Earlier this week we discussed how 1800s neurologist Duchenne studied the components of facial expressions by electrocuting individual face muscles.
It turns out someone has done a modern day version, but automated the process and set the dancing faces of four participants to the rhythm of abstract techno. The video to be seen to be believed.
The compelling clip was actually from posted in the comments of another recent Mind Hacks entry on whether we can fake the supposedly unfakeable 'Duchenne smile' and was kindly highlighted by reader 'Thomas Exciting', who gets top marks for both his YouTube-fu and his nickname.
The facial expression ballet is by Japanese artist Daito Manabe and you can see more of his work on his website.
Link to facial expression techno ballet by Daito Manabe
The building for Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas is just beautiful.
The centre is a neuroscience research institute that was designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry.
It particularly focuses on Alzheimer's disease and other degenerative brain diseases.
The 'Lou Ruvo' in the name is a tribute to the father of the centre's founder who died from dementia.
A recent study in the Journal of Substance Use and Misuse reported on 'near death experiences' by users of the anaesthetic drug ketamine which is also widely used illicitly for its hallucinogenic effects.
'Near death experiences' are most commonly associated with being seriously ill or injured, although one of my favourite studies found that about half of people who reported the events were never actually in danger of dying.
NDEs typically involve a 'light at the end of the tunnel' experience, having life flash before your eyes, feeling detached from the body, the experience of making a decision to 'return to life', a sense of profound peace and a feeling of communicating with non-physical beings.
There were anecdotal reports that ketamine can produce similar effects with 'out of body experiences' being common at high doses. Additionally, the drug targets the glutamate system in the brain which has also been implicated in NDEs that don't involved the drug.
To understand how closely the drug produces the classic NDE experiences, researchers Ornella Corazza and Fabrizio Schifano asked ketamine users to anonymously complete a questionnaire on the internet and then invited those who reported an NDE on a validated assessment for an interview.
The results are fascinating:
Interestingly, in 45 (90%) cases, the NDE state occurred either during the first five occasions of intake or during the first few experiences after long spells of ketamine-free periods. On further occasions of intake, ketamine was typically perceived as a stimulant. In terms of the Greyson NDE Scale (see Table 2), the subjects’ perception of time seemed to be altered as typically described during an NDE: 45 (90%) participants reported that everything seemed to be happening at once, or that time lost all its meaning, while 5 (10%) perceived a complete “absence of time” during the experience.
The sense of dissociation from the physical body was experienced by 44 subjects (88%), who claimed that they left their bodies and existed outside it or that they lost awareness of their bodies. Thirteen subjects (26%) clearly described a travel along a tunnel, or through a spiral, with a brilliant light at the end or experienced a more general sense of light, or of flashing lights. Fifteen (30%) participants somewhat met with a “being,” or heard a definite voice of mystical or unearthly nature. An infrequently described feature was the so-called “life review.” Twelve (24%) subjects reported that they were able to either vividly “review” past events, or felt that their past “flashed before them, out of control.”
Furthermore, 10 (20%) subjects reported that during their experience they were “aware of things going on elsewhere,” as if by extrasensory perceptions. At the question “Did you suddenly seem to understand everything?” most interviewees (26, 52%), answered that they achieved “a total understanding of the universe.” Only 4 (8%) participants approached a sort of “barrier” or “a point of no return,” which was described as “the limit between earthly life and the next life.” This could have been an edge, a wall, or a river, among other patterns. Thirty-six (72%) respondents experienced an ineffable sense of peace and pleasantness, and 38 (76%) subjects described an “incredible joy.”
Link to PubMed entry for study.
Based on past findings of an overlap between the brain circuits involved in physical pain and those involved in feeling rejected, the researchers wondered whether painkillers would also ease emotional distress stemming from exclusion.
Not all painkillers work the same though: some work by numbing the local nerves - like benzocaine-based sort throat lozenges that make your mouth go numb, while others affect the brain systems that process pain no matter where it originates from in the body.
Paracetamol is largely of the second type meaning if social rejection and physical pain really do share some of the same brain circuits, the drug should dull the hurt from both.
To test this out, the researchers recruited a group of healthy students and asked them to take a pill every day for three weeks: half got placebo while the other half were given paracetamol, although they didn't know which they were taking.
Each evening the participants were asked to complete a standard questionnaire that asked about if they'd experienced hurt feelings or social exclusion during the day. While both groups started out reporting the same levels of hurt feelings, by the end of the three weeks, those taking paracetamol reported significantly less.
The second experiment of the study was similar but instead of filling in questionnaires the participants were asked to take part in a brain scanning experiment at the end of the three weeks.
Inside the scanner, they were asked to take part in a video game that involved tossing a virtual ball between players who they thought were human opponents. In reality, all the other moves were controlled by a computer programme that was preset to start excluding them from the game by not passing the ball to them.
The game was used in previous research and helped establish that brain activity in social rejection and physical pain overlapped.
The same overlap occurred in this new study, but the brain areas most linked to both physical and social pain - the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula - were less active in those who had been taking paracetamol for three weeks.
Those same participants also rated themselves as feeling less rejected on a brief post-game questionnaire than participants who had been taking placebo.
It's an intriguing finding because it suggests that a common and cheap painkiller might be useful in reducing feelings of social rejection which can feature prominently in conditions like depression and borderline personality disorder.
If this was a brand new drug, you can bet the pharmaceutical industry would be jumping up and down with glee at these findings and would already be planning trials to see if it works as a useful treatment.
But because paracetamol is so old it can't be patented and so there is virtually no profit to be made from it. Unfortunately, paracetemol can be toxic if taken too often, but it would be interesting to see if anyone does take up the baton to see if it might be a useful psychiatric treatment in appropriate doses.
Link to summary of study in PubMed.
The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom has just released a new document entitled 'What Psychology Professionals Should Know About Polyamory' which aims to educate therapists about people in consenting non-monogamous relationships.
The document reviews research on the well-being of people in open relationships and the emotional challenges that they can face, although, I'm afraid I don't have the knowledge to judge how balanced the analysis actually is (where's Meg Barker when you need her?)
However, I am reminded of a paragraph in the fantastic book Freud: A Very Short Introduction that discusses how the Freudian view of the traditional paired-off relationship runs into the wall of cultural differences:
Freud once thought of the Oedipus complex as universal; but it can be argued that it is very much a Western concept, which particularly applies to the small, 'nuclear' family. Do children brought up in extended families, in which polyagmy is the norm, experience the jealousy, possessiveness, and fear which Freud found in his patients? We do now know; but anecdotal evidence suggests the contrary. A Nigerian analyst told me that, during his training analysis, it took him over a year to make his analyst understand the entirely different emotional climate which obtains in a family in which the father has several wives.
Link to 'What Psychology Professionals Should Know About Polyamory'.
Wired's Danger Room blog has a short news item reporting that the co-founder and leader of the Human Terrain System, the US Army's teams of battlefield social scientists, is no longer in post and has presumably been fired.
The HTS has been a controversial innovation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and aims to understand the culture in which the conflict takes place to give the military a strategic advantage. Civilian social scientists have criticised the project as violating the 'do no harm' principal and branding the members 'weaponised anthropologists'.
Colonel Steve Fondacaro co-created the military project and pushed it to prominence in the military who are increasingly relying on human intelligence to fight an insurgent-led conflict.
No specific details have been given for why Fondacaro is no longer leading the project but the article does provide a potted history of the Human Terrain System's colourful history to the present time.
At last count, there were 21 Human Terrain Teams operating in Iraq and six more in Afghanistan, offering advice to commanders on the local cultural landscape.
There was a sense of perpetual chaos swirling around HTS, however. The program came under assault from nearly every angle: the quality of the Human Terrain “experts,” the depth of its training, the utility to infantry leaders, the competency of its managers, the exposure of civilian researchers to hostile environments, the ethics of turning social science into military intelligence.
Dozens left the program, disgruntled. Three social scientists were killed in action. One Human Terrain employee pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Another was charged with spying. A third was taken hostage in Iraq.
Link to Danger Room piece 'Human Terrain Chief Ousted'
The 'Duchenne smile' is thought to be a largely unfakeable expression of pleasure that involves a signature 'crinkling around the eyes' caused by automatic muscles. A new study covered by PsyBlog pours cold water on this popular idea by reporting that most people can produce undetectable fake smiles that involve these supposedly involuntary movements.
It has been suggested that 80% of us are unable to conjure up a fake smile that will trick others because we don't have voluntary control over the muscles around our eyes which signal the Duchenne smile...
Writing in a recent issue of the journal Emotion, however, Krumhuber and Manstead (2009) question whether this 80% estimate is anywhere near the mark. In the first of a series of experiments they found that 83% of the people in their study could produce fake smiles that others mistook for the real thing in photographs.
The researchers also explored how people perceived genuine and fake smiles when they saw videos rather than just static pictures. Then it emerged that fake smiles were easier to spot, but the supposedly crucial crinkling around the eyes didn't help much.
Instead, telling a real from fake smile relied more on dynamic processes such as how long people hold it, the symmetry of the expression and whether conflicting emotions are communicated by other facial areas.
Link to PsyBlog on 'Duchenne: Key to a Genuine Smile?'
The fascinating story of the Collyer Brothers, the 'Hermits of Harlem, is recounted in an article the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.
The two brothers became famous owing to them living in a chaotic home in New York City, although both met a tragic end as a result of their accumulation of junk:
Most famously, over decades they had filled the huge brownstone with possessions, newspapers, and just plain junk. After their deaths in 1947, over 130 tons of material was removed. There was so little of value that the few auctioned items fetched only $1,800.
So packed was the home of Homer (aged 64 years at death) and Langley (aged 61) Collyer that the interior was a maze of tunnels, many booby trapped to satisfy Langley's fear of intrusion. Langley, a failed concert pianist and Columbia engineering graduate, would go out at night dragging a carton by a rope, collecting things. Homer, a lawyer, blind and crippled by arthritis, was entirely dependent on his brother. In the end, Langley was crushed to death by debris triggered by one of his booby traps, leaving Homer to starve to death. Running the story as page-one news for weeks, the media fueled a frenzy of interest after Homer's body was found and a search for Langley revealed that he was buried [under junk] 10 feet from where Homer had died.
At the time the brothers were considered eccentric but not unusual enough to warrant the attention of a psychiatrist.
The article goes on to discuss who their behaviour might be understood by modern psychiatry, which would likely diagnose it as 'compulsive hoarding', usually thought to be a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD.
However, it the piece also a wide-ranging discussion on what different forms hoarding can take and how it is portrayed by the media.
Don't forget to check out the Wikipedia entry on the brothers that has many more details and also a list of other famous hoarders at the bottom of page.
Drug information site Erowid recently posted a 1951 Disney comic where Mickey Mouse and Goofy take speed.
In the strip, 'Mickey Mouse and the Medicine Man', Mickey and Goofy discover a new medicine called 'Peppo' which is clearly meant to represent amphetamine. Their enthusiasm for the chemical pick-me-up leads them to become salesman for the product in Africa.
Although the idea of Disney characters taking speed seems rather incongruous these days, in 1951 amphetamine was legal and widely available over-the-counter in America, mostly in the form of Benzedrine inhalers.
It wasn't until the mid-60s when these were made prescription only and non-medical amphetamine wasn't outlawed until 1971.
As well as casual racism, the strip also features various characters eating 'hash' which knocks them out.
For those not familiar with American English, this isn't a direct reference to hashish or cannabis resin but a reference to a peculiarly unappetising type of food of the same name which, in the story, seems to have been spiked with some sort of unidentified sedative.
However, given the rather unenlightened portrayal of Africans in the piece and the 1950s stereotype of marijuana being a drug of black Americans, I wonder the lethargy inducing properties of the 'hash' are meant to be an indirect reference to the drug.
Link to 'Mickey Mouse and the Medicine Man'.
Taken from the Wikipedia entry on 'brain sand':
Corpora arenacea (or brain sand) are calcified structures in the pineal gland and other areas of the brain such as the choroid plexus. Older organisms have numerous corpora arenacea, whose function, if any, is unknown. Concentrations of "brain sand" increase with age, so the pineal gland becomes increasingly visible on X-rays over time, usually by the third or fourth decade. They are sometimes used as anatomical landmarks in radiological examinations.
Chemical analysis shows that they are composed of calcium phosphate, calcium carbonate, magnesium phosphate, and ammonium phosphate. Recently, calcite deposits have been described as well.
French philosopher René Descartes famously concluded that the mind and the brain existed as entirely separate entities (a position now known as Cartesian dualism) and believed that pineal gland was the point at which the two interacted.
This was due to the fact that that, unlike most other structures in the brain, there is only one pineal gland and it is located exactly along the midline.
As Descartes largely thought of the mind and soul as the same thing, I'd like to think he would have called these calcified particles 'soul sand' had he known about them.
If you want some more details on 'brain sand', of which we know very little, this large abstract of a scientific study has a wealth of information.
The New York Times has an important article about how animal cruelty is being increasingly recognised as part of a wider pattern of behaviour including anti-social violence and criminality.
Cruelty to animals has been implicitly recognised as being a sign of behavioural problems in children for some time as it forms part of the diagnosis of conduct disorder, characterised somewhat glibly as 'kiddie psychopathy'.
However, research has been slowly accumulating over the last few years that animal cruelty is related to lower levels of general empathy and is a signal that the person concerned may have abusive tendencies that extend towards other people.
The link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is becoming so well established that many U.S. communities now cross-train social-service and animal-control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors. In Illinois and several other states, new laws mandate that veterinarians notify the police if their suspicions are aroused by the condition of the animals they treat. The state of California recently added Humane Society and animal-control officers to the list of professionals bound by law to report suspected child abuse and is now considering a bill in the State Legislature that would list animal abusers on the same type of online registry as sex offenders and arsonists.
The article is an extensive investigation into the cross-over between criminal psychology and forensic veterinary science and, although disturbing in places, is an important and in-depth look at how the two types of abusive behaviour share common roots.
Link to NYT on 'The Animal-Cruelty Syndrome'.
A curious definition from the Concise Medical Dictionary from Oxford University Press:
pithiatism (noun) the treatment of certain disorders by persuading the patient that all is well.
Neurology journal Brain had a wide-ranging review of the book 'Insomnia: A Cultural History' last year which has this wonderful part about Darwin, Duchenne and how he electrocuted the face to study emotional expression.
In the same era and acting on the same beliefs, many experiments were done to study the effect of electricity on sleep and on the nervous system. Beard and Rockwell (1871) claimed that the tendency to insomnia could be removed by electricity, thus galvanizing and causing contraction of the cerebral circulation, and Charles Darwin illustrated his book on the expression of the emotions with many illustrations taken from Duchenne's work (Darwin, 1904) [see image]. However, some of Darwin's conclusions, such as that terror and grief were accompanied by automatic contraction of the forehead muscles, may not have been entirely justified by the apparent results since Duchenne's subjects were admitted to be actors (Duchenne, 1871).
Duchenne was a doctor who studied the link between nerves, electrical activity and muscles. He's probably best known in medicine for his work on what is now called 'Duchenne muscular dystrophy', a muscle wasting disease caused by inherited problems with muscle protein.
However, his work on the link between facial muscles and emotions, partly researched by electrically stimulating muscles to see what expressions could be created, was groundbreaking and Darwin included Duchenne's pictures in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.
Even now, psychologists talk of the 'Duchenne smile' which involves raising the corners of the mouth and, crucially, raising the cheeks and wrinkling the eyes through the use of the orbicularis oculi muscle.
A 'Duchenne smile' is often regarded as the most genuine display of spontaneous joy or happiness, due to the fact that parts of the orbicularis oculi muscle cannot be controlled voluntarily and so this specific type of smile can't be easily faked.
Sadly the whole review of the book 'Insomnia: A Cultural History' is locked, which is a pity as it works equally well as an article on its own and covers some fantastic ground.
The book itself look fascinating, and I note that the Wall Street Journal made the whole of Chapter 6 available online which is well worth a read in itself.
Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:
Time magazine reports the counter-stereotype finding that men are more susceptible to emotional ups and downs after relationship break-ups than women.
Just too much 'technology is rewiring our brains' silliness to link to but in the mean time 14 kids at an 'internet addiction' camp in China tied up their guard and made a daring escape. Personally, I blame Donkey Kong.
The BPS Research Digest covers a completely fascinating study on how some words (like 'sympathy', 'murderer', 'risk') lack an opposite and these are consistent across languages.
Children raised by lesbians 'have fewer behavioural problems' according to research covered by CNN. Raising better adjusted kids while simultaneously undermining traditional marriage. Devious these lesbians, I tell you. See also good coverage from In the News.
Language Log picks up on an interesting linguistic asymmetry. In light of accusations that a female politician has been unfaithful, the blog asks whether she could be a manizer?
An excellent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education questions whether recent interest in the power of intuition is based on solid science.
Frontier Psychiatrist has an excellent piece on the problems with recruiting psychiatrists and why the speciality needs the brightest and best.
Life Matters from ABC Radio National discusses a new US Military treatment programme to help veterans who have both PTSD and addiction problems.
More than 50% of Americans now believe gay relationships to be acceptable reports The New York Times.
The Neurocritic notes that brain area the insula has become high fashion in neuroscience.
The first yardstick for measuring smells is discussed in an article for Discover Magazine.
PsyBlog covers an interesting study finding that the simply technique for saying a word out loud helps you remember it.
Psychologist Irvin Kirsch says antidepressants are just fancy placebos in an interview for Discover Magazine.
Barking Up the Wrong Tree asks whether a female hitchhiker's bust size affect her ability to get picked up.
Antipsychotic haloperidol reduces gray matter volume within hours of taking it, according to a new study reported by Nature News.
The New York Times has a piece by Steven Pinker which is probably the best response so far to the 'tech brain damage' panic. Next to, oh for Christ's sake not again, of course.
"Kantian ethicists seem to have a reputation among philosophers for behaving worse than other sorts of ethicists. But who has any systematic empirical data on this?" Eric Schwitzgebel does, at the fantastic Splintered Mind.
80 Beats has a fantastic analysis of the recent big autism genetics study that found a great number of copy number variants in genes that non-gene DNA.
The Dana Foundation Brain Blog has had some great coverage of mind and brain events at the World Science festival.
Radio National Breakfast reports on new research finding out a crucial piece in the puzzle of how lithium can treat Alzheimer's and bipolar disorder.
New Scientist has an intriguing article on how the study of people who have been trained to have lucid dreams may help us understand the neuroscience of consciousness.
Lucid dreams are where the sleeper becomes aware that they are dreaming inside the dream. My first thought was that the combination of these and consciousness sounded a bit gimmicky but the justification seem like an interesting bit of lateral thinking with potentially valuable results:
Surprisingly, given the irrationality of the dream experience, many of the frontal areas of the brain involved in advanced cognition such as reasoning and forward planning were also active in the dreamers. But there was one notable exception: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) was remarkably subdued in REM sleep, compared with during wakefulness. To Hobson, that strongly suggests that this particular area, above other frontal regions, is crucial for the critical reflective awareness present in waking, and therefore secondary, consciousness (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol 6, p 475).
Could this one brain region alone explain our secondary consciousness? It's here that lucid dreams enter the picture. With their increased self-awareness, lucid dreams share certain aspects of secondary consciousness, so researchers are now vying to observe what happens in the brain when someone "wakes up" within their dream, and whether they exhibit any further signatures of consciousness. "It's a very interesting leap because it can show you exactly what occurs if you jump from limited consciousness to very high consciousness," says Victor Spoormaker of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Munich, Germany. "This should be one of the main themes of lucid dream research."
The article also has some tips on making lucid dreams more likely while you sleep.
Almost every guide to lucid dreaming has the core advice that you need to get into the habit of constantly checking and asking yourself while awake 'am I dreaming?' presumably based on the principle that dreams often contain things we've experienced during the day.
It says to wear a digital watch and get used to checking it regularly at two close intervals to see if the numbers have changed as expected. If they haven't or the numbers don't make sense, you're probably dreaming. Apparently checking light switches work is another technique.
No idea how rigorously these specific ideas have been tested but there is good evidence that lucid dreaming can be successfully practised and the typical lab technique to confirm it is happening is to ask participants to make specific horizontal eye movements when they become lucid.
As your eye muscles aren't paralysed during sleep, it allows the dreamer one of the few ways they can signal to the researchers.
If you were ever wondering about the representation of the penis in prehistoric art and what this reveals about "the meaning of erection in Paleolithic minds", wonder no more. The study has already been done.
Male genital representation in paleolithic art: erection and circumcision before history.
Urology. 2009 Jul;74(1):10-4.
Angulo JC, García-Díez M.
OBJECTIVES: To report on the likely existing evidence about the practice of circumcision in prehistory, or at least a culture of foreskin retraction, and also the meaning of erection in Paleolithic minds. The origin of the ritual of circumcision has been lost in time. Similarly, the primitive anthropologic meaning of erection is undefined.
METHODS: We studied the archeologic and artistic evidence regarding human representations performed during the Upper Paleolithic period, 38,000 to 11,000 years BCE, in Europe, with a focus on genital male representations in portable and rock art.
RESULTS: Drawings, engravings, and sculptures displaying humans are relatively scarce, and <100 examples of male genitals are specifically represented. Some depict a circumcised penis and other represent urologic disorders such as phimosis, paraphimosis, discharge, priapism, or a scrotal mass. In addition, a small number of phalluses carved in horn, bone, or stone, with varying morphology, has survived to the present and also reveals a sustained cult for male erection and foreskin retraction not limited to a particular topographical territory. The very few noncoital human or humanoid figures with marked erection appear in a context of serious danger or death. Therefore, erection could be understood as a phenomenon related to the shamanic transit between life and death.
CONCLUSIONS: The erection in Paleolithic art is explicitly represented in almost all the figures defined as unequivocally male that have survived to the present and in many objects of portable art. Circumcision and/or foreskin retraction of the penis are present in most of the works.
I suspect that "erection could be understood as a phenomenon related to the shamanic transit between life and death" is a woefully underused chat-up line. Thank you Science!
Link to PubMed entry for prehistoric pecker study.
A delightful experiment in the Journal of Gambling Studies demonstrates how susceptible we are to social persuasion to the point where even our established cognitive biases yield to the influence of others.
The illusion of control is the tendency to believe that we have influence over uncontrollable events. It has been well demonstrated in gamblers who may often put down wins and losses to their skills and abilities, even on games like roulette where the outcomes are entirely random.
This new study found that roulette players who learnt that someone else had recently 'won big' had an increased illusion of control, expected to win more and made more risky gambles while playing.
However, this effect virtually disappeared simply by adding that the 'big winner' had put down his bonanza to sheer luck.
Link to PubMed abstract for gambling study.
We recently reported on an academic article that criticised one of the most popular methods for diagnosing psychopaths and which had remained unpublished for four years due to legal threats by the designers of the interview.
The article was by researchers Jennifer Skeem and David Cooke who had criticised the PCL-R, a diagnostic scale by renowned forensic psychologist Robert Hare, for its supposed over-focus on criminality.
Their piece was peer reviewed and accepted for publication in 2006 by the journal Psychological Assessment but Hare got wind of the piece which he felt unjustly criticised him and his work and threatened both the journal and the authors with a law suit for defamation.
I'm wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that the case is being covered in tomorrow's edition of Science, although the pay-walled article is already available online. The journalist who covered the story has also covered the case in a blog post.
Interestingly, those reports note that the issue was apparently resolved in 2008 but the journal has sat on the articles ever since and the spat only came to public attention a few weeks ago due to it featuring in a journal article about academic freedom.
Seemingly the first to pick up on this was the excellent forensic psychology blog In the News which has also just posted coverage of the days happenings as well as discussing the original article and its responses.
Stress, anxiety and depression are common terms used in the West to describe ways in which we become mentally distressed. We tend to think these are universal ways of experiencing mental strain but they are not. In fact, the words cannot be directly translated into many of the world's languages because the concepts do not exist.
The latest issue of the journal Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry is a special collection of articles on 'cultural idioms of distress' and tackles ways in which people experience distress after difficult situations from cultures around the world.
Across Liberia, a single unified characteristic defines Open Mole. Open Mole is understood to be a soft spot in the center of the skull similar to the soft areas in an infant’s unformed skull, or the sunken fontanel associated with infant dehydration. However, in contrast to the infant skeletal development processes and the dehydration-induced softening with which the Western medical literature is familiar, Open Mole is understood to be an acquired disease state that can occur to adults who experience a sudden fright or shock or who endure chronic adversity and stress. While its defining symptom is the soft spot on top of the skull, Open Mole is commonly associated with many symptoms, including: severe headache, neck pain, back pain, fatigue, weakness, nightmares, troubled sleep, loss of appetite and social withdrawal. Many additional symptoms are believed to accompany Open Mole, but there is little consensus among Liberians about Open Mole’s ethnophysiology [local beliefs about its biological basis].
The etiology of Open Mole is heterogeneous. Although a belief in the existence of Open Mole exists across geographical boundaries and ethnic groupings, it is contested among Liberians on a number of indicators. Some understand Open Mole to be contagious, while others believe that it is not. Some believe that Open Mole is caused by tampering with dangerous spiritual forces, practicing witchcraft or having a dangerous nightmare, while others believe that it can be caused by sharing a hairbrush or a headscarf, getting caught in the rain or sitting in the sun too long. Some believed that Open Mole is caused by committing an act of wrongdoing (like violence, theft or sorcery), while others believed that Open Mole is a victim’s affliction, carried by those who have had wrong done to them.
The issue also has an open-access article on how spirit possession in Nigeria is more likely in people who have lived through traumatic experiences.
It's a fascinating study, because alongside traditional diagnostic interviews from Western psychiatry the research team create and validate a diagnostic scale for spirit possession symptoms, allowing an empirical look into some of the psychology behind it without ignoring the experience or dismissing it.
The flowers in the picture are from one of the most notorious plants in South America. Brugmansia is widespread across the continent and is strongly psychoactive causing disorientation, hallucinations and memory loss.
This is due to the fact that it contains high levels of the drug scopolamine and, as a result, it has been used for generations by many native peoples for shamanic rituals.
It is perhaps more commonly known for its criminal uses, however, particularly as a dried, powdered form, known as 'burundanga' where it is slipped into someone's drink making them liable to assault, theft or worse.
There is an interesting popular belief about the drug, namely that it removes free will. The idea being that you have all your mental faculties but will do whatever is suggested to you without resistance, so criminals can get you to take out money from the cash machine or hand them the keys to your house.
This has never been tested though, so we simply don't know, although one study indicates that scopolamine reduces our ability to keep information in mind but leaves the processes that manipulate it unaffected, perhaps suggesting that victims remain cognitively sharp, but mentally empty.
The plants are remarkably common (I took the photo above at the side of the road in the Risaralda department of Colombia) which probably accounts for their common use although they are not well known outside of Latin America. In fact, the only scientific review article on the psychology and neuroscience of 'burundanga' intoxication is in Spanish.
Work in published in English tends to focus on lab-based experiments using scopoloamine as a model of amnesia, plus the occasional sensationalist story in the press about 'zombie drugs'.
However, the local name for the plant is 'el borrachero' - literally, the drunkeness.
Link to Wikipedia page on brugmansia.