Decorative skull reshaping

Intentional reshaping of the skull during childhood has been reported from all over the ancient world but it seemed to be most popular among the peoples who lived in the Andes before the Spanish conquistadores arrived. On the left you can see two examples I found this morning in the national museum of the Banco Central del Ecuador, one of Quito’s largest archaeological museums.

The pictures aren’t the best as they were taken with my second-rate mobile phone camera, but click if you want a larger version.

These are skulls from the Machililla culture that dates from around 1,600 – 800 BC, although the practice was widespread.

Unfortunately, it seems not much has been written on the practice, but there is one excellent article 2005 that was published in the journal Child’s Nervous System.

As the article notes, the practice was typically used to denote group membership or to indicate social class:

In large and complex societies, a uniform head shape reflected that the individuals belonged to the same or similar group. In smaller, less complex societies head shape demarcated group differences. The Indians in Oruro—in what is now Bolivia—serve as an example of what happened in small societies, where cranial shaping was used for cast differentiation: high-class Indians had tabular erect heads, the middle class had tabular oblique heads, and the rest of the people had ring-shaped heads.

In the Muisca culture, in Colombia, intentional cranial deformation was a sign of hierarchy, performed only in the high classes: it was a sign of social status like clothes, accessories, funeral ceremonies, and tombs. In certain pre-Columbine cultures like the Caribe Indians in Colombia, the Aymaras in Bolivia, and the Patagones in Argentina, cranial deformation was performed only on men and it was an important factor for becoming a member of the ldquowarrior classrdquo. In Borneo and on the European continent, head-shaping was performed only on women with an aesthetic purpose. Among the Calchaquí Indians in the north of Argentina, in the Philippines, and in the Celebes islands, head-shaping was performed on both sexes.

Some ancient writings linked the purpose of this practice to the intention by certain populations to dominate other people. According to Santa Cruz Pachacuti, the Inca leaders Manco Capac and Lrsquooke Yupanki ordered the heads of the newborn Aymara Indians to be tightly squeezed to make them foolish, unintelligent, and obedient. However, studies of indigenous groups who practiced cranial deformation in newborns, such as the British Columbian Indians or the Amazonian natives, did not find evidence of any neurological or psychological impairment.

The article also notes that the method used above, compression of the head using boards, was not the only method.

Two other methods were widely used that are illustrated on the right.

One involved tightly wrapping the head with a binding that was progressively adjusted, and the other required the child to be restrained against a portable cradle-board that had an additional plank that would push down on the skull.

Link to locked article on skull deformation in Andean people.

Slaves of the Crystal Brain

A fantastic cover from a May 1950 issue of Amazing Stories where a man has some sort of futuristic power station inside his head.

Unfortunately, I can’t find anything about the story so who knows what the intriguing title refers to.

However, I’ve linked to a larger version of the cover if you want to see it in all it’s glory.

Link to ‘Slaves of the Crystal Brain’ cover.

A study on dream smoking

Photo by Flickr user lightbrigade. Click for sourceIf you’ve given up smoking for good, where else can you have a secret cigarette except in your dreams? A 1991 study looked at how often recently ex-smokers dreamed of smoking, and found that even after a year of abstinence the dream world was often a common refuge for an imaginary nicotine hit.

Dream of absent-minded transgression: an empirical study of a cognitive withdrawal symptom.

J Abnorm Psychol. 1991 Nov;100(4):487-91.

Hajek P, Belcher M.

Among 293 smokers abstinent for between 1 and 4 weeks, 33% reported having at least 1 dream about smoking. In most dreams, subjects caught themselves smoking and felt strong negative emotions, such as panic and guilt. Dreams about smoking were the result of tobacco withdrawal, as 97% of subjects did not have them while smoking, and their occurrence was significantly related to the duration of abstinence. They were rated as more vivid than the usual dreams and were as common as most major tobacco withdrawal symptoms. In subjects abstinent for 1 year, 63% recalled having dreams about smoking. They had on average 5 of them, and about a quarter occurred after the 6th month of abstinence. Having dreams about smoking was prospectively positively related to maintenance of abstinence. An explanation of this finding based on the association of smoking in dreams with aversive emotions is offered.

It’s an interesting finding in light of Freud’s theory that dreams are a form of wish-fulfilment. Importantly though, he suggested that psychological conflicts would be hidden from the conscious mind and would therefore appear in a symbolic form during dreaming.

The fact that ex-smokers seem to light up so blatantly in dreams suggests that this isn’t the case.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

Mindful of Langer

The Boston Globe has an excellent profile of psychologist Ellen Langer, responsible for some of the most influential studies in psychology and a champion of ‘mindfulness’ as an approach to a happier life.

Needless to say, she’s become a doyenne of the positive psychology movement, and, as the article notes, occasionally comes across as slightly guru-like.

Her research remains impressive, however, and when reading through the article I found myself saying “I never knew that was one of Langer’s studies” several times.

These include studies finding that people are much more attached to lottery numbers when they are allowed to choose them – even though this makes no difference to the final outcomes (the ‘illusion of control‘), and one where giving a nonsense excuse to cut in line to use a photocopier was as effective as giving a reasonable excuse.

And of course, she’s well-known for her studies on how giving residents in a nursing home for old people more control over the environment improved their well-being.

For many years she has become interested in mindfulness, although it’s never really been clear to me that she means more than simply ‘think more about what’s going on’ as it seems to be a little different from the concept of mindfulness taken from Buddhism and now an evidence-based component of many psychological treatments.

Apparently, Hollywood studio Universal Pictures are to make a film of Langer’s ageing studies and Jennifer Aniston has been chosen to play the Harvard psychologist. I would have gone for Megan Fox myself but that’s probably why I should stick to the day job.

Link to Boston Globe profile of Ellen Langer.

Love amid chaos

Swansea Love Story is a gritty, tragic and surprisingly funny documentary about heroin users in a struggling South Wales town.

It follows a number of addicts as they score, skip meetings with drugs counsellors, philosophise about their predicament and go about their chaotic daily lives.

The piece is, in parts, desolate, particularly as we hear about the lives of those now relying on heroin, but there are also some outrageously funny moments as the protagonists relate their intense experiences with a combination of unintentional irony and casual exaggeration.

The film is produced and directed by Andy Capper and Leo Leigh, the latter apparently being the son of famous British director Mike Leigh and although it has only recently been released, the video is available in full on

It makes an interesting comparison to the 1999 documentary Black Tar Heroin, that follows several users in Southern California, although is no less downbeat in its conclusions.

Link to documentary on (via Addiction Inbox).

Quito bound

Image from Wikipedia. Click for sourceDue to the complexities of the Colombian visa system, I am off to the beautiful city of Quito, Ecuador, for a week to organise the paperwork. I’m not sure how internet access will work out, so apologies if updates are a little less frequent than usual.

If anyone knows any good mind and brain things to see while I’m there, do let me know.

Already on the list is Hospital San Lazaro, one of the oldest psychiatric hospitals in Latin America. It’s considered part of Ecuador’s national heritage but I can’t see to find anything written about it in English.

However, YouTube has a very good short film about its history if you’re a Spanish-speaker or just want to see some of the historical photos and architecture.

Shimmering madness

There is an amazing blog, called either ru_medart or something I don’t understand in Russian, that collects artistic depictions of the mad from the history of art.

It’s a wonderful collection of images, and, as you might expect, many of the pictures depict the sort of ‘raving madness’ that was the stereotype of centuries past.

However, it also has portraits of famous people throughout history who have been mad or have been claimed as mad, as well as some more contemporary paintings and some wonderful illustrations of ‘hysterics’ from Charcot’s clinic at the Salp√™tri√®re in Paris.

The only obvious omissions are the paintings of Théodore Géricault who painted a series of 10 portraits of asylum patients in an attempt to capture the essence of madness, partly based on the belief that it was reflected in the physical features of the body.

The image on the right is of an absolutely stunning piece called ‘Shimmering Madness’ by the American artist Sandy Skoglund, made with jelly beans, wood, plastic, metal and motors. It looks stunning as an image but to see it in all it’s glory you really need to watch the short movie, and believe me, it is amazing.

Link to madness in art blog (via BoingBoing).