A history of psychology, warts and mysteries and all

“Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology” at the Science Museum is an exhibition which offers few rigid conclusions.

Shock treatment: a 19th-century apothecary experiments with electricity. Image: by Edmund Bristow (1824) courtesy of the Science Museum. 

It looks more like an art installation than the remains of a 400-year-old experiment: a life-size image of a man rendered in dark, angry scrawls on a wooden panel. It is, in fact, a human nervous system, painstakingly removed from a corpse by Italian medical students and then varnished on to the dissecting table. Scientists in the 17th century believed that human beings were animated by the “animal spirit” that flowed from the brain down the nerves.

The display is part of the “Mind Maps” exhibition at the Science Museum in London, which explores how people have tried to gain a better understanding of their minds.

For such an ambitious project, the exhibition is unexpectedly compact: the material is organised around four brief periods, each one marking a significant shift in psychology. We start in 1790-1810, when a distinguished cast of historical figures was brought together through attempts to cure “nervous disorders”. There’s a glass harmonica, designed by the American founding father Benjamin Franklin, which was used in séances by Dr Franz Anton Mesmer, from whom we derive the verb “to mesmerise”. So impressed was Mozart by Mesmer’s instrument, he composed music for it. His eerie melodies induced convulsions in Mesmer’s patients.

Around the same time, medics were exploring the effect that electricity could have on the nerves. John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist Church, was an early proponent of the use of small electric shocks to cure ailments ranging from headaches to “insanity”. The Italian scientist Luigi Galvani was fascinated by this link and spent much of his life applying electric shocks to dead frogs to explore how their legs moved. In 1803 Galvani applied electricity to a human cadaver in London to reanimate its limbs – a gruesome experiment said to have inspired Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.

Jump forward to the turn of the 20th century and nervous disorders were a common preoccupation, seen as a product of the stresses of modern life. What we now call depression was then “nerve weakness”, to be treated with amulets, poisonous nerve tonics or electric currents. It took a former nerve doctor, Sigmund Freud, to argue that mental illness might be the result of unresolved emotions.

By the 1930s modern technologies allowed scientists to probe deeper into the brain. We learned how to measure brainwaves; a discovery that ushered in one of the most troubling periods of mental health care. The 1930s marked the first use of some of our most invasive treatments for mental illness, including electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomies, carried out with little understanding of how or why they might work.

So how far have we come? “Mind Maps” wisely leaves this question unanswered. Advanced scanning techniques have allowed us an ever more detailed understanding of the brain’s physical structure but there’s also renewed interest in low-tech solutions. Treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy demonstrate a new emphasis on empowering patients to take charge of their own recovery. Meanwhile, the “communicube” and the “communiwell” – stones, buttons and tokens placed on a structure resembling a cake stand, used to help people describe and position the voices they hear in their head – don’t look so very different from the amulets our forebears might have carried to ward off mental illness.

Perhaps that’s fitting, because, for all our scientific sophistication, elements of human consciousness still feel as remote and underexplored as the surface of Mars.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The God Gap

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.