Hallucinating fairy tales

Two cases of hallucinated fairy tales from the medical literature.

In this case [pdf] from The Bulletin of the Yamaguchi Medical School, a ballerina presents with magical hallucinations during an episode of psychosis:

…she felt as if she had become the heroine of “The Sleeping Beauty” and this feeling started manifesting itself in her daily behaviour.

She began to hear a voice coming from nowhere telling her that she was Cinderella. She had an experience in which upon seeing a pumpkin she ordered it to become a carriage and then saw a vivid image of a carriage like the one pictured in an illustration in the book.

She claimed that while practicing ballet, she did not feel that she was dancing by her own will, but instead felt as if she was a puppet controlled and manipulated by an unknown force.

In this case from Epilepsy and Behavior a 33-year-old woman experiences a magical cat when her visual cortex is stimulated during brain surgery:

At one parieto-occipital electrode, stimulation with a current of 15 mA elicited the hallucination of a colored creature, spontaneously identified as the leading character of the fairy tale the patient was reading aloud at that moment—a cat (Puss in Boots, by Charles Perrault; the text did not include pictures)…

According to her description, the cat emerged from the script she was holding in front of her, and then moved to the right side of her bed, that is, to her lower right visual hemifield. The cat was 10–20 cm high and flat, two-dimensional like a sheet of paper. It then rotated itself 90° so that its feet pointed toward her and its head was toward the right. When she tried to look at it more closely, it quickly moved to the right and behind her back—the faster she turned her head, the quicker…

Reading picture books depicting different characters while being stimulated (e.g., a penguin, a miller), she again hallucinated a cat at her right forearm, similar to the one she had seen before. “It is only a feeling of what I see. For me it looks like Puss in Boots because of the large hat…, for me it is just a…. It is difficult to explain.”

 

pdf of Cinderella case.
Link to locked article of Puss in Boots case.

Works like magic

The New York Times has a short but thought-provoking piece on the benefits of supersition and magical thinking. This part particularly caught my eye:

For instance, in one study led by the psychologist Lysann Damisch of the University of Cologne, subjects were handed a golf ball, and half of them were told that the ball had been lucky so far. Those subjects with a “lucky” ball drained 35 percent more golf putts than those with a “regular” ball.

The results are from a 2010 study that looked at the effect of ‘lucky charms’ and good luck superstitions on performance, finding that they genuinely increase our ability to complete self-directed tasks through increased self-confidence.

It’s a fascinating result in light of the typical skeptical response that ‘lucky charms don’t work’ because in many cases they do. Importantly, however, they have their effect on tasks in which our own skill plays a significant part rather than those where random outcome is the prime factor.

In other words, they’d help you at poker but not at roulette.

And if you want to know more about how we acquire supersitions, Tom’s recent article for BBC Future breaks it down.
 

Link to NYT ‘In Defense of Superstition’.
Link to BBC Future article on supersitions acquisition.
Link to locked study.

Sound trip

A fascinating excerpt about a hallucinogenic drug called DiPT that only causes hearing distortions – from p310 of the book Hallucinations: Research and Practice:

A member of the tryptamine chemical family, diisopropyltryptamine (DiPT) is a fascinating substance because, unlike most hallucinogens, its effect are predominantly auditory. It is also probably less sensitive than other hallucinogens to the mindset of the user, the setting in which it is ingested, and other psychological considerations, perhaps because the auditory system has become less salient to the human organism as we have evolved into a vision based species.

In general, auditory pitch is perceived as lower than normal, and harmonious sounds lose their resonance with one another. This dissonance is even perceived by people with perfect pitch, which has some implications about where in the processing stream DiPT’s effects occur. Voices are also altered and disharmonious with each other.

DiPT has a few other known effects; it would seem to call for further investigation from those interested in the neurology of sound, music and verbal language processing. For example, it would be fascinating to know the effects of this substance on perceptions of tonal languages such as Chinese, Huichol, or Dogon; would it alter the words perceived as being spoken?

 

Link to book details.

The evolution of London street gangs

A fascinating article in the journal Crime and Delinquency tracks the evolution of London gangs from their ‘boys on the street’ beginnings to organised crime syndicates.

Sociologist James Densley has clearly spent a lot of time talking to gang members of the streets of London and has gained an intimate insight into how the organisations function and develop.

The article is full of quotes and is equally frightening and tragic. Not tragic, however, in the death and destruction sense, but sometimes just sad, as the bottom of the pile gang members struggle to live the high rolling life style they aspire to.

Gang members were eager to pull thick rolls of banknotes out of their trouser pockets to illustrate a typical “night’s work,” but amounts quoted often refer to revenue rather than income. They also struggled to transform cash into wealth. Only inner circle gang members had the human and social capital to launder profits through casinos, pawnbro- kers, money couriers, small bank deposits, and remittances transferred using money service businesses such as Western Union.

One interviewee resorted to depositing cash into the bank account of a wealthy private school girl he had known since primary school. In one high profile case, TerrorZone gang members used ticket machines at train stations to launder dye-stained banknotes obtained through cash-in- transit robberies. They purchased cheap fares, paid with high denomination stolen cash, and pocketed the “clean change.” In another example, gang members bought their own music on iTunes and Amazon websites using stolen credit cards in order to profit from the royalties.

It’s a brilliant study into the social organisation of London gangs that merits reading in full. Sadly, the full piece is locked behind a paywall but it seems a version has found its way online on this page.
 

Link to journal article online (via @crimepsychblog)
Link to page with pdf.

The future of fMRI

Nature has an article looking at the future of fMRI brain scanning in light of its long-lasting hype and recently discovered problems.

Brain scanning has become massively popular both in the scientific community and in the media, in great part because the pictures it produces seem quite intuitive: images of the brain with colours on it which apparently represent neural activity when we’re doing something.

However, the current situation with fMRI is nicely but inadvertantly captured in the article:

It has turned psychology “into a biological science”, says Richard Frackowiak…

[two sentences later]

Perhaps the biggest conundrum in fMRI is what, exactly, the technique is measuring.

fMRI has indeed turned much of psychology into a biological science but it hasn’t really given us a fundamentally deeper understanding of neuropsychology largely due to the measurement problem.

Recent revelations that fMRI studies are not as reliable as we thought and that some common ways of analysing data may be flawed have made many people question the utility of the technique – or at least, many of the past studies that may not have been well controlled.

The Nature article looks at where the science will go next, although I can’t help thinking that if it became less expensive the gloss would rub off – and then at least we could assess it a little more reasonably.

Sadly, scientists are no less attracted to bling.
 

Link to Nature article ‘Brain imaging: fMRI 2.0’

The complex motivations for self-harm

If you ask the average person in the street why some people cut themselves you’ll get the answer that they’re trying to ‘get attention’ which is a common but unhelpful stereotype.

The reality is that motivations for self-harming are complex. Some people find it helps control their intense moods by externalising the pain, other are punishing themselves, others are responding to psychosis, others self-harm for a combination of reasons.

A new study in the Journal of Adolescence looks at motivations in online accounts of self-harm and gives an insight into the various ways young people describe their actions.

The research aims to examine ‘magical thinking’ in explanations of self-harm but this doesn’t necesarilly mean magical thinking in the sense associated with psychosis (i.e. unknown forces and jumping to conclusions) but in terms of how metaphors and symbolism and woven into young people’s explanations.

Part of the article gives examples of various forms of symbolic ‘magical thinking’. It’s a bit wordy but it illustrates some of the psychological complexity of self-harm.

1. Magic substitutions. This term refers to the magic belief in the transformation of one category of phenomena into another, e.g. emotional pain into physical, bad self into blood. For example, “I can’t handle mental or emotional pain, so I turn it into something I can handle, which is physical pain.”

2. Transanimation of objects. Scored if an inanimate object, such as the blood, body or cutting instrument, is described as an active subject independent of the self. For example, “the blade is always so nice, like with every cut it lets the pain flow out; it lets it flood like a river of blood.” This example would also be scored as a magical substitution, where blood magically substitutes for emotional pain.

3. Transanimation of processes. Scored as present if a behaviour or phenomenon is seen as having autonomous agency. For example, “I still cut myself. Because to me that is my only true friend.”

4. Auto-relatedness. Scored if the narrator wrote about himself or herself as a separate person or a poorly integrated part. For example, “Don’t worry me, me will take care of you. It’s okay me, me is here now.”

5. Split between inside and outside. Scored if the narrator describes a metaphysical difference between the inside and outside of the body. For example, “I feel so ugly inside, so dark and cold, on the outside I’m not exactly warm, but I’m not as cold.”

6. Scars reminding and communicating. Scored if scars or cuts communicate with or remind the narrator or others. For example, “I feel better when I see the cuts on my arms, I don’t know why, I mean I hate them. But they seem to make me feel like I guess someone gets it, gets why I do this to myself.”

Unfortunately, the ‘doing it to get attention’ stereotype is also maintained by lots of health professionals as self-harm is also stigmatised by the people who treat these young people.

It’s a complex and frustrating behaviour and, therefore, one that needs some of the most careful consideration in psychiatry.
 

Link to locked study on magical thinking in self-harm.

Emperors, clothes, money

BBC Radio 4’s documentary series Analysis has a fascinating programme that explores the little-asked question ‘What is Money?’ – and the answer turns out to be scarily psychological.

In fact, the definition is very close to William Gibson’s description of cyberspace as a “mass consensual hallucination” because money relies on us to believe in it for it to work.

In other words, it’s largely a social concept we all sign up to and this episode of Analysis looks at the economics of how (or rather how not) money is tied to actual goods and services in the world and what this means in times of financial crisis.

It also turns out that the BBC are now linking to podcasts directly from the programme pages so even though we live our lives in the grip of a self-imposed imaginary power at least the Radio 4 website is now easier to use.
 

Link to Analysis episode ‘What is Money?’