Phantom pregnancy, in men

Photo by Flickr user Emery Co Photo. Click for sourceABC Radio National’s Life Matters has a brief segment on the fascinating Couvade syndrome, also known as sympathetic pregnancy, where male partners of expectant women start feeling the physical effects of being pregnant.

This can range from aches and pain, to food cravings, to morning sickness, to full on ‘pseudocyesis’ or phantom pregnancy which involves abdominal swelling and lactation.

The programme discusses some fascinating research that has found that men have raised levels of the hormone prolactin when their partner is pregnant.

Prolactin is most associated with breast-feeding but raised levels can cause lactation in men as well (incidentally, due to the fact that many antipsychotic drugs raise levels of this hormone, male lactation can be an unpleasant side effect of this medication).

The programme mentions that a special documentary about Couvade syndrome for the Australian TV science show Catalyst was just shown on TV, so if anyone discovers a torrent for it, do let me know or post it in the comments.

The documentary’s webpage has some additional material, and, if you live down-under you can watch a streamed version, but sadly its not available outside of Oz.

Link to Life Matters on Couvade syndrome.
Link to documentary webpage.

Could a brain parasite be responsible for everything?

Photo by Flickr user .:* Ambrosity *:. Click for sourceSlate has a tongue-in-cheek article making the case that national levels of infection with the toxoplasma gondii parasite could be responsible for World Cup success.

It’s timely because the parasite has most recently been discussed in the press due to a new study that found a correlation between infection rates and national IQ levels. However, it’s previously been linked (again, correlated) with a whole host of human characteristics.

This is from some insightful coverage from Not Exactly Rocket Science:

Indeed, as I alluded to earlier, this new paper is the latest in a long line of hypothesis-generating publications from Fincher and Thornhill linking parasites and infections to pretty much any sweeping aspect of human life you can think of. Through similar studies based on correlations at the national level, Thornhill and Fincher have suggested that infections are linked to individualism and collectivism, religious diversity, linguistic diversity, armed conflicts and civil war, and democracy and liberal values. Like any attempt to explain very complex patterns of human behaviour through a single cause, this ought to raise an eyebrow. I’m raising two.

The case for the parasite being linked to football success in the Slate article sounds about as reasonable as everything else it’s been linked to as all the arguments are based on a correlation and some conjectures about how one could cause the other.

However, we could probably find dozens of things that might correlate with toxoplasma gondii on the national level (levels of traffic accidents? Eurovision song contest performance? spiciness of the food?).

It could be that such infections genuinely cause changes in aspects of thought or behaviour, but we won’t find this out from these sorts of studies because the links could be entirely incidental as our World Cup example likely demonstrates.

Link to Slate on toxo infections and World Cup success.
Link to Not Exactly Rocket Science on toxo correlations.

Full disclosure: I’m an occasional writer for Slate.

The mighty fortress of belief

Bad Science has an excellent piece on the psychology of how we deal with evidence that challenges our cherished beliefs. Needless to say, our most common reaction is to try and undermine the evidence rather than adjust our beliefs.

The classic paper on the last of those strategies is from Lord in 1979: they took two groups of people, one in favour of the death penalty, the other against it, and then presented each with a piece of scientific evidence that supported their pre-existing view, and a piece that challenged it. Murder rates went up, or down, for example, after the abolition of capital punishment in a state, or comparing neighbouring states, and the results were as you might imagine. Each group found extensive methodological holes in the evidence they disagreed with, but ignored the very same holes in the evidence that reinforced their views.

The article goes on to discuss a recent study that found that scientific information that contradicts a cherished belief not only leads people to doubt the study in question, but also science itself.

In psychology, the motivation to resolve conflicting ideas is called cognitive dissonance and it leads us to try and resolve the contradiction in whichever is the most personally satisfying way, rather than whichever it the most in tune with reality.

The theory has an interesting beginning and first originated when psychologist Leon Festinger decided to study a flyer saucer cult, an episode he documented in his amazing book When Prophecy Fails.

Festinger was curious as to what would happen when an inconsistency to a cherished belief was so absolute it would seem to be logically overwhelming. So he was intrigued when he saw a story in the paper about a religious cult who had prophesised that the world would end in a great flood on December 21, 1954, while the true believers would be rescued in a flying saucer.

The members sold all their possessions, several divorced because their spouses were non-believers, and they prepared for the big event. Festinger’s colleague Stanley Schachter infiltrated the cult and documented what happened on the night when the ‘end of the world’ came – and went.

In the hours following midnight the group were distraught, but at 4am a ‘message’ arrived from the aliens, channelled through the group’s leader. It said: “This little group, sitting all night long, has spread so much goodness and light that the God of the Universe spared the Earth from destruction.”

You would think that a failed prophecy backed up by a lame excuse would lead the members to give it up as a lost cause, but instead, they became more fervent in their beliefs and publicly announced they’d saved the world.

Although the group Festinger studied eventually disbanded, the group’s leader ‘Sister Thedra’ went on to found various alien-inspired New Age movements and is still widely revered in those circles. There’s some information about her on this UFO group page and on various similar places online, none of which mentions the failed prophecy.

Cognitive dissonance is one of the most established theories in psychology and one of our most powerful motivators that drives us to fit the world into what we already believe. Science, religion or reality are simply no match.

Link to Bad Science on discounting evidence.

A contagion of social symptoms

Photo by Flickr user BLW Photography. Click for sourceThere’s a fascinating study just published online by the journal Epidemiology that examines how many reports of chemical spills may in fact be ‘mass hysteria’ or ‘mass psychogenic illness‘.

Psychogenic illness is where medical problems appear; like paralysis, irritation, loss of consciousness, headaches and so on; despite there being no damage to the body or a standard cause for the symptoms.

The idea is that they are caused by ‘psychological factors’, which is a fairly woolly way of saying that we can often experience symptoms that normally appear in other disorders simply through psychological distress.

They appear in many forms, most spectacularly in what is now diagnosed as conversion disorder, where people can be, to all intents and purposes, blind or paralysed without having any damage to their eyes or nervous system.

Although these most striking presentations are uncommon, medical symptoms without a clear medical cause are actually very frequent. A study in 2000 found that 11% of consultations to neurologists involved symptoms that were “not at all explained” by medical findings while the symptoms of 19% of the patients were only “somewhat explained”.

Neurology has the benefit that, although nervous system disorders are often difficult to treat, they can be quite precisely diagnosed, so it’s unlikely that its just due to the vagueness of the medical definitions.

And if you think the figures quoted above seem weirdly high, they’re actually the lowest that have been reported. A previous study found 42% of patient with neurological symptoms did not have neurological damage that explained them.

These are usually individual cases that report to the doctor, but mass psychogenic illness is where these symptoms seems to rapidly appear in groups of people through a form of ‘social contagion’.

Previous anecdotal reports have often noted that these cases often appear as suspect ‘chemical incidents’ but where tests show no chemical was ever presented.

This new study analysed 280 medical accounts of suspected ‘chemical exposure events’ reported to the Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards in the UK.

The reports were given to several independent medical toxicologists, who rated them being genuinely due to the effects of a chemical spill, or likely to be due to psychogenic illness because the symptoms didn’t match the chemical or appeared without a chemical actually being present and quickly spread between people.

For example, here’s a summary of one of the cases of ‘chemical incidents’ identified as mass psychogenic illness:

A student alleged that he had analysed the tap water from a college building and found lead levels 12 times the recommended maximum. The student complained of symptoms and reported them to his family doctor. 250 staff and students were advised not to drink the water. Some developed headaches that were attributed to lead poisoning. Testing of the water samples showed lead to be below statutory levels.

Out of the 280 incidents reported to the Health Protection Agency, 19 (about 7%) were rated as being cases of mass psychogenic illness.

Interestingly, these incidents were more likely to take place in healthcare facilities and schools, and were more likely to be triggered by an odour that wasn’t recognised as smoke.

We tend to assume that medical symptoms always have clear bodily causes, but a significant minority are likely caused by expectation and psychological stress.

Bodily symptoms are simply another way in which we can express psychological distress even if we have no idea that this is what is happening.

Link to Pubmed entry for study on mass psychogenic illnes.

Lady psychologists, the interwebs need you

Photo by Flickr user _mubblegum_. Click for souceThe BPS Research Digest has just finished a series of interviews with psychology and neuroscience bloggers that includes some of the best known mind on brain sites on the net.

If you’re a Mind Hacks reader, you’ll probably recognise most of the blogs as we often link to them, but I was struck by the lack of female bloggers.

In the UK, 80% of psychology undergraduates are female and the profession is overwhelming female. I don’t know figures from other countries but my impression is that this is a global trend.

I’m pretty sure there isn’t a vast world of female mind and brain bloggers out there that were missed in the interview series, so it seems psychology writers on the net are mostly male, with some very notable exceptions.

Ladies, don’t be shy. If you’re blogging in the shadows, let us know, and if you’ve ever thought about it, give it a go.

Link to BPSRD ‘Bloggers Behind the Blogs’ series.

2010-07-02 Spike activity

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

NPR have just completed a three part series on violence, psychopaths and the brain.

Bring back the fat cats? Hunger increases financial risk-taking according to a new study covered by the BPS Research Digest.

Time has an in-depth article that covers cocaine’s growth as a middle class drug and its link to the global drug trade. [From 1981! Missed that. Thanks commentors!]

If you’re not familiar with The Beautiful Brain, you’re missing a fantastic and diverse neuroscience site that covers the intersection between art and science.

The New York Times just completed a five-part series on anosognosia and insight that works well as individual scenes but doesn’t really hang together. Worth a read for the individual snapshots though.

Did you know that awesome PSYOPS website PsyWar is now on Twitter as @psywarorg?

The Atlantic argues that we should be giving scientists performance-enhancing drugs. Although, I think actually inventing some might be a good first step. Antireductionazole – stops inappropriate reductionism – fast!

An innovative study that used a tongue stimulator to look at how blind people deal with spatial navigation is covered by Neurophilosophy.

BBC News on how the UK government covered-up an assessment of drugs policy so it couldn’t be be used by critics. Because you can’t be trusted with drugs or information. You know what you’re like.

The tragic story of how a new form of synthetic smack ended up paralysing drug users and helping us understand Parkinson’s disease is covered on Speakeasy Science.

RadioLab has just put another awesome episode online about mistakes which starts with a jaw-dropping piece about Harvard interrogation experiments in the 1960s.

A neat analysis of research trends shows the declining influence of psychoanalysis and Freud over at Neuroskeptic.

The US legal system looks set for a major overhaul regarding eye-witness testimony, according to coverage from the excellent In the News. By the way, the blog’s author is now on Twitter as @kfranklinphd with more great forensic psychology news.

Frontal Cortex has an excellent piece on how the effort of controlling Tourette’s syndrome tics can lead to improved cognitive ability in some areas.

Supporting equal rights for women doesn’t necessarily translate into equal rights for women, according to a new global survey covered by The New York Times.

Harvard Magazine has a piece on research finding that thinking or either good or evil deeds increases physical endurance.

There’s some insightful coverage of the ‘parasite infection levels linked to national IQ’ story over at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Motherboard.TV has an amazing half hour documentary on smuggling submarines built by Colombian narcotraffickers and you can watch the whole thing online.

There’s a good review of the new book ‘The Madness within Us: Schizophrenia as a Neuronal Process’ over at Somatosphere.

The latest Nature Neuroscience Neuropod podcast has just appeared online and you can grab it from their homepage or as a direct mp3 download.

Scientific American covers the <a href="Amygdaloids″>latest releases from neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux’s rock n’ roll outfit ‘The Amygdaloids’.

Not sure about the portrayal of marriage counselling but We’re Only Human covers some fascinating research about what hopefulness and the course of a successful marriage.

The Washington Post reports on a global survey which finds that money buys happiness. Suck it up hippies.

After 75 years, we don‚Äôt know how Alcoholics Anonymous works, according to Wired. Nonsense. It’s works by a ‘higher power’. It says in the book.

New Scientist discusses why why men are attracted to women with small feet. Feet?

A computer program has deciphered a dead language that mystified linguists and io9 has the story.

The Economist covers the recent study finding wearing fake goods makes people less honest.

Yet another study finds no link between the XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome, plus bonus academic murkiness to enliven the story over at Nature News.

Dr Petra asks ‘What do we want from sex and relationships education?’

Classical music alters the heart rate of people in a persistent vegetative state in a similar way to healthy people, according to a new study covered by New Scientist.

The New York Times reports on a how a preliminary hypothesis about multiple sclerosis has prompted calls from surgery and even someone offering to carry out the procedure.

There’s an interview with primatologist Frans de Waal about empathy and social interaction over at American Scientist.

The Washington Post reports on how the US Military’s PSYOPS is awash with soft money that gets spent on contractors.

There’s a review of Paul Bloom’s new book ‘How Pleasure Works’ over at The New York Times.

DSM5 in Distress is the blog of ex-DSM chief and DSM5 critic Allen Frances. He has an excellent post on defining mental disorder.

That’s what they want you to believe

The Psychologist has a fascinating article on the psychology of conspiracy theories, looking at what characteristics are associated with believing in sinister far-reaching explanations and what role these beliefs play in society.

I was particularly interested in one part where they note that we are influenced by such ideas even when we’re not aware of it:

Other relevant work has examined the psychological impact of exposure to conspiracy theories, particularly in relation to mass media sources (e.g. Butler et al., 1995 [who studied the psychological impact of the film JFK]), but also in relation to the third-person effect (the tendency for people to believe that persuasive media has a larger influence on others than themselves). In one study, Douglas and Sutton (2008) had participants read material containing conspiracy theories about Princess Diana’s death before rating their own and others’ agreement with the statements, as well as their perceived retrospective attitudes. They found that participants significantly underestimated how much the conspiracy theories influenced their own attitudes.

The piece also covers why conspiracy theories can seem so attractive and discusses compatibility with prior beliefs, the fact they might fill an emotional need, and how they might reflect a general distrust of authority.

However, it doesn’t touch on the fact that truth can often be stranger than fiction, giving even the most unlikely theories a wide margin of error:

The CIA setting-up fake brothels to spike punters with LSD to test its effectiveness as a new generation of mind control drug – been done; secret international network to listen in on telephone calls, faxes and e-mails – old hat; foreign journalists in the pay of intelligence services to spin the media – yesterday’s news.

It is interesting that both conspiracy theorists and conspiracy hiders use this grey area to equal effect.

Link to Psychologist article ‘The truth is out there’.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist. This site is entirely independent of the Knights Templar.

If there were genes for homelessness

Photo by Flickr user St Stev. Click for SourceThis month’s British Journal of Psychiatry has a quietly powerful poem by psychiatrist Sean Spence which highlights the sometimes uncomfortable misconnection between the problems we study and the problems we face.

Spence is well-known for his work in cognitive neuropsychiatry although has had a long-standing interest in treating mental health difficulties in those living on the street.

If Homelessness Were Genetic
by Sean Spence

If homelessness were genetic,
Institutes would be constructed
With tall white walls,
And ‘driven’ people (with thick glasses)
Would congregate
In libraries

And mumble.

If homelessness were genetic
Bright young things
Would draft manifestos
‘To crack the problem’

Girls with braces on their teeth
Would stoop to kiss
Boys with dandruff
At Unit discos

While dancing (slowly)
To ‘Careless Whisper’.

Meanwhile, upstairs, in the offices
Secretaries in long white coats
And horn-rimmed spectacles,
Carrying clipboards,
Would cross their legs
And take dictation:

  ‘Miss Brown, a memo please,
  To the eminent Professor Levchenko,
  “Many thanks indeed
  For all those sachets you sent to me,
  Of homeless toddlers’ teeth.”’

If homelessness were genetic
Rats from broken homes
Would sleep in cardboard shoeboxes
Evading violent fathers,
Who broke their bones,
While small white mice
With cocaine habits
Would huddle in fear,
Sleeping in doorways,
Receiving calibrated kicks from gangs of passers-by

(A “geneenvironment interaction”).

If homelessness were genetic
Then the limping man, with swollen feet,
A fever,
And the voices crying out within his brain
Would not traipse
Between surgery and casualty
Being turned away
For being roofless

Because, of course,
Homelessness would be genetic

And, therefore,