Hypnosis in the lab: the suggestion of altered states

I’ve got an article in The Guardian online about how hypnosis is being increasingly used in the neuroscience lab to simulate unusual mental states and alter the normal flow of automatic psychological processes.

After years of neglect, it turns out hypnosis is a useful experimental tool that allows temporary changes to both the conscious and unconscious mind that are normally very difficult to achieve.

Whenever AR sees a face, her thoughts are bathed in colour and each identity triggers its own rich hue that shines across her mind’s eye. This experience is a type of synaesthesia which, for about one in every 100 people, automatically blends the senses. Some people taste words, others see sounds, but AR experiences colour with every face she sees. But on this occasion, perhaps for the first time in her life, a face is just a face. No colours, no rich hues, no internal lights.

If the experience is novel for AR, it is equally new to science because no one had suspected that synaesthesia could be reversed. Despite the originality of the discovery, the technique responsible for the switch is neither the hi-tech of brain stimulation nor the cutting-edge of neurosurgery, but the long-standing practice of hypnosis.

As it turns out, our scientific paper on the cognitive neuroscience of hypnosis and the ‘hysteria’ has also just been published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

‘Hysteria’ is the traditional name for an interesting condition now often diagnosed as ‘conversion disorder‘ where people are paralysed, blind, have seizures or show other seemingly neurological problems without any evidence of nervous system damage that could explain the problem.

The 19th Century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot proposed that hypnosis and hysteria might work in a similar way – brain circuits outside of conscious control might be inhibiting or ‘shutting down’ other functions.

The idea was dismissed for many years, but we review neuroimaging and neuropsychology studies that suggest he might have been on the right track and something similar may explain why people can seem to lose conscious control over their body and senses during both hysteria and hypnosis.

The Guardian article explores the use of hypnosis in neuroscience more widely, how it is becoming an important experimental tool, and dispels some of the common myths about the effects.

One of the problems with researching or using hypnosis in the lab is its association in popular culture with quacks and stage hypnotists, which means many scientists give it a wide birth as they did with consciousness research a decade ago.

You’ll notice the piece has been given an odd title and a cheesy picture which I suspect is similar to how articles on consciousness are typically accompanied by a picture of a brain flying through space.

Link to Guardian piece on hypnosis in neuroscience.
Link to abstract of paper on neuroscience of hysteria and hypnosis.

I’ve got a cAMP that goes up to 11

Eric Kandel, push that Nobel Prize to the back of the cabinet. Your work has inspired a song by Canadian death metal band Neuraxis.

The track is called Imagery from the 2002 album ‘Truth Beyond…’ Sadly, I can’t find any audio of the piece online, but if you want a taster of what the band sound like, get someone to repeatedly drive a tank into a guitar shop, or click here.

Presumably the band have a long-standing interest in neuroscience as they are named after the layout of the central nervous system.

Anyway, here are the lyrics to Imagery, which reference Kandel’s work on the neurobiology of memory:

Imagery by Neuraxis

Striving… Memories. Striving… Memories.

Aplysia’s sensory neurons, alter response level to a given stimulus based on action transpired.
Protein synthesis; Involved in learning.
The strengthening, weakening of synaptic connection; The cellular basis of memory.

All thoughts and feeling; Euphoric or bizarre.
Results of endless interactions of neurochemicals.
Altered perception, re-altered beliefs, affects the mind, the thought process.

Endless emotions, infinite dreams.
Endless emotions, infinite dreams.
Affects the mind, the thoughts patterns.

This machinery called imagination.
Weaves an intricate.
Web of imagery… Imagery.

This machinery called imagination.
Weaves an intricate.
Web of imagery…


Link to Wikipedia page on Neuraxis.

Doyle’s father, Sherlock’s first portrait artist, seized

A brief piece on Charles Altamont Doyle, father of the famous Sherlock Holmes author, from an article on artists and epilepsy just published in Practical Neurology.

Probably more famous as the father of Arthur Conan, Charles Altamont Doyle (1832–1893) was said to have epilepsy for the last 10–15 years of his life. The cause on his death certificate was epilepsy of ‘many years’ standing. He was not a particularly successful artist and perhaps is best remembered for his illustrations that accompanied the Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet (1888). Charles was another depressive, but he chose to self-medicate heavily with alcohol. It is possible that his seizures, occurring late in life, were related to his consumption of alcohol and rapid withdrawal. He was committed to the Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum in 1881, where finding peace at last, he created some of his best work. It is said that he persevered with his art in an attempt to show that he had been wrongfully imprisoned in the institution; ironically, the recurring themes that he used to plead for his sanity were elves, fairies and other fantastical characters [above]. It is said that he died during a prolonged seizure.

Charles Altmont Doyle is best known for the picture above, named ‘A Dance Around the Moon’, although my favourite is one from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London who have a self-portrait where he is surrounded by devils, demons and a levitating woman.

Rather than looking terrified or wallowing in self-pity, he just looks fed-up.

Link to PubMed entry for article on epilepsy and art.
Link to Charles Altmont Doyle self-portrait at the V&A.

The murder club

I’m a bit embarrassed to say that my latest Beyond Boundaries column for The Psychologist was published last month and I managed to miss it.

It’s about how murder is one of our most social acts. Think of it as like your local community cake sale, but for killing.

Murder is not antisocial. If you want a demonstration that we are governed by society even when breaking its rules, homicide is one of the best and grimmest examples. Studies show that victim and offender tend to resemble each other to a striking degree – the young murder the young and the old murder the old, rich and poor rarely kill each other, gang bangers prey on other gang members, and you are likely to be personally acquainted with the person who later ends your life. Socially conservative it may be, but homicide remains a deeply social act.

In a remarkable 2010 study published in the American Journal of Sociology, academic Andrew Papachristos took these findings to their logical conclusion and conceptualised each murder over a three-year period in Chicago as a social interaction between groups. Surprisingly, the pattern of homicides resembled an exchange of gifts. One gang ‘presents’ a murder to another, and that group must reciprocate the ‘gift’ or risk losing their social status in the criminal underworld. From this perspective, murder is perhaps the purest of social exchanges as the individual is left in no position to reciprocate on his own.

Murder, is not, however, an equal opportunities reaper and you are considerably more likely to be dispatched if you are poor and marginalised. It was not always the case though. Historical records show that homicide was used equally by all levels of society but has become increasingly less democratic over time as access to formalised systems of dispute resolution have become more widely available. The fact that the legal system is preferentially used by those with money is perhaps not surprising, although the fact the distribution of justice is unjust should give us pause for thought.

Nowhere is this contrast more striking than in Latin America. Although the region has the highest murder rates in the world the generalisation tell us little – the devil is really in the detail. A 2008 study led by the Venezuelan sociologist Roberto Briceño-León found that poverty in the region predicted little of the homicide rate on its own. It was inequality that explained the trend: in areas where wealth and extreme poverty coexist, violence occurs more frequently.

Despite the horror, society adapts and nations with higher levels of slayings have been found to have higher acceptance of murder. If we want to prevent violence we need to understand that murder is not a stain on the fabric of society, it is one of its threads.

Thanks to Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist who has kindly agreed for me to publish my column on Mind Hacks as long as I include the following text:

“The Psychologist is sent free to all members of the British Psychological Society (you can join here), or you can subscribe as a non-member by emailing sarsta[at]bps.org.uk”

Taking the sponge

A curious case of a two year old infant who had a sponge-eating obsession. The report is taken from a small case series of compulsive sponge-eating in children, published in medical journal Acta Pædiatrica.

Remarkably, the child was successfully and quickly treated just by correcting low iron levels in the blood.

A general practitioner referred a 32-month-old girl with an obsession of eating sponge since the age of 7 months. The obsession for the sponge aggravated to the extent that she could rip the cushions, car seats and mattresses to get the sponge out. The child was noticed to have a strong, irresistible urge and was seen finishing a fifth of sponge from a cushion in less than half an hour. Occasionally she had been seen eating carpet fibres and tissue papers. She was otherwise a fit and medically healthy girl with a normal intelligence and behaviour. The examination including general physical and systemic resulted to be unremarkable except pallor…

The child was diagnosed to be a case of pica with IDA [iron deficiency anemia] and was kept on 4 mg/kg per day of iron. The symptoms of eating sponge disappeared fully by correcting her IDA.

The mentions of “a case of pica” refers to a psychiatric disorder where people feel compelled to eat the inedible.

We’ve discussed several unusual adults case of pica previously on Mind Hacks, including people who compulsively eat bullets, coins and roofing plates.

Link to PubMed entry for sponge-eating case series.

Neurosurgery simulated

Ohio State University have created a fantastic interactive web application where you play the part of a neurosurgeon operating on a patient who needs a deep brain stimulation device installed to treat their Parkinson’s disease.

When I first loaded it up and saw the cartoon-like style I thought it would just be a bit of eye-candy but it turns out to be quite a detailed guide to exactly how this sort of surgery is undertaken.

It’s great if you’re just curious, as there’s plenty to learn about the procedure, but even if you’re a neuroscience fanatic there are questions throughout the demo that allow you to flex your problem-solving skills.

I have to say, I learnt loads from it, and the best bit is where you get to hear the firing patterns of different areas as the recording electrode is inserted.

A cleverly designed and engaging bit of software.

Link to EdHeads deep brain stimulation neurosurgery demo.

Psychotherapist to the dangerously disturbed

The Independent has a revealing article on the working life of Dr Gwen Adshead, a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist at Broadmoor Hospital, one of the few very high security hospital dedicated to the most dangerous psychiatric patients in the UK.

As a consultant forensic psychotherapist – a rare breed in medicine – she spends her working life in the company of men at Broadmoor whom others would dismiss with a single word – evil. Her aim is to make them safer – safe enough, ultimately, to be released from Britain’s highest security institution for mentally disordered offenders – and to achieve that they must understand the full import of the crime they have committed.

“My job is to help a man become more articulate about what he has done, about his illness and about why that might be important for his future. Even if a cure is not possible, recovery of some identity is possible. My work involves talking to them and getting them to become more self-reflective. Violence is more likely to occur when people are not thinking straight.”

Admission to Broadmoor is granted only to members of an exclusive club: the violent insane. The Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, is here, convicted in 1981 of murdering 13 prostitutes; Kenneth Erskine, the Stockwell strangler who murdered seven elderly people in 1986; and London nail bomber David Copeland who targeted blacks, Bangladeshis and gays, killing three people and injuring 129, of whom four lost limbs.

The article characterises the patients Adshead works with as the ‘violent insane’ although it’s worth noting that not all will be ‘insane’ in the popular or even traditional sense of the term – that is, affected by psychosis that includes delusions and hallucinations.

Some will be ‘diagnosed’ with Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder. I put ‘diagnosed’ in scare quotes because you may notice that no such condition is listed in either the DSM or ICD diagnostic manuals – it has been created by the UK government and on the basis of this label a patient can be locked-up indefinitely.

Unlike psychosis, personality disorder doesn’t involve any significant ‘loss of contact with reality’ (although it may be diagnosed alongside it). This is why the journalist comments that the patient he bumps into who makes “a passionate denunciation” of his detention doesn’t seem to be ‘insane’.

This is not to say he’s just a regular chap – a diagnosis of personality disorder signifies his day-to-day functioning is quite impaired because of difficulties relating to others – while the ‘dangerous and severe’ prefix is based on a still-not-very-accurate risk assessment that the person is likely to be violent in the near future.

The Broadmoor DSPD unit has now been in existence for 10 years and still lacks good evidence that it is effective in helping the patients or reducing risk. Needless to say, it is likely to remain controversial.

The Independent article is a good insight into the difficulties of working with (the very few) psychiatric patients who are dangerous, regardless of diagnosis, although do ignore the sensationalist and irrelevant headline. Apart from that, well worth a read.

Link to Independent on Adhead and Broadmoor.

Racism: the board game

In 1970 Psychology Today published a board game where players were divided into white and black, and had to make economic progress while competing with each other. Based on Monopoly, the idea was to demonstrate how the odds were stacked against black people in society by having different rules for each race in the game.

Whites started out with $1 million, blacks with $10,000 and each race had different opportunity decks. While whites could buy property in any part of the board, blacks were limited to certain areas until they had accumulated at least $100,000 and were outright banned from property in the ‘suburban zone’.

Needless to say, it turned out to be one of the most controversial board games of all time and even merited an article in Time magazine:

The game, produced by Psychology Today Games (an off shoot of the magazine) now on sale ($5.95) at major department stores, was developed at the University of California at Davis by Psychology Department Chairman Robert Sommer. It was conceived as a painless way for middle-class whites to experience—and understand—the frustrations of blacks. In Sommer’s version, however, the black player could not win; as a simulation of frustration, the game was too successful. Then David Popoff, a Psychology Today editor, redesigned the game, taking suggestions from militant black members of “US” in San Diego. The new rules give black players an opportunity to use—and even to beat—the System.

Although turning Monopoly into an attempt to draw people’s attention to social issues seems a little bit of a long shot, it’s worth noting that the original version of Monopoly itself, called ‘The Landlord’s Game‘, was designed to demonstrate how the current economic system led to inequality and bankruptcy.

Psychology Today’s board game division seems to have been short-lived but other titles included The Cities Game – that involved ‘urban tension, corruption and the undercurrents of city politics’; and Woman and Man where ‘Each woman must accumulate enough Status Quo points (100) to prove her equality to men. Each man must collect enough Status Quo points (100) to prove once and for all a woman’s place is beneath his’.

Fun for all the family.

Link to 1970 Time article on the ‘Blacks and Whites’ board game.
Link to game details and photos on BoardGameGeek.

Cultures of friendship

Neuroanthropology has an all-too-brief interview on how different cultures around the world have fundamentally different ideas about what it means to be a friend.

The interviewee is anthropologist Dan Hruschka who has just written a book summarising his research on the anthropology of friendship.

It’s a wonderfully simple idea but really challenges some of our core assumptions about social relationships:

Can you describe one of your examples that really makes us think differently about friendship?

When you look at friendship cross-culturally, there are many surprises! Consider the fact that in societies around the world, close friends will sanctify their relationships with elaborate public ceremonies not unlike American weddings or that parents or elders can arrange their children’s friendships in much the same way that marriages are arranged in many parts of the world.

I think one of the more interesting findings, and one that reveals our own American preferences and taboos, concerns the kinds of things that friends are expected to help each other with. For example, in the U.S., we often expect friends to talk through personal problems and disclose deep secrets. Indeed, U.S. researchers often impose this criterion on definitions of friendship.

However, there are many places in the world where such verbal, emotional support is only a minor concern in friendships.


Link to Neuroanthropology on ‘the book of friendship’.

Online therapy: a download off your mind

What’s it like doing psychotherapy in Second Life? New Scientist has a level-headed article that describes how personal therapeutic interactions are altered by the online world and how this may be a benefit for people with certain types of problems.

In my limited experience of Second Life, I was struck by how many people were offering commercial counselling services, many without apparent qualifications, and I’ve seen been a bit sceptical since.

The NewSci piece is by a professional counsellor and takes a critical look at the concept and its practice, relating both the experience of therapy and where its strengths and weaknesses lie, not least for people who may have social anxiety or other face-to-face difficulties.

The other major concern is the loss of body language. For people used to Second Life, this is not as much of a problem as you might think, according to Dillon. But as a therapist, I glean a great deal from seeing someone become tearful or shift in their seat.

It’s a trade-off, say avatar therapists. What you lose in body language you gain in the eloquent expression of conscious thought – at least for clients who type in their responses – as well as the loss of inhibition that comes with communicating through an avatar.

I have to say, having read so much drivel about ‘cyber therapy’ I was ready to dismiss the article but found it one of the best introductory pieces I’ve yet read that tackles online psychotherapy.

Link to NewSci on Avatar therapy.

2010-09-24 Spike activity

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

The Guardian has a great piece on the attempts to create a brain-wave-based criminal-catching lie detector and why the technology hasn’t yet matched the hype.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the excellent NeuroShrink blog recently. The latest post explores the link between Viagra and a transient but poorly understood form of amnesia.

Wired UK has a brief piece on how ‘scientists can read your face like a data-filled book’. In other words, slowly and only when asked to by the lab boss.

Fascinating cases of ‘sociopathic dementia‘ and their neurological explanations are discussed by the ever-excellent Neuroskeptic.

Scientific American has a great piece on the the neuroscience of selfhood that riffs on some of the unusual neurological cases of self-distortion we touch on recently.

There’s an in-depth but rewarding discussion on Child’s Play that challenges the orthodoxy that learning theories can’t explain how children acquire language because kids are often not corrected when they talk incorrectly.

Discover Magazine has an excellent article about how problems with understanding the spatial layout of the outside world after brain injury are helping us understand the neuroscience of space perception.

There odd and frankly stomach churning experiments of neurologist Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard are described in an eye-opening piece from Oscillatory Thoughts.

Seed Magazine looks at the popularity of the concept of the soul and how it relates to what we know about the neuroscience of integrated experience.

A professor of forensic psychology specialising in violence rails against a new proposed US law to restrict violent video games as a “waste of taxpayer money.” In the News covers his statement with a nice summary of the science.

The Atlantic asks ‘Where does music come from?’ and discusses possible reasons behind the existence of one of humankind’s more puzzling inventions.

JFK was killed by a neurotoxin deployed with a rocket launching umbrella, at least according to a theory published in the eccentric uncle of the science world – Medical Hypotheses. The Neurocritic covers the novel and unusually illustrated theory.

Salon has an amazing interview with someone who believed they had a ‘recovered memory’ of childhood abuse but later came to realise they’d falsely accused their father.

A great resource for films on medical anthropology available online is published on Somatosphere.

Scientific American’s Bering in Mind discusses the psychoactive effects of human semen. Insert your own ‘mind blowing’ jokes at will.

The excellent Wired the Brain blog has a great piece on the ancient origins of the cerebral cortex and the evolution of the brain.

The Guardian has a funny article on how the author almost got jailed for cocaine smuggling, why tests need to control for false positives, and why drug testing children is a bad idea.

Denglish, the German version of Spanglish, is covered in a delightful post over at LanguageLog.

The Sydney Morning Herald has an excellent interview with neuroscientist Olivier Oullier on emotion, rationality and decision-making.

How can we cultivate a positive attitude to homework in children? Evidence Based Mummy reviews the research that has directly tackled the question.

The Guardian covers the conviction of US-trained Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui. Who disappeared for years only to reappear in American custody. Her case raises more questions than answers.

There is a brief but excellent interview with Derren Brown on appearance and reality over at Philosophy Bites video.

Nature News covers a brilliantly conceived study where self-touch altered illusory pain owing to changes in body representation.

The man who animated the madness for the upcoming film about Ginsberg’s Howl is interview over at NeuroTribes.

Scientific American has a short piece on why we are less trusting of words said in a foreign accent.

By what age do children recognise that plagiarism is wrong? By the time they start school, it turns out, from a study covered by BPS Research Digest.

The Atlantic has a fantastic piece on the anthropology of hackers.

Philosopher and blogger Peter Mandik from Brain Hammer designs the cover for philosopher and blogger Eric Schwitzgebels’s new book on consciousness. Cool.

BBC World Service kicks off a promising new series on mysteries of the brain.

What are the ethical implications for the possible creation of a device to indicate whether someone is conscious or not? Neuron Culture picks up the baton.

All in the Mind from ABC Radio National had a brilliant interview with a philosopher of mind who has experienced psychosis.

What do mad scientists study?

io9 has a fantastic piece that analyses the favoured subjects of investigation for mad scientists – tracking trends in 200 years of fictional evil research.

The researchers from io9’s underground science bunker scanned films and literature for depictions of the slightly unbalanced investigator to look at how research topics varied as fashions changed.

So what did we discover? First of all, mad scientists have obviously grown in popularity a great deal since the nineteenth century. Of all the sciences, biology seems to enjoy the most adherence from the maniacal – followed closely by its sister discipline, biotechnology. It’s interesting to note that big spike in mad scientists researching biology during the 1910s and 20s – this would have been the era when cinema and pulp fiction were gaining traction, and along with them “scientifiction” stories. It was also a time of great medical and biological experimentation in the west.

Coincidentally, today’s Guardian has an article on dispelling the image of the ‘boffin’ and the ‘mad scientist’ from the public’s mind to improve the image of science, noting that in the last decade Hollywood scientists are almost entirely depicted as beautiful competent young women.

If you work in cognitive science, of course, your research colleagues are probably entirely made up of beautiful competent young women, and I would like to make a stand for socially awkward not fully-in-touch-with-reality badly dressed male boffin.

Don’t get me wrong, I am frequently in awe of female cognitive scientists, but how many have burnt their ear with a soldering iron? A different but still valuable form of awe-inspiration I’m sure you’ll agree.

Link to io9 ‘Research areas of mad scientists, 1810-2010’ (via @NoaWG ).
Link to The Guardian ‘Who are you calling a boffin?’

Nude psychotherapy and the quest for inner peace

The first session of nude psychotherapy was held in 1967, at a nudist resort in California. It was the brainchild of radical therapist and ordained minister Paul Bindrim who made headlines around the world with events intended to enhance emotional connectedness and dismantle body-image hangups.

Despite the massive interest at the time, ‘nude psychotherapy’ would have largely disappeared from the history of psychology if it weren’t for a truly amazing article by historian Ian Nicholson, published in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, which you can read in full as a pdf.

Nude psychotherapy grew out of the 60s encounter group movement, where people seeking personal development would meet for intense one-off group therapy sessions where emotional honesty and group amplification led to powerful personal experiences.

The popularity of these events created a demand for groups that delivered ever more striking emotional experiences with the most intense being the marathon 24 or 36 hour encounters. Bindrim took the concept one step further and created the concept of nude psychotherapy.

He was partly inspired by the founder of humanistic psychology, the famous and significantly more respectable Abraham Maslow, who had an established but purely theoretical interest in whether nudity would make people in therapy “an awful lot freer, a lot more spontaneous, less guarded”.

Bindrim talked the language of spontaneity and authenticity, but as Nicholson notes, the groups were carefully planned:

Bindrim was convinced that the “natural state” of humanity had been lost and that disrobing would peel back layers of modernist artifice and alienation and reestablish a healthy connection with one’s body and the true self. Ironically, although a self-declared enemy of the inauthentic, Bindrim sought psychological deliverance through the very artifice he decried. Far from being spontaneous returns to “nature,” his marathons were carefully orchestrated performances of psychological ingenuity and financial opportunism…

Bindrim began this process by employing familiar encounter group techniques. Participants were invited to “eyeball” each other (stare into each other’s eyes at close range) and then to respond in some physical way (hugging, wrestling, etc.). After this ice-breaker, participants disrobed in the dark to musical accompaniment before joining a small circle to perform a “meditation-like” hum. This process, Bindrim felt, gave rise to the “feeling of being all part of one human mass”

The sessions included role-playing traumatic experiences and touching exercises in a swimming pool, but perhaps most notable was an exercise called “crotch eyeballing”, designed to dispel guilt about the body, in which participants were instructed to look at each others genitals and disclose the sexual experiences they felt most guilty about while lying naked in a circle with their legs in the air.

As well as select groups of participants, Bindrim invited the press, and nude psychotherapy was featured in some of the world’s biggest publications. The Life magazine online archive has two photos from a feature on one of the events.

Psychology Today apparently featured nude therapy on its front page where a big breasted young woman was accompanied by the headline “The Quest for the Authentic Self” (which is a phrase I’ve noticed works great on almost any semi-pornographic picture, by the way).

Although the press generally took a snigger snigger approach to the proceedings, nude psychotherapy garnered a great deal of mainstream interest and headlined professional conferences and journals – even pushing Milgram’s famous ‘lost letter’ study to the back pages of American Psychologist.

It was subject to a professional ethics enquiry at one point, but because of all the nudity and free love already happening in 60s America, the committee couldn’t decide whether it violated the “the social codes and moral expectations of the community”. No serious action was taken and the attention helped raise the profile of the off-beat therapy.

Bindrim’s ego grew in proportion to the excitement and soon he was claiming nude psychotherapy could cure everything from suicidal tendencies to arthritis, before transforming it into ‘aqua energetics’ – a “theoretical framework that could address the totality of human experience”.

Although the Bindrim maintained a lively private practice, he faded into obscurity, and by the time he died he was remembered by a single snarky obituary in the LA Times.

I really can’t do justice to Ian Nicholson’s brilliant article on nude psychotherapy here, which is as well written as it is well researched. A fascinating insight into a forgotten (dare we say, repressed?) chapter of American psychology.

pdf of ‘Baring the Soul’.
Link to DOI entry for article.

Watch the skies

The BBC World Service has an excellent documentary that visits the SETI Institute, a project that is scanning for skies for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

The occasion is the 50th anniversary of the Drake equation, a mathematical formula that attempts to estimate the number of alien civilisations that exist in the universe.

On one hand, it’s quite charming (admittedly, in a slightly patronising way) to think of scientists earnestly looking for aliens from outer space, but on the other, it’s an interesting psychological problem that involves a guess about what other forms of intelligence might be like.

As artificial intelligence researchers will tell you, we tend to increasingly define intelligence to mean exactly and only what humans can do. When machines manage to equal a human cognitive ability, by playing chess for example, we just move the goal posts and suggest ‘real intelligence’ is whatever the computer can’t do yet – something called the AI effect.

The fact that the SETI project is looking for other ‘civilisations’ itself relies on assumptions that civilisation is a common result of intelligence. This raises the question of whether we would recognise alien intelligence if we met it. And perhaps, more importantly, would it recognise it in us?

The BBC documentary is an engaging look at the motivations and assumptions behind the SETI project as well as how they are implemented in the day-to-day running of the search.

However, because the BBC has yet to fully come to grips with intraterrestrial intelligence, the programme stream and podcast will disappear in a few weeks, so be quick.

Link to documentary on SETI and alien intelligence.

Towards an operating system for brain hacking

Electronic devices that interface directly with the brain are now being produced by labs around the world but each new device tends to work in a completely different way. An article in Technology Review argues that we need an agreed neural operating system so brain-machine interfaces can more easily work together.

Although current devices tend only to measure brain activity or stimulate cortical areas, it won’t be very long before devices typically do both – detecting and reacting to neural states – possibly forming a dynamic network of electronic devices that regulate brain activity.

To avoid the ‘Mac vs PC problem of the brain’, neuroscientist Ed Boyden highlights the importance of having devices that speak a common language to avoid both wasted scientific effort and potentially dangerous miscommunication.

Some examples of this kind of “brain coprocessor” technology are under active development, such as systems that perturb the epileptic brain when a seizure is electrically observed, and prosthetics for amputees that record nerves to control artificial limbs and stimulate nerves to provide sensory feedback. Looking down the line, such system architectures might be capable of very advanced functions–providing just-in-time information to the brain of a patient with dementia to augment cognition, or sculpting the risk-taking profile of an addiction patient in the presence of stimuli that prompt cravings.

Given the ever-increasing number of brain readout and control technologies available, a generalized brain coprocessor architecture could be enabled by defining common interfaces governing how component technologies talk to one another, as well as an “operating system” that defines how the overall system works as a unified whole–analogous to the way personal computers govern the interaction of their component hard drives, memories, processors, and displays.

Although not mentioned in the article, another advantage of a common platform for brain devices would be security, as current devices as often completely open and designed to be easily controllable from the outside.

Link to TechReview article on ‘Brain Coprocessors’.

Rare footage of physical treatments in psychiatry, 1957

I’ve just found a remarkable documentary on YouTube from a 1957 BBC series called ‘The Hurt Mind’. The programme attempts to de-stigmatise mental health for the public but also documents some of the most controversial treatments in the history of psychiatry.

The programme was an edition of a then pioneering five-part BBC series on mental health and this was the episode that specifically dealt with ‘physical treatments’ – that is, treatments which directly affect the brain, such as ECT, leucotomy, insulin coma therapy and abreaction.

This was before the days when pills were widely used in psychiatry – there were no antidepressants, antipsychotics or mood stabilisers and the only tranquilisers were heavyweight barbiturates, as benzodiazapines had yet to become available.

The psychiatrists on the programme are not named, but if I’m not mistaken, the main interviewee is William Sargant, who has a bit of sinister reputation for his enthusiasm for brain altering treatments, his interest in ‘brain washing’, and rumours he was funded by the CIA – as we’ve discussed previously.

Sargant literally wrote the book on physical treatments (titled An Introduction to Physical Methods of Treatment in Psychiatry) and the programme presents them in the most biased possible light, in line with Sargant’s enthusiasms, by dismissing side-effects and selectively presenting single cases of recovered happy patients.

For those more familiar with the frontal lobotomy – popularised by American surgeon Walter Freeman, which involved hammering an ice pick under the orbits of the eyes – you’ll notice that the British version of the operation, the leucotomy, was substantially different in its approach and involved drilling small holes in the skull.

The programme also depicts abreaction, where a patient with a post-traumatic condition is given a drug – often barbiturate, or, in this case, ether – and encouraged to talk about the difficult event.

The procedure was based on the Freudian notion that emotional pain can be repressed and can ‘build up’ and cause difficulties in other areas – although a drug can be used to help break down the defences and releases the emotion in a healthy catharsis.

I suspect that the Billy Bunter-like psychiatrist who discusses and demonstrates abreaction is Eliot Slater, although I have no idea of the identity of the bespectacled doctor who discusses leucotomy (do leave a comment if you know).

The programme is classic post-war BBC: chaps with posh accents talk to cor blimey guv’ner commoners, and there are plenty uncomfortable pauses and a shaky set. As a piece of history, though, it is fascinating.

It also turns out that BBC and the Maudsley Hospital attempted to see how effective the programme was in educating the public and published a brief article in the British Medical Journal which analysed the sorts of letters that got sent in by viewers.

Interestingly, William Sargant wrote to the publication saying that he was a medical adviser to the series and had “on rare occasions appeared anonymously on such programmes” and defended how even-handed it was.

Regardless of your interest in the characters, however, the video is a rare insight into how these treatments were actually carried out.

Parts one, two, three and four of ‘The Hurt Mind’ on physical treatments.
Link to details of the series from the British Film Institute.
Link to good Wikipedia page on William Sargant.