Translating a treasure trove

Jon Sutton reports on a lost 20-year research project from the other side of the world, rescued following a chance meeting with a UK psychologist.

The boxes of data – 65 of them – had lain unattended for years. Answers from a two-decade research programme carried out by an Australian academic, who died suddenly in 2007, were in danger of being lost forever. The records potentially contain clues to how schizophrenia differs across cultures. There was just one small problem – the study had been conducted with the tribal Iban people of Malaysia, and very few people understand the language. But now the project is being rescued, following a chance meeting involving a psychologist from London’s University of Roehampton.

Between 1986 and 2006, Professor Rob Barrett investigated the indicators of schizophrenia in Iban people. There are just 400,000 Iban in the world, many living a lifestyle based on farming and agricultural work in Sarawak, Malaysia. Professor Barrett lived amongst them in ‘long houses’ housing several generations, combining social anthropology, psychiatry and genetics to dig out the roots of schizophrenia. Professor Barrett’s records included first-hand accounts in the native language, and blood samples from 700 people.

Professor Barrett’s theory was that some major symptoms of schizophrenia, such as those related to thinking (e.g. delusions of control and thought broadcast, insertion or withdrawal), may not be a significant indicator of schizophrenia in all cultures – including the Iban. In the Western context, thinking is a mental activity that takes place in the brain. But among the Iban, thinking comes from the heart-liver region and is closely tied with emotion, desire and will.

The research findings would have remained a mystery forever were it not for an invitation to Professor Cecilia Essau to give a seminar at the University of Adelaide last September. Explaining her personal history and Iban language fluency led to the international connection – Professor Barrett had previously worked at Adelaide. Professor Essau is the only Iban-speaking academic psychologist in the world and was the first Iban women ever to hold a PhD. She is also a Fellow of the British Psychological Society.

With support from the Florey Medical Research Foundation, Professor Essau is working for the next two months with Professor Barrett’s former colleagues at the University of Adelaide, including Head of Psychology Professor Anna Chur-Hansen, to translate and study his findings. 'There’s so much there, it’s incredible,' she told us. 'There are lots of videos and interviews with patients and their family members, fieldwork notes, photos, documentation of Iban shaman doing curing rites and death and bereavement rites.'

Professor Essau continued: ‘This is a hugely exciting project to work on, not least because Professor Barrett’s fieldwork was carried out in towns near where my own family have lived, but also because it reaches right to the heart of the nature or nurture debate. Having the opportunity to recover the work of such an eminent scholar, interpret it into English and understand his findings, is a real contribution to science. I’m humbled to be able to take part. It would have been incredibly sad to think so much work and study over a lifetime would have been lost, and with it a greater understanding of how we diagnose and treat schizophrenia.’

The boxes are being kept at a section of the special collection at the Barr Smith Library. Professor Essau said there would be increased need to work with other psychologists to fully analyse the information. 'We have to understand the broader social organisation of the Iban life. At this point, we haven’t yet started looking at the family component of the research. The Iban family structure is very complex because we don't have surnames like in the West. And it has been interesting to read how the patients described the way they communicated with the voices they heard. Animal themes seem to be very dominant in the content of the hallucinations, for instance patients see people turning into animals, or being married or engaged with specific animals, or they have felt themselves becoming animals. We would potentially need to work alongside comparative psychologists in order to fully understand the significance of this.'

Professor Essau has asked for any academic psychologists who feel their expertise may be useful to this project to contact her on [email protected]. 'Professor Barrett's is definitely work that will last for several years,' she concluded.

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