Review of Compulsive Acts, Elias Aboujaoude, 2008


This book did not impress me much at all. A far more readable and useful books on obsessions and compulsions is David Adam’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop” which I regularly recommend to patients. I did some book reviews for Fortean Times from 2003 til around 2008, I think this is likely to have been one of the last – none seem to have a life online but will turn up in various archives I have.

Compulsive Acts: A psychiatrists tales of ritual and obsession

The best that can be said of Elias Aboujaoude’s Compulsive Acts is that it’s an easy read. Director of the Impusive Control Disorders Unit at Stanford University School of Medicine, one would hope that Aboujaoude would give both the general and specialist reader some great insight into the world of compulsion. He ranges from obsessive-compulsive disorders to pathological gambling and problematic internet use, yet never really rises above the level of a decent magazine article, in say Time or Newsweek.

In his introduction Aboujaoude makes much of the weighty ethical dilemma facing him putting pen to paper. Clearly the issue of confidentiality looms over every medical writers wishing to make use of the material presenting every day. However Aboujaoude’s throat-clearing and disquisitions on storytelling in his Mediterranean ancestry serve to annoy when it finally comes to the writing itself. In his fictionalised composites, Aboujaoude adopts an irritatingly breezy style, as well as betraying a tin ear for dialogue and a weakness for twee framing devices (in particular his receptionist Aurora, an attempt at down-to-earth wisdom) Furthermore, the cases seem to progress neatly to their conclusions (not necessarily happy or successful ones) and lack real drama. One feels that Aboujaoude must have a decent book inside him – if only it could be compelled to come out.

3/10 – Far from compulsive

Language recognition in the womb – Fetal rhythm-based language discrimination – study from NeuroReport

Language recognition in the womb – Fetal rhythm-based language discrimination – study from NeuroReport

I have blogged before about on the tendency to grandiosity of neuroscience, or rather (very often) how the science media portray neuroscience. This phobia of neurohype is not the same as a suspicion of neuroscience. The ingenuity of the methodology of studies like this is staggering. I don’t have access via my usual library sources to recent issues of NeuroReport so I’m afraid that I can’t assess the study directly (in so far as as this stage of clinical practice, and the consequent distance from what personal study of relevance I have done)


Fetal rhythm-based language discrimination: a biomagnetometry study
Minai, Utakoa; Gustafson, Kathleenb; Fiorentino, Roberta; Jongman, Allarda; Sereno, Joana

Neuroreport: 5 July 2017 – Volume 28 – Issue 10 – p 561–564

Using fetal biomagnetometry, this study measured changes in fetal heart rate to assess discrimination of two rhythmically different languages (English and Japanese). Two-minute passages in English and Japanese were read by the same female bilingual speaker. Twenty-four mother–fetus pairs (mean gestational age=35.5 weeks) participated. Fetal magnetocardiography was recorded while the participants were presented first with passage 1, a passage in English, and then, following an 18 min interval, with passage 2, either a different passage in English (English–English condition: N=12) or in Japanese (English–Japanese condition: N=12). The fetal magnetocardiogram was reconstructed following independent components analysis decomposition. The mean interbeat intervals were calculated for a 30 s baseline interval directly preceding each passage and for the first 30 s of each passage. We then subtracted the mean interbeat interval of the 30 s baseline interval from that of the first 30 s interval, yielding an interbeat interval change value for each passage. A significant interaction between condition and passage indicated that the English–Japanese condition elicited a more robust interbeat interval change for passage 2 (novelty phase) than for passage 1 (familiarity phase), reflecting a faster heart rate during passage 2, whereas the English–English condition did not. This effect indicates

that fetuses are sensitive to the change in language from English to Japanese. These findings provide the first evidence for fetal language discrimination as assessed by fetal biomagnetometry and support the hypothesis that rhythm constitutes a prenatally available building block in language acquisition.

“#Sleeping, as we all know, is the most secret of our acts.”- #Borges and #sleep in #literature

I have blogged both here and on my other blog quite a few quotes from novels and other literature on sleep. I have found these passages capture a sort of phenomenology of sleep as effectively as any clinical text. In this post I use a quote from Jorge Luis Borges as the starting point for a more general, although ultimately quite personal, discussion of literature and sleep and other altered states of consciousness.

Séamus Sweeney

Sleeping, as we all know, is the most secret of our acts. We devote a third of our lives to it, and yet do not understand it. For some, it is no more than an eclipse of wakefulness, for others, a more complex state spanning at one and the same time past, present, and future,; for still others, an uninterrupted series of dreams. To say that Mrs Jáuregui spent ten years in a quiet chaos is perhaps mistaken; each moment of those ten years may have been a pure present, without a before or after. There is no reason to marvel at such a present, which we count by days and nights and by the hundreds of leaves of many calendars and by anxieties and events; it is what we go through each morning before waking up and every night before falling asleep. Twice each day, we are the elder…

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Can fMRI solve the mind-body problem? Tim Crane, “How We Can Be”, TLS, 24/05/17

In the current TLS, an excellent article by Tim Crane on neuroimaging, consciousness, and the mind-body problem. Many of my previous posts here related to this have endorsed a kind of mild neuro-scepticism, Crane begins his article by describing an experiment which should the literally expansive nature of neuroscience:

In 2006, Science published a remarkable piece of research by neuroscientists from Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. By scanning the brain of a patient in a vegetative state, Adrian Owen and his colleagues found evidence of conscious awareness. Unlike a coma, the vegetative state is usually defined as one in which patients are awake – they can open their eyes and exhibit sleep-wake cycles – but lack any consciousness or awareness. To discover consciousness in the vegetative state would challenge, therefore, the basic understanding of the phenomenon.

The Addenbrooke’s patient was a twenty-three-year-old woman who had suffered traumatic brain injury in a traffic accident. Owen and his team set her various mental imagery tasks while she was in an MRI scanner. They asked her to imagine playing a game of tennis, and to imagine moving through her house, starting from the front door. When she was given the first task, significant neural activity was observed in one of the motor areas of the brain. When she was given the second, there was significant activity in the parahippocampal gyrus (a brain area responsible for scene recognition), the posterior parietal cortex (which represents planned movements and spatial reasoning) and the lateral premotor cortex (another area responsible for bodily motion). Amazingly, these patterns of neural responses were indistinguishable from those observed in healthy volunteers asked to perform exactly the same tasks in the scanner. Owen considered this to be strong evidence that the patient was, in some way, conscious. More specifically, he concluded that the patient’s “decision to cooperate with the authors by imagining particular tasks when asked to do so represents a clear act of intention, which confirmed beyond any doubt that she was consciously aware of herself and her surroundings”.

Owen’s discovery has an emotional force that one rarely finds in scientific research. The patients in the vegetative state resemble those with locked-in syndrome, a result of total (or near-total) paralysis. But locked-in patients can sometimes demonstrate their consciousness by moving (say) their eyelids to communicate (as described in Jean-Dominique Bauby’s harrowing and lyrical memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 1997). But the vegetative state was considered, by contrast, to be a condition of complete unconsciousness. So to discover that someone in such a terrible condition might actually be consciously aware of what is going on around them, thinking and imagining things, is staggering. I have been at academic conferences where these results were described and the audience was visibly moved. One can only imagine the effect of the discovery on the families and loved ones of the patient.

Crane’s article is very far from a piece of messianic neurohype, but he also acknowledges the sheer power of this technology to expand our awareness of what it means to be conscious and human, and the clinical benefit that is not something to be sniffed at. But, it doesn’t solve the mind-body problem – it actually accentuates it:

Does the knowledge given by fMRI help us to answer Julie Powell’s question [essentially a restatement of the mind-body problem by a food writer]? The answer is clearly no. There is a piece of your brain that lights up when you talk and a piece that lights up when you walk: that is something we already knew, in broad outline. Of course it is of great theoretical significance for cognitive neuroscience to find out which bits do what; and as Owen’s work illustrates, it is also of massive clinical importance. But it doesn’t tell us anything about “how we can be”. The fact that different parts of your brain are responsible for different mental functions is something that scientists have known for decades, using evidence from lesions and other forms of brain damage, and in any case the very idea should not be surprising. FMRI technology does not solve the mind–body problem; if anything, it only brings it more clearly into relief.

Read the whole thing, as they say. It is a highly stimulating read, and also one which, while it points out the limits of neuroimaging as a way of solving the difficult problems of philosophy, gives the technology and the discipline behind it its due.

Tom Burgis on PTSD

Recently I read Tom Burgis“The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth” It is a sobering, saddening, maddening read that takes one into the heart of how Africa’s enormous resources have been an absolute curse, retarding rather than enhancing development. Hopefully at some point I will have time to write a post which deals more fully with the theme of the book. However, in the Foreword I was struck by a metaphor Burgis borrows from a friend to describe the PTSD he develops following the death and destruction he has witnessed, particularly a massacre and its aftermath in Jos:

The psychiatrist and a therapist who had worked with the army – both of them wise and kind – set about treating what was diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A friend of mine, who has seen his share of horrors, devised a metaphor through which to better understand PTSD. He compares the brain to one of those portable golf holes with which golfers practice their putting. Normally the balls drop smoothly into the hole, one experience after another processed and consigned to memory. But then something traumatic happens – a car crash, an assault, an atrocity – and that ball does not drop into the hole. It rattles around the brain, causing damage. Anxiety builds until it is all-consuming. Vivid and visceral, the memory blazes into view, sometimes unbidden, sometimes triggered by an association.

“a wry, gentle masterpiece” My review of “A Smell of Burning” by Colin Grant in current issue TLS

Having alluded to this beforehere it is


Dreamy states and forced thinking

Subtitled The story of epilepsy, Colin Grant’s A Smell of Burning is, most vividly, the story of Grant’s younger brother Christopher, who died in 2010 aged thirty-nine, during a seizure – a Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy, or SUDEP. Christopher was the dedicatee of Bageye at the Wheel (2012), Grant’s memoir of a 1970s childhood in Luton dominated – until his mother showed him the door – by his father, the perpetually choleric, feckless Bageye. “In Memory of Christopher Grant (Baby G) – A wry, gentle, amused and thoroughly splendid fellow” reads the dedication, and A Smell of Burning captures the adult life of Baby G adroitly.

Bageye has a cameo in A Smell of Burning, thirty years later, anxiously asking Grant “How Christopher? I hear him have head trouble”. As Grant writes,

my father was a Jamaican born in 1928. His ­perception of epilepsy would have been shaped and governed by superstition that runs like water through the island. People marked with head trouble were all the more scary because until they did something that revealed their condition it was impossible to tell them apart from anyone else.

This fearful regard of epilepsy was not ­confined to Jamaica. On one levelA Smell of Burning is an account of (partial) progress, with fear and ostracization gradually giving way to a greater level of understanding, both neurological and social. These approaches have an uneasy relationship: “often the patient is lost in these early accounts of the growth of neurology; the focus is on medical advancement, and the patient is the means to it: his body provides the pathway to enlightenment”.

Enlightenment about epilepsy existed, at times, in the pre-Enlightenment world; Herodotus, in discussing the illness of Cambyses II, distanced himself from the notion of a “sacred disease”; the Hippocratic text On the Sacred Disease is an attack on the very notion of epilepsy as a deity-induced illness. And for all the advancement that has been made, epilepsy retains much of its mystery: considering the visionary, logorrhoeic experiences of Philip K. Dick, Grant writes that “all too often it has been assumed that psychiatry offers the best model to describe some of the behaviours and personality changes in temporal lobe epilepsy, but maybe these behaviours have only the appearance of similarity, and something altogether different is going on in the brain”.

The book is something of a hybrid; the disease memoir crossed with a more detached journalistic account of the history of a particular condition in history. Careful to point out the pitfalls of retrospective diagnosis, Grant weaves his brother’s story together with those of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Harriet Tubman, Vincent Van Gogh, Julius Caesar and a much wider cast of anonymous epileptics. We also read of the medical mavericks, megalomaniacs and pioneers (many of whom merited all three descriptors), whose insights merged eerily with the literary; “the language of Dostoevsky and Hughlings Jackson was uncannily similar. Both men were able to conjure for readers the spooky ‘dreamy states’ and ‘forced thinking’ of epilepsy”.

Some of the richness of the book comes from a sense of holding back. The same restraint was already evident in Bageye at the Wheel, whose somewhat wry, amused take on Bageye’s misdeeds carried a depth of emotion all the more powerful for forgoing the template of the misery memoir. Grant, who studied medicine for five years at the Royal London Hospital, presents us with a superb memoir of medical student life in the mid-1980s. In asides to the main story, he evokes the blend of detachment, disorientation, reverent fear of the consultant and a sense of practical uselessness which characterizes much of medical student life.

When, shortly after a seizure, Christopher insists on driving, Grant experiences a feeling chillingly familiar to many who care for those who, in one way or another, lose control – “a sudden sickening fairground ride of emotion – a shearing-away of certainty”. Later, he is asked one of the most arresting questions a carer of someone with epilepsy can consider: would you wish to experience what they experience? There is a veil of unknowing over what happens to the person, a veil they themselves cannot penetrate after the event. Christopher

with age seemed to grow more accepting, as if he had reached some accommodation with the seizures. At times he woke after a seizure with a look of such disappointment; and I imagined him at the end of a dialogue with the fits urging them not to go just yet, like Horatio commanding the ghost of King Hamlet, “Stay, illusion!”

The visionary seizures experienced by Harriet Tubman after a head trauma helped inspire the Underground Railroad, and while not personally religious, Grant is open to ­considering the heightened religiosity seen in some epileptic presentations as being on the credit side of the ledger.

Like so many with a chronic condition, Christopher kicked against being defined by epilepsy and its treatment.

“If he would just tek the medicine. Why the boy can’t tek the medicine, God for tell”, was a constant refrain of my mother’s. When questioned about his non-compliance Christopher would counter that the drugs didn’t work. Or that they dulled him and left him thick-headed. Other sufferers have spoken about how they have felt trapped in this way by the condition.

Colin Grant’s exploration of the literary, political, medical and scientific history of epilepsy is hugely compelling; his telling of the story of two brothers transcends the book’s twin genres and leaves us with a wry, gentle masterpiece.

Brief thoughts on biases

Cognitive biases are all the rage in intellectual discourse, especially since the publication of Thinking, Fast And Slow.

Recent on Twitter I came across this tweet:

(the image isn’t with the embedded tweet so you will have to follow the link)

Not only is the diagram “beautiful if terrifying”, but the accompanying article at the link is a terrific overview of biases. It also makes the point very clearly that biases are tools – and are responses to problems. Much of the discourse around bias makes them sound like unmixed evils and realising they are in fact approaches to the world that help up survive and (possibly) thrive, with the potential to mislead also, is important.


I have been contemplating a longer piece on bias, and the role of bias-discourse in contemporary debates (especially online) Bias-hunting has become a bit like the Popperian view of Marxism and Freudianism – an approach that explains everything. There are so many biases that everyone and every assertion can be accused of possessing at least one.

This is something I wish to expand on at some point. Bias discourse is very prevalent in the medical literature – this is broadly to be welcomed. Yet I am suspicious (this is perhaps a bias of some kind) that bias discourse can be misused to shut down debates and dialogues, and that some of the proposed solutions – “metacognition”, the scientific method (reified to an uncomfortable degree) – are themselves prone to bias.