Where the wild things are

The Psychologist has an excellent article on the psychology behind the classic children’s book Where The Wild Things Are. It turns out that the author, Maurice Sendak, was heavily interested in psychoanalysis and intended the book to explore the inner life of children.

The article is by psychoanalyst Richard Gottlieb who examines some of the influences on the book and Sendak’s other works, noting that the author was in analysis himself and had an analyst as his life partner.

There is a remarkable thematic coherence to much of Sendak’s work, and this coherence links creative efforts that are decades apart and, additionally, links these works to what is known about his early life and formative years. Sendak himself has commented on his single-minded focus, saying, ‘I only have one subject. The question I am obsessed with is How do children survive?’ But it is more than mere survival that Sendak aspires to, for his children and for himself. He asks the question of resilience: How do children surmount and transform in order to prosper and create? It is tempting to imagine that Sendak conceives of the trajectory of his own life and art as a model for the way he has handled these questions in his works.

By the way, the whole issue of The Psychologist is freely available online, albeit as a slightly unwieldy Flash application.

It’s one of the best issues I can remember for a long time. You may want to check out an excellent article on the default network, an interview with Chris Frith, a piece on the psychology of storytelling or a review of recent discussions on the next big questions in psychology.

Link to The Psychologist on Where The Wild Things Are.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist. I read Where The Wild Things Are as a child and loved it.

Human, All Too Human

I’ve just discovered that probably one of the best series ever produced on philosophy is available on Google Video. The BBC series Human All Too Human includes three fantastic programmes on Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger – a trio of controversial thinkers who massively influenced 20th century philosophy.

It’s an interesting choice as all had fascinating and turbulent lives – Nietzsche ending his life in insanity, Heidegger a unrepentant Nazi defended by a Jewish ex-lover, and Sartre who walked the line between free love and womanising.

All had a huge influence on psychology at various stages, and you can clearly see how many struggled with concepts of mind and society.

The programmes tackle both the characters and their theories and are some of the most engaging and gripping programmes I’ve ever seen on philosophy, an essential subject that usually gets little more than satire or lip service from mainstream media.

They’re an hour each and worth every minute. Put some time aside, find a comfy chair and enjoy.

Link to programme on Jean Paul Sartre.
Link to programme on Martin Heidegger.
Link to programme on Friedrich Nietzsche.

From Stroboscope to Dream Machine

Photo from 10111.org‘From Stroboscope to Dream Machine: A History of Flicker-Induced Hallucinations’ is a wonderful article that has just appeared in medical journal European Neurology. It charts how an early finding in visual neuroscience was adopted by the Beat writer William Burroughs and became a fixture of the psychedelic sixties.

Flicker induced hallucinations have been noted throughout history and typically occur when a strong light flashes between 8 and 12hz, also known as the alpha rhythm. They most commonly trigger a type of hallucination called a form constant that comprises of geometric shapes and patterns.

Alpha rhythms have been heavily linked to the function of the occipital lobe and, as we suspect from recent research, ‘inputting’ alpha waves into the visual system via flickers seems to cause hallucinations by knocking a deep brain structure called the thalamus and the occipital lobe out of sync.

As both are part of the visual system, the effect is a bit like knocking a conversation out of sync – misperceptions occur.

Burroughs happened upon the phenomenon and set about creating a machine to produce these hallucinations:

The flicker phenomenon reminded Burroughs of a story he had recently been told by his soul mate Brion Gysin (1916-1986). At the time they both inhabited a cheap hotel in 9, rue Gît Le Coeur, a small alley in the middle of the Latin Quarter of Paris. The place has been known as the Beat Hotel ever since. Gysin was a man with many skills; he was a painter, a poet, a calligrapher, a musician and a cook, all in one lifetime.

On December 21, 1958, as his diary reports, he had been travelling on a bus in southern France. He had fallen asleep, leaning with his head against the window pane. On passing by a row of trees, sunlight came flickering through and Gysin started to hallucinate:

‘an overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns in supernatural colours exploded behind my eyelids: a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. The vision stopped abruptly when we left the trees. Was that a vision?’.

Gysin knew by experience what neurophysiologists like Walter were talking about. Burroughs was able to hand him the theoretical framework.

The next step was to manufacture a stroboscope for private use. Gysin persuaded one of his friends, Ian Sommerville (1940-1976), to make one. Sommerville, who was originally a mathematician, came up with a simple but effective design

This was later developed into the commercially produced dreammachine, essentially a light with a rotating slotted lampshade designed to produced flickers in the alpha range. It became popular as both a way of inducing hallucinations on its own and as an aide to hallucinogenic drug trips.

There are plans online from a company who still make the machines to order.

The hallucinations don’t occur in everyone (in fact, I’ve probably spent a few hours of my life in front of a frequency controlled strobe trying to trigger the effect with no luck) and in people with photosensitive epilepsy the flickers can trigger seizures.

The effect is almost unknown in the psychedelic circles circles in which it was once popular, but has now been adopted by neuroscientists wanting a lab-based method to research hallucinations.

If you’re interested in reading more about the whole fascinating story, I can’t recommend the short but fascinating book Chapel of Extreme Experience enough.

Link to full-text of article on flicker hallucinations.
Link to DOI entry for same.

2009-09-25 Spike activity

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

<img align="left" src="http://mindhacks-legacy.s3.amazonaws.com/2005/01/spike.jpg&quot; width="102" height="120"

Is the Internet melting our brains? asks Slate of author Dennis Baron who says no, it’s just another cycle in the human history of technology distrust.

Neurophilosophy discusses recent research on how patients in the coma-like persistent vegetative state can show conditioned learning and that those that day are more likely to show recovery.

Psychoanalyst Susie Orbach discusses the psychology and politics of the body on ABC Radio National’s Saturday Extra.

TED Blog has an interesting interview with Oliver Sacks relating to his recent talk on hallucinations.

Thank you Developing Intelligence for being of the few places not to fall for the ‘fMRI of dead fish is an example of a voodoo correlation’ red herring. They’re different effects and the DevIntel post discusses the difference.

Neuroanthropology has an excellent and somewhat philosophical post on mind body duality in the treatment of combat-related PTSD.

Free will is not an illusion after all, much to the surprise of New Scientist who report on new research suggesting an alternative interpretation to Libet’s famous brain activation before conscious intention to move study.

The BPS Research Digest covers research on how your personality type affects the situations you place yourself in. One of many excellent post from the BPSRD this week.

ABC Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor discusses the many illness of dictionary creator Dr Samuel Johnson. You may be interested to know that another major contributor was William Chester Minor who wrote many definitions as a patient in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

PsyBlog has an excellent post on how long it takes to form a habit.

A photograph of your loved one can reduced pain intensity according to a study covered by Neuronarrative.

New Scientist <a href="http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17837-gene-for-memory-and-iq-gives-students-low-grades.html
“>covers research on how different alleles of the COMT gene are associated with exam performance. Ignore the ‘gene for x’ nonsense and it’s actually quite an interesting article.

Welcome to the rehab center from the future via a humorous photo gallery from Wired.

Neuroskeptic covers a fascinating case study of a man with a missing limbic system.

Another interesting advance in the still limited field of ‘brain scan mind reading‘ is covered by Wired.

Cognition and Culture has a short piece on how to think, say, or do precisely the worst thing for any occasion.

The Wall Street Journal has a piece on the shocking news that treating your employees well increases their productivity.

When does consciousness emerge? The Splintered Mind has a brilliantly thought-provoking post on the emergence of the conscious mind in individuals and species.

The Neurocritic has a piece on a recent but necessarily speculative paper on the neuroscience of torture and the negative effects on accurate memory recall.

It always seems worse than you think

There is a clich√© in media stories where figures for a disease or condition are quoted followed by a statement that “the true figures may be higher”. Sampling errors mean that initial figures are equally as likely to be under-estimates as over-estimates but we only ever seem to be told that the condition is under-detected.

For example, this is from a recent (actually pretty good) New Scientist article about gender identity disorder (GID) in children, a condition where children who are biologically male feel female and vice versa:

It is unclear how common GID is among children, but many transsexual adults say they felt they were “in the wrong body” from an early age. The incidence of adult transsexualism has been estimated at about 1 in 12,000 for male-to-females, and around in 1 in 30,000 for female-to-males, although transsexual lobby groups say the true figures may be far higher.

These estimates are usually drawn from prevalence studies where a maybe a few hundred or thousand people are tested. The researchers extrapolate from the number of cases to make an estimate of how many people in the population as a whole will have the condition.

These estimates are made with statistical tests which give a margin of error, meaning that within a certain range, typically described by confidence intervals, the real figure is likely to be between a range which equally includes both higher and lower values than the quoted amount.

For any individual study you can validly say that you think the estimate is too low, or indeed, too high, and give reasons for that. For instance, you might say that your sample was mainly young people who tend to be healthier than the general public, or maybe that the diagnostic tools are known to miss some true cases.

But when we look at reporting as a whole, it almost always says the condition is likely to be much more common than the estimate.

For example, have a look at the results of this Google search:

“the true number may be higher” 20,300 hits

“the true number may be lower” 3 hits

You can try variations on the phrasing and see the same sort of pattern emerges. I’m curious as to why this bias occurs, or whether there’s another explanation for it.

The English Surgeon online

Last year I posted about a wonderful film called The English Surgeon, a sublime documentary about the work of neurosurgeons Henry Marsh and Igor Kurilets in the Ukraine. It turns out you can now watch it for free online at the PBS website until 9th October.

As I mentioned last time “to say the film was just about brain surgery would be vastly under value its significance, and to describe it as a meditation on the humanity of medicine would be to confine it to a clich√©.”

As far as I can work out, it should be available wherever you are in the world.

By the way, it turns out that Henry Marsh is the husband of social anthropologist Kate Fox who wrote the book Watching the English that we discussed earlier, so interesting to see that Marsh embodies many typical English traits.

Link to The English Surgeon online (via @mocost @balajajian).

Love outside the lines

The BBC Radio 4 programme Saturday Live recently had a segment on the UK Government’s belated apology to Alan Turing for his 1952 conviction for homosexuality. The programme’s resident poet, Matt Harvey, penned this short but poignant poem to mark the occasion:

here’s a toast to Alan Turing
born in harsher, darker times
who thought outside the container
and loved outside the lines
and so the code-breaker was broken
and we’re sorry
yes now the s-word has been spoken
the official conscience woken
– very carefully scripted but at least it’s not encrypted –
and the story does suggest
a part 2 to the Turing Test:
1. can machines behave like humans?
2. can we?

Link to programme details. Scroll down for poem.