Voices off: Stanley Milgram’s cyranoids in historical context

Stanley Milgram

AHP readers may be interested in an article now in press at History of the Human Sciences: “Voices off: Stanley Milgram’s cyranoids in historical context,” by Marcia Holmes and Daniel Pick. Abstract:

This article revisits a forgotten, late project by the social psychologist Stanley Milgram: the ‘cyranoid’ studies he conducted from 1977 to 1984. These investigations, inspired by the play Cyrano de Bergerac, explored how individuals often fail to notice when others do not speak their own thoughts, but instead relay messages from a hidden source. We situate these experiments amidst the intellectual, cultural, and political concerns of late Cold War America, and show how Milgram’s studies pulled together a variety of ideas, anxieties, and interests that were prevalent at that time and have returned in new guises since. In discussing the cyranoid project’s background and afterlife, we argue that its strikingly equivocal quality has lent itself to multiple reinterpretations by historians, psychologists, performers, artists, and others. Our purpose is neither to champion Milgram’s work nor to amplify the critiques already made of his methods. Rather, it is to consider the uncertain, allusive, and elusive aspects of the cyranoid project, and to seek to place that project in context, whilst asking where ‘context’ might end. We show how the experiments’ range of meanings, in different temporal registers, far exceeded the explanatory rubric that Milgram and his intellectual critics provided at that time, and ponder the risk for the historian of making anachronistic or teleological assumptions. In short, we argue, cyranoids invite our open-ended exploration of ‘voices offstage’ in social and psychological relations, and offer a useful tool for thinking about historical context and the nature of historical interpretations.

Summer Issue of Revista de Historia de la Psicología

The Summer Issue of Revista de Historia de la Psicología is now online. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below:

“Nicolás Achúcarro (1880-1918): First histopathologist of the Goverment Hospital of the Insane in Washington, D.C.”José M. Gondra (Article written in English). Abstract:

On one of his visits to the Munich Psychiatric Clinic in 1908, Smith Elly Jelliffe asked Alois Alzheimer who the best person would be to set up a histopathology laboratory at the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. Alzheimer replied that Achúcarro was the man for the job. Nicolás Achúcarro was a Basque neuropsychiatrist born in the industrial city of Bilbao. He had been trained in some of the best clinics in Europe before travelling to Munich, where he studied brain injuries in rabbits infected with rabies. In September 1908, he moved to Washington, D.C., launched the histopathological laboratory and published several important articles before returning to Spain in May 1910 to work with Santiago Ramón y Cajal in the biological research laboratory at the University of Madrid. Later, in September 1912, he was invited by the Fordham University of New York to teach in the International Extension Course in Medical and Nervous Diseases, together with the English neurologist Sir Henry Head and the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung, among other prominent figures. Drawing on the writings of Achúcarro, letters to his family, and the press of the time, this paper analyzes his work in the United States as well as his contributions to neuroscience before his untimely death in 1918 at the young age of 37.

“Phenomenology, experiments and the autonomy of Psychology: The earlier work of Johannes Linschoten.” René van Hezewijk (Article written in English). Abstract:

Johannes Linschoten was a member of the phenomenologically oriented so-called Utrecht School. He published his Ph.D. Thesis in 1956. In this voluminous work, published in German, he discussed the (then) current theories of binocular spatial perception, reported 130 experiments on the subject, and argued for his own dynamic theory. I discuss some important aspects of this earlier work, the development of his view on the role of phenomenology and experiments in psychology, and the way he used his earlier studies to argue for psychology’s autonomy.

El aprendizaje como contexto determinante de la psicología científica: la Psicología Comparada y la Psicología Funcional. [Learning as a determining context of scientific “psychology: Comparative Psychology and Functional Psychology].” Juan Bautista Fuentes Ortega (Article written in Spanish). Abstract:

In the course of the tradition of reflex physiology and the tradition of comparative animal psychology, a new type of experimental and operative psychology emerges, consisting of the incorporation of temporary associations in the form of “at a distance” links, which establishes a rupture with the corresponding biological methodologies and that entails the construction of the field of learning as the context of scientific psychology. In the light of this historical-epistemological analysis, the limited virtuality that the so-called “biological limits of learning” and the so-called cognitive scientific revolution had for the practice of scientific psychology is analyzed. Finally, it is pointed out the need to distinguish carefully between the scientific practice and the philosophical self-representation that scientists often build around their effective practice.

“La psicotecnia en la URSS: Isaac Spielrein y el VII Congreso Internacional de Psicotecnia de Moscú (1931). [Psychotechnics at the URSS: Isaac Spielrein and the Moscow’s VII International Congress of Psychotechnics (1931)].” Helio Carpintero (Article written in Spanish). Abstract:

This article deals with I. Spielrein’s ideas on psychotechnology. He was a Soviet leading figure in that field, in the days in between the two great wars, and chaired the 7th International Congress of Psychotechnology held in Moscow in 1931.In it he confronted the Marxist doctrine with that maintained by specialist of the democratic European nations. He affirmed the socio-historical character of man, as opposed to the dominant naturalist and biologist conception that dominated in capitalist societies, as well as the use of psychotechnics in those nations as an obstacle to the rise of proletariat to social power, facing the bourgeoisie.

“Act thin, stay thin”: Commercialization, behavior modification, and group weight control

A new article in press at Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences will interest AHP readers.

““Act thin, stay thin”: Commercialization, behavior modification, and group weight control,” by Jessica Parr. Abstract:

In 1968, Weight Watchers International introduced behavior modification practices to their established commercial program. At the time, the addition of behavioral psychology gave Weight Watchers a distinct advantage over the many competing weight control groups in postwar America. The process of combining group therapy with a controlled diet plan, behavior techniques and later, exercise, has significantly influenced American popular culture. This article considers how the commercialization of group weight control impacted the development and dissemination of a new multidimensional approach for weight management and how this has shaped popular ideas associated with dieting and wider understandings of healthy living.

The Republic of Color: Science, Perception, and the Making of Modern America

AHP readers will be interested in a new book on the history of colour in America: The Republic of Color: Science, Perception, and the Making of Modern America by Michael Rossi. The book is described as follows:

The Republic of Color delves deep into the history of color science in the United States to unearth its origins and examine the scope of its influence on the industrial transformation of turn-of-the-century America.

For a nation in the grip of profound economic, cultural, and demographic crises, the standardization of color became a means of social reform—a way of sculpting the American population into one more amenable to the needs of the emerging industrial order. Delineating color was also a way to characterize the vagaries of human nature, and to create ideal structures through which those humans would act in a newly modern American republic. Michael Rossi’s compelling history goes far beyond the culture of the visual to show readers how the control and regulation of color shaped the social contours of modern America—and redefined the way we see the world.

Table of Contents

Introduction / Cloven Tongues of Fire

Chapter One / Modern Chromatics: Ogden Rood and the Wrong-Workings of the Eye

Chapter Two / From Chemistry to Phanerochemistry: Charles Sanders Peirce and the Semiotic of Color

Chapter Three / Pathologies of Perception: Benjamin Joy Jeffries and the Invention of Color Blindness

Chapter Four / Colors and Cultures: Evolution, Biology, and Society

Chapter Five / The Pragmatic Physiology of Color Vision: Christine Ladd-Franklin and the “Evolutionary Theory” of Color

Chapter Six / Small Lies for Big Truths: Standards, Values, and Color Terms

Chapter Seven / The Logical and the Genetic: Bodies, Work, and Formal Color Notations

Conclusion / Talking about Color

September Issue of History of Psychiatry

The September issue of History of Psychiatry is now online. Included in this issue are pieces on child psychiatry, Nazi euthenasia, psychosurgery, and more. Full details below.

“The Baldovan Institution Abuse Inquiry: A forgotten scandal,” David May. Abstract:

In this paper, I resurrect a long-forgotten inquiry into abuse and maladministration at an institution for people with learning disabilities, the Baldovan Institution near Dundee, that has lain buried in the archives for the past 60 years. I contrast the response to it with the very different response to the similar revelations of the Ely Hospital Inquiry more than a decade later. Whereas Ely opened up the institutional sector to greater public scrutiny and brought with it a formal commitment from the government to shift the balance of care away from the long-term hospital, Baldovan produced recommendations that were limited to the institution and had no impact on public policy or institutional practice. I consider the reasons for this and its implications.

“The influence of Max Weber on the concept of empathic understanding (Verstehen) in the psychopathology of Karl Jaspers,” Massimiliano Aragona. Abstract:

This paper explores key concepts in the writings of Weber in the years preceding the publication of the first edition of Karl Jaspers’ Allgemeine Psychopathologie, focusing on the concept of understanding (Verstehen). This is a key hermeneutic concept and is discussed within the larger context of the epistemological and methodological reflections of both authors. They similarly tried to import the understanding within the humanistic disciplines as a rigorous but anti-reductionist scientific method. However, while Weber tried to mix explanation and understanding according to a legal metaphor, Jaspers retained Dilthey’s sharper distinction between explanation in natural sciences and understanding in humanistic sciences. Finally, Jaspers’ understanding is relatively more empathic, while Weber’s understanding is more rationalistic.

“‘Dementia praecocissima’: The Sante De Sanctis model of mental disorder in child psychiatry in the 20th century,” Giorgia Morgese, Giovanni Pietro Lombardo. Abstract:

The aim of this article is to describe the nosographical contribution of the Italian psychiatrist Sante De Sanctis (1862–1935) to early twentieth-century child psychiatry. De Sanctis first proposed the category of ‘dementia praecocissima’ in 1906, and it was recognized by Kraepelin. Dementia praecocissima has its roots in a theoretical and methodological conception of mental disorder based on ‘psycho-physical proportionalism’ and the ‘law of circle’. This article deals with De Sanctis’s model, which has so far been neglected by historiographers; it shows the pioneering role that this Italian psychiatrist played in child psychiatry in Italy.

“The ‘Poitrot Report’, 1945: The first public document on Nazi euthanasia,” Thomas Müller, Bernd Reichelt. Abstract:

The aim of this paper is to shed light on the so-called ‘Poitrot Report’, submitted to the French Military Government in Baden-Baden, Germany, in December 1945 and published in a reduced German version in 1946. Its author was the French-Moroccan psychiatrist Robert Poitrot, who had been put in charge of the public mental asylums in Südwürttemberg after World War II. Poitrot took responsibility for restoring psychiatric care during the occupation, and was also eager to document Nazi ‘euthanasia’ and to start investigating the role of staff in mental hospitals during National Socialism. Focusing on the ‘Poitrot Report’, this paper also reflects on life in Württemberg mental hospitals and the interaction between French representatives such as Poitrot and regional German medical staff.

“The introduction of leucotomy in Germany: National Socialism, émigrés, a divided Germany and the development of neurosurgery,” Lara Rzesnitzek. Abstract:

Thinking about the chronology of the introduction of leucotomy in Germany sheds new light on the hypothesis of a special ‘radical’ approach of German psychiatry to the treatment of the mentally ill during the period of National Socialism. Moreover, it offers new insights into the transnational and interdisciplinary conditions of the introduction of leucotomy in early divided post-war Germany.

“The Kirkbride buildings in contemporary culture (1850–2015): From ‘moral management’ to horror films,” Francisco Pérez-Fernández, Francisco López-Muñoz. Abstract:

The so-called ‘Kirkbride Plan’ is a type of mental institution designed by the American psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride. The Kirkbride-design asylums were built from 1848 to the end of the nineteenth century. Their structural characteristics were subordinated to a certain approach to moral management: exposure to natural light, beautiful views and good air circulation. These hospitals used several architectural styles, but they all had a similar general plan. The popularity of the model decreased for theoretical and economic reasons, so many were demolished or reused, but at least 25 of the original buildings became protected places. Over the years, surrounded by a legendary aura, these buildings have become a leitmotif of contemporary popular culture: ‘the asylum of terror’.

“How amytal changed psychopharmacy: Off-label uses of sodium amytal (1920–40),” Ariel Gershon, Edward Shorter. Abstract:

In the early 1930s, American neurologist and psychiatrist William Bleckwenn used sodium amytal to render catatonic patients responsive, so that he could engage in talk therapy. Bleckwenn found a new, ‘off-label’ use for this anaesthetic and anxiolytic medication in psychiatry and, in doing so, allowed for important discoveries in the diagnosis and treatment of catatonia. Pharmacological textbooks reveal a ‘label’, while the Index-Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon-General’s Office reveals explorations ‘off label’ of barbiturates. The ‘off-label’ use of barbiturates facilitated talk therapy, heralding an important shift in psychopharmacy. Drugs previously only used as chemical restraints became a form of treatment for specific psychiatric diseases. The current strictures against off-label prescribing are overprescriptive and close off innovative new uses.