Category Archives: Case Studies

Small talk: Alice in Wonderland Syndrome (Revisited)

Last week, I was contacted by the journalist Abigail Moss about a previous blog that I wrote on Alice in Wonderland Syndrome (AIWS). AIWS is a non-contagious disorientation disorder and refers to when a person’s sense of body image, vision, hearing, touch, space, and/or time are distorted. AIWS sufferers typically experience micropsia (a neurological condition that affects human visual perception in which objects are perceived to be smaller than they actually are and make people feel bigger than they are) or macropsia (a neurological condition that affects human visual perception in which objects are perceived to be larger than they actually are and makes people feel smaller than they actually are).

Moss suffers from AIWS herself and has described her experiences both on camera (for instance in a short YouTube news piece and in numerous news articles such as one in the Daily Mail). Moss also sent me a first-person account of AIWS that she published in the online magazine Planet Ivy. Here are some of the things she recounted:

Extract 1: “When I was about five years old, I started to experience strange visual and sensory hallucinations. My hands and legs would seem too big for my body and the room around me would start to shrink inwards. All movements and sounds would seem extremely fast and hugely exaggerated, giving everything an odd feeling of urgency. This would last about 20 minutes and slowly fade away, and happened about four or five times a week…Luckily, my dad knew exactly what I was describing…He’d experienced the same thing as a kid. I haven’t outgrown it…but it doesn’t happen as often – maybe only five times a year”.

The first doctor suggested she might have a form of epilepsy but after that proved negative she was never diagnosed with anything official. Since then, other medics have suggested that she may have a sleep disorder or some kind of schizophrenia. It wasn’t until she was in her early twenties that she came across something that fitted her symptoms:

Extract 2: “Last year a tiny 50-word inset in a newspaper supplement caught my eye. ‘Alice in Wonderland Syndrome’ the heading read, and underneath it, a perfect description of my experience…I joined a Yahoo forum for ‘AIWS sufferers’…Countless fellow sufferers got in contact, all describing the same thing. Their descriptions were remarkably unvaried and it was immediately obvious this was the same thing I experience: ‘My body felt minuscule’, ‘Sounds were amplified’, ‘Everything was bigger and smaller at the same time’.”

The article outlined the many psychiatrists and psychologists Moss had visited about her condition with all the experts she saw claiming that they had never heard of AIWS. While the condition is rare, the condition has been well documented in the medical and clinical literature (see ‘Further reading’ below) so I was quite surprised that the experts she visited couldn’t have at least spent some time reading up on the syndrome. She then went on to say:

Extract 3: “My brain does something extremely weird, and nobody – not even the world’s leading bodies in the study of brains – can tell me what this is or why it happens. For me, this isn’t a problem, I don’t want to get rid of my episodes – they’re an interesting talking point and everyone knows writers are basically quite boring people. The experience, when it does pop up, doesn’t actually bother me or affect my day-to-day life”.

Moss wanted to ask me a few questions about my understanding of AIWS and how much is now known about it. She knew this wasn’t my primary area of expertise, but said that any opinions I might be able to offer would be invaluable to the article she was writing. I told her that my article on AIWS was written in a journalistic capacity rather from any position of expertise but she still wanted me to answer a few questions. Moss asked me three questions and I thought I would use this blog to share my full answers with my readers.

Question 1: “In my research I’ve found it almost impossible to find solid answers about what causes AIWS. Can you offer a view on what makes this condition so difficult to pin down?”

AIWS has been reported in the psychiatric and psychological literature since the early 1950s. However, since the first papers in the topic less than 20 papers have ever been published and all of them are case reports. Finding ‘solid answers’ based on so few cases is therefore inevitable. The literature is also biased because it is (a) based on those sufferers who seek out medical assistance, and (b) based on those doctors or clinicians that have written the cases for publication. If people don’t seek help and/or there cases remain unwritten, there is little chance if finding ‘solid answers’.

Secondly, the symptoms are not always identical which is why it is referred to as syndrome (that is, a group of symptoms that together are characteristic of a specific disorder or disease, or a predictable, characteristic condition or pattern of behavior that tends to occur under certain circumstances). Syndromes typically have many different causes which again means it is difficult to find ‘solid answers’.

Finally, given that the experiences (like your own) are often short-lived, it is very rare to be able to monitor people neurologically. The few published cases are based on chronic sufferers (who may not be representative of the vast majority of AIWS sufferers). Several neurologists have done M.R.I.s on patients with the condition, though once the bout has passed, there’s usually no sign of unusual brain activity. I read that Dr. Sheena Aurora was the first to scan the brain of someone — a 12-year-old girl — in the middle of an episode. According to Dr. Aurora, electrical activity caused abnormal blood flow in the parts of the brain that control vision and process texture, shape and size.

The case studies that I have read have provided lots of possible reasons for AIWS but there is no consensus and they could all be true (as having the same symptoms doesn’t mean there has to be the same cause). Some research appears to indicate that AIWS can be due to abnormal amounts of electrical activity that causes blood to flow abnormally in the brain areas that process texture and visual perception. AIWS has been associated with migraines, severe depression, and (in extreme cases) brain tumours. Case study research has indicated that AIWS manifestations are due to disturbed function of either medial temporal, hippocampal, tempro-occipital or tempro-parieto-occipital regions of the brain. Unfortunately, chronic AIWS is untreatable and time is the only healer. However, sharing experiences with other sufferers is also thought to be therapeutically beneficial

Question 2: “Is academic disagreement just part and parcel of all psychological conditions or does AIWS seems particularly open to discussion?”

I don’t think there is ‘disagreement’ as no two clinicians or psychiatrists have ever published papers examining the same individuals. They have all published papers based on the AIWS sufferers that they themselves saw and that who came in seeking help. All of the explanations could be correct as syndromes have multiple causes. This is not disagreement. It’s simply a case of multiple possible causes.

Question 3: “I have spoken to a large number of people who also say they also experience AIWS – how useful or valid do you think it would be to think of AIWS as more of a mental phenomenon than a syndrome, comparable with something like déjà vu, for example?”

The word ‘large’ is what we psychologists call a ‘fuzzy quantifier’ as ‘large’ to one individual is small to another. If you have spoken to 100 other sufferers worldwide I would say this is very very small. The condition appears to be rare although in one of my other areas of research, we have demonstrated that a small proportion of video gamers experience disorienting visual effects (that we call game transfer phenomena) like AIWS so such phenomena may be multi-faceted and may arise from specific activities (such as excessive and immersive game playing).

AIWS should not be compared with déjà vu as most scientific evidence suggests that déjà vu is an anomaly of memory and totally different from AIWS on a neurological level (but I’m not an expert on déjà vu and am only basing my opinion on what I have read in the psychological literature). However, there may be some conditions (such as schizophrenia and temporal lobe epilepsy) where individuals may experience both AIWS and déjà vu but these are symptoms of a specific medical disorder. Most individuals that have experienced déjà vu (as many as two-thirds of the population in some studies) and AIWS (very rare) do not have any underlying serious medical conditions.

I don’t know if any of my responses to Moss were of help either in relation to her own experiences or in writing her article but I was pleased with the observations I had made.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bui, E., Chatagner, A. & Schmitt, L. (2010). Alice in Wonderland Syndrome in major depressive disorder. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 22, 352.e16-352.e16.

Cinbis, M. & Aysun, S. (1992). Alice in Wonderland syndrome as an initial manifestation of Epstein-Barr virus infection (case report). British Journal of Ophthalmology, 76, 316.

Eshel, G.M., Eyov, A., & Lahat, E., et al (1987). Alice in Wonderland syndrome, a manifestation of acute Epstein-Barr virus infection (brief report). Pediatric Infectious Diseases Journal, 6, 68.

Kew, J., Wright, A., & Halligan, P.W. (1998). Somesthetic aura: The experience of “Alice in Wonderland”. The Lancet, 351, 1934.

Kitchener, N. (2004). Alice in Wonderland Syndrome. International Journal of Child Neuropsychiatry, 1, 107-112.

Kuo, Y, Chiu, N.C., Shen, E.Y., Ho, C.S., Wu, M.C. (1998). Cerebral perfusion in children with “Alice in Wonderland” syndrome. Pediatric Neurology, 19, 105-108.

Lahat, E., Eshel, G., & Arlazoroff A (1990). “Alice in Wonderland” syndrome and infectious mononucleosis in children (letter). Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, 53, 1104.

Lambert, M.V., Sierra, M., Phillips, M.L. & David, A.S. The spectrum of organic depersonalization: A review plus four new cases. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 14, 141-154.

Podoll, K., Ebel, H., Robinson, D., & Nicola, U. (2002). Obligatory and facultative symptoms of the Alice in wonderland syndrome. Minerva Medicine, 93, 287-293.

Podoll, K. & Robinson, D. (1999). Lewis Carroll’s migraine experiences. The Lancet, 353, 1366.

Rolak, L.A. (1991). Literary neurologic syndromes. Alice in Wonderland. Archives of Neurology, 48, 649–651.

Todd, J. (1955). The syndrome of Alice in Wonderland. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 73, 701–704.

Glum drone pleasures: The psychology of Ian Curtis and Joy Division

“Now there’s a really good book…[by French economist] Jacques Attali wrote in the late [1970s] called ‘Noise: The Political Economy of Music’…and the main tenet of that book is that…music is the best form of prophecy that we have…so that working with music or sound is our best way of divining a future, and being able to show to ourselves what’s round the corner in that psychological, or even psychic sense” (writer and graphic designer Jon Wozencroft being interviewed for the 2007 film Joy Division)

As a poverty stricken teenager in the early 1980s, all of my minimal disposable income was spent on buying records, cassettes, and music magazines (and to be honest, 35 years later nothing much has changed except I now buy far too many CDs instead of cassettes). Unlike most of my friends at the time I refused to be pigeon holed as a new romantic, a punk, a mod, or a goth because I liked music from all those genres. In the early 1980s was as equally as likely to buy a record by Adam and the Ants and Bauhaus as I was to buy records by Secret Affair and The Clash. I was also into city music scenes with my favourites being the ‘Liverpool scene’ (Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, Wah! etc.), the ‘Sheffield scene’ (Human League, Heaven 17, Cabaret Voltaire, etc.), and the ‘Manchester scene’ (Magazine, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Smiths, The Passage, etc.).

The Manchester music scene was incredibly buoyant although often portrayed by the music press at the time as psychologically and emotionally ‘miserablist’. My parents could never understand what I saw in the “depressing and alienating music” (as they saw it) of bands like Joy Division and The Smiths. But it was through these bands that I developed an interest in psychology and what could be described as ‘psychgeography of post-punk’. In the case of Joy Division, their geographical location in Manchester and its surrounding area (Salford, Macclesfield) was integral to their music. In fact, a number of commentators (such as Liz Naylor, the co-editor of City Fun fanzine) have asserted that Joy Division “relayed the aura of Manchester” in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

All of my information about Joy Division came from reading the NME, listening to the John Peel Show on Radio 1, and listening to their two studio LPs (Unknown Pleasures and Closer) and assorted singles (that I mainly taped off the radio as most of them were not widely available). I was too young to go to gigs and they rarely appeared on television. Of the four members of Joy Division – Ian Curtis (vocals), Peter Hook (bass guitar), Bernard ‘Barney’ Sumner (guitar), and Stephen Morris (drums) – it was Curtis that captivated my adolescent attention. It was through Curtis’ documented medical conditions that helped develop my interest in psychology. Curtis suffered from epilepsy (like one of musical heroes Jim Morrison of The Doors) and clinical depression. It has also been alleged that he suffered from bipolar disorder (i.e., what used to be called ‘manic depression’) although this was never formally diagnosed (and many of those close to Curtis claim that such a claim is speculative at best).

Descriptions of Curtis’ behaviour on first sight look like bipolar disorder given the reports by his wife and others of his severe mood swings (where on one day he could have feelings of happiness and elation but on the next day could have feelings of intense depression and despair). However, other members of the band claimed that the mood swings were caused by the epilepsy medication Curtis was taking. However, bipolar disorder is not uncommon among musicians given many other high profile rock and pop stars have suffered from it including Brian Wilson (Beach Boys), Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Ray Davies (The Kinks), Sinéad O’Connor, Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), and Adam Ant (to name just a few). Curtis was never afraid to write about psychological and medical conditions and the song ‘She’s Lost Control’ is arguably the most insightful song ever written about epilepsy (based not on his own experiences, but his observations of a female epileptic client who died while he was an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer based at the Job Centre in Macclesfield).

As any Joy Division fan knows, as a result of his severe depression, Curtis committed suicide by hanging himself on May 18, 1980 (a date I always remember because it was my favourite gran’s birthday), just two days before Joy Division were due to go on their first US tour. Even as a 14-year old teenager, I remember going to my local library in Loughborough not long after his death to learn more about depression, epilepsy, suicide, and attempted suicide (as he had two previous attempts to commit suicide earlier that year). I’m not saying that this alone was responsible for my career choice but it certainly facilitated my growing interest in psychology and mental health issues.

It was also through Joy Division that I started to read history books (and still do) on various psychological and non-psychological aspects of Nazism (and is evidenced by my previous blogs on the personality of Adolf Hitler and Nazi fetishism). Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Joy Division were often accused of having Nazi tendencies. It didn’t help that their name came from the 1955 novella House of Dolls by Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor Yehiel De-Nu (writing under his pen name Ka-tzetnik 135633). The ‘Joy Division’ was the name given to a group of Jewish women in World War II concentration camps whose only purpose was to provide sexual pleasure to Nazi soldiers. I have to admit I’ve never read any of De-Nu’s books. According to an online article by David Mikies (‘Holocaust Pulp Fiction’), De-Nu’s writings were “often lurid novel-memoirs, works that shock the reader with grotesque scenes of torture, perverse sexuality, and cannibalism“. In the 2006 book Joy Division and the Making of Unknown Pleasures, Jake Kennedy asserted that “Curtis’ fascination with extremes would hint to anyone willing to look beyond the headlines that the choice of name was probably an old fashioned punk exercise,  matter of old habits dying hard”.

One of the bands earliest songs ‘Warsaw’ (which was also their band name prior to becoming Joy Division) is arguably a lyrical biography of Hitler’s deputy Führer Rudolf Hess. The song even begins with the lyric “3 5 0 1 2 5 Go!” (Hess’ prisoner of war serial number after he was captured after flying to the UK in 1941). Another of their early songs ‘No Love Lost’ features a spoken word section with a complete paragraph from The House of Dolls. A 2008 article by music writer Jon Savage in The Guardian newspaper noted that Curtis’ songs “such as ‘Novelty’, ‘Leaders of Men’ and ‘Warsaw’ were barely digested regurgitations of their sources: lumpy screeds of frustration, failure, and anger with militaristic and totalitarian overtones”.

Deborah Curtis (Ian’s wife) also remembered that her husband had a book by John Heartfield that included photomontages of the Nazi Period and that graphically documented the spread of Hitler’s ideals. The cover artwork of the band’s first record, the ‘An Ideal For Living’ EP, also featured a boy member the Hitler Youth drawn by guitarist Barney Sumner banging on a drum. Much of the flirtation with Nazi symbolism was arguably juvenile fascination and playful naivety. It’s also been noted that Joy Division’s early music concentrated on the nihilistic provocations of industrial music’s pioneers Throbbing Gristle (whose music I also examined at length in a previous blog). An interesting 2010 article by Mateo on the A View From The Annex website defended Joy Division’s use of Nazi imagery and lyrics:

“The Labour government´s betrayal of the working class during the 1970s and the rise of Thatcherism at the end of the 1970s heralded a future of mass unemployment, government repression and decaying industry. The perspective taken by Ian Curtis, the band´s sole lyricist, towards this growing authoritarianism and despair is crucial to understand if one is to place the references to fascism found in the band´s album art in the context intended by the artist, that is, a despairing anti-Nazism…Punk at that time was a unique music scene in which battles between anti-racists and neo-nazis were being thrashed out at concerts as the skinheads tried to appropriate the punk aesthetic and hijack the following of alienated, disillusioned working class youth who gravitated towards such a sub-culture in places like Manchester at the beginning of the 1980s…The lyrics of Ian Curtis made it clear that this was a presence suffered and feared as opposed to tolerated or toyed with by the band…Joy Division feared fascism, they did not flirt with it and the artwork and lyrics in ‘An Ideal for Living’ serves as a warning of growing fascistic tendencies in British society…For this, Curtis and his bandmates should be lauded for tackling such a controversial issue and expressing such a well-grounded fear and hostility towards such a veritable enemy of the working class during a swift turn to the right in Britain”.

By all accounts, Curtis was a voracious reader and read books by William Burroughs, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche, Nikolai Gogol, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hermann Hesse and J.G. Ballard, many of which made their way into various Joy Division songs (an obvious example being their song ‘Interzone’ taken directly from a collection of short stories by William Burroughs). As Jon Savage noted:

“Curtis’s great lyrical achievement was to capture the underlying reality of a society in turmoil, and to make it both universal and personal. Distilled emotion is the essence of pop music and, just as Joy Division are perfectly poised between white light and dark despair, so Curtis’s lyrics oscillate between hopelessness and the possibility, if not need, for human connection. At bottom is the fear of losing the ability to feel”.

J.G. Ballard was a particular inspiration to Curtis (particularly the books High Rise and Crash, the latter of which was about the suffering of car accident victims and sexual arousal, and which I wrote about in a previous blog on symphorophilia). One of Joy Division’s best known songs (the opening ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ from their second LP Closer) took its’ name from Ballard’s collection of ‘condensed novels’ (and given its focus on mental asylums is of great psychological interest). So distinct is Ballard’s work that it gave rise to a new adjective (‘Ballardian’) and defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J.G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments”. Given this definition, many of Joy Division’s songs are clearly Ballardian as they examine the emotional and psychological effects of everything around them (including personal relationships on songs such as their most well known and most covered song, and only British hit ‘Love Will tear Us Apart’).

The overriding psychology and underlying philosophy of both Ian Curtis and Joy Division are both contradictory and complex but ultimately the band members were a product of the environment they were brought up in and the sum of their musical and literary influences. At the age of 24 years, Curtis’ suicide was undoubtedly tragic and like many other literary and musical ‘artists’, his death has been somewhat romanticized by the mass media. Although he didn’t quite make it into the infamous ‘27 Club’ of ‘rock martyr’ musicians that died when they were 27 years (e.g., Dave Alexander [The Stooges], Chris Bell [Big Star], Kurt Cobain [Nirvana], Richey Edwards [Manic Street Preachers], Pete Ham [Badfinger], Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson, Brian Jones [Rolling Sones], Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison [The Doors], Amy Winehouse) he is surely a candidate for being a prime honorary member (along with Jeff Buckley). Retrospectively looking at his lyrics (In the shadowplay, acting out your own death, knowing no more” from ‘Shadowplay’, you can’t help but wonder (given that many of them were autobiographical) whether Curtis’ death could have been prevented by those closest to him.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Curtis, D. (1995). Touching From A Distance. London: Faber and Faber.

Curtis, I., Savage, J. & Curtis, D. (2015). So This Is Permanence: Joy Division Lyrics and Notebooks. London: Faber and Faber.

Gleason. P. (2015). This Is the Way: “So This Is Permanence” by Ian Curtis. Located at: http://stereoembersmagazine.com/way-permanence-ian-curtis/

Hook, P. (2013). Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. London: Simon and Schuster.

Kennedy, J. (2006). Joy Division and the Making of Unknown Pleasures. London: Omnibus.

Mikies, D. (2012). Holocaust pulp fiction. The Tablet, April 19. Located at: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/97160/ka-tzetnik?all=1

Morley, P. (2007). Joy Division: Piece by Piece: Writing About Joy Division 1977-2007. London: Plexus Publishing.

Reynolds, S. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk, 1978–1984. New York: Penguin.

Savage, J. (2008). Controlled chaos. The Guardian, May 10. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/may/10/popandrock.joydivision

The hold of rolled gold: A brief look at wedding ring fetishes

In January 1995, the Channel 4 television documentary programme Equinox examined sexual paraphilias in a programme called ‘Beyond Love’. One of the many experts interviewed for the programme, Dr. Gene Abel, talked about a man with an unusual fetish. His sexual turn-on was gold wedding rings. In recounting the individual’s story, Dr. Abel said that the fetish was very specific and that the ring had to be of a particular width (6mm to 10mm if I recall correctly) for it to be sexually stimulating to the man in question. The roots of the fetish were established in childhood and arose from the time that the man was a boy and used to sit on his baby-sitter’s knee and play with the ring (twirling it around on her finger). The playing with the ring was accompanied by sexual arousal (from sitting on the knee of an attractive woman) but over time, the ring itself became the source of sexual arousal via continued associative pairing (i.e., sexual arousal from the sight of the female babysitter’s ring became a classically conditioned response).

The man had now married and his wife was unaware of his fetish but the sexologist explained that the man could not get sexually aroused and make love to his wife unless she was wearing her wedding ring and he was twirling it on her finger during sexual intercourse. Dr. Abel also said the man would also walk up to female strangers and comment how lovely their wedding ring was and ask if he could take a photograph of it. He would then use the developed photographs as source material for masturbatory purposes. This anecdotal case story might sound a little bizarre especially as there is no sexual paraphilia that refers to being sexually attracted to gold wedding rings (although Dr. Anil Aggrawal’s book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices does mention timophilia, a sexual paraphilia in which individuals gain sexual pleasure and arousal from gold or wealth – and which I briefly mentioned in a previous blog).

However, Dr. Abel and his colleagues later wrote up this account as one of six unusual case studies in a 2008 issue of the journal Psychiatric Clinics of North America where the man in question was given the pseudonym ‘Mr. Rings’ (the other five being ‘Mr. Cartoons’, ‘Mr. Feet’, ‘Mr. Balloons’, ‘Mr. Cigarettes’, and ‘Mr. Spanking’). In all of these cases (including ‘Mr. Rings’), they noted:

“The fetish objects in these case histories were unique enough, and the attraction to the objects strong enough, that the individuals could clearly track their interest from early childhood through adulthood. It is much easier to retrieve remote, explicit memories, such as events (e.g., a party where balloons popped) or playing with objects, than to recall the process of sexual development with no distinct markers in the individual’s history. Because these distinct experiences predated identified sexuality, became a focus of attention for the individual, and then were incorporated into the individual’s sexual interests and masturbatory fantasies, it was possible to accurately track the patterns of sexual arousal. We were also able to clearly identify how these men attempted to blend their deviant interests into sexual relationships with partners and the consequences of their efforts”.

As far as I am aware, this is the only academic paper to have examined ‘ring fetishism’ but my own research on the topic has led me to the conclusion that ‘Mr. Rings’ case is not unique. Here are a few accounts that I found in various online forums on the internet:

  • Extract 1: “[I] have a wedding [ring] on hand fetish. Even more aroused if the woman wears both a wedding and an engagement ring. I don’t like any other kind of ring. Rather than the plain yellow I prefer silver colour (platinum ones)” (Welly11)
  • Extract 2: “I have the same type of fetish. I’m turned on by ladies who wear wedding and engagement rings stacked on the same finger, and other simple band (plain gold or pave) rings. That’s why I founded a Yahoo! Group for other fetishists to share their photos” (Saladinthewise)
  • Extract 3: “I thought I was the only person on the planet with this (get incredibly aroused when I see a woman wear the plain yellow gold wedding ring) and I couldn’t make any sense of it for ages…Thanks for restoring a bit of my sanity and faith in my normality!” (Heshan1)
  • Extract 4: “My husband bought me a wedding ring that looks very similar to the one his mom wears. He later confessed it is a tremendous turn-on for him just seeing me wearing it. He doesn’t remember his mom (who is a wonderful person) doing anything ‘out of line’ with him in the past and it is not essential for me to have it on for sex. Could something have happened as a baby to implant this ‘fascination’ in his mind?” (iDawn491)

These are all fairly short self-confessed admissions and don’t really tell us much except that the fetish appears to be male-based and that the ring (or stacked rings in the case of two of the accounts) have to be worn by women. Extract 4 does point out that her husband can engage in sex without her wearing the ring so in this case, it wouldn’t be a true fetish behaviour (merely a strong sexual preference). There are also some sexually explicit discussions about wedding ring fetishes here. However, I did come across some more detailed accounts:

  • Extract 5: “My fetish started a long time ago, I am 55. Women who have worn wide bands have always had my interest. I have been married twice and each time I have told my wife to be about my fetish. Both women have worn wide band. My first wife got deep in to religion and wanted me to quit carrying an off duty side arm, I was a police officer at the time. My second wife said if I wanted her to she would wear a few wide rings if I got her what I wanted. I have been married to her for almost 20 years and she has worn them both day and night. I really dislike the thin plain gold rings that a lot of women wear. I feel all women should wear wide band on one of their ring fingers. My second wife dated a guy before me who had a fetish for bangle bracelets that could not be removed he had her wearing 5 to 6 on each arm that were soldered on and could not pass over the wrist. Even after she broke up with him she continued to wear them for about 10 years and once in a blue moon she would see him somewhere and shake them at him, just to see and you can’t have me” (Edward 5759).

This account hints that the fetish probably started in adolescence and that like ‘Mr. Rings’, the ring has to be of a specific type (in this case a wide band). It is also a fetish that the man in question was happy to tell his wives about, and something that the wives were psychologically comfortable with. This last account is a little more complicated as there are overlaps with other sexually fetishistic behaviours:

  • Extract 6: “My longstanding fetish is to be tied up by married women wearing a certain type of wedding ring. These are plain gold, very large 20-25 mms in width, curved like a barrel and smooth, the curve less pronounced as the width increases…All you need to know is that every woman I have ever encountered wearing one I have subsequently fantasized about them tying me up…My fetish even leading me to follow women I know to wear them. I have no idea why these wedding rings turn me on, and continue to do so, but it is a fetish I feel might be a new one and something I have just wanted to tell people about for a very long time. I can only think that the size and shape have something to do with my fetish and would appear to be linked somehow to my desire to always be tied with lots of rope, generously wrapped around the body. I’ve never really viewed my fetish as a problem other than the fact that chancing upon women wearing these rings is something that rarely ever happens, as they are not commonplace, therefore there is practically nothing to satisfy my ‘addiction’, for want of a better description…There was a woman who wore a wedding ring of the kind I have described, a particularly large one, who would shop every Saturday at a certain location at a certain time and I would make sure I’d be there to see it. This went on for three years. That was a long time ago now, and I still fantasize about her tying me up…I simply cannot imagine that ANYONE shares my fetish, so I can’t really expect to meet anyone here who does. The unusual nature of it being the biggest problem, that there is simply no concrete outlet for it” (Brainpan).

This final account is the most interesting one I have come across although is complicated by the fact that there are elements of bondage and sexual masochism added to the fetishistic mix. Although (like the other extracts) there is no insight into the roots and etiology of the behaviour, the size and the shape of the ring are again very specific suggesting that the longstanding desire dates back to a time where the person simply can’t recall where the interest in rings began (i.e., early childhood perhaps). As with other accounts, the fetishistic behaviour is not viewed as a problem by the person who has it (although in this latter case, there is arguably an element of stalking involved).

In all honesty (and although I find this interesting), I can’t see ‘wedding ring fetishism’ ever being the topic of in-depth psychological research particularly as the behaviour appears to be non-problematic in the main.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK 

Further reading

Abel, G.G., Coffey, L. & Osborn, C.A. (2008). Sexual arousal patterns: normal and deviant. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 31, 643-655.

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Needles and the damage done: A brief look at ‘knitting addiction’

In a previous blog, I briefly looked at ‘quilting addiction’. It was while I was researching that blog that I also came across a number of academic papers on the sociology of knitting and various references in the academic (and non-academic) literature to ‘knitting addiction’. In previous blogs I have written about the work of Dr. Bill Glasser who introduced the concept of ‘positive addiction’ in a 1976 book of the same name.

In a more recent 2012 paper on the topic in the Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, Glasser claimed that he had heard numerous stories from many different individuals claiming they were ‘positively addicted “to a variety of activities such as swimming, hiking, bike riding, yoga, Zen, knitting, crocheting, hunting, fishing, skiing, rowing, playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing, and many more”. Glasser (1976) argued that activities such as jogging and transcendental meditation were positive addictions and were the kinds of activity that could be deliberately cultivated to wean addicts away from more harmful and sinister preoccupations. He also asserted that positive addictions must be new rewarding activities that produce increased feelings of self-efficacy.

This idea has actually been put into practice with knitting. Dr. Kathryn Duffy published a paper in a 2007 issue of the Journal of Groups in Addiction and Recovery about knitting as an experiential teaching method for affect management for females in addiction group therapy at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre. Duffy claimed her knitting program had been successful in facilitating discussions and beneficial in providing a skill for moderating stress and emotions, both for female inpatient and outpatient drug and alcohol addicts.

A more recent paper by Dr. Betsan Corkhill and colleagues examined knitting and wellbeing (in a 2014 issue of Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture), using the World Health Organisation’s definition of wellbeing as “an ability to realize personal potential, cope with daily stresses, and contribute productively to society”. Their paper argued that knitting contributes to human wellbeing and has therapeutic benefits for those that engage in it because it is a behaviour (like many others) that can be used as a coping mechanism that can help overcome the daily pressures of life. One of the more interesting papers that I read on knitting was one published in a 2011 issue of Utopian Studies by Dr. Jack Bratich and Dr. Heidi Brush about “fabriculture” and “craftivism”:

“When we speak of ‘fabriculture’ or craft culture, we are referring to a whole range of practices usually defined as the ‘domestic arts’: knitting, crocheting, scrapbooking, quilting, embroidery, sewing, doll-making. More than the actual handicraft, we are referring to the recent popularization and resurgence of interest in these crafts, especially among young women. We are taking into account the mainstream forms found in Martha Stewart Living as well as the more explicitly activist (or craftivist) versions such as Cast Off, Anarchist Knitting Circle, MicroRevolt, Anarchist Knitting Mob, Revolutionary Knitting Circle, and Craftivism…When we use the term craft-work, we are specifically referring to the laboring practices involved in crafting, while fabriculture speaks to the broader practices (meaning-making, communicative, community-building) intertwined with this (im)material labor”.

The paper also outlined how women who knit in public (such as during a lecture or a conference) are often castigated and/or ridiculed for their behaviour. They even cited Sigmund Freud in relation to why knitting in public causes discomfort for onlookers:

“Freud institutionalized a concept denoting the jarring and disorienting effect of being spatially out of phase: unheimlich. The queasiness of the unheimlich occurs also when interiors become exteriorized (especially the home, as it also means unhomely). Knitting in public turns the interiority of the domestic outward, exposing that which exists within enclosures, through invisibility and through unpaid labor: the production of home life. Knitting in public also inevitably makes this question of space an explicitly gendered one. One commentator observes that knitting in public today is analogous to the outcry against breast-feeding in public twenty years ago (Higgins 2005). Both acts rip open the enclosure of the domestic space to public consumption. Both acts are also intensely productive and have generally contributed to women’s heretofore invisible and unpaid labor. But could such an innocuous activity as knitting have such social ramifications? How disruptive can fabriculture be when crafting women are more in the public eye than ever before? Many of us may know that Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, and other celebs knit”.

The paper goes on to say that there are various knitting blogs (such as Etherknitter) that “expose the dark side of knitting” including excessive consumption and addiction. I then went onto the Etherknitter website and located an article specifically written on knitting addiction (‘Etherknitter’ turned out to be the pseudonym of the individual that runs the site). Here are some extracts from the article which also notes some of the shared terminology between drug addiction and knitting addiction:

“It’s been a revealing several days. I have discovered that I am incapable of not knitting. The only thing that would have stopped me would have been pain… In college, when I flirted with smoking cigarettes for six weeks…Alcohol has never appealed…In my profession, an uncomfortable number of practitioners succumb to the siren song of drug addiction…Then we get to knitting. I can’t not knit. Well, I can, but it hurts too much to be worth it. (I wonder if that’s why addicts stay addicted.) I was talking to a [fabric store] owner recently…She commented that the staff in the store sees a lot of people at the store who act out their neediness through yarn. She saw it as uncontrolled buying. Since we were talking about obesity in America at the time, she was tying it into alcohol/drug and food addiction. [The Too Much Wool website] pointed out our knitterly use of the word ‘stash’, and its clear crossover to the drug culture. Blogworld is full of knitters describing uncontrolled stash acquistions [such as ‘majorknitter’]. And trying to hide the size of the stash from significant others. And selling parts of their stash to others. The addiction to fiber and knitting is probably more benign, except for the financial aspects, and the time constraints. I really do have to beat myself to fulfill the more boring paperwork obligations in my life since I started knitting. The needles (aha! Another crossover analogy) are more fun. I don’t plan to do anything about my knit-addiction quite yet. But it does bother me”. 

In researching this article I came across a number of online accounts of people claiming to be genuinely addicted to knitting. This extract was particularly revealing as this short account seems to highlight many of the core components of addiction such as salience, conflict, and withdrawal symptoms:

“So, I’m 22 and I go through all that typical 22-year old stuff. Sometimes, my life gets rough and I have trouble coping. Rather than going out with friends and drinking till I puke, or going and smoking a few cigarettes or a joint, or having sex with random boys, I turn to my knitting in times of crisis. This might sound like a constructive thing. After all, I’m creating rather than destroying, right? Wrong. I say that I’m addicted because I am. I can’t function on a normal level without my knitting bag at my side. I can’t sit still in class or on a break if I’m not knitting. My head hurts, I sweat, I get jittery if my hands are doing nothing. And it gets worse. I skip classes to go to yarn stores. I come back late from breaks at work because I needed to finish just one more row. I already have one knitting tattoo and another planned. I pay my rent late because I spent my entire paycheck on yarn. My boyfriend’s half of the apartment is slowly being taken over by my stash. My life isn’t complete without knitting. I bought two spinning wheels so I could spin my own yarn. I think that if I ever lost a hand or arm due to an accident I would probably kill myself because I couldn’t knit…I’ve admitted to myself that I have a problem, but most people see knitting as simply my hobby. It goes so much deeper than that and I feel like I finally needed to say something”.

Academically, there is little on knitting addiction. In an unpublished thesis by Christiana Croghan, she noted in one paragraph that:

“Baird (2009) supports the theory that knitting alters brain chemistry, lowering stress hormones and boosting the production of serotonin and dopamine. Dittrich (2001) argues while there are many health benefits associated with knitting there is also a health risk of the possible development of carpal tunnel syndrome. Research suggests knitting may also have an addictive quality that Corkhill (2008) considers to be a constructive addiction that may replace other more severe harmful addictions. Marer (2002) interviewed professional women who knit during lunch hours, and found a consistent theme of relief from anxiety and a sense of clear headedness at work. Marer (2002) also found patients with severe illnesses such as cancer experience a greater sense of coping when they knit”.

More specifically on addiction, a 2011 issue of Asian Culture and History, Hye Young Shin and Dr. Ji Soo Ha examined knitting practice in Korea. Their qualitative research revealed that:

“Immersion in knitting projects can become so intense as to create anxiety for some knitters after the completion of a knitting project. They confess a sense of emptiness or feeling lost after a period of deep mental and physical engagement. This suggests that knitting can become an activity that does not arise out of necessity or has a clear purpose. However, knitters who have a lot of experience with knitting practice tend to say that long experience with knitting has enabled them to handle this urge to indulge in knitting, a typical symptom in the early stage of one’s knitting career”.

Their paper includes the following quotes from knitters that they interviewed:

  • Extract 1: “Knitting is a kind of addiction or drug. I feel so bored and empty and a sense of being lost when I’m done with one project.”
  • Extract 2: “For example, I check the time when a TV drama begins and I can stop knitting when the drama starts. When I first started knitting, I couldn’t control my urge to keep knitting on and on, but now I can; otherwise I can’t enjoy it as a pleasurable and long-term hobby. I still want to carry on when I sit for knitting, not wanting to stand up to wash the dishes, but now I can control myself.”

I have always argued that is theoretically possible for an individual to become addicted to anything if there are constant reinforcements (i.e., rewards). The anecdotal reports in this article suggest that a few individuals appear to experience addiction-like symptoms but there is too little detail to say one way or another whether knitting addiction genuinely exists.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Baird, M., (2009). Fighting the stress with knitting needles. Located at: http://heal-all.org/art/18/human-body/1999/fighting-the-stress-with-knitting-needles

Bratich, J. Z., & Brush, H. M. (2011). Fabricating activism: Craft-work, popular culture, gender. Utopian Studies, 22(2), 233-260.

Corkhill, B. (2008) Therapeutic knitting. retrieved from www.knitonthenet.com/issue4/features/therapeutic knitting/

Corkhill, B., Hemmings, J., Maddock, A., & Riley, J. (2014). Knitting and Well-being. Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, 12(1), 34-57.

Croghan, C. (2013). Knitting is the new yoga? Comparing techniques; physiological and psychological indicators of the relaxation response. Unpublished manuscript. Located at: http://esource.dbs.ie/handle/10788/1586

Dittrich, L. R. (2001) Knitting. Academic Medicine, 76(7), 671. Retrieved from: http://knittingbrain.com/results.php

Duffy, K. (2007). Knitting through recovery one stitch at a time: Knitting as an experiential teaching method for affect management in group therapy. Journal of Groups in Addiction and Recovery, 2(1), 67-83.

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Glasser, W. (2012). Promoting client strength through positive addiction. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, 11(4), 173-175.

Etherknitter (2006). Public displays of knitting. Etherknitter Blog. Accessed April 19, 2006, http://etherknitter.typepad.com/etherknitter/2006/03/please_picture_.html

Marer, E. (2002). Knitting: the new yoga. Health, 16(2), 76-78.

Shin, H. Y., & Ha, J. S. (2011). Knitting practice in Korea: A geography of everyday experiences. Asian Culture and History, 3(1), 105-114.

A battle of Witts: A brief look at ‘Taboos’ and the work of The Passage

“If music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it” (Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare)

Today’s blog is not academic but it’s about an academic (but I’ll come to that later). Back in the early 1980s when I was in my early teenage years, my obsession for music was fed by listening to the John Peel show every weekday night. I still have dozens of cassettes of the songs that I taped off the show that I still cannot throw away (and before you ask, yes I am a hoarder when it comes to anything music-related). It was 1981 when I first heard a song that has become one of my all-time favourites – ‘Taboos’ by post-punk band The Passage. From the opening verse I was transfixed. Here was a group writing songs about sexual dysfunction in both a cerebral and humorous way. Around this time I was also a massive fan of Adam and the Ants, particularly their songs on sexual perversions and paraphilias (which I have already documented in two previous blogs on the psychology of Adam Ant, and Ant as a portrait in pop perversion)

The Passage formed March 1978 in Manchester and the band was led by Richard ‘Dick’ Witts (formerly a percussionist in the Halle Orchestra) and the only ever present member until they split up in 1983. Their early material as been likened to The Fall (not totally a surprise given that The Passage’s first bassist Tony Friel also played bass in The Fall), and like The Fall there was a constant change of line-ups with Witts being the equivalent of The Fall’s lead singer Mark E. Smith. Witts was also an occasional television presenter of music programmes (such as The Oxford Road Show). Witts also recalled the story of Morrissey auditioning for them before he formed The Smiths (“‘As we were spineless about singing we once auditioned a bunch of hopefuls, including a certain Steve Morrissey, who we thought a bit too glum for the likes of us”).

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Between November 1980 and March 1983, The Passage released four great albums (Pindrop; For All And None; Degenerates; and Enflame) on three different record labels (first Object Music, then Virgin subsidiary label Night & Day, and finally with legendary indie label Cherry Red). The LPs were all re-released in 2003 on the LTM label along with a compilation album (BBC Sessions). There’s also a ‘best of’ CD collection with the homophonically titled Seedy (geddit? A prime example of Witts’ wit) which is well worth getting as a primer to their later recorded output. Much of their music was critically lauded including (then NME critic and later a member of the band Art of Noise) Paul Morley who compared them to Joy Division (a band that was actually the support act at one of The Passage’s early gigs). Morley’s review of their debut LP noted:

‘With the disquieting Pindrop, The Passage can be accepted as major even by the cowardly, cautious and cynical: it’s a work of disciplined intellectual aggression, frantic emotions and powerfully idiomatic musicality. Pindrop is densely shaded, erratically mixed (which often works in its favour), rough edged, heavy in an unloveable sense of the word…It’s as shocking a beautiful nightmare, as stormy and aware a debut LP as [Joy Division’s] Unknown Pleasures. Where you gasp a lot. Comparisons will harm. Their sound is their own. It’s the shock of the new – new shades, textures, noises, pulses, atmospheres, energies, the opening up of new realms of feeling.’

One of the things I loved about The Passage was they were never afraid to write songs that were lyrically intellectually political and/or sexual (e.g., ‘Troops Out’, ‘Carnal’, ‘Taboos’, ‘XoYo’). Their ‘love songs’ (to use a quote from the Soft Cell’s song ‘Perversity‘) are “deliciously twisted” (e.g., ’16 Hours’. Love Is As’, ‘Revelation’, ‘Time Will Tell’). In fact, a number of music critics would talk about Witts’ “rigorously intellectual approach” to music and lyric writing. Their second album (For All and None) even took its title from the four-part philosophical novel by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (i.e., Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None). In the song ‘My One Request’, Witts refrain “Love, fear, power, hope” appears to be his manifesto on life. In a lengthy interview with Johnny Black for indie fanzine Masterbag about his continued fascination with form and structure:

“‘We’ve done 53 songs now and they’re all based on just three words,’ says Witts, beginning to illustrate his musical triangle on a paper napkin. At the corners of the triangle he writes the words and speaks them as he does so. ‘Fear, power and…love.’ ‘Another triangle takes shape while he tells me about power. ‘Power is ambiguous, it depends on how it’s used. In the same way, a knife can be used to cut bread, or to slit a throat.’ ‘The second triangle is ready, and at each corner he writes, semitone, minor third, major third, then pushes the napkin over to me. ‘Within these triangles you can sum up everything about Western music.’ The Witts fixation with structure (and triangles) is reflected even in the design of their album covers. ‘We use only black, red and white, which are symbolic colours. The red flag, the black flag for anarchy, black and white united fight – all these things…There are three people in the group and I associate those colours with us. I’m red, Andrew [Wilson] blue, and Paul [Mahoney] is white.”

I should also note that the track ‘Love Song’ from their New Love Songs EP was the first song I ever heard that featured the word ‘c**t’ in a rhyming couplet (‘I love you/Cos I need a c**t/I love you/To use you back and front’). (As a possibly amusing aside, I was the first ever academic to get the word ‘f**kwit’ into the British Journal of Psychology in a study examining the role of cognitive bias in slot machine gambling – see ‘Further reading’ below). The same song also referred to fellatio (but Adam and the Ants had already covered the topic in the song Cleopatra on their 1980 debut LP Dirk Wears White Sox). The Passage are arguably one of the most unsung bands of the 1980s. Perhaps the best tribute to the band was from Nick Currie (aka the musician Momus) who said:

“[The Passage were] one of the greatest, yet least known of 80s groups. I bought ‘Pindrop’ after hearing a track on [the John Peel show]. The album (slightly murkier, more introverted and mysterious sounding than later releases) was like nothing else being made at the time. Totally electronic, spooky, intelligent, political, passionate as hell, like Laurie Anderson crossed with The Fall. ‘Degenerates’ and ‘Enflame’ are also great records, Brechtian politics melded to angular, caustic lyrics. The Passage were very un-English in their willingness to write about sex and politics. I think you’d have to see them as libertarians in a peculiarly Protestant mode, like Quakers or Methodist radicals or something”.

Which brings me to arguably their two greatest songs – ‘Taboos’ and ‘XoYo’ – both about sex but both very different both musically and lyrically (sexual dysfunction versus sexual liberation). Both songs are on the 2003 CD reissue of the Degenerates LP and most people that have heard of The Passage probably prefer ‘XoYo’ because they are likely to be one of the 100,000+ music lovers (like myself) that bought the Cherry Red indie classic sampler album Pillows and Prayers on which it also appeared. The opening quote by Shakespeare is actually the first lyric on ‘XoYo’ (which you can listen to here) and it fits perfectly with the lyrical content of the song (you can read all the lyrics here as they also work as prose).

The ‘Taboos’ single (which you can listen to here) was recorded at Stockport’s Strawberry Studio in August 1981. Witts was apparently unhappy with the mix (although I think it’s great) as he was quoted as saying: “I drowned the drumming with timpani and other percussion, in particular Taboos which now sounds more like an Orange Order marching band than the [Phil] SpectorWall of Sound‘ I had in mind”. Lyrically, I just loved the whole song. Below are the lyrics to the whole song that I transcribed myself as (unlike ‘XoYo’), they don’t appear to be published anywhere online:

“I use this magazine that gives instructions/It tells me many things about seduction/It comes in monthly parts, there’s 16 sections/I need nine more for the complete collection

In Number 6 there’s chapters on disorders/And Number 7’s all about withdrawal/In Number 8 there’s pictures of positions/I’m stuck till I receive the ninth edition

Whoever hopes to dance with me/Must abandon all such guides and schemes/And measure up a million ways and means/Take to heart strange choreography

We have to wait until we’ve read them through/With things like this we’re better safe than sorry/I have it written here, four things to do/Each one a cornerstone of carnal knowledge

It makes you go blind/By closing your mind/Obstructing the view/Too many taboos/Too many taboos

We really should wait till we’ve read them through/You know we’re/always better safe than sorry/You see it written here a thousand rules/Certain regulations should be followed

Perhaps these studies on cassette are wisest/While they play you try the exercises/Just one of 15 minutes would be plenty/My body can’t take all five C-120s

Whoever hopes to dance with me/Must leave behind what’s being heard and seen/And stepping through a thousand routes and dreams/Take to heart new choreography

It makes you go blind/Disclosing the mind/A little taboos/Two million taboos

Let’s wait until we’ve seen the TV series/A programme titled ‘All Your Bedroom Queries’/You may will think I’m making lame excuses/I just don’t like, you know it more than I do

My only option is to write about/A verse or two of hollow lies about you/So you’d be flattered by my sharp deception/And words were made to exercise deception

Whoever wants to dance with me/Must abandon traps and trickery/Take to heart new choreography/Take by storm strange choreography

It makes you go blind/By closing the mind/Obstructing the view/Too many taboos/Too many taboos”

‘Taboos’ (words and music: Dick Witts and Andy Wilson)

Since The Passage disbanded, Witts has put his musical talents to good use. He became an academic and university lecturer in modern music and has taught at Edinburgh University, Goldsmiths University (London) and Edge Hill University (Ormskirk, Lancashire). He’s also written some great books including ones on Nico and The Velvet Underground (that you can download at his academic website). Hopefully after reading this, a few more people will delve into The Passage’s back catalogue and discover one of the great cult bands of the 1980s.

Note: I would like to thank both Dick Witts and Keith Nuttall (at http://www.thepassage.co.uk) for their help in compiling this article.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). The role of cognitive bias and skill in fruit machine gambling. British Journal of Psychology, 85, 351-369.

Nice, J. (2003). The Passage\Biography. LTM Recordings. Located at: http://www.ltmrecordings.com/the_passage.html

Reynolds, S. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk, 1978–1984. New York: Penguin.

Wikipedia (2015). Richard Witts. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Witts

Wikipedia (2015). The Passage (band). Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Passage_(band)

Take a stance on me: A brief look at ‘hands on hips’ fetish

I can’t remember exactly how, but one day last year I came across a website called Hands On Her Hips which is totally dedicated to pictures of females posing with their hands on their hips. As the website states:

“The mission statement of this blog is very simple. The blog contains picture of women holding their hands on their hips. To me the pose is very feminine, attractive, powerful and confident. The simple gesture of a woman putting her hands on her hips appeals to me and this blog is dedicated to that pose”

However, I soon discovered on doing a little Googling that there appears to be a niche community of ‘hands on hip’ [HoH] fetishists out there. I’m not aware of any academic research on HoH fetishism but there are a number of online references to the practice. According to a short 2009 online article on ‘eight freaky fetishes’ by Grace Murano, she claims that:

“Hands on the Hip is a type of hand partialism, which means the attraction to a specific action performed by the hands. It’s very hard to explain the presence of a fetish site devoted entirely to women posing with their hands on their hips, standing defiantly and angrily in the way so many mothers do when their children misbehave. Somewhere, deep in the psyche of the site’s creator, he desperately wants to find a mother figure who will discipline him with nothing harsher than a time out and denial of television”.

Murano’s brief description appears to somewhat concur with Wikipedia’s brief entry on hand fetishism (that appears to have come from Dr. Ellen McCallum’s 1998 book Object Lessons: How to Do Things With Fetishism). This entry claims that hand fetishism:

“…may include the sexual attraction to a specific area such as the fingers, palm or nails, or the attraction to a specific action performed by the hands; which may otherwise be considered non-sexual – such as washing or drying dishes. This fetish may manifest itself as a desire to experience physical interaction, or as a source of sexual fantasy”.

Another 2009 short online article by Gloria Brame asserts that HoH fetishism is actually an ‘action fetish’ (i.e., an individual who derives sexual arousal not from an object or body part but from an action that someone performs). Brame then goes on to assert that:

“For most, that includes seeing it, but it isn’t just a branch of voyeurism: the fundamental thrill attaches to the action itself, and not just its visual or auditory pleasures. One very broad example would be spankers who get off on the action (of spanking) itself, and not – as is more common among [sadomasochists] – the pain or humiliation or its place in a power dynamic…Some of us know SM players too who are turned on by the actions but not the psychological space…It’s a bit easier to sort out when the action fetish is highly particularized. For example, a fetish for watching a woman in stockings and high heels step on a car’s brakes, or a fetish for seeing a coed in her underwear bouncing on a big balloon There are scores of barely documented action fetishes, so I’m always happy when I see an enthusiast build a blog to his/her own fetish, like this one [Hands on her hips]”

In another list of ‘weird fetishes’ from 2007, Anthony Burch and Frank Movsesian also listed HoH fetish and tried to add in a bit of psychodynamic psychology into the mix. They claimed that HoH fetish sites prove that Sigmund Freud was right. I personally don’t adhere to this viewpoint at all but given the lack of any psychological insight and theorizing, they go as far as to say:

There’s no other way to explain the presence of a fetish site devoted entirely to women posing with their hands on their hips, standing defiantly and angrily in the way so many mothers do when their children misbehave. Somewhere, deep in the psyche of the site’s creator, he desperately wants to find and have sex with a mother figure who will discipline him with nothing harsher than a Time Out and denial of television. I guess this fetish is for people who aren’t quite into sadomasochistic discipline, but think they might one day be. Bondage training wheels, if you will”.

There are loads of articles and papers on various aspects of non-verbal communication and to be honest (and because it is not my area of expertise) I haven’t got the time to read everything that’s been written about ‘hands on hips’ gestures, but most online sources appear to indicate that the ‘hands on hips’ stance helps give the appearance of being physically bigger and is a non-verbal cue that shows others that we are “ready for action” (i.e., a ‘readiness gesture’) but is sometimes mistaken for unfriendliness. One website claims that the people most likely to be observed in are “workaholics, athletes and productive people” and can demonstrate a show of authority and superiority. Another website article notes that:

“Hands-on-Hips is used by the child arguing with its parent, the athlete waiting for his event to begin, the boxer waiting for the bout to start and males who want to issue a non-verbal challenge to other males who enter their territory. In each instance the person takes the Hands-on-Hips pose and this is a universal gesture used to communicate that a person is ready for assertive action. It lets the person take up more space and has the threat value of the pointed elbows that act as weapons, preventing others from approaching or passing. The arms being half raised show readiness for attack and this is the position taken by cowboys in a gunfight. Even one hand on the hip will send the intended message, particularly when it’s pointed at the intended victim. It’s used everywhere and in the Philippines and Malaysia it carries the even stronger message of anger or outrage…Its basic meaning carries a subtly aggressive attitude everywhere. It has also been called the achiever stance, related to the goal-directed person who is ready to tackle their objectives or is ready to take action on something. Men often use this gesture around women to display an assertive male attitude”

If these observations are true, it would seem to suggest that those who have HoH fetishes may like being/feeling in submissive positions and being sexually dominated (although that’s pure speculation on my part as there is simply no empirical research whatsoever). I honestly can’t see HoH fetishes ever being the subject of serious scientific study as they are unlikely to have any appreciable negative impact in the lives of such people (if such people even exist).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK 

Further reading

Brame, G. (2009). Action fetishes and hands on hips. July 28. Located at: http://gloriabrame.typepad.com/inside_the_mind_of_gloria/2009/07/hands-on-her-hips.html

Burch, A. & Movsesian, F. (2007). 10 really weird fetishes. Double Viking, November 9. Located at: http://www.doubleviking.com/bullet-points-10-really-weird-fetishes-6984-p.html

McCallum. E.L. (1998.) Object Lessons: How to Do Things With Fetishism. New York: State University of New York Press.

Murano, G. (2009). 8 freakiest fetishes. Oddee, June 18. Located at: http://www.oddee.com/item_96718.aspx

Ghost modernism: Should parents worry about their children playing supernatural games?

(Note: A version of this article was first published in The Independent)

Supernatural games have been played for decades by children and adolescents all around the world. The most popular games – often played on Halloween – include holding séances and playing on a Ouija board to summon up the spirit world, playing hide-and-seek in the pitch black dark, ‘Bloody Mary’ (staring into a mirror, alone in the dark and saying “Bloody Mary” three times to summon up a ghoulish woman), and ‘Candy Man’ (again staring into a mirror and saying “Candy Man” five times to summon up the ghost of a black slave covered in blood and where thousands of bees emerge from his mouth).

The latest game that has done the rounds is the ‘Charlie Charlie Challenge’ (also known as ‘Charlie Pencil’ and ‘The Pencil Game’) and viewed by some as a rudimentary Ouija board. Both of my younger children saw the game on social media although neither has played it. The game is very simple to play and like ‘Bloody Mary’ and ‘Candy Man’ is played to invoke a spirit (this time a dead Mexican called Charlie). The game simply involves placing two pencils on a piece of blank paper in the shape of the cross with the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ written on either side of the pencils. Players say the phrase “Charlie, Charlie can we play?” in order to connect with the demon. Players then ask questions of the demon and the pencils move to indicate his answer.

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There has been no academic research into the playing of supernatural games by children but there is anecdotal evidence that such games are popular. For instance, according to one news report in the Daily Mail, the sales of Ouija boards increased by 300% in December 2014 and are marketed for children and adolescents as they are sold in places like Toys R Us.

The obvious questions to ask is why our children like to play these scary games in the first place and is there is any harm that children can experience from playing such games? Although there has been no research on the playing of supernatural games there has been a little research on why we like watching scary supernatural films. Psychological research has shown that when it comes to the supernatural the three main reasons we watch supernatural horror films are for tension (generated by the suspense, mystery, terror, etc.), relevance (that may relate to personal relevance, cultural meaningfulness, the fear of death, etc.), and (somewhat paradoxically given the second reason) unrealism (i.e., being so far removed from our day-to-day existence). However, the research that has been carried out tends to be on student populations rather than younger children and adolescents. The reasons why school-aged children may want to watch or engage in supernatural practices are likely to be far more mundane such as teenage bravado to try and impress others around them or as a ‘rites of passage’ activity (i.e., engaging in an activity that is normally done by adults and makes the child feel more grown-up).

Although I don’t subscribe to the theories forwarded by the psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung, he believed the liking for supernatural horror films tapped into our ‘primordial archetypes’ buried deep in our collective subconscious. However, as with almost all psychoanalytic theorizing, such notions are hard to scientifically test. Another psychoanalytic theory – although arguably dating back to Aristotle – is the notion of catharsis (i.e., that we watch and engage in frightening activities as a way of purging negative emotions and/or as a way to relieve pent-up frustrations).

When it comes to whether playing supernatural games are harmful for children, there are two schools of thought but there is no empirical evidence to support either position. There are those that emphatically claim that the playing of such games is not a dangerous activity. Opposed to this view are those (often religious) people that claim that using Ouija boards and playing supernatural games are dangerous. For instance, Father Stephen McCarthy, a Catholic priest claimed the ‘Charlie Charlie Challenge’ was a demonic activity. In an open letter to students he said:

“There is a dangerous game going around on social media which openly encourages impressionable young people to summon demons. I want to remind you all there is no such thing as ‘innocently playing with demons’. Please be sure to NOT participate and encourage others to avoid participation as well. The problem with opening yourself up to demonic activity is that it opens a window of possibilities which is not easily closed.”

As both a psychologist and a father of three adolescents, I have yet to see any evidence that the playing of such games does any psychological harm although it’s not an activity that I would actively encourage either. As a teenager and as a university student I playfully engaged in séances and at one party used a Ouija board and it never did me any harm. Some may even argue that such activities are ‘character building’. However, there may be children and adolescents of a more sensitive disposition where such games might have a more long-lasting negative detrimental effect. The truth of the matter is that we simply have no idea about what effects of playing games like the ‘Charlie Charlie Challenge’ have on the psyche or behaviour.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Hess, J.P. (2010). The psychology of scary movies. Filmmaker IQ. Located at: http://filmmakeriq.com/lessons/the-psychology-of-scary-movies/

Hoekstra, S. J., Harris, R. J., & Helmick, A. L. (1999). Autobiographical memories about the experience of seeing frightening movies in childhood. Media Psychology, 1, 117-140.

Johnston, D.D. (1995). Adolescents’ motivations for viewing graphic horror. Human Communication Research, 21(4), 522-552.

O’Brien, L. (2013). The curious appeal of horror movies: Why do we like to feel scared? IGN, September 9. Located at: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2013/09/09/the-curious-appeal-of-horror-movies

The birds’ and the bees’ knees: A very brief look at genuphilia

One Saturday night while my family was watching Strictly Come Dancing, I found myself idly Googling looking for inspiration for a new blog. One of the pages I found myself on was Kinkopedia’s ‘Kink of the Week’ website. This particular page made reference to ten “paraphilias you may never heard of”. The list (in alphabetical order and the website’s definition) included bromidrophilia (sexual attraction to body odours and smells), genuphilia (sexual attraction to knees), mechanophilia (sexual attraction to cars),
 mythophilia (sexual attraction to myths, stories, or gossip), nasophilia (sexual attraction to noses), onomatophilia (sexual attraction to words, or a certain word),
 rupophilia (sexual attraction to dirt), sitophilia (sexual attraction to food), spectrophilia (sexual attraction to ghosts) and 
vorarephilia (sexual attraction to eating or be eaten by another).

Regular readers of my blog won’t be surprised to know that I was aware of almost all the paraphilias on the list (in fact I’ve written blogs on most of these). However, the one that jumped out at me (no pun intended) was genuphilia. Given the fact that (i) there is absolutely no scientific research on genuphilia, and (ii) genuphilia does not make an appearance in either Dr. Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices or Dr. Anil Aggrawal’s Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices suggests one of two things – either that this particular paraphilia does not really exist, or that it is a relatively newly realized fetish. It’s also another paraphilia where the name appears to have been derived as the opposite of a known phobia (i.e., genuphobia – an irrational fear of knees).

In researching this article, I have to admit that I almost gave up on trying to put a blog together given the lack of material (academic and anecdotal). I read an online article about sexual paraphilias in the new (fifth edition) of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that referred to genuphilia being related to gender but then quickly realized the article was a funny April Fool’s Day spoof (still worth a read though! See ‘Further reading’ below for a link to the article). Over at the Psyche Time-Lapse website, genuphilia made an appearance in their regular ‘Word Of The Day’ column. The writer of the short article noted:

“Getting on your knees is usually a prelude to some sexy fellatio initiation or submissive roleplay. But sexiness isn’t always just coded into the act of falling to your knees; it can be on the knees themselves Genuphilia refers to a special, sexual attraction for knees: knock-kneed, knobby knees, replaced knees, any one of the jumbly joints that allows our legs to move efficiently and helps support body weight. The area right behind the knee can be a sensitive, often-ignored erogenous zone, and light, tantalizing strokes on and around them with your fingers can bring shivers to a partner’s body. And with fall approaching, showing off your knees with a variety of knee socks, boots, and fall-length coats has never been easier!”

As a last resort I went online searching on various forums and discussion groups and only located a handful of self-admitted accounts of people claiming to have a knee fetish:

Extract 1: “I think I must have had something like this for as long as I can remember. When I was aged 12 [years old] I was nearly always in shorts and there was a near neighbour who was a girl of about the same age who had a mix of boys and girls as friends and she liked us to show our legs as she thought it was cute that boys were in shorts and that we boys showed more leg than the girls. As I got older I always thought that boys in school shorts looked cute and was jealous that their uniforms allowed shorts while the school I was at would not allow shorts. I was attracted to my ex-boyfriend when I moved to another school and saw a guy in shorts which showed off his long sexy smooth legs. As he and I saw each other out of school, he encouraged me to shave my legs so that we could rub our bare legs together. I noticed in particular his knees were turning me on and we took it in turns to feel each other’s legs and I concentrated on rubbing his knees with mine. I love to show off my knees as much as possible and when I see both guys and girls showing theirs, I feel very aroused. There is nothing so good as a pair of sexy knees”

Extract 2: I got a foot fetish and a leg/knee fetish, but I also got a fetish for a girl’s hands too. Anybody find that to be common out there?”

Extract 3: Hairless Inside Knees on gay men are amazing! That we are agreed that is why you are here at the internet’s premier Hairless Inside Knee Gay Fetish Website! Don’t get us wrong we love hairy legs on our gay men. But there is something about the inside of the knee that when it’s hairless sends our pulses racing. Here at THIKFG you’ll find sexual tips to satisfy your hairless inside knee gay partner as well as fantasies and the best photos and videos of the best hairless inside knees around. So sit back and enjoy!”

Extract 4: “I haven’t explained what my happy page is about yet. Knee Fetishes!…I know you guys are thinking. THIS IS WEIRD! But [you] know what? It is weird. It’s the next big thing. Haven’t you heard? Pretty soon everyone will be having knee, elbow and ankle fetishes…So I would just like to take this moment to tell all you people, look around. There are many knees. Some are ugly, some are beautiful, some are hairy, some are lumpy, some are squishy. Just enjoy yourself. Stop and look at the knees”

Presuming these extracts are genuine (and I have no reason to suspect they’re not), a few tentative conclusions can be drawn (even from such a few extracts). Firstly, based on these accounts, knee fetishes (and genuphilia paraphilias) genuinely exist. (I would also argue that the existence of dedicated websites such as The Knee Pit Gallery also suggest there is an audience and niche market for sexualized knee enthusiasts). Secondly, it appears that both men and women may have this fetish/paraphilia. Thirdly, it appears that genuphilia may occur within different sexual orientations (i.e., heterosexual and homosexual). Fourthly, it appears that genuphilia may overlap with other more established sexual paraphilias (such as hand, leg and foot fetishes [podophilia]). Finally, it would appear that childhood experiences may be critical in explaining the etiology of gunuphilia. The most detailed extract appears to suggest that the sexual liking for knees may be explained by conditioning processes (i.e., classical conditioning). I seriously doubt we’ll see academic research on genuphilia any time soon but that doesn’t mean it’s not a genuine sexual fetish/paraphilia.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Molay, J. (2011). Crossdreamers, April 1. Located at: http://www.crossdreamers.com/2011/04/paraphiliphilia-makes-it-into-dsm-5.html

Cuddly more: Plushophilia revisited

In a previous blog I briefly looked at plushophilia. In his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices, Dr. Anil Aggrawal defines plushophilia as a “sexual attraction to stuffed toys or people in animal costume, such as theme park characters”. However, as I also noted in my previous blog, other online sources simply define plushophilia as a sexual paraphilia involving stuffed animals. Sexual and pornographic activities involving animal anthropomorphism (including plushophilia), is known among the plushophile community as ‘yiffing’. Plushophiles are often referred to as plushies, although as I noted in a previous blog on the Furry Fandom, the term can also refer to stuffed animal enthusiasts who have no sexual interest at all (i.e., people who just love cuddly toys).

Regular readers of my blog will know that in 2014, I was the resident psychologist on 12-episode television series called Forbidden made for the Discovery Channel. One of the stories that the series reported on concerned Dr. Peter Banki, a plushophile who appeared in the ‘Odd Man Out’ episode. Before I was interviewed for the story, I had to research the story and was also given some production notes as background material.

According to the material I was provided with, Banki has a PhD in German Philosophy and is a member of the Philosophy Research Initiative at the University of Western Sydney (In Australia), where he lectured and tutored in the School of Humanities and Languages. He is also the founder and host of ‘Schwelle’, a non-profit-organization that offers unusual and experimental workshops promoting a ‘different intellectual and sexual culture.’ He is also the curator of ‘Xplore’, an annual sex education event. He lives with his girlfriend and is currently living off profits from the festival and taking Shibari Rope classes at home in Bondi (Shibari is a form of Japanese rope bondage). His hobbies were listed as including cross-dressing, sex education, and reading. The production notes also informed me that:

“Peter Banki has lectured to hundreds of university students. He’s a fully-grown eloquent and intelligent man but he also plays with stuffed toys. In fact Peter sees himself as an advocate for plush play enthusiasts or ‘plushies’ as they’re called. What most would interpret as childish nonsense, Peter sees as a form of self-expression and a creative outlet. With 40 odd animals in his collection, each with their own invented character, profession and history, Peter has created his own fantasy world. His plushies are very important, ‘My close friends all know about it, some of them I even involve in playtime with the animals. But generally I only share this world with people I trust.’ He’s not completely secret about his pastime though. He’s given theatrical performances creating voices and characters for stuffed toys to demonstrate to audiences what plush play is all about”.

Dr. Banki claimed he had been obsessed with plushies ever since he was a child when he would get his parents to talk to his toys. 

“It’s something I’ve always done. I once tried to give it up to keep a girlfriend but I couldn’t do it. I got too depressed”.

Instead of trying to repress his urges Dr. Banki embraces it. He regularly sleeps with the toys. Although Dr. Banki is heterosexual he admitted that he’s not a typical man.

“Being a man I think implies being an adult and strong and responsible. When I play with the plushy animals I think I’m like a little boy.”

The programme presented Dr. Banki as what the production notes described as a “quirky dichotomy”. On one hand, he’s a cultured academic, an adult who lectures and curates festivals. On the other, he’s a naughty child that plays with cuddly toys. Banki has created a fantasy world, something that he cultivated from his vivid imagination. Sometimes his behaviour involves erotic role-playing games. It’s the polarity that the documentary wanted to capture (something that Dr. Banki liked the idea of).

On screen, Peter is filmed sitting in his lounge watching television, and relaxing. He casually mentions that there’s no fun when it’s all work and no play, that he enjoys a little downtime with his ‘friends’. The camera then pulls out to a wider screenshot and reveals his furry plush toy friends sitting either side of him on the couch and on the floor. Peter introduces each and every plush toy friend and describes each toy’s back-story. He explained that some of his plush toys are in monogamous relationships, some are in naughty adulterous relationships, and that others are polyamorous. The production notes highlighted that:

“We see how his plush toy relationships manifest into the day-to day. He plays with them on the couch, on the floor of the lounge room, in the laundry, at the dining table, on his balcony/yard and baths them. We see a series of moments where the plush toys are passive participants: he prepares lunch, they’re watching; he works at his desk, they’re watching; he hangs his washing on the line, they’re watching from all the way the balcony. Peter even enjoys the odd social outing with his toys. We see him playing hide and seek in the park, pushing them on the swings”.

Dr. Banki also enjoys playing with other plushie enthusiasts. The documentary filmed other plushies playing with their stuffed animals during Banki’s Plush toy workshop at the Xplore Festival. Bankie also showed the programme makers the ‘Plush Toy Animal Collective’ Facebook page and described their various outings such as dinners and speed dating nights. One of his toys (‘Bunny Junior’, described as an old style Marxist) even has his very own Facebook page featuring photos of his Shibari rope therapy.

Banki was also filmed on his way to buy a new plush toy to add to his collection. He put three of his animal ‘friends’ into the back of his car and put on their seatbelts. He then goes to a restaurant and has dinner with all his plush toys at the table with him. The notes I was given provide a useful case summary:

“Dr Peter Banki has always played with Plush Animals. He used to ask his parents to talk to them and they would invent stories. He carried this play onto adulthood. They were always played with in a more intimate environment with people in the bedroom. Now Peter shares his play with the public and with friends. They go to restaurants, they go to parties. The Plush animals have names, some speak German, some speak French, Junior the rabbit, for instance, is an old style Marxist labor leader. As Peter grew older, the animals developed sexual relationships: some are straight, some are homosexual and some like to be spanked. For Peter, it’s a way of saying things that can’t be expressed otherwise. After simulating sexual play, Peter says he feels really exposed, but in a good way”.

Given the lack of research into plushophilia, case studies such as Dr. Banki give us an insight to the life of a plushophile. We don’t know how representative Dr. Banki is of other plushophiles but at least his story is out there.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

FoxWolfie Galen’s Plushie Page (2012). Definitions. Located at: http://www.velocity.net/~galen/furrydef.html

Gerbasi, K. C., Paolone, N., Higner, J., Scaletta, L. L., Bernstein, P. L., Conway, S., & Privitera, A. (2008). Furries from A to Z (anthropomorphism to zoomorphism). Society & Animals, 16(3), 197-222.

Hill, D. (2000). Cuddle time: In the world of plushophiles, not all stuffed animals are created equal. Salon, June 19. Located at: http://www.salon.com/2000/06/19/plushies/

Wiki Fur (2015). Animal totem. Located at: http://en.wikifur.com/wiki/Animal_totem

Wiki Fur (2015). Plushophilia. Located at: http://en.wikifur.com/wiki/Plushophilia

Hoard focus: A brief overview of Diogenes Syndrome

In a previous blog on animal hoarding I made a passing reference to Diogenes Syndrome (DS) that is sometimes referred to as ‘senile squalor syndrome’ (as it typically occurs in elderly individuals – although it has occasionally been reported in young adults). According to a paper by Alberto Pertusa and colleagues in a 2010 issue of Clinical Psychology Review:

“Squalor has been defined in various ways including, ‘social breakdown of the elderly’, ‘Diogenes syndrome’ and ‘severe domestic squalor’…These definitions have usually encompassed both domestic neglect and a lack of personal hygiene…The majority of case observations and studies on squalor have focused on elderly populations recruited from nursing or disability services…These studies initially suggested that those living in squalor were likely to be over the age of 60, primarily female, living alone and unmarried…Hypotheses on the etiology of squalor have moved from the phenomenon possibly being uni-dimensional to having heterogeneous causes such as physical disabilities, brain damage, psychiatric conditions, and personality disorders…A study on squalor reported the prevalence to be 0.005% in the United Kingdom”.

Hoarding is often a consequence of having DS but is associated with self-neglect and much of the items excessively hoarded are typically items of trash with little or no value. Like animal hoarders, those with DS often live on their own in severe domestic squalor and unsanitary conditions. As I noted in my previous blog, DS is characterized by extreme self-neglect, apathy, domestic squalor, social withdrawal, compulsive hoarding of rubbish, and lack of shame. Most sufferers refuse help of others and the onset of DS may sometimes be initiated by a stressful event in their lives (such as death of a loved one). According to a 2013 paper on DS by Dr. Projna Biswas and colleagues in the journal Case Reports in Dermatological Medicine:

“DS is named after the Greek Philosopher “Diogenes of Sinope” (4th century BC) who taught about cynicism philosophy. He kept his need for clothing and food to a minimum by begging. He used to follow some ideas like ‘life according to nature’, ‘self-sufficiency’, ‘freedom from emotion’, ‘lack of shame’, ‘outspokenness’, and ‘contempt for social organization’…The approximate annual incidence of Diogenes is 0.05% in people over the age of 60 [years]. Affected individuals come from any socioeconomic status, but are usually of average or above-average intelligence…It is often associated with other mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, mania, and frontotemporal dementia…While no clear etiology exists, it is hypothesized that it may be due to a stress reaction in people with certain pre-morbid personality traits, such as being aloof, or certain personality disorders, such as schizotypal or obsessive compulsive personality disorder. There are suggestions that an orbitofrontal brain lesion may lead to such behaviours…while others state that chronic mania symptoms, such as poor insight, can lead to such a condition”.

DS was not included separately in the latest (fifth) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) although hoarding (syllogomania) is included as a genuine psychiatric diagnosis. Because of deliberate self-isolation, physical neglect and poor eating, DS mortality rates are high with close to half of sufferers dying within five years of DS onset. Biswas and colleagues also note:

“Diogenes syndrome is also known as dermatitis passivata. The term Diogenes syndrome was coined in 1975 by [Clark and colleagues]…DS has been classified as primary or pure which is not associated with mental illness and secondary or symptomatic. Secondary DS is related to mental illness like schizophrenia, depression, and dementia…Alcohol abuse has been identified as a cofactor…Multiple deficiency states have been associated with DS including iron, folate, vitamin B12, vitamin C, calcium and vitamin D, serum proteins and albumin, water, and potassium…Skin lesions are mainly due to uncleanliness which may result in various infestations and infections. These are ignored by the patient. Dirt, dust, bacterial, fungal, and parasitic debris conglomerate to form thick crusts and scales over various parts of the body”.

The paper by Biswas and colleagues’ asserted that four symptoms have been reported as being in almost all DS sufferers. These are that they: (i) never ask for any help despite possessing nothing; (ii) are unusually fond of certain objects (including rubbish); (iii) display unusual behavior with other people (misanthropy) and (iv) display extreme self-neglect. Although hoarding is often present in those with DS, there have been some cases reported where no hoarding was present. In their 2010 review paper, Dr. Pertusa and colleagues noted:

“Research on hoarding has rarely included assessments of severe domestic squalor. Winsberg et al. (1999) noted that clutter inhibited normal activities of daily living – including personal hygiene. A few studies have provided more direct indications of squalor in hoarding. [one study in 2000] surveyed health department officers in Massachusetts who reported that 38% of their hoarding cases were ‘heavily cluttered with filthy environment, overwhelming’. [Another study] focused on cleanliness ratings of the personal appearance and the homes of 62 elderly hoarding individuals. In their sample, 17% of individuals were described as ‘extremely filthy’ and 33% of residences were rated as ‘extremely filthy and dirty’. For 32% of the residences, there was an overpowering odor from rotten food or animal or human feces. Many subjects could not use their refrigerator (45%), kitchen sink (42%), bathtub (42%), or toilet (10%). Lack of standardized instruments to measure squalor have prevented researchers from understanding squalor in compulsive hoarding”.

Dr. Pertusa and his colleagues claim the data on DS is scarce and that the clinical picture between hoarding and DS needs more clinical research. They do conclude that hoarding within a DS diagnosis is clinically different from other types of hoarding (for instance, compulsive hoarders do not display the same core features as those with DS such as squalor and self-neglect). Like many other clinical conditions, Pertusa’s team assert that longitudinal studies will best help uncovering the natural history and link (if any) between both DS and compulsive hoarding.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Biswas, P., Ganguly, A., Bala, S., Nag, F., Choudhary, N., & Sen, S. (2013). Diogenes syndrome: a case report. Case reports in dermatological medicine, http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2013/595192

Clark, A. N., Mankikar, G. D., & Gray, I. (1975). Diogenes syndrome. A clinical study of gross neglect in old age. Lancet, 1(7903), 366−368.

Drummond, L.M., Turner, J., Reid, S. (1996). Diogenes’ syndrome – a load of old rubbish? Irish Journal of Psychiatric Medicine, 14(3), 99–102.

Greve, K.W., Curtis, K.L., & Bianchini, K.J. (2004). Personality disorder masquerading as dementia: A case of apparent Diogenes syndrome. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 19, 703–705

Irvine, J. D., & Nwachukwu, K. (2014). Recognizing Diogenes syndrome: a case report. BMC Research Notes, 7(1), 276.

Pertusa, A., Frost, R.O., Fullana, M.A., Samuels, J., Steketee, G., Tolin, D., Saxena, S., Leckman, J.F., Mataix-Cols, D. (2010). Refining the diagnostic boundaries of compulsive hoarding: A critical review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 371-386.

Rosenthal, M., Stelian, J., & Wagner, J. (1999). Diogenes syndrome and hoarding in the elderly: Case reports. Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 36, 29–34.

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