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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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

Human, quadruped: Uner Tan Syndrome, part 1

(I am republishing a lot of my ‘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. Originally published 3 September 2010.)

The photos that accompanied news releases about quadrupedal people living in Turkey, members of a family that allegedly could not walk except on hands and feet, looked staged when I first saw them. Three women and one man scrambling across rocky ground, the women in brightly coloured clothing, the sky radiant blue behind them, their eyes forward and backsides high in the air – like children engaged in some sort of awkward race at a field day or sporting carnival.

Members of a Turkish family with Uner Tan Syndrome

For an anthropologist interested in human motor variation and adaptation, the family looked too good to be true. Subsequent reports and a string of papers confirmed that the families did exist, and they suffered from a condition that came to be called ‘Uner Tan Syndrome’ (sometimes ‘Unertan Syndrome’ or UTS). This story is not new, having already broken and exhausted itself on the waves of internet enthusiasm, but I’ve been wanting to write a sober reflection on the lessons I take from UTS for a while now, and my first major post on our new site seems like a good place. Continue reading

Human (amphibious model): living in and on the water (originally 3 Feb, 2011)

(I am republishing a lot of my ‘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.)

At the beginning of the film clip, Bajau fisherman Sulbin sits on the side of a boat on the coast of Borneo, gulping air, handling his speargun.  And then, he drops into the water.  The footage suddenly changes and becomes arresting: silent, dreamy, slow, and so blue.  Sulbin strokes deliberately and descends until he strides along the bottom of the ocean, holding his breath, and hunts for fish through handmade goggles. [I’ve had to get a new version of the video clip, 2019.]

Finally, after a couple of minutes, he spears a fish and heads for the surface.  The narrator tells us that Sulbin could stay down twice as long and dive deeper if necessary.  Most viewers, unfamiliar with free diving, exceptional if they can hold their breath longer than thirty seconds, are quite likely to be shaking their heads by the end of the clip, wondering at the ability of the human body to adapt to life in water.  Life as an amphibious human can appear so alien that it’s stranger than science fiction, but painfully beautiful to watch.

I stumbled across the video clip in part because of my academic interest in free diving [I have had to embed a new video clip. GD 2019]. Earlier this month, I was supposed to attend a free diving workshop in New Zealand with one of the sport’s world record holder, Will Trubridge (or see the story on the Times Online).  The workshop fell through at almost the same time I was diagnosed with multiple hernias, so my first free diving experience likely wouldn’t have worked out – I’m still hoping to do it as part of my ethnographic research on extraordinary human performance in the near future. Continue reading

David Graeber: anthropologist, anarchist, financial analyst* (originally 2011)

This post was originally published in 2011 on PLOS Neuroanthropology at: https://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/2011/10/15/david-graeber-anthropologist-anarchist-financial-analyst/ (link is to an archived version. PLOS has recently purged their legacy weblogs from PLOS Blogs; we repost here to try to preserve this content. 

Wall Street is in the grips of an ‘occupation,’ and activist and anthropologist, David Graeber, now at Goldsmiths, University of London, is in the centre of the action.  Graeber has been doing a few television and radio interviews of late (check here for his interview on ABC Radio National, Australia), talking about the organization of the Wall Street occupation as well as his new book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House).

The juxtaposition of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s recent comments about anthropology and the fact that Graeber is offering what may be among the most penetrating and accessible analyses of an important dimension of the current global debt crisis is striking. Of course, maybe clear-eyed analysis of our current economic situation, and the ability to point out that other societies do perfectly well with other sorts of economic and political systems, is precisely the sort of academic work that Gov. Rick Scott thinks universities should give up.  After all, no one needs to understand why US firms are shedding jobs, or take a sober look at the current financial regime in the light of the 5,000-year history of debt.  Students should just put their heads down and do the sorts of degrees that will give them technical jobs.  Pay no attention to The Man behind the curtain! Continue reading

Anth 207: new open education space – update!

If you follow Neuroanthropology, either here or on Facebook, you may have noticed something new. We’ve had a bit of a facelift to this site and added a page: Anth 207 Neuroanth 101. This new venture is an effort to generate open educational resources for people interested in psychological anthropology: students, teachers, researchers, the curious…

The first video for Anth 207  Neuroanth 101 is already posted: WEIRD psychology.

We’ll be adding more videos slowly, as well as suggested readings, other related resources, reflection questions, and notes. The goal is to start building an open resource for those who want to start learning about neuroanthropology.

Check back, or join the Neuroanthropology Interest Group on Facebook to keep up with new developments.

UPDATE: After a quick consultation with partner-in-online Daniel Lende, we’ve decided to go whole hog with the new look, new feel, and all-neuroanthropology message. I’ve done a quick rename to ‘Neuroanthropology 101’ with the goal of making it clear what we’re doing, and hopefully making a space to which other neuroanthropologists will want to contribute.

The new linguistic relativism: Guy Deutscher in the NYTimes

ResearchBlogging.org
How does language affect thought and perception? It’s a question we’ve looked at here at Neuroanthropology.net on a number of occasions, but Prof. Guy Deutscher, offers a nice general survey of the current state of play in the research over at The New York Times in ‘Does Your Language Shape How You Think?’ Posts on language tend to attract a lot of traffic, so I’d encourage you to take a look.

Prof. Guy Deutscher
Prof. Deutscher is an accomplished linguist, who has written a number of general works as well as specialist works, including research on Akkadian, the language of ancient Babylon and Assyria. Deutscher is honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester, and the article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, to be published by Metropolitan Books.

Deutscher lays out a number of different areas of research that suggest language affects thought, especially in the areas of gender, spatial perception, time, and colour perception, and suggests some areas where profound linguistic differences offer tantalizing possibilities for studying the subtle ways that linguistic practice can influence cognition.

Although I feel Deutscher is unreasonably harsh on Whorf, in part because some contemporary understandings of Benjamin Whorf paint him as a more radical linguistic determinist than I find him to be, the research Deutscher discusses is well worth considering, and it’s a nifty piece to share with our regular readers.

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