The determined self-accuser

While we tend to think that the recognition of false confessions is a relatively new development but The Lancet discussed the phenomenon of ‘auto-accusation’ as far back as 1902.

The article discusses the types of people falsely confessing to notorious crimes in early 1900s Paris.

“Auto-accusation” is a curious phenomenon which possesses both medical and legal interest. The committal of a notorious crime which excites popular imagination and which remains undetected for a time often leads to the appearance in law courts of self-accusing culprits who charge themselves with being the authors of the crime in question. Dr. Ernest Dupr√© of Paris in a paper read before the Annual Congress of French Alienists and Neurologists recently held at Grenoble attempts to delineate with exactitude the psychological nature of “auto-accusation” and to show that certain morbid elements play an important part in it.

He points out that “auto-accusation” is not often or merely the result of a weak-mindedness; the subject of it is a person who has positively developed general ideas of unworthiness, guilt, and remorse, and in a word is suffering from mild melancholia with vague delusions of guilt and sin. Another type of self-accuser is the proud and vain “degenerate” who with a brain warped by congenital anomaly of development constructs romances of which he readily persuades himself to be the hero or the martyr.

There is, adds Dr. Dupré, a marked contrast between these two types. The one is abject, lowly, self-humiliating; the other proud, egiostic, and vain. Among other types of the same abnormality are found persons of alcoholic or hysterical character. The alcoholic self-accuser is one whose delusion generally has its starting-point in nocturnal or morning hallucinations occurring in a state between sleeping and waking. The physical and mental characters associated with alcoholism permit such cases to be readily recognised and they are almost invariably observed in adult males. The female self-accuser is rarely seen in the law court and she is usually the subject of a marked hysteria.

These would now both be described as ‘voluntary’ false confessions, which can involve both people who are looking for notoriety and those who may believe they are responsible owing to mental health problems impairing the ability to make sense of reality.

These are in contrast to a ‘coerced-compliant’ confession – where someone knows that they’re innocent but takes the rap for whatever reason, and a ‘coerced-internalised’ confession, which can result from the accused starting to doubt their own memory and judgement and start to believe they were responsible, often due in part to high pressure interviewing techniques.

The piece was found via the occasional ‘100 years ago’ section of the British Journal of Psychiatry that picks out interesting items from a century hence.

Link to original article in The Lancet.

Do animals commit suicide?

Photo by Flickr user dumbskull. Click for sourceTime magazine has a short article on the history of ideas about whether animals can commit suicide. It starts somewhat awkwardly by discussing the recent Oscar winning documentary on dolphins but is in fact based on an academic paper on ‘animal suicide’.

Changes in how humans have interpreted animal suicide reflect shifting values about animals and our own self-destruction, the paper argues. The Romans saw animal suicide as both natural and noble; an animal they commonly reported as suicidal was one they respected, the horse. Then for centuries, discussion of animal suicide seems to have stopped. Christian thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas deemed suicide sinful for humans and impossible for animals. “Everything naturally loves itself,” wrote Aquinas in the 13th century. “The result being that everything naturally keeps itself in being.”

In 19th century Britain, however, after Darwin demonstrated how humans evolved from animals, humane societies formed, vegetarianism and pets became popular, and reports of animal suicide resurfaced. The usual suspect this time was the dog. In 1845 the Illustrated London News reported on a Newfoundland who had repeatedly tried to drown himself: “The animal appeared to get exhausted, and by dint of keeping his head determinedly under water for a few minutes, succeeded at last in obtaining his object, for when taken out this time he was indeed dead.”

Of course, the article doesn’t answer the question of whether animals can end it all, but is a fascinating look at how the idea that they can has gone in and out of fashion.

UPDATE: Thanks to Mind Hacks reader Avicenna for pointing out that the full text of the academic article ‘The nature of suicide: science and the self-destructive animal’ is available online.

Link to ‘Do Animals Commit Suicide? A Scientific Debate’.

Dear Lad, there’s no such thing

Spike Milligan was one of the best loved, most influential and least predictable of British comedians, not least because he experienced the highs and lows of manic depression which, on several occasions, led to his hospitalisation.

As a prolific writer Milligan often wrote about mental health and the book, The Essential Spike Milligan, has several of his sketches and poems on the topic.

The book also contains a gem of a letter that Milligan wrote to a student magazine where he expounds upon the difficulty of maintaining one’s mental health in the modern world in his trademark scattershot style.

To the Editor, Rag Mag, Gloucester College of Education, 1968

You say your mag is in aid of mental health! Dear Lad, there’s no such thing, if there was anybody in a position of power with any semblance of mental health do you think the world would be in this bloody mess? Young minds at risk is different. Anyone with a young mind is taking a risk – young means fresh – unsullied, ready to be gobbled up in an adult world bringing the young into the visionless world of adults, like all our leaders. Their world is dead – dead – dead, and my God, that’s why it stinks! They look at youth in horror – and say ‘They are having a revolution’, but what do they want? I say they don’t know what they want, but they know what they don’t want, and that is, the repetition of past mistakes, towards which the adult old order is still heading. War – armistice – building up to pre-war standards – capitalism – labour – crisis – war and so on. I digress.

Mental Health. I have had five nervous breakdowns – and all the medics gave me was medicine – tablets – but no love or any attempt at involvement, in this respect I might well have been a fish in a bowl. The mentally ill need LOVE, UNDERSTANDING – TOLERANCE, as yet unobtainable on the N.H.S. or the private world of psychiatry, but tablets, yes, and a bill for ¬£5 5. 0. a visit – if they know who you are it’s ¬£10 10. 0. – the increased fee has an immediate depressing effect – so you come out worse than you went in.

As yet, I have not been cured, patched up via chemicals, yes. Letter unfinished, but I’ve run out of time – sorry!


Link to details of The Essential Spike Milligan.

An interview on Death and Dying

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind has an archive interview from 1978 with Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth K√ºbler-Ross who pioneered the consideration and treatment of the last stages of life as patients were dying of terminal illnesses.

K√ºbler-Ross is best known for her stage model of death and grieving that famously includes denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It has been heavily criticised although it’s true to say that many critics miss the fact that K√ºbler-Ross later disavowed that they are sequential psychological reactions and could appear at any time.

Despite this, the model was based on little except personal observation and insight, and seems unable to capture the messiness of genuine grieving. It did, however, act as a lens that concentrated the mind of the medical world on end-of-life care and, in this respect, has been hugely influential.

K√ºbler-Ross became famous after a 1969 article appeared in Life magazine. Entitled ‘A Profound Lesson for the Living’ it finds her discussing death with terminally ill young people, which, at the time, was a difficult and taboo topic.

The All in the Mind interview sees her almost a decade after her work was first widely publicised, and is full of what is now considered to be the received wisdom about dealing with dying patients.

This was exactly the point where K√ºbler-Ross’ star began to fade, however, largely due to her increasing interest in dodgy practices like spirit channelling and association with some guru-like figures of questionable moral standing.

An article from Time magazine in 1979 exposed her increasingly flaky approach to the topic (the last paragraph is high comedy) and was influential in her quiet rejection from the medical mainstream.

The 2002 documentary film Facing Death: Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (a pain to get hold of but available on some torrent servers) captures her when she herself was slowly dying. It looks back on her remarkable and not untroubled life and finds her having difficulty adjusting to her own mortality.

Link to All in the Mind Kübler-Ross interview.

2010-03-19 Spike activity

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

New Scientist has an interesting piece on several conditions somewhat clumsily cobbled together as disorders of ‘extreme empathy’ although it’s still a good read.

Ace t-shirt blogger Coty Gonzales turns out the be a cognitive neuroscientist in an interview for Hide Your Arms.

The Guardian have a video interview with evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar on social group size and social networking websites. No word on poking.

The latest research on using fMRI to ‘read’ subjective mental states, this time during memory recall, is expertly covered by Neurophilosophy.

The Economist discusses the latest advances in brain-to-machine connections. Great photo caption.

Food induced seizures. Neuroskeptic covers a case of a woman who had seizures triggered by eating.

Time magazine covers research finding that psychopaths show greater reward system and reward expectation-related dopamine release. This cued lots of vague musing on the personalities of psychopaths in the press.

A Carl Zimmer talk on his excellent book ‘Soul Made Flesh’ on the beginnings of neurology and neuroscience is available on C-SPAN.

Scientific American have released a feature article that isn’t locked behind a paywall. Read the piece on how the brain handles colours and contours before they change their minds.

The UN recently warned of the effects of drug dependence on developing countries and Addiction Inbox covered the debate. Lots of other good posts on AI recently.

BBC Radio 4 had a documentary on the human library, a scheme where instead of borrowing books, you borrow a person to have a conversation with.

Eight studies demonstrating the power of simplicity are covered by the excellent PsyBlog.

Reuters reports that a French reality TV programme recreated the Milgram conformity experiments. Replaces scientist with a Parisian waiter who tuts when the person doesn’t want to continue.

Reminders of disease primes the body and mind to repel other people, according to new research covered by the BPS Research Digest.

Wired Science cover a new neuroimaging study that aims to understand ‘Gulf War Syndrome‘.

Lip reading for the FBI. Sensory Superpowers covers the use of lip reading by the feds and how we all do it to some degree.

New Scientist discusses the use of torture and the future for interrogation.

During recovery, a brain injured man is building an astounding doll universe with himself as a central character, Henry Darger-like in its scope. The blog of the Marwenocol project has lots of detail.

Biologist Lewis Wolpert reviews Greenberg’s ‘Manufacturing Depression’ in The Guardian.

Science News report on a cross-cultural study finding that sharing money on the ‘ultimatum game’ is related to the extent to which the person lived in communities with market economies.

Kids prefer friends whose speech sounds similar to their own, regardless of race, according to research covered by Scientific American Mind.

Psychological Reports has a paper on graffiti addiction!

Some empirical evidence for the ‘extended mind hypothesis’ (we become our tools) is discussed by Wired Science.

The Times reports on the case of a researcher being sued for libel after criticising bogus lie-detector technology. Please sign the petition at to keep libel law out of scientific arguments.

A bogus TV report of a Russian invasion panics Georgia, according to a report from BBC News.

The Guardian reports on protests in Colombia by people outraged by narco-soaps glamorising cartels.

Thoughts of randomness enhance supernatural beliefs, according to a research covered in a great post from Deric Bownd’s Mind Blog.

Scanning for murder raps

Nature has a freely available feature article that discusses recent debates about how functional brain scans should be used in court cases concerning people charged with murder and classified as psychopaths.

Brain scans that show an estimate of brain activity, such as fMRI, are widely used in forensic and medical research to understand whether offenders and psychopaths differ in how their brain processes information.

These studies usually rely on group differences, showing that, on average, brain activity occurs differently in offenders compared to non-offenders, patients compared to non-patients and so on.

Court cases, of course, attempt to decided whether a single individual is criminally responsible for his or her actions. Inferring individual differences from broad group averages is difficult, some say impossible but despite this, functional neuroimaging is being increasingly used in court.

The Nature article discusses the recent Jeanine Nicarico murder case where Brian Dugan was being charged (and later confessed to) with the young girl’s murder.

Controversially, and for the first time in the US, the court was permitted to see evidence from functional brain scans from neuroscientist Kent Kiehl related to Dugan’s diagnosis of psychopathy.

On 29 October, Kiehl participated in a ‘Frye hearing’ for Dugan’s case. Based on a 1923 ruling, the hearing determines whether scientific evidence is robust enough to be admitted. Joseph Birkett, the lead prosecutor in the Dugan case, argued that allowing the scans ‚Äî the bright colours and statistical parameters of which are chosen by the researchers ‚Äî might bias the jury. Some studies, prosecutors argued, have shown that neuroscientific explanations can be particularly seductive to the layperson.

The judge ultimately “cut the baby in half”, says Birkett. He ruled that the jury would not be allowed to see Dugan’s actual brain scans, but that Kiehl could describe them and how he interpreted them based on his research.

According to the article, the scans had a significant influence on the case and it has raised a heated debated about whether such evidence is possibly interpretable in legal terms.

Neuroscientists are typically harshly critical about lawyers’ enthusiasm for wanting to use less-than-clear cut technologies like ‘brain scan lie detectors’ in court.

However an article recently published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences was very critical of this attitude, noting that the court’s requirements were often different from science’s, and than even suggestive evidence could help fill out the overall picture, and hence it was up to the court to decide whether such evidence should be admissible, not scientists.

Nevertheless, these sorts of arguments raise the hackles of many researchers and neuroscientist Helen Mayberg is quoted in the Nature piece as saying “It is a dangerous distortion of science that sets dangerous precedents for the field”.

The article is great coverage of the particular case and an interesting look into how neuroscience research is being uncomfortably integrated into the legal system.

Link Nature article ‘Science in court: Head case’ (via @mocost).

Lords, ladies and video games

I attended the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Scientific Research in Learning and Education yesterday to discuss “What is the potential impact of technology, such as computer gaming, on the brain?” alongside Baronness Susan Greenfield and we were pleased to be able to present to a packed committee room.

I’ve never met Greenfield before, who was a big influence on me when I decided to become a neuropsychologist, and it was a genuine pleasure to meet her in person.

We started off the talks and it turns out we agree on quite a lot. Greenfield doesn’t want to ban computer games or internet applications but feels parents should be more involved in their kids’ media use to guide them to use it safely and sensibly. She also feels that most kids use technology well and get benefits from it but is concerned about the few that might “fall through the cracks”, or as I would describe them, the few who are a high risk group for unhealthy use.

It seems we agree on the implications, and it was clear the Greenfield is motivated by a genuine concern for young people.

Her talk was sincere, very well delivered but unfortunately her argument was poorly lacking in terms of its scientific content, and I’m afraid to say, wouldn’t pass muster as an undergraduate thesis. This was not least because she discussed not a single study on the effect of games or the internet.

I started my talk by searching PubMed, the database of medical research, to show that there are more than 1,500 published articles in the medical literature that directly discuss computer games.

Many of these studies investigate the concerns she has about whether games might be affecting attention spans or whether online communication could be harming the social life of young people, but she seems unwilling to consider any of them. For someone who is leading the public debate on this issue I find this, at best, baffling.

Greenfield’s justification is entirely based on the idea that young brains are sensitive to their environment, which shapes their development, and so any risks from screen technology might cause significant and unwanted neurological changes. This is, of course, plausible but cannot be evaluated in isolation from the studies that have directly tested the idea.

While I agree with the justification, I’m afraid I found her model of how this might occur also lacking. Not least as it had unspecified and too-broad-to-be-plausible aspects such as dopamine release, caused by gaming, leading to a reduction in frontal lobe activity.

If you want to see my talk, I’ve put the slides from my talk online as a PowerPoint file and apparently, both sets of slides will appear on the website of the Institute for the Future of the Mind shortly, possibly with video as the talks were filmed.

During the talk I made it clear that ignoring the evidence on this issue does a disservice to young people and discussed some of the key findings from the last few decades of research in this area – not least that action video games have been shown to improve cognitive function but that we should be concerned about content and age appropriateness (e.g. violence) and displacement of other activities (such as education, exercise and so on). I also discussed evidence showing that the internet seems to be benign or beneficial for the social lives of the majority of young people who use it.

Greenfield noted, however, that not all of her concerns are addressed by the studies I mentioned (for example, that computer games might affect the ability to use metaphor and understand abstract concepts) and that some, possibly unwanted, outcomes will just not be measurable. Even though I find some of her concerns a little far-fetched, she has a valid point on how we should be aware of the limits of what empirical research can deliver for complex social issues.

The discussion afterwards was lively and constructive. We had input from someone working on the Digital Economy Bill, a head teacher, a paediatrician, educationalists, a Lord who – against all my prejudices – clearly knew shit loads about computers and several people who just spoke from their experience as parents.

Afterwards, Greenfield invited everyone for a drink and was a funny and engaging host and I got the chance to thank her for inspiring me when I was starting out.

I have a different opinion of Greenfield after the debate, as I previously suspected she had been struck by reactionary technofear but was mistaken, as she does want children to benefit from technology. She obviously thinks a lot of internet culture is trash, but when you look at the constant stream of seemingly irrelevant in-jokes and funny cat videos, I can hardly blame her for this.

Nevertheless, I think her passion for helping young people has overtaken her obvious good sense as a scientist and a scholar on this issue, and I would join the call for her to write her ideas up for publication in a scientific journal both to clarify her position and to stimulate engagement with the large evidence base that she is currently unfamiliar with.

I have criticised Greenfield’s more alarmist public statements in the past, but with her passion and experience as a neuroscientist, a well-informed Baroness Greenfield would be a massive advantage to the debate on how we ensure children learn to manage technology to their best advantage.

ppt of slides from my talk.
Link to All Party Parliamentary Group description.

Full disclosure: The Institute of Psychiatry kindly helped fund my airfare and I wouldn’t have been able to attend without them, so many thanks for their support and belief in public and policy engagement.