A treasure hunt for the mysteries of mind and brain

I’ve published a couple of free ebooks recently: Explore your blind spot shows you how to reveal the gap we all have in our visual experience of the world, and discusses what it means about consciousness that this gap is kept hidden from us most of the time. Control Your Dreams, co-written with Cathryn Bardsley and illustrated beautifully by Harriet Cameron, tells you how to have lucid dreams, those dreams where you realise you are dreaming and can take control over reality.

Both books are written as treasure hunts – travel guides, but for exploring inner space. When you start reading you will be told about the journey ahead, what you’ll need and how long it will take. Next we tell you about the treasure – some surprising or interesting feature of the mind and brain which is the core experience of the book. We tell you how to generate this experience for yourself, and the things to look out for, and what that experience might mean for our understanding of ourselves. We finish with “travellers’ tales”, which are reports from others who’ve experimented with the phenomenon and links to the scientific literature on the topic.

The core of psychology is experiences. Psychologists think about those experiences, turn them into theories, and try to settle arguments between themselves by generating new experiences – in the form of experiments. But the joy of psychological science is that everybody has access to the raw material. The books are a way of sharing that, an attempt to give away the raw material of psychological science, packaged as experiences for the reader.

The books are creative commons licensed, which means you download them, copy them, even modify them if you want to produced an improved version, and both are fully referenced so you can check up on any claims made in them. Science is naturally an open-source phenomenon, so it feels good to be doing some open source science writing.

Link: Explore Your Blindspot by Tom Stafford
Link: Control Your Dreams by Tom Stafford & Cathryn Bardsley, Illustrated by Harriet Cameron

Update 22 Jan: It looks like people are having problems downloading Control Your Dreams. This is something to do with the Smashwords site. Hopefully the issue will be fixed soon

Update 24 Jan: Fixed

The peak experiences of Abraham Maslow

The New Atlantis has an in-depth biographical article on psychologist Abraham Maslow – one of the founders of humanistic psychology and famous for his ‘hierarchy of needs’.

Maslow is stereotypically associated with a kind of fluffy ‘love yourself’ psychology although the man himself was quite a skeptic of the mumbo jumbo that got associated with his work.

The association is not so much because of Maslow’s focus on self-actualization, a goal where we use our psychological potential to its fullest, but because of his association with the ‘human potential movement’ and the Esalen Institute.

Esalen had some quite laudable goals but ended up being a hot tub of flaky hippy therapies. If you want an idea of what we’re talking about, you perhaps won’t be surprised to learn that nude psychotherapy movement that we covered previously on Mind Hacks originated from the same place.

Maslow quickly got pissed off with half-baked people that he attracted and but sadly the stereotype stuck.

The man himself was far more complex, however, as was his remarkably profound work, and The New Atlantis article does a great job of bringing out the depth of his life and ideas. Recommended.

Link to article ‘Abraham Maslow and the All-American Self’.

Gimme Shelter

The Rolling Stones launched their career in a social therapeutic club, designed to help troubled youth with communication skills. The club became legendary in rock ‘n roll history but its therapeutic roots have almost been forgotten.

Eel Pie Island is a small patch on the River Thames famous for the underground club that earned a place in 60’s history for hosting the cream of jazz bands and rock n’ roll outfits.

Less well known, is the story of how the club was created as a therapeutic environment to help troubled youth.

Its place in music history has been recounted many times over the years but its therapeutic past has almost been forgotten. At the time, it seems only to have been discussed in a 1969 article published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry.

The club was created by junk shop owner and sociologist Arthur Chisnall. He was both a music fan and, what we would now call an outreach worker, concerned about disaffected youth.

As a music promoter, he got the cream of the American jazz and blues scene to play the club, which attracted punters like the recently formed Rolling Stones, who were just discovering the electric-tinged blues sound that they would later champion. They shortly became the house band.

But the idea was to create a club where kids could turn up and socialise, encouraged by the underground vibe, while the staff would encourage interaction and social communication skills.

The 1969 International Journal of Social Psychiatry article described the therapeutic approach:

How is therapy accomplished? Workers at the Club convey an accepting and non-judgmental attitude toward the members. A new member can come as frequently or infrequently as he wishes and thus regulate his attendance in accordance with his ability to accept the situation, so that the Club is minimally threatening to its participants. The Island’s somewhat rakish reputation surely contributes to its appeal for many youngsters…

Communication is so central to the Club’s therapeutic rationale that the only dimension on which members are classified by the staff is in terms of their being part of either a high-, medium-, or low-communication culture. Other forces making for therapy are conversations initiated by the staff, the music itself, vocational help, and identification with the Club’s founder.

In fact, Chisnall made a point of making sure people were matched with suitable friends inside the club, what we would now called ‘enhancing social support’, while putting members in contact with suitable support organisations and agencies if needed.

Musically, the club started out as a jazz club but its “somewhat rakish reputation” increasingly attracted London’s growing rock ‘n roll scene hosting The Rolling Stones, Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Bowie, Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, The Who and Pink Floyd, among a host of others.

The club, and the social therapeutic experiment, closed in ’67, apparently because Chisnall couldn’t pay repairs demanded by the police, and the building was eventually destroyed in a fire in 1971.

Nowadays, Ell Pie Island is widely recognised as the father of the 60’s rock n’ roll scene but it is hardly known that it was also the father of community intervention projects that use everything from hip hop to graffiti to get troubled kids into a positive social environment.

Link to locked ’69 article “A Social-Therapeutic Jazz Club in England”
Link to BBC piece on its musical legacy.
Link to book chapter on the same.

A medical study of the Haitian zombie

We hear a lot about zombies these days – in films, in music and even in philosophy – but many are unaware that in 1997 The Lancet published a medical study of three genuine Haitian zombies.

The cases studies were reported by British anthropologist Roland Littlewood and Haitian doctor Chavannes Douyon and concerned three individuals identified as zombies after they had apparently passed away.

The Haitian explanation for how zombies are created involves the distinction between different elements of the human being – including the body, the gwobon anj (the animating principle) and the ti-bon anj, which represents something akin to agency, awareness, and memory.

In line with these beliefs is the fact that awareness and agency can be split off from the human being – and can be captured and stored in a bottle by a bòkò, a type of magician and spirit worker who can be paid to send curses or help individuals achieve their aims.

This purportedly leaves a passive easily-controlled animated body – the zombie – believed to be created to provide free labour on plantations.

Anthropologist Wade Davis claimed to have identified the ingredients of the bòkò’s zombification powder which supposedly included tetrodotoxin – a naturally occurring neurotoxin found in some animals, like the pufferfish, which can cause temporary coma-like states.

I won’t say much more about the ‘neurotoxin’ theory of zombification, not least because it was brilliantly covered by science writer Mo Costandi and I couldn’t improve on his fantastic article which will tell you everything you need to know.

But on the cultural level, zombies are identified by specific characteristics – they cannot lift up their heads, have a nasal intonation, a fixed staring expression, they carry repeated purposeless actions and have limited and repetitive speech.

This means that they are easily identified by the community and Littlewood and Douyon’s study was a medical investigation into three ‘returned zombies’ – each of which was identified as a member of the family who had died and who had returned with the characteristic features.

FI was a 30-year-old woman who had died after a short illness and was buried next to the house, only for her to be recognised in a zombified state three years later by her family, wandering near to her village.

WD died at the age of 18 shortly after his “eyes turned yellow” and his body “swelled up” and was buried in a family tomb. He was identified as a zombie at a cockfight eight years after he had been buried.

MM was a young woman who also died at 18 after a short illness, but who was identified 13 years later in the town market, walking around in the characteristic detached shambling way.

While the families put their fate down to sorcery, a full medical examination was carried out by the two doctors, including the use of EEG and CT brain scans.

FI showed no neurological damage but was diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia, a very withdrawn form of psychosis. WD was found to have brain damage, probably from lack of oxygen, and epilepsy, which could be treated with drugs. MM was found to a developmental learning disability, probably caused by her alcoholism when her mother was pregnant with her.

The fact that doctors gave medical explanations for people identified as zombies is, perhaps, no big surprise, but most interesting was that DNA and fingerprinting tests that showed that two of the zombies were cases of mistaken identity. They weren’t the dead relatives that the families thought they were.

The authors of the study noted that it is unlikely that there is a single explanation for all people identified as zombies and there was a hint that the ‘neurotoxin’ theory could explain some cases. Two types of ‘zombification’ powder from local bòkòs were tested, and, in line with Wade Davis’s ideas, tetrodotoxin was found.

But more probable is that most cases are mistaken identification of wandering mentally ill or neurologically impaired strangers by bereaved relatives.

They noted “People with a chronic schizophrenic illness, brain damage, or learning disability are not uncommonly met with wandering in Haiti, and they would be particularly likely to be identified as lacking volition and memory which are characteristics of a zombi.”

Interestingly, the first known photograph of a zombie, shown above, was taken by anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston and reproduced in her 1938 book Voodoo Gods where it notes that the subject was photographed in a psychiatric hospital, which makes more sense in light of this more recent medical examination.

It’s worth making a final point that while zombies are a particularly well-known aspect of Haitian culture, thanks to the stereotypes and Hollywood hijacking, traditional Haitian psychology and related concepts of illness are hugely fascinating topics in themselves.

If you want to lose yourself in another understanding of ourselves and the world, you could do much worse than reading the World Health Organisation’s short report ‘Culture and Mental Health in Haiti’ which is available online as a pdf. The whole report is fascinating but start at the section on ‘Religion’ from page 6 if you want to get straight to the psychology.

Link to locked case study in The Lancet.
Link to Mo Costandi’s “The ethnobiology of voodoo zombification”.
pdf of WHO report on ‘Culture and Mental Health in Haiti’.

A relationship through brain injury

The New York Times has an excellent article on the challenges faced by couples after one member survives brain injury.

Carers sometimes say that, after brain injury, their partner is emotionally unresponsive, emotionally unstable or that their ‘personality has changed’.

This can lead to a strain on the relationship that far outlasts the ‘obvious’ effects of the injury and, unfortunately, the problem is not widely recognised.

Mrs. Curtis, 60, was once drawn to her husband’s “sparkle,” she said. After the injury, he “flat-lined” emotionally, and he suffers from depression, anxiety and a lack of motivation.

Her husband sometimes makes erratic decisions, she added, like the time he decided to take a do-it-yourself approach to the plumbing at their home in Coralville, Iowa. “Not a good picture when I got home,” Mrs. Curtis said. “And you can yell at him like a little kid, but he didn’t know any better.”

Once a software programming analyst, Mr. Curtis, 57, has “a lot fewer interests” than he did before the injury, and he estimates he has lost 90 percent of his friends.

“It’s a new you,” he said, “and they just can’t cope with that.”

The NYT piece looks at some of these difficulties but also the work of rehabilitation psychologists Jeffrey Kreutzer and Emilie Godwin who are developing ways of helping couples in this situation.

Link to NYT piece on relationships after brain injury.

The importance of penis panics to cultural psychiatry

The Boston Globe has an excellent article about supposedly culture specific mental illnesses and how they are an ongoing puzzle for psychiatry’s diagnostic manual.

These conditions are called culture-bound syndromes in the DSM but they’ve always had a bit of ‘looking at the natives’ feel about them as many syndromes that are unknown in many non-Western cultures (anorexia, for example) aren’t listed as ‘culture bound’ in any way.

The Boston Globe article reminded me of a paper just published in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences by historian Ivan Crozier where he explores how koro – the fear that the genitals are fatally shrinking into the body – has been central to the definition of the ‘culture-bound syndrome’.

The history of how this fear, usually presenting as a penis shrinking anxiety and initially reported in South East Asia, became a prime example of a supposedly culture-specific mental illness, highlighting a bias at the centre of psychiatric definitions.

Penis shrinking fears have been reported from all over the world, but only certain cases tend to get defined as a ‘culture-specific syndrome’, because of our assumptions about what counts as the ‘real’ disorder.

Koro is a particularly good syndrome with which to play up the tension between psychiatric universalism on the one hand, and ethnic bias on the other. This disruption is clear when one surveys the varieties of koro. Some people (SE Asians) have koro because they belong to the “right” culture. Others do not, because they are suffering from another primary disorder (occidental sufferers), or because there is little in the way of psychiatric provision in their country (e.g., in Africa), and because there are other working explanations for dealing with penis panics (such as witchcraft).

Likewise, sometimes the material artifacts of masculinity are of crucial importance for explaining koro as a part of a culture (the penis clamps and piercings in Asia), but not in others (the pills western men can take when they are concerned about the penis size). These differences in treatment are not trivial. They point to an ethnocentrism in psychiatric conceptions of illness that is embodied in the DSM IV in the very place that is meant to address culture: the CBSs [culture-bound syndromes section].

Sadly, the Crozier’s academic article is locked behind a paywall (demonstrating a strange culture bound syndrome endemic in Western academia) but The Boston Globe article in free to access.

Link to Boston Globe article (via @DebbieNathan2)
Link to locked article on koro and culture-bound syndromes.