A pain to describe

RadioLab has an excellent mini-episode on the difficulties of communicating the subjective feeling of pain.

As you might expect, it is both wonderfully put together and unexpectedly beautiful in places, but for such a uncomfortable subject, it is also very funny.

Particularly wonderful is a segment on the originator of the Schmidt index that rates the intensity of insect sting pain from “Light, ephemeral, almost fruity” to “Pure, intense, brilliant pain”.

Link to RadioLab mini-episode on pain.

A traditional IRA welcome to the sociologist

An amazing description of how sociologists who wanted to do field studies in Belfast during the height of The Troubles were put through some seemingly routine but terrifying vetting by the IRA to check they were up to the job.

The piece is from an article by Lorraine Dowler, who starts by recounting a tale from legendary social scientist Frank Burton.

Burton worked extensively amid the violence of Belfast and woke up one morning to find someone was pointing a sub-machine gun in his face and suggesting he was a “Four Square Laundry job” an allusion to being an army spy.

Dowler continues:

Thanks to his dangerous and frightening experiences in West Belfast, Frank Burton’s ethnographic research on Northern Ireland is considered legendary. At first glance the incident Burton describes would seem mad to anyone who has not spent time living and working in the Catholic ghettos of Belfast. However, as alarming as this event may seem, it speaks more to the rapport Burton established with his respondents than to the perils of fieldwork. In actuality this was a prank brought about by one of his Irish Republican Army (IRA) informants.

The hazing of researchers is a common practice in Belfast, and anyone who conducts inquiries of this nature is bound to collect a few such “war stories”. The obvious reason for such a vetting is that the IRA feared that a British undercover operative disguised as an academic would infiltrate the organization. Having said that, I believe that researchers are not only checked out as potential spies but also tested to see whether they have the “salt” to stick it out when the political atmosphere makes day-to-day life difficult. In other words, the researcher has to prove that, when placed in a life-threatening situation, even for just a moment, she or he won’t simply pack up and go home.

How weird that amongst all of the violence and subterfuge, the IRA was actively managing its policy on collaborating with ethnography researchers.

Dowler herself also worked as a sociologist amid the The Troubles and has more than a few stories of her own to tell – not least having to flee an assassination attempt on one of her interviewees.

However, she wisely notes that the greatest risk was not to her, but to her participants, who were giving sensitive information to her in the name of impartial research.

Despite the fact that the hazing was extreme, you can understand why trust was considered important.

Link to locked version of article.
pdf of article, freely available.

A dark and complex past

In a story that could be the plot for a film, one of the world’s pioneering anthropologists has been found to have been a member of both the Nazi SS and the French resistance during the Second World War.

Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff retains legendary status in anthropology and particularly in Colombia, where he first lived with many of the country’s remote indigenous people during the 1950s and 60s and founded the first department of anthropology. He died in 1994 but his legend has only grown since his passing.

In many ways, the classic image of the anthropologist was shaped by Reichel-Dolmatoff. He lived with remote communities to learn the language and worldviews of previously unknown societies. He trekked through jungles and participated in the hallucinatory ceremonies of local religions. He pioneered the archaeology not of the giant civilization, but of the lost peoples of specific valleys and mountain ridges.

He was actually born in Austria but talked little about his past. This is not surprising in the light of new revelations.

Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, has been researching the background of this legendary figure but found far more than the echo of myth.

If you speak Spanish you can watch his recent conference presentation. But even if you don’t, you can see it has a power absent from most academic talks.

Oyuela-Caycedo began his investigation as a tribute to his friend and mentor only to discover a grim past well documented in the Nazi archives. At one point in the presentation, he is brought to tears as he reads a description of how the yet-to-be Austrian anthropologist murders an old man with a pistol.

It turns out that Reichel-Dolmatoff was a member of both the Nazi Party and the SS, in the personal guard of Hitler himself and a participant in Gestapo death squads. He later trained guards in the Dachau Concentration Camp.

In light of his subsequent life in Colombia, it would be easy to chalk this up as another bitter tale of a Nazi who escaped justice to the anonymity of Latin America, but Reichel-Dolmatoff did not seem to make the typical Nazi exit from Europe. He had what is vaguely described as a ‘mental crisis’ in 1936 and was declared unfit for the SS and publicly expelled from the Nazi party.

Curiously, he turned up immediately afterwards working for the anti-Hitler resistance in France and continued to support the French resistance after he arrived in Colombia in 1939, to the point where he was eventually awarded the National Order of Merit by the French president.

Reichel-Dolmatof’s subsequent anthropological work is completely devoid of Nazi overtones – no hints of eugenics or ‘racial hygiene’ – and throughout his life he attempted to demonstrate the amazing diversity of the native peoples of Colombia, the Amazon and the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The case raises a number of difficult questions. The nature of Reichel-Dolmatof’s ‘mental crisis’ remains completely obscure. As the Spanish-language magazine Arcadia asks – how did a young Nazi end up working in Colombia for a Hitler resistance movement? Was it a crisis of conscious or something more opportunistic?

But perhaps more important is the question of whether Reichel-Dolmatof can ever redeem himself. Is his life and his work now forever tainted? Does his good work drown under the tide of his dark and vicious past?

It may have been a question he asked himself many times.

Link to English-language coverage of discovery.
Link to Oyuela-Caycedo’s Spanish-language presentation.
Link to Spanish-language coverage from Arcadia magazine.

The neurology of Psalm 137

I’ve just found a short but interesting study on Psalm 137 and how it likely has one of the first descriptions of brain damage after stroke.

The Psalm is still widely sung but it has some particular lines which made the researchers take notice. Here they are in modern English from the New International Version of the bible:

If I forget you, Jerusalem,
  may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
  if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
  my highest joy.

This seems to describe some clear physical symptoms but the bible has numerous versions all of which have different translations and even in their early versions do not always agree on the exact wording.

As a result the researchers looked at Spanish, English, German, Dutch, Russian, Greek, and Hebrew versions to examine the consistency of the text and the variations in description of these curious physical effects. The combined description includes:

If I forget of you, oh Jerusalem, my right hand (my right side) shall dry, be paralyzed, loose its ability, its dexterity… That my tongue shall stick (shall be weakened, arrested) to my palate (in my throat), if I remember you, if I do not permit Jerusalem to be my greatest joy (if I do not sing of Jerusalem as my greatest joy)

Both right-sided paralysis and loss of expressive speech are clear symptoms of a stroke of the left middle cerebral artery, where the blood flow is blocked – leading to the death of the surrounding brain tissue, suggesting that the Psalm may be wishing these effects on people who forget the importance of Jerusalem.

The powerful nature of the wish is perhaps explained by the fact that the Psalm is widely believed to have been written as a lament by Jewish people exiled after the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

But why these specific symptoms are mentioned may have more to do with ancient beliefs about stroke itself.

The reason the condition is still called stroke is because people originally believed that it was a result of being ‘struck down’ by God.

The Psalm still remains popular and the opening lines “By the rivers of Babylon…” have spawned a cottage industry in bad pop songs most of which miss out the lines concerning stroke.

However, the track Jerusalem by Jewish reggae hip-hop maestro Matisyahu does focus on this part of the Psalm, which he mashes-up along with lyrics from Matthew Wilder’s Break My Stride.

Link to study on the neurology of Psalm 137.
Link to Jerusalem by Matisyahu.

A guided tour of bad neuroscience

Oxford neuropsychologist Dorothy Bishop has given a fantastic video lecture about how neuroscience can be misinterpreted and how it can be misleading.

If you check out nothing else, do read the summary on the Neurobonkers blog, which highlights Bishop’s four main criticisms of how neuroscience is misused.

But if you have the time, sit back and see the lecture in full.

The key is that these are not slip-ups only restricted to the popular press and self-help books – they are exactly the sort of poor reasoning about neuroscience that affects many scientists as well.

Essentially, if you get the Bishop’s four main points of how ‘neurosciency stuff leads to a loss of critical faculties’, you’re on fine form to separate the wheat from the chaff in the world of cognitive neuroscience.

Excellent stuff.

Link to coverage on the Neurobonkers blog.
Link to streamed video of the lecture.

Consciousness after decapitation

How long is a severed head conscious for? The question has troubled students of the human body for centuries and generated countless, possibly mythical stories. History of medicine blog The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice has finally looked through the records to find out which of the accounts are based in blood-curdling fact.

A common tale involves someone trying to test the idea during the French revolution by taking a severed head directly after it has fallen from the guillotine and asking questions, with the unfortunate victim communicating via blinks until it loses consciousness.

We’ve covered exactly such a story previously on Mind Hacks, but historian of medicine Lindsey Fitzharris thought it sounded a bit too much like a tall tale and decided to find out if anything like this had ever actually happened.

She ended up on a wonderfully macabre journey through the science of consciousness after decapitation, involving everything from electrocuting severed heads to grimacing dead people:

The first to reportedly do so was a Dr Séguret, who subjected a number of guillotined heads to a series of experiments during the French Revolution. In several instances, he exposed their eyes to the sun and observed that they ‘promptly closed, of their own accord, and with an aliveness that was both abrupt and startling’. He also pricked one of the severed head’s tongue with a lancet, noting that the tongue immediately retracted and ‘the facial features grimaced as if in pain’. Was this my urban legend?

Right century, wrong story.

Fitzharris eventually finds the source of the story, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the, er, fun for you.

Link to ‘Losing One’s Head’ (via @TheNeuroTimes)

Animals conscious say leading neuroscientists

A group of leading neuroscientists has used a conference at Cambridge University to make an official declaration recognising consciousness in animals.

The declaration was made at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference and signed by some of the leading lights in consciousness research, including Christof Koch and David Edelman.

You can read the full text as a pdf file, however, the main part of the declaration reads:

We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non- human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

You can also see all of the talks on the conference’s webpage. Curiously, physicist Stephen Hawking was there and the declaration was signed in his presence.

Link to conference website.
pdf of full declaration.
Link to coverage from Janet Kwasniak.