One who studies the soul

i-D magazine has an interview with instrumental dubstep fusion maestro Psychologist. As part of the interview they asked him where the name came from and he gave quite a beautiful answer

What’s behind the name?

Literally, Psychologist means ‘one who studies the soul’, we think of it as a scary word in our harsh-sounding, Germanic language, but it actually means something really beautiful. I also like that it is ambiguous as to whether it’s me studying my own soul, or yours, or you studying my soul, or me asking you to study your own. It’s like a big impossible object that goes around and around.

If you want something of the more melodic side of Psychologist ‘Comes in Waves’ is a particularly beautiful track, while you can listen to an example of his unusual fusion style on the track ‘1:1’.

Link to i-D interview with Psychologist.
Link to ‘Comes in Waves’ on YouTube.

Deaf police to monitor security cameras in Mexico

Deaf police officers have been recruited to monitor security cameras in the Mexican city of Oaxaca because of their ‘heightened visual abilities’.

There’s a brief and somewhat clunky English-language news article from the local paper that describes the project:

Ignacio Villalobos Carranza, Deputy Secretary for the Ministry of Public Security of Oaxaca, said most of the monitoring of the 230 cameras is done by law enforcement officials that are hearing or speech impaired. He noted these police officers have a very strong deaf and visual sense and can better detect what is happening in different places where the cameras are located; they can often remotely read the conversations of people, to the benefit of this security system that operates 24 hours a day.

The ability to lip read conversations is a fantastic advantage, but the project raises the question of whether deaf people would actually be better at security monitoring in general.

As far as I know, there are no studies comparing hearing and deaf people on specific monitoring tasks but there is evidence that deaf people have certain advantages in visual attention.

This isn’t vision in general, such as having sharper visual acuity – where there seems to be no difference, but there is good evidence that deaf people are better at noticing things in the periphery of vision and detecting movement.

This potentially makes them perfect for the job and likely better than their hearing colleagues.

So the project turns out to be a targeted way not of recruiting ‘disabled people’ into the workforce, but of recruiting the ‘super able’. In fact, turning the whole idea of disability on its head.

There’s also a Spanish-language video report from BBC Mundo if you want more información.

Link to brief new article on the project.
Link to Spanish-language video report from BBC Mundo.

Let there be light, finally

A documentary on the trauma of war, banned by the US government for more than 30 years, has found its way onto YouTube as a freely viewable video.

During World War Two, legendary director John Huston, then a fresh face in Hollywood, was commissioned to make three propaganda films for the US Army.

The third film, Let There Be Light, was made in 1946 – just as the war ended – and focussed on the psychiatric treatment of soldiers traumatised in combat.

This is a description from the fantastic book The Empire of Trauma:

With no political agenda, and anxious to keep scrupulously to the task he had been given, Huston applied to the letter the principle of objectivity he had followed in the two previous documentaries. For more than three months, he filmed the daily life of former combatants hospitalized at Mason General, a military hospital on Long Island. The courage and sense of sacrifice of these men was clearly portrayed, as the Pentagon had clearly requested. But equally apparent was the fact that some of them were utterly destroyed: their fear, their shame, and their tears showed clearly, as did their contempt for military authorities. The film also documented the arrogance and harshness of the psychiatrists and brutality of some of their therapeutic methods. Remarkably, when the film received its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1981, the emotional response of the viewers and critics was muted, for the film did not meet the expectations of an audience seeking revelations about the military and medical practices of the time.

What made the film so controversial in 1946, made it commonplace in 1981. But this was nothing to do with film-making, and instead concerned the way it portrayed the effects of trauma.

Let There Be Light portrays the “emotionally damaged” soldier as an everyday person “forced beyond the limit of human endurance”. “Every man”, it says, “has his breaking point”.

This is the modern view of trauma, widely accepted in psychiatry and in today’s media narratives, and is itself somewhat of a simplification of what we actually know about how people react to extreme events.

But in 1946, and especially in military psychiatry, the most widely accepted view was that soldiers who became mentally ill were psychologically weak or malingering.

The fact that film showed US Soldiers, not as the glorified heroes the public wanted, but as disabled veterans, meant that the film would be a huge propaganda disaster – likely compounded by the fact that most people saw these conditions as character flaws or shameful faking.

The idea that these were ordinary men who had been through extraordinary circumstances was just too far ahead of its time to seem realistic.

And this is why it was censored, for 35 years, until it had its first public showing in 1981, when it seemed nothing more than a passé propaganda film that just reflected what we all assumed was always the case, but actually, never was.

Link to film on YouTube
Link to downloadable version on Internet Archive.

BBC Column: stopped clocks and dead phones

My column for BBC Future from last week. It’s another example of how consciousness isn’t just constructed, but is a construction for which the signs of artifice are hidden. The original is here


Ever stared at a second hand and think that time stands still for a moment? It’s not just you.

Sometimes, when I look at a clock time seems to stand still. Maybe you’ve noticed this to your bemusement or horror as well. You’ll be in the middle of something, and flick your eyes up to an analogue clock on the wall to see what the time is. The second hand of the clock seems to hang in space, as if you’ve just caught the clock in a moment of laziness. After this pause, time seems to restart and the clock ticks on as normal.

It gives us the disconcerting idea that even something as undeniable as time can be a bit less reliable than we think.

This happened to me for years, but I never spoke about it. Secretly I thought it was either evidence of my special insight to reality, or final proof that I was a little unhinged (or both). But then I found out that it’s a normal experience. Psychologists even have a name for it – they call it the “stopped clock illusion”. Thanks psychologists, you really nailed that one.

An ingenious experiment from a team at University College London recreated the experience in the lab and managed to connect the experience of the stopped clock to the action of the person experiencing it. They asked volunteers to look away and then suddenly shift their gaze to a digital counter. When the subjects tried to judge how long they had been looking at the digit that first appeared, they systematically assumed it had been on for longer than it had.


Filling gaps

Moving our eyes from one point to another is so quick and automatic that most of us probably don’t even think about what we are doing. But when you move your eyes rapidly there is a momentary break in visual experience. You can get a feel for this now by stretching your arms out and moving your eyes between your two index fingers. (If you are reading this in a public place, feel free to pretend you are having a good stretch.) As you flick your eyes from left to right you should be able to detect an almost imperceptibly brief “flash” of darkness as input from your eyes is cut off.

It is this interruption in consciousness that leads to the illusion of the stopped clock. The theory is that our brains attempt to build a seamless story about the world from the ongoing input of our senses. Rapid eye movements create a break in information, which needs to be covered up. Always keen to hide its tracks, the brain fills in this gap with whatever comes after the break.

Normally this subterfuge is undetectable, but if you happen to move your eyes to something that is moving with precise regularity – like a clock – you will spot this pause in the form of an extra long “second”. Fitting with this theory, the UCL team also showed that longer eye-movements lead to longer pauses in the stopped clock.

It doesn’t have to be an eye movement that generates the stopped clock – all that appears to be important is that you shift your attention. (Although moving our eyes is the most obvious way we shift our attention, I’m guessing that the “inner eye” has gaps in processing in the same way our outer eyes do, and these are what cause the stopped clock illusion.) This accounts for a sister illusion we experience with our hearing – the so-called “dead phone illusion”, which is when you pick up an old-fashioned phone and catch an initial pause between the dial tone that seems to last longer than the others.

These, and other illusions show that something as basic as the experience of time passing is constructed by our brains – and that this is based on what we experience and what seems the most likely explanation for those experiences, rather than some reliable internal signal. Like with everything else, what we experience is our brain’s best guess about the world. We don’t ever get to know time directly. In this sense we are all time travellers.

An in-brain stimulation grid

Implanted electrode grids are used to record brain activity in people who need neurosurgery – a technique known as electrocorticography.

But rather than just ‘reading’ from the brain, neuroscientists are starting to use them to ‘write’ to the brain, to the point of being able to temporarily simulate specific brain disorders for experimental studies.

This is the subject of my latest Observer column which looks at the history of open-brain stimulation studies and covers recent research by a joint British – Japanese team which has been using the grids to temporarily simulate a form of brain disorder called ‘semantic dementia’ in live volunteers.

The precision is such that the Lambon Ralph team and a team at Kyoto University Medical School, led by Riki Matsumoto, have used an implanted grid to temporarily simulate characteristics of a brain disease called semantic dementia. Like Alzheimer’s, semantic dementia is a degenerative disorder, but one in which brain cells that specifically support our understanding of meaning rapidly decline. Studies of patients with semantic dementia have taught us a great deal about how memory is organised in the brain but the disorder is swift and unpredictable, and a method that can mimic the effects while recording directly from the cortex is a powerful tool.

To be clear, the grids are not installed for this purpose. They’re installed because they are part of brain surgery to treat otherwise untreatable epilepsy. The grids allow neurosurgeons to locate the exact bit of the brain that triggers seizures so it can be removed.

The article is in part a coverage of the amazing neuroscience, from 1886 to the present day, and in part a tribute to the neurosurgery patients who have volunteered to help us understand the brain.

Link to Observer article.

The kings of Kingsley Hall

The Observer has an article on some of the residents of R.D. Laing’s chaos-as-therapy residential centre at Kingsley Hall, five decades on.

The idea was that people with psychosis and therapists would live together in a therapeutic environment and effect change without the use of medical drugs. Residents could ‘live out’ their delusions and come to terms with the early traumas which R.D. Laing saw as the root of their difficulties.

But as the documentary Asylum shows, the place was more chaos than freedom, and the residence became a stop-in for hippies, lost souls and acid dealers.

Most accounts of the place have focussed on Laing but photographer Dominic Harris decided to track down the residents for a portrait project.

The Observer article has some of their stories:

One patient had been in a mental hospital: John Woods, I think. His label in orthodox psychiatry was paranoid schizophrenic. He had some fantasy about some young woman and he couldn’t write letters to her himself so he dictated them to me. When it turned out this woman wasn’t interested, he assumed wrongly that I was preventing her from coming to visit him. He thought I was a black magician and was controlling her. Then living in there became quite scary. There was a chapel in the building, with a huge crucifix, and he burst into my room early one morning holding it. I thought he was going to attack me with it but he wanted to exorcise me. Eventually, I did something that was against the whole ideology of the place: I tried to have him sectioned.

There are many more fascinating, if not troubling, insights to the heart of the chaos.

Link to Observer article.
Link to project, book and exhibition on the residents by Dominic Harris