Involuntary Visual Imagery

I’ve become interested in the topic of involuntary visual imagery because of my own recent experiences. After my partner died of cancer, I’ve had periodic episodes of involuntary visual imagery (akin to flashbacks) of traumatic events leading up to her death. I’ve also had images of places appear for no apparent reason. The places themselves are neutral, but in the context of loss they become fraught with distress. {As an aside, I have vivid auditory imagery of popular songs which can play in my head with high fidelity.}

Today I was reviewing a paper, with a song playing in my mind in the background (Save a Prayer by Duran Duran, which I had heard a few days before). It’s a sad song, but I was managing the workload just fine. Then an image of driving onto the on-ramp of the Second Narrows Bridge appeared in my head and totally derailed me1. The view wasn’t from the car, like I was driving, but more from above (a bird’s eye view), like a detached observer fixed in mid-air. It reminded me of all the travel to a city I may not see again (especially of all the trips back and forth during the last months).

Last week, I was writing a report at work, and suddenly a vivid image of standing across the street from the BC Cancer Agency appeared. My partner had 6 weeks of radiation there in 2015. This was even more upsetting, for obvious reasons.2

Derealization

This isn’t a new phenomenon for me, although the current level of distress is novel. I have very strong memories of significant places, and sometimes an image of a specific location from my past springs to mind for no apparent reason. These visual images can be accompanied by a sense of derealization, a subjective alteration in my perception of the outside world. Revisiting these old places from childhood was disorienting:

I went on this trip once, back to my hometown after a long absence. Have you ever felt that your surroundings seem odd and distant, and that you’re completely detached from them? That the things and places around you aren’t real? This can happen to me, on occasion.

It did on this trip, perhaps because I’ve dreamed about those places so many times that the real places and the dream places are blurred in memory.

Visual imagery can be an elusive phenomenon to study scientifically, but there’s a solid literature that I’ll eventually review. A recent fMRI experiment examined the neural correlates of visual imagery vividnesss, and the authors reviewed 11 previous papers on the topic (Fulford et al., 2018). An early study found that visual imagery ability may be associated with flashbacks in post-traumatic stress disorder (Bryant & Harvey, 1996). I recently speculated that individuals with both (the inability to form mental images) and PTSD must not have visual flashbacks.

Seven years ago, I wrote a grant that was mercilessly rejected (one of many); the only section of the proposal that the reviewers liked was on imagery. So I’ll retrieve that file, dust off the virtual cobwebs, and perhaps look at the approach with a fresh set of eyes (so to speak). A bleary set of eyes is more a more apt description…

 

ADDENDUM Jan 17 2019 (2:22AM): I didn’t mention that the image below came to mind while I was writing this post. These sorts of situations, when you’re preoccupied with doing something else like reading and writing, aren’t the most conducive conditions to voluntarily imagining a visual scene or recalling a visual autobiographical memory. And yet there it was, Phibbs Exchange, appearing without warning or conscious thought.

Question for the readers: Do any of you experience involuntary visual imagery, whether confined to visual images alone or incorporating other sensory modalities (e.g., hearing, smell, touch)?

 

Footnotes

1 We were in a long-distance relationship that involved travel between Vancouver and California. I’ve taken great pains to find images on Google Maps that are the closest to those conjured up by my mind.

2 She was told she was “cured” several months after that, which clearly was not the case. Imaging the liver in all those subsequent CT/MRI screenings was not part of their “protocol” (despite suspicious early results, and despite the fact that the liver is the most likely site of metastasis). So you can see why imagery of staring at that building was quite upsetting.

References

Bryant RA, Harvey AG. (1996). Visual imagery in posttraumatic stress disorder. J Trauma Stress. 9(3):613-9.

Fulford J, Milton F, Salas D, Smith A, Simler A, Winlove C, Zeman A. (2018). The neural correlates of visual imagery vividness–An fMRI study and literature review. Cortex 105:26-40.

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Derealization / Dying

Derealization is a subjective alteration in one’s perception or experience of the outside world. The pervasive unreality of the external environment is a key feature, along with emotional blunting. The world loses its vividness, coloring, and tone.

I’ve spent much of the last year walking around in a fog, hazy, underwater, under glass, where nothing is real. This isn’t happening.

My partner has end-stage cancer, and was transferred from Acute Care to the Palliative Care Ward about 3 weeks ago. I was standing there, just staring at her while she slept in a hospital bed, knowing where we were and who I was and yet, the scene was surreal. Detached from my real life. Like flowing curtains.

Then her psychiatrist walked in, and suddenly everything was real. I started sobbing at the horrible reality of what was happening, and what will happen.

People speak, I’ve no reply

I’m empty inside

But for the incessant screaming

Which refuses to subside

–Single Gun Theory, I’ve Been Dying

Less than a week later, she was transferred to hospice.

I’ve been dying a long time

Down on my knees

There’s no way out of here

I’ve been dying a long time

Can’t seem to pick up the pieces of my life

–Single Gun Theory, I’ve Been Dying

Single Gun Theory were an Australian band who sampled from myriad sources, including Robert Oppenheimer, Natalie Wood, spoken word samples recorded in India, Turkey, and Southeast Asia (e.g., Islamic call to prayer, recitation of the Qur’an, Indian female vocals), and The Twilight Zone.

Twelve months ago to the moment you destroyed yourself

Much as I told you you would

{sampled from The Silence, Season 2, Episode 25 of The Twilight Zone}

Nearly a year ago, Sandra was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. I tried for 7 months to enroll her in a clinical trial, to no avail. I wrote about how hard that was, and what was wrong with the cancer clinical trials systems in both the US and Canada.

[That] post [was] my own personalized rant about the false promises of personalized medicine. … It [was] about oncology, for very personal reasons: misery, frustration, and grief. After seven months of research on immunotherapy clinical trials, I couldn’t find a single one in either Canada or the US that would enroll my partner with stage 4 cancer. For arbitrary reasons, for financial reasons, because it’s not the “right” kind of cancer, because the tumor’s too rare, because it’s too common, because of unlisted exclusionary criteria, because one trial will not accept the genomic testing done for another trial. Because of endless waiting and bureaucracy.

But somehow, I’ll have to go on without her. Sandra was very active in suicide prevention efforts on social media, as @unsuicide and with her Online Suicide Help wiki so there you go.

September 10 was World Suicide Prevention Day, and Dr. Erin Michalak of CREST.BD wrote a touching tribute to Sandra’s work.

Sandra Dawson’s Legacy

. . .

Most significantly, Sandra created the Unsuicide directory of online and mobile crisis supports, as well as a popular corresponding Twitter feed (@Unsuicide) with close to 25,000 followers. Her Unsuicide online supports are authentically grounded in her lived experience of bipolar disorder, but also unfailingly focused on helping people, regardless of their geography, to access credible and safe online and mobile support tools. In 2016, she was awarded the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers from the Governor General of Canada in acknowledgement of the impact of her work as an advocate for people facing mental health challenges and in suicide prevention.

Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable

It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don’t know, I’ll never know: in the silence you don’t know.

You must go on.

I can’t go on.

I’ll go on.

Slogans for Liberals in the Trump Era

slogans_small signs of normality.png
quote from Autocracy: Rules for Survival, by Masha Gessen.

My previous post on October 27 featured the Inflammatory Essays of Jenny Holzer (1979-1982).

REJOICE! OUR TIMES ARE INTOLERABLE

FEAR IS THE MOST ELEGANT WEAPON

THE END OF THE U.S.A.

Then the unthinkable happened. Some of these scenarios actually came true on November 8, 2016. Trump is appointing white nationalists and right wing hard-liners to key posts in his administration. Like many others, I’m still in a state of shock.

Inspired by Holzer’s Truisms (1978-1983), Canadian writer and visual artist Douglas Coupland created Slogans for the 21st Century (2011-2014).

i-miss-my-pre-internet-brain

These were featured in a show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, which I wrote about in my main blog (Welcome to Douglas Coupland’s Brain).

The recent ugly turn of events has inspired me to create Slogans for Liberals in the Trump Era, based on Coupland’s designs. Some of the slogans were made up by me, others taken from recent news stories and credited as such.

slogans_NOSTALGIA BUSH.png

Steve Bannon is truly scary:

‘Darkness is good’

Washington (CNN). Steve Bannon has no regrets.

The ex-Breitbart executive, who serves as Trump’s chief strategist for the new administration, told The Hollywood Reporter that “darkness is good.”
“Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they (liberals) get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing,” he said in an interview published Friday, his first outside of Breitbart since the election.


slogans_how do you like your disruption.png
quote from Silicon Valley Helped Create Trump, and That’s Bad for It, by Noam Cohen.

slogans_identity liberalism.png
quote from The End of Identity Liberalism, by Mark Lilla. I do not agree and thought it was a terrible essay.

slogans_identity politics1.png

slogans_identity politics2.png

Trump doesn’t seem to like the NIH, which is very alarming to scientists:

…I can tell you, because I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.

slogans_NIH.png
Feel free to use this sign on social media and around the lab (along with any of the others).  Proper credit would be appreciated.

slogans_NOSTALGIA REAGAN.png

FORCE ANXIETY TO EXCRUCIATING LEVELS OR GENTLY UNDERMINE THE PUBLIC CONFIDENCE

“Fear is the most elegant weapon, your hands are never messy”

Many people are familiar with Jenny Holzer‘s Truisms (1978-1983), but fewer know about her Inflammatory Essays (1979-1982). Amid the surreal reality show that is the 2016 US Presidential election, Holzer’s words from 35 years ago ring true today.

REJOICE! OUR TIMES ARE INTOLERABLE.

[no title] 1979-82 by Jenny Holzer born 1950 [no title] 1979–82

 

[no title] 1979-82 by Jenny Holzer born 1950 [no title] 1979–82

 

MEANINGLESS PLATITUDES WILL BE PULLED FROM TONGUES AND MINDS

[no title] 1979-82 by Jenny Holzer born 1950 [no title] 1979–82

 

THE END OF THE U.S.A.

[no title] 1979-82 by Jenny Holzer born 1950[no title] 1979–82

Opium for Separation Distress in Victorian-era Infants

Infant's Delight Mother's Joy

“I haven’t heard that morphine or buprenorphine is recommended for human babies who cry persistently and excessively,” I declared in a post about Opioid Drugs for Mental Anguish on my main blog.

Silly me! In a comment on the post, Ray Davis said…

An earlier generation of field-researchers found it quite (and sometimes permanently) effective: http://www.victorianweb.org/science/health/health4.html

The article on Opium and Infant Mortality states:

Medical officers were convinced that one of the major causes of infant mortality was the widespread practice of giving children narcotics, especially opium, to quieten them. At 1d an ounce laudanum was cheap enough — about the price of a pint of beer — and its sale was totally unregulated unitl late in the century.

Indeed, the New York Times of 1879 reported a terrible opium poisoning that caused the death of a one year old child.

Opium - The Cause of a Child's Death

 

There were other dangerous “soothing” products of the day with quaint and reassuring ads. One can imagine that administration of these potions was not limited to teething and bowel complaints. The U.S. National Library of Medicine has a lovely collection of these.

Baby Ease

 

The Quack Doctor has a great post on Atkinson & Barker’s Royal Infants’ Preservative, which “has been acknowledged the best medicine in the world.” Ingredients included 1 dr. Laudanum, an old-timey tincture of opium.

Atkinson's and Barker's Royal Infants Preservative

Six drops of this fine medicine was enough to kill a six week old baby in 1886.

Lest you think that in the modern era, we know better than to poison our children with such foolish remedies, there was a recall of a dangerous product in 2009. The recall was “in response to a reported case of potassium bromide poisoning in an infant, associated with the use of a locally purchased teething product.”

The name of this product? Monell’s Teething Cordial (Cordial de Monell para la Dentición).

Monell's teething cordial 2009

I’m a Lumberjack

Image

The eighth and final season of the hit series Dexter took a scientific look at serial killers. Dr. Evelyn Vogel, a neuropsychiatrist who wrote the definitive book on the brains of psychopaths, consulted with Miami Metro Homicide on a series of unusual cases. The killer would saw open the skull and scoop out the “empathetic” part of the brain (the anterior insula) with a melon baller. The most brutal of these murders occurred while the victim was alive and awake.

Dr. Vogel was ultimately killed by the “Brain Surgeon” who turned out to be her own psychopathic son (presumed dead for over 25 years; he faked his death by starting a fire in the asylum where he was housed).

But now the show has ended in a most unsatisfying way. The reasons for this are succinctly captured in the tweet below. Our favorite serial killer lives on, but in an unexpectedly isolated and self-punishing way after (you guessed it) faking his own death and moving far away from his son and girlfriend.

In an interview, Jennifer Carpenter, the actress who played Dexter’s sister Deb, had this to say about the end of the series (where her character dies due to a horrible mistake in her brother’s judgment):

“I’m picturing an older model television where you have to get up to turn the TV off and then it slips into that tiny little dot until it’s all gone — that’s what I feel like is happening to me.”

It’s a great interview from an actress who got better and better as the series progressed. I always thought of Deb as the most traumatized woman on television.

Finally, here’s an alternate ending from an executive producer who left the show after four seasons:

“In the very last scene of the series,” Philips explained, “Dexter wakes up. And everybody is going to think, ‘Oh, it was a dream.’ And then the camera pulls back and back and back and then we realize, ‘No, it’s not a dream.’ Dexter’s opening his eyes and he’s on the execution table at the Florida Penitentiary. They’re just starting to administer the drugs and he looks out through the window to the observation gallery.

“And in the gallery are all the people that Dexter killed—including the Trinity Killer and the Ice Truck Killer (his brother Rudy), LaGuerta who he was responsible killing, Doakes who he’s arguably responsible for, Rita, who he’s arguably responsible for, Lila. All the big deaths, and also whoever the weekly episodic kills were. They are all there.

“That’s what I envisioned for the ending of Dexter. That everything we’ve seen over the past eight seasons has happened in the several seconds from the time they start Dexter’s execution to the time they finish the execution and he dies.  Literally, his life flashed before his eyes as he was about to die. I think it would have been a great, epic, very satisfying conclusion.”