Psychotherapy with the Amish

Photo from Wikipedia. Click for sourceNPR has a fascinating segment on psychotherapist Jim Cates, who works with Amish youth who are experiencing the turbulent time of ‘Rumspringa‘ – a period when they get to experience non-Amish life so they can decide whether they want to commit to their parents’ culture and traditions.

The Amish are a community based around Anabaptist Christianity who, to varying degrees, refuse modern technology and the common social practices of North America.

However, during the time of Rumspringa, the youth are free to wear modern clothes, use technology, and may experiment with drink, drugs and sex – on the basis that the Amish want their youth to freely enter their tradition having had the opportunity to experience the alternative.

For some young people, this causes some difficulties, not least with some who encounter difficulties with drink, drugs or emotional adjustment and Jim Cates is a psychotherapist who helps the young people work through the issues.

He describes how he needs to take a radically different approach when conducting psychotherapy with Amish youth, owing to the markedly different way of thinking, particularly about the role of the individual in society.

Cates notes that while traditional American culture is individualist, Amish culture is strongly collectivist, to the point where talking about yourself is seen as prideful and individual work without the involvement of the family is at best uncomfortable and at worst inconceivable.

In the NPR piece, Cates gives some fascinating insights into his take on Amish psychology and discusses the innovative approach he needs when working with the culture.

It’s one of the most interesting and surprising radio pieces I’ve heard in a while, and is by the excellent Alix Spiegel, who also produced the gripping 81 words.

Link to NPR ‘One Man Tackles Psychotherapy For The Amish’.

Dan Ariely on the psychology of cheating

Behavioural economist Dan Ariely gives a fantastic 15 minute TED lecture on the psychology of cheating that explores numerous fascinating and counter-intuitive influences on how we bend the truth for personal benefit.

Ariely discusses some curious social influences, including the fact that seeing someone else cheat may actually decrease the general cheating of the group, but only if they perceive they are part of a different or rival group. Seeing someone cheat who is part of your ‘in-group’ seems to reliably increase dishonesty.

He also notes various effects of changing the form of the benefit. Simply making the reward tokens that can be exchanged for money, rather than just directly paying, greatly increases cheating, even though the value is identical in both cases.

Ariel does some fascinating research and is the author of Predictably Irrational, an excellent book which I thoroughly recommend.

The talk is similarly enjoyable and Ariely makes links between his own studies on cheating and the current financial meltdown.

Link to Dan Ariely’s TED talk.

Sweet anaesthesia and the mystery of consciousness

Discover Magazine has an excellent article on the science of anaesthesia and why doctors need to struggle with the problem of consciousness to make someone comfortably numb.

If you’re not familiar some of the mysteries of anaesthesia, you may be surprised to know that we don’t actually know how most anaesthetics work and we have no reliable way of telling whether someone is unconscious.

This is important because general anaesthesia usually involves two types of drug, muscle relaxants and hypnotics. It’s possible that the muscle relaxants have their paralysing effect but the hypnotics don’t fully work, so you’re awake and aware, but don’t respond when you’re touched or talked to.

Hence anaesthetists would love a device which says whether someone is concious or not, but unfortunately, divining consciousness from the brain is one of the hardest problems in science. So, they’ve come up with various other methods:

Sometimes the anesthesiologist will use a blood pressure cuff on a patient’s arm to block the muscle relaxants in the bloodstream. Then the doctor asks the patient to squeeze a hand.

This sort of test can distinguish between a patient who is awake and one who is out cold. But at the borderline of consciousness, it is not very precise. The inability to raise your hand, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are unconscious. Even a light dose of anesthesia can interfere with your capacity to keep new pieces of information in your brain, so you may not respond to a command because you immediately forgot what you were going to do. On the other hand, squeezing an anesthesiologist’s hand may not mean you’re wide awake. Some patients who can squeeze a hand will later have no memory of being aware.

Seeking a more reliable measuring stick, some researchers have started measuring brain waves. When you are awake, your brain produces fast, small waves of electrical activity. When you are under total anesthesia, your brain waves become deep and slow. If you get enough of certain anesthetics, your brain waves eventually go flat. Most anesthesiologists monitor their patients using a machine known as a bispectral index monitor, which reads brain waves from electrodes on a patient’s scalp and produces a score from 100 to 0. But these machines aren’t precise either. Sometimes patients who register as unconscious can still squeeze a hand on command.

The article then goes on to discuss some fascinating neuroscience studies that use anaesthesia to try and understand what changes in the brain as someone slips into unconsciousness.

It’s a great read and an interesting look into what you might called ‘applied consciousness research’.

Link to ‘Could a Dose of Ether Contain the Secret to Consciousness?’

Dominant chemicals

Photo by Flickr user Ed Yourdon. Click for sourceAnthropologist Helen Fisher has done some fascinating work on the neuroscience of love and romantic relationships, but she hooked up with the dating site a few years back and seems to have lost the plot a bit, or at the very least, is being taken for a ride by their PR department.’s press releases regularly get in the news as ‘science’ stories and the latest ones are doozies. You could not think of a more prefect storm of celebrity gossip, relationships, and junk science.

People have one of four chemicals in their brain that moulds romantic chemistry, scientists explain.

In ‘builders’ like Aniston, serotonin is the dominant chemical, making them calm and cautious.

‘Explorers’, like Brad Pitt, meanwhile, are led by dopamine, creating a more spontaneous and risk-taking romancer.

And, yes, you’ve guessed it, Brad’s current partner Angelina Jolie is an ‘explorer’, too.

Professor Helen Fisher, an expert in the science of love, said: ‘It’s possible to scientifically understand why people partner better with certain types.’

Possible, but presumably, unprofitable.

Actually, there has been some work correlating relationship or attachment style to the genetics of neurotransmitter receptors.

However, the concept of a ‘dominant chemical’ makes no sense at all and Fisher’s categories have been made up by her and are not used by anyone else.

Saying that, my dominant chemical is caffeine. Which makes my ideal partner… an energy drink?

Link to study summary on relationship style and genetics.
Link to study summary on attachment style and genetics.

(Thanks Petra!)

Wiring and plumbing in the brain

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience has a great two page article that nicely summarises the thinking about how blood flow measured by brain scans relates to the workings of the neurons.

No one with common sense would believe that in a house, water movements in pipes could tell you how many lamps are on and how much fuel is used for heating. Surprisingly most neuroscientists are convinced that in the brain monitoring local cerebral blood flow (CBF) what I call plumbing, is a reliable surrogate method to localize electrical neuronal activity and monitor metabolic events.

The piece is by neuroscientist Jean Rossier, and he discusses the two main theories of how blood flow relates to what the neurons are doing.

The ‘metabolic hypothesis’ assumes there is a causal link between how much energy the neurons need, in the form of glucose, and the subsequent regulation of blood flow in the brain. In other words, the neurons signal the need for energy, which is delivered later.

The ‘neurogenic hypothesis’ hypothesis, suggest that blood flow can be ‘pre-ordered’, in anticipation of neural activity.

Needless to say, it’s important to understand the exact relation between the operation of the neurons and blood flow, because brain scanning studies typically measure blood flow to infer the working of neurons and hence the relationship to cognitive or mental processing.

The Frontiers in Human Neuroscience article is a concise piece which discuss the neuroscience of this link, and covers some of the most recent studies which have attempted to make sense of what brain scans tell us when we’re doing psychology experiments.

Link to article ‘Wiring and plumbing in the brain’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Freud association

So what is it with all the Freud impersonators on Twitter? I’ve found six so far:

Sigmund Freud. Austrian psychiatrist.

Sigmund Freud. I am the father of psychoanalysis.

sigmund freud.

Sigmund Freud. How does that make you feel?

sigmund_freud. [In French].

sigmund. [In Russian].

If you’d rather another style of analysis, there are also Jacques Lacan and Carl Jung impersonators.

Everyone else is using it to free associate and they’re using it for wish fulfilment. What gives?