Hypnotising lobsters etc

Photo by Flickr user johnnyalive. Click for sourceThis is a fantastically odd letter about hypnotising animals that appeared in a 1992 edition of the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Hypnotising lobsters, etc.

Sir: I was very surprised that the idea of hypnotising lobsters was thought to be evidence of gullibility requiring further photographic proof (Brooks, Journal, July 1992,161,134).

As a young child in rural Ireland I was taught to ‘hypnotise’ various animals by my mother. My particular expertise was in hypnotising turkeys and geese, for which I gained immense kudos as most of my peers were afraid of them. The technique involved stroking them firmly on the back of the neck, until the head rested on the ground at which point a white line was drawn in front of their heads. I often had dozens of them all over the yard, immobile until either they were moved or a loud noise disturbed them.

One recognised technique for hypnotising young children involves gentle, firm massage as this produces the relaxation and narrowing of attention required for induction.

My interest in hypnosis has continued although I confine my practice to people and my cat, Martha, when she requires calming at the vet’s.

P. Power-Smith

Link to copy of letter.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

A marriage made in hormones

Photo by Flickr user winged photography. Click for sourceThe New York Times has a fantastic article on how the way married couples relate to each other can have a major impact on health, although there are many intriguing interpersonal subtleties that go beyond simply being in a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ relationship.

The piece reviews the extensive evidence on how stress impacts on the immune system and discusses how, in general, marriage has a host of health benefits. However, relationship conflict can have some dramatic negative effects on well-being. In one eye-opening study just getting couples to discuss a marital disagreement slowed minor wound healing down by up to a day.

One of the most interesting bits of the article tackles the link between risk for heart disease and arguing style, noting that even in happy couples, specific ways of resolving disputes had an impact on health – although interestingly different styles had a different effect on men and women.

The women in his study who were at highest risk for signs of heart disease were those whose marital battles lacked any signs of warmth, not even a stray term of endearment during a hostile discussion (“Honey, you’re driving me crazy!”) or a minor pat on the back or squeeze of the hand, all of which can signal affection in the midst of anger. “Most of the literature assumes that it’s how bad the arguments get that drives the effect, but it’s actually the lack of affection that does it,” Smith told me. “It wasn’t how much nasty talk there was. It was the lack of warmth that predicted risk.”

For men, on the other hand, hostile and negative marital battles seemed to have no effect on heart risk. Men were at risk for a higher coronary calcium score, however, when their marital spats turned into battles for control. It didn’t matter whether it was the husband or wife who was trying to gain control of the matter; it was merely any appearance of controlling language that put men on the path of heart disease.

In both cases, the emotional tone of a marital fight turned out to be just as predictive of poor heart health as whether the individual smoked or had high cholesterol. It is worth noting that the couples in Smith’s study were all relatively happy. These were husbands and wives who loved each other. Yet many of them had developed styles of conflict that took a physical toll on each other. The solution, Smith noted, isn’t to stop fighting. It’s to fight more thoughtfully.

A thoroughly fascinating article.

Link to NYT piece ‘Is Marriage Good for Your Health?’.

The madwoman in the attic

BBC Radio 4 has an excellent programme on the depiction of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ in Victorian literature and how it reflects ideas about mental disturbance and femininity of the time.

The programme discusses Mrs Rochester from Jane Eyre, Anne Catherick from The Woman in White, and Madame Bovary from the book of the same name.

Unfortunately, the programme finishes on the rather clich√©d interpretation that the novels demonstrate how women who didn’t conform ended up being branded mad and locked up – essentially, madness as a form of female repression.

This is the classic feminist criticism of historical ideas about madness and despite there being some truth to it, it is only supportable by ignoring the other side of the coin – the traditional interplay between insanity and masculinity.

Feminist writer Elaine Showalter makes exactly this point with regards to ‘hysteria’ in her book Histories but you can read an excellent summary of her approach in a chapter for the book Hysteria Beyond Freud where she tracks how the feminist critique originated and how it has been sustained by a limited focus on female issues.

Although male hysteria has been documented since the seventeenth century, feminist critics have ignored its clinical manifestations, writing as though “hysterical questions” about sexual identity are only women’s questions. In order to get a fuller perspective on the issues of sexual difference and identity in the history of hysteria, however, we need to add the category of gender to the feminist analytic repertoire. The term “gender” refers to the social relations between the sexes, and the social construction of sexual roles. It stresses the relational aspects of masculinity and femininity as concepts defined in terms of each other, and it engages with other analytical categories of difference and power, such as race and class. Rather than seeking to repair the historical record by adding women’s experiences and perceptions, gender theory challenges basic disciplinary paradigms and questions the fundamental assumptions of the field.

When we look at hysteria through the lens of gender, new feminist questions begin to emerge. Instead of tracing the history of hysteria as a female disorder, produced by misogyny and changing views of femininity, we can begin to see the linked attitudes toward masculinity that influenced both diagnosis and the behavior of male physicians. Conversely, by applying feminist methods and insights to the symptoms, therapies, and texts of male hysteria, we can begin to understand that issues of gender and sexuality are as crucial to the history of male experience as they have been in shaping the history of women.

The Radio 4 programme is otherwise excellent and talks to historians, literary critics, psychiatrists and the like about Victorian madness.

Thanks to the changes to the BBC website it is only available for another six days before disappearing into the void forever.

Link to ‘Madwomen in the Attic’.

Visual acuity improves by autopilot

Photo by Flickr user MATEUS_27:24&25. Click for sourceWe tend to assume that visual acuity, the ability to distinguish fine detail with our eyes, is a physical limit of the body but a new study just published online by Psychological Science shows that prompting people with ideas about people who have excellent eyesight actually improves clearness of vision.

The research was led by psychologist Ellen Langer who has become well-known for her inventive and counter-intuitive research that has shown how changing beliefs and mental attitude can affect our performance.

Here’s the abstract of the study which describes the results of the main experiments:

These experiments show that vision can be improved by manipulating mind-sets. In Study 1, participants were primed with the mind-set that pilots have excellent vision. Vision improved for participants who experientially became pilots (by flying a realistic flight simulator) compared with control participants (who performed the same task in an ostensibly broken flight simulator). Participants in an eye-exercise condition (primed with the mind-set that improvement occurs with practice) and a motivation condition (primed with the mind-set “try and you will succeed”) demonstrated visual improvement relative to the control group. In Study 2, participants were primed with the mind-set that athletes have better vision than nonathletes. Controlling for arousal, doing jumping jacks resulted in greater visual acuity than skipping (perceived to be a less athletic activity than jumping jacks). Study 3 took advantage of the mind-set primed by the traditional eye chart: Because letters get progressively smaller on successive lines, people expect that they will be able to read the first few lines only. When participants viewed a reversed chart and a shifted chart, they were able to see letters they could not see before. Thus, mind-set manipulation can counteract physiological limits imposed on vision.

It’s worth saying that Langer and her team interpret the results in terms of ‘mindfulness’ but use a somewhat idiosyncratic definition of the term where most people would just describe it as priming or expectancy – that is, being exposed to a concept or having a certain approach encouraged by the circumstances.

The psychological concept of mindfulness is more commonly used to refer to an attentive awareness of experience that acknowledges each thought or perception but doesn’t get caught up or involved in it.

It is drawn from the Buddhist meditation practice of the same name and has become of interest to psychologists for treating intrusive thoughts and sensations and there is now increasing evidence for its effectiveness.

Despite this, Langer’s study is in line with previous experiments that have shown that exposing people to a stereotype subtly shifts their behaviour to more closely match the stereotype.

For example, studies have found that people’s performance on a quiz could be improved by asking them to think about the lifestyle of a professor and made worse by asking them to think about supermodels or football hooligans.

Another found that participants who were exposed to ideas about old people walked more slowly afterwards.

Interestingly, this effects seems only to hold true for general stereotypes as when people are primed with specific extreme examples (such as Albert Einstein instead of ‘professor’, or Kate Moss instead of ‘supermodel’) exactly the opposite happens, likely because instead of triggering a general association it leads us to make a direct personal comparison with the individual which may affect our motivation, whether we realise it or not.

Link to full text of Langer study.

The YouTube drug observatory

An innovative new study has analysed YouTube videos of people tripping on a hallucinogenic plant called salvia to understand the behavioural effects of the ‘legal high’ that is still relatively new to science.

Salvia divinorum is a strongly hallucinogenic plant that has been used by indigenous Mexican shamans for many centuries but has recently become popular as it is legal in many countries.

Pharmacologically, it is fascinating as it seems to have its major effect on kappa opioid receptors. These are not the same opioid receptors that drugs like heroin and morphine work on, so the effects are very different, but it is a completely different mechanism to virtually all other hallucinogenic drugs (only ibogaine is known to have a similar effect on the brain).

Especially at high doses it can have the effect of ‘switching off reality’ causing people to be disorientated and there are now thousands of videos on YouTube of people smoking salvia and experiencing the effects.

However, we know only a little about the plant because it is relatively new to science so a research team at San Diego State University, led by psychologist James Lange, decided to analyse these videos to understand the behavioural effects of the drug.

They created a systematic coding scheme which researchers used when watching the videos. This allowed them both to categorise the effects and check that each viewer was agreeing on what they saw.

After watching 34 videos, each of which was selected to show an entire trip from the initial hit to when the effects wore off, the team categorised the effects into five main groups:

(1) hypo-movement (e.g. slumping into a slouched position, limp hands, facial muscles slack or relaxed and falling down), (2) hyper-movement (e.g. uncontrolled laughter, restlessness, touching or rubbing the face without apparent reason or thought), (3) emotional effects included being visibly excited or afraid, (4) speech effects (unable to make sense, problems with diction, problems with fluency, inability to speak, and having problems recalling words) and finally (5) heating effects related to being hot or heated (e.g. flushed, or user makes a statement about being hot or sweating).

They also noted that the effects of are very quick, starting within thirty seconds of the first hit and wearing off completely in about 8 minutes. They also noted that the environment had little influence on the trip but the number of hits was linked to the amount of speech impairment caused by the drug.

In a previous Mind Hacks post about latah, a curious startle reflex localised to Malaysia and Indonesia, we noted that various videos of the phenomenon were available on YouTube, allowing for some ‘armchair anthropology’.

This is another example of this approach and shows how funny videos uploaded to the net can contribute to the understanding of atypical mental states.

pdf of full text of study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Silent stopwatch

This is just a quick tip for psychologists who want a silent or beepless stopwatch, as they are very easy to make.

Stopwatches are often used when psychologists do neuropsychological assessments as they involve the timing of participant responses. Beeps can sometimes be distracting, especially to people who may have brain injury or might be emotionally disturbed, so many assessments recommend stop watches that don’t beep every time you press a button.

Surprisingly, few actually have this option and I keep seeing online discussions about where to get a silent stopwatch. It’s no coincidence that one of the few that allows you to switch off the beep is most commonly sold with books about psychological assessment.

However, you can make virtually any stopwatch silent very easily. If you unscrew the back – you may need a smaller ‘watchmakers’ or ‘jeweller’s screwdriver’ like this one – on the back plate you can see the the piezoelectric speaker (the circular metal disc – on the left in the image). Just cover it with tape and voila! you have a silent stopwatch.

Cheaper than commercially available devices with silent options and works with every stopwatch I’ve found so far.

Decisions, decisions

The New York Times has a review of a new book called ‘The Art of Choosing’, by psychologist Sheena Iyengar, that tackles the psychology of choice and decision-making. I’ve not read the book myself but the review is very positive and like all good book reviews, it is full of interesting snippets and is worth reading in itself.

I didn’t recognise the author at first but she has done some fantastic work and is responsible for the classic experiment where a stall selling many varieties of jam had more people stop to look but sold little, where a stall with only a few varieties had fewer browsers but when they did stop they were much more likely to buy something.

This is among the many curiosities of decision-making (e.g. we say we want more options but we are consistently happier with our choice when we have only a limited selection) but the book seems to go further and discusses cultural differences in how we make and even define choices:

Take a mundane question: Do you choose to brush your teeth in the morning? Or do you just do it? Can a habit or custom be a choice? When Iyengar asked Japanese and American college students in Kyoto to record all the choices they made in a day, the Americans included things like brushing their teeth and hitting the snooze button. The Japanese didn’t consider those actions to be choices. The two groups lived similar lives. But they defined them differently.

It seems the book has picked up lots of good reviews so I might have to add this one to the list.

Link to NYT book review.
Link to more info about the book.

Inner strength

Photo by Flickr user joshjanssen. Click for sourceDiscover Magazine has an excellent piece by Carl Zimmer on the brains of elite athletes and how they have adapted with practice to process movement and the body differently.

There are lots of fascinating aspects to the article, but this particularly caught my eye:

To understand how athletes arrive at these better solutions, other neuroscientists have run experiments in which athletes and nonathletes perform the same task. This past January Claudio Del Percio of Sapienza University in Rome and his colleagues reported the results of a study in which they measured the brain waves of karate champions and ordinary people, at rest with their eyes closed, and compared them. The athletes, it turned out, emitted stronger alpha waves, which indicate a restful state. This finding suggests that an athlete’s brain is like a race car idling in neutral, ready to spring into action.

Del Percio’s team has also measured brain waves of athletes and nonathletes in action. In one experiment the researchers observed pistol shooters as they fired 120 times. In another experiment Del Percio had fencers balance on one foot. In both cases the scientists arrived at the same surprising results: The athletes’ brains were quieter, which means they devoted less brain activity to these motor tasks than nonathletes did. The reason, Del Percio argues, is that the brains of athletes are more efficient, so they produce the desired result with the help of fewer neurons. Del Percio’s research suggests that the more efficient a brain, the better job it does in sports. The scientists also found that when the pistol shooters hit their target, their brains tended to be quieter than when they missed.

There’s an interesting distinction here between what it means to have a quiet mind and what it means to have a quiet brain.

The EEG studies mentioned above found that during skilled athletic performance there were an increased number of alpha waves – electrical brain activity between 8-12Hz (cycles or waves per second) – usually associated with wakeful relaxation. In other words, mental calm.

However, these waves do not necessarily imply that the brain is similarly relaxed. In fact, a study that directly measured the link between alpha waves and the brain’s use of glucose found that more energy was need as alpha waves increased.

This whole brain energy / activity link is a little crude, however, and a more recent study using fMRI – a technique that measures the difference in oxygenated blood – has found increased alpha waves linked to reduced activity in parts of the occipital, temporal and frontal lobes, but with increased activity in the deeper brain areas the thalamus and insula.

In other words, it’s not that the whole brain just becomes ‘quieter’ (although you could say this about some specific areas) but that it seems to reconfigure the distribution of work.

Rather than becoming ‘relaxed’ the brain seem to become more ‘finely tuned’ with practice.

Link to Discover article on the brains of athletes.

High time for psychedelic medicine?

There’s an excellent article on the history of the Multidiscplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, an organisation that has done much to bring psychedelic drug investigation back into the mainstream of medical research, in that well known bastion of science journalism, Playboy.

I must admit to being a bit embarrassed when I was caught reading the article as I usually only buy the magazine for the photo-shopped pictures of girls in bikinis.

For people who want to avoid such embarrassment the organisation has put a 10Mb pdf of the article online that is mostly safe for work (artistic depiction of flying topless woman with a statue’s head, wings and pills coming out of her ears – sounds better than it is).

The piece weaves together the history of the organisation with a somewhat alarming account of a young woman with terminal cancer being treated by an ‘underground psychedelic therapist’.

The account itself is quite touching, although the fact there are people going around giving terminally ill patients various powerful and illegal hallucinogenic drugs doesn’t inspire me with a great deal of confidence to say the least. However, it is an interesting look into this phenomenon, which, I have to say, was news to me.

In terms of the use of such drugs in clinical research, the article doesn’t really give a good analysis of the likely advantages and disadvantages of such an treatment (the studies so far are promising but small and poorly controlled) but is an interesting insight into how psychologist Rick Doblin make hallucinogenic drug research cautiously respectable again.

There seems to also be a bit of an upsurge in public interest in the topic over the last few days, with an article in The New York Times and a piece in Scientific American discussing these reality bending compounds.

pdf of article ‘The New Psychedelic Renaissance’ [10Mb] (via @mocost)

2010-04-16 Spike activity

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

Should kids be bribed to do well in school? asks Time magazine. Oldest trick in the book tested out by researchers.

Neurophilosophy covers a study finding that wrinkle smoothing Botox injections may diminish the experience of emotion owing to their paralysing effect on facial muscles.

There’s an article that traces the history of placebo controlled studies back through tests of mesmerism into their origin in Christian exorcism rites in The Lancet.

Not Exactly Rocket Science has the best coverage of the headline making study that shows reduced racial biases in children with William’s syndrome – a genetic condition that is linked to virtually absent social anxiety.

Emotion’s Alchemy: how emotional expression and emotional feeling are handled differently by the brain are discussed in a great article for Seed Magazine.

Savage Minds, the excellent anthropology blog, is looking for an assistant editor to join the team.

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind has an excellent programme on personal construct psychology and its possible application to understanding serial killers. A few straw men thrown in by the interviewees but a compelling programme.

The New York Times has an article on the recently revived and ongoing clinical research into the potential of hallucinogenic drugs.

‘Sleeping Beauty Paraphilia’ and body image disturbance after brain injury. The Neurocritic covers a fascinating case from the medical literature.

Prospect Magazine has a brief article on psychology of voting and the curious things that can influence the electability of candidates.

“I have decided that my campaign against Strunk and White’s toxic little compendium of unfollowable dumb advice, bungled grammar claims, and outright mendacity must be taken directly to America’s colleges”. Language Log rallies the troops.

The Independent has a brief piece on the development of the forthcoming DSM-V psychiatric manual.

Essential reading from The Neurocritic that evaluates the new study that claims to have found the first direct evidence for mirror neurons in humans.

The Fortean Times has an excellent article on the ‘Dream Machine‘ – essentially a rotating lampshade that can induce hallucinations in some people that was directly drawn from neurophysiology research from neurology research.

There are six psychological reasons consumer culture is unsatisfying over at the mighty PsyBlog.

Eurozine has a piece on ‘neurocapitalism‘ that notes that neuroscience “aggressively seeks to establish hermeneutic supremacy”. Bless. Actually, if you can wade through the jargon actually not too bad an article.

“If it wasn’t for war, porn and fast food, we might all still be living in caves”. ABC Radio National’s Counterpoint discusses the role of competition in technology development.

Not So Humble Pie has instructions on how to make the most delicious looking brain cupcakes ever.

There’s an article on the observation that some people with movement disorder Parkinson’s disease can ride bikes perfectly well in The New York Times.

Pharmalot covers a new study finding that there is no difference among antidepressants in raising a youngster’s risk of suicidal thoughts.

The [average] friendship patterns of [American] men are discussed in an article for the Wall Street Journal.

DrugMonkey has a classic interview about the effects of street drugs from Ali G.

There’s a review of the G.tec intendiX at-home mind-reading kit over at Wired UK. Only ¬£8,500. Doesn’t read minds.

Breezy people

The Times has an interview with neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, largely to do with the recent political tussles in UK science, but where she uses the opportunity to comment on how computer games are ‘as much of a risk to mankind as climate change’. But wait, the best is yet to come – this part is as beautiful as it is baffling:

She is concerned that those who live only in the present, online, don’t allow their malleable brains to develop properly. “It’s not going to destroy the planet but is it going to be a planet worth living in if you have a load of breezy people who go around saying yaka-wow. Is that the society we want?”

It certainly is not, and I for one would staunchly defend society against such a malign influence.

To be fair, this is probably a transcription error as Greenfield often talks about digital technology being full of “yuk and wow“, but the delightful phrase has triggered something of a fan club (nothing to do with me I might add) and there is now a hashtag, a Twitter stream, a poster and even a T-shirt.

Although I’ve disagreed with the Baroness on many occasions, it seems she hit the nail on the head with this particular prediction, as it seems that there are now a load of breezy people who go around saying yaka-wow.

UPDATE: This is pure genius.

Link to Greenfield interview in The Times.

Corridors of the mind

Photo by Flickr user wvs. Click for sourceI’ve just discovered the joy of searching Flickr for photos of psychiatric ward corridors which turns up some amazing images of hospitals past and present, and photos of institutions that are slowly, and sometimes beautifully, decaying.

The great numbers of abandoned hospitals are mostly due to the shutting down of the old monolithic psychiatric hospitals in the second half of the 20th century.

As the buildings were often built as large permanent structures, often with great architectural finesse, many are difficult to knock down or sell, and so have just remained to fade away. Needless to say, they’ve become a regular destination for urban explorers.

There are many striking photos to check out, but there’s one interesting historical shot. It’s a photo of the main corridor in the now closed down Friern Barnet psychiatric hospital on the edges of North London.

The place was built in 1853 and was originally called the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum and the building had, so they say, the longest corridor in Europe, which is captured in the image.

As with many institutions of the time, the building, at least on the outside, was very beautiful. It has now been converted into ultra luxury flats called Princess Park Manor, which, as you can see, has a swish website to match.

So swish, it seems, that despite lauding the architectural heritage the building, it neglects to mention that it used to be one of London’s biggest asylums.

Link to photo of psychiatric hospital corridors.

Hacking toy EEGs

Frontier Nerds has an excellent guide to toy EEGs (the commercially available ‘mind control’ games) and detailed instructions on how to hack the MindFlex to use it as a brain-computer interface.

In the last year or so, numerous ‘mind control’ games have appeared that are essentially cheap consumer EEG devices with a dull as ditch-water games attached. For example, the ‘Force Trainer‘ reads off EEG signals and levitates a ball. Yes, that’s it.

There are developer’s kits available for some of the products but they tend to be quite expensive. Frontier Nerds realised you can buy a cheaper model and with a little messing around can pull the data right off the electronics.

Even if you’ve no intention of hacking any of these devices, the piece is an interesting look inside the construction of these toy EEGs.

As we’ve mentioned before, it should be possible to do some serious science of sorts with these devices.

Because the data is so noisy, almost all EEG experiments, even in the best equipped labs, get people to do the same thing over and over and then average the signals to filter out the noise. This is why EEG experiments can be a bit dull to take part in as there tends to be lots of repetition. In a second stage each person’s EEG signals are averaged together to get an overall effect.

You could potentially have an internet-based experiment that uses these devices which people can try at home, and with a large enough data set, get a reliable result.

It won’t have the precision of a lab-based set-up, but it could still be useful.

Link to Frontier Nerds guide to hacking toy EEGs.

Social warfare

A news story in today’s Nature notes that the US military are pumping more money into social science research which is considered to be an important ‘game changing’ component of 21st century warfare.

The unconventional wars now being fought by the US military have also bolstered interest in the social sciences. With the military trying to stave off a growing insurgency in Afghanistan, the Pentagon now believes that understanding cultural dynamics is at least as important as weapons. Consequently, Lemnios is ramping up funding in social-science projects, including a model developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to simulate the opium trade in Afghanistan and analyse the effectiveness of efforts to combat it. The office is also supporting a project at the University of Chicago, Illinois, to model and predict potential conflicts.

Research to be used ‘on the ground’, like that described above, is likely to involve at least two important components. The first is the deployment of social scientists in conflict zones to use their skills to better solve problems that require the co-operation of local populations, along the lines of the Human Terrain System.

The other is the use of mathematical modelling to look at the structure of social networks to decide who are the key players or to infer (technically, to impute) the likely structure of the network that is not directly known about.

For example, within a large town there may be a small network of insurgents / terrorists / freedom fighters (take your pick) who your army wants to destroy. The traditional approach involves getting informers to reveal this network while you have to make a subjective judgement about how true this information is and how important each individual is, often before blundering in with troops, much to everyone’s alarm.

With social network analysis, you can create maps of the known network and mathematically analyse it for how accurate it seems and get an estimation for how important each person is for the overall structure. You can even add to the model with observational data (e.g. with traffic analysis – looking at communication patterns without knowing content) and make computational best guesses as to relationships and people you know must exist, but no nothing directly about.

The idea being that you can destroy the network by taking out the key people with the minimum of fuss – where ‘taking out’ could mean killing, arresting or bribing, and where ‘fuss’ could mean violence, risk or public knowledge.

Essentially, you are analysing the behaviour of networks and much the same principles (and indeed, some of the same laws) apply to other sorts of networks like transport and communication.

While this sort of research would help forces on the ground, other research, as funded by the Pentagon’s Minerva programme, seems aimed more at foreign policy and PsyOps operations, where the attitude and behaviour of very large populations need to be understood.

As has been the case with previous military enthusiasm for such ventures, this new level of funding is likely to cause additional concern that social science will become ‘weaponised’ and distort a field that has traditionally had a commitment to a ‘do no harm’ policy.

The Nature article also has a curious bit where it discusses the Pentagon’s interest in “how organisms sense and respond to stimuli ‚Äî such as chemicals, ions and metals, or electrical, magnetic, optical and mechanical impulses” to be able to develop “living sentinels”.

UPDATE: Thanks to Ian for sending a link to this Slate article series on ‘how the U.S. military used social networking to capture the Iraqi dictator’.

Link to Nature on Pentagon / social science tryst.

From madhouse to mainstream

It’s not often that historians are described as kicking ass, but the latest issue of the The Lancet has a barnstorming piece by Andrew Scull that gives an uncompromising history of psychiatry from the mad house to Big Pharma.

It must be said that the article is oriented more toward American psychiatry. Although similar influences have been present in European psychiatry, it has been much less subject to, shall we say, the mood swings that have tended to pull the American psychiatric community from one extreme to the other over the last century.

Nonetheless, it is a rollicking read from one of the most respected historians in the field. This is where Scull discusses the rise of neurobiology:

The US National Institute of Mental Health proclaimed the 1990s “the decade of the brain”. A simplistic biological reductionism increasingly ruled the psychiatric roost. Patients and their families learned to attribute mental illness to faulty brain biochemistry, defects of dopamine, or a shortage of seratonin. It was biobabble as deeply misleading and unscientific as the psychobabble it replaced, but as marketing copy it was priceless. Meantime, the psychiatric profession was seduced and bought off with boatloads of research funding. Where once shrinks had been the most marginal of medical men, existing in a twilight zone on the margins of professional respectability, now they were the darlings of medical school deans, the millions upon millions of their grants and indirect cost recoveries helping to finance the expansion of the medical-industrial complex.

One of the best articles on the history of psychiatry I’ve read for a very long time. No stone is left unscorned.

Link to Lancet article ‘A psychiatric revolution’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.


Photo by Flickr user dennis and aimee jonez. Click for sourceThere is a long-standing myth that before the Enlightenment, all the experiences and behaviours we would now classify as madness were thought to be due to demonic possession.

This idea has been comprehensively debunked and it is now clear that both of these concepts have run side-by-side and medieval courts often went to great lengths to try and distinguish the two ‘states’.

I’ve just read a fascinating article about ‘Demonology, Neurology, and Medicine in Edwardian Britain’ from the Bulletin of the History of Medicine that showed that this tendency continued well into the modern age.

Evangelical demonologists, some of them qualified doctors, incorporated medical advances into their theories – even using the dramatic discoveries of the ‘father of neurology’, John Hughlings Jackson, as a way of better ‘explaining’ our susceptibility to malign influence:

The Jacksonian hierarchy of higher conscious levels, the sensory midbrain, and the lower reflex centers was mapped onto the Pauline division between spirit, soul, and flesh and the psychological division between the supraliminal, the subliminal, and the body (cf. 1 Thess. 5:23 and Heb. 4:12). As Penn-Lewis argued, the lower nervous centers of the midbrain and the medulla could be seen as corresponding to habit and nature, “the law of the organs,” which frustrated man’s attempt to serve God.

This association of the soul with unconscious animal instincts revealed its vulnerability to the possibility of demonic infection. Indeed, many late-Victorian authors had argued that the newly discovered subconscious or unconscious mind provided the perfect medium for demonic activity: connected in psychology and literature to dreams, instincts, passions, and madness, it was seen as a gaping wound in the human personality through which invasive agents could undermine their hosts. Certainly many demonologists believed that invading spirits possessed a natural appetite for nervous tissue as they sought to recapture the nourishing somatic form they had lost.

This is a common pattern, of course. Carl Sagan’s book famously described science as “a Candle in the Dark” against a “Demon-Haunted World” but less attention is paid to the fact that every new illumination casts a whole new set of shadows for people to misinterpret.

Link to PubMed entry for demonology and neurology article.