Sunday, November 29, 2015

Was blind, but now I see

This article (below) fascinates me. I remember the controversy over "multiple personality disorder" in the '90s and how it was related to childhood sexual abuse. Unfortunately, it spawned innumerable Geraldo Rivera-type TV shows with the most lurid misrepresentations of the disease and its causes, and a flood of books that may or may not have been based in reality. The whole subject (along with "recovered memory", a concept that triggered a World War III in therapy circles) became more and more sensationalized, so that a serious assessment of what was actually going on became almost impossible.

Then, as with so many other controversial phenomena, it virtually disappeared from the public consciousness. A few years ago I saw a bizarre article by one of the authors of The Courage to Heal (the Bible for survivors of childhood sexual abuse) exhorting women to forgive their families, particularly their fathers, and make reparation to them wherever possible. The whole thing reeked of "lawsuit" (another murky and often hateful manifestation of this whole mess).

This was the first time I have read about multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder, perhaps to distance it from its Geraldo-esque roots) in years and years. How times change. And things. And public opinion.

The blind woman who switched personalities and could
suddenly see

Hamilton Spectator

By Sarah Kaplan

It had been more than a decade since "B.T." had last seen anything.

After she suffered a traumatic accident as a young woman, doctors diagnosed her with cortical blindness, caused by damage to the visual processing centres in her brain. So she got a Seeing Eye dog to guide her and grew accustomed to the darkness.

Besides, B.T. had other health problems to cope with — namely, more than 10 wildly different personalities that competed for control of her body.

It was while seeking treatment for her dissociative identity disorder that the ability to see suddenly returned. Not to B.T., a 37-year-old German woman. But to a teenage boy she sometimes became.

With therapy, over the course of months, all but two of B.T.'s identities regained their sight. And as B.T. oscillated between identities, her vision flicked on and off like a light switch in her mind. The world would appear, then go dark.

Writing in PsyCh Journal, B.T.'s doctors say that her blindness wasn't caused by brain damage, her original diagnosis. It was instead something more akin to a brain directive, a psychological problem rather than a physiological one.

B.T.'s strange case reveals much about the mind's extraordinary power — how it can control what we see and who we are.

To understand what happened with B.T. (who is identified only by her initials in the journal article), her doctors, German psychologists Hans Strasburger and Bruno Waldvogel, went back to her initial diagnosis of cortical blindness.

Her health records from the time show that she was subjected to a series of vision tests — involving lasers, special glasses, lights shined across a room — all of which demonstrated her apparent blindness. Since there was no damage to her eyes themselves, it was assumed that B.T.'s vision problems must have come from brain damage caused by her accident (the report does not say what exactly happened in the accident).

Waldvogel had no reason to doubt that diagnosis when B.T. was referred to him 13 years later for treatment of dissociative identity disorder, once called multiple personality disorder. B.T. exhibited more than 10 personalities, varying in age, gender, habits and temperament. They even spoke different languages: some communicated only in English, others only in German, some in both. (B.T. had spent time in an English-speaking country as a child but lived in Germany.)

Then, four years into psychotherapy, something strange happened: just after ending a therapy session, while in one of her adolescent male states, B.T. saw a word on the cover of a magazine. It was the first word she had read visually in 17 years.

At first, B.T.'s renewed sight was restricted to recognizing whole words in that one identity. If asked, she couldn't even see the individual letters that made up the words, just the words themselves. But it gradually expanded, first to higher-order visual processes (like reading), then to lower-level ones (like recognizing patterns) until most of her personalities were able to see most of the time. When B.T. alternated between sighted and sightless personalities, her vision switched as well.

That's when Waldvogel began doubting the cause of B.T.'s vision loss. It's unlikely that a brain injury of the kind that can cause cortical blindness would heal instantaneously after such a long time. And even if it did, that didn't explain why B.T.'s vision continued to switch on and off. Clearly something else was going on.

One explanation, that B.T. was "malingering," or lying about her disability, was disproved by an EEG test. When B.T. was in her two blind states, her brain showed none of the electrical responses to visual stimuli that sighted people would display — even though B.T.'s eyes were open and she was looking right at them.

Instead, Waldvogel and Strasburger believe that B.T.'s blindness is psychogenic (psychologically caused, rather than physical). Something happened — perhaps related to her accident — that caused her body to react by cutting out her ability to see. Even now, two of her identities retain that coping mechanism.

"These presumably serve as a possibility for retreat," Strasburger told the neuroscience site Brain Decoder. "In situations that are particularly emotionally intense, the patient occasionally feels the wish to become blind, and thus not 'need to see.'"

It's not actually all that uncommon for people's brains to stop them from seeing, even when their eyes work fine, the researchers say. When your two eyes see slightly different images — when squinting, for example — the brain will cut out one image to keep you from being confused by the contradiction. Your brain also intervenes in visual processing when you focus on particular objects in your field of vision.

Responsibility for the information "gatekeeping" that kept B.T. from seeing everything she looked at may lie with the lateral geniculate nucleus, a sort of neural relay centre that sends visual information down synaptic pathways into the brain's information processors.

Perhaps more interesting than what it says about sight, though, is what B.T.'s story tells us about dissociative identity disorder (DID), the condition apparently at the root of her vision loss.

Though DID has been listed in psychiatry's bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, since 1994 (and was recognized as "multiple personality disorder" for a decade and a half before that), there is still a large amount of skepticism about the diagnosis among experts and patients alike.

For years before it became a psychiatric diagnosis, DID was known along with a host of other psychiatric conditions as "hysteria," a term that gives you a sense of how it and its sufferers were viewed.

Modern critics of the diagnosis point out the absence of consensus on diagnostic criteria and treatment, and blame sensational stories of DID patients like the 1976 TV movie Sybil for creating an "epidemic" of MPD diagnoses. The 1990s saw a spate of lawsuits from patients subjected to dubious treatments for multiple personality disorders they said they didn't have, and many began to believe that DID was not so much treated by psychiatrists but induced by them through the power of suggestion.

At the very least, it's thought that DID may only be a product of fragmentation at high levels of thinking — a breakdown in a brain dealing with complex emotions.

But Strasburger and Waldvogel say their finding is evidence that DID can unfold at a very basic, biological level. After all, it was not just high-level cognitive functions, such as reading, that were affected by B.T.'s condition; even basic things such as depth perception were difficult for her. And B.T.'s doctors could see all of that playing out in her brain right in front of them on the EEG.

The case study shows that DID "is a legitimate psycho-physiologically based syndrome of psychological distress," Dr. Richard P. Kluft, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine, who was not associated with the study, told Brain Decoder.

The condition is not just a product of culture and psychiatrists' suggestions, he said; as in B.T.'s case, it "represents the mind's attempt to compartmentalize its pain."

The Washington Post

(P. S. A word to those who read this. I copy and paste articles only because posting links tends to be a waste of time. Nobody follows them, any more than I do. It's a little different on Facebook because it gives you a preview with a photo, but without that visual cue, people won't click. I'm not complaining because I'm the same way. I want to give credit wherever possible. Clicking on the author's name will take you to the original article. I did not write this! By the way, the Hamilton Spectator didn't write this either. It appeared originally in the Washington Post, and I can't find the name of the author, whom the Spectator didn't feel compelled to list.)

No, I'm not finished with you yet

In case you think I am finished with the dank, scary topic of tardigrades, think again. I am finding millions of images of them on the internet, millions of videos, songs about them, dances about them, artwork, jewellery, tshirts, and even. . . cartoons.

Yes. I was astonished and a little taken aback to find a whole episode of the British cartoon series Aquanauts to be devoted to Water Bears. (Not Water Bearers - that's Aquarius, another issue.) This animated tardigrade looks less like the electron-microscope-enhanced nightmares I have posted above, and more like the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Calling them water bears (or, even more euphemistically, moss piglets) plays down the horror of these creatures who cannot be killed by ice, flame, 100 years of dessication, or being shot out into space. If they're going to send them out into the cold reaches of the universe, why not send ALL of them?

Here, Tardy Grade lounges with his friends Retro Grade, Make The Grade, Centi Grade and Shady Grade. All look like nothing more than obese caterpillars.

This is what tardigrades look like. This. THIS. Stop looking away. Stop evading reality and face the truth! These are not "moss piglets" or "water bears". They are micro-horrors waiting to take over the world. Yes, once we've poisoned the environment and driven all the other animals and life forms extinct, these "things" will still be swarming around, because they can live anywhere, under any circumstances, at any temperature, and even without water or (probably) air. They don't even need genes, for God's sake, When they're a little short of DNA, they just "import" some from other species.

(I just got a horrible idea for a short story. Tardi-humans? No. No, I mustn't!)

So no matter how innocent and Disneylike these things may look here, don't be fooled. They are horrible. They have too many legs. (Anything with more than four legs is automatically off my wubby list.) They even make bad cartoon characters, lumbering and lumpish. In fact, they remind me a little bit of those termite queens seething with eggs, so fat they can't move, like something from My 600 Pound Life.

(Blogger's note. I here deleted a gif of a seething, undulating termite queen, immobilized by her own egg-laden weight. I couldn't even stand to look at it myself.)

I think some tidy unmarried British scientist from the 1800s must've named these monstrosities Moss Piglets. It's a slightly perverted name, the kind of name bestowed by someone who never got any, I mean never, and thus thought these things charming - if not captivating, if not provocative - as he peered at them through his incredibly crude microscope (the kind you could make with two mirrors and a toilet roll) all day long.

THIS is a moss piglet. A piglet made of moss.

This is a piglet. Is there any resemblance?

You decide.

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