Gotham psychologist

Andrea Letamendi is a clinical psychologist who specialises in the treatment and research of traumatic stress disorders but also has a passionate interest in how psychological issues are depicted in comics.

She puts her thoughts online in her blog Under the Mask which also discuss social issues in fandom and geek culture.

Recently, she was paid a wonderful compliment when she appeared in Batgirl #16 as Barbara Gordon’s psychologist.
 

I’ve always been of the opinion that comics are far more psychologically complex than they’re given credit for. In fact, one of my first non-academic articles was about the depiction of madness in Batman.

It’s also interesting that comics are now starting to explicitly address psychological issues. It’s not always done entirely successfully it has to be said.

Darwyn’s Cooke’s Ego storyline looked at Batman’s motivations through his traumatic past but shifts between subtle brilliance and clichés about mental illness in a slightly unsettling way.

Andrea Letamendi has a distinctly more nuanced take, however, and if you would like to know more about her work with superheroes do check the interview on Nerd Span.
 

Link to Letamendi’s Under the Mask (on Twitter as @ArkhamAsylumDoc)
Link to Nerd Span interview.

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

Control your dreams (ebook)

Anyone can learn to have lucid dreams, and this ebook tells you how. Lucid dreams are those dreams where you become aware you are dreaming, and can even begin to control the reality of the dream. Adventure, problem-solving and consequence-free indulgence await! And for those interested in the mind, lucid dreams are a great place to explore the nature of their own consciousness. The ebook is written as a sort of travel guide, telling you what you need to take on your journey and what to expect when you start to lucid dream. It finishes off with a quick review of the scientific literature on lucid dreaming and links and references for further reading if you want to continue your exploration of lucid dreaming.

I wrote this with friend, and lucid dreamer, Cat Bardsley. My wife Harriet Cameron provided some beautiful illustrations which you can find throughout the book (and on the cover you can see here). The book is Creative Commons licensed so you can copy it and share it as you will, and even modify and improve (as long as you keep the CC licensing). It’s available on smashwords on a pay-what-you-want-basis (and that includes nothing, so it is yours for free if you’d like).

“Control your dreams” is my second self-published ebook. You can also get “Explore your blindspot” from smashwords (which is completely free, and also CC licensed). The wonderful folk at 40k books published my essay The Narrative Escape last year (and after doing all the formatting and admin associated with these two new ebooks I am more and more in awe of what they did).

Sweet Dreams!

Explore your blind spot (free ebook)

I’ve written an ebook called ‘Explore your blind spot’. It’s about, er, exploring your blind spot! In the best tradition of Mind Hacks I take you from the raw experience to the cutting edge of scientific theory. The blind spot is a simple phenomenon of our visual processing, but one we don’t notice day to day. In the ebook I talk about how it provides a great example of the way consciousness is constructed despite ‘missing’ information. Like the ebook subtitle says, the blind spot gives us an insight into the mind hides its own tracks.

The ebook is available in all major formats here and is creative commons licensed. That means it is free, not just to download but also to share. You can even edit it and pass on modified versions, as long as you keep it CC licensed.

I’ve written this book as an experiment in ebook publishing, and as a test-bed for what I think could be a good format for presenting open-source guides to the myriad interesting phenomena of psychology. If you’ve got feedback let me know.

Link to Explore your blind spot, a free ebook by Tom Stafford

A review of Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

I’ve written an in-depth review of Steven Pinker’s new book on the decline of violence for the latest Wilson Quarterly

I thought getting a free copy and working on a review would be great fun but was rather taken aback when the 848 page book landed on my doorstep. I shouldn’t have been because there isn’t a wasted page.

I go into the details of some of Pinker’s key arguments in the book, which you can read in more detail in the review, but as you can see from this part, the book is definitely worth reading.

Despite my concerns about how Pinker portrays individual psychology and neuroscience, The Better Angels of Our Nature is so comprehensive that these faults represent only a fraction of the book. Taken as a whole, it is powerful, mind changing, and important. Pinker does not shy away from the gritty detail and is not to be taken lightly—quite literally in fact, as at more than 800 pages his book could easily be used as a weapon if you remained unpersuaded by its arguments. But this avalanche of information serves to demonstrate convincingly and counterintuitively that violence is on the decline.

In many ways, violence is a disease of the emotions. While we should never ignore the victims, it can be managed and curbed so it affects as few people as possible and remains minimally contagious. Many illnesses that once felled multitudes are now largely vanquished through greater knowledge and simple preventive measures; a similar process has made us all less likely to be targets, and perpetrators, of brutality. As Pinker argues, this is an achievement we should take pride in.

You can read the full text of the review by clicking on the link below. Thanks to The Wilson Quarterly for making it available online.
 

Link to review of Pinker’s new book in The Wilson Quarterly.

A case of simulated fragmentation

The New York Times has an excerpt of a book that claims to expose one of the most famous psychiatric cases in popular culture as a fraud.

Based on an analysis of previously locked archives the book suggests that the patient at the centre of the ‘Sybil’ case of ‘multiple personality disorder’ was, in fact, faking and admitted so to her psychiatrist.

The diagnosis, now named dissociative identity disorder, is controversial because the idea that someone can genuinely have several ‘personalities’ inside a single body has not been well verified and diagnoses seemed to boom after the concept became well-known.

This particular case became well known because it was written up as a best-selling 1973 book and was later turned into successful film of the same name.

The book and the film are though to have been key in the shaping the concept of the diagnosis and making it popular during the late 70s and 80s.

However, detective work by author Debbie Nathan has seemed to uncover medical notes that suggest the psychiatrist at the centre of the case, Cornelia Wilbur, may have known that his patient had admitted to faking for some time.

One may afternoon in 1958, Mason walked into Wilbur’s office carrying a typed letter that ran to four pages. It began with Mason admitting that she was “none of the things I have pretended to be.

“I am not going to tell you there isn’t anything wrong,” the letter continued. “But it is not what I have led you to believe. . . . I do not have any multiple personalities. . . . I do not even have a ‘double.’ . . . I am all of them. I have been essentially lying.”

Before coming to New York, she wrote, she never pretended to have multiple personalities. As for her tales about “fugue” trips to Philadelphia, they were lies, too. Mason knew she had a problem. She “very, very, very much” wanted Wilbur’s help. To identify her real trouble and deal with it honestly, Mason wrote, she and Wilbur needed to stop demonizing her mother. It was true that she had been anxious and overly protective. But the “extreme things” — the rapes with the flashlights and bottles — were as fictional as the soap operas that she and her mother listened to on the radio. Her descriptions of gothic tortures “just sort of rolled out from somewhere, and once I had started and found you were interested, I continued. . . . Under pentothal,” Mason added, “I am much more original.”

 

Link to excerpt of book in the New York Times.

The father of Randle P. McMurphy

An article in the Journal of Medical Humanities has a fascinating look at one of playwright Samuel Beckett’s early novels – an exploration of madness and mental health care that foreshadowed One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest.

Beckett is best known for Waiting for Godot, but his novel Murphy was previously one of the best known literary treatments of mental ill health until Ken Kesey’s famous work.

It turns out that Kesey gives a knowing nod to Beckett’s earlier work through his character Randle McMurphy.

As far as twentieth-century accounts of mental health nursing and psychiatry go, Beckett’s (1937) tale of Murphy has been much over-shadowed by Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. For better or for worse, Kesey’s nurse Ratchet became the epitome of the 20th century asylum attendant. But it was a notable act of approbation by Kesey to name his main protagonist, Randle P. MacMurphy, with due deference to Beckett; ‘MacMurphy’ literally meaning ‘son of Murphy.’

The comparison between the two novels is interesting, because Kesey drew his inspiration from his time working as a staff member on a psychiatric ward while Beckett drew his inspiration from being a patient.
 

Link to locked article (the humanities are deadly in the wrong hands).