Determined to fail: free will and work success

If you want to predict how well someone might perform in a new job, you might want to enquire about their views on whether we are free to choose our own actions.

A delightful study just published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that belief in free will predicted job performance better than conscientiousness, belief in influence over life events and a commitment to a ‘Protestant work ethic’ where diligent labour is seen as a benefit in itself.

Here’s the summary from the study’s abstract:

Do philosophic views affect job performance? The authors found that possessing a belief in free will predicted better career attitudes and actual job performance. The effect of free will beliefs on job performance indicators were over and above well-established predictors such as conscientiousness, locus of control, and Protestant work ethic. In Study 1, stronger belief in free will corresponded to more positive attitudes about expected career success. In Study 2, job performance was evaluated objectively and independently by a supervisor. Results indicated that employees who espoused free will beliefs were given better work performance evaluations than those who disbelieve in free will, presumably because belief in free will facilitates exerting control over one’s actions.


Link to summary and DOI entry for study (via Brain Hammer).

Thumb sucking was a brain disease

I’ve just discovered an astounding article from the journal Medical History that left me, dare I say, open mouthed. It’s about how, in the early 1900s, thumb-sucking in children was considered a neurological disorder that was thought serious enough to justify paediatrics as a separate medical speciality.

It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time these were weighty concerns and thumb-sucking merited a place in medical textbooks where it was thought to be responsible for dental damage – a genuine risk to developing teeth in some cases – but less realistically, it was also cited as a cause of facial deformity and, oddly, masturbation.

Fuelled by the popularity of Freudian concepts, thumb-sucking was seen as infantile form of ‘self-pleasuring’ that had lots of knock-on effects for both child and adult development.

It’s probably worth explaining that, in those less enlightened times, whacking off was not only considered dirty, but a leading cause of insanity and hysteria. So the charge that one activity could trigger self-pleasuring was a much more serious affair.

These are genuine quotes from the medical textbooks of the time:

Many are absolutely incurable and the victim may be compelled to carry the marks of this practice and their accompanying discomforts through a long life.

So hideous is the deformity caused by this habit, that it seems incredible that it should be necessary even to call attention to it, much less to urge that action be taken to put a stop to the evil.

Probably the most pernicious result of sucking is its tendency to develop the habit of masturbation.

No consideration of the nervous and mental derangements of infancy would be complete which omitted the consideration of the curious group of minor psychoses which, for want of a more distinctive name, are usually referred to as “bad habits”.


Link to Medical History article on thumb sucking and paediatrics.

A cultured gene

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers an eye-opening study that looked at an interaction between genetics and social behaviour. So far, so normal, except that the researchers found that the gene in question, involved in sensing the hormone oxytocin, had a different effect on social behaviour in Americans and Koreans.

The study looked at how often people will ‘reach out’ to others for help and emotional support when they under stress, something that is more acceptable in the US than in Korea, and how this differs among people with different versions of the OXTR or oxytocin receptor gene.

Oxytocin has been stereotyped as a ‘hug drug’ that promotes positive social interaction but really is just a hormone involved in a range of social behaviours and has been linked to everything from bonding with babies to gloating and envy.

This new study adds to the more nuanced view of the hormone, which found a ‘reaching out’ effect only in the group of Americans, indicating that culture was affecting how the gene affected behaviour.

[Psychologist Heejung Kim] compared 134 Korean students with 140 American ones, all with comparable splits of age, gender and background. Using a questionnaire, she measured how stressed each volunteer was feeling at that point in their lives, and how they cope with stress. As with previous studies, Kim found that Koreans are less likely than Americans to turn to their social circle for support and they get less out of doing so; they are more concerned about burdening their friends and straining their relationships.

The OXTR gene exerts its influence against the background of these contrasting cultural conventions. Distressed Americans with one or more copies of the G version were more likely to seek emotional support from their friends, compared to those with two copies of the A version. But for the Koreans, the opposite was true – G carriers were less likely to look for support among their peers in times of need (although this particular trend was not statistically significant). In both cases, the G carriers were more sensitive to the social conventions of their own cultures. But the differences between these conventions led to different behaviour.

The research is a nice counter to a trend in science where studies from the American and European ‘science superpowers’ tend to overgeneralise their results (assuming that they apply universally) where research from smaller countries tends to over-localise their results.

Studies from the US and Europe tend to have titles like “An effect of gene X on ability Y”, whereas papers from smaller countries tend to say “An effect of gene X on ability Y in sample of young people from a small town in the north west of a mountainous region in continental Asia”.

Of course, each are likely to be influenced by culture and have limitations to their generalisability but this doesn’t tend to be equally recognised.

Link to Not Exactly Rocket Science coverage.

The brain machine interface of the old ones

Brain-machine interfaces have been of huge interest to the press over recent years, particularly as the technology sparks concerns that have been the subject of numerous science-fiction fantasies.

I found a lovely offbeat example of a fictional brain-machine interface, not from recent high-tech science fiction, but from a H.P. Lovecraft horror story called ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’ – written way back in 1930.

It concerns a race of winged fungi creatures who transport themselves across the space-time continuum as brains-in-cylinders that can be plugged into sensory and speech apparatus where necessary.

There was a harmless way to extract a brain, and a way to keep the organic residue alive during its absence. The bare, compact cerebral matter was then immersed in an occasionally replenished fluid within an ether-tight cylinder of a metal mined in Yuggoth, certain electrodes reaching through and connecting at will with elaborate instruments capable of duplicating the three vital faculties of sight, hearing, and speech.

For the winged fungus-beings to carry the brain-cylinders intact through space was an easy matter. Then, on every planet covered by their civilisation, they would find plenty of adjustable faculty-instruments capable of being connected with the encased brains; so that after a little fitting these travelling intelligences could be given a full sensory and articulate life – albeit a bodiless and mechanical one – at each stage of their journeying through and beyond the space-time continuum.

It was as simple as carrying a phonograph record about and playing it wherever a phonograph of corresponding make exists. Of its success there could be no question.

I also note it’s an early example of the ‘brain in a vat‘ thought experiment used in philosophy of mind.

Link to Wikipedia page on ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’.
Link to short story full text.

Flowers, falling maple leaves and wriggling dwarves

I love this summary of a study on unusual hallucinations in an elderly Japanese lady.

The full article is in Japanese but the translation of the abstract and the form of her hallucinations gives it a stylised quality that reminds me of the traditional art from the country.

The last sentence is wonderfully zen-like.

[Formed visual hallucination after excision of the right temporo parietal cystic meningioma–a case report.]

Brain Nerve. 2010 Aug;62(8):893-7.

Yoshimura M, Uchiyama Y, Kaneko A, Hayashi N, Yamanaka K, Iwai Y.

We report the case of a 64-year-old woman with cystic meningioma; this patients was otherwise healthy and experienced formed visual hallucinations after excision of the tumor. She experienced diplopia associated with metamorphopsia, which had persisted for 5 years only when she laid down and turned on her left side.

After the excision of the convexity meningioma located in the right temporoparietal lobe, she experienced several types of formed visual hallucinations such as closet-like pictures, flowers sketched on stones, falling maple-like leaves, and moving or wriggling dwarves.

She was alert and her visual field was normal; further, she did not experience delirium or seizures. She experienced these hallucinations only when she closed her eyes; these hallucinations persisted for 3 days after the operation.

The patient illustrated her observations with beautiful sketches, and the mechanism of visual hallucinations was studied.

If any of our Japanese readers have access to the article I would love to see if it has examples of the patient’s “beautiful sketches”.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

A natural state of mind

ScienceLine has an excellent article on ecopsychology – a branch of cognitive science that looks at the impact of the environment on the mind.

Originally considered a bit wishy washy due to a lack of hard data and more than a touch of hippie chic, it’s proponents are now starting to collect good evidence on the mental benefits of the natural world.

Don’t be put off by the spectacularly bad headline (“Can a Stroll in the Park Replace the Psychiatrist’s Couch?” – what?) as the piece actually asks some tough questions about the ‘ecopsychology’ approach and discusses some of the first controlled studies, including this wonderful example:

In green spaces, for example, people’s heart rates decrease, their muscles relax, and they become calmer. It’s the difference you feel when you leave behind a busy city street for a peaceful park.

A recent study by Ruckert’s advisor Peter Kahn confirmed these findings. First, Kahn stressed out his participants by giving them a series of math tests. Then he placed some people in front of a window overlooking a grassy lawn with trees, others in front of a large plasma television screen displaying the lawn in real time, and still others in front of a blank wall.

As expected, those in front of the window experienced the quickest drop in stress levels, as measured by their decreasing heart rate. Participants also spent far more time looking out the window and at the plasma screen than at the blank wall. But the researchers found an unexpected result.

“Surprisingly, the blank wall and the plasma screen were no different in terms of stress reduction,” said Ruckert. Their study indicates that gazing at an authentic natural space reduces stress, whereas a digital replica of nature soothes only as well as a boring blank wall.


Link to ScienceLine on ecopsychology (via and by @ferrisjabr).

Falling out of love with e-dating

Marie Claire has a fascinating short interview with psychologist Mark Thompson who was apparently hired by a big name internet dating website to work on ‘scientific matchmaking’ – but recently jumped ship when he became disillusioned with the industry.

Buyer beware: the guy has just written his own book on sex and relationships, although his comments on dating sites don’t seem to directly bear on his book promotion efforts.

Regardless, it’s actually quite refreshing to hear someone give a sensible take on the limit of ‘scientific matchmaking’ as, since it has become popular, science news has regularly been bogged down by lots of poorly disguised PR fluff based on exaggerated findings or dodgy unpublished ‘statistics’.

MC: What made you leave e-dating?

MT: I hated the way we overpromised and underdelivered. Our studies showed that the odds of meeting someone online and dating him more than a month are roughly one in 10. So it’s great that all those people on the TV commercials met their spouses, but they are the exceptions, not the rule. No computer can accurately predict whom you should be with. The function of the math will make vastly more false predictions than accurate ones.

MC: But isn’t blind dating always hit or miss?

MT: Yes, but you don’t have to pay $30 a month to be set up by your friend. And you don’t go in believing that science is behind the match. There’s a different set of expectations. When diet companies show someone who lost a bunch of weight in six weeks, they have to say, “Results not typical.” I think eHarmony and other sites should do the same.

MC: Do you think online dating can be fixed?

MT: It really depends on people’s willingness to come back and tell us why each date didn’t work out so the system could get smarter. It would be like Netflix, which learns from your preferences to make better predictions for you.

Netflix for dates. Actually, it’s not such a bad idea. “If you liked this date, you might also like…” could actually come in useful you had the hots for the other person, but they weren’t so keen on you. Or just even if you’re not in it for the long-term thing perhaps.

Link to Marie Clarie interview with Mark Thompson (via @DrPetra).

A slow motion mind during extreme danger?

NPR has a fantastic short radio segment on whether we really do experience time more slowly when our life is in danger.

The piece riffs on a 2007 study called ‘Does Time Really Slow Down during a Frightening Event?’ led by neuroscientist David Eagleman who discusses the project on the show.

The experimenters wanted a way to find a way to test whether we suddenly start experiencing time in greater detail when in mortal danger, or whether it just seems that way when we look back on it.

Of course, genuinely putting people in life-threatening situations is a little unethical, so the team used something called SCAD diving, where people are dropped – free fall – into a net.

SCAD diving was just what David needed — it was definitely terrifying. But he also needed a way to judge whether his subjects’ brains really did go into turbo mode. So, he outfitted everybody with a small electronic device, called a perceptual chronometer, which is basically a clunky wristwatch. It flashes numbers just a little too fast to see. Under normal conditions — standing around on the ground, say — the numbers are just a blur. But David figured, if his subjects’ brains were in turbo mode, they would be able to read the numbers.

The falling experience was, just as David had hoped, enough to freak out all of his subjects. “We asked everyone how scary it was, on a scale from 1 to 10,” he reports, “and everyone said 10.” And all of the subjects reported a slow-motion effect while falling: they consistently over-estimated the time it took to fall. The numbers on the perceptual chronometer? They remained an unreadable blur.

“Turns out, when you’re falling you don’t actually see in slow motion. It’s not equivalent to the way a slow-motion camera would work,” David says. “It’s something more interesting than that.”

The NPR piece is only short but is put together by the fantastic RadioLab guys and is probably the best 7 min 46 sec you’ll spend all day.

Link to NPR on fear and slow motion perception.
Link to full text of study at PLoS One.

Dark restaurant alters appetite and eating

We often assume that our appetite depends on how much food we’ve eaten, but a new study conducted in a completely dark restaurant has demonstrated that we don’t feel any more full if secretly slipped extra large portions of food. What we see, it seems, plays a big role in how hungry we feel.

The research, led by psychologist Benjamin Scheibehenne and published in the journal Appetite, invited participants to have lunch in a restaurant in downtown Berlin.

While the entrance bar was lit, the restaurant itself was pitch black and the volunteer ‘customers’ were served by blind waiters and waitresses who were capable of working in the dark.

The ‘customers’ ate two main courses in the dark dining area, but what they didn’t know, was that half were served normal-sized portions while the other half were served super-size portions that were more than a third bigger.

Afterwards, the light was switched on and they were offered a dessert that they could serve themselves.

The researchers measured how much dessert each person ate and the diners were asked to fill in a questionnaire where they estimated how hungry they were, how much they ate and whether they liked the food.

Exactly the same experiment was run a few weeks later, with different volunteers, but with everyone eating in the light, as in a normal restaurant.

For those who could see what they were eating, the size of their main course had a big effect on how full the diners felt and how much dessert they ate afterwards. But for those who dined in the dark, portion size didn’t seem to make a difference.

In other words, people were experiencing fullness based as much on their visual estimation of how much food they were eating as their actual physical consumption. Eating without seeing means we unwittingly eat more and feel less hungry.

This chimes was a 2005 study, where a research team created soup bowls that secretly refilled for some of the diners to the point where they ate three quarters more soup than others.

Despite this, those diners with the ‘bottomless soup bowls’ did not believe they had eaten more, nor did they feel themselves as more full than those eating from regular bowls.

The researchers from the Berlin study note that these findings show the importance of context for healthy eating and make an interesting point about how something as common as eating in front of the TV may affect how much we eat, simply by affecting how much we focus on our food.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

A gut reaction to moral transgressions

The Boston Globe has an excellent article on whether ‘gut feeling’ emotions, particularly disgust, are the unrecognised basis of moral judgements and social customs.

It’s an in-depth feature article that gives a great overview of the idea that social judgements may have an emotional basis, and, more controversially, that this tendency may have developed as part of an evolved aversion to things thought likely to cause infection or disease.

Research has shown that people who are more easily disgusted by bugs are more likely to see gay marriage and abortion as wrong. Putting people in a foul-smelling room makes them stricter judges of a controversial film or of a person who doesn’t return a lost wallet. Washing their hands makes people feel less guilty about their own moral transgressions, and hypnotically priming them to feel disgust reliably induces them to see wrongdoing in utterly innocuous stories.

Today, psychologists and philosophers are piecing these findings together into a theory of disgust’s moral role and the evolutionary forces that determined it: Just as our teeth and tongue first evolved to process food, then were enlisted for complex communication, disgust first arose as an emotional response to ensure that our ancestors steered clear of rancid meat and contagion.

But over time, that response was co-opted by the social brain to help police the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Today, some psychologists argue, we recoil at the wrong just as we do at the rancid, and when someone says that a politician’s chronic dishonesty makes her sick, she is feeling the same revulsion she might get from a brimming plate of cockroaches.

In psychology, there is lots of interest in people who have a selective problem with certain emotional reactions. ‘Psychopaths‘ are widely considered to have a selective lack of empathy, and I often wonder whether there are people who have a selective lack of disgust reactions.

There also seems to be little consideration of how disgust reactions are altered by context. For example, lots of common sexual acts seem quite unpalatable if done outside of a sexual context, despite the fact that this doesn’t change how hygienic they are.

The Boston Globe piece does a great job of covering the science in the area and it’s also worth mentioning that Edge recently posted videos and articles from a recent conference on ‘The New Science of Morality’ that has some great discussion from the leading researchers in the field.

Link to Boston Globe on ‘The surprising moral force of disgust’.
Link to Edge archives of the ‘The New Science of Morality’ conference.

Scientists go rafting

The New York Times has an odd feature article on how a group of cognitive scientists went into the ‘wilderness’ supposedly as part of a “quest to understand the impact on the brain of heavy technology use”.

As far as I can make out, though, the entire story is ‘scientists go rafting’. No research was conducted, or, in this situation, could have been usefully conducted to really test the impact of technology on the mind and brain. The main thrust of the piece is that the researchers discussed the topic among themselves.

I have no objection to scientists going rafting or heading off into the wilderness (I’m not averse to a bit of that myself) but I am baffled as to how such a weak story gets splashed as an insight into ‘technology and the brain’.

Scientifically, the trip is next to useless, as even if the team was doing research in the wild it tells us nothing specific about technology.

There is a whole host of studies that tell us contact with nature has psychological benefits, so any effects of being in the wilderness could be equally due to immersion in the natural world rather than lack of technology.

If you really wanted to see if there were any differences related to technology you’d want people to live their regular lives without the devices they usually rely on. Sending people on holiday just isn’t useful because you can’t tell whether any differences are due to changes in diet, sleeping patterns or sunset banjo playing.

The piece is also based on the bizarre premise that technology = multi-tasking and this is a new and ‘unnatural’ form of mental activity that may be ‘changing us’.

As we’ve mentioned before, this is an odd myth that ignores the fact that in the majority of the world, and for the majority of human history, we have multi-tasked without digital technology.

Anyone who thinks multi-tasking is novel should spend a day looking after four children, a small collection of animals and cooking on a stove at the same time (that, by the way, is an easy day).

So New York Times you can have that suggestion for free and I look forward to your forthcoming piece “Unplugged with Kids in a Brazilian Favela, Studying the Brain”.

I would volunteer but I can’t bear to be without my electric toothbrush.

Link to New York Times on scientists’ rafting holiday.

A series of famous cases

BBC Radio 4 have just started a new season of Case Study that looks at some of the most famous and important cases in the history of psychology.

The first is on HM, and although there’s nothing in the programme that’s particularly new about the science of memory, it does give a much fuller account of how the famous amnesic patient was as a person.

His recent death has allowed the shroud of anonymity to be lifted and the programme interviews his ex-carers and researchers who worked with him about his personality, personal history and general demeanour.

One of the most interesting parts is where HM’s alterations in emotion are discussed (likely owing to the removal of his amygdala along with most of his hippocampus) which is a topic largely ignored in the scientific studies on his memory.

The new series covers four cases but each is only available online for a week after it was broadcast (your license fee in action). The HM episode is only available until Wednesday so enjoy it while you can.

Link to HM episode of BBC Case Study series.

How power corrupts

The Wall Street Journal examines how positive psychological attributes are associated with people gaining power and why these exact same attributes might be eroded once people have achieved a certain level of influence.

The piece looks at studies that show, contrary to popular belief, that sly and social devious people are less likely to be put in positions of influence by their peers but that when the psychological effect of power takes hold, these same people start to become less honest.

A few years ago, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, began interviewing freshmen at a large dorm on the Berkeley campus. He gave them free pizza and a survey, which asked them to provide their first impressions of every other student in the dorm. Mr. Keltner returned at the end of the school year with the same survey and more free pizza. According to the survey, the students at the top of the social hierarchy—they were the most “powerful” and respected—were also the most considerate and outgoing, and scored highest on measures of agreeableness and extroversion. In other words, the nice guys finished first….

Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking…

[In another experiment] Participants in the high-power group considered the misreporting of travel expenses to be a significantly worse offense. However, the game of dice produced a completely contradictory result. In this instance, people in the high-power group reported, on average, a statistically improbable result, with an average dice score that was 20% above that expected by random chance. (The powerless group, in contrast, reported only slightly elevated dice results.) This strongly suggests that they were lying about their actual scores, fudging the numbers to get a few extra tickets.

It’s probably worth saying that almost all of these studies have been completed on American undergraduates and if there’s any area of human behaviour that is likely to influenced by culture, the effect of power and social influence is going to be one of the first.

For example, there are lots of well-known studies in cross-cultural differences in business ethics and sociologist Geert Hofstede’s ‘power distance’ measure (an acceptance of the inequality of power relationships that differs between countries) has been shown to alter a whole range of perceptions and behaviours.

However, I also wonder about how the ‘micro-culture’ of groups makes for a completely different environment in which power is played out.

In a recent study on treating trauma in ex-paramilitary and guerilla forces in Colombia, a group in Bogotá noted that “recruits who showed signs of weakness (a dimension of strength) or tried to evade service (loyalty) were sometimes assassinated” and that “During the instruction phase, the importance of not placing trust in others is reinforced (mistrust), as is the tenet that one must not show weakness (strength), lest they risk being killed.”

It’s not that hard to imagine how being considerate and outgoing probably doesn’t predict leadership potential in such units.

Although perhaps an extreme example, it would be interesting to see which aspects of the group (purpose? authority enforcement? motivation for membership?) would alter how power affects the individual.

Link to WSJ article ‘The Power Trip’ (via, and indeed, by @jonahlehrer).

2010-08-13 Spike activity

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

NPR has an excellent short piece on when we became ‘mentally modern’ and began to use symbolic thought.

The awesome Neuroskeptic covers a mind-boggling new study that reported the use of anti-depressant and quit-smoking drug bupropion to treat Starcraft addiction in South Korean teens.

Seed Magazine discusses the psychology of isolation in space – in an excerpt from Mary Roach’s forthcoming book on space travel.

Dodgy headline but there’s a fascinating discussion of cultural differences in self-reflection and mood between the US and Russia over at The Frontal Cortex.

Wired Science covers new research that helps explain why some sleepers can successfully block out the external world and others awake at the slightest flutter.

Is it possible to believe that you’re dead? Philosopher Lisa Bortolotti discusses belief and delusion over at The Splintered Mind.

The Guardian on why autism can’t be diagnosed with brain scans, despite the week’s headlines. See the lead author’s response here.

That runner’s high may not be endorphins after all – but your brain’s cannabinoid system. Addiction Inbox covers research on the neuroscience of exercise and feeling good.

New Scientist reports on research finding that depression dulls your sense of smell.

There’s a guide to becoming a professional agony aunt or uncle, over at Dr Petra.

The New York Times covers a new study suggesting that human ancestors were using stone tools and sometimes consuming meat at least 800,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Ten psychology studies on Twitter and how people use it are reviewed over at PsyBlog.

Reuters covers a new systematic review finding little evidence that antidepressants are helpful for children with autism.

Somewhat mysteriously, a retracted paper on treating cluster headaches with an LSD-like compound is re-instated after four years. We’re still not sure why but Retraction Watch covers the story.

The Boston Globe covers the all-over-the-internet news that a 2002 paper on monkey cognition has been retracted and big name author Mark Hauser ‘on leave’ for a year from his Harvard lab.

There’s an interview with the creator of the excellent Psychiatric Tales graphic novel over at Frontier Psychiatrist.

RadioLab have a fantastic and playful visual essay on the flexibility of words.

Brainless slime mould makes decisions like humans in new research covered by Not Exactly Rocket Science. Don’t miss the mind-blowing video of the slime mould navigating a maze!

New Scientist covers a study finding that social rejection raises the risk of inflammation diseases that arthritis.

Are children from collectivist cultures more likely to say it’s okay to lie for the group? asks the BPS Research Digest. The answer, it turns out, is that there less likely to think so than kids from more individualist cultures.

CNN covers the much echoed research findings that women in China, the United States, England and Germany said they found men pictured wearing red, or surrounded by the color, more sexually attractive. The full text of the study is online as a pdf.

Help Language Log to get Barak Obama to sing Let It Be. Less crazy than it sounds.

The Independent covers the UK government’s continuing romance with behavioural economics.

Have ‘mirror neurons’ been misinterpreted? Talking Brains covers an interesting take on the pop science favourites.

Dilbert wrestles with placebo.

Machines, computation and metaphors for the mind are discussed over at Child’s Play

The New York Times discusses how large scale data sharing has led to some crucial advances in understanding Alzheimer’s disease. Also check the audio.

Disease epidemic kills without contact

The excellent Providentia blog covers a previously under-recognised psychological danger of disease epidemics: increased suicides in unaffected people.

A recently published study looked at how the suicide rate changed during the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong, which claimed almost 300 lives between November 2002 and August 2003, finding that it prompted greater levels of self-harm among those not directly affected by the outbreak.

The study also examined coroner’s reports to understand the situations surrounding the suicides and found deaths rose particularly among older people, likely because the epidemic caused worries about being a burden and fears of disconnection from other people – among other mental stresses.

In a paper published in a recent issue of Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, the authors examined the mechanism of how the SARS outbreak resulted in a higher completed suicide rate, especially among older adults in Hong Kong. Using qualitative data analysis to uncover the association between the occurrence of SARS and older adult suicide, they evaluated Coroner Court reports to provide empirical evidence about the relationship between SARS and the excessive number of suicide deaths among the elderly.

Their results showed that SARS-related older adult suicide victims were more likely to be afraid of contracting the disease and had fears of disconnection. The suicide motives among SARS-related suicide deaths were more closely associated with stress over fears of being a burden to their families during the negative impact of the epidemic. Social disengagement, mental stress, and anxiety at the time of the SARS epidemic among a certain group of older adults resulted in an exceptionally high rate of suicide deaths.


Link to Providentia coverage.
Link to DOI entry and summary of study.

Phantom third arm appears on the chest

Phantom limbs are usually sensations that appear after an arm or leg has been amputated, but one case reports a phantom limb that appeared as an additional arm extending from the middle of the chest – despite all of the limbs being completely healthy.

The patient, reported in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, was a 31-year-old woman who didn’t have any limbs amputated but did have damage to her brain that altered how information was passed back and forth between her body and her ‘somatosensory maps’ – the areas of the brain that directly map on to and represent body parts.

During our observation period, she claimed to have the sensation of an extra arm arising from the middle of her upper chest. She explained that it was painless and of the same length as her real arms. She claimed that she was able to move the extra arm. She and her husband reported that the phenomenon occurred after the episode of tetraplegia [limb and torso paralysis]. This phenomenon continued for 14 months after her admission.

We have discussed a case of a ‘phantom third arm’ before, although this is somewhat different, as in the previous report the third arm seemed to ’emerge’ from the patient’s shoulder, just as one of the existing arms did. In this case, though, the phantom arm seems to have been relocated to the chest.

The researchers suggest that the brain damage caused the re-organisation of the somatosensory maps for body parts and a disruption to the flow of normal sensations into these areas. Notably, on the brain’s body map (which you can see drawn out as a cortical homunculus) the arm and chest lie next to each other.

The areas that previously represented the shoulder/arm but had become disconnected began to receive the information from the neurons that represented the upper chest, blending the sensations and leading to the strange sensation of feeling a chest and what seemed like an additional arm at the same time.

It must be said, that while this is a likely explanation from what we already know about the brain and phantom limbs, it is just the researchers’ best guess as they didn’t test out the ideas any further.

Link to full text of case report.