The book of reality distortions

I’m happy to announce that I’ve just finalised an agreement with Penguin to write a book on what hallucinations tell us about the mind, brain and human nature. From the proposal:

The mind and brain can generate fantastical visions and disembodied voices, illusory people and shifting landscapes, internal symphonies and sensed presences. These states happen at the extremes of human experience, in madness, terror and brain disturbance, but they are often an exaggeration of our natural tendency to hallucinate that we rely on for everyday perception – a tendency that has inspired great works of art and shaped history.

We all hallucinate, and our perception relies on it. We have blind spots in our vision that our brain fills with hallucinated experience. Occasionally we experience intense and vivid hallucinations, after taking certain drugs, during mental illness, with epilepsy or brain injury, during hypnosis, after being taken hostage, during deep-sea dives, while blacking out at high Gs, or at other extremes of human experience that tax the body and mind. But it is not just these situations that trigger hallucinations: one in ten healthy adjusted people hallucinate more than patients in hospital with psychosis. In other words, hallucinations are part of human nature.

The book explores different types of hallucinations and their historical and cultural significance, and explains how they arise and what they tell us about normal psychology and neuroscience. This is the central theme of the book: that hallucinations are not just mental junk; rather, they are windows into the workings of the mind and brain that can reveal the essence of our inner lives.

It won’t be out until 2012, but I’ll make sure Mind Hacks readers get to preview the adventure as it gets written.

Also, if you know of any fascinating research or interesting types of hallucinations – please let me know by posting in the comments or getting in touch.

I’m always pleased to receive tip offs and, as well of doing plenty of scientific investigation, I’m also planning to visit many interesting people and places.

The McDonaldization of the Mind

Last week’s ABC Radio National All in the Mind had a fantastic interview with journalist Ethan Watters whose book ‘Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche’ has been making waves with its criticism of the cultural dominance of American psychiatry.

I’ve promised a long overdue review of the book to The Psychologist so I won’t go into too many details here, except to say that although the book is not without its flaws, it remains an important take on how the DSM diagnostic manual is becoming a lens through which both professionals, and more importantly, regular folks, are interpreting their own distress.

This is not just a case of people using foreign terms to label mental disorder. The effect is much more profound. Our knowledge of illness, both physical and mental, affects how we experience distress.

Watters’ book investigates how ideas taken from Western society about the nature of mental illnesses are affecting other cultures, in terms of disease mongering by drug companies, inappropriate treatments being foisted on people in times of distress and local concerns being ignored because they “don’t fit the picture”.

These criticisms are not new, but Watters drags them from the depths of the anthropological research and vividly illustrates them by weaving them into personal and social stories from across the world.

The All in the Mind interview summarises and explores some of the most important and well-done pieces in the book and is definitely worth a listen.

Link to All in the Mind interview with Ethan Watters.

On the brain train

Tom kindly sent me a copy of his new book The Rough Guide to Brain Training which I’ve been thoroughly enjoying reading. I don’t think you’re ever going to get the most objective review from someone who’s already an admirer of Tom’s work, but I shall do my best.

I have to say, I’m not a big fan of puzzles, largely, it must be said, because I’m useless at them. The book is full of puzzles, but thankfully for me, they are interspersed by essays and snippets that give you a remarkably honest and science-based view of ‘brain training’ and the evidence for it.

In fact, right on the first page, in the introduction, the book is clear:

For now, it is safe to say that we don’t know of any magic bullets for brain training – there is no single kind of task or set of tasks which will improve brain fitness. And anyone who claims otherwise is probably trying to sell you something.

This is such as refreshing change from brain training books and games that make wild claims and go on about ‘neuroplasticity’ without understanding what it means and not knowing when it’s relevant.

There is none of that here. Everything is drawn from the science (Tom’s put all the references online, if you want to read up) and the book has many short essays that introduce you to how the brain works, how to keep it in good condition and how to optimise learning.

Also, virtually every page has a short paragraph giving a neuroscience fact taken from the research literature. For example:

American physician Robert Bartholow was the first to directly show that electrical activity on the surface of the brain controlled the body. In 1874, Bartholow was able to provoke movements of the body and limbs of patient Mary Rafferty by inserting electrodes through a hole in her skull.

There’s lots more where that came from. To be honest, if you’re not into puzzles there’s going to be a fair chunk of the book that’ll serve as no more than eye candy, but if you do, you’ll find them accompanied by some great short essays and snippets.

Link to more information on the book.
Link to essay written for the book but only available online.

Full disclosure: we both write for Mind Hacks, but I suspect if you’re reading this, you already know.

Brain stories and neuronovels

Photo by Flickr user William Forrester. Click for sourcen+1 has an excellent article on how neuroscience is making an increasing appearance in novels, not only as a subject, but also as a literary device to explore characters and explain their motivations.

It marks the start of the trend from Ian McEwan‚Äôs Enduring Love and notes that in more recent years books such as Richard Powers‚Äôs The Echomaker, Mark Haddon‚Äôs Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances have all drawn heavily from the medical and brain science literature for their main hooks.

What makes so many writers try their hands and brains at the neuronovel? At the most obvious level, the trend follows a cultural (and, in psychology proper, a disciplinary) shift away from environmental and relational theories of personality back to the study of brains themselves, as the source of who we are. This cultural sea change probably began with the exhaustion of “the linguistic turn” in the humanities, in the 1980s, and with the discredit psychoanalysis suffered, around the same time, from revelations that Freud had discounted some credible claims of sexual abuse among his patients. Those philosophers of mind who had always been opposed to trendy French poststructuralism or old-fashioned Freudianism, and the mutability of personality these implied, put forth strong claims for the persistence of innate ideas and unalterable structures.

And in neuroscience such changes as the mind did endure were analyzed in terms of chemistry. By the early ’90s, psychoanalysis—whether of a Lacanian and therefore linguistic variety, or a Freudian and drive-oriented kind—was generally considered bankrupt, not to mention far less effective and more expensive than the psychiatric drugs (like Prozac) that began to flow through the general population’s bloodstream. The new reductionism of mind to brain, eagerly taken up by the press—especially the New York Times in its science pages—had two main properties: it explained proximate causes of mental function in terms of neurochemistry, and ultimate causes in terms of evolution and heredity.

It’s really well researched piece and neatly outlines the play between literature, science writing, culture and neuroscience through the development of numerous popular novels in the area.

Link to n+1 article ‘The Rise of the Neuronovel’.

Where the wild things are

The Psychologist has an excellent article on the psychology behind the classic children’s book Where The Wild Things Are. It turns out that the author, Maurice Sendak, was heavily interested in psychoanalysis and intended the book to explore the inner life of children.

The article is by psychoanalyst Richard Gottlieb who examines some of the influences on the book and Sendak’s other works, noting that the author was in analysis himself and had an analyst as his life partner.

There is a remarkable thematic coherence to much of Sendak’s work, and this coherence links creative efforts that are decades apart and, additionally, links these works to what is known about his early life and formative years. Sendak himself has commented on his single-minded focus, saying, ‘I only have one subject. The question I am obsessed with is How do children survive?’ But it is more than mere survival that Sendak aspires to, for his children and for himself. He asks the question of resilience: How do children surmount and transform in order to prosper and create? It is tempting to imagine that Sendak conceives of the trajectory of his own life and art as a model for the way he has handled these questions in his works.

By the way, the whole issue of The Psychologist is freely available online, albeit as a slightly unwieldy Flash application.

It’s one of the best issues I can remember for a long time. You may want to check out an excellent article on the default network, an interview with Chris Frith, a piece on the psychology of storytelling or a review of recent discussions on the next big questions in psychology.

Link to The Psychologist on Where The Wild Things Are.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist. I read Where The Wild Things Are as a child and loved it.

The English and the magical properties of tea

From p312 of anthropologist Kate Fox’s entertaining book Watching the English:

Tea is still believed, by English people of all classes, to have miraculous properties. A cup of tea can cure, or at least alleviate, almost all minor physical ailments and indispositions, from a headache to a scraped knee.

Tea is also an essential remedy for all social and psychological ills, from a bruised ego to the trauma of a divorce or bereavement. This magical drink can be used effectively as a sedative or stimulant, to calm and soothe or to revive and invigorate. Whatever your mental and physical state, what you need is ‘a nice cup of tea’.

If you’re not from the UK, you may be interested to know that what the medical literature calls social support is often referred to as ‘tea and sympathy’ by the Brits.

Actually, the paragraph above is not particularly representative of the book’s careful observations of the English but I can’t resist the opportunity to discuss the mental health benefits of tea.

But even if you’re not particularly interested in the English themselves, the book is also wonderful if you’re intrigued by how social anthropologists think and work.

However, the book is more like sitting in the pub with a social anthropologist than being in a lecture with one, as it’s a combination of an academic approach to the study of the implicit rules of English culture and Fox’s subjective opinion about what these rules mean.

After downing a few chapters, the author gets a little more opinionated and less observational. Although the book is no less entertaining as Fox becomes a bit loaded, you can see she isn’t taking herself too seriously by the end.

Which, as she notes, is a very English trait.

Link to details of Watching the English.

Mad, Bad and Sad: A Historical Romance

Lisa Appignanesi’s book Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present is a romantic tour through the last 200 years of psychiatry and the feminine, although probably not in the sense you’re thinking of.

The romantic movement was a literary and artistic phenomena that emerged in the 1800s as a backlash to the rationalism of the enlightenment. They railed against science as a dehumanising force, although this view was not its most lasting legacy.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the romantic movement was to seed the idea that the scientific and the humane were contradictory and incompatible, suggesting that it is not possible to be both scientific and compassionate, rational and poetic, or objective and understanding at the same time.

These are the two cultures, of which C. P. Snow famously spoke, and applied to the mind the romantic view suggests that an interpretative psychology touches the very core of our humanity, whereas the empirical barely scratches the surface.

It’s a false dichotomy because we are neither the facts of biology nor the feelings of the mind. We are at all times, both. Each is just a shadow of the whole that, paradoxically, has no single identity.

The colours of romanticism run through Appignanesi’s book, who hails from a cadre of the feminist literati who have become respected psychoanalytic thinkers. As she notes in her book, heavyweights like Julia Kristeva and Juliet Mitchell were literature PhDs before training as analysts, and although Appignanesi maintains a critical distance, the same vein runs through her work.

This is most apparent in her explorations of the lives of famous women who have shaped our ideas about the feminine and mental illness. It is Freudian literary analysis which forms the backbone of personal explanations in the book, as each person’s inner life is poetically explored without significant recourse to other ways of interpreting their motivations and desires.

It is also the case, however, that this period of history is the most gripping of the book, not least because it features the players for which Appignanesi has the most passion, but also because of her careful historical work, weaving the developments in the understanding of the mind to the social, to the personal, and back again.

But it is not the focus on the poetic psychologies that gives the book its romantic tone, so much the coldness for science which most clearly shows itself as the book rolls on to the present.

This is partly reflected in the numerous minor neglectful errors that pop up in the final section: atypical antipsychotics are described as have ‘far fewer side-effects’ than the older types when we’ve known this not to be the case for many years; the ‘diazepams’ are described as a drug class when diazepam is a single specific medication; cognitive therapy is described as being based on an ‘underlying assumption that people are rational beings and ever-capable of self-assessment, without any self-deception’ when it is based, and always has been, on exactly the opposite premise.

With this section also comes unconcealed hostility for new evidence-based methods of mental health: psychometric tests are dismissed as ‘fun as parlour games’, cognitive therapy is bizarrely accused of being akin to ‘brainwashing’ and standardised questionnaires as pathologising teenagers.

The fact that these could be the effective tools of humane and sensitive clinicians seems almost impossible in this light. The rise of science in psychological treatment is portrayed as antagonistic to empathy and the true work of understanding the soul, when, in fact, they are complementary to it.

The likes of Elaine Showalter’s Hystories does not share this romantic slant, and manages to remain more broad in its overview, although is more limited in its scope.

But despite the slant, I found Mad, Bad and Sad both powerful and enlightening, gripping in places, and compelling in many of its arguments.

It is perhaps, the best romantic history of psychiatry available, although, it is not as purely historical as it claims.

Link to book details.