Monday, May 30, 2011

Queen "Bloody" Mary - Victim or fanatic?

The daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Queen Mary the 1st was just as controversial as her parent’s marriage. Also called Bloody Mary, the Queen Mary Tudor, managed to become one of the most gruesome leaders. She was determined to return England from its protestant faith to the traditional catholic faith.

She married Philip, Prince of Spain on 25 July 1554 and soon rumors started about her pregnancy. She was 37 years old at the time and her husband was ten years her junior.
Unfortunately, there was no pregnancy although Queen Mary showed many of the symptoms: she stopped menstruating, had nausea, and gained weight. It is supposed to have been a phantom pregnancy where all the clinical symptoms associated with pregnancy appear due to cortical, hypothalamic, endocrine or psychogenic factors. Other historians believed that she had fibroid tumors, but the doctors at that time had no knowledge of this.  

It seems that after this pregnancy her husband became reluctant to show affection to her and that might have caused her being so bitter and furious in her punishment of heretics.

She executed approximately 300 Protestants in a manner that was seen as cruel even in those times, burning at the stake.

An example of Mary’s cruelty is shown by her reaction to John Hooper’s (the Bishop of Worcester) execution; his executioner used green wood to burn him at the stake, making Hooper suffer for an hour before dying. When Mary heard the news about his extreme suffering she said that it must have been God’s will.

Sources say that she also burned a pregnant woman at the stake and it seems that she gave birth during her execution, but it’s unlikely to have happened.

Either on the 17th or the 27th July she was condemned as a heretic, and burnt at the stake. She was strangled beforehand but the rope broke. Whilst on the stake she gave birth to a boy and one eyewitness (a ‘W. House’) initially saved the baby but the bailiff, Helier Gosselin, insisted that it too should die. As a consequence the infant was thrust into the flames.

She also executed the 9 days Queen, Lady Jane Grey and her husband. The following is a description of their death:

His [Guildford's] carcase thrown into a cart, and his head in a cloth, he was brought to the chapel within the Tower, where the Lady Jane, whose lodging was in Partidge's house, did see his dead carcase taken out of the cart, as well as she did see him before alive on going to his death - a sight to her no less than death. By this time was there a scaffold made upon the green over against the White Tower, for the said Lady Jane to die upon.... 
 The hangman went to her to help her therewith; then she desired him to let her alone, and also with her other attire and neckercher, giving to her a fair handkercher to knit about her eyes.
Then the hangman kneeled down, and asked her forgiveness, whom she gave most willingly.  Then he willed her to stand upon the straw: which doing, she saw the block.  Then she said, 'I pray you dispatch me quickly.'  Then she kneeled down, saying, 'Will you take it off before I lay me down?' and the hangman answered her, 'No, madame.'  She tied the kercher about her eyes; then feeling for the block said, 'What shall I do?  Where is it?'  One of the standers-by guiding her thereto, she laid her head down upon the block, and stretched forth her body and said: 'Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!'  And so she ended.
 Her second false pregnancy was the object of even more ridicule from people.
At the age of 42, Mary became convinced again that she was pregnant. She wasn't, and after her pregnancy began “fading” she got sick. She died of influenza and made Elizabeth her heir at the throne.

Historians say that Mary showed signs of endocrine problems since she had some menstrual problems and a fragile health when she was young. Before judging Mary we should remember her past: her parents divorced, she lost her princess status at a very young age, she was not allowed to see her mother even when the latter died, she was obliged by her father to be the maid of his mistress’ child, and her only comfort was her catholic religion. There is no doubt that her troubled childhood and the stress she had to suffer influenced her personality and behavior as a queen.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Red Riding Hood - A story about sexuality?

The Little Red Riding Hood, a story we all remember from our childhood, but it seems that there’s more to be discovered about it, especially when it comes to human psychology. There are many versions of our favorite tale: in one, the girl doesn’t escape after being eaten by the wolf, in other versions she is rescued by a hunter or woodcutter in the woods along with her grandma. What’s interesting about it, is the fact that there are several Red Riding Hood stories in the world. You can read one of the earliest versions in this amazing essay.  (this version includes her stripping and going to bed with the wolf). Also, we can see that medieval fascination about werewolves played a big part in a lot of tales. It seems that some men were convicted for being werewolves just as women were for witchcraft.

The story appeared in Charles Perraut’s collection of fairy tales Histoires et contes du temps passé, avec des moralités. Contes de ma mère l'Oye and he states at the end : 

Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say "wolf," but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.

Even this remark makes us think that Red Ridding Hood is not what we were taught to believe.
Anthropologists argue that the Red Riding Hood is actually a story about sexual predators. Professor Jack Zipes says:

Little Red Riding Hood is about violation or rape, and I suspect that humans were just as violent in 600BC as they are today, so they will have exchanged tales about all types of violent acts.

There are several symbols in the story and the most prominent is the red cape.
Some authors believe that the red cape is a symbol of sexuality or reaching adulthood as a woman (menstrual blood).

The wolf could also be a metaphor for a man who wants to abuse the innocent girl; it can also be a symbol of other immoral distractions from “the right path”. Also, the fact that the wolf invites the girl into the bed with him might support this assumption.

Image taken from here.

Although a somehow macabre story, The Little Red Riding Hood shows important elements of collective psychology (and opinions that were generally shared by people in those times): young unaware girls can be easily fooled, the mysterious forest(perhaps a symbol of life) is full of temptations and danger, acting against the elder’s advice might lead to disastrous consequences, a woman’s struggle to keep her innocence, and the fact that strangers can be deceiving.

For a politically correct Little Red Riding Hood you can check out this link. :)

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Serotonin is a neurotransmitter linked to depression, especially medium or mild intensity depression. Serotonin levels drop during depression, so most antidepressants are build in the most selective manner. There are pills that react with presynaptic 5 HT 1A receptors.  They prevent the reuptake of serotonin by the presynaptic neuron, thus maintaining higher levels of 5-HT in the synapse. SSRI treatment (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) is the first step in depression treatment. Here we have: Fluoxetine (our classic Prozac), Sertaline (Zoloft, another classic), Paroxetine, Fluvoxamine and Citalopram. Other medication reacts with postsynaptic receptors, and others on both groups. Their success is influenced by how they managed to increase the serotonin levels necessary for nerve impulse.

Serotonin and types of depression

When it comes to depression, the type that starts with low serotonin levels is an anxious depression with psychomotor agitation, frequent crying, irritability, irascibility, and a patient that will still struggle to get out of this state. There is no pathology at the cognitive level (perhaps some attention and concentration difficulties).

When we discuss about major depression, we must add that it is associated, besides low serotonin levels, with low noradrenaline levels. Some of the symptoms are: psychomotor inhibition, severe cognitive deficiencies, weight loss, oversleeping, even athymhormia.

Psychotic depression (appears in 15% of people who suffer from major depression). Symptoms include: auditory and visual hallucinations and delusional thinking (mood congruent delusions like paranoid delusions, delusions of guilt, delusions of persecution), thoughts of death, etc. As for neurotransmitters, besides serotonin and noradrenaline issues, there is a high increase of dopamine, which can be treated with narcoleptics or typical antipsychotics.

More on serotonin:
Picture taken from here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Understanding and categorization

Categorization is the process of recognizing, differentiating, and understanding objects. This means that the subject will combine and compare sensorial information with earlier information, already in memory. From this point of view, we can define understanding as an input function as well as an activated knowledge. One should not see this process as passive but more as an active process that builds understanding from input and using its activated knowledge. People understand information when they are capable to give it a more general meaning.

The understanding process needs to be capable of using knowledge at a more general level as well as the incomplete information (which usually needs more processing in order to eliminate confusion). Most of this processing is done at a subconscious level.

Verbal Understanding (discourse comprehension)

We first learn to understand simple words, then words become sentences, sentences become paragraphs, and ultimately we are able to understand a general idea that comes from a whole chapter.

Discourse comprehension is characterized by Van Dijk and Kintsch through the following representations:

1 – microstructure: it contains a literal understanding of the text(a very basic understanding)
2 – macrostructure: contains the text’s essence
3 – super-structure: it’s a rhetoric form or a certain style used in text
4 – situational model: a set of knowledge structures linked to the real meaning of the text

This model was tested in experiments and it can help us predict the length of an understanding process. 
To read more about this you can visit: this link and this link

Without categorization the world is an extremely confusing place. Man needs to group the stimuli in different categories; the elements become members of a class. Some of the benefits that come with categorization are: easy access to relevant information, ability to make predictions, etc.
What does categorization actually mean?

1 – grouping similar elements in the same category
Grouping can be done using physical or functional criteria. Physical criteria aim physical similarities between objects and form a category of similar objects.
If the objects serve a functional purpose during an activity we are using functional similarity as a categorization method. This may include physical subcategories. Regardless of the criteria used for categorization, the tendency should be to maximize the similarity inside the category and minimize the similarity between categories.

2 – coding our experience
Categories ease information access and process as we don’t use each object but a single category linked to many objects.
Any category is linked to other categories. Not all categories are as accessible and we tend to use more those with a more general level to ease the development of other cognitive processes.

Eleanor Rosch shows that there is a preference for a basic category. These basic categories are represented by one word in natural language (for example, flower, table, etc). These words have the highest frequency in spoken language and they were learned the earliest from an ontogenetic point of view. They are the most abstract categories that can be associated with a specific physical form 

3 – generating inferences
Classes of objects are the basis of inference and reason. The generative function of categorization appears in deductive reasoning as well as inductive reasoning. Through inductive and deductive reasoning one is able to predict certain behaviour.

Categories – a mental representation 

Experimental research shows that there is an alternative mental representation of categories, a prototype.
A concept and a prototype are symbolic representations. A concept is a definition that embraces necessary and sufficient characteristics for the existence of an object class. This definition establishes if an item belongs or not to a certain class.
The presence of a prototype indicates the fact that mental representation of categories is not only made through concept.

A prototype is one or more examples from a category that is given whenever somebody asks for an example from that specified category. These examples have the highest prototypical value.
An ideal prototype (but not a real one) shows all the characteristics of the category’s members (an average tendency).

For further information you can visit the websites I mentioned above.
Picture taken from here.


I'm not good at introductions, but then again, who is? What's this blog about? It's about the things I love, mainly social sciences: psychology, history, philosophy, etc. so if you share my interests I'm sure you will enjoy it.