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Phrenology, Criminal Insanity, Marshmallows: Cheiron, Day 1

Some highlights of the 2014 Cheiron Conference

I have the great pleasure of being within driving distance of Cheiron this year. It is a small and very supportive conference focused on the history of the behavioral and social sciences. "Psychology" certainly gets the plurality of talks, but many other disciplines are represented. Today was only a half day, but here are some of the highlights.

Michael Staub, from Baruch College, had an interesting talk about the famous "Marshmallow Experiments," in which we see if a child can delay eating a marshmallow (for a prolonged period of time in a boring setting), based on a promise of getting two marshmallows when the experimentor returned. Given the simplicity of the "experiment," it has proven a remarkably reliable predictor of future success. Staub situated the experiment in the context 1) of debates that began in the 1930s about whether poor people (often, African Americans) had trouble with impulse control because they were poor, or were poor because of their poor impulse control, and 2) speculation dating back to the 1940s that the strictness imposed on children in families could cause neuroticism and maladjustment, that is there was a general sociological consensus that reward delay was psychically harmful. Into this context Mischel introduced a notion of responsible self-control. His work was quickly connected with criminality (first by theory, and then by elaborate studies in the 1980s). Ultimately there are still interesting questions about how children get impulse control and how that perpetuates other patterns of behavior. 

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Courtney Thompson, from Yale's Department of History of Science and Medicine, gave a talk about the role of phrenology in creating our modern notion of legal insanity. It was a fascinating story. Phrenological analysis identified parts of areas associated with "animal" propensities. From that, a notion broadly known as "monomania," "partial insanity," or "moral insanity" emerged, in which a person knew what was wrong, but did wrong anyway (by virtue of their propensities). Isaac Ray, author of "Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity" was deeply involved in the phrenological community and his work became the standard work on the subject for many decades. Though the notion of legal insanity and the science of phrenology were clearly not inextricable, language related to phrenology was clearly visible in many important legal decisions, and we probably still retain some of this relic rhetoric today.

The latter talk was complemented by a talk about an Ontario Hospital (Pentanguishene) for the "criminally insane." Jennifer Bazar, from the University of Toronto and the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care, drew on the case files of the first hundred patients to try to put together a picture of everyday life in the asylum. Despite most of the inmates being there for murder, efforts were made to treat them simply as they would be treated in any other institution for the mentally ill. Mostly, they pulled this off, though the facility was smaller than most institutions of the day and had much tighter security. There was also interesting tensions between those who thought that someone insane could not, by definition, be a criminal, versus those who thought that that a judgement of insanity should lead to a presumption of criminal guilt. There were news articles about men happy to find out that they would be charged with murder as criminals rather than being ruled insane, despite the fact that the standard punishment for murder in Canada at the time was hanging! This was likely due to the social stigma associated with insanity, but might also be related to the fact that institutionalization was de facto a life sentence, as even someone later deemed sane would need the signature of the Lieutenant-Governor to be let free. The first man actually released ha been there 30 years later. There were several tragic stories, but often with bits of humor mixed in (one man wrote with an appeal to be released, saying basically "I have been here surrounded by the insane for 15 years and I am still sane, what better sign of stability could I have?"). Alas, there were too many great details about the first hundred for me to say much more here.

For all three of these, I look forward to seeing whatever paper or book results. More highlights tomorrow.

Eric Charles, Ph.D., runs the research lab at CTRL, the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, at American University.

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