Mental illness in children: medical issue or fig leaf?

Dana’s online mind and brain magazine Cerebrum has a critical and thought-provoking article arguing that mental illnesses like ADHD and child bipolar disorder are too often being used as fig leaves for social problems that we prefer to think of as blame-free genetic disorders that can be treated with simple-solution medications.

The piece is by distinguished psychologist Jerome Kagan, considered one of the founders of developmental psychology, who discusses the various social changes that have encouraged differences and misbehaviour to be medically diagnosed and treated – particularly during the last two decades.

The article is timely, owing to it coinciding with recent revelations from an ongoing trial where parents are suing drug makers over the use of antipsychotic medication in children.

The documents show that pharmaceutical company Johnson and Johnson aimed to carry out research on child bipolar disorder with a specific intention of boosting sales of their medication, as well as countering unfavourable coverage from the media and spinning ‘no result’ studies on the drug.

We usually think of ‘social factors’ as increasing risk for mental illness in the individual, but we also need to remember that there are strong social factors that affect how we think about disorders in terms of their causes, effects and treatments.

One of the strongest social factors is financial pressure, and, as covered by Wired, drug companies are notorious for ‘cooking the books’ in an attempt to bury negative data and spin positive findings in the best possible light.

This has just been reported in yet another damning study on drug company data handling published in the most recent edition of PLoS Medicine.

Link to Dana article ‘The Meaning of Psychological Abnormality’.
Link to PLoS Medicine study on bias in drug trials submitted to the FDA.

The myth of urban loneliness

New York Magazine has an extensive and interesting piece arguing that ‘urban loneliness’ – the idea that people in densely populated cities are more lonely than people in the country, may be a myth.

The article looks at recent concerns, partly driven by popular books, that single living and hence loneliness is massively increasing in America.

However, the article also examines more recent research that has suggested that this may not be the case, and that while single living is increasing, social isolation is not, owing to the fact that earlier studies used measures of social participation based on the norms of society a generation ago.

The article covers research suggesting that the structure of urban society is changing, so city-dwellers make connections in different ways and at different stages in life. There is little evidence, however, for a great social crisis or that we’re simply becoming less social.

It’s a fascinating article that explores some intriguing social research that rarely gets widely discussed.

The writer largely riffs on a new book by neuroscientist John Cacioppo and writer William Patrick on the science of loneliness which also has a rather spiffy website.

Link to NYMag article ‘Alone Together’.
Link to Loneliness book website.

The enchanting Encephalon 59

The 59th edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just appeared online on the wonderfully named Ionian Enchantment and has all the latest in the last fortnight’s mind and brain writing.

A couple of my favourites include an interesting piece on the development of dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease from the new Dana Press Blog and a great piece on recent research looking at the cognitive neuroscience of poverty from The Mouse Trap.

I’ve not discovered the Dana Press blog before but it looks really promising with some great posts and offers to review new mind and brain books before they’re released.

Anyway, more of the new and interesting in this month’s Encephalon.

Link to Encephalon 59.

Not connecting with faces in the street and in the brain

Not Exactly Rocket Science has a great write-up of a recent study that may explain why some people are born without the ability to recognise faces – a condition known as congenital prosopagnosia.

Face recognition is particularly associated with a part of the temporal lobe called the fusiform gyrus. Although it’s controversial whether this area is specifically for faces, or is more generally specialised for perceptual expertise of which faces are just the most important example, it’s clear that it is key for understanding faces.

Cibu Thomas from Carnegie Mellon University discovered the problem by focusing on two major white matter tracts that link the fusiform area to other parts of the brain. Both have names that positively trip off the tongue – the inferior longitudinal fasciculus (ILF) and the inferior fronto-occipito fasciculus (IFOF). Thomas studied the tracts using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which measures the flow of water along their length.

The flowing water revealed severe problems with the structural integrity of both white matter tracts in the brains of prosopagnosics. Normal individuals didn’t show any problems, nor did areas of white matter in the prosopagnosics that connected areas completely unrelated to face processing.

In other words, the fibres that connect important perceptual areas in the brain may be much thinner in people who have problems recognising faces.

The image on the left shows the connections between the temporal and the occipital lobes in the participants with the condition and the controls.

As usual, the Not Exactly Rocket Science write-up is clear, concise and engaging, and if you’d like to know a bit more what it’s like to live without recognising faces The Guardian recently published a personal account of day-to-day life from someone with prosopagnosia who can’t even recognise himself in the mirror.

Link to ‘Faulty connections responsible for inherited face-blindness’.
Link to Guardian article ‘I don’t recognise my own face’.

Grounding the helicopter parents

The New Yorker has an extended review and discussion of various new books critical of the increasing trend for parents to be overinvolved in their children’s lives owing to the trend for ‘intelligence boosting’ products and activities.

It’s a nicely balanced article that highlights some of the worst trends in ‘overparenting’ while also pointing out some of the flaws with the recent wave of criticism.

To get some perspective, look at “Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood” (2004), by Steven Mintz, a professor of history at Columbia. Mintz’s story begins with the beginning of the United States, and therefore he describes children with troubles greater than overparenting: boys dispatched to coal mines, and girls to textile mills, at age nine or ten.

As for the current outbreak of worry over the young, Mintz reminds us that America has seen such panics before—for example, in the nineteen-fifties, with the outcry over hot rods, teen sex, and rock and roll. The fifties even had its own campaign against overparenting, or overmothering—Momism, as it was called. This was thought to turn boys into homosexuals. For the past three decades, Mintz writes, discussions of child-rearing in the United States have been dominated by a “discourse of crisis,” and yet America’s youth are now, on average, “bigger, richer, better educated, and healthier than at any other time in history.”

There have been some losses. Middle-class white boys from the suburbs have fallen behind their predecessors, but middle-class girls and minority children are far better off. Mintz thinks that we worry too much, or about the wrong things. Despite general prosperity—at least until recently—the percentage of poor children in America is greater today than it was thirty years ago. One in six children lives below the poverty line. If you want an emergency, Mintz says, there’s one

Over-involvement is certainly a risk, however, and this can be seen even in the very beginning of infancy. One of the key skills psychologists talk about in early life is the ability to self-soothe – in other words, learning to independently manage discomfort and strong emotions.

This begins when babies are getting into sleep routines in the months after being born. There is a temptation to attend to the baby and soothe it as soon as it cries but this can have the opposite effect and the child actually sleeps worse because they don’t have the opportunity to learn to settle themselves.

A recent large study helped to confirm this and found that parents that encouraged independence and self-soothing by not attending to their baby at every cry reported that their child had extended and more consolidated sleep.

Link to New Yorker ‘The Child Trap’ article.

Making Sense of Bastards

A 2005 article from business psychology journal Organization Studies discusses the psychology of being a bastard. It has a serious point, but is just hilarious for the contrast between the academic language and the subject matter.

The serious point behind the article, written by psychologist David Sims, is to look at how people in business organisations make narratives or stories about someone being a ‘bastard’ to demonize them and persuade others of the fact.

This can be to discount someone else opinion, undermine their status, or to create a dragon against which they can valiantly fight for their own glory.

However, because of the subject matter, it’s frequently funny as it analyses the varied types of company bastards as they’re constructed within organisations. Just some of the section headings are pure genius:

Narrative 1: Clever Bastard
Narrative 2: Bastard ex Machina
Narrative 3: Devious Bastard
A Narrative Understanding of Bastards
Making Sense of Bastards

Link to ‘You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations’ (thanks Olwyn!).
Link to DOI entry for same.

The perils of not realising scaffolding is a metaphor

Life magazine have recently put their entire photo archive on Google Images and the Too Many Interests blog has picked out some of the most surprising psychology images.

The image on the right is my favourite, and probably results from psychologists trying to answer the question ‘how many babies does it take to change a lightbulb?’

The answer is, of course, just one, but as long as the baby has the appropriate scaffolding.

Yes, I’m making Jerome Bruner jokes.

Yes, I really should get out more.

Yes, I know I’ve promised that before.

Link to selection of psychology images from Life (via AHP).
Link to all Life psychology images on Google.