A stream of unconsciousness

I have just discovered that if you search Pinterest with the keyword psychology you get a wonderfully eclectic stream of psychological images that range from the frosting of pop culture to the depths of profound theory.

In fact, it’s a bit like swimming around in the mind of a psychologist as they slowly drift off to sleep – a kind of whimsical, looping stream of half-verified memories and insights.

Link to ‘psychology’ on Pinterest.

Neurowords and the burden of responsibility

The New York Times has an excellent article about the fallacy of assuming that a brain-based explanation of behaviour automatically implies that the person is less responsible for their actions.

The piece is by two psychologists, John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz, who discuss their research on how attributions of blame can be altered simply by giving psychological or neurological explanations for the same behaviour.

The fallacy comes in, of course, because psychology and neuroscience are just different tools we use to describe, in this case, the same behaviour.

A brain characteristic that was even weakly associated with violence led people to exonerate the protagonist more than a psychological factor that was strongly associated with violent acts….

We labeled this pattern of responses “naïve dualism.” This is the belief that acts are brought about either by intentions or by the physical laws that govern our brains and that those two types of causes — psychological and biological — are categorically distinct. People are responsible for actions resulting from one but not the other. (In citing neuroscience, the Supreme Court may have been guilty of naïve dualism: did it really need brain evidence to conclude that adolescents are immature?)

Naïve dualism is misguided. “Was the cause psychological or biological?” is the wrong question when assigning responsibility for an action. All psychological states are also biological ones.

A better question is “how strong was the relation between the cause (whatever it happened to be) and the effect?”

In light of the Aurora shootings and the prematurely and already misfiring debate about the shooter’s ‘brain state’, this is well worth checking out.

Link to NYT piece ‘Did Your Brain Make You Do It?’ (via @TheNeuroTimes)

Hallucinating body flowers

A curious and kaleidoscopic case of hallucinations reported in the latest journal Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria:

A 95-year-old woman, with four years of schooling, had a seven-year history of DI [delusional infestation]. In the beginning, there were itching and prickling sensations on arms and head. Subsequently, she felt small worms, with different shapes and colors, crawling through her skin or swirling around her body.

After two years, she began to see small pumpkins and flowers coming out of her body and lettuce crawling on the table. She complained of water trickling out of walls and forming puddles on the ground. Occasionally, she saw small children walking on the walls and also worms on the floor and walls.

Sometimes, the parasites set fire to small objects. She became upset with her family and physicians who did not believe her.

The belief that you are infested with hallucinatory parasites is more typically called delusional parasitosis but it is usually not linked to the florid circus of hallucinations reported here, which are more typical of Charles Bonnet syndrome.

Link to case report in Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria.

All time high

The latest issue of The Psychologist has a fascinating article on why time can seem distorted after taking drugs.

The piece is by psychologists Ruth Ogden and Cathy Montgomery who both research the effects of drugs, legal and illegal, on the mind and brain.

The consumption of drugs and alcohol has long been known to warp time experiences. In his much-quoted book Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey (1821/1971) noted that opium intoxication resulted in distortions to the passage of time to the extent that he ‘Sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time’.

Similar experiences were also reported by Aldous Huxley (1954) in Doors of Perception after consuming mescaline and LSD. Drug-induced distortions to time are not only experienced by renowned literary figures: a quick search of an internet drug forum will reveal that many drug users report similar experiences to De Quincey and Huxley following marijuana, cocaine and alcohol use.

The article notes that both the social context in which drugs are taken (e.g. drinking on a night out) and the pharmacological effects of the substances can each add their own ingredients to the time stretching or shrinking effects.

Link to article ‘High Time’ in The Psychologist.

How the FBI sees the psychopath

The latest FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin is a special issue on the criminal psychopath.

Apart from the use of eye-scorching clip-art, it’s notable more what it tells us about how the FBI approaches the concept of psychopathy than necessarily being a great introduction to the topic.

Some of the most revealing articles are written by agents and give advice on how to interrogate the ‘psychopath’ as if it was a single type of person and not a relatively consistent pattern of characteristics found within unique individuals.

“…small talk, fidgeting with cell phones or notepads, or showing uncertainty regarding seating arrangements can communicate to psychopaths that interrogators are nervous or unsure of themselves,” says one article, “psychopathic individuals view this as a weakness”.

Well, that’s that then.

Despite some overconfident conclusions, several of the articles do give some good accounts of actual cases and the issue remains an interesting peek into how the FBI sees the psychopath.

Link to latest FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (via @crimepsychblog)

Is mental health a smoke screen for society’s ills?

Somatosphere has a fantastic account of the debates rocking the world of global mental health – the still nascent field that aims to make mental health a world priority.

The idea itself is sound in the general sense, but there is still a lot of argument about what it means to promote mental health and much discussion about whether ‘global mental health’ is just a means of exporting Western ideas and diagnoses in a sort of 21st century globalisation of the mind.

I am always a little struck by the fact that the ‘global mental health’ movement seems mainly to focus on Asia and Africa.

For example, the lack of participation of Latin American mental health professionals and advocates is striking in both the headline-making publications and the key conferences.

This is a pity as Latin America has developed a unique perspective on mental health that, by reading the debates covered by Somatosphere, would be very relevant.

If you want to get your head into the space of this particular Latin American approach, have a think about this analogy.

How would you react if instead of supporting the American civil rights movement in the 1960s, you were told the major problem was that people were being affected by a mental illness called ‘post-discrimination stress disorder’?

I’m sure it would be possible to come up with a valid and reliable ‘PDSD’ diagnosis that could be agreed upon and would genuinely predict behavioural and psychological distress and impairment – the experience of racism is known to predict mental health problems and the discrimination of the civil rights era was extreme.

Arguing for more resources to be put into treating ‘post-discrimination stress disorder’ when the civil rights movement was almost at breaking point in the 1940s and 50 would lay you open to accusations of ‘putting up a smoke screen’ and ‘making a distraction’ when what was needed was social change, not an attempt to pathologise black people.

The question that you may be asking, and many Latin American psychologists have asked, is whether we should be instead focussing on inequality and violence to improve mental health.

The Western focus on disorders, they argue, can distract and blind us to societal problems. Instead of preventing oppression, we pathologise its victims.

This approach was born out of a field called liberation psychology that made exactly this point.

One of the founders was a remarkable chap called Ignacio Martín-Baró who was a Spanish priest who trained as a psychologist and worked in El Salvador during the Salvadoran civil war.

He was eventually murdered by a government death squad because of his theories, which at least shows their power if not their popularity.

Unfortunately, liberation psychology has become heavily politicised and you often hear variations of “Martín-Baró’s work means you must support my left-wing views” from proponents.

This is a shame because Martín-Baró’s work was often making a more profound and over-arching point – that there is no such thing as an apolitical act in mental health, and, indeed, in health care in general.

For example, the West’s understanding of the victims of war, torture and displacement in terms of PTSD and other diagnostic labels is largely due to the experience of treating refugees who have fled these horrible situations.

In this context, PTSD makes sense in the West because it has the implicit assumption that the person is now safe (after all, it’s post-traumatic stress disorder) and that the experiences and reactions described in the diagnosis are, therefore, inappropriate.

However, if you live in a war zone, intrusive thoughts, feeling on edge and avoiding reminders of danger could be considered quite a reasonable reaction to the constant experience of death and violence.

When you meet people who do live in war zones, who would clearly meet the criteria for PTSD, they rarely complain about their mental state. They’re usually more concerned about the actual dangers.

They’re concerned about torture, not intrusive thoughts about being tortured – the threat of rape, not rape-related anxiety.

So, the hard question becomes: are we really helping by sending professionals and training locals to recognise and treat people with, for example, PTSD?

And this is where Martín-Baró drew his inspiration from. The way we understand and treat mental health problems, he argued, is always political. There is no absolute neutrality in how we understand distress and those that think so are usually just blind to their own biases.

And this is what the global mental health movement is wrestling with. And needless to say, there are plenty of biases to overcome.

Big Pharma pushes theories as adverts for its medication. Western mental health professionals can see themselves as healers of people who don’t necessarily need healing.

Researchers see an untapped gold mine of data and local scientists see a way out of what seems like a limiting and unglamorous academic life distant from the shining lights of Northern Hemisphere High Science.

So when we talk about ‘mental health literacy’ are we talking education or propaganda? It’s not an easy question to answer or, for many, to even think about.

The Somatosphere piece is one of the best guides to this debate I’ve yet read. Essential reading.

Link to Somatosphere on ‘Global Mental Health and its Discontents’

BBC Future column: Why we love to hoard

Here’s last week’s column from BBC Future. The original is here. It’s not really about hoarding, its about the endowment effect and a really lovely piece of work that helped found the field of behavioural economics (and win Daniel Kahneman a Nobel prize). Oh, and I give some advice on how to de-clutter, lifehacker-style.

Question: How do you make something instantly twice as expensive?

Answer: By giving it away.

This might sound like a nonsensical riddle, but if you’ve ever felt overly possessive about your regular parking space, your pen, or your Star Wars box sets, then you’re experiencing some elements behind the psychology of ownership. Our brains tell us that we value something merely because it is a thing we have.

This riddle actually describes a phenomenon called the Endowment Effect. The parking space, the pen and the DVDs are probably the same as many others, but they’re special to you. Special because in some way they are yours.

You can see how the endowment effect escalates – how else can you explain the boxes of cassette tapes, shoes or mobile phones that fill several shelves of your room… or even several rooms?

No trade

To put a scientific lens on what’s going on here, a team led by psychologist Daniel Kahneman carried out a simple experiment. They took a class of ordinary University students and gave half of them a University-crested mug, the other half received $6 – the nominal cost of the mug.

Classic economics states that the students should begin to trade with each other. The people who were given cash but liked mugs should swop some of their cash a mug, and some of the people who were given mugs should swop their mugs for some cash. This, economic theory says, is how prices emerge – the interactions of all buyers and sellers finds the ideal price of goods. The price – in this case, of mugs – will be a perfect balance between the desires of people who want a mug and have cash, and the people who want cash and have a mug.

But economic theory lost out to psychology. Hardly any students traded. Those with mugs tended to keep them, asking on average for more than $5 to give up their mug. Those without mugs didn’t want to trade at this price, being only willing to spend an average of around $2.50 to purchase a mug.

Remember that the mugs were distributed at random. It would be weird if, by chance, all the “mug-lovers” ended up with mugs, and the “mug-haters” ended up without. Something else must be going on to explain the lack of trading. It seems the only way to understand the high-value placed on the mugs by people who were given one at random is if the simple act of being given a mug makes you value it twice as highly as before.

This is the endowment effect, and it is the reason why things reach a higher price at auctions – because people become attached to the thing they’re bidding for, experiencing a premature sense of ownership that pushes them to bid more than they would otherwise. It is also why car dealers want you to test drive the car, encouraging you in everyway to think about what it would be like to possess the car. The endowment effect is so strong that even imagined ownership can increase the value of something.

Breaking habits

The endowment effect is a reflection of a general bias in human psychology to favour the way things are, rather than the way they could be. I call this status quo bias, and we can see reflections of it in the strength of habits that guide our behaviour, in the preference we have for the familiar over the strange or the advantage the incumbent politician has over a challenger.

Knowing the powerful influence that possession has on our psychology, I take a simple step to counteract it. I try to use my knowledge of the endowment effect to help me de-clutter my life. Perhaps this can be useful to you too.

Say I am cleaning out my stuff. Before I learnt about the endowment effect I would go through my things one by one and try to make a decision on what to do with it. Quite reasonably, I would ask myself whether I should throw this away. At this point, although I didn’t have a name for it, the endowment effect would begin to work its magic, leading me to generate all sorts of reasons why I should keep an item based on a mistaken estimate of how valuable I found it. After hours of tidying I would have kept everything, including the 300 hundred rubber bands (they might be useful one day), the birthday card from two years ago (given to me by my mother) and the obscure computer cable (it was expensive).

Now, knowing the power of the bias, for each item I ask myself a simple question: If I didn’t have this, how much effort would I put in to obtain it? And then more often or not I throw it away, concluding that if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t want this.

Let this anti-endowment effect technique perform its magic for you, and you too will soon be joyously throwing away things that you only think you want, but actually wouldn’t trouble yourself to acquire if you didn’t have them.

And here’s the thing… it works for emails too. If someone sends me a link to an article or funny picture, I don’t think “I must look at that”, I ask “If I hadn’t just been sent this link, how hard would I endeavour to find out this information for myself?”. And then I delete the email, thinking that however fascinating that article on the London sewerage system sounds or that funny picture of a cat promises to be, I didn’t want them before the email was in my possession, so I probably don’t really want them now.

That’s my tip for managing my clutter. If you have any others, let me know.