One thousand matter-of-fact dentists

Photo by Flickr user radiant guy. Click for sourceFor some reason, I find this study that analysed children’s drawings of dentists hilarious.

You can almost sense the existential despair of someone who spent months of their life analysing kids’ unconscious representations of dentists to discover they just think of them as the guy with the furniture and a patient.

Children’s drawings about dentistry.

Community Dent Oral Epidemiol. 1976 Jan;4(1):1-6.

Taylor D, Roth G, Mayberry W.

Drawings about the dentist at work were solicited from 1,101 children in grades 2, 4, 6 and 8 in an urban school district. A system to classify the contents of these drawings was developed. The frequency of various items occurring in the children’s drawings was determined. The “typical” or most frequent child’s drawing of the dentist at work was described. This drawing contained a normal dental chair, dentist, a patient in the chair and dental cabinetry or furniture. The picture was a very matter-of-fact representation. Abnormal or bizarre pictures occurred infrequently. A few children drew pictures that did not relate to dentistry.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

I know what you’re thinking Doctor…

I just found a completely charming study from 1977 that tested whether psychiatric patients with mind-reading delusions were really telepathic.

Telepathy in mental illness: deluge or delusion?

J Nerv Ment Dis. 1977 Sep;165(3):184-200.

Greyson B.

The belief that one can read others’ minds has long been considered a symptom of psychosis, despite reports in the parapsychological literature of veridical telepathy. All patients admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit were screened for paranormal beliefs, and those claiming telepathic abilities were tested in a free-response ESP task. Eighteen per cent of the inpatient population claimed telepathic abilities; of the nine patients who completed the task, none performed above chance expectations. Higher frequencies of paranormal experiences than those reported previously in the psychiatric literature were attributed to the context of the study. Schneider’s first rank symptoms and a belief in telepathy discriminated schizophrenics more reliably than other paranormal experiences. Possible psychodynamics of delusions of telepathy were discussed in view of the predominance of women and younger men reporting them, as were the possible effects of such research on patients’ delusions.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

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.