Tripping in a PET scanner

The History of the Human Sciences journal covers the problem of psychedelic drug research and subjective experience. The article argues that the mind-bending nature of the drugs demand that scientists deal with the clash between the objective world view of science and the subjective experience of the participant that is often swept under the carpet in other areas of substance research.

One particular gem is where it has a report from a participant who describes his or her experience being PET brain scanned while tripping on psilocybin:

At the beginning of the trip I suddenly felt an urge to lie down in the lab. At that point, the optical ‘distortion’ began. First, I saw that some structures were moving and took up different colors and forms. From the gurney, I looked at the sink and the soap dispenser on the wall. All of a sudden, they looked as if they had been painted – as if you apply a filter to an image, which makes it look like an oil painting.

Before the scan, I went to the toilet, but I didn’t find my bearings there. All proportions were wrong: the toilet seemed to be huge, my hands were too big, the arms too long. The first minutes of the scan were also strange. When I realized the scientist in the corner of my eye, he looked like a rat, and the assistant’s face was a zombie-like grimace. As soon as I closed my eyes, my perception changed abruptly and totally.

I was gliding through bizarre geometric spaces, mostly cubic and intensively red. My field of vision was enormously wide, up to 270º, at the corners of which I perceived whispering human figures. Only with great effort, could I afterwards fill in the questionnaires. The answers did not seem suitable or too undifferentiated. Sometimes I did not understand the questions. But it was fascinating that I could read at least half of the questions on a page at the same time.

It’s a fascinating paper as it is based on fieldwork by medical anthropologist Nicolas Langlitz in a laboratory where neuroscientists are studying the effects of psychedelic substances.

It explores how the researchers’ personal experience of the drugs informs their experimental designs and hence requires them to deal with the link between subjective experience and empirical science.

For example, in one part, while piloting EEG research, a researcher has a ‘bad trip’ and the team realise they need to make the lab look more friendly and display warmer and more relaxing pictures to reduce the chances of negative reactions.

This is clearly equivalent to the well-known context effects of set and setting developed by 60s acid-heads, but obviously has a feed-back effect on the empirical science.

As there is no ‘correct’ set-up for the look of the lab but it will clearly affect the objectively recorded results, there is an interesting interplay between objectivity and personal experience.

Obviously, this happens in other settings but is typically ignored, owing to the fact that the outcomes are perhaps less dramatic, but the amplifying nature of psychedelics demands a response from the researchers.

Sadly, the article is locked behind a $25 dollar paywall so if you want to read the full text be prepared to give up the best part of a year’s subscription to Playboy. Bargain.

Link to DOI and summary of academic article.

Pointing the finger

Photo by Flickr user Adam Crowe. Click for sourceA brief yet intriguing description of a talk on pointing, by the ever versatile neuroscientist and philosopher Ray Tallis at the recent Hay Literary Festival.

A spellbinding hour with philosopher and self-confessed “many-layered anorak” Raymond Tallis on the subject of pointing. Yes, sticking your finger in the air and directing it at an object. It is, he argued, one of the attributes that mark us out as human beings with a sense of ourselves and others in a shared space: no other animal, including pointers and chimps, can use pointing fully. He reflected on its use for babies as a staging post towards acquiring language; and noted that in autistic children there is often an absence of pointing. He talked about pointing and power: the pointing that marks some unfortunate from a crowd and summons them to who-knows-what; the Malcolm Tucker-esque jabbing of the air that is tantamount to “a one-fingered punching at the self”. Then there is the disembodied, absent, generalised pointing of the fingerpost, which has “the ghost of intention about it”.

Link to description in The Guardian (via @Matthew_Broome)

The memory manipulators

Photo by Flickr user Andrew Mason. Click for sourceSlate has just finished an awesome eight-part special on how memory can be manipulated, shaped and reshaped even when we’re completely unaware of it.

The series is really a retrospective on the life and work of Elizabeth Loftus, one of the most important and influential researchers in the area of false and flexible memories.

The first part is description of an online memory experiment completed by the website. If you’re new to the area it’s worth checking out, but if you’re aware of how easy it is for people to say they’ve genuinely remembered false events, it may be worth skipping to part two where the series really kicks off.

The articles weave together Loftus’ life and scientific work, describing how her own experiences have shaped her interest in false memory and how she has applied her interest in the flexibility of memory to a remarkably wide range of fields.

She is probably best known for her research which countered much of the ‘recovered memories of abuse’ hysteria which arose in the 90s. Loftus demonstrated it was very easy for therapists to encourage false memories in their clients.

This is a wonderfully vivid passage that describes how she developed her early experiments that ‘implanted’ nondescript false memories (such as the experience of being lost in the mall) to more unusual scenarios:

So Loftus ran bolder experiments with more subjects, more trauma, and greater implausibility. She convinced people that they had nearly choked, had caught their parents having sex, or had seen a wounded animal after a bombing. Other researchers planted memories of nearly drowning, being hospitalized overnight, and being attacked by an animal. In one study, Loftus and her collaborators persuaded 18 percent of people that they had probably witnessed demonic possession.

Critics protested that Loftus still hadn’t proved the memories were fake. So she raised the ante. She persuaded 16 percent of a study population that they had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. In a follow-up experiment, researchers sold the same memory to 36 percent of subjects. This was impossible, since Bugs belonged to Warner Bros., not Disney. When critics complained that the Bugs memory wasn’t abusive, Loftus obliged them again. Her team convinced 30 percent of another group of subjects that on a visit to Disneyland, a drug-addled Pluto character had licked their ears.

The ‘recovered memories of abuse’ hysteria reached its peak with recovered memories of ‘satanic ritual abuse’ or SRA in which both the law and professionals got caught up in despite the fact that no reliable evidence was ever found for its existence.

It is now a matter of embarrassment not least due to several high profile cases, such as the Orkney scandal, where children were removed from their families owing to leading interviews and over-zealous social workers.

However, the ‘ritual abuse’ movement is not completely dead. In fact, only last year London’s John Bowlby Centre ran a conference on ‘Ritual Abuse and Mind Control’ (programme: pdf) which featured Valerie Sinason, author of the book ‘Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse’, which was partly responsible for fuelling the panic.

The Slate series covers some of the most important research to show how people could come to believe they were involved in such incidents and has many extras and links to other resources and the original research.

Link to Slate’s false memory series.

Full disclosure: I’m an occasional writer for Slate

Disease rankings

There is a hierarchy of prestige in medicine. Numerous studies have found that surgery and internal medicine are thought of most highly by doctors while while psychiatry, geriatric and child medicine come near the bottom. A study published in Social Science & Medicine took this idea one step further and looked at which diseases have the most prestige among the medical community.

Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a highly influential book about the social dynamics of stigma in which he suggested that it has its social power through associating people with stereotypes.

It’s interesting that doctors who specialise in working with people who have the least status in society (children, the ‘mad’, the ‘old’) also have the least status in medicine.

The Norwegian researchers asked senior doctors, general practitioners and medical students to rate diseases and came up with the following list, which ranks diseases from the most prestigious at the top, to the least prestigious at the bottom.

Needless to say, mental illnesses fill most of the bottom slots.

Myocardial infarction [heart attack]
Spleen rupture
Brain tumour
Testicle cancer
Pulmonary embolism [normally blood clot on the lung]
Angina pectoris
Extrauterine pregnancy
Thyroid cancer
Meniscus rupture [‘torn cartilage’]
Colon cancer
Ovarian cancer
Kidney stone
Ulcerative colitis [inflammation of the bowel]
Kidney failure
Duodenal ulcer [peptic ulcer]
Pancreas cancer
Ankle fracture
Lung cancer
Sciatica [‘trapped nerve’]
Bechterew’s disease [arthritis of the spine]
Femoral neck fracture
Multiple sclerosis
Inguinal hernia [abdominal wall hernia]
Apoplexy [internal organ bleeding]
Cerebral palsy
Depressive neurosis
Hepatocirrhosis [cirrhosis of the liver]
Anxiety neurosis

Link to PubMed entry for study.

On the edge of a nervous breakdown

Photo by Amparo Torres. Flick for sourceThe New York Times has an excellent article on the history of the ‘nervous breakdown’ – an inexact term that has never been officially recognised but which has been popular for over a century.

The article suggests that the phrase is common precisely because it sounds medical and, hence, significant, but remains vague enough to be used flexibly and by everybody without seeming pretentious.

The vagueness of the phrase made it impossible to survey the prevalence of any specific mental problem: It could mean anything from depression to mania or drunkenness; it might be the cause of a bitter divorce or the result of a split. And glossing over those details left people who suffered from what are now well-known afflictions, like postpartum depression, entirely in the dark, wondering if they were alone in their misery.

But that same imprecision allowed the speaker, not medical professionals, to control its meaning. People might be on the verge of, or close to, a nervous breakdown; and it was common enough to have had “something like” a nervous breakdown, or a mild one. The phrase allowed a person to disclose as much, or as little, detail about a “crackup” as he or she saw fit. Vagueness preserves privacy.

As the article notes, we have a long history of vague ’emotional exhaustion’ coveralls stretching from neurasthenia to burnout syndrome that come in and out of fashion.

Link to NYT On the Verge of ‘Vital Exhaustion’?