial neural network that predicts gambler’s bets to three decimals places.

The system was built by researcher Victor Chan who created a relatively simply backpropogation neural network to predict future plays.

Backprop networks take a bunch of inputs, feed them through layers of loose mathematical simulations of neurons which then make a guess at an output.

Crucially, the network is initially given a set of training data on which it can modify its ‘guesses’ based on how wrong its initial estimation was. The amount of error is fed back through the network and each ‘neuron’ adjusts the strengths of its connections to other neurons to minimise the error next time round.

Chan used the playing patterns of six online Texas Hold ’em players each of whom played more than 100 games each. He entered just an initial series of games for each player to train the network and then asked it to predict how the following plays would go.

…it was to the author‚Äôs surprise that the neural network for M1 upon training turned out to be able to predict a gambler‚Äôs bet amounts in successive games accurately to more than three decimal places of the dollar on average for each of the six gamblers in our data sample across the board.

More importantly, the neural network for M2 upon training was also able to track the temporal trajectory of a gambler’s cumulative winnings/losses, i.e., successively predict the gambler’s cumulative winnings/losses, with a similar accuracy again for each of the six gamblers in our data sample across the board.

…the influence of a gambler‚Äôs skills, strategies, and personality on his/her cumulative winnings/losses is almost totally reflected by the pattern(s) of his/her cumulative winnings/losses in the several immediately preceding games.

In other words, from a sample of initial plays, each gambler’s behaviour was almost completely mathematically predictable in the same way across all six people.

Now, if they could only get a neural network to predict plays in strip poker, I think they’d be onto something.

Link to study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

2009-07-17 Spike activity

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

NPR has a good piece on the vagaries of analysing functional brain scans.

Philosopher Pete Mandik features Mind Hacks as a ‘Top 10 mind and brain blog’ for blogs.com. Shakira yet to call.

The Independent covers the debate on clozapine – the best antipsychotic available that treats mortality-reducing schizophrenia but which causes potentially fatal white blood cell collapse in 10% 1-2% of patients. Choose your poison. Discuss.

Psychiatric-service dogs, especially trained to assist patients with mental illness, are discussed by the Wall Street Journal.

BBC News has an opinion piece by always thought provoking against-the-grain psychiatrist Joanna Moncrieff on why psychotropic medication should be considered separately from mental illnesses. Frontier Psychiatrist has a thoughtful response to the debate.

The side-effects from sugar pills nocebo effect is covered by Brain Blogger

Neuroskeptic has a good complimentary piece on the placebo effect in prescribed medication.

There’s a good piece on ‘How chaos drives the brain’ on New Scientist. I always assume chaos is just a sign of caffeine deficiency.

Neurotopia covers a brain imaging study on a ‘super memoriser‘.

The kazillion dollar war on some drugs is featured in a special issue of Mother Jones magazine.

Schizophrenia Forum has a fantastic discussion from some of the world’s leading schizophrenia researchers on the significance of the recent high profile whole genome studies.

Anthropology, teaching and the great student swindle is discussed in an insightful article on Neuroanthropology.

The Wall Street Journal has a piece on the Blue Brain project. Neglects to mention that it becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th.

Crypto ninja Bruce Schneier discusses the interesting concept of privacy salience and the psychology of online service design.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a piece on how autism and academia can go hand in hand, while BBC News covers a software company that specifically looks for employees on the autism spectrum.

A cute but gimmicky sleep monitor is covered by The New York Times. It describes it as recording ‘brain waves’ but it looks like it uses near infrared spectroscopy to measure blood flow. See what you’re missing ladies.

Nassir Ghaemi is a well known research psychiatrist who writes an increasingly excellent blog called Mood Swings

New Scientist covers the “first-ever neurobiological study of honesty and cheating“, apparently by a journalist with amnesia for all the other studies.

Ding ding. Round 3. More DSM-V bun fighting on Psychiatric News: “I wish to call attention to the imperiousness, arrogance, and secrecy…”

Neurophilosophy covers researching finding that swearing increases pain tolerance.

Jonah Lehrer reviews ‘You Are Here’, a new book on spatial perception and intelligence for The New York Times.

The excellent Situationist blog has a fantastic article on the legal implications of implicit biases.

Dr Shock discusses a recent thought-provoking article on neuroscience and architecture.

Aimless excursions

Photo by Flickr user Y. Ballester. Click for sourceNPR has an interesting short article on wandering in dementia. Conditions likes Alzheimer’s disease can cause patients to embark on seemingly aimless walks and sometime epic journeys, but nobody is quite sure why it happens.

We are fascinated by the pilgrim, the lost soul, the sovereign wayfarer. In others. In ourselves. The literature of wandering ‚Äî Homer’s Odysseus, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl families, Star Trek’s questing starships, for instance ‚Äî fills shelves and shelves. “One wanders through life as if wandering through a field in the dark of night,” writes Lemony Snicket.

For dementia-driven wanderers, the desire to ramble can be amplified…

Scientists are also not sure why dementia often leads to roaming. But there is this sobering statistic from the Alzheimer’s Association: About 50 percent of people who wander will suffer serious injury or death if they are not found within 24 hours.

For this reason, wandering has been a subject of a fair amount of medical research. Unfortunately, it is still largely a mystery and all we know for certain is that patients who wander tend to be physically fitter but more cognitively impaired.

This had led to a number of innovative ideas to prevent patients getting lost, from electronic tracking by mobile phone to decoy bus stops on hospital grounds.

Link to NPR on wandering in dementia.

Chocolate cravings and the menstrual cycle

Photo by Flickr user ulterior epicure. Click for sourceI’ve just found a remarkable study on how female chocolate cravings vary throughout the hormone cycle and drop off after menopause. While the cravings are not solely explained by hormone changes, some of the effect does seem to be linked.

Perimenstrual Chocolate Craving: What Happens after Menopause?

Appetite. 2009 Jul 9. [Epub ahead of print]

Hormes JM, Rozin P.

About half of American women crave chocolate, and approximately half of the cravers crave it specifically around the onset of menstruation. This study examines whether the primary cause of this “perimenstrual” craving is a direct effect of hormonal changes around the perimenstrum, or rather if the craving is a general response in some individuals to stress or other notable events. Insofar as there is a direct hormonal effect, one would predict a substantial decrease of 38% in total chocolate craving in women post-menopause, corresponding to the proportion of women pre-menopause who report craving chocolate exclusively perimenstrually. Based on a survey of pre- and postmenopausal alumnae of the same University, we report a significant but small decrease in prevalence of chocolate cravings post-menopause. The decrease is only 13.4% and thereby much smaller than a 38% drop predicted by a purely hormonal explanation, suggesting that female reproductive hormones are not the principal cause of perimenstrual chocolate craving.

Last time I posted something about the menstrual cycle, with reference to the effect on race bias, the post attracted some remarkably acerbic comments.

The comment on racism being a “typical British trait” was pure comedy gold, but one asked the question “Why are hormone fluctuations in men not studied as closely or publicized as widely?”.

I did have a look, but as far as I know, men don’t have hormone cycles. If you know different, do let us know as I’d love to know if there is any good evidence for them.

However, the point was that these studies often focus on stereotypes of female behaviour. So this post is offered as food for thought.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

I’ll be outback: Aussies want intelligent killer robots

The Australian military is seeking a human race Judas to design intelligent and fully autonomous robots that will be able to “neutralise threats” for a prize pot of $1.6 million.

From BBC News:

The government wants to develop an “intelligent and fully autonomous system” capable of carrying out dangerous surveillance missions.

Senior officials in Canberra have said they hope that unarmed robotic vehicles will do some of the army’s “dirty work” in such hazardous theatres.

The ultimate plan is for groups of these sophisticated machines to be sent into battle to help neutralise the enemy.

That’s their ultimate plan you idiot, not ours.

Our ultimate plan is to take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

Link to Aussie military’s International Challenge To Destroy Humanity.
Link to BBC News on the end times.

Is that you, Phineas?

The BPS Research Digest has the surprising news that a photo of Phineas Gage has been discovered. He became one of the most famous case studies in neuroscience when he had a large iron rod blown through his frontal lobes in in 1848.

He survived but his frontal lobe damage meant “Gage was no longer Gage”, at least according to his attending doctor, giving us some of the first clues that damage to specific brain areas could cause changes in personality.

The photo was apparently discovered by two photo collectors who went to great lengths to verify it was indeed Gage.

The photo may well show Gage in his later years as he toured the country with PT Barnum’s circus appeared at PT Barnum’s New York museum as one of the star attractions, always with the tamping iron on hand to amaze the crowds.

In the tradition of media circuses, the collectors have taken the long out-of-copyright photo, put a dirty great copyright sign across the front and are charging ‘usage fees’ for the undefaced version.

Phineas Gage may be dead, but the spirit of Barnum, it seems, lives on.

UPDATE: The LA Times has a short article and an undefaced version of the photo online.

Link to BPSRD on the photo.
Link to the ‘Meet Phineas Gage’ website with defaced photo.