Size zero culture in Ancient Rome

We often think that pressure on young women to be thin is a modern phenomenon, but a fascinating letter to the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry published in 2000 noted that this is not a new development. The authors cite evidence from Ancient Rome showing a similar cultural pressures were widespread:

Garner et al. (1985) wrote about the present “unprecedented emphasis on thinness and dieting” which is one factor responsible for the increase in anorexic and bulimic disorders. It is generally believed that dieting in pursuit of a thinner shape and slimness as a standard for feminine beauty are modern attitudes. However, a clear account can be found in the ancient comedy Terence’s Eunuchus.

Terence (Publius Terentius Afer) (c. 190–159 BC) was a Roman comic poet. His 6 surviving comedies are Greek in origin but describe the contemporary Roman society. Eunuchus was probably presented in 161 BC. In this comedy, a young man named Chaerea declares his love for a 16-year-old girl whom he depicts as looking different from other girls and he protests against the contemporary emphasis on thinness: “haud similis uirgost uirginum nostrarum quas matres student demissis umeris esse, uincto pectore, ut gracilae sient. si quaest habitior paullo, pugilem esse aiunt, deducunt cibum; tam etsi bonast natura, reddunt curatura iunceam. itaque ergo amantur.” (She is a girl who doesn’t look like the girls of our day whose mothers strive to make them have sloping shoulders, a squeezed chest so that they look slim. If one is a little plumper, they say she is a boxer and they reduce her diet. Though she is well endowed by nature, this treatment makes her as thin as a bulrush. And men love them for that!) Then he describes the girl he loves: “noua figura oris . . . color uerus, corpus solidum et suci plenum” (unusual looks . . . a natural complexion, a plump and firm body, full of vitality). So he opposes vividly the typical thinness of the girls of these times to the blossomed body of the girl he loves.

This Roman pressure on girls to diet to meet the social expectations for thinness represents a clear precedent for the current emphasis on thinness. It is clear that in Ancient Rome, as in today’s society, there were multiple factors related to the development of body image concerns which today are often a precursor to eating disorders. These include cultural pressures to strive to develop and maintain a particular body shape in order to be considered attractive and then valued as a woman. Here, Terence mentions Chaerea’s preference for a plumper girl, while mothers usually wished their daughters to be thinner. Although the media influences that today are critical in influencing images of a perfect body were not present in Ancient Rome, it is clear from this part of the text that pressures concerning appearance existed long before the 20th century.

Link to PubMed entry for letter.

Time is of the essence

New Scientist has an excellent article on how the brain makes sense of time and looks at why certain intense experiences seem to trigger the perception that time has slowed down.

It covers David Eagleman’s well-known study where he dropped people 30 metres into a safety net and while falling, asked them to read off numbers that were flashing by too fast for normal perception.

The idea was that if time really did ‘slow down’, or rather, if the brain became ‘over-clocked’ and the resolution of time perception genuinely became more fine-grained, the participants could read off some of the digits that they couldn’t normally make sense of. As it happened, they couldn’t, suggesting that time slowing effect is an illusion and not an effect of the brain going into overdrive.

The piece also has an interesting discussion of how cognitive scientists are using the wagon wheel effect to study time perception in the brain. This is where after a certain speed, spokes on a wheel seem to starting moving backward.

This has been used to work out the brain’s ‘refresh rate’, but it turns out that this is unlikely to be a global process because when looking at two such objects moving at exactly the same rate, only one of them might be subject to the effect.

This suggests that the brain might have many clocks, perhaps each assigned to a different task:

The case for discrete perception is far from closed, however. When Eagleman showed subjects a pair of overlapping patterns, both moving at the same rate, they often saw one pattern reverse independently of the other. “If you were taking frames of the world, then everything would have to reverse at the same time,” says Eagleman.

VanRullen has an alternative explanation. The brain processes different objects within the visual field independently of one another, even if they overlap in space, he suggests. So the RPL [right inferior parietal lobe] may well be taking the “snapshots” of the two moving patterns at separate instances – and possibly at slightly different rates – making it plausible that the illusions could happen independently for each object.

This implies that there is not a single “film roll” in the brain, but many separate streams, each recording a separate piece of information. What’s more, this way of dealing with incoming information may not apply solely to motion perception. Other brain processes, such as object or sound recognition, might also be processed as discrete packets.

Link to NewSci piece ‘Timewarp’.

Little Albert, lost and found

One of the most famous and most mythologised studies in psychology concerns John Watson’s experiment to condition ‘Little Albert’ to be afraid of a white rat. ‘Little Albert’ and his mother moved away afterwards and no-one knew what happened to him, leading to one of the most enduring mysteries in psychology. Finally, it seems, his identity has been discovered.

An article in the latest edition of American Psychologist recounts a detective story, led by psychologist Hall Beck, to try and solve the question of what happened to ‘Little Albert’ after his participation in the famous study.

The experiment itself consisted of showing the infant some live animals, most notably a white rat, and some other assorted objects, to demonstrate he had no pre-existing fear of them.

On several later occasions, when playing happily with the white rat, Watson and his colleague Rosalie Rayner struck a metal bar to frighten the young child. Subsequently, simply seeing the rat was enough to cause Albert to cry and show visible distress – demonstrating the phenomenon of classical conditioning, where something previously neutral can be associated with the responses triggered by something else.

Although accounts vary, Albert may have shown generalisation of his learnt response, so he became distressed at things like rabbits, dogs and furry coats, despite the fact that experimenters never presented these with a frightening noise.

‘Little Albert’ and his mother moved away from the university, his identity was lost and for years psychologists and historians have wondered what happened to the unwilling star in one of the landmark studies of the 20th century.

The first step was to find out exactly when the experiments took place and then to try and identify Albert’s mother from the information given in Watson’s original studies.

Careful sifting of financial and residency records put the researchers onto a campus wet nurse called Arvilla Merritte, but there the trail went cold.

There were no others traces of Arvilla Merritte but a search for her maiden name, Arvilla Irons, revealed that her married name was likely fictitious to hide the fact that her baby was illegitimate.

However, Irons’ baby was not called Albert, but Douglas, and it wasn’t until the Irons family got in touch to send a photo of the baby that the researchers could try and make a physical comparison.

The photos were blurry and they recruited the help of an FBI forensics expert to compare the images. The comparison suggested that the photos were likely of the same person and with the other matching biographical details it seems very likely that Douglas Merritte was indeed ‘Little Albert’.

The story has a tragic ending, however, as Douglas Merritte died when only six years old after developing hydrocephalus, a build up of fluid in the brain, possibly due to a meningitis infection.

Beck finishes the article on a melancholy note, reflecting on his own part in the story, Little Albert’s short life and his visit to his grave:

As I watched Gary and Helen put flowers on the grave, I recalled a daydream in which I had envisioned showing a puzzled old man Watson’s film of him as a baby. My small fantasy was among the dozens of misconceptions and myths inspired by Douglas.

“The sunbeam‚Äôs smile, the zephyr‚Äôs breath,
All that it knew from birth to death.”

None of the folktales we encountered during our inquiry had a factual basis. There is no evidence that the baby’s mother was “outraged” at her son’s treatment or that Douglas’s phobia proved resistant to extinction. Douglas was never deconditioned, and he was not adopted by a family north of Baltimore.

Nor was he ever an old man. Our search of seven years was longer than the little boy’s life. I laid flowers on the grave of my longtime “companion,” turned, and simultaneously felt a great peace and profound loneliness.

Link to summary of article in American Psychologist.

Disembodied voices of joy, silence and rage

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind has a powerful and moving programme on the experience of ‘hearing voices’ that meets with two young women with quite different experiences of auditory hallucinations.

One of the young women, Kat, has largely positive voices and has come to understand and work with them, while another, Mel, has an abusive and taunting voice that has clearly caused a huge amount of distress and impairment.

Mel’s story is difficult to hear in parts and the programme starkly illustrates the range of experiences that accompany auditory hallucinations.

The piece also tackles current ideas and approaches to ‘hearing voices’, from the medical and scientific to the grassroots and social approach of the Hearing Voices Network.

There’s also an equally powerful video interview on the AITM site at the link below.

Link to AITM on ‘Hearing Voices: stories from the coalface’.

Beautiful from the inside out

Technology Review has a fantastic photo essay that tracks how we’ve visualised the brain from times past and includes some of the most stunning images from the last century of neuroscience.

It’s been put together by Mo Costandi, the writer you may know from the Neurophilosophy blog, with each image concisely described so you can get an insight into exactly what you’re seeing.

Link to ‘Time Travel Through the Brain’ photo essay.

The birth of the ‘psychic energizer’

With uncanny echoes of the modern interest in ‘cognitive enhancers’, a 1958 edition of Popular Science hails a new drug that “tunes up the brain” allowing us “to perform at peak efficiency all the time”.

The drug is iproniazid, marketed then as Marsilid. It was the first ever antidepressant, but the concept of an ‘antidepressant’ had yet to be created by the pharmaceutical companies and instead it is described as ‘psychic energizer’.

It was originally used a treatment for tuberculosis, as it stops the bacterial infection, but it was noticed that patients treated with iproniazid seemed to have a lift in mood at low doses and risked becoming confused and psychotic at higher doses.

At the time, the only widely used psychiatric drugs were tranquilisers, and the idea that a drug might be an ‘anti-tranquiliser’ was quite puzzling. It was trialled on some patients with diagnoses of mental illness patients and then marketed as a ‘psychic energizer’.

According to David Healy’s book (p66) on the history of drug treatments for depression, The Antidepressant Era, this label came from the discoverers trying to interpret its effects in Freudian terms – in which ‘psychic’ is used broadly to mean ‘psychological’:

Kline and Ostow speculated that as psychic conflicts all involved the binding of psychic energy in various different ways and as a great deal of ego energy went into binding instinctual (or id) energy down to produce a range of inhibited states, it was conceivable that a drug that took energy away from the ego might lead to liberation of instinctual energy – it might be a psychic energizer.

However, the drug was rapidly taken off the market as it was found to damage the liver to the point where a number of patients died of hepatitis.

The Popular Science article is interesting because it is remarkably similar to modern day articles on cognitive enhancers – relating it’s effects to improving performance rather than treating an illness and musing over whether healthy people should take drugs to make them ‘better than well’.

Therefore, let’s imagine that a few years from now there is a psychic energizer known to be completely harmless. And suppose its effect on body chemistry is perfectly normal and natural. In that case, what about the healthy person who just want more vim and vigor to go dancing?

“Well”, Dr Kline answers, “why not?” After all, nobody sees anything wrong about a dentist working to give perfect teeth. Why shouldn’t a doctor try to give perfect metabolism?

Or perfect tits, as the comparison more commonly goes in the 21st century.

It’s an interesting insight into how the drug companies were trying to find a place in the market for their puzzling new compounds in the 1950s and another demonstration of how concerns about ‘cognitive enhancers’ are as old as drugs themselves.

Link to Popular Science article ‘New Drugs to Tune Up Our Brains’.

Encephalon 77 teams up

The 77th edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just appeared online, this time ably hosted by Sharp Brains.

This edition is rather special as it’s a crossing of the streams with the medical carnival Grand Rounds.

A couple of my favourites include Brain Blogger on whether religion can be understood as a natural phenomenon and Advances in the History of Psychology on some of the early experimental work on emotion.

There’s many more links to great writing in the blogosphere so do head over and have a look.

Link to Encephalon 77.