Down the pan

This is, I assume, the first neuropsychological test to appear on a bog roll. The ‘Mind Trainer Toilet Roll‘ has a different puzzle on each sheet and it includes the Stroop test, one of the most studied tests in cognitive science.

This means you’ll never be without the opportunity to measure attentional inhibition of automatic cognitive processes in the bathroom.

Now if only I could get a bidet that measured working memory, my life would be complete.

Link to Mind Trainer Toilet Roll.
Link to Wikipedia page on the Stroop effect (via @jonmsutton)

Rodent brain in sex claim shocker

Those tenacious chaps over at Language Log have followed up Louann Brizendine’s claims that men have a ‘defend your turf area’ by chasing up the references in her ominous new book The Male Brain which is showing all the signs of being as scientifically shaky as the last one.

Like a couple of people who commented on our post, they picked up on my previous and erroneous remark that the dorsal premammilliary nuclei had not been identified in humans – it has, but its function, as far as I know, has never been studied in humans (the previous post has now been updated).

Language Log also note that many of the Brizendine’s claims seem to be drawn from directly from rat studies and just assumed to apply to humans even when they specifically refer to, er, cat odor.

In other words, the DPN is involved in rats’ (passive) defensive responses to the presence of a cat, or even just to cat odor, but not to other sorts of threats such as the open arms of a maze, or an electric shock to the foot, where odor is not involved. Thus the DPN is more (and also less) than “the defend-your-turf area” in rats ‚Äî it responds to predator threats as well as threats from dominant conspecifics, but it’s apparently not involved in more active or aggressive forms of defense. Who knows what its homologue’s functions are in humans ‚Äì but presumably the mediation of instinctive “freezing, avoidance, and stretch” responses to cat odor are not among them.

The book was just reviewed in The New York Times which also wasn’t impressed by its scientific basis, noting “Brizendine‚Äôs trick, after all, is to give a scientific veneer to ‚ÄúMen Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.‚Äù”, although you can bet it will still be all over the glossy magazines.

To be fair, I’ve not read Brizendine’s new book, although I read the last one and her ‘male brain’ articles I’ve read so far just seem equally dodgy.

Link to Language Log on ‘The defend-your-turf area?’.
Link to NYT review.

One Night in Birdland

I’ve just re-read an interesting biographical study from last year on the ‘Neurological problems of jazz legends’ and noticed a interesting snippet about Charlie Parker:

As a result of a car accident as a teenager, Parker became addicted to morphine and, in turn, heroin. Contemporary musicians took similar drugs, hoping to emulate his playing. Through the 1940s, Parker’s career flourished. He recorded some of his most famous tunes, including ‘‘Billie’s Bounce’’ and ‘‘Koko.’’ Yet, he also careened erratically between incredible playing and extreme bouts of alcohol and drug abuse. This deteriorated in 1946, when after the recording of the song ‘‘Lover Man,’’ Parker became inebriated in his hotel room, set fire to his mattress, and ran through the hotel lobby wearing only his socks. Parker was arrested and committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital, where he stayed for 6 months. This stay inspired the song ‘‘Relaxin at Camarillo (1947).’’

The track Relaxin at Camarillo is available on YouTube and it has a wonderfully rambling swing-backed sound. As far as I know, it is the only song about a stay at a mental hospital, but as musicians have had more than their fair share of hospital stays, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were any others, so do let me know if you know of any others.

By the way, the full article on the neurological problems of jazz legends is available online and has six biographies of jazz greats. There’s also a fascinating anecdote related by the author regarding a possible emperor’s new clothes moment during Thelonious Monk’s mental decline:

A personal anecdote: The author’s father, a professional jazz trumpeter, attended an outdoor concert in which Monk simply stared at the keyboard for the 16 bars of his solo but ultimately returned to playing as the next soloist took his course. The audience applauded wildly, assuming that if Monk was thinking through the course but not actually playing, then it must have been astounding, even immanent and transcending a human’s ability to perform much less understand. In retrospect, Monk’s mental status was disordered enough [whether dominated by depressed mood or confusion] that he must have been unable to perform for that verse.

Likely a moment of confusion but I prefer the version where the internal music soars above Monk’s declining skills.

Link to ‘Neurological problems of jazz legends’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.
Link to Relaxin’ at Camarillo.
Link to previous entry on the study’s beat poem abstract.

Debugging the free will relationship

In 1987, British TV station Channel 4 had a series called Voices that included four programmes on psychoanalysis. One of the guests was psychologist Sherry Turkle, years before she became well-known for her groundbreaking work on the internet and identity, and she makes some strikingly prophetic comments about free will and technology that ring true today but were dismissed at the time.

This is from the book (ISBN 0851244920) of the discussions. In this part, Turkle was talking with presenter Michael Ignatieff and psychoanalysts Philip Rieff and Geoffrey Hartman. Unfortunately, the text is a direct transcript so it retains the awkwardness of the spoken word written down but you can see that she had remarkable foresight.

Turkle: I’m seems to me that the issue of free will is for us today what sex was for the Victorians. The same urgency about sexuality and interdictions about sexuality that so tormented the Victorian spirit, we are now tormented by questions having to do with whether or not we are actors, our own centre, whether, to take computer examples, whether we are programmed from the outside. In what sense are we not like machines? In sociobiology, it raises the question in what sense are we like or not like animals, in a very serious way. It seems to me that fields of study like Artificial Intelligence, like sociobiology, the use of computer metaphors to describe people in everyday parlance, much as psychoanalysis was picked up in everyday parlance – ‘I’m debugging a relationship’ – that kind of talk, raises the issue of free will and to the extent to which we are actors in a very urgent, hot way. And that Freud remains an urgent and a hot thinker, not just for the contribution about sexuality, the family, the question of parents, but by this discovery of the unconscious which makes us take seriously a way of talking about this sense in which we are not our own centre.

Rieff: I don’t think that that is what is happening. I think that the self, the ego, the agent of reality is being fragmented…

The FBI Evil Minds Research Museum

Photo by Flickr user -MRTN-. Click for sourceThe FBI has an appointment-only display called the Evil Minds Research Museum that displays the letters, art and artefacts of serial killers in an attempt to understand their psychology. There’s not much about it online but it is discussed in the second part of the two part FBI podcast about their behavioural science programme.

This is the part where head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, Greg Vecchi, describes the exhibit:

One of the most exciting research projects that we have, is we‚Äôve have started what we have labeled the ‘Evil Minds Research Museum.’ And what this is, this is actually a research museum where we are collecting serial killer and other offender artifacts.

And so these artifacts are like paintings, John Wayne Gacey paintings. Paintings that he was the Killer Clown back in Chicago several decades back, who would kill men and boys, and he would dismember their bodies and put them under his floor board. Well, after he was caught, well, he turned out to be a so-called killer of the community [NB: this is a transcription error, Vecchi actually says ‘pillar of the community’], and he would dress up as a clown and do gigs doing clown stuff for the kids. And so he would draw pictures or paint pictures of clowns, and he had clown paintings in the room where he dismembered the bodies. And he had clown paintings that he did after he got arrested and when he was basically on death row.

And so we got those paintings and we are studying those paintings. We want to look at the brush strokes. We want to look at what drives him, what changes, because the pictures are completely different. Before he was arrested, for instance, the clowns were Flippo the Clown, very happy clowns, very colorful; afterwards his paintings were very dark. It was basically a skeleton or a skull dressed up or painted up to be a clown.

We’ve have got thousands and thousands of pages of correspondence between a number of serial killers. Richard Ramirez, the night stalker. We’ve got Keith Hunter Jesperson, another famous serial killer, his complete manifesto of why he killed, written in his own handwriting. We have greeting cards, we have photos, we have serial killer art. But the museum itself, and here is where the value of it is, for the most part, almost all of the research of law enforcement is usually done interacting with the subject rather through an investigation, or, in what we do, more of a research-type of approach, where we would sit down with protocols and interview them like we do with the serial killers, or like we are doing with the hostage takers now. This is stuff that is taken out of their most personal possessions. Things that were not taken as law enforcement, but were taken on search warrants, or provided, maybe after they were executed, by their family. And so it gives a completely different perspective of their mindset—where they are coming from because this is correspondence to themselves, correspondence between them and their loved ones—their mother, their father—correspondence between them and other serial killers, and even correspondence between them and the many groupies that write to them and develop a relationship as a pen pal. And so this is a very exciting research, this research museum, where we are looking at their motivation and try to understand them from a perspective that, as far as we know, has never been undertaken.”

Although it’s not open to the public, you can apply to visit if you’re a genuine researcher with the visiting scholars programme.

One such visit is described in the latest issue of the Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association. You can download the magazine for free, although only in one 7Mb pdf. The article about the unit starts on page 14 and has pictures of several of the exhibits.

Interestingly, the article is followed by a museum advert which asks for donations of exhibits, although I have to say, it’s not the most tasteful piece of promotion I’ve ever seen as it looks more like a B-movie horror poster. Click here to see it in all its dubious glory.

By the way, did you know that the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit has a student intern programme? If you’re a student and would like to apply the details are online.

Link to part 1 of FBI podcast on behavioural science.
Link to part 2 of FBI podcast on behavioural science.
pdf of latest Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association.
Link to details of FBI behavioural science intern scheme.

Missing the mind’s eye view

Discover magazine has a fantastic Carl Zimmer piece about a man who lost the ability to see things in his mind’s eye after a minor neurological procedure.

Zimmer covers a recently published study on patient MX who lost his conscious visual imagery but could still do tests, like mental rotation, that were assumed to need the ability to mentally picture the procedure to work it out.

All the exams the scientists gave MX confirmed his claim that he was missing his mind’s eye. And yet he could do lots of things that would seem impossible without one. Without any effort he could give the scientists detailed descriptions of landmarks around Edinburgh, for example. He could remember visual details, but he couldn’t “see” them. Della Sala and Zeman asked MX to say whether each letter of the alphabet had a low-hanging tail (like g and j). He got every one right. They asked him about specific details of the faces of famous people (“Does Tony Blair have light-colored eyes?”). He did just as well as the architects.

The key insight came with a test derived from a classic psychological experiment invented in the 1970s by Stanford University psychologist Roger Shepherd. Della Sala and Zeman showed MX pairs of pictures, each one consisting of an object made up of 10 cubes. MX had to say whether the pairs of objects were different things or actually the same thing shown from two different perspectives. Normal people solve this puzzle in a strikingly consistent way, with their response time depending on how much the angle of perspective differs between the two objects: The bigger the difference, the longer it takes people to decide whether the objects are the same…

MX’s results flew in the face of that explanation. When he solved the puzzles, he always took about the same amount of time to answer—and he got every one right.

We still understand relatively little about the role and importance of visual mental imagery or what role it takes in problems or impairments.

A study I was part of found that people with congenital prosopagnosia, a genetic inability to recognise faces, had virtually absent visual imagery despite having no signs of brain damage or neurological abnormalities.

Patients who acquire prosopagnosia after brain damage often report that they can no longer imagine what faces look like, but in MX’s case, he seems to have lost his ability to mentally ‘see’ faces but has no problem recognising people.

The Discover article is a concise yet comprehensive take on this new study that helps us understand the link between how we experience the world and how we construct it inside our heads.

Link to Discover article ‘Look Deep Into the Mind’s Eye’.

2010-03-26 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

New Scientist has an excellent article on the ‘global workspace’ theory of consciousness.

Fast food logos unconsciously speed up our behaviour, according to new research covered by the old Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Not Exactly Rocket Science, just moved to Discover Blogs, asks ‘when is attempted murder more acceptable than harming someone by accident?’

Why are so many soldiers on antipsychotics? asks Pharmalot.

CNN considers the interesting question of whether school memorials for pupils who have killed themselves risk suicide contagion.

The fact and fiction behind the myth-attracting drink absinthe are discussed by Neuroskeptic.

Wired UK have another of their monthly columns by the brilliant Dan Ariely. This on the effect of anger on decision-making.

Facebook linked to rise in syphilis according to a dodgy press story debunked by Dr Petra.

The New Republic has a review of ‘Addiction: A Disorder of Choice’ by conservative psychiatrist Sally Satel.

A fossilized 13th century brain with intact cells was discovered, analysed, and Neurophilosophy has the low down with a remarkable image.

The New York Times has a short but sweet piece on why we need to dream by science writer Jonah Lehrer.

The excellent Addiction Inbox asks whether ‘meth babies‘ are fact or fiction in light of new research finding brain abnormalities to newborns exposed to speed in the womb.

Brainspin has more debunking of the scientific dodginess in the dreadful ‘why men obsess over sex’ article.

In societies with higher levels of disease, more masculine male faces are considered more attractive, more feminine male faces become more attractive when there’s less disease about, at least according to research covered in The Economist.

“I rather welcome the twang of bluegrass… from a patient‚Äôs cellphone during a psychotherapy session”. Insights into patients’ extra-therapy lives through one-side of a cellphone conversation considered by a therapist writing in The New York Times.

Psychiatry Fun looks like a promising new blog.

‘Pathways to and from violent extremism: the case for science-based field research’, just published in Edge.

The New York Times has a troubling piece about the mental health system in post-earthquake Haiti.

The award winning BPS Research Digest discusses research on how the sight of their own blood is important to some people who self-harm.

Frontier Psychiatrist has a fascinating post on how the ‘critical period’ in child development may be a result of modern family structure that differs from the collective childcare of times past.

The psychology of how certain issues become ‘sacred’ in negotiations is discussed in Scientific American.

The New York Times has a brief article on body dysmorphic disorder or BDD, where affected people come to believe that a part of their body is grossly unattractive or misshapen despite it seeming normal to others.

Study published in Frontiers in Cognition finds superior cognitive flexibility in first person shooter gamers. I have come here to chew bubble gum and switch tasks… and I’m all out of bubble gum.

When you feel weak, restating your core values can be a quick and easy self-control booster according to research covered by PsyBlog. “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” I feel better already.

Neuroworld asks the interesting question of why sex has never been offered as a legitimate public prize for doing good.

Easy tiger

Psychologist Jesse Bering has written one of the most remarkable popular science articles I have read in a very long time that discusses, believe it or not, zoophilia or the sexual attraction to animals. The piece for Scientific American is surprising, unnerving, hilarious, frightening and thought-provoking, all in equal measure.

The article considers to what extent sexual attraction to animals is a perversion, opportunistic sex act or a genuine sexual orientation and gives a comprehensive review of the (admittedly few) scientific studies in the area.

But the stereotypical portrait of the zoophile as a woman-deprived, down-on-the-farm, and poorly educated male is presently being challenged by some contemporary findings. The most fascinating of these, in my opinion, is a set of two case studies published by University of Montreal psychologist Christopher Earls and his colleague Martin Lalumière, of the University of Lethbridge. The first case study appeared in 2002 in the journal Sexual Abuse and documented the story of a low-IQ’ed, antisocial, fifty-four-year-old convict who had a strong sexual interest in horses. In fact, this was why he was in prison for the fourth time on related offenses; in the latest incident, he had cruelly killed a mare out of jealousy because he thought she’d been giving eyes to a certain stallion. (You thought you had issues.)

The man’s self-reported sexual interest in mares was actually verified by a controlled, phallometric study. When hooked up to a penile plethysmograph [a hard-on measuring device] and shown nude photos of all varieties and ages of humans, the man was decidedly flaccid. Nothing happening down there either when he looked at slides of cats, dogs, sheep, chickens, or cows. But he certainly wasn’t impotent, as the researchers clearly observed when the subject was shown images of horses.


The documentary Animal Passions is a serious attempt to understand the motivations of people who are sexually attracted to animals. Many of the people claim, apparently sincerely, to want to be in fulfilling romantic relationships with other species. Needless to say, it is similarly eye-opening. Although unnerving at times, it is not gratuitious and, in fact, is available on YouTube.

Bering discusses what science and philosophy makes of these unusual attractions and does a fantastic job of covering a difficult topic.

Link to Bering’s article on zoophilia at Scientific American.

Opening the mind to moral persuasion

This week’s Nature has an article arguing that the recently popular field of moral psychology has neglected the role of public debate and personal reflection in the development of our morality.

The piece is by psychologist Paul Bloom, well known for his work on how we solve ethical problems – something which has become a hot topic in recent years as traditionally philosophical issues have been taken into the lab.

Indeed, many psychologists think that the reasoned arguments we make about why we have certain beliefs are mostly post-hoc justifications for gut reactions. As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, although we like to think of ourselves as judges, reasoning through cases according to deeply held principles, in reality we are more like lawyers, making arguments for positions that have already been established. This implies we have little conscious control over our sense of right and wrong.

I predict that this theory of morality will be proved wrong in its wholesale rejection of reason. Emotional responses alone cannot explain one of the most interesting aspects of human nature: that morals evolve. The extent of the average person’s sympathies has grown substantially and continues to do so. Contemporary readers of Nature, for example, have different beliefs about the rights of women, racial minorities and homosexuals compared with readers in the late 1800s, and different intuitions about the morality of practices such as slavery, child labour and the abuse of animals for public entertainment. Rational deliberation and debate have played a large part in this development.

If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, I recommend a 2008 article from Prospect magazine that gives a great introduction to the field.

Link to Nature article ‘How do morals change?’
Link to Prospect article ‘The emerging moral psychology’.

For Kitty Jay

This is the final resting place of Kitty Jay.

The site, known as Jay’s Grave lies on the edge of Dartmoor, in England’s West Country. No one really knows the full story of her life, as the details have been lost in time, but the tragic tale usually goes something like this.

Kitty Jay was a teenage orphan, probably in the late 1700s, who was given a job in a local farm as an apprentice and later became pregnant by the farmer’s son. Some stories say she fell in love, others that she was raped, but either way, was considered to be an outcast, such was the attitude of the time.

In despair, she hung herself at the farm and this is where she lies. Although we know little about her life, we can infer a few things from her last moments from her now peaceful resting place.

Suicide, then usually referred to as self-murder, was a stigmatised act in the 1700s. In an article on the changing attitudes towards suicide at the time, historian Michael MacDonald describes how:

Self-murderers were tried posthumously by a coroner’s jury, and if they were found to have been responsible for their actions savage penalties were enforced against them and their families. They were declared to have been felones de se, felons of themselves: their chattels, like those of other felons, were forfeited to the crown and placed at the disposal of the king’s almoner or the holder of a royal patent. Their bodies were denied the usual rites of Christian burial. By ancient custom, based on popular lore, the corpses of suicides were interred at a crossroads or in some other public way, laid face down in the grave with a wooden stake driven through them leading to both penalties for the family – mainly the confiscation of property – and spiritual punishment for the deceased, as they were not allowed to be buried on consecrated ground.

The influence of the devil was thought to be key, part of the reason self-murderers were reviled, but this involved a psychological judgement of the deceased. The devil could only tempt those who had the power of reason:

The state of mind of self-killers at the time that they committed their fatal deed was crucial. Men and women who slew themselves when they were mad or otherwise mentally incompetent were not guilty of their crime. Edmund Wingate explained concisely that suicides had to be sane and to take their lives intentionally to be guilty of self-murder: “He is felo de se that doth destroy himself out of premeditated hatred against his own life, or out of a humour to destroy himself’. Idiots or lunatics who were insane when they killed themselves were judged non compos mentis by the coroner’s jury and spared both the secular and the religious punishments for suicide.

Attitudes softened as time went on, however, and by the time of Kitty’s presumed death, the courts declared that most suicides were due to insanity.

Kitty, it seems, was an exception. She was presumably judged sane, and therefore wicked, and buried at a crossroads. Perhaps the fact that she lacked a family meant the coroner’s jury had little incentive to show her leniency.

Her grave, however, is peaceful. It has always had flowers. Legend has it that Dartmoor pixies place them there, but it was known that author Beatrice Chase took the responsibility for many decades.

I have seen Jay’s Grave many times, as it is a regular resting place for walkers, but in recent years it has been resplendent with floral tributes.

Like the Cross Bones graveyard in London, it has become a point of remembrance for forgotten and abandoned people, in the hope that our collective crimes of convenient amnesia are not repeated.

I visited this morning with my father and, for the first time, we left flowers.

Link to Wikipedia page on Jay’s grave.

Emergency response psychology in Madrid

Madrid is one of the very few places in the world that has emergency response psychologists that attend the scene of accidents and disasters alongside the police, paramedics and fire crews. I recently interviewed Teresa Pacheco, one of the founders and current members of the Madrid team, about her work for the latest issue of The Psychologist.

Could you tell us a little about the psychology emergency response team in Madrid?

The SAMUR-Protección Civil emergency services are part of the Madrid municipal government, and at first the service was just focused on physical health. However, in 1999 we saw the need for specialist attention in dealing with complex psychological situations, and so a team of voluntary psychologists was created within SAMUR, principally responsible for passing on bad news to relatives after traffic accidents.

Because of the evolution of emergency psychology and the success of the team, in 2003 the psychology emergency response team was formally created. It consists of six people, on call 24 hours a day, for any psychological emergencies that might occur. To ensure an effective and consistent response we have developed procedures for a range of diverse situations for which a psychologist might be required, including extreme anxiety reactions, overdose, communicating bad news, child abuse, sexual violence, multiple victim accidents and large-scale catastrophes.

I first read about Teresa and her team in a 2008 article for the Spanish daily El País so it was a pleasure to be able to interview her one-to-one.

However, there are also two other freely available articles in the current issue of The Psychologist, both of which are excellent.

The first is an important piece on the psychology of homelessness by Christian Jarrett and the second is on the history of blindsight, a neurological condition where affected patients have no conscious experience of vision despite being able to direct automatic behaviours based on visual information.

Link to interview with photos and layout.
Link to interview in plain web format.
Link to article on the psychology of homelessness.
Link to article on the history of blindsight.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist and my psychological emergencies usually involve losing the remote control.

Brizendine, true to stereotype

Louann Brizendine is a neuropsychiatrist who seems intent on bolstering sex stereotypes with poor science. Presumably in the service of promoting a new book, she has an article on CNN which attempts to explain ‘why men obsess over sex’ but which has lots of odd errors and strange unsubstantiated claims.

The thing that immediately struck me was in the initial paragraphs:

Our brains are mostly alike. We are the same species, after all. But the differences can sometimes make it seem like we are worlds apart.

The “defend your turf” area — dorsal premammillary nucleus — is larger in the male brain and contains special circuits to detect territorial challenges by other males. And his amygdala, the alarm system for threats, fear and danger is also larger in men. These brain differences make men more alert than women to potential turf threats.

Male and female humans are indeed the same species, but we are not a species which has a dorsal premammillary nucleus because it’s only been identified in the rat.

Furthermore, there is no reliable evidence that amygdala size differs between the sexes in humans and a recent study that looked specifically at this issue found no difference.

The rest of the article is full of Brizendine’s usual style which is to take a common stereotype of male or female behaviour and then to ‘explain’ it with a overly-simple, one dimensional and usually not directly tested brain explanation.

For example:

All that testosterone drives the “Man Trance”– that glazed-eye look a man gets when he sees breasts. As a woman who was among the ranks of the early feminists, I wish I could say that men can stop themselves from entering this trance. But the truth is, they can’t. Their visual brain circuits are always on the lookout for fertile mates. Whether or not they intend to pursue a visual enticement, they have to check out the goods.

Got that? Testosterone is responsible for men looking at breasts, perhaps even falling into an irresistible tit-driven trance, and we can’t help it. Are there any scientific studies on whether hooter staring is related to testosterone levels? (Sadly) No.

And there’s plenty more unlikely claims along similar lines. Apparently oxytocin is responsible for ‘nice’ grandpas whereas ‘grumpy’ grandpas can be explained by a drop in testosterone in later life.

Please make it stop.

UPDATE: Thanks to @willoller and Bergen who pointed out that the dorsal premammilliary nuclei have been identified in humans. Interestingly, however, I can only find one study which has ever investigated it in humans and nothing which suggests it is a “defend your turf” area. This conclusion seems entirely drawn from rat studies (e.g. this one) and what Brizendine seems to be doing, in this and other recent articles, is taking findings from rat studies and talking as if they were directly relevant to humans which is dubious to say the least.

Link to awful ‘Why men obsess over sex’ article (via @sarcastic_f)

Doing it for the country

This study should cause all sorts of public policy head scratching and hair pulling but will undoubtedly be ignored. It suggests that motherhood, not marriage, reduces the chances of disadvantaged young women getting involved in drug use and delinquency.

A special award to the first politician to argue that young women should be getting up the duff rather than married for the benefit of society, and full marks to the first one that realises that such complex social problems can’t be solved by simple solutions whether that be marriage, pregnancy or whatever else is flavour of the month (Americans: ‘up the duff’ is British slang for ‘blessed with child’).

Motherhood and criminal desistance in disadvantaged neighborhoods

Criminology, Volume 48 Issue 1, Pages 221 – 258

Derek A. Kreager, Ross L. Matsueda, Elena A. Erosheva

Evidence from several qualitative studies has suggested that the transition to motherhood has strong inhibitory effects on the delinquency and drug use trajectories of poor women. Quantitative studies, however, typically have failed to find significant parenthood or motherhood effects. We argue that the latter research typically has not examined motherhood in disadvantaged settings or applied the appropriate statistical method. Focusing on within-individual change, we test the motherhood hypothesis using data from a 10-year longitudinal study of more than 500 women living in disadvantaged Denver communities. We find that the transition to motherhood is associated significantly with reductions in delinquency, marijuana, and alcohol behaviors. Moreover, we find that the effect of motherhood is larger than that of marriage for all outcomes. These results support the qualitative findings and suggest that the transition to motherhood—and not marriage—is the primary turning point for disadvantaged women to exit delinquent and drug-using trajectories.

Link to summary and DOI entry for study.

The ‘pseudocommando’ mass murderer

Murder sprees by grudge-bearing, gun-toting killers have become a tragic feature of modern society although owing to the thankfully rare occurrence of the incidents, little is known about the sort of person who decides to embark upon this sort of deadly rampage. An article just published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law reviews what we know about such people.

It must be said that the article spends a lot of time on the rather interpretive ‘psychodynamics’ of mass shooter personality and less on more systematic evidence, but largely, it seems, because there is very little of the latter.

However, it’s also worth saying that forensic psychology and psychiatry in the US has traditionally been, and remains, much more heavily influenced by Freudian theories than in Europe and so these sorts of analyses are not quite so unusual as they might seem.

The two introductory paragraphs to the paper note the main points and dispel some myths with regard to mass shooters (please note, I’ve removed the numerical references for ease of reading).

The term pseudocommando was used by Dietz in 1986 to describe a type of mass murderer who plans his actions “after long deliberation”. The pseudocommando often kills indiscriminately in public during the daytime, but may also kill family members and a “pseudo-community” he believes has mistreated him. He comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons and has no escape planned. He appears to be driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, in addition to having a paranoid character. Such persons are “collectors of injustice” who nurture their wounded narcissism and retreat into a fantasy life of violence and revenge. Mullen described the results of his detailed personal evaluations of five pseudocommando mass murderers who were caught before they could kill themselves or be killed. He noted that the massacres were often well planned (i.e., the offender did not “snap”), with the offenders arriving at the crime scene heavily armed, often in camouflage or warrior gear, and that they appeared to be pursuing a highly personal agenda of payback to an uncaring, rejecting world. Both Mullen and Dietz have described this type of offender as a suspicious grudge holder who is preoccupied with firearms.

Mass killings by such individuals are not new, nor did they begin in the 1960s with Charles Whitman. The news media tend to suggest that the era of mass public killings was ushered in by Whitman atop the tower at the University of Texas at Austin and have become “a part of American life in recent decades.” Research indicates that the news media have heavily influenced the public perception of mass murder, particularly the erroneous assertion that its incidence is increasing. Furthermore, it is typically the high-profile cases that represent the most widely publicized, yet least representative mass killings. As an example that such mass murderers have existed long before Whitman, consider a notorious case, the Bath School disaster of 1927, now long forgotten by most. Andrew Kehoe lived in Michigan in the late 1920s. He struggled with serious financial problems, and his wife suffered from tuberculosis. He appeared to focus his unhappiness and resentment on a local town conflict having to do with a property tax being levied on a school building. After becoming utterly overwhelmed with resentment and hatred, Kehoe killed his wife, set his farm ablaze, and killed some 45 individuals by setting off a bomb in the school building. Kehoe himself was killed in the blast, but he left a final communication on a wooden sign outside his property that read: “Criminals are made, not born”‚Äîa statement suggestive of externalization of blame and long-held grievance.

Link to PubMed entry for ‘pseudocommando’ article.

The determined self-accuser

While we tend to think that the recognition of false confessions is a relatively new development but The Lancet discussed the phenomenon of ‘auto-accusation’ as far back as 1902.

The article discusses the types of people falsely confessing to notorious crimes in early 1900s Paris.

“Auto-accusation” is a curious phenomenon which possesses both medical and legal interest. The committal of a notorious crime which excites popular imagination and which remains undetected for a time often leads to the appearance in law courts of self-accusing culprits who charge themselves with being the authors of the crime in question. Dr. Ernest Dupr√© of Paris in a paper read before the Annual Congress of French Alienists and Neurologists recently held at Grenoble attempts to delineate with exactitude the psychological nature of “auto-accusation” and to show that certain morbid elements play an important part in it.

He points out that “auto-accusation” is not often or merely the result of a weak-mindedness; the subject of it is a person who has positively developed general ideas of unworthiness, guilt, and remorse, and in a word is suffering from mild melancholia with vague delusions of guilt and sin. Another type of self-accuser is the proud and vain “degenerate” who with a brain warped by congenital anomaly of development constructs romances of which he readily persuades himself to be the hero or the martyr.

There is, adds Dr. Dupré, a marked contrast between these two types. The one is abject, lowly, self-humiliating; the other proud, egiostic, and vain. Among other types of the same abnormality are found persons of alcoholic or hysterical character. The alcoholic self-accuser is one whose delusion generally has its starting-point in nocturnal or morning hallucinations occurring in a state between sleeping and waking. The physical and mental characters associated with alcoholism permit such cases to be readily recognised and they are almost invariably observed in adult males. The female self-accuser is rarely seen in the law court and she is usually the subject of a marked hysteria.

These would now both be described as ‘voluntary’ false confessions, which can involve both people who are looking for notoriety and those who may believe they are responsible owing to mental health problems impairing the ability to make sense of reality.

These are in contrast to a ‘coerced-compliant’ confession – where someone knows that they’re innocent but takes the rap for whatever reason, and a ‘coerced-internalised’ confession, which can result from the accused starting to doubt their own memory and judgement and start to believe they were responsible, often due in part to high pressure interviewing techniques.

The piece was found via the occasional ‘100 years ago’ section of the British Journal of Psychiatry that picks out interesting items from a century hence.

Link to original article in The Lancet.

Do animals commit suicide?

Photo by Flickr user dumbskull. Click for sourceTime magazine has a short article on the history of ideas about whether animals can commit suicide. It starts somewhat awkwardly by discussing the recent Oscar winning documentary on dolphins but is in fact based on an academic paper on ‘animal suicide’.

Changes in how humans have interpreted animal suicide reflect shifting values about animals and our own self-destruction, the paper argues. The Romans saw animal suicide as both natural and noble; an animal they commonly reported as suicidal was one they respected, the horse. Then for centuries, discussion of animal suicide seems to have stopped. Christian thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas deemed suicide sinful for humans and impossible for animals. “Everything naturally loves itself,” wrote Aquinas in the 13th century. “The result being that everything naturally keeps itself in being.”

In 19th century Britain, however, after Darwin demonstrated how humans evolved from animals, humane societies formed, vegetarianism and pets became popular, and reports of animal suicide resurfaced. The usual suspect this time was the dog. In 1845 the Illustrated London News reported on a Newfoundland who had repeatedly tried to drown himself: “The animal appeared to get exhausted, and by dint of keeping his head determinedly under water for a few minutes, succeeded at last in obtaining his object, for when taken out this time he was indeed dead.”

Of course, the article doesn’t answer the question of whether animals can end it all, but is a fascinating look at how the idea that they can has gone in and out of fashion.

UPDATE: Thanks to Mind Hacks reader Avicenna for pointing out that the full text of the academic article ‘The nature of suicide: science and the self-destructive animal’ is available online.

Link to ‘Do Animals Commit Suicide? A Scientific Debate’.