“Psychoses” – A magnificent hoax

Human thoughts and emotions are so complicated and hard to define that almost no sane person tries to describe them with mathematics. One attempt, done seriously, came to be regarded almost as a joke. Another, done as a joke, drew all-too-serious admiration.

In 1936, Kurt Lewin, a German psychologist in the US, produced a book full of it’s-kinda-sorta-like-this descriptions. He titled it Principles of Topological Psychology. There is nothing kinda-sorta-like-this about topology. Imprecise definitions would be worthless to a topologist. Lewin’s book contains little maths, but lots of inscrutable passages. Here’s one: “We must emphasize that not only psychological facts but also the ‘bodily’- biological facts do not belong to the physical space. This makes it clear that in the following when we speak of psychological regions, forces, or changes we are not dealing with figments of the imagination but with facts which have the same reality and kind of existence as biological facts in general”. Nowadays Lewin’s book is mostly a mild embarrassment.

In 1943, Americans Jerry Lettvin and Walter Pitts, then in their early 20s, and destined for legendarily great careers in brain science and other fields, pulled a prank. The duo wrote a thoroughly nonsensical monograph called A Mathematical Theory of the Affective Psychoses….

So begins this week’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

BONUS: Note that the Lettvin/Pitts hoax preceded by several decades the celebrated Sokal hoax.

BONUS QUESTION: If you know of other hoax studies that got taken seriously to the degree of either the Lettvin/Pitts study or the Sokal study, please let us know.

UPDATE (2011): Sad news: Jerry Lettvin is gone.

UPDATE (2015): Amanda Gefter wrote a terrific profile of Walter Pitts, in Nautilus magazine.