Crack baby blues

I’ve just noticed a smattering of articles that have tackled the idea of the ‘crack baby’ which became popular during the worrying emergence of crack cocaine during the late 80s. It turns out that babies exposed to crack in the womb weren’t necessarily massively brain damaged tragedies as the stereotype had it, but the concept has remained with us.

This is despite the fact that we have solid research to show that while those exposed to cocaine in utero do show some differences from other kids, the effects are undesirable but actually relatively small.

This is from The New York Times last year:

Cocaine slows fetal growth, and exposed infants tend to be born smaller than unexposed ones, with smaller heads. But as these children grow, brain and body size catch up.

At a scientific conference in November, Dr. Lester presented an analysis of a pool of studies of 14 groups of cocaine-exposed children – 4,419 in all, ranging in age from 4 to 13. The analysis failed to show a statistically significant effect on I.Q. or language development. In the largest of the studies, I.Q. scores of exposed children averaged about 4 points lower at age 7 than those of unexposed children.

In tests that measure specific brain functions, there is evidence that cocaine-exposed children are more likely than others to have difficulty with tasks that require visual attention and “executive function”, the brain’s ability to set priorities and pay selective attention, enabling the child to focus on the task at hand.

Cocaine exposure may also increase the frequency of defiant behavior and poor conduct, according to Dr. Lester’s analysis. There is also some evidence that boys may be more vulnerable than girls to behavior problems.

But experts say these findings are quite subtle and hard to generalize. “Just because it is statistically significant doesn’t mean that it is a huge public health impact,” said Dr. Harolyn M. Belcher, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician who is director of research at the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Family Center in Baltimore.

A piece from City Limits Monthly tracked how the myth arose. It’s probably the best account I’ve read of the cultural currents that promoted the concept to front page news and keep it afloat even today.

And just last month The Washington Post talked to some families of kids labelled as ‘crack babies’ now that they have grown up into adults finding that, well, many have done alright.

Link to NYT on ‘The Epidemic That Wasn’t’.
Link to great City Limits analysis (via @maiasz)
Link to Washington Post piece (via @sunshinyday)

Hallucinating the void

Rhode Island Medical News recently published an April fools article where the author joked about negative hallucinations, where someone didn’t see things that were really there, seemingly unaware that such hallucinations are in fact possible.

The article, which you can read online as a pdf, has various humorous references to jumping traffics lights or ignoring family members. But when I’m talking about the genuine version I don’t mean lapses of attention, blind spots, inattentional blindness or other momentary failure-to-notice effects. I’m talking about not seeing specific barn door obvious objects in your field of vision when you are concentrating on the area.

These are genuinely called negative hallucinations in the scientific literature although, as far as I know, they only occur in one specific context – after hypnosis.

In fact, the induction of a negative hallucination forms part of the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale (Form C) although these sort of ‘anti-hallucinations’ are only experienced by the most hypnotisable of people – as are most ‘cognitive’ suggestions that effect the experience of your own mind (rather than changes in the sensation of control of movement, which most people can experience something of).

There is a small literature on ‘negative hallucinations’ with several studies examining changes in electrical activity from the brain (‘evoked potentials’) as the hallucination becomes active.

It’s still not clear how negative hallucinations work exactly. Almost all studies have found changes to attention, our ability to selectively process perceptual information, although the data is inconsistent largely owing to the small number of studies – a constant bugbear of hypnosis research.

Link to April fools article PubMed entry.
pdf of full-text
Link to Google Scholar search of negative hallucination studies.
Link to PubMed search of negative hallucination studies.

A belief in flexible intelligence

Photo by Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography / D Sharon Pruitt. Click for sourceThe Chronicle of Higher Education has an excellent piece about psychologist Carol Dweck’s work which has highlighted how what you believe about intelligence has an effect on how you perform.

Dwecks’ work has garnered a great deal of attention and her main findings have suggested that children praised for their ‘hard work’ do significantly better when challenged with difficult problem that those who are told that they are ‘intelligent’.

The Chronicle article is a fantastic update to some of the more congratulatory pieces that have appeared in the press as it covers some of the work from other research groups that didn’t find the effect or has only found it under limited circumstances.

The studies wondered whether students’ beliefs about intelligence (“entity” [fixed] versus “incremental,” [flexible] in Dweck’s terms) would affect how long they practiced before taking the test, whether they chose to listen to distracting music while practicing, and how they would explain their low scores after taking the test.

The answer turned out to be: It depends. The Michigan studies divided the incremental theorists (that is, the students who implicitly believed that intelligence is malleable) into two groups: Those whose sense of self-worth was tied to academic performance and those who didn’t care so much about school. The latter group‚Äîthose whose egos were not deeply invested in schoolwork‚Äîbehaved as Dweck would have predicted. But among students whose self-worth was tied to academic performance, incremental theorists behaved similarly to students with “fixed” beliefs about intelligence. They avoided practicing, and they “self-handicapped.”

Link to Chronicle piece on Dwecks’ work.

Disappearing trick

Koro is the unfounded fear that the genitals are retracting into the body or have disappeared. It is usually classified by Western psychiatry as a ‘culture bound syndrome‘ as it typically appears Asian or African cultures in various forms but an article in the Journal of Sexual Medicine notes that it has shown up in most cultures at one time or another.

Koro–the psychological disappearance of the penis.

Mattelaer JJ, Jilek W.

J Sex Med. 2007 Sep;4(5):1509-15.

The aim of this article is to present a summarizing overview on ethnomedical aspects of koro (in Chinese called suo-yang), the panic anxiety state in which affected males believe that the penis is shrinking and/or retracting, and perhaps disappearing. While reduction of penile volume occurs physiologically due to vasoconstriction in cold temperature and intense anxiety, it is believed in certain cultures that genital shrinking leads to impotence and sterility, and eventually to death. Traditional Chinese medicine treats suo-yang, the reduction of the male principle yang, as a dangerous disturbance of the life-sustaining yin-yang equilibrium of the organism. Koro has therefore been held to be a Chinese “culture-bound” condition. However , the koro phenomenon is also known among diverse ethnic and religious groups in Asia and Africa, typically in cultures in which reproductive ability is a major determinant of a young person’s worth. Koro epidemics of panic anxiety due to widespread fears of losing one’s genitals, procreative ability, and even one’s life, are triggered by rumors of genital disappearance supposedly caused in China by female fox spirits, in Singapore and Thailand by mass poisoning, and in Africa by sorcery, usually in the context of socioeconomic or political tension. Today, in contemporary Western societies, ideas of genital disappearance are not culturally endorsed. But historically, it should be remembered that in the late Middle Ages in Europe, a man could lose his membrum virile through magical attacks by witches. The conclusion is that the psychological disappearance of the penis is a universal syndrome that was described recently in Asia and Africa and already in Medieval Europe.

Link to PubMed entry for article.
Link to Wikipedia page on the ‘koro’ belief.

2010-05-21 Spike activity

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

BBC Radio 4’s excellent In Our Time had a discussion on William James’ landmark book ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’

The Neurocritic examines a curious study on the cognitive science of gaydar.

The brilliant behavioural economist Dan Ariely writes for Wired UK on habits and behavioural inertia in consumer decision-making.

Neuroskeptic has an insightful post that gets beyond the dopamine = ‘instant reward liquid’ stereotype that plagues popular neuroscience.

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind recently had an excellent edition on HIV, dementia and the brain.

The BPS Research Digest comes out as a born-again introspector. Can I get an amen? You tell me brother.

The late great Richard Gregory gets a fitting send off with an obituary in The Times. A chap with a remarkably varied life.

Addiction Inbox has another one of its consistently excellent posts, this time on Al Hubbard “a former intelligence agent, rogue businessman, and general intellectual gadfly” who was one of the initiators of LSD therapy.

There is a jaw dropping and worrying report on BBC News about the growing epidemic of opium addiction in Afghanistan, with audio slideshow.

The Seminal blog seems to catch the American Psychological Association deleting and editing web pages that linked it to CIA torture workshops. Repression? Surely not.

Fashion students must compete with psychology students for retail jobs, reports New York Magazine bleakly. Sounds shit but it’ll probably be a reality show on cable some time soon.

BoingBoing has a visual study guide to cognitive biases.

Toddlers who lie ‘will do better’ demands BBC News. Or, at least, I think that’s what they’re doing. It could be something about early development of theory of mind.

Advances in the History of Psychology has found some archive films from the seminal development psychologist Kurt Lewin.

Caregivers for people with dementia more likely to also get the disease, reports Wired Science. Mechanism unknown.

New Scientist reports on an intriguing but somewhat overenthusiastic research report suggesting that ball lightning may be a hallucination.

The New York Times starts a philosophy section. Shit already hitting the conceptual fan.

Forensic psychology blog In the News covers an interesting angle on the story of anti-gay expert George Rekers being caught with a rent boy – he’s been an expert witness in countless court cases on homosexuality and the revelation may affect the weight of his expert testimony in past cases.

CBS News reports on a study finding that unattractive defendants 22 percent more likely to be convicted than good-looking ones and also get sentenced to an average of 22 months longer in prison.

The four stages of fear present themselves during an attack by a mountain lion! A great piece for Discover Magazine forms part of the brain special issue of the magazine.

Psicología Latina is a new journal in English and Spanish on on the history of psychology in Spain, Portugal and Latin America.

There’s an icky but interesting account of treating President Lincoln’s fatal head wound over at Galen Press.

From madhouse to medication

I just watched a thought-provoking BBC documentary called Mental: A History of the Madhouse which follows the history of British psychiatric treatment in the 20th century from the monolithic mental hospitals inherited from the 1800s to the development of ‘care in the community’ at the end of the century.

If you’re based in the UK you can watch it on the BBC’s streaming service but I also notice that it has appeared on various public torrent servers. *cough*

It’s definitely a dissenters look at history as the professional commentators, such as psychiatrist Joanne Moncrieff and psychologist Rachel Perkins, hail from the most critical end of mental health.

It’s probably true to say that 20th century psychiatry was not exactly a litany of success stories, although it would have been useful to hear some of the more positive angles as well.

However, I was interested to hear that one of the major figures in the removal of the old mental hospitals was conservative politician Enoch Powell who secured his place in history with his rabidly anti-immigration 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (synopsis: ‘we fought the war and now there are darkies everywhere!’).

Years earlier, however, he gave a speech that cemented his determination to dismantle the old hospital system and he didn’t mince words.

They imply nothing less than the elimination of by far the greater part of this country’s mental hospitals as they exist today. This is a colossal undertaking, not so much in the new physical provision which it involves, as in the sheer inertia of mind and matter which it requires to be overcome. There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water-tower and chimney combined, rising unmistakable and daunting out of the countryside – the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day. Do not for a moment underestimate their powers of resistance to our assault. Let me describe some of the defences which we have to storm…

The speech reads very strangely today as it was clearly the beginning of huge reforms while openly talking about ‘sub-normals’.

The documentary is well worth checking out. It largely focuses on the story of one hospital, High Royds, in West Yorkshire.

Interestingly, the hospital has had two rock tributes to it. The Kaiser Chief’s song ‘Highroyds’ and Kasabian’s album named ‘West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum’, riffing on its original name.

Link to info about the documentary.

Rough terrain for social scientists in Aghan war

An anonymous ex-member of the Human Terrain System, the team of social scientists deployed with the US Military, is now writing on the Wired Danger Room blog about role of the service in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first article notes how in several recent operations the HTS has been notable by its absence.

As we’ve discussed before, the HTS project has been a source of some considerable controversy with fellow social scientists denouncing the project as ‘weaponised anthropology’ that violates the ‘do no harm’ principle.

The military intend the service to help understand the local population and complex alliances that define the social landscape in which they’re fighting but the Wired piece suggests that the Human Terrain System is being sidelined, either due to ignorance of its purpose or dislike of its approach amid the ranks.

How do you properly vet the insurgents you’re trying to “win over” to your side? Is simply promising not to attack your forces enough, or should you press for a formal integration with the government? At what point do a militant’s activities make him irredeemable?

Those are just some of the difficult choices facing U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan – questions explored in a fine, fine dispatch by the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe. In it, he tells the tale of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Brown, who led a group of soldiers during last year’s insurgent assault on Camp Keating, in Kamdesh district of Nuristan province. After the attack, Lt. Col. Brown faced a difficult choice: whether or not to align himself with a local warlord and militant, Mullah Sadiq, who promised to repel future Taliban attacks.

It seems like the sorts of question were designed to be answered by the Human Terrain System. HTS is the famously controversial U.S. Army program to embed various types of social scientists with Brigade Combat Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ostensibly, these Human Terrain Teams should be out, canvassing the local population to gauge their interests, feelings, and preferences. The local HTT is conspicuously absent from Jaffe‚Äôs account of the events following the Kamdesh attack…

In theory, the HTTs would able to offer advice and informed analysis to the various commanders making decisions about how to relate to these communities. Often, the commanders don’t even know enough to ask, and in at least a few cases, the HTTs don’t know how to “pitch” their services. As events in Nuristan indicate, even if there is an HTT in the area, their advice could fall on deaf ears. Worse still: if they are deliberately or even unintentionally excluded from the very process they were deployed to influence—then HTS as a whole is facing a much more serious problem: just what, exactly, are they expected to do?

The Danger Room series from the pseudonymous writer of piece, named ‘Security Crank’, should be an interesting insight into the project although the byline mentions that he or she is currently working in the ‘national security establishment’ so we can probably expect that criticism will only go so far.

Link to Wired Danger Room on HTA in Afghanistan.