Psychosis keeps up with the times

Delusions in conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have tracked social concerns over the 20th century, according to a wonderful study just published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry.

Psychologists Brooke Cannon and Lorraine Kramer reviewed the patient records of a state psychiatric hospital in the US looking at each decade of the 20th Century in turn.

They recorded the content of the delusions for every patient with psychosis and while they didn’t find that the level of delusions changed, they did find that they tended to relate to the social concerns of the time.

…more patients after 1950 believe they are being spied upon is consistent with the development of related technology and the advent of the Cold War.

Delusional content tended to reflect the culture at the time, with focus on syphilis in the early 1900s, on Germans during World War II, on Communists during the Cold War, and on technology in recent years.

Indeed, delusions now are being reported relating to computers, the internet and computer games.

An earlier study that looked at hospital records from Slovenia found a similar pattern – with madness also reflecting developing social themes.

The researchers of this study noted that “After the spread of radio in the 1920s and television in the 1950s in Slovenia, there was an obvious increase in delusions of outside influence and control as well as delusions with technical themes.”

Link to PubMed entry for study on delusions in 20th Century US.
Link to PubMed entry for study on delusion in in 20th Century Slovenia.

Sonar Voices

Graham March was a drum n’ bass producer who created cutting edge tracks in a teched-up fast-paced version of breakbeat known as neurofunk. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and sadly took his own life in 2006, but a friend has created a wonderful tribute site that has all of his tunes online.

Often releasing tracks under the moniker Desimal, March was featured on numerous underground labels, but the website has all of his tunes online and freely downloadable, and there is some classic material there.

If you’re not into drum n’ bass you may find it difficult to get a handle on his work, but I was struck by this description of March’s experience of schizophrenia:

I always tried to get Graham to explain to me what it was like inside his head. This is what he told me: “It’s like, 200 hundred channels of Television all on at once and you can’t turn them off, nothing but unwanted noise and thoughts.”

It struck me because March’s sound is like the noise of 200 hundred channel of television focused and filtered into a rich layered stream of precision dance music.

Some of it is pretty dark, as much of the neurofunk genre is, but if you want a track with a more uplifting feel, I have been listening to ‘Neo Indignation’ (mp3) non-stop all morning.

Link to Graham March Tribute Site (thanks Ben!)
Link to mp3 downloads of all his tracks.

Slumber therapy

A delightful moment from a New York Magazine article where a guy who had four psychoanalysts in a row fall asleep on him goes back to each to find out why:

I ask him about falling asleep, and he says, cheerfully, “I have no memory of that whatsoever.” This is surprising, considering he passed out cold, I exited quietly, and we later spoke about it intensively. “What did I say?” he asks. That I had been locking him out with emotionally evasive speech. “What did you say?” he asks. That that was a bullshit answer. He pauses. He smiles. “Good for you.”

The piece is a little heavy on therapy talk but has some great observations of psychoanalytic culture. Oh, and the ending is wonderful.

Link to New York Magazine ‘The Sleeping Cure’.

Regrets, I’ve had a few (but not too few to mention)

The ‘Regrets of the Typical American’ have been analysed in a new study that not only looks at what US citizens regret most, but provides some clues for those wanting to know whether it is better to regret something you haven’t done, or regret something you have.

The research has just been published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science and was carried out by psychologists Mike Morrison and Neal Roese who used random dialling to call people and survey them about a troubling regret.

As blues singers have suggested for years, love tops the list (click for larger version):

Previous studies on regret have talked to college students who are probably not ideal for this sort of research as they tend to be quite young and, quite frankly, really haven’t fucked up enough to give a good idea of what the average person laments about their life.

This was the first study to survey a representative sample of all ages, incomes and education levels and although love topped the list, there were some interesting differences in the details.

Women, who tend to value social relationships more than men, have more regrets of love (romance, family) compared to men. Conversely, men were more likely to have work-related (career, education) regrets. Those who lack either higher education or a romantic relationship hold the most regrets in precisely these areas.

Americans with high levels of education had the most career-related regrets. Apparently, the more education obtained, the more acute may be the sensitivity to aspiration and fulfillment. Moreover, the youngest and least-educated people in our sample, who most likely possess the greatest capability of fixing their regrets, were indeed the most likely to provide fixable regrets.

The study also found that regrets about things you haven’t done were equally as common as regrets about things you have, no matter how old the person.

The difference between the two is often a psychological one, because we can frame the same regret either way – as regret about an action: ‘If only I had not dropped out of school’; or as a regret about an inaction: ‘If only I had stayed in school’.

Despite the fact that they are practically equivalent, regrets framed as laments about actions were more common and more intense than regrets about inactions, although inaction regrets tended to be longer lasting.

So the question of whether it is better to regret something you haven’t done than regret something you have, might actually be answerable for some people, but we still don’t know how much choice we have over adopting the different views of regrets or whether this is largely determined by the situation.

Link to summary of study ‘Regrets of the Typical American’.
Link to write-up on PhysOrg.

Suggesting altered states

The neuroscience of suggestion and hypnosis are helping us to understand mysterious disorders where people are blind or paralysed with no apparent medical explanation, and may be useful in investigating altered states from diverse cultures – according to an engaging discussion in the monthly JNNP podcast.

The JNNP is the slightly catchier name for The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry and let me ‘fess up and say the interview is with a colleague of mine, psychiatrist Quinton Deeley, who discusses our recent article on how cognitive neuroscience is providing tantalising evidence for an old theory on how hypnosis and hysteria might be linked.

Neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot believed that there may be a connection because he could simulate almost any aspect of hysteria through suggestion in susceptible individuals. Hysteria is now typically diagnosed as conversion disorder and its a condition where people appear to have neurological problems despite their nervous system seeming to be in perfect working order.

It turns out that the idea of hypnosis is a bit of a smokescreen because it depends much more on the person listening to the suggestions, than the person making the suggestions.

We now know that we all have a certain capacity to allow other people to suggest changes to our mental state. This differs between people and the ability is normally distributed, like many psychological traits, and we know its partly genetic and there’s evidence its linked to differences in brain structure.

Contrary to the popular myth, if you are experiences the effects of suggestion, your mind isn’t ‘under control’ and it’s much like watching a film. You can choose to turn away at any point but you don’t decide to be scared or amused by the movie – it just happens. Highly suggestible people can allow suggestions of paralysis, amnesia or even hallucinations.

I wrote more about the neuroscience of suggestion in an article for The Guardian but as happens with almost any piece about this area, it got given a daft headline and a ridiculous picture of someone swinging a watch. However, it remains a good place to start if you want an introduction to the science, rather than the myths.

Our recent research looked at neuroscience studies on both ‘hysteria’ and hypnosis and found there is intriguing evidence that both may involve the frontal cortex inhibiting other brain functions. For example, in cases of both ‘hysterical paralysis’ and suggested paralysis you can often see the motor areas of the brain being deactivated as the frontal cortex ramps up its activity when the person tries to move.

Quinton has a long-standing interest in anthropology and another line of this work is to look at whether this has links with ritual trance states or altered states of consciousness that happen in cultures across the world where people feel that they are making involuntary movements or feel they are not in control of their actions – even when drugs are not being used.

The discussion on the podcast touches on all these areas, and you can download the whole thing with the other half on multiple sclerosis and Vitamin D, or grab the mp3 with just the bit on suggestion, hysteria and altered states.

Link to March JNNP podcast page.
mp3 of just the suggestion, hysteria and altered states discussion.
Link to full scientific paper.
Link to Guardian article on the neuroscience of suggestion and hypnosis.

A symphony of synapses

Those autotune-friendly science remix chaps Symphony of Science have just released a new track called ‘Ode to the Brain!’ about our favourite piece of pinkish grey sludge.

As well as being a decent track, it is also a piece of useful recycling as it incorporates several of the dodgiest bits of popular neuroscience into a nicely mixed video.

Jill Bolte Taylor’s over-the-top spiritual brain talk for TED, Carl Sagan explaining the not very helpful idea of the reptile brain, Oliver Sack’s rare dodgy moment for TED, Bill Nye the Science Guy explaining how the brain is like a newspaper, and virtually anything said about the brain by Robert Winston.

However, it does include excerpts of a TED talk by V.S. Ramachandran, which unlike his other one about mirror neurons shaping civilization, is actually bloody brilliant.

I await the dub remix with some old skool Wilder Penfield footage to give it a retro vibe.

Link to Symphony of Science ‘Ode to the Brain!’

Bollocks to it

Teenagers love to swear. Says who? Says science you melon farmers. And what could be better than a top ten of teenage swearing compiled by science wielding psycholinguists? A US – UK show down. Let the cursing commence.

The book Trends in Teenage Talk: Corpus Compilation, Analysis and Findings was written to summarise the findings of research on the word use of teenagers in London.

In Chapter 4, on slang and swearing, the authors compare the frequency of swear words in London teens to the same from an earlier study in East Coast American adolescents.

First the Londoners:

And now on to the East Coast Americans:

I would first like to express my disappointment that the word bollocks is being neglected by UK teenagers.

Unfortunately, a decline in social standards and a lack of respect for tradition is leading to a generation of fucking obsessed adolescents.

Indeed, one of the great pleasures of this eminently British tradition is the low level of recognition among Americans, meaning bollocks can be used openly in the States without causing offence.

However, the small sample size of the American data means it may not be the most reliable guide to the true population ranking.

I note, for example, that there are only 27 bitches and 24 asses which may mean that the true bitch – ass prevalence is being obscured by random variation in the sample.

Link to Trends in Teenage Talk on Google Books.

2011-03-19 Spike activity

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

The Boston Globe has a fascinating piece on the psychological benefits of solitude. “What we do better without other people around.” No smirking now.

The colour of depression. Neuroskeptic investigates its association with the colours black and blue.

The New York Times has an obituary for Owsley Stanley – one of the most prolific and discerning producers of LSD the world has ever seen.

Can people tell whether abstract art is by a child or a chimp? Not Exactly Rocket Science has the surprising answer.

Science News has a piece on the latest developments in the science of wiring computer chips with nerve cells. I think we’re at the dodgy 16k RAM pack stage.

There’s an excellent interview on addiction and substance use with ex-addict and writer James Brown over at Addiction Inbox.

Slate has an great piece on why it could be counter-productive to start fact-based education too early by developmental psychologist Alison Gopnick.

V.S. Ramachandran is challenged about his mirror neurons and autism theory and gets a bit crotchety in an interview with Neurophilosophy.

NeuroPod hits the wires with a new edition on gender and PTSD, prion disease and pain.

How to Build Hallucinogenic Goggles. We Alone On Earth has the plans.

Wired Science covers a study finding that robot nurses are less weird when they don’t talk. Robot nurse bed baths yet to be studied.

There’s a wonderful piece on one of the most influential books in the history of psychiatry, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, over at Providentia.

The Guardian reports on the US military’s new social-media-centred PsyOps and propaganda campaign. Think weaponised RickRolls.

The psychology of homework. A new field dawns and the sunrise is captured by The BPS Research Digest.

Science News covers a study finding that stock traders can stay in the black just by following the crowd.

Heavier men get paid more, heavier women get paid less. The BPS Occupational Digest on the weight salary link.

The New York Times has a brief but informative piece on the biological basis of left-handedness.

A fascinating piece on the amplifying effect of cities – except for their effect on pro-social behaviour – over at The Frontal Cortex.

Court in the cross-fire

There are not enough quality forensic psychology blogs in the world, which I suspect is not a thought that passes through the mind of anyone except Mind Hacks readers.

However, if you’re after a punchy fast paced look at the world of criminal and legal psychology you’d do far worse than checking out the website of psyDoctor8.

It dips into everything from the neuroscience of murder to the science of false confessions with an eye on both the media and the academic literature.

And if you do Twitter @PsyDoctor8 is also a great source of links in the same vein.

It makes a wonderful complement to the more in-depth In the News blog, which has consistently been one of the best forensic psychology sources on the net.

And that’s about it. Criminal really.

Yes your honour, I’ll stop with the puns.

Link to psyDoctor8 blog.
Link to In the News blog.

The brain behind the lion heart

I’ve just read a completely fascinating New York Times article on the neuropsychology of courage – a core human attribute that curiously seems to be largely ignored by cognitive science.

The piece looks at how we define courage, it’s relation to fear and the sometimes wonderfully innovative research that has tackled the area.

In pioneering work from 1970s and beyond, Stanley J. Rachman of the University of British Columbia and others studied the physiology and behavior of paratroopers as they prepared for their first parachute jump.

The work revealed three basic groups: the preternaturally fearless, who displayed scant signs of the racing heart, sweaty palms, spike in blood pressure and other fight-or-flight responses associated with ordinary fear, and who jumped without hesitation; the handwringers, whose powerful fear response at the critical moment kept them from jumping; and finally, the ones who reacted physiologically like the handwringers but who acted like the fearless leapers, and, down the hatch.

These last Dr. Rachman deemed courageous, defining courage as “behavioral approach in spite of the experience of fear.” By that expansive definition, courage becomes democratized and demilitarized, the property of any wallflower who manages to give the convention speech, or the math phobe who decides to take calculus.

It is also a wonderfully written article, by the way, so well worth making the leap for.

Link to NYT article ‘Searching for the Source of a Fountain of Courage’.

To catch a thief and fool a scientist

If you only listen to one radio programme this month, make it this one. The BBC Radio 4 programme Fingerprints on Trial explores how identifying people at crime scenes by their prints is subject to serious psychological biases and is not the exact science that we, and ironically, the forensic fingerprint community, like to believe.

It covers some spectacular high-profile cases, the science behind how prior knowledge can bias the supposedly objective identification of prints, and the baffling fingers-in-the-ears lalalala response of some fingerprint experts who just completely deny it’s a problem.

The programme riffs on the work of psychologist Itel Dror who has shown that changing the ‘backstory’ to a case can alter what fingerprint matches experts find.

So here’s how these biases could work in practice. Fingerprint examiners in this country [the UK] generally know the type of crime their working on. Any murder is high profile, so the chances are they’d know quite a bit about the case. They might see crime scene photographs and might even have heard snippets from detectives working on the case. And then when they start to check the fingerprints from the murder scene, evidence from cognitive psychology shows that what they know, or think they know, can influence what they then see in the prints.

Combines gripping sad-but-true whodunits, cutting edge cognitive science and a pressing issues for forensic science.

Excellent stuff.

Link to BBC streamed version and programme info.
mp3 of podcast from BBC.

The myths of ‘post-disaster counselling’

After almost any large scale disaster, you’ll hear reports that rescue workers, supplies and counsellors are being sent to the area – as if mental health professionals were as vital as food and shelter.

Time has an excellent interview with psychologist Scott Lilienfeld on how our ideas about ‘post-disaster counselling’ are rapidly moving away from the ‘everyone needs to talk’ cliché due to a better understanding of mental health and resilience in the face of tragedy.

Although everyone might be shaken up after a disaster, the vast majority – between about 70% and 80% – will not have mental health problems and will not need the help of psychologists or psychiatrists.

It was initially thought that legions of counsellors were needed to work with everyone affected by the devastation to give sessions of ‘critical incident stress debriefings’ – where people are asked to describe everything that happened to them and vent their emotions – supposedly to help prevent problems developing in the long term.

Instead, studies suggested that this was at best useless and instead probably made mental disorders more likely – probably because it raises or extends the level of stress in already very stressed people.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most disaster victims are not that interested in exploring their emotions but want to get to a safe place, find out how there friends and family are, and solve immediate practical problems. This in itself tends to make people feel better.

Consequently, new strategies involve only working with people who specifically ask for help and – instead of getting people to ‘vent’ – the focus is on reducing emotional arousal, assuring physical safety and putting people in contact with loved ones.

This strategy is often known as psychological first aid and was specifically designed to avoid the debriefing approach.

Time interviewee Lilienfeld has been key in challenging the idea that ‘everyone needs counselling’ after tragic events and has been a leader in making our disaster response a lot more effective. Highly recommended.

Link to Time interview on post-disaster counselling.

Unweaving the weavers

The Guardian has an excellent ongoing series called ‘Untangling the Web’ that examines the social psychology of the internet and how it affects our lives.

Written by social psychologist Aleks Krotoski it’s looked at everything from what effect the internet has had on out sex lives to how it has affected hate campaigns.

Rarely predicable and always informative the series is well worth keeping an eye on, with the latest column on disability being particularly good.

Link to ‘Untangling the Web’.

Cognitive Transtormation

The picture is detail from a stunning picture called ‘Cognitive Transformation’ by artist Ben Tolman. Click to see the full version.

I just discovered Tolman’s website earlier today where you can see his wonderfully intricate and beautifully mind-bending images.

If you want some on your wall or shelf, he also has an online store.

Link to Ben Tolman’s website.

Relax, it’s just a reversible drug-induced coma

The New York Times has a fantastic interview with Emery Neal Brown, a neuroscientist and doctor who is trying to understand how anaesthesia works to better understand the brain and to build better drugs.

It’s a great interview because he address several of the common beliefs and myths about anaesthesia as well as the challenge of doing neuroscience on comatose people.

Q. Is anesthesia like a coma?

A. It’s a reversible drug-induced coma, to simplify. As with a coma that’s the result of a brain injury, the patient is unconscious, insensitive to pain, cannot move or remember. However, with anesthesia, once the drugs wear off, the coma wears off.

Q. Some years ago when I had an operation, I remember the anesthesiologist trying to soothe me by saying that she was going to put me “to sleep.” Was this right?

A. No. And I wish we’d refrain from saying that to patients. It’s inaccurate. It would be better if we explained exactly what the state of general anesthesia is and why it’s needed. Patients appreciate this intellectual honesty. Moreover, anesthesiologists should never say “put you to sleep” because it is exactly the expression used when speaking about euthanizing an animal!


Link to interview in New York Times.

From Both of Me to all 15 of You

While browsing through Flickr I just found this amazing signed photo that rocker Alice Cooper dedicated to his psychologist Eugene Landy.

If you click on the image for the full version you can see the photo in all its Cooper-esque glory. It’s dated 1976, which is apparently shortly before Cooper was hospitalised to treat his alcohol problems.

Even with an enlarged image the writing remains quite hard to read but according to this autograph auction page the text reads:

A b&w 8″ x 10″ photo inscribed “Eugene from Both of Me to all 15 of You” and signed “Alice Vincent Cooper” in black ink by the original shock rocker. the date “8-76” is printed above the inscription. “Eugene” refers to psychologist Eugene Landy, with whom Cooper was a patient in the 1970s. (Lundy also treated Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.)

To say Lundy ‘treated’ Brian Wilson is a bit like saying Napolean ‘toured’ Europe as he eventually lost his license after it was found out that he had taken over Wilson’s business affairs while supposedly working with him as a responsible clinician.

The situation lasted several years and has become a notorious episode in Wilson’s life.

Link to photo on Flickr.