Art and the altered mind

wain_cat.jpgRolldance is a blog started by artist Laurie Buenafe that highlights the intersections between art, the mind and mental illness.

Creativity and mental illness have often been linked. A number of prolific artists who have been mentally ill, sometimes leading to some truly striking artwork, and many people suffering mental distress find relief in art and art therapy.

More recently, scientific evidence is now emerging to show that many of the same psychological attributes are associated with both psychosis and creativity.

Rolldance aims to keep the reader up to date on interesting news items relevant to understanding and coping with mental illness, as well as noting where art and the altered mind meet to good effect.

Link to Rolldance blog

A critical look at the genetics of orgasm

PsyBlog has done a great job of tracking down some critical views on recent reports that suggest there may be a genetic contribution to women’s ability to orgasm and whether this relates to an evolutionary role for sexual climax.

The comments are from psychologist Dr Petra Boyton and bear reading in full.

She criticises both the original research findings, and the subsequent way the media have reported the results.

Some criticisms are more telling than others – the fact that the research “wasn’t published in a recognised sex journal” seems a little circumstantial to me – but overall, it’s a well needed analysis of the recent media frenzy.

Link to article ‘ Women, orgasm and genetics’.
Link to article ‘Women! Don‚Äôt orgasm so easily’

The genetics of female orgasm

New Scientist is reporting on a study into the <a href="genetics of the female orgasm. This is timely, as its evolutionary role is now a subject of much debate, as mentioned previously on Mind Hacks.

Spector’s team asked more than 6000 female twins to fill out a confidential questionnaire about how often they achieved orgasm during intercourse and masturbation. They received 4037 complete replies, which included answers from 683 pairs of non-identical twins and 714 pairs of identical twins.

According to a study published this week, up to 45% of the differences between women in their ability to reach orgasm can be explained by their genes.

There are two common ways that researchers compute genetic influence from twin studies however, one known as ‘pairwise concordance’ the other as ‘probandwise concordance’ (some details here).

Probandwise concordance typically suggests much higher levels of influence from the same data.

I’ve not been able to read the full text of the article, so can’t find out what method has been used to calculate concordance, but if anyone has, please get in touch.

Link to New Scientist story.
Link to summary from
Link to abstract of study from Biology Letters.

Why can’t Robert Lansberry get his mail ?

lansberry.jpgFilmmaker Richard Pell has released online a compelling documentary that questions the distinction between psychosis, reality and reasonable paranoia.

It focuses on the life of the late Robert Lansberry, an anti ‘mind control’ protestor who heard voices he attributed to mind control technology. He also believed he was being targetting by the FBI and secret service, who were stopping him getting his mail.

It turns out however, that his mail was being intercepted by the authorities, as his FBI file shows. Furthermore, many of his concerns about mind control turned out to be less crazy than they sounded.

The documentary discusses research into conformity and mind control, genuinely carried out by the secret services during the 60s and 70s, and has archive footage and interviews with some of the people involved.

As well as giving an insight into a warm and fascinating character (who at one stage ran for office and gained over 30,000 votes) it questions the basis for understanding psychosis and paranoia in an increasingly paranoid world.

Link to documentary Don’t Call Me Crazy on the 4th of July

Sex and science: The debate continues

microscope.jpgSome notable scientists have pitched into the gender determinism debate recently held between Pinker and Spelke, as previously mentioned on Mind Hacks.

The debate centred on the influence of biology, sex and gender on psychological abilities, and was inspired by controversial comments suggesting that women might be genetically less suited to science.

The commentary includes insights from psychologists Diane Halpern, Alison Gopnik and Nora Newcombe and geneticist David Haig.

Link to gender determinism commentary from

Magnetism and human behaviour

horseshoe_magnet.jpgNew Scientist reports on research showing that social behaviour can follow the laws of a surprising phenomenon – magnetism.

Physicists Quentin Michard and Jean-Philippe Bouchaud were interested in modelling imitation in society – to explain the drop in European birth rates, the explosion in mobile phone ownership and the way clapping at a concert suddenly stops.

The researchers noted similarities in the way magnetic fields influence the spin of electrons in an atom. One atom can influence the next, and with enough effect, the direction of spin in all the atoms can suddenly align.

Modelling each atom as a person allowed the creation of a mathematical model that can accurately predict how, like atoms, human behaviour can suddenly align.

This is not the first time physicists have used mathematical models to predict large-scale human behaviour. Physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi used models of dynamic synchronisation to also model audience appreciation – particularly the phenomenon where thunderous applause turns into <a href="synchronised clapping.

Steven Strogatz’s book Sync explores these models in more details, and shows that similar patterns underly many diverse aspects of the world – from human behaviour to the wobble of the London’s Millennium Bridge.

Link to New Scientist item on magnetism and social behaviour.

Pheromones and sexual attraction

girl_midriff.jpgTwo recent studies have revealed the complex interactions between pheromones, sexual orientation and attraction – suggesting that our sense of smell may be an important part of the turn-on.

Psychologists Charles Wysocki and Yolanda Martins have been studying the effect of human pheromones in an experiment where they asked participants to judge odour from a cloth wiped across the body.

In particular, participants were asked to guess sexual orientation from the person’s scent.

Wysocki found that gay men preferred odours from gay men and heterosexual women, whereas odours from gay men were found least attractive by women and straight men.

A possible biological basis for this effect has been suggested by a brain scanning study completed by a research team led by Ivanka Savic Berglund.

Berglund found that male pheromones caused similar brain activity in gay men as it did in straight women, although the effect was not found in straight men.

A similar brain activity pattern was found for straight men however, but only when they were exposed to an oestrogen based chemical.

Even the fine-grained preferences of individuals might be important. Research by Claus Wedekind has suggested that such preferences are optimised to match-up people with complementary genes for immunity.

Link to article on Wysocki’s body odour study from
Link to article on Berglund’s brain scanning study from New Scientist.
Link to article on smell and sexual attraction from Psychology Today.

Mental health and human rights

Open access medical journal PLoS Medicine has a thought-provoking article on mental health, human rights and the standard of mental health care around the world.

It mentions some shocking statistics that highlight how low a priority mental health is for most countries, despite the massive burden of disability it causes.

According to the 2001 World Health Report, “some 450 million people suffer from a mental or behavioral disorder, yet only a small minority of them receive even the most basic treatment”… According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental and behavioral disorders are estimated to account for 12% of the global burden of disease, yet the mental health budgets of the majority of countries constitute less than 1% of their total health expenditures.

Various cases of poor practice are highlighted, including a shocking picture of the sanitary facilities in Larco Herrera Psychiatric Hospital in Lima.

The article goes on to suggest ways to tackle the problem, both in the health care and legal systems, and discusses integrating an approach to mental disability into a wider human rights approach.

Link to PLoS Medicine article Out of the Shadows.

A Dancer Without A Body

A reader sent in a link to this piece of Flash artwork, Drift. The globes dance and drift, moving together in such a way as to suggest a person. The science behind this is discussed in Hack #77 ‘See A Person In Moving Lights’.


The short story is that the way our brains pick out the principle components of moving people allows us to project a really powerful illusion of personhood onto lights that move in just the right way (the right way being the way lights would move if they are put on someone’s joints). It is moving together in time that creates the illusion, which is why this screenshot won’t convey any of the power of the illusion and you’ll need to watch the movies if you want to see exactly what i’m talking about.

The interesting thing about the Drift animation, I think, is that although it is elegant and at times evocative it isn’t quite convincing. Two reasons for this are, I think, that a) the balls are quite large and so do not precisely indicate a point on the body and b) this is an animation of how someone thinks someone’s joints should move, not a recording from real joints. Compare with these Dancing Lights which are done with real people in darkness with lights attached to their joints. Although, in some senses, there is less information here, the illusion is so much, so much, more convincing. There is a shock of recognition that you just cannot deny “Yes”, my brain says, “These are definitely real people, not just a collection of lights”. But you are not seeing real people, you are seeing a collection of moving lights. It is impossible to perceive it any other way that as people thought- every nuance of motion and timing is rendolent of personhood. The illusion in the animation suffers because it doesn’t capture these small things and the brain knows the difference.

And, finally, my favourite link : The BioMotion Lab Point Light Walker of Prof. Nikolaus Troje. This demo, constructed using recordings from scores of real people, allows you to adjust the gender, build, and mood (both nervous-relaxed and happy-sad) of a set of walking lights. Playing with this you can see just how much information we can get out of this abstracted-kind of motion.

Classic case: Psychiatric treatment of ghost possession

flo_katie.jpg In 1994 a curious case-report was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. It described a man who believed he was possessed by a spirit and was successfully treated by medication. Unusually however, the article mentioned that other people had seen the ghost.

Belief in possession is not uncommon in psychosis, the mental state that can sometimes accompany severe mental illness and typically involves delusions and hallucinations.

Psychiatry usually assumes all such experiences to be tricks of the mind, rather than the result of other-worldly powers.

The case-report by Anthony Hale and Narsimha Pinninti (summary) is almost unique however, in that it suggests that the authors are unsure whether the possession was mental illness or spiritual intervention.

As well as making for a gripping read, it reveals some of the assumptions and difficulties of contemporary psychiatry.

Continue reading “Classic case: Psychiatric treatment of ghost possession”

‘Dhat’ and semen loss

An article by psychiatrist Athula Sumathipala that discusses a curious syndrome involving pathological anxiety about semen loss, has just become available online from last year’s British Journal of Psychiatry.

The syndrome, known as dhat, involves feelings of fatigue, weakness, anxiety, loss of appetite, guilt and sexual dysfunction, all attributed to the loss of semen.

Dhat is typically associated with India and China, where it was discussed in ancient texts. Sumathipala’s review makes it clear however, that such concerns have been prevalent in the west as well.

In fact, they were discussed as far back as early medical texts by Galen, and formed the basis of relatively recent (although spurious) theories on madness and masturbation.

The article starts with a discussion on the shaky psychiatric concept of a culture-bound syndrome – a supposedly culturally specific mental illness – and describes the curious syndrome in detail in the Results section of the paper.

Link to full text of article from the British Journal of Psychiatry.
Link to an Introduction to Culture-Bound Syndromes from the Psychiatric Times

The taste of musical notes

A paper published in recent issue of the scientific journal Nature, describes a case of a woman who has the synaesthetic experience of tasting sounds and seeing them as specific colours.

She is a professional musician and uses her unique gift to pick out specific notes and tone intervals. Her abilities were tested by asking her to identity specific tone intervals while tasting sour, bitter, salty or sweet solutions.

When compared to other musicians, she found it more difficult when the taste of the solution differed to the taste usually produced by the tone interval, than when they matched.

Link to study summary from
Link to writeup from

Fortean Times article on Outsider Art

The Fortean Times have just put a fantastic article online about Outsider Art.

Although the term ‘Outsider Art’ is used to describe artists from a number of different backgrounds, the art of people who have been declared insane or mentally ill is especially prominent.


The work can often be intricate, intense, disturbing and delightful, sometimes all at the same time, and is largely produced by people with no formal training or contact with the mainstream art world.

The above image is part of Adolf W√∂lfli’s picture ‘Irren-Anstalt Band-Hain’.

Link to Fortean Times article on Outsider Art.
Link to some Outsider artists on

Cultivated Perception

Lots of psychology isn’t rocket science – it’s not exactly stuff you couldn’t have figured out yourself if you’d have thought about it for long enough. Often the conclusions from some area of investigation are explained to you and you think ‘Well, hey, that’s obvious’. And of course there’s an argument that true answers often should be obvious, once you’ve been told them.

One of the the things I hoped we could do with Mind Hacks was give people framworks for looking at how our minds work, and how we interact with the environment, so that it becomes easier to spot the obvious in advance. After all, we all have minds, so we all have access to the raw data to draw the conclusions – it’s just that there are many things you don’t notice until you’ve learnt to see them. (Until someone stops me i’m going to call this ‘cultivated perception’).

So, I should be working on designed a questionnaire (a sign that I committed grevious sins in a past life?) and I noticed how I could improve it with a little lesson from Chapter 8 of the book.

Continue reading “Cultivated Perception”