Magic at the dawn of psychology

Some of the world’s best illusionists are now collaborating with cognitive scientists to better understand the mind and brain but this turns out to be old news. A brilliant article in The Psychologist charts the remarkably long history of magicians and psychologists working together to understand the human mind.

The piece is by psychologist and historian Peter Lamont, himself a stage magician of some repute, who looks back at how illusionists knowledge of mental engineering was in demand even in the earliest days of experimental psychology.

At the end of the 19th century, Hermann and Kellar were the two greatest conjurors in the world, though who was greatest depended upon whose publicity one believed. In the United States they competed over audiences and advertising space, and each considered the other his arch-rival. When Hermann died in 1896, Kellar was free to establish his reign and, aside from his notable achievements in the world of magic, he was almost certainly the inspiration for the Wizard of Oz. But before Kellar became the grand wizard, and shortly before Hermann’s death, the two great rivals agreed to compete in a quite different environment – the psychological laboratory.

In fact, December’s edition of The Psychologist is a special issue on the history of psychology with all the major articles open and available to all.

Link to article on magic and psychology.
Link to table of contents for December’s The Psychologist.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist. Sadly, I lost the magic years ago.

The boundaries of mental illness

Seed Magazine has an excellent piece on ‘redefining mental illness’ that discusses the limits of labelling mental disorders and whether we can understand disability purely in terms of the mind.

The piece captures the highlights from a recent online blog discussion on the topic and is inspired in part by the ongoing update to the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, the DSM-5, due to be released in May 2013.

One of the big changes to the manual is likely to be the introduction of dimensions, so instead of just having to decide whether “you have it or you don’t” psychiatrists will be able to rate symptoms on a sliding scale.

This has been inspired evidence that hallucination-like experiences or unlikely magical beliefs are not restricted to people with schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders, but are also present, albeit to varying degrees, in everyone.

This has led some to argue that we should abandon diagnoses for mental disorders as they’re just arbitrary cut-off points that have no scientific basis.

But if everyone has their own ‘unique dose’ of unusual experiences, like everyone has their ‘unique dose’ of typical daily anxiety, we should see a nice smooth curve when we measure it in the population. Some people have a little, some people have lots, and we should find everyone else in between.

It turns out, that this is not the case with hallucinations, delusions, reality distortions and unusual magical beliefs.

A recent over-arching meta-analysis of all the data from past research suggests that some people show a qualitative difference in the type of psychosis-like experiences they have – in other words, there is a natural break – but this doesn’t match up with who is likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Here are the authors in their own words:

The weight of evidence suggests there is a nonarbitrary boundary between those with and without schizophrenia. Certainly, the prevalence estimates of the psychometric risk categories indicate that this nonarbitrary boundary is well below the threshold for schizophrenia, capturing approximately 11% of the population.

In other words, there is not a smooth continuum between normality and schizophrenia. In fact, there seems to be clear difference in 11% of the population, but this happens in most cases in people who never become mentally ill.

Less than 1% of the population will qualify for a diagnosis of schizophrenia and only 3% for any type of psychotic disorder involving hallucinations and delusions.

That leaves 8% who have, perhaps what we could call ‘schizophrenia-like’ unusual experiences (as opposed to ‘regular’ unusual experiences), but who don’t ever seem to become disabled.

What this may mean is that defining mental disorders like schizophrenia largely on the basis of certain experiences may be missing the point, because they don’t in themselves cause a problem for most people.

But what this also means, is that the diagnostic manuals will remain very rough guesses until the publishers decided to draw their diagnoses from science, rather than doing science to try and justify their diagnoses.

Link to Seed on ‘Redefining Mental Illness’.
Link to ‘What is Mental Illness’ blog carnival.
Link to PubMed entry for meta-analysis of psychosis-like experiences.

A misperceptive critic

It’s not often that hallucinations indulge in media criticism, but this case of Charles Bonnet syndrome recently published in the journal Optometry is a delightful exception.

Everyone, it seems, is a critic, including perceptual distortions generated by, in this case, macular degeneration.

A 79-year-old man presented to the clinic with intermittent hallucinations of 6 months’ duration before this visit. He reported it occurred mostly in the evening, when he saw visions of road maps, Christmas wreaths, and faces that blocked his television screen. The faces were not of people known to him and often had elaborate hats or headdresses. When he rode in a car, he often saw houses that he knew were not truly present, and when he watched his favorite celebrity television dancing show, he saw multiple dancers rather than the 2 actually dancing. He was not disturbed or frightened by these hallucinations; he knew that they were not real. On the contrary, he felt they were amusing and reported they were often more entertaining than what was actually on television.


Link to PubMed entry for case report.
Link to DOI entry for same.

Mental air

A poem by the great Irish writer William Butler Yeats on the difficulties of getting the balloon of the mind into its narrow shed.

No, I’m not really sure what it’s about either, but I wonder if that’s the point.

The Balloon Of The Mind
by William Butler Yeats

Hands, do what you’re bid:
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.

The cutting edge of a splitting headache

ABC Radio National’s Life Matters has a programme that’s full of fascinating snippets about the cutting edge of headache science.

It’s hardly the sort of material you’ll be charming your next date with, but there are so many ‘I never knew that’ moments that it’s definitely worth catching if you have an interest in the research or treatment of a pounding head.

For example, the programme reviews how Botox is being used to treat migraine, the introduction of a completely new class of headache drugs – the CGRP receptor antagonists, and how drug companies are marketing special body part specific medications for increased profit – despite the fact they all contain identical active ingredients.

It also covers how the added codeine in standard headache pills probably does nothing and why psychological treatment can be an effective way of treating even long-term persistent headache when drugs can seem to do no further good.

Lots more eye-opening facts and a plenty of discussion tightly packed into a 20 minute show.

Link to Life Matters on ‘Headaches: what’s new?’

Walk this sway

NPR has a fascinating segment about how humans can’t walk in a straight line unless we have an external guide. We just end up walking in circles.

It turns out, no one is really sure why this happens but experiments on walkers, drivers and swimmers have all found the tendency to circle back on ourselves despite us thinking that we’re maintaining a steady course ahead.

The NPR piece is both a short radio discussion and an animation so make you catch both as it’s a minor but utterly fascinating mystery.

So why, when blindfolded, can’t we walk straight? There is still no good answer. Jan Souman, a research scientist in Germany, co-wrote a paper last year about this human tendency to walk in circles…

In our radio broadcast, Jan and I explore possible explanations for this tendency to slip into turns. Maybe, I suggest, this is a form of left or right handedness where one side dominates the other? Or maybe this is a reflection of our left and right brains spitting out different levels of dopamine? Or maybe it’s stupidly simple: Most of us have slightly different sized legs or slightly stronger appendages on one side and this little difference, over enough steps, mounts up?

Wrong, wrong and wrong, Jan says. He’s tested all three propositions (the radio story describes the details) and didn’t get the predicted results.


Link to NPR on ‘Why Can’t We Walk Straight?’ (via @JadAbumrad).

Soviet psychiatry, the poster series

English Russia has a gallery of unsettling psychiatric hospital posters from Soviet Russia.

Sadly, my Russian is not quite as good as it should be but they seem to be a mix of flowchart style information telling staff how to deal with clinical situations and information about different sorts of disorders.

Needless to say, the bleak photos and unsettling graphics don’t make for the cheeriest combination but they are certainly an interesting insight into a small part of psychiatry from an earlier Russia.

Link to English Russia gallery of Soviet psychiatry posters.