Treating the most dangerous

If you only listen to one podcast this week, make it this one.

The BBC World Service Exchanges at the Frontier has a compelling discussion with Gwen Adshead, a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist at the high security Broadmoor Hospital, who discusses on working with some of the most dangerous psychiatric patients in the country.

I was left both moved and inspired by the programme as Adshead discusses the humanity in caring for those who may have committed some of the most dreadful crimes and how one works to rehabilitate those many people would consider ‘evil’.

The discussion doesn’t shy away from tackling the hard questions of forensic psychiatry, scientific and ethical, and you’ll find no better introduction to the sharp end of dealing with people may be both patient and prisoner.

There’s also an extended hour long version of the programme that you can stream online.

Humane. Challenging. Revealing. Enlightening. Genuinely unmissable.

mp3 of podcast.
Link to programme page.
Link to page with streamed hour-long extended version.

2010-11-19 Spike activity

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

The now expanded megalist of ‘Psychologists on Twitter’ is going strong over at The BPS Research Digest.

New Scientist has a special section that collects coverage from the recent Society for Neuroscience annual megaconference. From orgasms to virtual reality.

The debate over the earliest use of tools by humans has become all scowls and flying handbags. Not Exactly Rocket Science has brilliant coverage of the heated debate.

Discover Magazine covers a technical but fascinating phenomenon called the ‘psychological refractory period’ – sort of like your brain’s recovery zone – and what it tells us about how your brain manages cognitive load.

There’s a really fantastic piece on the neuroscience of time perception over at io9.

The New York Times on covers how children as young as 3 are less likely to help a person after they have seen them harm someone else – suggesting an early development of the ability to understand intention.

This may be one of the most enraging pieces you read all week. OpenMedicine covers how AstraZeneca buried negative findings on its antipsychotic drug Seroquel. Taken from company emails that came to light in a recent court case.

Time covers a fascinating study on stoners, stereotype threat and the cognitive impact of marijuana.

A Swedish girl developed all the major symptoms of autism at 14, following a viral infection. Another wonderful post from Neuroskeptic covers the case.

Discovery News has a piece on how some ancient Peruvian temples may have been designed with acoustics designed to interact with mind-altering drugs.

Mental illness suspected in ‘fairy abduction’. Another curious case covered by the wonderful Providentia blog.

The Guardian has a great piece on the latest development in optogenetics – light control of neurons – hot from SfN.

Neurowriter Jonah Lehrer is one of Salon’s sexiest men of 2010 (aftershave coming soon). I suspect because of this brilliant analysis of the recent ‘precognition’ study.

The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the psychological strain of art school and why it has specific mental health needs.

There was lots of misleading coverage of the genuinely interesting ‘Tetris and trauma’ study. The Neurocritic discusses what was actually done.

Is a roller coaster and a Red Bull a smart first date? asks Barking Up the Wrong Tree. I didn’t know there was any other type to be honest.

All in the Mind from ABC Radio National had a good discussion from two authors from recent ‘brain gender myth’ books.

Does money matter when raising children? More from the ever-fascinating Evidence Based Mummy.

The Economist has a fantastic piece on the ‘uncanny valley’ of robot eeriness.

The Phenomenology of Being a Jerk. A deadpan but genuine attempt to discusses the phenomenon over at The Splintered Mind.

Wired Science covers a fascinating network analysis of the economic entities in the run up to the 2008 crash.

There’s a fantastic piece on the Changizi Blog on the philosophy behind scientific inference.

CNET News says that the human brain has more switches than all computers on Earth. I would like to add that the interfaces are also much better.

The history of photography in the study of madness. Wonderfully illustrated post from Academitron.

The New York Times has an in-depth article on the high-fat ketogenic diet which has been proved to help control epilepsy.

I’ve just been really digging the h-madness history of psychiatry blog recently. Great stuff.

RadioLab has audio from a recent talk on whether technology can be thought of as an active component in evolution. A more subtle idea that I first assumed.

The bright side of the “depression-risk gene”. David Dobbs is developing an important and innovative view of psychiatric genetics, this is a great example from his Neuron Culture blog.

I can’t hold it any longer

Sometimes, medical case studies tell as much of a story by what they omit as by what they include. This sentence, from a recent case study published in the Canadian Journal of Urology, is one such example:

To complete the therapeutic approach, we focused also on the possible psychiatric implications of the self insertion of a foreign body into the urethra, and the initial evaluation reached the diagnosis of depression.

You may not be aware, but there are hundreds of cases in the medical literature of people ending up in hospital after putting objects in their cock or mimsy.

Allen key? Done. Pencil? Yes ma’am. Telephone cable? Hold the line. Plastic cup? At your service.

As far as I can tell, the matter has not been systematically studied, although hospital admissions seem to be most commonly linked to sex games that, excuse the pun, have got out of hand, or, are the unfortunate results of mental illness.

One interesting case from last year was reported in a chimpanzee. Do mention that next time you bump into an evolutionary psychologist. It should keep them busy for a while.

Link to PubMed entry for case study.

Surgery beyond your wildest dreams

I’ve just read a fascinating 2009 study on dreaming during anaesthesia that looks at how different drugs can alter our unconscious reveries during surgery.

One section was on ‘near-miss awareness’ where dreams incorporate the outside reality of the hospital because the patient is on the threshold of consciousness.

This is the wonderful list of these dreams from the study where the patients report strangley surgical fantasies.

“She dreamt that she wanted to argue but could not because there was something in her mouth stopping her talking.”

“A patient dreamed that he was at a fairground and someone was throwing darts at his stomach. The patient was undergoing a gastro-enterostomy and vagotomy.”

“A patient undergoing a uterovaginal prolapse repair dreamed of a dragging feeling around her perineum and of having a baby”.

“A patient had an unpleasant dream in which he was accused of being under the influence of narcotic drugs.”

“A patient dreamed of a party in a public house in which there was a generous supply of gin and the anaesthetist was the landlord.”

“(A patient) dreamt about a fish in a tank and seaweed surrounding her. Splashing around and the colour blue.” (The theatre staff were talking about fishing).

“One patient dreamt about aliens and thought aliens had taken over the operation” (Theatre staff had had a conversation about aliens during surgery).

“I dreamt that I heard your (the researcher’s) voice which made me feel very relaxed but I don’t remember what you said.” This patient was played an audiotape of a story during anaesthesia.


Link to DOI entry and summary for locked study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

The forest of hope and despair

VBS.TV has a short poignant documentary on the Aokigahara forest in Japan, which has become one of the world’s most popular locations for people to commit suicide.

The film is from the perspective of the warden who discusses why people are drawn to the forest and how people spend some of their most difficult moments.

The popularity of the location has been attributed to a best-selling novel in which two people end their lives there and the fact it was featured in the controversial Japanese book The Complete Manual of Suicide.

The 20 minute documentary is by no means gratuitous although does have a few difficult scenes. Mainly though, it is one man’s philosophical reflections on the beautiful but troubled environment that ultimately ends on a note of hope and optimism.

An understated but quietly powerful film.

Link to streamed documentary on Aokigahara.

I’ve got a certificate in armchair psychology

The Guardian’s Lay Scientist blog has an excellent piece on the misguided and intrusive habit of getting psychologists to comment on the mental state of people in the public eye.

Although the media must take some responsibility for encouraging such crass and unhelpful speculation the responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the psychologists and pseudo-psychologists who are happy to waffle for their fifteen minutes of fame.

There are two possibilities for a psychologist talking to the media about somebody’s mental health. Either they have treated the subject in a professional capacity, in which case the details should be confidential, or they haven’t, in which case they aren’t qualified to comment….

But forget about my opinions – if you’ll excuse me quoting myself, let’s go back to what the British Psychological Society told me about their guidance last year in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death:

“A guiding principle of the British Psychological Society (BPS), echoed by psychologists I have spoken to, is that professionals should not comment publicly on the mental health of celebrities….”

In spite of guidelines like these, we’re fed a diet of pop psych speculation based on second- or third-hand media reports, dressed up as meaningful analysis through the presence of a media-friendly expert.

It’s true to say that a lot of this opinion parading as professional insight comes from people who are self-appointed ‘body language analysts’ or have simply written a book about ‘relationships’ but it comes surprisingly often from legit psychologists.

But as Dr Petra has noted in the past, the guidelines are rarely enforced by professional associations and the immediate rewards in terms of further media work are a big encouraging factor.

Link to The Lay Scientist on celebrity pop psych waffle.

An illusory tribute

Richard Gregory was a much loved and hugely influential perceptual psychologist who passed away earlier this year.

Tom just alerted me to a wonderfully appropriate visual palindrome on his page of remembrance where his name reads perfectly well when either the ‘right way up’ on when ‘turned on its head’.

If you can’t see it or don’t believe it, go to the site and click the corner to see the image rotate.

A small but charming tribute to a man who used visual illusions to demystify perception.

Link to Richard Gregory tribute site.

The Ancient Egyptian mummy as a drug

I’ve just found an amazing 1927 article from the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine about the long history of using Egyptian mummies as drugs.

The fact that powdered embalmed corpse from Ancient Egypt has never been shown to have any curative or mind altering properties hasn’t prevented an enthusiasm for the substance which has lasted many thousands of years.

Avicenna (980-1037) describes mumia as useful for a variety of purposes, including abscesses, eruptions, fractures, concussions, paralysis, affections of the throat, lungs and heart, debility of the stomach, disorders of the liver and spleen, and as an antidote for poisons. As a drug, however, he never prescribes it alone, but always mixed with some herb, or in some convenient vehicle, such as wine, milk, butter, or oil.

The demand for mummies as drugs apparently reached such heights that it inspired mass grave robbing and eventually fraud as traders decided it was more profitable to kill slaves, stuff them with bitumen and dry their bodies in the sun. The flesh was fraudulently sold as genuine ancient mummy.

The medicine is mentioned everywhere from apothecary books to Shakespeare and seems to have been thought beneficial well into the 18th century.

Link to article ‘Mummy as a Drug’.

Voices amid the static

Dear Mind Hacks readers, I’m wondering if you can help me track down the source of stories I’ve heard about people hearing illusory voices amid the static in the early days of radio.

A 2004 BBC Radio 4 documentary on ghostly voices captured on recording equipment called ‘Speak Spirit Speak’ started with a story about Swedish radio operatives during World War II who diligently tracked Nazi radio transmissions – only to discover afterwards that the area they were monitoring never contained any enemy forces.

Despite my attempts to find out more I’ve not been able to discover any other account of this curious incident.

I’ve also heard lots of second-hand stories about people tuning in to what seemed to be feint transmissions in the early days of ham radio only to discover that they were misinterpreting the hiss and whistle of the interference as voices.

However, I’ve not found any other mention of this phenomenon either.

So, do any Mind Hacks readers know where either of these or similar incidents have been documented before?

There have been several similar stories of people hearing what they thought were voices of spirits on electronic equipment (a phenomenon as ‘electronic voice phenomena’ or EVP) and I’m wondering if there have been any documented examples that are less rooted in beliefs about the beyond.

2010-11-12 Spike activity

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

Nature has put all of their schizophrenia special issue articles, features and podcast in one handy accessible page.

There’s an extensive list of psychologists on Twitter over at The BPS Research Digest. Where else do you get to ask psychologists to free associate?

Slate has an excellent piece on why diagnoses of ‘child bipolar disorder’ are skyrocketing in the United States.

A history of cigarettes being edited out of famous photos for modern audiences. Addiction Inbox on tobacco-inspired history editing. Still hungry for, er… less? See the follow-up.

Science News on how minds wander 30 percent of the time during all activities except sex – when we lie back and think of England. God save the Queen.

Missed this last week: ‘What is psychopathology?’ A mini blog carnival hosted by The Thoughtful Animal hits the wires.

The New York Times reports on how the Chinese government are increasingly using psychiatric hospitals to silence dissidents.

The psychology of immersion in video games. An excellent post from the Psychology of Video Games blog covers who games achieve that little touch of the Matrix.

Wired looks back on how the world’s first lobotomy was performed 75 years ago today.

The next step in research showing how a visual-spatial puzzle like Tetris after emotional upset could prevent PTSD-like flashbacks is covered at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

BBC News has video on a robot actress who makes her debut in Japan – who I actually quite fancy until it moves. My eyes! My eyes!

Genes to brains to minds to… murder? The wonderful Neuroskeptic looks at some unusual claims made by a new case study.

BoingBoing has a copy of one of Elvis’s prescriptions. Note to dead Elvis: balanced medical care does not mean uppers and downers in equal proportions.

Want to prove a point about electrical activity in the scalp muscles being confused for brain activity? Why not use an Amazonian neurotoxin to paralyse yourself? Oscillatory Thoughts covers the amazing study.

Discover Magazine has a piece on an interesting theory that a virus may be causing some cases of schizophrenia.

Would you get a tattoo if it was offered free? Perhaps after downing a few beers. Irrationally Yours discusses a curious instant study on a strange promotional offer.

Analysis, the BBC Radio 4 documentary programme, discusses a new UK scheme to rehabilitate offenders funded by bonds. Essentially, you get make money on your investment if re-offending is cut – like betting on social interventions.

A new evidence-based approach to radically re-understanding mental illness from the ground up is covered by an excellent piece at The Neurocritic.

The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses art school and mental health.

Literacy may have stolen brain power from other functions, says Ars Technica. In my case, my sense of style.

All in the Mind, the Aussie one that is, had a brilliant programme on a modular approach to understanding the development of the mind.

Balanced arguments are more persuasive. PsyBlog covers research on how too much rhetorical bias turns us off.

A hazy memory of the happiness disorder

The ex-chief executive of the British Medical Journal has an amusing blog post where he notes how a Phillip Roth novel Sabbath’s Theater brilliantly ‘mimics’ a BMJ Group article on how happiness is a disease, seemingly unaware that his journal genuinely published the article in question.

At one point in the book Mickey is visiting his alcoholic wife in a clinic and after betting on the blood pressure of various patients he encounters a young woman with “a scar on her wrist” who has been in the library of the clinic reading medical journals. She reports “word for word” on what she has read in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

I was stopped short when I read this—because the Journal of Medical Ethics is published by the BMJ Group, and I was responsible for it when I was the chief executive of the group. For a moment I wondered if the piece was really from the Journal of Medical Ethics

Roth mimics well the stilted prose of medical journals with their heavy emphasis on the passive voice. He also mimics the science that leads to problems becoming diseases. The “relevant literature” has been reviewed. This made me think immediately of Stephen Lock, my predecessor as editor of the BMJ, who always struck out “medical literature” and substituted “published reports.” “This stuff is not literature” he used to protest.

In fact, the article was genuinely published in the Journal of Medical Ethics and is titled ‘A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder’.

It was written by British psychologist Richard Bentall who, although was clearly having some fun, was also making a serious point about the criteria we use to define mental illness.

Bentall is a long-time psychosis researcher and at the time it was not widely acknowledged that it was possible to have experiences common in diagnoses like schizophrenia, such as hearing voices, without any distress or impairment.

This is why he focuses on the statistical abnormality of the happiness state, its possible neurobiological underpinnings and it cognitive effects, often (over)used to justify why a condition is a ‘real disorder’, and then finishes with “One possible objection to this proposal remains – that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant.”

At the time, the satire was widely missed by the British press who ran lots of ‘barmy boffin’ type stories with headlines lines like “Top Doc Talks Through Hat”.

Despite its history of being misunderstood and misremembered, it remains a cutting critique of psychiatric classification and is well worth a read.

Link to blog post on Roth’s novel.
Link to full text of article (click PDF link) on happiness as mental disorder.

A psychological rift in the perception of war

BBC Radio 4’s Analysis programme has a fascinating edition on how the public’s psychological perception of war is changing and how this is having an effect on the armed forces.

It’s drawn from a UK perspective and its bookended by a bit of political stuff but the main part is full of interesting observations on how our understanding of acceptable soldiering is changing.

For example, medals for bravery are increasingly given for soldiers who rescue their wounded comrades under fire, rather than for killing the enemy as they used to be, despite the fact that killing the enemy remains a necessary part of a soldier’s job.

The core point of the programme is to explore the how the public and the military view of conflict is diverging and what effect this has on the operations of the armed forces.

Difficulties in adjusting back to civilian life are known to contribute to mental health problems in soldiers and I wondered how much the growing sense of ‘not being understood’ contributes to this but could find no research which directly tackled the issue.

Link to Analysis ‘Defence: no stomach for the fight?’
mp3 of podcast of the programme.
Link to text of script.


I think I may have found the only psychological analysis ever written on the scent of semen. The discussion is from a book called The Smell Culture Reader and it starts with a memorable anecdote about Oscar Wilde whacking off in jail.

I realise none of you are actually reading any more, because you’ve all clicked on the above link and will never get to see the rest of this text.

La la la la la.


I’m on the moon!

Link to analysis of the ‘Odor of Semen’.

Sliding into psychosis

This week’s edition of Nature is a special issue on schizophrenia and it includes an open-access feature article on the neuroscience of why the disorder only tends to appear in young-adulthood.

One of the themes to come out of the piece is how symptoms of schizophrenia, like delusions and hallucinations, lie on a continuum – the idea being that we all have reality distortions to varying degrees and that these distortions themselves may vary in intensity.

In about a third of people, these will intensify into florid psychosis and a diagnosis of schizophrenia, but for others, the experiences seem self-limiting.

One of the big questions in schizophrenia research is to understand what happens in the mind and brain during this transition and, of course, if possible, to prevent it by early treatment.

This has sparked a great deal of heated debate because up to two thirds of ‘at risk’ people will never develop schizophrenia anyway, and yet might be unnecessarily labeled and medicated.

It’s probably worth noting that the idea of a ‘continuum of psychotic symptoms’ is popular but also still not very well defined, as a locked editorial in the latest issue of Psychological Medicine makes clear.

It’s possible to see a sliding scale in the intensity of experiences, how often they occur, and the emotional impact they have, among many other things, but its not clear how you would go about disproving a continuum in many cases.

The Nature article is a remarkably broad look at the whirlwind of issues surrounding how schizophrenia develops and tackles the issue from the basic neuroscience to the ethics of early treatment.

There’s loads more great stuff on schizophrenia in the same issue, sadly most of it locked out of the internet, but if you want more neuroscience, there is another open-access article on the contentious issue of whether the brain’s glial cells communicate.

Link to article ‘Schizophrenia: The making of a troubled mind’.
Link to article ‘Neuroscience: Settling the great glia debate’.
Link to table of contents for this issue.

Best of both worlds

I’ve just read an incredible article on conjoined twins Tatiana and Krista Hogan who have parts of the brain in common and may be sharing thoughts and perceptions.

Adding to the conundrum, of course, are their linked brains, and the mysterious hints of what passes between them. The family regularly sees evidence of it. The way their heads are joined, they have markedly different fields of view. One child will look at a toy or a cup. The other can reach across and grab it, even though her own eyes couldn’t possibly see its location.

“They share thoughts, too,” says Louise. “Nobody will be saying anything,” adds Simms, “and Tati will just pipe up and say, ‘Stop that!’ And she’ll smack her sister.” While their verbal development is delayed, it continues to get better. Their sentences are two or three words at most so far, and their enunciation is at first difficult to understand. Both the family, and researchers, anxiously await the children’s explanation for what they are experiencing.

It’s probably worth noting that while rare, Tatiana and Krista are by no means the only conjoined twins who share a brain.

Perhaps most famous are Lori and George Schappell. If you’re not aware of the Schappells, click the link as they have led amazing lives and would be inspiring individuals even if they were they not conjoined.

This makes me wonder why the issue of shared perceptions has never been tested before.

From a scientific point of view, these studies would be important because parents often swear that their child has ‘special abilities’ which mysteriously seem to vanish when formally tested – as any child psychologist will tell you.

But perhaps it’s simply the case that none of the twins have ever been keen to take part in studies on the effect of having a shared brain.

Link to Macleans article ‘A piece of their mind’.

An embedded journalist for neuroscience

I’ve just discovered a new blog called The Brain Detectives by the writer-in-residence at the Montreal Neurological Institute, who has the wonderful job of hanging around and writing-up the most interesting things she hears.

Although the writer, journalist Maria Schamis Turner, has just started, the project looks very promising.

I honestly think that more research institutes should have embedded journalists. Science writing would be greatly improved if the hacks had access to the scientific literature, while the lab rats would get an eloquent interface to the outside world.

If you want a feel for the dispatches coming from the Montreal Neurological Institute, the recent post on homicidal somnambulism (murder while sleepwalking) is great.

Link to The Brain Detectives.
Link to piece on homicidal somnambulism.