Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Hansels and Gretels

On my supervisors’ retirement about a year ago I was left with a large box of books, some of which long out of print and still others, with almost faded pencil lines marking sections that must have had some relevance to his work all those years ago. One of these was the 1971 Hansels and Gretels, Studies of Children in Institutions for the Mentally Retarded, by Dorothea & Benjamin Braginsky (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston). I finally got around to reading this book in the last week, more so out of interest for its historical context.

The book, as expected, is peppered with language that many of my younger colleagues would hardly believe is possible – I’m of course referring to clinical labels and accepted terminology of the time. Consider; for example “…as a psychologist in a large state school and colony,…”, “classified as high-grade mental defectives…”, “…I prepared myself through library research and clinical conferences to look for moronic behaviour…”.

Chapter 5, titled “Retardates and Their Keepers: Conflict of Interests” particularly caught my curiosity. Here the authors begin the chapter with an acknowledgment of an assumed covert ideological conflict between the retardates and the institutional staff. I think they were correct in seeing this to be crucial in interpretations concerning retardate behaviour. The authors’ show insight when are expounding questions such as “what is the nature of their affliction, who are they, how should they be treated, what are their needs, and why are they incarcerated,..” etc.

In order to ascertain the attitudes that the training school staff maintain about mental retardation, its treatment and prognosis, and the institution, the Braginskys provide the results of a 100-item adaptation of the Retardation Attitude Test (RAT). What's really fascinating here isn't so much the variance between "Upper Staff" and "Lower staff" attitudes, which by the way is in itself interesting, but the kind items in the RAT. For example, item 15 "Although Retardates may seem all right when they have left here, they shout not be allowed to marry." Something incidentally about 30% of both upper and lower staff agreed with.

As well as my interest in this book’s historical throwback – I had also read the more current paper by Dianne E. Green (et al) New Zealand Attitudes to Mental Health (New Zealand Journal Of Psychology, 1987, 16, 37-41) that also dealt with stereotyped attitudes towards the mentally ill. I’d wondered if attitudes have indeed changed and if so by how much.

The researchers examined propositions about stereotyped attitudes towards the mentally ill based on responses of a group of New Zealand university students and the results compared with those if similar New Zealand studies carried out by the authors some three and six years previously, and with a U.S.A study carried out nine years previously.

In a historical sense, the authors talk of a contemporary shift in the care and treatment for the mentally ill and that has been away from institutional care and towards greater involvement of the community. Also, an acknowledgment of proposals introduced by various countries for the community to be more deeply involved in the care and treatment of the mentally ill, for a diversity of fresh therapeutic treatment and management styles with different types of institution to be initiated, and for the adoption of safeguards to prevent the oppressive control of patients.

In order to throw some light on the validity of these assumptions the present authors examined attitudes of one section of New Zealand community (in this case university students) with a rationale that, subject to social and situational pressures, attitudes are generally a precursor to behaviour, and that attitudes to the mentally ill might indicate the readiness with which people could be expected to respond personally to the specific demands for community mental health care.

Three propositions were examined; two of which are described below.

Proposition one:

That people attach a stigma to the mentally ill, was confirmed. Ratings of the three relevant concepts (a) “mental patient”, “insane people”, and (c) “ex-mental patient” were examined.  When it came to the concept of “mental patient” the stereotype had a highly negative rating without bothering you with the statistical reliability. Interestingly, this did not differ significantly from the 1981 negative stereotype. 

Proposition one:

That the public holds moderately favourable attitudes toward mental health professional was tested via 2 concepts (a) “psychiatrist” and (b) “doctor”. The rating for this mental health professional was moderately positive as it was in 1981. However, the rating for the concept “doctor” was much more positive than for the psychiatrist, as it was in 1981, 1978, and 1971.

The authors conclude that social attitudes towards the mentally ill need to be changed before community-oriented mental health carte policies can have much hope of long-term success.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Best Offer - The artificiality of life

In a nutshell this romantic thriller is about an auction house director (Virgil Oldman played by Rush) who becomes obsessed with an heiress (Claire) who is selling a large art and antiques collection, but refuses to be seen. But Virgil is an impatient and callous man, suffering from rhypophobia. His antisocial behaviour and general disregard of others contrasts a story about a man who learns to reconnect with people through the unseen woman.

The film’s interior stylisations reflect the internal psychology of Virgil. The scenes are rich with colour and subject and are filmed with a wide angle lens, setting Virgil as a smaller figure in the middle of large open spaces. This kinda asserts his emotional distance and failure to understand people, women in particular.

As he grows mentally and physically closer to Claire and the wall that hides her, the framing is purposefully tighter to assert their union of agoraphobic tendencies. We are intrigued by what we're not seeing off camera as much as Virgil's actions. This mystery is enhanced by story beats that dissolve into intense peaks of voyeurism.

The manipulation that occurs between characters reflects Virgil’s artificiality of his life. Virgil is often consulted in the authentication of objects he is to auction and one of the key lines in the film is "there is always something authentic concealed in every forgery". Deception becomes the concluding theme, along with physical and mental disorientation. The idea is that as Virgil loses his bearings on time and space we do too so that we experience indistinguishable emotions about the real and fake.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Ridley Scott movie The Counselor

I watched the new Ridley Scott movie The Counselor last night – in fact I watched it twice and thoroughly enjoyed it right from the first few mystifying scenes. The story begins with a man, known only as "The Counselor" and his girlfriend lying in bed fooling around while somewhere else in Mexico, cocaine is being packaged in barrels and concealed in a sewage truck.

The plot basically deals with themes of greed, death, and the primal instincts of humans and their consequences. The film also uses strong imagery exhibiting a good versus evil, hunter versus prey, and crucially and what really captured my attention and imagination - the extra-moral Nietzschean and nihilistic tones. I hadn’t really heard much about the film and didn’t really know what to expect. But as the plot unfolded differences and contrasts between Nietzschean and Nihilism are conveyed in the dialogue.

Consider for example the scene after the Counselor’s girl friend is abducted he goes back to Mexico, hoping to find her. A package is slipped under the door of his hotel room. He opens it and finds a DVD with "Hola!" written on the side and the Counselor breaks down, heavily implying that the video is a snuff film of her from the cartel.

A desperate Counselor attempts to negotiate her freedom – an assumed [cartel] nonchalantly plays pool and talks on his mobile “…I can only tell you what I already told her friend, there is no one to talk to. I am afraid that there is no longer such a person. That is a thing of the past. I am afraid that there is no one to see…actions create consequences which produce new worlds and they are all different. Where the bodies are buried in the desert there is a certain world. Where the bodies are simply left to be found that is another. And all these worlds must of all been there, must it not? The world you seek to undo the mistake that you made is different from the world where the mistakes were made…”

So we have existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Morality does not inherently exist, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived. Nihilism in some cases take a metaphysical forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or that reality does not actually exist. And Nietzsche arguing that truth is a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Tom and Jerry - no more fear

Fear is induced by a perceived threat which causes entities to quickly pull far away from it and usually hide. It is a basic survival mechanism occurring in response to a specific stimulus, such as pain or the threat of danger.

Now a study at the University of California, Berkeley shows that mice may permanently shed their fear of felines when infected with a protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii.

The parasite can infect most mammals, including humans but can only reproduce in the feline gut, so cats need to eat animals infected with T. gondii to keep the parasite generations going.

Perhaps increasing the likelihood that it will wind up in the belly of a cat, the parasite makes infected rodents lose their innate aversion to cat urine, researchers discovered in 2000. The parasite strain was so potent that it killed the mice quickly, so researchers had no way of knowing whether the rodents’ loss of cat aversion could persist.

According to the researchers a transient infection with the parasite may permanently alter the way the rodents’ brains perceive predator threats.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Time and time again

For years - any opportunity I have to do any serious thinking typically and inevitably circles around time. What is it, was it always there, how do we perceive it, how is time intertwined by space (space-time) etc. And if we subscribe to Einstein's theory of relativity, there was no such thing as time before the big bang; there was no "before." Time (and space) started at a singularity (with the laws of physics broken down).

And more so, is time a feature of the universe that can be understood independently of a conscious being. That is, can we make sense of time when everything about time is perceived and processed through a lens of brain architecture?

We know for example time is processed across a a highly distributed system involving the cerebral cortex, cerebellum and basal ganglia. One particular component, the suprachiasmatic nucleus, is responsible for the circadian (or daily) rhythm, while other cell clusters appear to be capable of shorter-range (ultradian) timekeeping.

Different types of sensory information (auditory, tactile, visual, etc.) are processed at different speeds by different neural architectures. Our brain, it seems, has learned how to overcome these speed disparities, to create a temporally unified representation of the external world.

In the popular essay "Brain Time", by David Eagleman, he suggests that "if the visual brain wants to get events correct timewise, it may have only one choice: wait for the slowest information to arrive. To accomplish this, it must wait about a tenth of a second.  As long as the signals arrived within this window, viewers' brains would automatically resynchronize the signals". He goes on to say that "This brief waiting period allows the visual system to discount the various delays imposed by the early stages; however, it has the disadvantage of pushing perception into the past. There is a distinct survival advantage to operating as close to the present as possible; an animal does not want to live too far in the past.

Therefore, the tenth-of- a-second window may be the smallest delay that allows higher areas of the brain to account for the delays created in the first stages of the system while still operating near the border of the present. This window of delay means that awareness is postdictive, incorporating data from a window of time after an event and delivering a retrospective interpretation of what happened."