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February 26, 2007

BehindTheMedspeak: 'Was Repressed Memory a 19th-Century Creation?'


Dr. Harrison Pope of Harvard Medical School believes that to be the case.

In a paper published in the February 2007 issue of the journal Psychological Medicine, his research team concluded that "the psychiatric disorder known as dissociative amnesia (often called 'repressed memory') is a 'culture-bound syndrome' — a creation of Western culture sometime in the 19th century," wrote Shankar Vedantam in a story in today's Washington Post.

So confident are the Harvard researchers that they're "offering $1,000 to anyone who can produce an example to disprove their theory."

Got one?

Go to biopsychlab.com and click on "Repression Challenge."

Here's the article.

    Was Repressed Memory a 19th-Century Creation?

    There is a pain — so utter
    It swallows substance up
    Then covers the Abyss with Trance
    So Memory can step around — across....

    Emily Dickinson wrote those lovely words sometime in the middle of the 19th century, probably after a love affair broke her heart. Over the next century and a half, that same idea found its way into countless books, plays and movies — when a memory becomes too painful to bear, the mind finds a way to seal it off, to "step around — across."

    But when researchers recently mounted an exhaustive effort to find examples of trauma-related amnesia in literary works before the 19th century, they drew a blank. If repressed memories are one way the brain deals with painful memories, why would there be no literary examples of the phenomenon that are more than 200 years old?

    In an unusual study, a group of psychiatrists and literary scholars, led by Harrison Pope of Harvard Medical School, recently argued that the psychiatric disorder known as dissociative amnesia (often called repressed memory) is a "culture-bound syndrome" — a creation of Western culture sometime in the 19th century.

    Pope pointed out that Shakespeare, Homer and other pre-19th-century writers show numerous characters suffering from other psychiatric disorders: the disjointed thinking that we call schizophrenia, or the persistent sadness that marks depression. Because art draws its inspiration from life, Pope said, this shows that those disorders have been around forever. In the opening lines of "The Merchant of Venice," for example, Antonio vividly describes what it feels like to be depressed:

    In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
    It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
    But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
    What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born
    I am to learn.

    Pope said a wide search of literary texts in European languages, Arabic, Sanskrit and Chinese has produced no convincing example of a character created before the year 1800 who suffered a traumatic event, repressed the memory and later recovered it. The scientists recently published their findings in the journal Psychological Medicine.

    The researchers are offering $1,000 to anyone who can produce an example to disprove their theory. (To send a suggestion, go to biopsychlab.com and click on "Repression Challenge.") Pope said many intriguing examples have come in, but none has been exactly right. Besides, he says, if dissociative amnesia has its origins in actual brain functioning, there ought to be many examples of it -- just as there are countless examples of characters who have epileptic seizures.

    In "Shakuntala," a play written in ancient India, a king falls in love with a woman. After a curse, the king forgets about his love. But his amnesia, which eventually reverses itself, was not triggered by a traumatic event.

    Examples of trauma-related amnesia proliferated in 19th-century Western literature, said Michael Parker, a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy and one of Harrison's co-authors. One of the best examples is in Charles Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities," published in 1859, in which Dr. Manette is horrifyingly imprisoned in the Bastille but has no memory of the trauma until revelations in the plot cause him to recall some of what happened.

    Movies and television have produced ever more such tales; a recent "Masterpiece Theatre" production of "Jane Eyre" showed her suffering amnesia after finding out on her wedding day that the man she was about to wed was already married. Interestingly, Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel has no reference to such amnesia; the television version invented it.

    "What that illustrates is repressed memory is such a wonderful dramatic device," Pope said. "Film is such a perfect vehicle for someone to have a flashback that grows back into a memory.... Maybe Hollywood to some extent has kept this concept in the foreground."

    Pope's literary-based study offers an unusual take on the controversy over repressed memory. Over the past two decades, many people have come forward to say they abruptly recovered memories of childhood trauma, especially sexual abuse. Some of the memories have been proved false.

    One implication of Pope's paper, said Richard McNally, a professor of psychology at Harvard who studies reactions to trauma, is that therapists should focus their attention on treating patients for the symptoms they are displaying — such as depression — with tools such as psychotherapy and medication, rather than assuming that hidden memories are the source of their emotional problems. Pope and McNally emphasized that a culture-bound syndrome was no less "real" than a biological brain disorder — the suffering of patients in both cases can be identical.

    Indeed, many experts argue that all psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and depression, have cultural aspects. For one thing, the ways people express emotional suffering are informed by the cultures they come from. But given that there are no laboratory tests to diagnose schizophrenia or depression — doctors make those diagnoses based on criteria agreed upon by consensus — one critic of Pope's study argued that it has the effect of belittling dissociative amnesia when it is no less scientific than other psychiatric disorders. Matthew Erdelyi, an experimental psychologist at Brooklyn College, argued that his own experiments show that human memory is indeed malleable and that people's ability to recall distant events can decline or improve with time.

    "I think it is patronizing," he said of the paper. "What is the claim of the article? You can't find repressed memories in historical articles. But that does not argue to the proper therapy for repressed memory."

    Erdelyi said the paper illustrates the enduring tension between modern psychiatry, which emphasizes the treatment of patients' symptoms, and Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic approach, which emphasizes the exploration of past events as a way to resolve patients' problems. Freud himself worked with patients to recover memories of trauma. But by 1895, Erdelyi said, Freud had modified his idea after he realized that most people were not suffering from a single trauma.

    "He started to emphasize insight," Erdelyi said. "The insight was not, 'Oh my God, my father raped me!' but that 'There is a pattern to my problems.' The task of therapy is not to recover a particular point of memory, but to connect the points and to see a pattern in what makes you depressed."


Here's a link to the abstract of the Psychological Medicine paper, which follows.

    Is dissociative amnesia a culture-bound syndrome? Findings from a survey of historical literature

    Background. Natural human psychological phenomena, such as depression, anxiety, delusions, hallucinations and dementia, are documented across the ages in both fictional and non-fictional works. We asked whether ‘dissociative amnesia’ was similarly documented throughout history.

    Method. We advertised in three languages on more than 30 Internet web sites and discussion groups, and also in print, offering US$1000 to the first individual who could find a case of dissociative amnesia for a traumatic event in any fictional or non-fictional work before 1800.

    Results. Our search generated more than 100 replies; it produced numerous examples of ordinary forgetfulness, infantile amnesia and biological amnesia throughout works in English, other European languages, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Sanskrit and Chinese before 1800, but no descriptions of individuals showing dissociative amnesia for a traumatic event.

    Conclusions. If dissociative amnesia for traumatic events were a natural psychological phenomenon, an innate capacity of the brain, then throughout the millennia before 1800, individuals would presumably have witnessed such cases and portrayed them in non-fictional works or in fictional characters. The absence of cases before 1800 cannot reasonably be explained by arguing that our ancestors understood or described psychological phenomena so differently as to make them unrecognizable to modern readers because spontaneous complete amnesia for a major traumatic event, in an otherwise lucid individual, is so graphic that it would be recognizable even through a dense veil of cultural interpretation. Therefore, it appears that dissociative amnesia is not a natural neuropsychological phenomenon, but instead a culture-bound syndrome, dating from the nineteenth century.

February 26, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Iranian Moon Base?


That was my first thought when I read Nazila Fathi's story in today's New York Times about Iran's launch in recent days of a suborbital research rocket, which carried a payload 94 miles high before returning back to earth by parachute.

Who knows how far this country's skilled scientists can – and will — take them?

Here's a link to the BBC's coverage.

Here's a link to an Iranian report on the launch.

February 26, 2007 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

What's on your iPod? Me, I've got a yellow warbler...


Andrew LaVallee's front page story in today's Wall Street Journal features the new new thing in birdwatching: iPods preloaded with sample songs of 650 birds.

Atlanta-based MightyJams sells iPods with its proprietary birdJam software installed, allowing users listen to and match sounds emanating from above and around.

Here's the article.

    Why Birdwatchers Now Carry iPods And Laser Pointers

    Devices Help Spot, Call, Identify and Spread News; The Noise of Wireless Alerts

    Birdwatchers have long headed into the woods with little more equipment than binoculars and a notebook. But when Laura Erickson sets out on a birding trip, she now brings along two digital cameras, a Palm device with a bird-species database and an iPod loaded with bird songs.

    "I used to be a very low-tech person," says Ms. Erickson, a 55-year-old ornithologist in Duluth, Minn. "It's become such a high-tech kind of thing, with so many people carrying so much equipment now."

    Earlier this winter, she used a parabolic microphone in her backyard to record the sounds of woodcocks three-quarters of a mile away. "That doesn't seem any more cheating than using binoculars" does, she says. "But to some people, that would just be a horrifying thought."

    Indeed, many traditionalists who think that the whole point of birding is to commune with nature bristle at the technology now available to the modern birdwatcher, from laser pointers used to identify birds perched on high branches to devices that play birdcalls. Professional alerting services, already popular in the United Kingdom and springing up in the U.S., allow hardcore hobbyists to receive notices of local sightings on their cellphones or BlackBerrys.

    "I have seen good friends in the field that looked like electronics stores when they came down the trail," says Richard Payne, president of the American Birding Association, a Colorado Springs, Colo., nonprofit that counts about 18,000 members. "It's not my style."

    According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 46 million Americans observed, fed or photographed birds in 2001 — the most recent year for which it has data — and they spent $6.01 billion on binoculars, cameras, film, field guides and other stuff.

    "For me, it's much more about the simple joys of discovery. I appreciate what technology can do, but I don't want the distraction, and I don't want a barrier," says Tim Abbott, a 38-year-old birder in North Canaan, Conn., who confines himself to binoculars. "I don't want to spend all my time wishing I could recharge my computer so I could get the bird atlas going."

    Terry Hunefeld, a retired sales coach in Encinitas, Calif., recently saw an American oystercatcher in nearby Point Loma. "It was a big find," he says of the large bird, identified by its long, red-orange bill. He got a good look and then reached for his BlackBerry, firing off text messages to several friends. Six of them showed up in time to see the bird.

    The device came in handy again when he encountered a crested caracara, a raptor rarely spotted in Southern California. "A rare bird, when you find it, could be gone in two minutes. But it could also be there for an hour or two," so getting the word out quickly is key, he says.

    When a long-billed murrelet, a seabird that normally lives near the Pacific Ocean, was seen in southwest England in November, more than 1,000 birders hurried to the site. Many were notified by one of the bird-alert services. "You could practically hear the stampede," says a spokeswoman for Sheffield, England-based BirdGuides Ltd., whose electronic-alert services have about 5,000 subscribers paying as much as $186 a year.

    Rival Rare Bird Alert, in Norwich, also notified its 1,000-plus subscribers about the sighting. It advertises that its news service is staffed 15 hours a day, 365 days a year. "People have walked out of weddings, people have walked out of their jobs, to see a bird," says a spokesman for the company.

    Discussions over the use of technology in birding can "sometimes get a little bit steamy," says Paul Green, director of citizen science at the National Audubon Society in New York. "This community is a very complex one."

    One point of contention is the use of mobile technologies that replicate bird songs. MightyJams LLC, in Atlanta, sells an iPod loaded with its birdJam software and sample songs of 650 birds. The National Geographic Society also sells sample calls loaded onto memory cards for use in handheld devices. The song libraries are intended as identification guides, but they can also be amplified and played through portable speakers to attract birds.

    The American Birding Association's code of ethics advises against the tactic for rare or endangered birds because it can distract them from protecting or feeding their young. "It's a very kind of personal, selfish thing to do," Audubon's Mr. Green says.

    Denese Van Dyne, one of the partners of MightyJams, says the company is aware of the controversy over the use of recorded calls and encourages customers to limit their use during nesting seasons. "We have an admonition in all our ads: 'BirdJam is a powerful tool. Please use it responsibly.' "

    Camera flashes are similarly disruptive, and laser pointers, which some use to point out a hard-to-see bird, also pose risks, according to the American Birding Association. "Some people have a tendency to take that laser pointer and point it right at the bird, i.e., on the bird's body, which is really a mistake," says Mr. Payne, the group's president. A laser pointer can injure a bird's eyes.

    Also, wireless alerts can backfire when one tries to use stealth to pursue a bird, he says. "I don't want to be disturbed by someone's cellphone ringing out in the field. And that's happened to me before."

    Lillian Stokes, a well-known figure in U.S. birding, says she has taken advantage of technology — within limits — to help her spot birds. In September, Ms. Stokes, who with her husband, Don, has written popular field and audio guides, coordinated a hawk-watching trip in New Hampshire. The birders, equipped with cellphones, split into two groups and hiked on mountains 15 miles apart. When Ms. Stokes saw a bald eagle headed toward the other group, at Crotched Mountain, she phoned in the alert. Someone returned the favor when an eagle was spotted heading toward Ms. Stokes's location on Pack Monadnock.

    Both groups saw eagles they otherwise would have missed. Technology is coming into birding "big time," Ms. Stokes says.

    Still, some birders prefer to keep things simple. Merrill Webb, a 65-year-old biology teacher in Orem, Utah, says that even though he often uses a laser pointer in his classes, the thought of taking it outside has never crossed his mind. To draw out birds, he uses man-made sounds, a practice called "pishing," certainly not an iPod. "I tried using one of those," he says. "I couldn't keep it charged."

February 26, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

MorphWorld: Mike Mayock's voice into Daffy Duck's


After a weekend listening to the draft guru opine on the NFL Network at the Combine in Indianapolis, I've grown to kind of like his lisp and mildly spluttery delivery, evocative of how Daffy Duck (above) might sound if he'd had speech therapy.

When you see Mayock (below)


on TV it's hard to think of him as other than your typical dweeb-become-football-guru, but the truth is that he was a defensive back for the New York Giants.

FunFact: Daffy Duck's voice was modeled after that of Warner Brothers producer Leon Schlesinger, who had a tendency to lisp.

One of Schlesinger's colleagues at Warner Brothers said he never realized what they'd done.

February 26, 2007 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

E!'s Glam-O-Strator — Highlight of the Oscars


I have to agree with Tom Shales, the TV critic of the Washington Post, who began his review of the telecast in today's paper, "Alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) a bore and a horror...."

But he did give a paragraph to a very nice new wrinkle in E!'s pre-Oscar red carpet coverage, the Glam-O-Strator, in which the network's fashion analyst uses an on-screen pen to demonstrate, via lines and arrows a là Phil Simms during NFL telecasts, why a gown is indeed a Versace or suchlike.

Shales wrote, "An E! innovation this year: The Glam-O-Strator, a modified version of the "telestrator" used for football games, except this time it was used for designers and other interested parties to comment upon, and circle key elements of, glamorous dresses worn by women attending the show."

February 26, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

All this search science, I don't understand


True, it's just my job seven days a week, but it remains a complete mystery to me how and why it is that when I put the words "heart disease, primarily fibrosing" into the Google search box, the article I want, from the August 21, 2006 Washington Post, comes up first of 75,400 results in 0.3 seconds.

Put the same words into the Washington Post's search box and you get "No Results Found."

You could look it up.

If you put the the article's author, Cheryl Lyn Dybas, into the Post's search box you get the same non-result.

Why should this be?

If the Post can't give an answer better and faster than Google, shouldn't it forget about its own search and simply plug you into Google's?

As I said, it's all a mystery to me.

February 26, 2007 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Museum of Bags and Purses


Now 10 years old, its collection of 3,500 handbags resides in Amsterdam.


Sigrid Ivo, the director and curator, told Gert Jonkers of the New York Times in an article in yesterday's Women's Fashion Spring 2007 magazine supplement, "We'll feel so much more confident to say that we're actually the best and biggest bags museum in the world" after the museum's May, 2007 move from the Amsterdam suburbs to the center of the city.

February 26, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing


Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl, whose podcasts focus on the aforementioned topic.

February 26, 2007 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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