Crackpot File Revisited

Regular readers of this blog might recall that I have a file in my desk that is the repository of all the half-baked pseudo-scientific crackpot ideas that I have come across in the course of my research and filed under ‘C’. My Crackpot File, I am pleased to report, is the very picture of health, growing plumper by the day, fed with fact-sheets on mesmerism, galvanism, snake-oil tonics, green tea awareness campaigns, and all manner of bunkum. Given the amount I have crammed into its increasingly strained binders over the years, I was most excited to at last have occasion to remove a page. This came about a month ago, when a piece appeared in Science Alert reporting on ‘new’ neuroscientific research indicating that magnetic stimulation of the brain can reset unhealthy activity in the right anterior insula of the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that is known to be overactive in patients with depression. The full article can be found here:

Something about it rang a bell and I started searching through my papers until I came across my notes on Dr Joseph Babinski (1857-1932). Babinski left a legacy to mainstream medicine, lending his name to the reflex known as the ‘Babinski sign’, where the big toes moves upwards upon stimulation of the sole of the foot. This is still used today to test normal responses in infants. Other experiments he conducted, however, led me to relegate him unfairly to the depths of the Crackpot File, namely his work in the short-lived practice of metallotherapy, much in vogue during the later decades of the nineteenth century and led by researchers from the famous French asylum, the Salpêtrière. Their reasoning was based upon the fact that when metals are placed in contact with moist skin, a chemical reaction results which stimulates the nervous system to produce slight electrical currents. This led to radical treatments of hysterical patients by conducting charges through their bodies by way of metallic plates. The fad prompted some with nervous dispositions to wear these plates about their persons, and women with hysterical tendencies to seek solace in bathtubs filled with rusty pieces of scrap iron. Ingesting gold was theorised to fortify the nerves by effecting a similar process internally, but it was Babinski who made the most outlandish claims for the treatment. His experiments in magnetic transmission involved two hysterics who both suffered from hemianesthesia – the loss of sensation in either lateral half of the body. Babinski seated his patients back to back and reported that he was able to use a magnet to transfer their conditions, so that one patient would have complete sensation, while the other would be fully anesthetised.

BabinskiJoseph Babinski (1857-1932)

In the full flush of enthusiasm for his discovery, Babinski suggested a number of applications for his process, proposing that it might be possible to transfer hysteria to another body altogether, such as that of a pig (the ideal subject to infect with hysteria since, one way or another, it would eventually be cured). Babinski ultimately tried to distance himself from these claims, but in the light of the latest research, it seems he may have been closer to the mark than even he suspected. Although far-fetched, his is part of an ongoing scientific and imaginative exploration of the currents that flow through the human body, which may be altered or mediated by various chemicals, metals, or medical technologies. I salute you, Dr Babinski. Please accept my most humble apologies for ever having filed you under C!

Melissa Dickson

File it Under C…

There is a folder in my desk-drawer at the moment, one of several containing the fruits of months of research into various aspects of nineteenth-century science and disease. This particular file, however, seems to increase in girth disproportionately quickly when compared to the others. Whenever I come across a page destined to be crammed into this ungainly, overstuffed behemoth, I can’t help but sigh and think again the same thought: my goodness, there are some loonies out there. This is the folder I use when I need to file something under Crackpots.

Peeking from the top of my folder at the moment are some pages on the work of the German psychiatrist Johann Christian Reil, one of the most eminent medical scientists of his day, the founder of several medical journals, and the preferred physician of, amongst others, Goethe and Schilling, who in 1803 proposed the ‘music’ of a katzenclavier as an efficient means of arousing catatonic patients. This instrument would be constructed by first determining the usual yowling pitch of a number of cats, lining them up accordingly, and then stretching out their tails over them a keyboard with a sharpened nail under each key. ‘A fugue played on this instrument… when the ill person is so placed that he cannot miss the expressions on their faces and the play of these animals,’ Reil believed, ‘must bring Lot’s wife herself from her fixed state into conscious awareness.’ All of a sudden, Monty Python’s Mouse Organ seems less preposterous.


Illustration of a Cat Piano, from La Nature (1883)

It has happened, though, that an initially bizarre notion has eventually been demonstrated to be in fact accurate. Ernst Chaldni, whose research into acoustic waves (mentioned in an earlier post) lead to major discoveries in the theory of sound, was also the first seriously to suggest the extra-terrestrial origin of meteorites. His claims were severely ridiculed on their first publication, only later to be proven right on the money.

Beyond doubt, most other researchers in the history of science in any given period will have a similarly bulging, bemusing file tucked away somewhere like mine. Crackpottery is a long and rich tradition, and the difference between crackpot and genius is frequently only a matter of perspective. Galileo, Louis Pasteur, John Logie Baird, and Christian Doppler were regarded variously as charlatans, sorcerers, madmen, or incompetents before mainstream science caught up with them.

When you think about it, it starts to seem like Crackpottery may be a vital part of discovery. Science is an essentially imaginative, creative undertaking, an endless sifting through of unknowable and un-provable possibilities in search of one genuine revelation. In these days of scarcity, as funding for research becomes progressively more difficult to come by, truly bonkers research is – for better or for worse – under threat. I almost feel sorry that no academic institution has yet decided to sink serious money into investigating Time Cube Theory, which, in a slight departure from more traditional ideas in physics, postulates that every day as we experience it is in fact four days occurring simultaneously. This hypothesis regularly tops lists of wacky pseudoscientific thought, edging out creationism, flat-earth theory, and homeopathy.

Time Cube Theory

While I cannot honestly envision the ultimate vindication of Time-Cubism any more than I can a world with a katzenclavier in every psych-ward, I do wonder whether any of the weirdos currently residing in my Crackpot file might not really be geniuses still waiting for their hour to come round at last. In 1807, for example, in Germany, one Peter Lichtenthal published The Musical Physician, in which he correlated each note of the scale with a specific psychological state of mind. Thus, C-sharp denoted innocence and naiveté, while B-flat was rather more cranky and melancholic. Lichtenthal believed that music could be used to alleviate everything from catalepsy to monomania, and he was adamant that in depth musical training should form a part of the physician’s general medical education, for command of these keys would enable the physician to work towards fine-tuning the minds of patients and working to counteract the diseased influences on their states of being. Uh-huh…

Then again, isn’t it just possible that Lichtenthal was on to something after all? We now know that different ‘coloured’ noises – white noise, brown noise, pink noise – can produce distinct psychological effects. And isn’t it also possible that research into the psychic tuning has been conducted secretly by the CIA at Area 51 for years because they want to use it in warfare? Perhaps we should not be so quick to dismiss those revolutionary announcements that emerge from the fringes of science and research without first giving them due investigation. The vindicated crackpot may be rare, but not all crazy ideas are crazy. After all, flying machines, dark matter, and quasicrystals, and rocket-powered space ships were all reviled and fantastical daydreams in their time.

Melissa Dickson