November 30, 2001

Hypnotic study inspired ghost

For half a century, scholars have debated the origins of Henry James's ghost story The Turn of the Screw . But a new study suggests that a crucial influence on this supernatural novella could have been overlooked.

Elisabeth Wadge, a scholar at Newnham College, Cambridge, believes James may have found inspiration in an investigation into hypnosis and dishonesty in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research in 1887. The Turn of the Screw , published 11 years later, is a story about the haunting of two children related by an unnamed governess. The question of the reliability of the woman's testimony is a matter of contention that has taxed academics for decades. James's fascination with paranormal phenomena is well known: his brother William was president of the Society for Psychical Research in the United States and conducted work on mediums, possession and trances at Harvard University.

Many of James's fellow authors, such as Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin and Lewis Carroll were members of the PSR in the UK.

Dr Wadge, who has been studying the influence of psychical research into Victorian literature, found an article in an S .P .R. journal written by Edmund Gurney, an acquaintance of James. It discusses deep and alert states of hypnotic trance. One passage jumps out. "I am very far indeed from holding that because a person is hypnotised he is incapable of deceit; indeed, I think it by no means improbable that even honest persons may be guilty of what looks like chicanery during that temporary dislocation of the mental machinery which the turning of the hypnotic screw involves."

If the passage does contain the "germ" of the story, it suggests that James was alert to a matter that taxed all psychic research - the difficulty of establishing the reliability of eye witnesses - and deliberately used this to fashion his ambitious tale.

Dr Wadge's finding has been published in the journal Notes and Queries .

Icu-Talk gives voice to sick

Intensive care patients who have been robbed of their speech are being given a voice by acomputerised system developed at Dundee University.

Preliminary trials of Icu-Talk, involving 11 patients at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, have been positive and a more extensive multicentre evaluation is planned.

The research by a team of nurses, speech and language therapists and software engineers won Best International Nursing Paper at the Eighth World Congress of Intensive and Critical Care Medicine in Australia in October.

Ian Ricketts, professor of assistive systems and healthcare computing at Dundee University, who led the project, said Icu-Talk had been designed to enable patients receiving assistance with their breathing to make themselves understood.

Each person is offered about 300 phrases via a touch-sensitive screen above their bed.

The system minimises the effort required to communicate.

The database of phrases was assembled from interviews with nursing staff and then revised after observations carried out at Ninewells intensive care unit.

Customised phrases can be added a structured computer interview with the patient's relatives. The result is a set of phrases under topic headings that enables the individual to engage in conversation. They can make requests, relay immediate needs and even inquire about family members, soap opera updates or how their favourite football team is faring.

Once the patient has selected a phrase, it is transformed into computerised speech. The first trial has exposed some problems. Some - such as the large size of the hardware - are fairly simple to address. Others - such as the organisation of phrases by topic headings - are proving more difficult.

When elderly residents of a care home were asked to group Icu-Talk phrases, each had a different approach.

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