Bernardino Álvarez, asylum bandit

The founder of the oldest psychiatric hospital in Latin America was an ex-soldier turned criminal who broke out of jail, escaped the law with the help of a prostitute, and eventually ended up destitute after spending his entire fortune caring for the mentally ill.

I’ve just discovered the amazing story of Bernardino Álvarez after reading up on the (surprisingly sparse) literature on the history of psychiatry in Latin American and particularly the Hospital de San Hipólito in Mexico City, the oldest institution on the continent.

The hospital, still in existence as the Fray Bernardino Hospital (although, apparently not in the original building), was founded in 1567 by Álvarez – a remarkable chap who became interested in caring for the mentally ill after attempting for to make amends for a life spent fighting, gambling, debauching, whoring and living off daring crime sprees.

This is from what seems to be the only English language article on his life, from a 1972 edition of the American Journal of Psychiatry. It reads like a movie script:

After arriving at what is now Mexico City he was sent to the countryside and fought in several actions in the war against the chichimecas in the north of New Spain. Apparently he was a soldier without too many scruples, for a biographer says that “hate, tears and curses‚” usually followed him. He wanted a shortcut to wealth, however; he disliked discipline and had no taste for the military life.

After this campaign Álvarez returned to Mexico City, then a lively and tempting emporium. Soon he was in trouble, gambling and robbing the gambling houses, drinking heavily, rebelling against the law, joining the delinquents of the city, and eventually being chosen the leader of a small gang. “A handsome and perfidious demon”: this is the way he was described at that time. Finally he and his band were apprehended, imprisoned, and sentenced to forced labor in China. They escaped from prison, though, killing three guards in the process. Some of the band were eventually caught again and hanged but Álvarez, through the aid of a close friend, a prostitute, got arms, money, and horses. He fled to Acapulco and then by sea to Peru.

He later became a wealthy and legitimate business man and, shocked by the way the mentally ill were treated, used his money to build the first mental hospital in the New World.

He was so dedicated that he apparently ended up spending his entire fortune on his new found mission and ended up living in a meagre cell in his own hospital by the time he died.

UPDATE: Thanks to Avicenna who points out that there’s a full version of the article online here. Thanks!

Link to PubMed entry for article on Bernardino Álvarez.

Beyond Ken and Barbie

Photo by Flickr user I Are Rowell. Click for sourceIf you’re wanting an antidote to all the Brizendine ‘male brain’ silliness which is floating round at the moment, Scientific American Mind has an excellent article by straight-thinking neuroscientist Lise Eliot that looks at the actual evidence for sex differences and how relatively minor differences at birth get shaped and amplified by how we guide children into certain preferences and behaviours.

Eliot has written Pink Brain, Blue Brain, probably the single best book I’ve ever found on the psychology and neuroscience of sex differences and gendered-behaviour.

It carefully and engagingly examines stereotypes in the light of evidence from both biological and social studies and the Scientific American Mind article tackles a similarly incisive tack:

So whereas men and boys score higher on measures of physical and verbal aggression, girls and women score higher on most measures of empathy, or the awareness and sharing of other people’s emotions, conclude psychologist Nancy Eisenberg of Arizona State University and her colleagues in studies dating back to the 1980s.

And yet the sex difference in empathy is smaller than most people realize and also strongly dependent on how it is measured. When men and women are asked to self-report their empathetic tendencies, women are much likelier than men to endorse statements such as “I am good at knowing how others will feel” or “I enjoy caring for other people.” When tested using more objective measures, however, such as recognizing the emotions in a series of photographed faces, the difference between men and women is much smaller, about four tenths of a standard deviation, meaning the average woman is more accurate than just 66 percent of men.

In children, the difference is tinier still, less than half that found in adults, reported psychologist Erin McClure of Emory University in 2000 after analyzing more than 100 studies of sex differences in facial emotion processing in infants, children and adolescents. So although girls do start out a bit more sensitive to other people’s faces and emotions, their advantage grows larger with age, no doubt because of their stronger communication skills, more practice at role playing with dolls and more intimate friendships as compared with boys.

Eliot effortlessly translates the broad scope of the scientific research into compelling prose and goes about questioning the ‘mars and venus’ stereotypes with an in-depth knowledge of the mind and brain.

If someone could send Brizendine a copy, I think we’d all be better off.

Link to SciAmMind article ‘The Truth about Boys and Girls’.
Link to more info on Eliot’s book Pink Brain, Blue Brain.

Rockin’ all over the ward

Paste Magazine has an article on ‘Eight Musical Homages to the Asylum’ about some of the most famous, and infamous, songs and videos about being institutionalised.

It was kindly posted by Mind Hacks reader Clifton Wiens in response to our previous post about jazz legend Charlie Parker having written what I thought was the only known song about an artist’s own stay in a psychiatric hospital (and not just admission to mental hospitals in general, of which there are lots).

However, the Paste Magazine article notes that James Taylor’s “Knockin‚Äô ‚ÄôRound the Zoo” is about his 1965 stay in McLean Hospital.

Another reader, Hugo, noted in the comments that Scandinavian metal band Diagnose: Lebensgefahr wrote an album called Transformalin about one of the member’s stays in hospital, although forgive me if I remain a little sceptical about the somewhat traditionally theatrical claims of black metal, although I could be wrong.

Recently, however, I’ve discovered that there was a whole concept album based around an artists’ stay in a mental hospital – by who else – but Alice Cooper. The album was called From the Inside and was apparently inspired by Coopers’ admission for alcoholism.

Any other suggestions gratefully received.

Link to ‘Eight Musical Homages to the Asylum’.

2010-04-02 Spike activity

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

The LA Times reviews a new book on how ‘The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’, originally a 60s hippie collective who became America’s biggest drug dealers.

Magnetic stimulation of an area in the right hemisphere alters our sense of morality, according to research expertly covered by Neurophilosophy.

The Nursing Times has an article on the recent ‘Facebook causes syphilis’ nonsense by our very own Dr Petra.

How blind is double-blind? Asks Neuroskeptic in a discussion on how easy it is for patients to work out whether they’re taking placebo or the Mickey Finn.

Nature News discusses the coming illegalisation of mephedrone in the UK. A few days later a UK government drugs advisor quits over the process. I think that makes eight resignations in the last few months.

A case of epilepsy causing the sensation of ‘multiple presences‘ is brilliantly covered by The Neurocritic.

MIT Tech Review discusses new research that examines how stroke damages the network of communication in the brain and what this can tell us about real-world disability.

There’s a brief but interesting post on the relationship between teeth-grinding and neurotocism over at Paracademia. The medical term for teeth-grinding is bruxism which I always think sounds quite endearing.

The Psychologist has an interesting Jesse Bering article on the question of whether some religious thinking could be a side-effect of cognitive process selected by evolution.

“The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting“. The Frontal Cortex tackles travel and the economics of happiness.

New Scientist has a special issue on ‘Nine Neural Frontiers‘ that includes articles on everything from mirror neurons to the subconscious.

Scientists discover gene and part of brain that make people gullible, according to stunning new research covered by Not Exactly Rocket Science.

NPR discuss a Harvard economist’s study on projected tax from legalised weed and coke, which could be much less than many people assume.

Scary health messages can backfire, according to research covered by the newly beautiful BPS Research Digest.

The Point of Inquiry podcast has an interview with skeptical psychologist Scott Lilienfeld on ’50 Myths of Popular Psychology’.

Treating serious mental illness with psychotherapy is the topic of an interesting discussion on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters.

PsyBlog looks at seven unusual psychological techniques for boosting creativity.

There’s a review of ‘Manufacturing Depression’ by Gary Greenberg over at The Guardian.

New Scientist discussed research on how paralysed limbs could be revived by hacking into nerves.

Video from a debate over ‘voodoo correlations’ in fMRI is available on the website of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab.

The Economist discusses whether it’s possible to build in ethical behaviour to pilotless drone warplanes.

Screening for postpartum <a href="
“>depression is not worth the time or money, according to a new study covered by Brain Blogger.

Ockham’s Razor, the ABC Radio National essay programme, discusses ‘the wise delinquency of decision makers’.

An invention by author Margaret Atwood to allow for remote paper signing appears in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

The Guardian meets an Amazonian tribe that can only count up to five and discusses what different conceptions of numeracy mean for the psychology of maths.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman is in conversation with author Will Self in a video event for Intelligence Squared.

New Scientist has a brief but worthwhile introduction to ‘embodied cognition’.

A recent documentary on the psychology of anti-gay hate crime is featured on the excellent forensic psychology blog, In the News, with an interview with the blog’s author about her research on motivations for anti-gay violence.

Out on a limb

Photo by Flickr user joiseyshowaa. Click for sourceBarking up the Wrong Tree is a minimalist blog that posts some amazing studies about human behaviour.

If you were interested in whether taking out health insurance encourages obesity, which countries have the most emotionally distant people or how female-directed porn movies differ from male-directed porn movies the blog has found a peer-reviewed study to answer these and many other questions, many of which you never even thought of asking.

The author, Eric Barker, also posts some great stuff to Twitter on the @bakadesuyo account which is well worth following.

Link to Barking up the Wrong Tree blog.

Beneath the petticoat

More than half a century before Alfred Kinsey started to study the surprising diversity of human sexual behaviour, Stanford professor Clelia Mosher surveyed Victorian-era women on their bedroom behaviour but buried the results. Her report, its accidental discovery, and the sex lives of 1890s women are covered in a fascinating article for Stanford Magazine.

Mosher was an amazing woman by all accounts and took a scientific approach to testing some of the ‘received wisdom’ of the day, such as that women were inherently weaker and that menstruation was necessarily disabling.

As part of her work, she surveyed women on their experience of sex and sexuality, much as Kinsey would do many decades later.

Slightly more than half of these educated women claimed to have known nothing of sex prior to marriage; the better informed said they’d gotten their information from books, talks with older women and natural observations like “watching farm animals.” Yet no matter how sheltered they’d initially been, these women had‚Äîand enjoyed‚Äîsex. Of the 45 women, 35 said they desired sex; 34 said they had experienced orgasms; 24 felt that pleasure for both sexes was a reason for intercourse; and about three-quarters of them engaged in it at least once a week.

Unlike Mosher’s other work, the survey is more qualitative than quantitative, featuring open-ended questions probing feelings and experiences. “She’s actually asking these questions not about physiology or mechanics‚Äîshe’s really asking about sexual subjectivity and the meaning of sex to women,” Freedman says. Their responses were often mixed. Some enjoyed sex but worried that they shouldn’t. One slept apart from her husband “to avoid temptation of too frequent intercourse.” Some didn’t enjoy sex but faulted their partner. Mosher writes: [She] “Thinks men have not been properly trained.”

The whole article is an amazing read, both because Mosher was clearly such a pioneering researcher in a largely male dominated world and because her survey overturns many of our stereotypes about Victorian sexuality.

Link to Stanford Magazine on ‘The Sex Scholar’ (via MeFi)