Artist treats psychiatric hospital stay as art residency

Claude Heiland-Allen is an artist who specialises in mathematical, algorithmic and science-based art. When he was recently admitted to a psychiatric hospital he decided to treat his stay “as an artist-in-residence opportunity” – producing fractal images by freehand drawings.

You can see some of the amazing work on his website.

He explains the background to his unusual residency:

…Claude eventually found himself in a psychiatric hospital, treating his in-patient as an artist-in-residence opportunity, using more old-school media such as pens, pencils and paper to carry on making art despite adversity. It’s hard to draw a perfect circle when sharp drawing compasses are disallowed, but with plenty of time to practice, and inspiration from memories of Euclid, Escher, Coxeter, and many others whose names he should recall, many more images of various designs should be finding their way on to this website sooner or later, along with a few texts inspired by events along the ride.

Some amazing art and his website says more work from his stay is due to appear.

Link to Claude Heiland-Allen’s website (via @yaxu)

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.

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.

Works like magic

The New York Times has a short but thought-provoking piece on the benefits of supersition and magical thinking. This part particularly caught my eye:

For instance, in one study led by the psychologist Lysann Damisch of the University of Cologne, subjects were handed a golf ball, and half of them were told that the ball had been lucky so far. Those subjects with a “lucky” ball drained 35 percent more golf putts than those with a “regular” ball.

The results are from a 2010 study that looked at the effect of ‘lucky charms’ and good luck superstitions on performance, finding that they genuinely increase our ability to complete self-directed tasks through increased self-confidence.

It’s a fascinating result in light of the typical skeptical response that ‘lucky charms don’t work’ because in many cases they do. Importantly, however, they have their effect on tasks in which our own skill plays a significant part rather than those where random outcome is the prime factor.

In other words, they’d help you at poker but not at roulette.

And if you want to know more about how we acquire supersitions, Tom’s recent article for BBC Future breaks it down.

Link to NYT ‘In Defense of Superstition’.
Link to BBC Future article on supersitions acquisition.
Link to locked study.

A thread of hope from a shooting

No-one knows why Steven Kazmierczak snapped. When he kicked his way into a packed lecture hall in Northern Illinois University, shooting dead five students and injuring 21 more, those who knew him expressed surprise that he was capable of such brutal violence.

He killed himself at the end of the spree, meaning his motives remain unknown, but the legacy of this tragic event may be more than just the actions of a lone unfathomable killer.

Because when Kazmierczak attacked, a team of psychologists and neuroscientists had already assessed a large group of students who had been recruited as non-affected participants for a study on the effects of victimisation, giving the researchers an unwanted opportunity to better understand how sudden trauma affects the innocent.

Since the 1980s we have recognised a trauma-specific mental disorder. Its name, ‘post-traumatic stress disorder,’ seems to suggest that trauma alone causes the condition but we have known for years that genetics play a large part in determining who does and who doesn’t develop PTSD.

Not everyone who experiences a violent attack, disaster or sexual assault will develop PTSD. In fact, the single most common outcome after tragedy is not mental illness, but recovery. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t feel shaken up or distressed after such events but most people can return to their everyday lives, perhaps changed, but unimpaired.

What we still don’t know is how people who recover are different. Why is it that some individuals develop the disorder following trauma while others appear to be relatively resilient?

We’ve known since studies on Vietnam veterans that genetics accounts for up to 30% of the difference in PTSD symptoms but researchers have been keen to find to specific genes that confer the biggest vulnerability.

Normally these types of studies look at people with and without PTSD and compare the presence of specific genes known to be linked to brain function, to see if they appear more in one group than another. Although helpful, one problem with these sorts of studies is that it is difficult to say whether the genes might directly contribute to the condition or to a general difficulty with mood or behaviour.

In scientific terms, the reason this can be a problem is because people who are already, for example, low in mood or impulsive, are on average more likely to be victimised, attacked or abused. This means it’s difficult to know exactly which genes are most important for explaining the reaction to trauma, rather than the chance of being victimised.

Psychologist Kristina Mercer was leading a study on trauma before the shooting occurred. She had been interviewing female students about their life histories and experience of trauma at Northern Illinois University, originally planning to re-interview the students over time to see which characteristics made them more likely to experience sexual assault.

Clearly motivated to make sure that something more than grief and pain would come from the event, she switched focus to better understand what made some people more likely to develop PTSD after the shooting.

The team re-interviewed the participants in the weeks following the tragedy, assessing their exposure to the violence, any PTSD symptoms present and their level of support from friends and family. A similar interview was conducted 8 to 12 months later and at the end of the study, the researchers took saliva samples to look at the DNA of each participant.

As PTSD is largely a disorder of anxiety accompanied by an intrusive reexperiencing of the event that doesn’t fade with time, the team focused on genes for the serotonin transporter system or SERT.

Serotonin is one of the brain’s neurotransmitters that provide chemical signalling between brain cells. The serotonin transporter system is responsible for removing the used serotonin from the synaptic cleft, the signalling space between the neurons, and putting it back in place, ready to be used again.

This is important because if not removed from the synaptic cleft, the serotonin will keep on signalling. In other words, the efficiency of the serotonin transport system in cleaning-up stray neurotransmitter determines the strength of the signal as much as the original message.

We know that many of the key circuits involved in anxiety are reliant on the serotonin neurotransmitter, so the research team suspected that people with genes differing in how they control transport system could be differently susceptible to anxiety and, perhaps, trauma.

In line with their thinking, the results showed a similar picture. A transport gene called rs25531 was identified as directly linked to the chance of developing PTSD after the shooting. Interestingly, a commonly mentioned serotonin gene, 5-HTTLPR, was only linked to PTSD risk when it was also present with rs25531, suggesting the importance of looking at genetic interactions and not just single genes.

Because of nature of the shootings – a lone gunman who randomly attacked anyone in range – the results are more directly tied to reaction to trauma, rather than a possible vulnerability to being victimised, meaning this is one of the few studies that gives us an unambiguous insight into the post-trauma process.

Now it’s common at this point to say that a discovery of specific genes raising the risk of mental illness should lead to a better treatment for trauma, but this is usually nothing more than a hopeful twist on the scientific details, and this case is no different.

The results suggest no direct treatment and no immediate cure because mind, brain and trauma are too complex for simple solutions.

But the study is no less important. It’s still an essential part of our understanding and provides an essential thread in a tapestry of knowledge.

And fittingly, it shows that even from the shadow of tragedy, light emerges.

Link to locked scientific article.
pdf of full text.

A fitting tribute to Alan Turing

Nature has just published a fantastic Alan Turing special issue commemorating 100 years since the birth of the artificial intelligence pioneer, code-breaker and mathematician.

It’s a really wonderful edition, available to freely read online, and accompanied by a special podcast that talks to his biographer about Turing’s famous 1936 paper on computable numbers, his contribution to cracking the German Enigma ciphers, and his thoughts on machine intelligence.

The articles in the issue are no less exciting and cover everything from Turning’s impact on biology to a debate on whether the brain a good model for machine intelligence.

Essentially, stop whatever you’re doing right now, take the phone off the hook, poor yourself a drop of something thought-provoking and enjoy.

Great stuff.

Link to Nature special issue on Alan Turing.

A non hysterical view of ‘cheerleader hysteria’

I’ve written an article for the Discover Magazine blog The Crux about mass hysteria and conversion disorder in light of the not-very-good-coverage given to the issue after a group of cheerleaders with unexplained neurological symptoms made the headlines.

The New York Times described the situation as a ‘nutty story’ and said hysteria is ‘not supposed to happen anymore’ which is insulting and wrong in equal measure.

Nature News described the situation as a ‘mystery US outbreak’ and managed to confusion conversion disorder with mass hysteria, generating a unfortunate mix of scaremongering and confusion.

So the article for Discover Magazine tracks the history of conversion disorder (the condition that the girls have actually been diagnosed with), what it actually means (neurological symptoms without neurological damage) and the science of how we can experience unusual effects like blindness, paralysis or, in this case, tics, without actually having a neurological disorder.

As Freud fell out of fashion, many people assumed that the concept of hysteria had gone with him, but this is not the case. Although his theory about hysteria being caused by the “unconscious repression of trauma” isn’t very popular among scientists, it’s a simple fact that patients can develop what seem like neurological disorders—such as paralysis, blindness, seizures, and tics—despite having a perfectly functioning nervous system. And despite popular claims that the condition is rare or “doesn’t happen any more,” it still commonly presents in neurological clinics. Numerous studies have found that up to one-third of patients who consult with neurologists typically have symptoms that are not fully explained by neurological damage.


Link to Discover Crux piece on ‘Cheerleader hysteria’.