Thursday, March 21, 2013

Psychology of animated shows such as Simpsons and Family Guy

I’ve been meaning to write about the psychology of popular animated shows such as Simpsons, Family Guy, Futurama, American Dad and South Park. Many have argued that such shows might reflect contemporary attitudes and values. Much has also been said about the role humor in asserting various ideologies.

I have been watching a lot of the Family Guy just the last few weeks and absolutely enjoy most episodes. For those not familiar with this show, this is a cartoon that focuses around a family, the Griffins and located in the fictional city of Quahog, Rhode Island.

The man of the family is Peter, a supposed Irish Catholic and his wife Lois, a Protestant. They have two sons, Chris and Stewie, and a daughter, Meg. There is also a talking dog that lives with the family, Brian. One of the most interesting characters is Brian who is by far the wisest and most sensible of all the characters, regardless of the fact that his still urinates on the carpet in Lois' presence.

Peter Griffin on the other hand lives his life operates as if he is smarter than everyone else, but in reality he's clueless. He spends his free time drinking at the Drunken Clam with his buddies, and has worked for various companies, including the Pawtucket Patriot Brewery and the Happy-Go-Lucky Toy Factory.

Now this isn’t just about Family Guy, but it does seem that the writers, from time to time are able to perhaps discredit a belief, a value, an attitude simply by using a straw man misrepresenting an opponent’s position in order to make it seem ridiculous. Glitzy generalities, oversimplifications, loaded expressions, emotionally-charged words, labeling, sarcasm and or jokes. Consider for example, the show’s rape jokes especially unfunny. In one episode, Peter learns that three co-eds were raped and murdered. He says to himself, “Everyone’s getting laid but me.” So, obviously, not too funny.

What makes these shows funny then? It’s partly about how jokes are executed – they come suddenly and unexpectedly. But more so, the use of satire (making fun of stereotypical America) which patronizes the so called American life style.  Homer Simpson, arguably the dumbest person in The Simpson's works as the safety officer at a nuclear power plant.

Intertextuality is often used as well – films and books are used to base an episode around that we readily recognize.  In one Simpsons episode, Bart, Lisa and their classmates get stranded on an island  - what follows is the same sort of things characters from The Lord of the Flies played out. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Environment and Mental Health

The Environment and Mental Health: A Guide for Clinicians
edited by Ante Lundberg; Mahwah, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998, 233 pages, $59.95

Timothy Lacy, M.D.


Environmental illness is a concept of growing concern to all health professionals. Patients with problems presumably caused by sick buildings, electromagnetic fields and hypersensitivity to chemicals--to name a few--are often referred to psychologists, psychiatrists, and other counselors. The battery worker with fatigue, headaches, abdominal pain and an elevated lead level ...the assembly worker with pain and numbness in her hand and delayed median nerve conduction ...the patient who develops typical ...

In his introduction to this text, editor Lundberg states that the book "is designed to introduce the new field of environmental psychiatry, to illustrate its importance for clinical practice, and to serve as a practical guide."

This is impressive, given that environmental psychiatry is currently undefined. The editor includes an interestingly broad range of topics such as behavioral neurotoxicity, psychological response to trauma and disaster, risk perception and coping environmental illness, the effects of the environment on mental health, nature and mental health, pet therapy, and ecopsychology.

The reader is justified to ask whether environmental psychiatry is, in fact, a new field with a unified body of knowledge, or merely a collection of varied topics that share common themes with the environment.

This text is extremely well referenced throughout and has a useful index. The appendix contains a list of informative Web sites and toll-free telephone numbers where one can find useful environmental data.

It is at its best when exploring the controversial syndromes that often frustrate clinicians. The contributors offer a balanced approach and consider all relevant data that are both supportive and unsupportive of so-called environmental illnesses—even though the difference between environmental illness and neurotoxin exposure remains unclear throughout the text.

Consider for example “…We know that exposure to lead, mercury, and PCBs affect psychological development and behavior; we know much less about the effects of thousands of other chemicals in the environment. In addition, global climate change, social disruption, and the spread of infections will--in the near future--expose people to novel environmental threats. Symptoms caused by toxins can overlap those caused by fear, stress, and depression, and the clinical picture can mimic a variety of other mental disorders.

On the other hand, the natural environment can also be a healer. Research shows that hospital stays are shortened and the need for pain medication reduced for patients exposed to nature, even in images, or to the company of animals. Nursing home patients live longer if allowed to keep pets, and one controlled study shows that caring for animals reduces disruptive behavior in even the most difficult ADD children...”

Monday, March 4, 2013

The quantum brain and consciousness

I’ve been having an on-going discussion with a colleague about mind-brain duality and the nature of consciousness – when we both came across a piece of writing (author unknown) which goes something like this:

“If we work up a competent knowledge of the physics and electrical engineering of our TV sets, that knowledge will not help us to decide how far to trust the person talking on the screen". This was in the context of Mari Jibu and Kunio Yasue’s theoretical framework, Quantum Brain Dynamics (QBD) to help examine consciousness scientifically.

I wanted to pull together my thoughts and at the same time try and better understand QBD. This work seems to be based on the original physical theory of memory and brain functioning found in the work by Ricciardi and Umezawa in the 1960s. Jibu and Yasue aim to reveal the kind of physical phenomena that might underpin the process of consciousness from a physical point of view.

As we know there are numerous models explaining consciousness and even George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four bleak outlook is a contender in Daniel Dennett's multiple drafts model of consciousness; a theory of consciousness based upon Cognitivism.

David Bohm took the view that quantum theory and relativity contradicted one another, and that this contradiction implied that there existed a more fundamental level in the physical universe pointing towards a deeper theory. This more fundamental level was proposed to represent an undivided wholeness and an implicate order, from which arises the explicate order of the universe as we experience it.

Bohm's proposed implicate order applies both to matter and consciousness, and he suggests that it could explain the relationship between them. Mind and matter are here seen as projections into our explicate order from the underlying reality of the implicate order. Bohm claims that when we look at the matter in space, we can see nothing in these concepts that helps us to understand consciousness.

Bohm sees the movement, change or flow and also the coherence of experiences, such as listening to music as a manifestation of the implicate order. He claims to derive evidence for this from the work of Jean Piaget in studying infants. Bohm, however, never proposed any specific brain mechanism by which his implicate order could emerge in a way that was relevant to consciousness, nor any means by which the propositions could be tested or falsified.

Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff collaborated to produce the theory known as Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR) although each initially developing their ideas independently.  Penrose came to the problem from the point of view of pure mathematics and in particular Gödel's theorem.

Gödel, in 1931 proved that any theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete. Further to that, for any consistent formal theory that proves certain basic arithmetic truths there is an arithmetical statement that is true, but not provable in the theory. To put this in more simple terms; any system which is expressive enough to be consistent and complete is also expressive enough to contain self-referential statements which doom it to incompleteness.

In the 1989 book, The Emperor's New Mind, Penrose argued that the theorem showed that the brain had the ability to go beyond what could be achieved by axioms or formal systems. He argued that this meant that the brain had some additional function that was not based on algorithms.   

Penrose went on to consider what it was in the human brain that was not driven by algorithms. Given the algorithm-based nature of most of physics, he decided that the random choice of position etc. that occurs when a quantum wave collapses into a particle was the only possibility for a non-computable process. However, Penrose conceded that the randomness of the wave function collapse, although free from algorithms, is not really a basis for any useful form of human understanding.

Penrose proposed a second form of wave function collapse that could apply where quanta did not interact with the environment, but might collapse on their own accord. He suggests that each quantum superposition has its own piece of space-time curvature, and when these become separated by more than the Planck length, they become unstable and collapse.