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.