Thursday, September 20, 2018

are they saying that empathy goes back 500 million years ?

The undersea and the ecstasy: MDMA leaves octopuses loved up

Normally antisocial sea creature becomes friendly and tactile after being given the drug, scientists say

What happens when you give an octopus MDMA? It sounds like a question that might flit through the meandering mind of someone who had been dabbling in psychedelics. But now the matter has become the focus of an unlikely-sounding scientific experiment to uncover the ancient origins of social behaviour.
By showing that the normally antisocial sea creature became friendly and tactile after being given MDMA, also known as ecstasy, scientists believe they have made a link between the social behaviours of humans and a species from which we are separated by more than 500m years of evolution.
Gül Dölen, a neuroscientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the lead investigator on the study, said: “People are like, ‘Have you got any pictures of octopuses holding glow sticks?’ which I kind of ignore because that wasn’t really our objective. MDMA is a great tool for investigating whether or not an octopus can become social.”
The answer was a definitive yes: the creatures’ normal hostility towards each other vanished and they became touchy-feely. The findings suggest that the brain chemical serotonin, which floods the brain after a dose of MDMA, has been a trigger for social behaviour since very early in evolutionary history.
Octopuses are notoriously clever. They can learn to navigate mazes and unscrew jars to obtain food. Aquarium staff have reported catching roving octopuses raiding neighbouring tanks for food at night-time.
Under normal circumstances, though, octopuses are deeply antisocial, and treat each other with aggression – sometimes to the point of eating each other. “Even during mating the male will just leave his sperm and depart as quickly as possible, because if he sticks around she’ll attack him,” said Dölen.
The study, published in the journal Current Biology, studied the behaviour of octopuses in a tank with three connected chambers: one empty, one containing a plastic action figure, and a third with another octopus in a cage.
Four octopuses were placed in a beaker of diluted MDMA, which they absorbed through their gills. While on the drug, all four spent far more time in the chamber with the caged octopus than they did without the drug.
The nature of their interactions were also strikingly different. Without MDMA, they approached the cage tentatively with just one tentacle outstretched. The drug made them relaxed and friendly. “They’re basically hugging the [cage] and exposing parts of their body that they don’t normally expose to another octopus,” said Dölen.
There appeared to be other parallels with the euphoria experienced by people who take MDMA. “Some were being very playful, doing water acrobatics or spent time fondling the airstone [aquarium bubbler],” said Dölen.
Others stretched out all eight arms and just floated around, doing what the researchers described as “water ballet”.
The findings are surprising because the octopus brain is radically different to our own: the central brain surrounds their throat and the majority of neurons, which appear to work semi-independently, are distributed through the arms. Until now, much research into the biology underpinning social behaviour has focused on sophisticated brain circuitry. The latest work suggests a more prominent role for basic brain chemistry, and in particular the brain chemical serotonin.
Prof David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London, said the findings added to evidence for emotion and empathy existing in a broad range of species. “This just proves that this is not some peculiar human characteristic, it’s not even a mammalian characteristic, it’s a characteristic of brains,” he said. “It also shows that serotonin has a hugely important role in mediating social interactions right across species.”
Dölen said the findings may open opportunities for accurately studying the impact of psychiatric drug therapies in a wide range of animals distantly related to people, adding that the study of psychedelic and other recreational drugs is no longer viewed as a “risqué topic”.
“Serious scientists are jumping in and saying we can learn a lot from these tools,” she said. “I hope that this is one of the studies that pushes us in that direction and it’s not one of those weird things that only ravers know anything about.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

a rare encounter with the ordinary lives of a community whose roots are still immersed in shamanism

i've copied and pasted this from the bbc website so it won't get lost ...

Inside Siberia’s isolated community of forgotten women

A young Nenets woman gathers the reindeer before migration. Yamal Peninsula, Siberia, Russia.Image copyrightODED WAGENSTEIN
Presentational white space

In the remote village of Yar-Sale, in Northern Siberia, lives a group of elderly women. Once part of a nomadic community of reindeer herders, in their old age they spend most of their days in seclusion, isolated from the world they loved.
While the men are encouraged to remain within the migrating community and maintain their social roles, the women are often ostracised and left to face the struggles of old age alone.
Photographer Oded Wagenstein took the long journey to meet these 'forgotten' women.

Presentational white space
A packed sled, ready for migration. Yamal Peninsula, Siberia, Russia.Image copyrightODED WAGENSTEIN
Presentational white space

"It took a flight, a sixty-hour train ride from Moscow, and a seven-hour bone-breaking drive across a frozen river to meet them," says Oded.
"I was surprised by the warmth with which they welcomed me to their homes and for days - over many cups of tea - we sat together as they shared their stories, lullabies, and longings with me: distant memories of white landscapes and reindeer herds, longings for their gone parents and partners, along with great frustration over the feeling of being 'purposeless'."

Presentational white space
Presentational grey line
Angelina SerotettoImage copyrightODED WAGENSTEIN
Presentational white space

Angelina Serotetto, born 1942

Part of a family of shaman women, Angelina's mother taught her to read the future using sacred objects from nature.
"Yes! I miss those days in the past but I try to remain optimistic. I view everything with a loving eye. I think you learn it as you get older."

Presentational white space
Presentational grey line
Autipana Audi (born.1941) sitting on her bed in her apartment. Yar-Sale village, Yamal Peninsula, Siberia, Russia.Image copyrightODED WAGENSTEIN
Presentational white space

Autipana Audi, born 1941

During her lifetime, Autipana experienced many sad losses.
She lost her husband, son and daughter to diseases, and a few years ago her entire reindeer herd perished due to starvation during a cold spell.
Almost unable to walk, she spends her days mostly limited to her bed, aware that she will never be able to wander again.
"I miss summers, when we used to fish. I miss my family and the reindeer, but the thing I miss the most is walking. Walking in the snow."

Presentational white space
Presentational grey line
Zinaida EvayImage copyrightODED WAGENSTEIN
Presentational white space

Zinaida Evay, born 1946

Married for many years, Zinaida recalls how her husband had "a wonderful bond, full of love and laughter, right to his last day."
Now, she is living in the small apartment alone with their cats.
"But now they are old too," she says. "All that is left are the lullabies I sing to myself."

Presentational white space
Presentational grey line
Pudani Audi (born.1948) in her apartment. Yar-Sale village, Yamal Peninsula, Siberia, Russia.Image copyrightODED WAGENSTEIN
Presentational white space

Pudani Audi, born 1948

Like her ancestors, who have wandered the frozen landscape of Northern Siberia for thousands of years, Pudani was born in the tundra and roamed since birth.
During her adulthood, she was a leading herder, taking the precious herds through one of the most extreme environments on Earth.
She still hopes to wander again, but without her community's support, it is unlikely this longing will be realised.
"I miss the feeling of freedom and the outdoors but I feel that my part is over - that I am no longer needed there."

Presentational white space
Presentational grey line
Liliya Yamkina (Born. 1944) looking through the window in her apartment. Yar-Sale village, Yamal Peninsula, Siberia, Russia.Image copyrightODED WAGENSTEIN
Presentational white space

Liliya Yamkina, born 1944

As a child in the tundra, Liliya was the only one in her clan who knew how to read.
She still remembers how important she felt when she read everyone their letters and formal documents.
However, the importance of her reading skills to the clan was also the reason that her father prevented her from going to college to become a teacher.
Now, in her apartment, she writes love songs about the tundra and her dream is to publish them in a magazine.
"I did not fully understand the importance of tradition and family when I was young. I argued so much with my parents. I wanted to escape from my roots. I remember how much I liked it when they told me folk tales around the bonfire…I miss them so much."

Presentational white space

Photographs and interviews by Oded Wagenstein.

oded wagenstein's facebook page ...

Thursday, August 9, 2018

dancing mania ... copied and pasted from the public domain review

The Dancing Plague of 1518

500 years ago this month, a strange mania seized the city of Strasbourg. Citizens by the hundreds became compelled to dance, seemingly for no reason — jigging trance-like for days, until unconsciousness or, in some cases, death. Ned Pennant-Rea on one of history’s most bizarre events.
dancing plague
Detail from a 1642 engraving by Hendrik Hondius, based on Peter Breughel’s 1564 drawing depicting sufferers of a dance epidemic occurring in Molenbeek that year — Source.
On a hastily built stage before the busy horse market of Strasbourg, scores of people dance to pipes, drums, and horns. The July sun beats down upon them as they hop from leg to leg, spin in circles and whoop loudly. From a distance they might be carnival revellers. But closer inspection reveals a more disquieting scene. Their arms are flailing and their bodies are convulsing spasmodically. Ragged clothes and pinched faces are saturated in sweat. Their eyes are glassy, distant. Blood seeps from swollen feet into leather boots and wooden clogs. These are not revellers but “choreomaniacs”, entirely possessed by the mania of the dance.
In full view of the public, this is the apogee of the choreomania that tormented Strasbourg for a midsummer month in 1518. Also known as the “dancing plague”, it was the most fatal and best documented of the more than ten such contagions which had broken out along the Rhine and Moselle rivers since 1374. Numerous accounts of the bizarre events that unfolded that summer can be found scattered across various contemporary documents and chronicles compiled in the subsequent decades and centuries. One seventeenth-century chronicle by the Strasbourg jurist Johann Schilter quotes a now lost manuscript poem:
Many hundreds in Strassburg began
To dance and hop, women and men,
In the public market, in alleys and streets,
Day and night; and many of them ate nothing
Until at last the sickness left them.
This affliction was called St Vitus’ dance.1
Another chronicle from 1636 relates a less happy ending:
In the year 1518 AD … there occurred among men a remarkable and terrible disease called St Vitus’ dance, in which men in their madness began to dance day and night until finally they fell down unconscious and succumbed to death.2
The physician and alchemist Paracelsus visited Strasbourg eight years after the plague and became fascinated by its causes. According to his Opus Paramirum, and various chronicles agree, it all started with one woman. Frau Troffea had started dancing on July 14th on the narrow cobbled street outside her half-timbered home. As far as we can tell she had no musical accompaniment but simply “began to dance”.3 Ignoring her husband’s pleas to cease, she continued for hours, until the sky turned black and she collapsed in a twitching heap of exhaustion. The next morning she was up again on her swollen feet and dancing before thirst and hunger could register. By the third day, people of a great and growing variety — hawkers, porters, beggars, pilgrims, priests, nuns — were drinking in the ungodly spectacle. The mania possessed Frau Troffea for between four and six days, at which point the frightened authorities intervened by sending her in a wagon thirty miles away to Saverne. There she might be cured at the shrine of Vitus, the saint who it was believed had cursed her. But some of those who had witnessed her strange performance had begun to mimic her, and within days more than thirty choreomaniacs were in motion, some so monomaniacally that only death would have the power to intervene.
German engraving of hysterical dancing in a churchyard, ca. 17th century. Note the severed arm brandished by man on the left of the circle — Source.
The more citizens this unusual plague afflicted, the more desperate the privy council became to control it. The clergy held it to be the work of a vengeful Saint Vitus, but the councillors listened instead to the guild of physicians, declaring the dance to be “a natural disease, which comes from overheated blood.”4According to humoral theory, the afflicted must therefore be bled. But the physicians instead recommended the treatment given to past victims of this bizarre disease. They must dance themselves free of it. A sixteenth-century chronicle composed by the architect Daniel Specklin records what the council did next.5 Carpenters and tanners were ordered to transform their guild halls into temporary dance floors, and “set up platforms in the horse market and in the grain market“ in full view of the public. To keep the accursed in motion and so expedite their recovery, dozens of musicians were paid to play drums, fiddles, pipes, and horns, with healthy dancers brought in for further encouragement. The authorities hoped to create the optimal conditions for the dance to exhaust itself.
It backfired horribly. Being more inclined to a supernatural than a medical explanation of the dance, most of the onlookers saw in the frenzied movements a demonstration of the magnitude of Saint Vitus’ fury. None being free of sin, many were lured into the mania. The Imlin family chronicle records that within a month the plague had seized four hundred citizens.6
Detail from a copy on blue paper of Peter Breughel’s 1564 drawing depicting sufferers of a dance epidemic occurring in Molenbeek that year — Source.
Detail from a 1642 engraving by Hendrik Hondius, based on Peter Breughel’s 1564 drawing of a dance epidemic occurring in Molenbeek that year— Source.
The privy council ordered the stages to be pulled down. If the choreomaniacs must continue their disturbing movements then they now must do so out of sight. The council went further, prohibiting almost all dance and music in the city until September. This was no small thing for a culture in which communal dancing was central — from upright burghers performing their restrained, delicate steps in the so-called bassadanza, to ale-laden peasants leaping with hearty abandon to let off steam.7 Sebastian Brant, a Strasbourg chancellor and author of The Ship of Fools (1494), detailed the exception to the ban: “if honourable persons wish to dance at weddings or celebrations of first Mass in their houses, they may do so using stringed instruments, but they are on their conscience not to use tambourines and drums.”8 Presumably strings were deemed less likely than percussion to bring on the mania.
In addition, the council ordered those worst afflicted to be bundled into wagons and taken the three-day ride to the shrine of Saint Vitus, where Frau Troffea had been cured. Priests placed the choreomaniacs, who were, presumably, still thrashing about like landed fish, underneath a wooden carving of Vitus. They put small crosses in their hands and red shoes on their feet. On the soles and tops of these shoes, they sprinkled holy water and painted crosses of consecrated oil.9 This ritual, carried out in an atmosphere thick with incense and Latin incantations, had the desired effect. Word soon reached Strasbourg and more were sent to Saverne to be forgiven by Vitus. Within a week or so the stream of suffering pilgrims had diminished to a trickle. The dancing plague had lasted for over a month, from mid-July to late August or early September. At its height, as many as fifteen people were dying each day. The final toll is unknown but, if such a daily death rate was true, could have been into the hundreds.
If not an angry saint or overheated blood then what did cause the dancing plague? In the view of Paracelsus, Fra Troffea’s marathon jig was a ploy to embarrass Herr Troffea: “In order to make the deception as perfect as possible, and really give the impression of illness, she hopped and sang, which was all most distasteful to her husband.”10 Upon seeing the success of the trick, other women began dancing to annoy their husbands too, powered on by “free, lewd and impertinent” thoughts. This type of dancing mania was classified by Paracelsus as Chorea lasciva (caused by voluptuous desires, “without fear or respect”), which sat alongside Chorea imaginativa (caused by the imagination, “from rage and swearing”), and Chrorea naturalis (a much milder form, caused by corporal causes) as the three main forms of the condition.11 While the famously iconoclastic Paracelsus does deserve credit for placing the cause of the disease in the minds of the choreomaniacs rather than in heaven, he was also a misogynist whose diagnosis looks somewhat ridiculous now.
Portrait of Paracelsus, after Quentin Matsys, ca. 1530 — Source.
Several modern historians have argued that the dancing plagues of mediaeval Europe were caused by ergot, a mind-altering mould found on the stalks of damp rye, which can cause twitching, jerking, and hallucinations — a condition known as St Anthony’s Fire. However, the historian John Waller has debunked the ergot hypothesis in his brilliant book on the dancing plague, A Time to Dance, a Time to Die (2009). Yes, ergot can cause convulsions and hallucinations, but it also restricts blood flow to the extremities. Someone poisoned by it simply could not dance for several days in a row.
Waller’s explanation of the dancing plague emerges from his deep knowledge of the material, cultural, and spiritual environment of sixteenth-century Strasbourg. He opens his book with a quote from H. C. Erik Midelfort’s A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany (1999):
Madnesses of the past are not petrified entities that can be plucked unchanged from their niches and placed under our modern microscopes. They appear, perhaps, more like jellyfish that collapse and dry up when they are removed from the ambient sea water.12
According to Waller, the Strasbourg poor were primed for an epidemic of hysterical dancing. First of all, there was precedent. Every European dancing plague between 1374 and 1518 had occurred near Strasbourg, along the western edge of the Holy Roman Empire. Then there were the prevailing conditions. In 1518, a string of bad harvests, political instability, and the arrival of syphilis had induced anguish extreme even by early modern standards. This suffering manifested as hysterical dancing because the citizens believed it could. People can be extraordinarily suggestible and a firm conviction in the vengefulness of Saint Vitus was enough for it to be visited upon them. “The minds of the choreomaniacs were drawn inwards,” writes Waller, “tossed about on the violent seas of their deepest fears.”13
Detail of painting based on Peter Breughel’s 1564 drawing of a dance epidemic occurring in Molenbeek that year — Source.
One way to elucidate the dancing plague is to consider the trance states people reach today. In cultures around the world, including in Brazil, Madagascar, and Kenya, people enter trances deliberately during ceremonies or involuntarily during periods of extreme stress. Once entranced, their perception of pain and exhaustion is marginalised. Waller describes the spread of the dancing plague as an example of psychic contagion, and he draws a parallel with the laughing epidemic that engulfed a region of Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania) in the fraught postcolonial year of 1963. When a couple of girls at a local mission school got the giggles, their friends followed suit until two-thirds of the pupils were laughing and crying uncontrollably and the whole school had to be shut down. Once home, the pupils “infected” their families and soon whole villages were consumed by hysterics. Doctors recorded several hundred cases, lasting a week on average.
Of course, the dancing plagues have another parallel — modern rave culture. Though usually without the bloody feet and pleas for mercy of our sixteenth-century choreomaniacs, and often with a little chemical help, it is not uncommon for partygoers to dance for days with little break, forgoing sleep and food, sometimes shifting their feet with poise and balance, and sometimes leaping with none. Should one such reveller — perhaps fuelled by a particularly potent dancefloor potion — be transplanted onto the horse market stage of early modern Strasbourg half a millennium ago, they might not feel entirely out of place.

Ned Pennant-Rea is an editor and writer from London. He likes early modern literature and wrote his Master’s thesis on animals in Montaigne’s essays.

Public Domain Works
  • The Black Death and the Dancing Mania (1888), by J. F. C. Hecker.