Long corridors of the mind

I’ve just read Barbara Taylor‘s brilliant book The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times which blends her own experiences as a patient in one of the last remaining asylums with an incisive look at the changing face of mental health care since the Victorian era.

Taylor is a renowned historian but the book is not what you’d expect. It’s scandalous, searingly honest and often a exquisitely observed look at herself and others as they made shaky orbits around the mental health system.

Through severe mental unwellness, the state mental health system, and a searching course of psychoanalysis, Taylor is an exceptional guide and she is provides a lot of cold hard truths, as well as a lot of warm, overlooked ones.

You might think that this is a book in the same vein as Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind or The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Sacks – accounts by brilliant women who recount the challenges of developing their careers while walking on the shifting sands of the mind.

But Taylor’s book is quite different. She has become a renowned history professor but the book ends well before, when she gets her first steady job after a long period of disability. Actually, most of the book describes her dysfunction in the face of wanting to fulfil her ambitions.

In this sense, the book is more like an explorer’s journal than the post-voyage story of success. It carefully captures the day-to-day atmosphere and characters of a world she never thought she’d be in.

Wrapped around this are Taylor’s descriptions of how her experiences, and the experiences of many others like her, were situated in the mental health system of the late 20th Century. It captures the course not only of her madness, but madness as a part of a changing society.

By the way, the ‘last asylum’ in the title is the sprawling Friern Hospital née Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, which we’ve discussed previously on Mind Hacks as one of the many Victorian asylums which have become don’t-mention-the-past luxury flats.
 

Link to more info on The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor.

She’s giving me hallucinations

Last year I did a talk in London on auditory hallucinations, The Beach Boys and the psychology and neuroscience of hallucinated voices, and I’ve just discovered the audio is available online.

It was part of the Pint of Science festival where they got scientists to talk about their area of research in the pub, which is exactly what I did.

The audio is hosted on SoundCloud which gives you an online stream but there’s no mp3 download facility. However, if you type the page URL into the AnythingToMP3 service it’ll present you with you an mp3 to download.

It was a fun talk, so do enjoy listening.

UPDATE: The nice folks at Pint of Science have made the mp3 downloadable directly from the SoundCloud page so no second website trickery needed.

Link to audio of Vaughan’s talk on hallucinated voices.

Spike activity 10-04-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

A new series of BBC Radio 4’s mind and brain magazine programme All in the Mind has just kicked off.

The New York Times has an excellent piece on America’s mental illness fuelled, jail and treatment revolving door: For Mentally Ill Inmates, a Cycle of Jail and Hospitals.

One of the few good, balanced pieces on the recent ‘genetics of sex offending’ study appeared in The Independent. Full open-access paper here if you want the original source.

MIT Tech Review reports an example of how the newly cloudified IBM AI system Watson will likely be applied more widely: focussed but free-form information provision at the human level. In this case, a museum tour guide that answers any question thrown at it.

A special documentary on Artificial Intelligence and Cinema was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. You can listen online, streamed only, because the BBC know that mp3s can kill.

New Scientist reports that a baboon bone has been found in the famous Lucy skeleton.

The pseudonymous and excellent neuroscience blogger Neuroskeptic is interviewed at Blogginheads.tv and we finally get to see his real face.

A fluctuating wellness

The New York Review of Books has an excellent new piece by Oliver Sacks where he describes the psychological effects of cancer treatment in terms of its effects on the ‘homeostasis of well being’.

The article weaves together the role of the autonomic nervous system, the progression of migraine and the repressions and releases of cancer treatment.

Indeed, everything comes and goes, and if one could take a scan or inner photograph of the body at such times, one would see vascular beds opening and closing, peristalsis accelerating or stopping, viscera squirming or tightening in spasms, secretions suddenly increasing or decreasing—as if the nervous system itself were in a state of indecision. Instability, fluctuation, and oscillation are of the essence in the unsettled state, this general feeling of disorder. We lose the normal feeling of “wellness,” which all of us, and perhaps all animals, have in health.

As you might expect it’s intricate, poetic and profound.
 

Link to ‘A General Feeling of Disorder’.

A brain of wonders

The U-T San Diego, which I originally thought was a university but turns out it’s a newspaper, has an excellent online multimedia project called ‘The Wonders of Your Brain’ which is an extensive and excellent look at some of the key issues in modern neuroscience.

It tackles everything from the development of the brain from embryo to old age, how the brain processes senses, the challenges of neurosurgery, mental health and brain disorders, and the future of brain science – to name just a little of the content.

It has some great articles, fantastic video, and includes a range of neuroscientists discussing their work.

Specialist science magazines would be proud to have this as a neuroscience piece so good work U-T San Diego. I may never have heard of you but apparently your a proper newspaper and you do great online neuroscience specials.

Recommended.
 

Link to ‘The Wonders of Your Brain’.