Posts Tagged 'conferences'

Psychical Research and the UCL Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines

A recent international conference indicated the growing profile of the UCL Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines. The Centre aims to foster a historical approach to the psychological disciplines, as well as providing opportunities for dialogue between historians and psychologists. The conference certainly offered such an occasion, with speakers including historians, psychologists, neuroscientists and parapsychologists. As the conference organisers recognised, researchers in the field of nineteenth and twentieth-century parapsychology are often met with hostility, captured in terms such as “pseudoscience”, “irrational” and “quackery”. Yet this refusal to engage with a particular field of ideas may lead to sterility within both history and science, whereby research only confirms what we already think we know. As keynote speaker historian of science Ivor Grattan-Guinness pointed out, it is well to remain sceptical of scepticism!

Indeed, the papers indicated the diversity of the field of psychical research. Dr Richard Noakes, of the University of Exeter, highlighted the ways in which the state of experimental physics at the turn of the twentieth century predisposed scientists to take an interest in the so-called paranormal. As with psychical research, physics could be viewed as unstable, uncertain and often controversial. The results of experiments were often faint and highly open to interpretation. On the other hand, physicists were generally well-respected, and their status encouraged broader support for psychical research: indeed, in the 1920s, membership of the Society for Psychical Research reached its peak of around 12,000.

Renaud Evrard, of the University of Rouen, gave a historical talk on Pierre Janet’s experiments on mental suggestion and experimental psychology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a topic that fascinated him due to his own research on exceptional states. A clinical psychologist by profession, Evrard co-founded the Centre for Information, Research and Counselling on Exceptional Experiences in 2009. He worked on this topic for his doctoral dissertation, and discovered that the relationship between mystical or paranormal experiences and mental health was far more complex than is often allowed. CIRCEE offers French speakers an opportunity to discuss their experiences: perhaps for the purpose of advice, perhaps simply to become a part of future research.

The relationship between studying history and psychology was brought into sharp relief by this fascinating conference, and we hope that future events at the Centre will prove just as rich.



Events: Anti-Psychiatry and Psychical Research

It’s already shaping up to be a good year for events and exhibitions in the history of psychiatry and psychology. First up is a conference at UCL at the end of this month, on the topic of Psychical Research and Parapsychology in the History of Medicine and the Sciences. As we have previously mentioned in this blog, physicians at Bethlem in the late nineteenth century were optimistic about the possibilities for hypnosis and suggestion in the treatment of mental illness, and many of them experimented in this field. Daniel Hack Tuke, a long-term governor of the hospital, was particularly interested in the connections between mind and body, and how the physician might make use of these in the cure of physical (as well as mental) illness. Tuke appears to have coined the term ‘psycho-therapeutics’ to describe these effects in his 1872 Illustrations of the Influence of the Mind and Body in Health and Disease (expanded in 1884). As this conference will demonstrate, research in experimental psychology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has often been closely associated with the investigation of phenomena perceived to be supernatural (many, but not all, of which were explained in psychological terms by members of organisations devoted to the study of the paranormal). The conference costs just £90 (£60 for students) for three days. The full conference programme is available online here, and tickets can be booked in the UCL Online Shop.

Meanwhile, a series of events at Nottingham Contemporary on 12-13 February explores Anti-Psychiatry and its legacies. Those who visited the recent Turner Prize Exhibition at the Tate will already be familiar with the work of Luke Fowler, whose film exploring the life of Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing was nominated for the prize. All Divided Selves combined archive footage with new material, to create an evocative portrait of the doctor whose The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (1960) was influential in the anti-psychiatry movement. Another of Fowler’s films, Bogman Palmjaguar, will be screened on the second evening, following the legal battle of a trained conservationist and certified paranoid schizophrenic against this diagnosis. As with the previous evening’s film (Dora Garcia’s The Deviant Majority, From Basaglia to Brazil), the screening will be followed by a panel discussion with clinicians, philosophers and historians. The events are free, and can be booked online at the Nottingham Contemporary website.

Disability in Time and Place: New Online Resource

This month, English Heritage launched a new web resource, Disability in Time and Place, a site which uses historic buildings to explore changing attitudes to disability over the years. In September, Rosie Sherrington gave us a sneak preview of some of this material, in a blog post exploring the history of Chiswick House, a neo-Palladian Georgian Villa in west London, which was a private asylum between 1892 and 1928. Disability in Time and Place explores the history of hundreds of buildings like this, which help tell the story of disabled people’s lives both in the community and in separate institutions: from churches built with ‘Lepers’ squints’ to meeting places for the first disabled self-help groups.

The history of Bethlem features on the site, among wide-ranging stories communicating a variety of experiences. The former Royal School for the Indigent Blind in Merseyside, for example, was set up in 1791 by Edward Rushton, who was himself blind through disease. It was the very first school in Britain that equipped its students with the skills they needed to support themselves. While histories of schools for deaf or blind children have often indicated harsh regimes, which punished alternative methods of communication such as sign language, other sources offer us a more nuanced picture of life for people with disabilities in the past.

In 1883, one young man admitted to Bethlem was described as a “deaf-mute”. However, he regularly held conversations with his doctors in sign language, and his communication was described as “coherent”. As well as doctors using sign language in this period, other patients (who were not deaf), also appear to have understood it. When Amy Marsh was admitted in the same year, her general practitioner considered the gestures she made with her hands as a symptom of her disordered mental condition. In Bethlem, these signs were recognised as “the deaf and dumb alphabet”. Amy, it was said, was “constantly talking on her fingers, she says to amuse herself”. But where did her knowledge of sign language come from? We can only speculate, but it is interesting to note that, for Amy, signing appears to have been an important part of her life.

While many of the institutions and ideas explored in the website appear old-fashioned, patronising or even offensive to us today, the resource offers an interesting way of exploring the diverse experiences of people with mental or physical disabilities, and English Heritage will be encouraging all readers to join in debate over the issues raised. In particular, a free conference in March 2013 (Disability History: Voices and Sources) aims to highlight how disabled people are using (and making) archives and finding evidence in the built environment to document their histories. Bethlem will be among the resources explored in this thought-provoking event. Bookings are now open, on the English Heritage website.

Carved stone hands reading braille, from former Royal School for the Indigent Blind

Former Royal School for the Indigent Blind, Hardman Street, Liverpool, Merseyside. Carved stone hands reading braille. Copyright English Heritage.

From Bedlam to Whittingham to Wakefield: Mental Health History in October

Last month, we travelled to several different archives and museums around the country to take part in events on asylum history. These included a mental health history day at the Lancashire Records Office in Preston, and the Asylum Science conference, held at the old West Riding Asylum in Wakefield. Both events showed what a widespread interest there is in the field, as well as the variety of resources that are available to explore the Victorian asylum in particular. At the ‘From Bedlam to Whittingham’ event in Preston, our talk on the variety of patient experiences in nineteenth century Bethlem was accompanied by detailed investigation into the records held up in Lancashire: from Whittingham Asylum, Lancaster Castle and other local institutions. Kathryn Rooke of the Lancashire Records Office gave a fascinating presentation detailing how to explore family history through these records, beginning with finding a name in admission registers. Once the admission record is found, a researcher can follow their ancestor through detailed admission papers, case book entries, and often even photographs.

As we reminded visitors in our own talk, these asylum records give only a tiny snapshot of one moment of the life of a person, generally reported by someone else (although sometimes letters can be found pasted into case book pages). In a thought-provoking, and often unsettling, close to the day, Ian Cummins from the University of Salford brought home how little this is often respected by press reports. Bringing us back to the twenty-first century with an exploration of news reports on mental health topics, Cummins offered a powerful reminder that stigma and stereotypes are often founded on this one-dimensional representation of people. Media reports tend to interpret a person’s actions, manner and appearance – past and present – through a current (or past) diagnosis of mental illness. Looking at historical records, we hope, will help to prevent the perpetuation of these stereotypes.

The Asylum Science conference was predominantly based around these historical records, asking what archives can tell us about the ways Victorian doctors aimed to apply scientific research in their work, through architecture, instruments, post mortems and public health. Again, however, the relation between past and present was emphasised at the end of the day, when John Hall spoke about his experiences at the hospital in the late twentieth century. For a full report of the day, see the Asylum Science Blog. We will, however, be writing again soon to include some of the photographs of the site tour, and the fascinating artwork in the Stephen Beaumont Museum of Mental Health, where the day ended.


Asylum Science: Conference in October

We’ve recently heard about an interesting event – and a new website and blog – devoted to “asylum science“, with a particular focus on the nineteenth century and the former West Riding Asylum in Wakefield. The organisers are holding a conference on 19 October, which aims to challenge the view of asylums as “scientifically-moribund backwaters” by looking at the use and reception of science within these institutions. The focus on West Riding stems from its role as an investigative laboratory in the later nineteenth century, as physicians there attempted to incorporate neurological and physiological research into their work. Many of the papers in the conference will reflect on these endeavours.

In looking at the programme, it is clear that many of the scientific endeavours discussed are those that would still be recognised as such today: the development of technology, post-mortem dissection, medication, and chemical testing. These areas of research have often been ignored, particularly in the nineteenth century, and it is a useful contribution to bring such experimental approaches into the public eye. However, something else that immediately sparks our interest is to wonder what the organisers actually intend by the term “science”. Did their historical actors view scientific research in the same way that we do today? Or did the domain of science often encompass, for them, many things that we would be dubious about classifying in such a way?

All Bethlem’s superintendents in the late nineteenth century would have regarded themselves as men of science. They were proud of their role, as they saw it, at the forefront of psychiatric research and education, as well as care and treatment. When George Savage played an instrumental role in the foundation of an examination for non-specialist doctors in the topic of “nervous diseases” in 1886, he grandly hoped that such would aid Bethlem to, eventually, ” make itself the scientific and social centre of the English lunacy world.”1 Yet Savage also had, perhaps, a broader view of what science was than many of us today might assume. For he and many of his colleagues, science simply meant “organised inquisitiveness”, an approach which allowed for the acceptance of a wide variety of methods of investigation within psychiatry, in addition to neurological and physiological research, including experimental psychology, “psychic analysis” (as he termed it), psychical research and hypnotism.2

It is interesting, then, to look at the various experiments in hypnosis at Bethlem – previously discussed on this blog – as an example of asylum science, reminding us that science itself is not necessarily a fixed body of knowledge, but something defined by those who practice it. In the late nineteenth century, a number of psychiatrists were interested in expanding the boundaries of what that might include.

1 George Savage, Annual Report of the Bethlem Royal Hospital for 1886, p. 44

2. George Savage, ‘The Presidential Address delivered at the Opening Meeting of the Section of Psychiatry of the Royal Society of Medicine on October 22nd, 1912’, Journal of Mental Science, 59 (1913), 14-27

The Ghost in the Machine?

The programme for the forthcoming Society for the Social History of Medicine annual conference has recently been released. Held at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London from 10-12 September 2012, the conference will cover diverse perspectives on Emotions, Health and Wellbeing, from the Middle Ages to the present day, with keynote speeches by Joanna Bourke, Mark Jackson, and William Reddy.

We at the Archives and Museum were particularly struck by the title of one of the panels – Affect:  The Ghost in the Machine? – as we just happen to have loaned a work to an exhibition that has just opened in New York with a very similar title: Ghosts in the Machine.

The term originated in philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, first published in 1949. Ryle objected to a Cartesian dualism that regarded body and mind as separate but complementary necessities: the “ghost” of the mind giving life to the “machine” of the body. The exhibition at New York’s New Museum (18 July – 30 September) surveys the constantly shifting relationship between humans, machines, and art, looking at the ways in which humans have projected anthropomorphic behaviors onto machines that have become progressively more human. Similarly, the conference panel looks at topics including the exorcism of the ghost from the machine in nineteenth century depictions of “poltergeists”, and cybernetic theories of psychopathology in cold war Czechoslovakia, arguing that affect can be used as a prism through which to understand concerns with new technologies, society and the self.

Indeed, the picture loaned by Bethlem Museum to the Ghosts in the Machine exhibition – James Tilly Matthews’ Air Loom sketch – can be interpreted in a similar manner. Drawn by Mathews to illustrate the machine he thought was used to control him and certain political figures in late eighteenth-century Britain, the Air Loom becomes a representation of both the mental and emotional turmoil of one man as well as the political and social unrest of industrial England in the wake of the French Revolution.

Register for the Society for the Social History of Medicine conference here.

Find out more about Ghosts in the Machine here.

Air Loom Image

States of Mind: Conference in Newcastle

Last month, Northumbria University held a conference around the theme of Situating and Interpreting States of Mind: 1700 – 2000. This interdisciplinary conference emerged from a research group, whose work explores how the space, place and historical context in which mental states are experienced has shaped the narratives produced by individuals. The conference was wide-ranging, with papers reflecting on historical themes, literature, art and clinical practice in the field of mental health. The varied perspectives of the key-note speakers indicates the breadth of the approach. Joel Peter Eigen began the event with a lecture on the history of psychiatry, focusing on the dynamics of diagnosis in late Victorian forensic psychiatry. Within this field, the diagnosis of homicidal mania was widely adopted by psychiatrists and prison orderlies alike, but remained nonetheless problematic: a label in which a criminal act was regarded to be the first symptom of illness. Speaking from a broader historical perspective, English Literature scholar Melinda Rabb explored the history of cognition in relation to ideas of size and scale, presenting a fascinating account of the Georgian interest in miniatures, from art to “baby houses” (doll houses). Finally, practice-based Art and Design lecturer Judith Tucker gave a moving account of her artistic exploration of her Jewish grandparents’ holiday snapshots from pre-World War Two Germany.

Between these key-note lectures, speakers from a similarly broad range of disciplines offered wide-ranging perspectives. A particularly affecting talk was given by Nursing Lecturer Tommy Dickinson, giving a voice to former patients who received medical treatment for “sexual deviations.” The paper was based on oral histories obtained from seven former male patients, who had sought treatment for homosexuality or transvestism between 1935 and 1974 in Britain. The disturbing accounts of the electro-shock and chemical aversion therapies carried out had a lasting effect on the participants, who all remained emotionally troubled by experiences many regarded as akin to torture. As Dickinson concluded, the study should act as a reminder to nurses (many of whom carried out the treatments detailed) to ensure that their interventions have a sound evidence base, and to constantly reflect on the influence and intersection of science and societal norms.

Two papers made use of material from the Bethlem Archive. One, by the Museum’s Friends Secretary, expanded on material already available on this blog, on late nineteenth-century patients Walter Abraham Haigh, “Kentish Scribbler” and Henry Francis Harding. Meanwhile, Diana Peschier drew on material from Bethlem and county asylum records to look at religious language in the words of female patients in the second half of the nineteenth century. Women, she claimed, seemed to make far greater use of religious language than men, and the feeling that God had abandoned them or was punishing them for a great sin appeared especially common in female psychiatric patients. This, Peschier felt, reflected the wider experiences of women in this period, for whom religion played in important role in their daily lives and their mental health. Overall, the conference provided an interesting opportunity for reflection on how varied states of mind can be, in health and illness, and across history and culture.