Delusions, odd and common: Living in the prodrome, part 2 (originally 10 January 2011)

(We are republishing ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 1 January, 2011. Comments have been pasted in at the end of the post from the original.) 

Author Rachel Aviv talked at length with a number of young people who had been identified as being ‘prodromal’ for schizophrenia, experiencing periodic delusions and at risk of converting to full-blown schizophrenia, following some of the at-risk individuals for a year.  In December’s Harper’s, Aviv offered a sensitive, insightful account of their day-to-day struggles to maintain insight, recognizing which of their experiences are not real: Which way madness lies: Can psychosis be prevented? (Freely accessible pdf available here.)

Psychiatric Research by Ted Watson

Aviv’s piece was really moving and inspired this post and an earlier one. The first part (Slipping into psychosis: living in the prodrome (part 1)) provides some sense of Aviv’s interviews, especially the story of ‘Anna,’ a woman who feared that she, like her mother before her, might be losing her grasp on reality.  In addition, the earlier post covered the controversy surrounding the attempt to formalize a diagnosis in the DSM-V of ‘prodrome’ and the ethical problems created by trying to identify who is at risk of ‘going mad.’

This post is my more speculative offering, contemplating the relation of the content of delusions to the cultural context in which they occur. How do the specific details of delusions arise and how might the particularity of any one person’s delusions affect the way that a delusional individual is treated by others?  Are you mad if everyone around you talks as if they, too, were experiencing the same delusions?

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Florida Governor: Anthropology Not Needed Here (originally 11 October, 2011)

(We are republishing ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. Daniel originally published this on 11 October, 2011. Comments have been pasted in at the end of the post from the original.) 

Anthropologists have been singled out by Florida Governor Rick Scott as not being needed. On the Marc Benier show, Gov. Scott said:

We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.

The American Anthropological Association issued a swift response to Gov. Scott, and the news that he thinks anthropology majors are not needed.

As an association, we are a group of over 11,000 scholars, scientists, and professionals who are dedicated to studying humankind in all its aspects, including through archaeological, biological, cultural, medical, and linguistic research… Perhaps you are unaware that anthropologists are leaders in our nation’s top science fields, making groundbreaking discoveries in areas as varied as public health, human genetics, legal history, bilingualism, the African American heritage, and infant learning.

As reported by the Orlando Sentinel, anthropology has become Gov. Scott’s primary example of an area where he believes public spending should be cut.

Tax revenues are expected to be lower than expected, forcing the state to prioritize where it spends dollars. Along those lines, Scott repeated a statement earlier this week by saying the state should spend less on education programs that aren’t related to current workforce demands, singling out anthropology.

“We’re spending a lot of money on education, and when you look at the results, it’s not great,” the governor told a luncheon crowd of the Northwest Business Association in Tallahassee. “Do you want to use your tax money to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”

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Slipping into psychosis: living in the prodrome (part 1, originally 5 January 2011)

(I am republishing ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 5 January 2011. Part 2 is here: Delusions, odd and common: Living in the prodrome, part 2 (originally 10 January 2011).

How might it feel to sense your own sanity eroding? Would you realize it? How might you sift the phantoms from physical reality, daydream from delusion, the irrefutable from the implausible? Or, as author Rachel Aviv puts it,

When does a strong idea take on a pathological flavor? How does a metaphysical crisis morph into a medical one? At what point does our interpretation of the world become so fixed that it no longer matters “what almost everyone else believes” [part of the definition of ‘delusion’ in the DSM]? Even William James admitted that he struggled to distinguish a schizophrenic break from a mystical experience. (Aviv 2010: 37)

Aviv wrote in the December issue of Harper’s MagazineWhich way madness lies: Can psychosis be prevented? (UPDATED: The original is now locked, but you can download a pdf of the story here. Thanks, Deidre!)  As Aviv told me in an email, the story arose, in part, out of following young patients at clinics who might be in the prodrome to psychosis, the early stages of experiencing intermittent breaks from shared reality that might lead up to schizophrenia.  Based on interviews with patients and clinicians, Aviv explores how both seek to cope with the warning signs that someone may be sliding toward a definitive break, or ‘conversion’ as it is termed in psychiatry, bolstering the individual’s sense of self and reality against corrosion.

The piece is a powerful, troubling, and thought-provoking read.  Aviv explains:

It is impossible to predict the precise moment when a person has embarked on a path toward madness, since there is no quantifiable point at which healthy thoughts become insane. It is only in retrospect that the prelude to psychosis can be diagnosed with certainty.  (36)

What I particularly appreciate about Aviv’s account is that she writes extensively about the nature of the delusions themselves, about the flow of delusional ideas, their relation to the collapse of a clear sense of self, and the challenges facing an individual who begins to feel the implausible welling up in everyday reality.  She writes that much of psychiatry has tried to get around the specificities of the delusions — Who’s putting thoughts in your head?  How are you being watched?  What sort of ghosts or angels or aliens are following you?

Patients and some clinicians alike have a vested interest in discrediting the content of delusions, dismissing the ideas as errant chemicals or glitches in brain function.  But as Aviv so clearly demonstrates, the specificities of the delusions are both what the patients struggle with daily and the source of the leverage that some of them find to fight off further drift into idiosyncratic worlds.  The delusions matter, both because patients search in them for signs of their truth or unreality, but also because the details of the delusion, not just the fact of having them, arise from our shared reality.

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The last free people on the planet (originally 9 Feb, 2011)

(I am republishing ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 9 February 2011.) 

In small pockets around the world live isolated indigenous communities, groups that, even though they have had run-ins with their neighbours or Westerners, prefer to avoid or resist any further contact.  Although we sometime call them ‘uncontacted,’ a more accurate description is probably ‘voluntarily isolated’ or ‘withdrawn’ or ‘evasive.’ Many of these groups have tragic histories of encounters with outsiders — too much ‘contact’ — where they fought to preserve their isolation and, usually, came up much worse off than their more numerous intruders.

Survival International reports that about one hundred groups around the world prefer to be left alone. They refuse to become enmeshed with their neighbours, to give up their ways of life and languages, or to find some way to earn the local currency or trade goods.  All have made it abundantly clear their wishes: stay away.

The BBC is the gift that seems to keep on giving to Neuroanthropology this week.  The striking footage below of an ‘uncontacted’ tribe, from the BBC Human Planet series (‘Jungles’ episode), was shot from one kilometre away using a stabilized zoom lens from a small plane [Another video from Survival International added in 2019 due to broken link].  Like the previous clip I featured on undersea fishing, this footage of remote Indian communities near the Brazilian-Peruvian is haunting, especially with the running commentary provided by Brazilian José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles, an expert in the groups living in this area.

The footage shows people who refuse to come in from the forests. On the BBC footage, Meirelles says, It’s important for humanity these peoples exist… they’re the last free people on this planet.’

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The man with 1000 children: the limit of male fertility (Long, slow sexual revolution part 2)

(I am republishing a lot of ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 5 April 2014.) 

By Greg Downey; (long read: 5500 words)

Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif succeeded to the sultanate of Morocco after his brother fell from a horse and died in 1672. Twenty-six when he became the Sharifian Emperor, Moulay Ismael “the Bloodthirsty” — as he was called — went on to expand his holding in a remarkable reign. His armies conquered neighboring territories and fought off the Ottomans (eventually forcing them to recognize Moroccan independence), and the emperor went on a building spree to make Meknes a rival to Versailles, with French engineers to help.

Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, anonymous engraver 1719 (public domain)
Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, anonymous engraver 1719 (public domain)

Moulay Ismael also had a prodigious capacity for cruelty. He legendarily ordered that the walls of Meknes be decorated with the heads of 10,000 enemy soldiers. He also sponsored the Barbary pirates, who engaged the states of Europe in a protracted and costly low-grade war, drove the American colonies to form the first navy in North America, and pushed the English and Spanish from Moroccan territory.

But Moulay Ismael is probably best known to history because of his prodigious capacity to reproduce. The emperor had a thing for children,… well, for having sons, that is.

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The long, slow sexual revolution (reposted) with nsfw video

(I am republishing a lot of ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 10 January 2012. I have also included at the end some of the most substantial comments from the comment thread.)

A while back, Bora Zivkovic directed me (well, …all his Facebook followers) to the word, ‘sapiosexuality’: the tendency to become ‘attracted to or aroused by intelligence and its use’(thanks, Bora!).

Ironically, although the term may be a bit of a joke, the idea that intelligence is a species-specific aphrodisiac has more than a shred of evolutionary plausibility. Moreover, ‘sapiosexuality’ is a crucial point of reference in the contemporary discussion of human sexual selection, especially to break the stranglehold that Victorian social mores and sexist assumptions have on popular understandings of human sexual evolution.

I was reminded of the term ‘sapiosexuality’ after teaching my annual introductory course on human evolution. Student evaluations are in, and over and over again, student comments lead me to think that, in order to change popular understandings of evolution, we need not simply better data, but also better stories. Especially when tired, old tropes are repeatedly trotted out again in a popular discussion of how ‘evolution’ has shaped ‘human nature,’ even when the data is showing the opposite, we should wonder if evidence alone can ever overturn rusted on bad interpretations. Continue reading

Newtown and Violence – No Easy Answers

(I [Greg] am republishing a lot of ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg (dot) downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. Daniel originally published 7 December 2012.)

I just dropped my two young children at elementary school. They were bright and smiling, one off to practice handbells for a Christmas concert, another to chat with friends before the first bell.

Neither noticed the police car newly parked beside the school. Neither had a penny for my thoughts, of what it must have been like for those parents in Newtown, dropping off beloved children and then not having them only a few minutes later.

Now at my computer, I think of the Connecticut State Police Spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance, the man who has guided us through much of this tragedy. I remember his assurance on Friday that the police were doing everything to find out not only what happened, but why.

But why.

No Easy Answers Continue reading