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Cognitive Column - May 2015

I’m never sure when people will get to see my musings. The last Column was written shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack, but by the time I received my copy of the Newsletter that event seemed to be something from a distant past. Today all the news is of skulduggery at FIFA. Since corruption appears to be a permanent and widespread feature of that organisation I assume that this time my Column will seem up-to-date whenever you read it.

We do not yet know whether the slippery Sepp Blatter has done anything wrong, although I see little evidence that he has done anything right. Of course, in our brave new tick-box world that doesn’t matter, because there is no metric for ‘honour’; if you can’t measure something it doesn’t count for anything. This man has for years presided over an organisation that has become a by-word for wrong-doing; he has patently failed to get his house in order, and yet sees it as his recurring right to stand for re-election at the end of each term of office. Clearly he lacks any sense of honour, but then there is little enough of that in evidence anywhere else, certainly not where power and money dictate behaviour. The last thoroughgoing political example I recall was back in 1982, when Lord Carrington, the Foreign Secretary, resigned over the invasion of the Falklands. Clearly the invasion wasn’t his personal fault, but he saw himself as the point at which the buck had to stop. Today someone junior would be fired and a minister would keep his office. We saw something of honour when Clegg and Miliband resigned, following their spectacular election defeats, but I don’t know what we saw with the ludicrous Farage – a sick joke perhaps? Curiously, the LibDem and Labour leaders had not mentioned resignation before the election, but nevertheless did the decent thing when the time came. Farage, in contrast, boasted of resigning until the time came. Then, the iron-willed hero who, single handed, defends us against the might of Europe, crumbled ingloriously before the alleged conjurations of his disciples. As a result, Farage the Fearless Phoenix was compelled to rise again miraculously from the fake ashes of his make-believe fire.

The child abuse scandals rumble on; we hear now that the Methodist church has had about as many abusers over the years as other denominations, together with the same eagerness to cover things up. Presumably the revelations might lead to congregations shrinking, but it’s hard to see what other impact could result. This is a far cry from the situation in Eire, where the church used to hold such sway. It is arguably a direct result of the shift in public opinion following the sex scandals in the Irish Republic, that the Catholic Church was unable to prevent the vote for gay marriage in the Republic’s recent referendum.

An unfortunate side effect of the current high profile of childhood sex abuse (CSA) cases is that false claims are more likely to be lodged and believed. Such claims frequently emerge from sessions of suspect psychotherapy. I know of one case where a whole series of young women have attended a so-called healer who endeavours (almost always successfully) to convince each client that she was sexually abused, usually by a parent. If one consults the NSPCC website it is possible to find details of upto-date research, addressing the incidence of CSA. Overall it is distressingly high, with the probability that a woman has been abused being close to 0.2 (20% or one in five). The probability that a parent was the perpetrator is far less. Now, combined probabilities are calculated by multiplying individual scores. For example, if I ask one of my readers to toss a coin the probability of it coming up ‘heads’ is 0.5 (50%). If I ask two of you, the chances of you both getting heads is 0.5 x 0.5 = 0.25 or 25%. Try it with two more, then the chance of four heads gets very small at 0.0625 or six and a quarter percent. The mathematics would be the same if we asked four people picked at random whether they had been abused, except this time we would multiply 0.2 x 0.2 x 0.2 x 0.2. That comes to 0.0016 or less than a one fifth of one percent likelihood that all had suffered in this way. You can see that, although the incidence of abuse is uncomfortably high, it is less than half that of getting ‘heads’, so the probability of a whole group of people all being victims becomes quite small. Of course, if a therapist set herself up to help victims of abuse, then one would expect many of her clients to have suffered it, but the person I have in mind doesn’t advertise and merely picks up friends and friends of friends, allegedly to do something analogous to ‘life-coaching’. Doing calculations of this sort on her results I have concluded that the chances of all her clients being abused in the reported ways are even slimmer than the chances of winning the National Lottery! If I managed to get a group of 24 of you all to come up with ‘heads’ (about the same chance as a lottery win) I imagine you’d say there was something fishy going on. I think there was something just as fishy with the ‘healer’ and her victims. In fact it is worse than fishy; it is downright wicked to lead someone to believe that she has been a victim of CSA.

The person I am describing above appears to have used hypnosis-like procedures to reinforce her malign message. This is not unusual, and I have met several such cases, where so-called hypnotherapy has led to people believing (erroneously) that they had been abused. Just recently I met a woman who had followed that unfortunate sequence, culminating in therapy-induced misbelief, and following that she was diagnosed by the orthodox medical profession as having schizophrenia. Some of you will remember from previous Columns that I have a little piece of apparatus that compares processing speeds in the two hemispheres of the brain. As I expected from this unfortunate person’s diagnosis, she showed a markedly asymmetric pair of speeds. One theory that attempts to explain the unreal experiences of schizophrenia (and fits the observed asymmetry) is that a ‘wayward’ right hemisphere is inadequately balanced and controlled by the left. More recently still I was asked to see a man who had been led to believe, via hypnosis, that he had been physically and mentally abused as a child. He found these beliefs very disturbing, in part because they didn’t seem to correspond with his ordinary memory; his thought processes ended up in a turmoil. He too showed the strong asymmetry I described above; moreover, he had been prescribed an antipsychotic drug and he scored very high on a ‘Schizotypy’ questionnaire. These check to see how many schizophrenia-like experiences a person has, such as hearing voices. Lastly, a year or so ago I tested another male patient who was trying to get a complaint recognised against a hypnotherapist. Unfortunately, the damage, if indeed any was done, all occurred long ago and the therapist was long dead. Nevertheless, the poor patient was left with a never ending obsession about his case, and several of the many specialists who had seen him over the years suggested schizophrenia as a possible diagnosis. As you have perhaps guessed, he too was asymmetric in his hemispheric processing speeds.

We seem to have a potential correlation or two here, between the hypnosis, the hemispheric imbalance and schizophrenic tendencies. The right hemisphere effect in schizophrenia has been detected by others, using different methods from my own, so that is doubtless real. Moreover, I have shown that similar asymmetry occurs in hypnosis. Finally, it has been established that people who are very responsive to hypnosis are likely to score higher on schizotypy scales. The connections seem clear, but what is not known is the direction of causality; possibly there is some as yet unidentified factor which brings about all the observed effects. Some years ago a case was taken against Paul McKenna, by a man who attended one of that stage hypnotist’s shows. In the show the victim was made to believe (and feel) that he had sat in an electric chair and that a powerful shock had gone through his body. After the event he developed symptoms of schizophrenia, so he was looking for damages. At that time, expert opinion was of the view that hypnosis could not actually cause schizophrenia; the poor man was simply an accident waiting to happen and if it hadn’t been then it would not have been long after. As a result, Paul McKenna ‘got away with it’, but I am beginning to wonder whether his role in the onset of psychosis was greater than was supposed at the time. To explain, let me first draw your attention to some more connections.

People who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also have an imbalance towards the right hemisphere and they are more than averagely susceptible to hypnosis. Not everyone who suffers trauma goes on to develop PTSD, and it is beginning to look as if the unfortunate ones are genetically predisposed to this vulnerability; one might say that they are accidents waiting to happen. However, there must be millions of us with that genetic make-up who have simply been fortunate enough to have avoided extreme trauma. Suppose one is attending a stage show when the building collapses on the audience. Our victim is pulled half dead from the rubble and goes on to develop PTSD. Can the theatre owners deny responsibility on the grounds that this person was an accident waiting to happen? A final connection: PTSD is quite closely allied to the psychoses (and schizophrenia is one). You will see by now, I expect, where all this is leading; it seems to me that a seriously distressing experience in hypnosis may very well bring about the onset of schizophrenia. If I am right, these are not ‘accidents waiting to happen’; they are injuries caused by the hypnotist.

Let’s end on a lighter note. Regular readers will know that I am for ever spotting (and enjoying) signs, notices and labels that clearly don’t mean what the words actually say. Sometimes, of course, misinterpretation is done deliberately for humour, and I saw it recently on one of those cards where incongruous speech bubbles are attached to people in an old drawing or photograph. This one was a line drawing of a couple who looked as if they’d come from a Hardy story. She (Bathsheba?) was sitting demurely with a rug over her knees, while he (Gabriel?) sat farmer-like opposite, wearing gaiters and chewing a straw. Bathsheba is saying, “Whenever Henry’s wife goes out he gives her a kiss. Why don’t you do that?” Gabriel replies, “Well, I hardly know the woman!”

Good luck with all the work. If you are doing DD303 I might get to see you at Residential School; I’m doing the last two weeks of July, one week in Nottingham then one at Warwick.

Very best wishes,

Peter

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