The Psychological & Neurological Disorders Experienced by Characters in Alice in Wonderland: A Neuroscience Reading of Lewis Carroll’s Classic Tale

Most reputable doctors tend to refrain from diagnosing people they’ve never met or examined. Unfortunately, this circumspection doesn't obtain as often among lay folk. When we lob uninformed diagnoses at other people, we may do those with genuine mental health issues a serious disservice. But what about fictional characters? Can we ascribe mental illnesses to the surreal menagerie, say, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? It’s almost impossible not to, given the overt themes of madness in the story.

Carroll himself, it seems, drew many of his depictions directly from the treatment of mental disorders in 19th century England, many of which were linked to “extremely poor working conditions,” notes Franziska Kohlt at The Conversation. During the industrial revolution, “populations in so-called ‘pauper lunatic asylums’ for the working class skyrocketed.” Carroll’s uncle, Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge, happened to be an officer of the Lunacy Commission, which supervised such institutions, and his work offers “stunning insights into the madness in Alice.”




Yet we should be careful. Like the supposed drug references in Alice, some of the lay diagnoses now applied to Alice’s characters may be a little far-fetched. Do we really see diagnosable PTSD or Tourette’s? Anxiety Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder? These conditions hadn’t been categorized in Carroll’s day, though their symptoms are nothing new. And yet, experts have long looked to his nonsense fable for its depictions of abnormal psychology. One British psychiatrist didn’t just diagnose Alice, he named a condition after her.

In 1955, Dr. John Todd coined the term Alice in Wonderland Syndrome (AIWS) to describe a rare condition in which—write researchers in the Journal of Pediatric Neurosciences—“the sizes of body parts or sizes of external objects are perceived incorrectly.” Among other illnesses, Alice in Wonderland Syndrome may be linked to migraines, which Carroll himself reportedly suffered.

We might justifiably assume the Mad Hatter has mercury poisoning, but what other disorders might the text plausibly present? Holly Barker, doctoral candidate in clinical neuroscience at King’s College London, has used her scholarly expertise to identify and describe in detail two other conditions she thinks are evident in Alice.

Depersonalization:

“At several points in the story,” writes Barker, “Alice questions her own identity and feels ‘different’ in some way from when she first awoke.” Seeing in these descriptions the symptoms of Depersonalization Disorder (DPD), Barker describes the condition and its location in the brain.

This disorder encompasses a wide range of symptoms, including feelings of not belonging in one’s own body, a lack of ownership of thoughts and memories, that movements are initiated without conscious intention and a numbing of emotions. Patients often comment that they feel as though they are not really there in the present moment, likening the experience to dreaming or watching a movie. These symptoms occur in the absence of psychosis, and patients are usually aware of the absurdity of their situation. DPD is often a feature of migraine or epileptic auras and is sometimes experienced momentarily by healthy individuals, in response to stress, tiredness or drug use.

Also highly associated with childhood abuse and trauma, the condition “acts as a sort of defense mechanism, allowing an individual to become disconnected from adverse life events.” Perhaps there is PTSD in Carroll’s text after all, since an estimated 51% of DPD patients also meet those criteria.

Prosopagnosia:

This condition is characterized by “the selective inability to recognize faces.” Though it can be hereditary, prosopagnosia can also result from stroke or head trauma. Fittingly, the character supposedly affected by it is none other than Humpty-Dumpty, who tells Alice “I shouldn’t know you again if we did meet.”

“Your face is the same as everybody else has – the two eyes, so-” (marking their places in the air with his thumb) “nose in the middle, mouth under. It’s always the same. Now if you had two eyes on the same side of the nose, for instance – or the mouth at the top – that would be some help.”

This “precise description” of prosopagnosia shows how individuals with the condition rely on particularly “discriminating features to tell people apart," since they are unable to distinguish family members and close friends from total strangers.

Scholars know that Carroll’s text contains within it several abstract and seemingly absurd mathematical concepts, such as imaginary numbers and projective geometry. The informed work of researchers like Kohit and Barker shows that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland might also present a complex 19th century understanding of mental illness and neurological disorders, conveyed in a superficially silly way, but possibly informed by serious research and observation. Read Barker’s article in full here to learn more about the conditions she diagnoses.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

How Reading Increases Your Emotional Intelligence & Brain Function: The Findings of Recent Scientific Studies

Image by Sheila Sund, via Flickr Commons

Reading “availeth much,” to borrow an old phrase from the King James Bible. To read is to experience more of the world than we can in person, to enter into the lives of others, to organize knowledge according to useful schemes and categories…. Or, at least it can be. Much recent research strongly suggests that reading improves emotional and cognitive intelligence, by changing and activating areas of the brain responsible for these qualities.

Is reading essential for the survival of the species? Perhaps not. “Humans have been reading and writing for only about 5000 years—too short for major evolutionary changes,” writes Greg Miller in Science. We got by well enough for tens of thousands of years before written language. But neuroscientists theorize that reading “rewires” areas of the brain responsible for both vision and spoken language. Even adults who learn to read late in life can experience these effects, increasing "functional connectivity with the visual cortex," some researchers have found, which may be "the brain's way of filtering and fine-tuning the flood of visual information that calls for our attention" in the modern world.




This improved communication between areas of the brain might also represent an important intervention into developmental disorders. One Carnegie Mellon study, for example, found that "100 hours of intensive reading instruction improved children's reading skills and also increased the quality of... compromised white matter to normal levels." The findings, says Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, suggest "an exciting approach to be tested in the treatment of mental disorders, which increasingly appear to be due to problems in specific brain circuits."

Reading can not only improve cognition, but it can also lead to a refined “theory of mind,” a term used by cognitive scientists to describe how "we ascribe mental states to other persons"—as the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes—and "how we use the states to explain and predict the actions of those other persons." Improved theory of mind, or "intuitive psychology," as it's also called, can result in greater levels of empathy and perhaps even expanded executive function, allowing us to better "hold multiple perspectives in mind at once," writes Brittany Thompson, "and switch between those perspectives."

Improved theory of mind comes primarily from reading narratives, research suggests. One meta-analysis published by Raymond A. Mar of Toronto’s York University reviews many of the studies demonstrating the effect of story comprehension on theory of mind, and concludes that the better we understand the events in a narrative, the better we are able to understand the actions and intentions of those around us. The kinds of narratives we read, moreover, might also make a difference. One study, conducted by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New School for Social Research, tested the effect of differences in writing quality on empathy responses, randomly assigning 1,000 participants excerpts from both popular bestsellers and literary fiction.

To define the difference between the two, the researchers referred to critic Roland Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text. As Kidd explains:

Some writing is what you call 'writerly', you fill in the gaps and participate, and some is 'readerly', and you're entertained. We tend to see 'readerly' more in genre fiction like adventure, romance and thrillers, where the author dictates your experience as a reader. Literary [writerly] fiction lets you go into a new environment and you have to find your own way.

The researchers used two theory of mind tests to measure degrees of empathy and found that “scores were consistently higher for those who had read literary fiction than for those with popular fiction or non-fiction texts,” notes Liz Bury at The Guardian. Other research has found that descriptive language stimulates regions of our brains not classically associated with reading. “Words like ‘lavender,’ ‘cinnamon’ and ‘soap,’ for example,” writes Annie Murphy Paul at The New York Times, citing a 2006 study published in NeuroImage, “elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.”

Reading, in other words, can effectively simulate reality in the brain and produce authentic emotional responses: “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life”—that is, if the experience is written about in sensory language. The emotional brain also does not seem to make a tremendous distinction between reading the written word and hearing it recited or read. When study participants in a joint German and Norwegian experiment, for example, heard poetry read aloud, they experienced physical sensations and “about 40 percent showed visible goose bumps.”

But different kinds of texts elicit different kinds of responses. We can read or listen to a novel, for example, and, instead of only experiencing sensations, can “live several lives while reading,” as William Styron once wrote. The authors of a 2013 Emory University study published in Brain Connectivity conclude that reading novels can rewire areas of the brain, causing “transient changes in functional connectivity.” These biological changes were found to last up to five days after study participants read Robert Harris' 2003 novel Pompeii. The heightened connectivity in certain regions "corresponded to regions previously associated with perspective taking and story comprehension."

So what? asks a skeptical Ian Steadman at New Statesman. Reading may create changes in the brain, but so does everything else, a phenomenon well-known by now as “neuroplasticity.” Much of the reporting on the neuroscience of reading, Steadman argues, overinterprets the research to support an “[x] ‘rewires’ the brain” myth both common and “mistaken.” Steadman’s critiques of the Brain Connectivity study are perhaps well-placed. The small sample size, lack of a control group, and neglect of questions about different kinds of writing make its already tentative conclusions even less impressive. However, more substantive research, taken together, does show that the “rewiring” that happens when we read—though perhaps temporary and in need of frequent refreshing—really does make us more cognitively and socially adept. And that the kind of reading—or even listening—that we do really does matter.

via BigThink/The Guardian/Harvard

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

This Is Your Brain on Exercise: Why Physical Exercise (Not Mental Games) Might Be the Best Way to Keep Your Mind Sharp

brain exercise

In the United States and the UK, we've seen the emergence of a multibillion-dollar brain training industry, premised on the idea that you can improve your memory, attention and powers of reasoning through the right mental exercises. You've likely seen software companies and web sites that market games designed to increase your cognitive abilities. And if you're part of an older demographic, worried about your aging brain, you've perhaps been inclined to give those brain training programs a try. Whether these programs can deliver on their promises remains an open question--especially seeing that a 2010 scientific study from Cambridge University and the BBC concluded that there's "no evidence to support the widely held belief that the regular use of computerised brain trainers improves general cognitive functioning in healthy participants..."




And yet we shouldn't lose hope. A number of other scientific studies suggest that physical exercise--as opposed to mental exercise--can meaningfully improve our cognitive abilities, from childhood through old age. One study led by Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois, found that children who regularly exercise, writes The New York Times:

displayed substantial improvements in ... executive function. They were better at “attentional inhibition,” which is the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on the task at hand ... and had heightened abilities to toggle between cognitive tasks. Tellingly, the children who had attended the most exercise sessions showed the greatest improvements in their cognitive scores.

And, hearteningly, exercise seems to confer benefits on adults too. A study focusing on older adults already experiencing a mild degree of cognitive impairment found that resistance and aerobic training improved their spatial memory and verbal memory. Another study found that weight training can decrease brain shrinkage, a process that occurs naturally with age.

If you're looking to get the gist of how exercise promotes brain health, it comes down to this:

Exercise triggers the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which helps support the growth of existing brain cells and the development of new ones.

With age, BDNF levels fall; this decline is one reason brain function deteriorates in the elderly. Certain types of exercise, namely aerobic, are thought to counteract these age-related drops in BDNF and can restore young levels of BDNF in the age brain.

That's how The Chicago Tribune summarized the findings of a 1995 study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Irvine. You can get more of the nuts and bolts by reading The Tribune's recent article, The Best Brain Exercise May Be Physical. (Also see Can You Get Smarter?)

You're perhaps left wondering what's the right dose of exercise for the brain? And guess what, Gretchen Reynolds, the phys ed columnist for The Times' Well blog, wrote a column on this a few years back. Although the science is still far from conclusive, a study conducted by The University of Kansas Alzheimer’s Disease Center found that small doses of exercise could lead to cognitive improvements. Writes Reynolds, "the encouraging takeaway from the new study ... is that briskly walking for 20 or 25 minutes several times a week — a dose of exercise achievable by almost all of us — may help to keep our brains sharp as the years pass."

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2013.

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An Artist with Synesthesia Turns Jazz & Rock Classics Into Colorful Abstract Paintings

For those in the arts, few moments are more blissful than those spent “in the zone,” those times when the words or images or notes flow unimpeded, the artist functioning as more conduit than creator.

Viewed in this light, artist Melissa McCracken’s chromesthesia—or sound-to-color synesthesia—is a gift. Since birth, this rare neurological phenomenon has caused her to see colors while listening to music, an experience she likens to visualizing one’s memories.




Trained as a psychologist, she has made a name for herself as an abstract painter by transferring her colorful neurological associations onto canvas.

John Lennon’s "Julia" yields an impasto flame across a pale green field.

The bold daffodil and phlox hues of Jimi Hendrix’s "Little Wing" could have sprung from Monet’s garden at Giverny.

McCracken told Broadly that chromesthetes’ color associations vary from individual to individual, though her own experience of a particular song only wavers when she is focusing on a particular element, such as a bass line she’s never paid attention to before.

While her portfolio suggests a woman of catholic musical tastes, colorwise, she does tend to favor certain genres and instruments:

Expressive music such as funk is a lot more colorful, with all the different instruments, melodies, and rhythms creating a highly saturated effect. Guitars are generally golden and angled, and piano is more marbled and jerky because of the chords. I rarely paint acoustic music because it's often just one person playing guitar and singing, and I never paint country songs because they're boring muted browns.

Her favorite kind of music, jazz, almost always presents itself to her in shades of gold and blue, leading one to wonder if perhaps the Utah Jazz’s uniform redesign has a synesthetic element.

Certainly, there are a large number of musicians—including Duke Ellington, Kanye West, and Billy Joel—for whom color and music are inextricably linked.

View Melissa McCracken’s portfolio here.

via Broadly

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Art of Explaining Hard Ideas: Scientists Try to Explain Gene Editing & Brain Mapping to Young Kids & Students

If you’ve seen Bong Joon-ho’s film Okja, about an Agribusiness-engineered gargantuan mutant pig and her young Korean girl sidekick, you may have some very specific ideas about CRISPR, the science used to edit and manipulate genes. In fact, the madcap fictional adventure’s world may not be too far off, though the science seems to be moving in the other direction. Just recently, Chinese scientists have reported the creation of 12 pigs with 24 percent less body fat than the ordinary variety. It may not be front-page news yet, but the achievement is “a big issue for the pig industry,” says the lead researcher.

There’s much more to CRISPR than bioengineering lean bacon. But what is it and how does it work? I couldn’t begin to tell you. Let biologist Neville Sanjana explain. In the Wired video above, he undertakes the ultimate challenge for science communicators—explaining the most cutting-edge science to five different people: a 7-year-old, 14-year-old, college student, grad student, and—to really put him on the spot—a CRISPR expert. CRISPR is "a new area of biomedical science that enables gene editing,” Sanjana begins in his short intro for viewers, “and it’s helping us understand the basis of many genetic diseases like autism and cancer.”

That’s all well and good, but does he have anything to say about the pig business? Watch and find out, beginning with the adorable 7-year-old Teigen River, who may or may not have been primed with perfect responses. Play it for your own kids and let us know how well the explanation works. Sanjara runs quickly through his other students to arrive, halfway through the video, at Dr. Matthew Canver, CRISPR expert.




From there on out you may wish to refer to other quick references, such as the Harvard and MIT Broad Institute’s short guide and video intro above from molecular biologist Feng Zhang, who explains that CRISPR, or “Clustered Regularly Intersperced Short Palindromic Repeats,” is actually the name of DNA sequences in bacteria. The gene editing technology itself is called CRISPR-Cas9. Just so you know how the sausage is made.

Enough of pig puns. Let’s talk about brains, with neuroscientist Dr. Bobby Kasthuri of the Argonne National Laboratory. He faces a similar challenge above—this time explaining high concept science to a 5-year-old, 13-year-old, college student, grad student, and a “Connectome entrepreneur.” A what? Connectome is the product of the NIH's Human Connectome Project, which set out to “provide an unparalleled compilation of neural data” and “achieve never before realized conclusions about the living human brain.” This brain-mapping science has many objectives, one of which, in the 5-year-old version, is “to know where every cell in your brain is, and how it can talk to every other cell.”

To this astonishing explanation you may reply like Daniel Dodson, 5-year-old, with a stunned “Oh.” And then you may think of Philip K. Dick, or Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” episode. Especially after hearing from “Connectome Entrepreneur” Russell Hanson, founder and CEO of a company called Brain Backups, or after listening to Sebastian Seung—“leader in the field of connectomics”—give his TED talk, “I am my connectome.” Want another short, but grown-up focused, explanation of the totally science-fiction but also completely real Connectome? See Kasthuri’s 2-minute animated video above from Boston University.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Is Freedom? Watch Four Philosophy Animations on Freedom & Free Will Narrated by Harry Shearer

Growing up in America, I heard nearly every behavior, no matter how unpleasant, justified with the same phrase: "It's a free country." In her recent book Notes on a Foreign Country, the Istanbul-based American reporter Suzy Hansen remembers singing "God Bless the USA" on the school bus during the first Iraq war: "And I’m proud to be an AmericanWhere at least I know I’m free." That "at least," she adds, is funny: "We were free – at the very least we were that. Everyone else was a chump, because they didn’t even have that obvious thing. Whatever it meant, it was the thing that we had, and no one else did. It was our God-given gift, our superpower."

But how many of us can explain what freedom is? These videos from BBC Radio 4 and the Open University's animated History of Ideas series approach that question from four different angles. "Freedom is good, but security is better," says narrator Harry Shearer, summing up the view of seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who imagined life without government, laws, or society as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." The solution, he proposed, came in the form of a social contract "to put a strong leader, a sovereign or perhaps a government, over them to keep the peace" — an escape from "the war of all against all."




But that escape comes hand in hand with the unpalatable prospect of living under "a frighteningly powerful state." The nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill, who wrote a great deal about the state's proper limitations, based his concept of freedom in something called the "harm principle," which holds that "the state, my neighbors, and everyone else should let me get on with my life, as long as I don't harm anyone in the process." As "the seedbed of genius" and "the basis of enduring happiness for ordinary people," this individual freedom needs protection, especially when it comes to speech: "Merely causing offense, he thinks, is no grounds for intervention, because, in his view, that is not a harm."

That proposition remains debated more heatedly now, in the 21st century, than Mill probably could have imagined. But then as now, and as in any time of human history, we live in more or less the same world, "a world festering with moral evil, a world of wars, torture, rape, murder, and other acts of meaningless violence," not to mention "natural evil" like disease, famine, floods, and earthquakes. This gives rise to perhaps the oldest problem in the philosophical book, the problem of evil: "How could a good god allow anyone to do such horrific things?" Some have taken the fact that the wars, murders, floods, and earthquakes continue as evidence that no such god exists.

But had that god created "human beings that always did the right thing, never harmed anyone else, never went astray," we'd all have ended up "automata, preprogrammed robots." Better, in this view, "to have free will with the genuine risk that some people will end up evil than to live in a world without choice." Even so, the mere mention of free will, a concept no more easily defined than that of freedom itself, opens up a whole other can of worms, especially in light of research like neuroscientist Benjamin Libet's.

Libet, who "wired up subjects to an EEG machine, measuring brain activity via electrodes on our scalps," found that brain activity initiating a movement actually happened before the subjects thought they'd decided to make that movement. Does that disprove free will? Does evil disprove the existence of a good god? Does offense cause the same kind of harm as physical violence? Should we give up more security for freedom, or more freedom for security? These questions remain unanswered, and quite possibly unanswerable, but that doesn't make considering the very nature of freedom any less necessary as human societies — those in "free countries" and otherwise — find their way forward.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A New Animation Explains How Caffeine Keeps Us Awake

Let’s preface this by recalling that Honoré de Balzac drank up to 50 cups of coffee a day and lived to the ripe old age of … 51.

Of course, he produced dozens of novels, plays, and short stories before taking his leave. Perhaps his caffeine habit had a little something to do with that?

Pharmacist Hanan Qasim’s TED-Ed primer on how caffeine keeps us awake top loads the positive effects of the most world’s commonly used psychoactive substance. Global consumption is equivalent to the weight of 14 Eiffel Towers, measured in drops of coffee, soda, chocolate, energy drinks, decaf…and that’s just humans. Insects get theirs from nectar, though with them, a little goes a very long, potentially deadly way.




Caffeine’s structural resemblance to the neurotransmitter adenosine is what gives it that special oomph. Adenosine causes sleepiness by plugging into neural receptors in the brain, causing them to fire more sluggishly. Caffeine takes advantage of their similar molecular structures to slip into these receptors, effectively stealing adenosine’s parking space.

With a bioavailability of 99%, this interloper arrives ready to party.

On the plus side, caffeine is both a mental and physical pick me up.

In appropriate doses, it can keep your mind from wandering during a late night study session.

It lifts the body’s metabolic rate and boosts performance during exercise—an effect that’s easily counteracted by getting the bulk of your caffeine from chocolate or sweetened soda, or by dumping another Eiffel Tower’s worth of sugar into your coffee.

There’s even some evidence that moderate consumption may reduce the likelihood of such diseases as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.

What to do when that caffeine effect starts wearing off?

Gulp down more!

As with many drugs, prolonged usage diminishes the sought-after effects, causing its devotees (or addicts, if you like) to seek out higher doses, negative side effects be damned. Nervous jitters, incontinence, birth defects, raised heart rate and blood pressure… it’s a compelling case for sticking with water.

Animator Draško Ivezić (a 3-latte-a-day man, according to his studio’s website) does a hilarious job of personifying both caffeine and the humans in its thrall, particularly an egg-shaped new father.

Go to TED-Ed to learn more, or test your grasp of caffeine with a quiz.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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