Ketamine – biography of a space agent

Ketamine is both a powerful hallucinogenic drug and an effective anaesthetic that can create striking out-of-body experiences.

The history of ‘Taming the Ketamine Tiger’ is recounted by the doctor who has been most involved in researching and understanding the curious compound in an open-access article published in Anesthesiology.

The author is the wonderfully named Edward Domino who was one of the first people to study both the pain killing and mind bending effects of ketamine.

His article recounts the history of the compound from its discovery, to its use in surgery, to its deployment in the Vietnam war and its championing by the consciousness exploring counter-culture.

The paper is written for fellow pharmacologists and so has some fairly technical parts (the section ‘Ketamine Pharmacology’ is probably best skipped if you’re not into the gritty details of how it affects the body and brain) but also has some wonderful personal recollections and anecdotes from the drug’s history.

About 1978, the prominent physician, researcher, and mystic John C. Lilly, M.D. (1915–2001), self-administered ketamine to induce an altered state of consciousness. He summarized his many unique experiences as “a peeping Tom at the keyhole of eternity.” These included sensory deprivation while submerged in a water tank, communication with dolphins, and seduction by repeated ketamine use.

In 1978, Moore and Alltounian reported on their personal ketamine use. Marcia Moore was a celebrated yoga teacher, Howard Alltounian, M.D., a respected clinical anesthesiologist. They reportedly got high on ketamine together and after two ketamine “trips” fell in love and became engaged after 1 week. They felt they were “pioneering a new path to consciousness.” Ms. Moore was called the priestess of the Goddess Ketamine. She took the drug daily and apparently developed tolerance.

For her, ketamine was a seductress, not a goddess. Her husband warned her of its dangers. She slept only a few hours each night. She agreed that she was wrong about a lot of things and was “going to stay with it until it is tamed.” However, Moore was unable to tame the ketamine tiger and in January 1979 disappeared. The assumption was that she injected herself with ketamine and froze to death in a forest.

You can read the full article here although it’s not clear to me that the link is stable enough to be archived, in which case the DOI entry points here although you may need to do some clicking through to find the full text.

Anyway, a fascinating look back at a complex compound from the man at the centre of its science.

Link to ‘Taming the Ketamine Tiger’ in Anesthesiology.
Link to DOI entry for same.

The death of the mind

Business Week has an important article on how internet companies are using the massive data sets collected from the minutia of users’ behaviour to influence customer choices.

The article is a useful insight into how tech companies are basing their entire profit model on the ability to model and manipulate human behaviour but the implication for psychology is, perhaps, more profound.

Psychological theories and ideas about how the mind work seem to play a small, if not absent role in these models which are almost entirely based on deriving mathematical models from massive data sets.

Sometimes the objective is simply to turn people on. Zynga, the maker of popular Facebook games such as CityVille and FarmVille, collects 60 billion data points per day—how long people play games, when they play them, what they’re buying, and so forth. The Wants (Zynga’s term is “data ninjas”) troll this information to figure out which people like to visit their friends’ farms and cities, the most popular items people buy, and how often people send notes to their friends.

Discovery: People enjoy the games more if they receive gifts from their friends, such as the virtual wood and nails needed to build a digital barn. As for the poor folks without many friends who aren’t having as much fun, the Wants came up with a solution. “We made it easier for those players to find the parts elsewhere in the game, so they relied less on receiving the items as gifts,” says Ken Rudin, Zynga’s vice-president for analytics.

Although the example given might seem trivial, it is a massive generator of profit and can be applied to any sort of online behaviour.

What’s striking is that the relationships between the context, motivations, evaluation and behaviour of the users is not being described in terms of how the mind or brain understand and respond the situation but purely as a statistical relationship.

It is psychology devoid of psychology. Rather than the wisdom of crowds approach, it’s the behaviour of zombies model. Unsurprisingly, none of the entrepreneurs mentioned are cognitive scientists. They’re all mathematicians.

I am reminded of the Wired article ‘The End of Theory’ which warned that big data crunching computers could solve scientific problems in the same way. The generated mathematical model ‘works’ but the model is uninterpretable and does not help us understand anything about what’s being studied.

Similarly, while the experimental psychologist’s dream for more than a century has been to work with large data sets to have confidence in our conclusions about the mind, the reality, currently being realised, may actually make the mind redundant in the majority of the commercial world.

Link to Business Week article (via @ivanoransky).

Sports car advert based on entirely new organ

Car makers Audi have launched a fantastic brain-themed video commercial to promote their new range of money-themed sports cars.

It incorporates the brain as well as lots of neuroanatomy shaped graphics. An approach rarely taken with the usual penis-based marketing campaigns.

It seems the neuroadvert is aimed at academic neuroscientists who would only have to spend their entire year’s salary to buy one.

Despite my snide comments, I have to say, the video rocks.

Link to video of Audi commercial (thanks Natasha!)

A neurologist, fighting to the last

The San Francisco Chronicle has a striking article about a neurologist who is dying from the disease he has researched all his professional career. He is writing his last paper as he slowly gives way.

The condition is called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which slowly destroys neurons in the spinal cord that control the muscles in the body, leading to a gradual loss of control, paralysis and death through breathing problems.

The doctor is Richard Olney an expert in the condition who is writing up his last study on the condition by using a device which lets him type with his eye movements.

Dr. Richard Olney is racing to finish what is almost certain to be his last research paper.

The 63-year-old UCSF neurologist is considered one of the country’s top clinical specialists for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is also the reason Olney is in a hurry to finish his paper: He was diagnosed with ALS in 2004, and after a long period of relative stability, the disease appears to be rapidly winning out over the doctor.

Olney has almost no muscle function left.

“He’s at the end stages now, certainly,” said Dr. Catherine Lomen-Hoerth, once Olney’s medical trainee, now his doctor. “I’m hopeful he may have at least a few months.”

Olney hopes the disease he is studying will spare him at least long enough to finish his research on it. His son, Nicholas, 33, is assisting with the final write-up.

The piece is tragic yet inspiring and a tribute to a life’s work lived to the full.

God speed good doctor.

Link to SF Chronicle article (via @stevesilberman).

Three Christs winner

Many thanks to all who entered our Three Christs competition and what a fantastic response we had.

The entries in the comments stretch from the bizarre to the philosophical to the profound and are enormously good fun to read. However we do have a winner.

In answer to the question “You’re working in a psychiatric hospital and suddenly everyone thinks you’re a patient. How would you convince them you’re really a psychiatrist?” the winning entry was from hat_eater:

Why do I have to convince them I’m a psychiatrist? It says so plain as a day on my admittance form.

Thank you very much and we’ll be in touch to organise your winning copy of The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.

There were many wonderful answers, some of them too long to fit in a blog post so do check them out, but here are a few of the shorter and wittier ones that caught my eye:

natselrox: “Explain to them that according to Godel, it’ll be impossible for me to prove my true identity in a system where subjects can only be either psychiatrists or patients.”

pete: “I would show them my country club membership.”

Kathy: “By not responding to the antipsychotics prescribed for me–’cos the real patients all do get better, don’t they?”

Darrin: “Just tell everyone to speak to my registrar. They will look after things while I’m at an important meeting.”

karen foley: “I would log onto the New York Times as a paying subscriber. While that may be crazy, only doctors can afford the rates!”

Bill: “Have them page you. Only doctors are crazy enough to carry pagers.”

Many thanks to all of you for the fantastic interest in the competition and many thanks to the New York Review of Books Classics for offering a copy for our somewhat odd competition.

Link to competition blog post with fantastic entries in the comments.
Link to details of the The Three Christs of Ypsilanti reprint.

A connoisseur’s list of essential psychology

Every month since 2008 The Psychologist magazine has run an interview with a leading psychologist where they ask them to name one book or journal article, either contemporary or historical, that all psychologists should read.

The BPS Research Digest has compiled all the answers into handy and fascinating list.

A few of the answers:

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. “You’ll get to understand why hypocrites never see their own hypocrisy, why couples so often misremember their shared history, why many people persist in courses of action that lead straight into quicksand. It’s lucid and witty, and a delightful read,” said Elizabeth Loftus, Oct 08.

“Muriel Dimen’s Sexuality, Intimacy, Power, which offers one feminist’s journey from dualism to multiplicity, questioning and making more complex all the accounts we have of how you grow up to become a sexed person,” said Lynne Segal, Jan 09.

“B.F. Skinner’s The operational analysis of psychological terms (Psychological Review 52, 270–277, 1945) is rarely read and even less often understood. Contrary to some misrepresentations of his position, Skinner never doubted that we can describe internal states such as thoughts or emotions, but he wondered how we are able to do this. His answer was surprising, relevant to the practice of psychotherapy, and a challenge to all those who (like some unsophisticated therapists) assume that we can know our own feelings by a simple process of self-inspection,” said Richard Bentall, Apr 11.

There are many more where they came from to make for an eye-opening and informative list of recommendations.

Link to BPS Research Digest list of essential reads.

The yin and yang of the LSD revolution

Neurotribes has a fantastic interview with the author of a new book on the relationship between Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and their role in the LSD counter-culture that is still echoing through science and culture.

The interview is with Peter Conners, author of White Hand Society, a book that examines the relationship between the two men through their correspondence and looks at how it shaped each as individuals and the place of psychedelics in society.

Despite both men being major figures in the promotion of LSD, they ending up taking very different paths.

Leary, originally a Harvard professor who started out doing respected scientific research into mind altering drugs, ended up being thought of us a bit of a cartoon cut-out by both the establishment and by the counter-culture of the time.

Ginsberg took a less sensationalist route and used the experience as a springboard to spiritual exploration.

Despite the fact that neither ended up boosting serious research in psychedelics both had a massive influence on the scientific study of mind altering drugs.

Silberman: Do you think that if things had unfolded differently for Leary, psychedelics could have been successfully incorporated into mainstream medicine or psychology?

Conners: I actually think they are now more than they’ve ever been. My wife is a clinical psychologist. I recently read an article in The Monitor on tests they’re doing now with psilocybin and MDMA. One potential application is for post-traumatic stress disorder that all these soldiers are coming back with from the Middle East. Another is to help terminal patients prepare for death. The Monitor is a very mainstream venue — it’s the trade journal for psychologists. So after 40 years of a virtual blackout on psychedelic research, you can do it again now, thanks to the efforts of people like Rick Doblin at MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

Silberman: I think Leary actually helped hasten the blackout, simply by going on and on with his inflammatory and hyperbolic claims about psychedelics. In a Playboy interview in 1966, he said in a properly conducted LSD session, a woman could expect to have hundreds of orgasms. He also insisted that LSD had “cured” Allen Ginsberg of homosexuality. Let’s just say that by the time I met Allen, when he was in his 50s, he must have been having a major relapse!

I have to say, the interview is a little hard on Leary, who, like Ginsberg, had a continuing cultural impact way after he abandoned the championing of LSD, but it is a fascinating look at the relationship between the two men.

Link to Neurotribes interview with Peter Connors.