What Makes Us Who We Are: Neuroscience and the Self

The idea of the mind is a relatively modern concept. In medieval times, it was believed that people were divided in two parts, the physical body and the spiritual soul. With the emergence of the scientific revolution and thinkers such as John Locke, the mind and secular life became an important topic in discussions about self-awareness. Since then, we have been trying to understand not only what it means to possess a mind, but also the neuroscience behind it.

That was part of the message at “My Neurons, My Self,” a panel discussion at the World Science Festival in New York City. Three eminent neuroscientists and a philosopher provided insight into the “mind-brain” problem, focusing on what defines the self. “What we don’t have yet is a way of bridging mental experience with the brain in a coherent model that allows for mental intention; we still are a ways off from solving the mind-brain problem,” said George Makari, M.D., director of the Institute of the History of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, in introducing the panel.

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Sondheim and Pinker on Music and Emotion

When it comes to explanations for human behavior, preeminent experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, Ph.D., adamantly believes that genes matter. When others question this position, claiming that attributing emotion and behavior to genetics is merely a way of evading responsibility, Pinker will often offer a cultural rather than a scientific response:

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,

You gotta understand

It’s just our bringing up-ke,

That gets us out of hand.

Our mothers are all junkies,

Our fathers all are drunks.

Golly Moses naturally we’re punks

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Genius: Mind, Brain, and Molecules at the 92nd Street Y

What makes someone a genius? According to Nobel Laureate Eric R. Kandel, M.D., it is a person who is a “game-changer” and who “through their work, permanently changed the way we perceive the world.” It is less about IQ and more about “drive, persistence, and creativity.” At the 92nd Street Y’s third annual 7 Days of Genius in Manhattan, four eminent scientists, arguably geniuses themselves, discussed historical geniuses of the mind, brain, and molecules. The three speakers included two members of the Dana Alliance, Larry W. Swanson, Ph.D., and Thomas M. Jessell, Ph.D., as well as Robert Michels, M.D. Kandel, also a Dana Alliance member, moderated the event.

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40 Years Later: The Stanford Prison Experiment

Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks.

Forty years ago one of the most notorious experiments in social psychology, the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), was underway. Led by psychologist Philip Zimbardo and funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the study sought to “understand the…effects of roles, labels, and social expectations” in a simulated prison environment.

More than 70 students responded to the ad for the study. Zimbardo’s team interviewed all applicants, eliminating candidates with psychological problems, criminal backgrounds, or histories of drug abuse. The students selected were to spend two weeks in a basement that had been modified into a “prison.” They were each randomly assigned a role: prisoner or guard.

The nine “prisoners” were arrested at their homes, processed at the police station, and taken to the mock prison, where they were issued prison smocks and ankle chains and assigned ID numbers. Among the rules established (PDF), prisoners were to address each other only by ID number. Guards donned military-style khaki uniforms, batons, and mirrored sunglasses (to prevent eye contact). Their primary directive was to maintain order in the prison, without resorting to physical violence. All were instructed to immerse themselves in the experiment completely.

The first night passed without incident. On the second day, the three prisoners in cell 1 initiated a riot. The night-shift guards were called in and broke the riot up by attacking with fire extinguishers. Order was restored and the prisoners who had not participated in the riot were offered special privileges—a psychological tactic employed to divide the inmates. Over the course of the experiment punishments escalated to include refusal of toilet privileges, forcing the inmates to sleep on their cell floors, “solitary confinement” within an unlit closet (inflicted upon one prisoner who attempted a hunger strike), stripping the men nude, and general acts of humiliation. Inmates were made to count off repeatedly in order to learn their numbers, with errors in the count earning physical punishment. Thirty-six hours into the simulation, prisoner #8612 began to appear dangerously affected. On the fourth day, some inmates began to plot an escape. Worried parents, who had seen their sons during "visiting hours," implored Zimbardo to release their sons; some of the most emotionally disturbed were finally granted “parole.” When things got really out of hand and Zimbardo attempted to move the prisoners to the more secure local police station, city officials told him they would no longer cooperate with his experiment.

Zimbardo’s hypothesis was that individuals will conform, against their nature, to roles of authority and submission. He hoped the study would illuminate how an individual (the prisoner) adapts to being in a powerless situation–the guards were initially only of interest for their role in the prisoners’ transformations.

In fact, both guards and prisoners fell into their roles so quickly and dramatically that the experiment was ended after only six days. Half the inmates had already been released due to severe emotional reactions, and the investigators had determined that one-third of the guards were exhibiting genuine sadistic tendencies. Zimbardo himself had participated—as prison superintendent—and admitted to losing sight of his role as psychologist and permitting the abuse of the prisoners to carry on too long. On August 20, 1971, he called all SPE participants to a meeting and announced that the study was terminated, the prison shutting down. It was later reported that some of the guards were disappointed to see the experiment end early. Many have since expressed remorse for and shock at their behavior.

Zimabaro has said that he expected they would “write some articles about it and move on,” but the experiment drew considerable public interest—and criticism—at the time. While the study had been approved by Stanford's Human Subjects Research Committee, and a 1973 investigation by the American Psychological Association (APA) determined the experiment to be ethically sound, Zimbardo’s contemporaries criticized his methodology. Subsequent years saw revisions to APA guidelines that would prevent similar human-based simulation experiments. As Zimabardo said, "No behavioral research that puts people in that kind of setting can ever be done again in America."

–Sarah King

For more background:

Stanford Prison Experiment: A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted at Stanford University. The official website of the experiment including a slideshow, FAQ, and documentation.

The Menace Within” Zimardo and others involved reflect on the experiment in Stanford’s alumni magazine.

The official SPE YouTube page. Including footage from the experiment.

Psychologist Erich Fromm’s criticism of the study.

Mental Health Blog Party: Interview with Ellen Frank

Mental Health Blog Party

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and today is the Mental Health Month Blog Party, an idea conceived by the American Psychological Association to spread the importance of good mental health and reduce its stigma.

To participate, we interviewed Ellen Frank, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and director of the Depression and Manic Depression Prevention program at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Dr. Frank is also a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.

What are you working on now?

Currently, my biggest project is with David Kupfer, my husband. We’re looking at whether integrating medical care with psychiatric care for individuals who have bipolar disorder can reduce the medical morbidity and mortality associated with the disorder and improve psychiatric outcomes. We think there is probably a pretty strong link between medical problems, particularly those associated with the metabolic syndrome and bipolar disorder. Certainly individuals with bipolar disorder are at markedly increased risks for almost all of the components of the metabolic syndrome—obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes—and seem to begin to have those problems at a much earlier age. We’re thinking if we can create an environment where the right hand knows what the left hand is doing then we might be able to improve both medical and psychiatric outcomes.

How is that study coming along?

We’re about halfway through the recruitment process. It would be premature to say anything definitive at this point. The plan is to follow people for 18 months to two years. We already have 30 patients who have been followed for that long. What I can say is that study participants seem to be enthusiastic about taking better care of themselves. There are two reasons it is hard for them to take care of themselves physically. First, I think they always see their psychiatric illness as their primary illness, and if they only have the energy to take care of one thing, it’s going to be that. Secondly, as soon as they get to a general medical specialist who sees they are on one of these marker medications (such as lithium), they often find they are treated badly. The few who have the energy and the will to get themselves medical care often find the stigma associated with the mental illness leads them to being treated in not the kindest way. By integrating medical care with psychiatric care, they wouldn’t have to face either of those problems. They can get their medical care at the same time they are getting their psychiatric care and don’t have to worry about the stigma associated with their mental illness.

Can you gauge the public perception regarding stigma?

I’m an empiricist, a researcher. I was looking for some data on this topic recently and couldn’t find anything that specifically compared, let’s say, bipolar disorder with unipolar depression as far as stigma. I wish there were more specific research on the nature of stigma but to be honest I haven’t really seen much in the way of new studies. In general, I found that the public doesn’t necessarily distinguish among different psychotic illnesses. It is the psychotic disorders that are the most stigmatized.

Have you noticed a change in public perception over the last 5-10 years?

There has been a huge change with the stigma associated with unipolar depression. I think that is largely due to the public information provided by the pharmaceutical industry. In the process of advertising the newer antidepressant medications there has been a really remarkable education to the public about depression and a destigmatization of depression. I don’t know if that has transferred to bipolar disorder.

Do you think that could change in the near future?

I can remember as a child when you couldn’t say the word cancer out in public. We’ve certainly been successful in destigmatizing cancer in that way. I think over time, as more knowledge is accumulated, attitudes will change. We are most afraid of what we can’t understand and can’t treat, so as we’ve come to understand cancer better and have developed highly effective treatments for many forms of cancer, I think that’s been an important part of its destigmatization. As we come to understand the major mental disorders and have increasingly effective treatments, I’m hopeful the stigmatization associated with these illnesses will decrease.

What do you see as your role as far as educating and interacting with the public?

I do a fair number of community talks. I’m always enthusiastic about the opportunity to meet with the general community. I recently did a public talk at the University of Louisville. I also recently talked to students at Pittsburgh—undergraduate psychologists. It was a couple of hundred 18-19 year olds majoring in psychology, but they are certainly not fully-formed psychologists yet; they are in a sense going to be the general community of the future. It was very exciting to talk to them about new ideas we have about the causes of bipolar disorder.

Thank you for your time. Anything else you’d like to share?

One other thing I have been focusing on of late is the fact that we do have a series of highly effective psychosocial treatments for bipolar disorder. The challenge has been to get these treatments from the ivory tower to the general community where the average person with bipolar disorder is being treated. I’m really pleased that a colleague of mine just got a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study how best to implement these treatments in a general community mental health setting. We’re trying to understand what it’s going to take. That is something I think is very, very important.

–Andrew Kahn


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