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.