Radhika Takru, MA – Brain Blogger http://brainblogger.com Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Sat, 30 Dec 2017 16:30:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.1 Commitment – It’s the new Love http://brainblogger.com/2012/04/17/commitment-its-the-new-love/ http://brainblogger.com/2012/04/17/commitment-its-the-new-love/#comments Tue, 17 Apr 2012 12:16:18 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=10320 Picture this — you’re at a bar with your significant other and you leave him or her for a few moments to collect your drinks. You’re only gone a few minutes but when you return, you find an attractive stranger in your place, whispering sweet nothings into your partner’s ear. How would you react towards your partner?

This is the situation that Slotter and fellow researchers had ninety-nine undergraduates immerse themselves in. At the time subjects were all in dating relationships and the researchers were aiming to understand the basis of aggression towards one’s partner. Appended to the above situation were three scenarios demonstrating three different responses on the part of the subject’s partner:

In the first case, the partner politely wards off the stranger’s advances, displaying a clear lack of interest. In the second case, they express some doubts about the state of your relationship and shows clear interest in this mysterious stranger. In the third case they openly flirt with the stranger and confess outright that they are unhappy in their relationship with you.

The participants responses were analysed to gauge the degree of aggression in their responses. Unsurprisingly, the third situation incited the most aggressive behaviour in the subject and the first the least. However, the purpose of this study was to examine the correlation between relationship-commitment and aggression with the researchers hypothesising that the degree of aggression would be lower in those couples who judged themselves to be more committed to their partner. Sure enough, on taking measures of relationship commitment, affection towards the partner and aggression towards the partner, the researchers found that the subjects who claimed to be more committed to their relationship displayed less aggression than their not-so committed counterparts. Interestingly, the measures of anger and affection towards the significant other were unhelpful when it came to predicting aggressive behaviour in the given circumstances.

To further validate their findings, the researchers conducted another, similarly entertaining experiment. This time forty-three couples were brought in and measured on their levels of commitment and satisfaction with regards to their relationship separately from their respective partners. Then, they were given a set of color pencils and told that the experimenters wanted to evaluate their creative abilities. On completing this task the finished drawings were gathered up and the subjects were informed that their partners would be assessing their creative abilities. To spice things up further, the subjects were told they’d receive monetary compensation proportional to how highly their partner rated their artwork.

Needless to say, the ‘assessment’ the subjects received was completely random and not from their partners at all. The experimenter supplemented the false ratings with corresponding comments that the partner was supposed to have made. Then, the experimenter gave the subjects a voodoo doll that was meant to represent their partner, and a box of pins. Telling the participants to vent any aggression they might feel towards their partner by sticking pins in the voodoo doll provided experiments with an effective and ethical means of measuring behavioral aggression in the participants.

Again, it came as no surprise that the subjects who received the poor rating, less money and harsher comments from their partner (or so they thought) were the most aggressive towards the voodoo doll while the ones with more flattering feedback were the least.

And again, it seemed that the more committed the individual was to the relationship the more reduced his or her aggression towards the partner. And again, the degree of commitment could be used to predict subsequent levels of aggression while level of satisfaction seemed to have little bearing on the value.

The experimenters went on to examine the relationship between commitment and partner provocation with two further studies and their hypothesis was consistently verified. The less committed the individual was to the relationship, the more likely he or she was to lash out at his or her partner when provoked. While this in itself is not surprising, it is interesting to note that variables such as affection towards one’s partner and satisfaction with the relationship do not exhibit similar propensities. Could “I’m committed to you” mean more to a partner than the classic “I love you”?


Slotter EB, Finkel EJ, Dewall CN, Pond RS, Lambert NM, Bodenhausen GV, & Fincham FD (2012). Putting the brakes on aggression toward a romantic partner: the inhibitory influence of relationship commitment. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102 (2), 291-305 PMID: 21823802

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The Company you Keep – Social and Associative Stigmas http://brainblogger.com/2012/04/11/the-company-you-keep-social-and-associative-stigmas/ http://brainblogger.com/2012/04/11/the-company-you-keep-social-and-associative-stigmas/#comments Wed, 11 Apr 2012 12:00:36 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=10312 You can’t choose your family, say the metaphorical “they,” but you can choose your friends. Choose wisely, but bear in mind that regardless of whether or not the decision is yours, you are going to be judged on it.

The credit for some of the most seminal work on social stigma goes to Erving Goffman who worked on defining what is meant by social stigma and delineating its variants. According to Goffman, social stigmas may be physical “abominations” such as deformities or handicaps, “tribal stigmas” such as race or religion, and character flaws, such as a criminal record or drug abuse. Goffman believed that such stigmas applied not just to the person with the perceived defect, but also extended to those individuals who onlookers associated with the stigmatized person. This sort of secondary stigma came to be called associative stigma.

Associative stigmas are more insidious than they initially appear. They are not only formed through the identification of “meaningful relationships” between two people, such as familial relationships or friendship, but they may also be the outcome of unintended or incidental associations. The latter are called “simple associations” and may be the result of such coincidental circumstances as simply being in the same room as a stigmatized individual.

There may be one of two processes at work when a stigma is formed. Spontaneous or reflexive processes are responsible for the rapid, often emotionally motivated reactions to any of the perceived stigmas mentioned above. That they are based on instinctive reactions makes them all the more difficult to control and moderate. In contrast, deliberative reactions to stigma, as the name suggests, involve more voluntarism on the part of the individual and are consequently more difficult to bring on. Deliberative processes require the individual to actively think about the situation prior to arriving at a judgment. In the case of deliberation, the perception of control plays a great part. Individuals are less likely to react negatively to an individual they perceive to have no control over his or her situation (such as one who is visually impaired) than one they believe is under a controllable stigma (such as a drug user).

Reflexive and deliberative reactions are two separate processes, but they may operate on the same situation. Reflexive reactions are likely to be behind one’s immediate reaction to a stigma. Deliberative processes come into play after a bit of a delay. They are more effortful and time-consuming, consciously applying certain rules to the situation in addition to taking into account the initial reaction to it. Changes in one’s reaction to the same stigma after a period can thus be traced to this mental process.

How do these primary judgments carry over to individuals who do not appear to possess the stigmatized trait themselves? There are some theories that attempt to explain stigma by association. The idea of evaluative conditioning puts it down to a simple case of evaluative conditioning where a neutral target becomes the recipient of an onlooker’s negativity simply because they are in the physical presence of a negatively judged target. Another more conscious theory puts it down to the simple application of the adage “birds of a feather flock together.” This is especially true when a relationship appears to be voluntary as in the case of friends and partners. An individual in the company of a stigmatized person is judged on his or her decision to be in the company of that person. Heider reasons that this tendency may be due to a need to eliminate cognitive dissonance. The assumption two people in the company of one another share similar characteristics is easier on the mind than having to reconcile the ideas that they might be markedly different yet opt for each other’s company.

Social and associative stigmas often appear irrational. We do our best to believe we are unbiased and non-judgmental, and many societies work to eliminate (or at least decrease) the prevalence of such stigmas within their populations. Nonetheless, the generation of stigma seems to be wired into the human brain and there are few who are immune. After all, even the most pious among us might be prone to stigmatizing those who stigmatize others.


Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Heider, E. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York, NY: Wiley.

Mehta, S., & Farina, A. (1988). Associative Stigma: Perceptions of the Difficulties of College-Aged Children of Stigmatized Fathers Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 7 (2-3), 192-202 DOI: 10.1521/jscp.1988.7.2-3.192

Pryor JB, Reeder GD, & Monroe AE (2012). The infection of bad company: stigma by association. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102 (2), 224-41 PMID: 22082057

Pryor, J., Reeder, G., Yeadon, C., & Hesson-Mclnnis, M. (2004). A Dual-Process Model of Reactions to Perceived Stigma. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87 (4), 436-452 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.87.4.436

Walther, E. (2002). Guilty by mere association: Evaluative conditioning and the spreading attitude effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82 (6), 919-934 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.82.6.919

Image via corepics / Shutterstock.

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Intelligence – Are You Holding Back Your Brain? http://brainblogger.com/2012/01/24/intelligence-are-you-holding-back-your-brain/ http://brainblogger.com/2012/01/24/intelligence-are-you-holding-back-your-brain/#comments Tue, 24 Jan 2012 12:00:21 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=9238 Is intelligence fluid or crystalline? Is it a function of nature or nurture? Are you born smart, or is the power of your brain under no one’s control but your own?

You might have cruised through classes at school, or you might have struggled and wondered how your peers managed to pass their classes so effortlessly. In the first case, perhaps you met your match at university when you found you were no longer at the top of the class. In the second, perhaps you had just spent your life assuming some people were born smarter than others. In both cases you are treating intelligence as if it were a static trait — you’re born with a fixed quantity of it, and that quantity never changes.

It’s a disheartening mindset to have. While successes are to be celebrated, failures – especially when they occur one after the other — begin to be regarded as inevitable. You might start to feel boxed in or imagine a glass ceiling is capping your intelligence while others whoosh past on a seemingly limitless supply of the stuff.

Caroline Dweck’s 2007 study has the potential to make you feel better. Her research uncovered that your performance as a student is not a function of your perceived intelligence levels. In fact, those so-called “intelligence levels” aren’t very level at all. Dweck’s research shows that those who are brought up to believe they can constantly work at developing their intelligence tend to do so, and as a result perform better in classes than those who believe there’s an upper limit on how smart they are.

The latter is characteristic of a “fixed mind-set” and you might have experienced it yourself when faced with a new task that requires some added effort on your part. It is likely to be exacerbated when an individual’s past experience has meant he or she has managed to overcome challenges easily, and without putting much work in. In the school or university scenario, this means that you may have been able to “naturally” perform well in a subject in the past, but when faced with a new, challenging task within that subject found yourself stuck. In this situation, you might find yourself confronted by thoughts of insecurity and self-doubt, and may imagine your belief in your own intelligence was unfounded. But take heart — that is simply not the case.

More likely what you are experiencing is not “stupidity” or a limited intelligence level — it’s unfamiliarity. Without the prior experience of what it’s like to actually put an effort into learning something new, you might find yourself taking a more taxing path. This path leads you to the false conclusion that if a task is too difficult to do using just your “innate” intelligence levels, you cannot do it at all. This is a disappointing misconception because the truth is that you are fully equipped with the skills to rise to the challenge — you just haven’t had to use them yet.

Consider adopting the opposite “growth mind-set.” This relatively humble intellectual state focuses on learning rather than intelligence. The adoption of such a mindset means you ask questions in class, turn to peers and professors for help when you don’t understand something, and don’t look at every new challenge as an obstacle or a hurdle. It’s an empowering mentality to cultivate, and with it you realise there is nothing holding you back from achieving what you want to achieve.


Dweck CS. The Perils and Promises of Praise. Early Intervention At Every Age. 2007;65(2):34-39.

Image via Vladimir Koletic / Shutterstock.

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Pessimism – It Could Save Your Mind http://brainblogger.com/2011/10/11/pessimism-it-could-save-your-mind/ http://brainblogger.com/2011/10/11/pessimism-it-could-save-your-mind/#comments Tue, 11 Oct 2011 12:00:40 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=7426 It was only last month that we learned how shared negative opinions and attitudes can result in the formation of speedy and genuine relationships between people. Now there’s research to show that a pessimistic outlook might be better for mental health overall. Before you take this as your cue to walk around with a frown and expect to live longer as a result, it might be worth your while (and your life) to take a closer look at the study by O’Mara, McNulty and Karney that makes this claim.

The researchers set out to examine the best method to dealing with life stressors and determine if positive outlook resulted in improved mental health. Studies thus far have yielded mixed results on this issue. While some say positive appraisals of stressful events can benefit mental health in the long run, others caution against not gauging threatening events accurately. The researchers decided to study the experiences of recently married couples over a sustained period of time.

To do this, the researchers measured the severity of controllable, negative situations (based on observer ratings), perceived marital satisfaction (based on the subjects’ own ratings), and depressive symptoms — each assessed at particular set points. Through two carefully controlled studies, they were able to reconcile the disparate conclusions of past research. The factor that appears to be responsible for this difference appears to be the severity of stress faced by the subject.

O’Mara and colleagues included a cost-benefit analysis within the structure of their research. They found that in the case of those subjects experiencing less stressful situations — as measured by the observers — a positive perspective lead to increased mental health over time. In more stressful instances, this same perspective was found to correlate with an increase in depressive symptoms over time. Lastly, if an initially positive appraisal of low-severity stressful events continued to be applied even as events increased in levels of stress, mental health was found to decline as well.

So what’s the moral of the story? By all means, be optimistic and when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But when the sh*t hits the fan, keep a cool head. It’s doing you no good to imagine rose petals are hitting your face.


O’Mara EM, McNulty JK, & Karney BR (2011). Positively biased appraisals in everyday life: when do they benefit mental health and when do they harm it? Journal of personality and social psychology, 101 (3), 415-32 PMID: 21500926

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Friends with Negatives http://brainblogger.com/2011/09/28/friends-with-negatives/ http://brainblogger.com/2011/09/28/friends-with-negatives/#comments Wed, 28 Sep 2011 12:00:32 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=7119 When you meet someone for the first time, it’s only natural to assume that you’d like to put your best foot forward and leave a positive first impression. You might choose to do this by touching upon topics like your favorite music and movies. You might, if this goes well, move on to more profound territory and discuss your favorite philosophers. If this seems promising and you’re looking to initiate a friendship or relationship with this other person, you might even use this early conversation to drop such hints as your favorite places to eat or your local watering hole where you might like to invite them to further discuss what Kantian critiques might mean for quantum physics.

It is no surprise that sharing common interests and beliefs is beneficial when it comes to establishing new relationships, and theories on interpersonal attraction have supported this for quite some time. It is also no surprise that people tend to rely on the sharing of positive viewpoints early on in a relationship in order to broadcast a favorable impression of themselves. However, perhaps it is worth considering whether expressing negative opinions might be more effective when it comes to forming relationships and earning trust, than just telling people what you like.

Weaver and Bosson are among those researchers who have been considering that there might be stronger implications associated with the sharing of negative attitudes than are linked to the sharing of positive ones. Early social psychologists assumed that it did not matter whether the attitudes held by two people were positive or negative, as long as they were shared, and both parties were aware of this. Indeed, even Weaver and Bosson’s research has validated this showing that if two people ardently hold the same opinion — positive or negative — both will increase feelings of familiarity to the same degree.

However, the unique implications of Weaver and Bosson’s research become evident when one looks at the results of their examination of more weakly held opinions. According to their paper published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin earlier this year, two people with a similar negative attitude towards a third party are likely to experience greater feelings of familiarity than people whose attitude towards a third party is positive.

More precisely, milder negative affect towards someone else, when shared, are likely to be more effective at promoting feelings of familiarity than a mild positive affect. The researchers cite Dunbar as having already demonstrated how gossip is an effective mechanism when it comes to cementing interpersonal relationships, and their in-depth research on both direction and magnitude of affect only validates this viewpoint. In the early stages of interaction and relationship-building, revealing one’s negative opinion of another person establishes the listener as a valued and trusted companion in the eyes of the speaker. This itself is because social norms dictate that an individual reveal only the most desirable qualities about him or herself when first meeting a new person. Thus when the listener hears the speaker refer negatively to a third party, their levels of “subjective familiarity” towards the speaker are enhanced, as such revelations are the sort to be made when an interpersonal relationship is more established and secure.

Expressing mildly negative attitudes to relative strangers comes with its own share of risk. While it is this risk that is responsible for making it such an effective bonding strategy when the viewpoint is reciprocated, it is worth bearing in mind that, in the event that is not shared, it can be a serious inhibitor to the formation of social relationships. This is not just because unshared attitudes are often interpreted as unattractive, but also because the very act of revealing a negative viewpoint is socially undesirable. Weigh the consequences before you reveal your dislike for a third party the next time you’re in a social setting — if all goes well, it may very well result in you making a new friend. But if you play your cards incorrectly, you might scar your social reputation.


Weaver JR, & Bosson JK (2011). I feel like I know you: sharing negative attitudes of others promotes feelings of familiarity. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 37 (4), 481-91 PMID: 21296970

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Careful with that Axe – The Effects of Criticism on Autistic Symptoms http://brainblogger.com/2011/08/10/careful-with-that-axe-the-effects-of-criticism-on-autistic-symptoms/ http://brainblogger.com/2011/08/10/careful-with-that-axe-the-effects-of-criticism-on-autistic-symptoms/#respond Wed, 10 Aug 2011 12:00:24 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=6895 Being a parent of a child with a developmental disorder has to be one of the most stressful and challenging of all human experiences. Looking after someone afflicted with such a disorder is difficult not only because of the direct symptoms of the disorder but also because of the indirect effects that come around and aggravate the symptoms. For instance, a child with ASD is likely to experience some negativity at school, and this negative affect of his peers can worsen pre-existing maladaptive behavior, making things even harder for a caregiver. However, what we might not always stop to consider is how a parent or caregiver might be responsible for the irregular behavior in those who suffer from the range of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Several research studies convincingly suggest that behavior problems in children with ASD are more likely to be a function of parent stress, rather than symptoms of the disorder itself. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Vanderbilt University studied the relationship between maternal criticism and behavior problems in individuals with ASD over a seven-year period. “Caregiver criticism” or negativity from one’s parents or primary caregivers is not a rare phenomenon. Indeed, all parents rely on some amount of negative behavior or criticism in order to coax their children to accept responsibility for their actions and consequently learn that they are in control of their own behavior. This sort of behavior is even more pronounced among the families of children with autism spectrum disorders. The difficult behavior of people with ASD implies greater amounts of stress in the primary caregiver, which in turn results in a greater amount of negativity towards their children. Unfortunately, whether a child has a developmental disorder or not, negative affect from one’s parents in response to undesirable behavior is likely to result in a heightening of those very behaviors. One can imagine the spiraling tendencies this might have when raising a child with ASD.

Therapeutic techniques for dealing with ASD appear to further complicate the problem as these usually rely on teaching the individual how to bring his or her behavior under his own control and are effective in doing so. This is exactly the result parents want to elicit when they are critical of their child’s behavior. However, parental criticism is unlikely to be effective in this regard, as it is important to be able to discern which behaviors are the symptoms of the disorder itself, and which are elicited by the individual’s own frustration with the lack of control he or she is able to exert on his own behavior. The researchers emphasize the importance of knowing that, while negative criticism is an understandable response to the pressures of raising a child, it must be deployed cautiously when raising a child with ASD. The person with ASD might themselves be frustrated by the lack of control they have over their own behavior and negativity from caregivers is likely to result in even more intolerable levels of frustration for the ASD-sufferer. Criticism can be a tool if used cautiously and sparingly, but a drop of empathy for the sufferer’s situation is always a good indicator of when might be the right time.


Baker JK, Smith LE, Greenberg JS, Seltzer MM, & Taylor JL (2011). Change in maternal criticism and behavior problems in adolescents and adults with autism across a 7-year period. Journal of abnormal psychology, 120 (2), 465-75 PMID: 21319925

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Look at Yourself! – Perceptual Accuracy and Body Dysmorphic Disorder http://brainblogger.com/2011/07/08/look-at-yourself-perceptual-accuracy-and-body-dysmorphic-disorder/ http://brainblogger.com/2011/07/08/look-at-yourself-perceptual-accuracy-and-body-dysmorphic-disorder/#comments Fri, 08 Jul 2011 12:00:47 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=6762 We all have our flaws, but some of us are more keenly aware of them than others. Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) affects about 1.7% of the population and is characterized by an enhanced awareness of one’s physical appearance, specifically the perceived negative aspects. Dissatisfaction with one’s appearance is not abnormal in itself, but in individuals suffering with BDD the distorted perception of oneself is extreme enough to impede their functioning in day to day life making it a candidate for a serious mental condition.

Researchers Lambrou, Veale and Wilson hypothesized that individuals suffering from BDD might be prone to making such negative judgements of their own appearance owing to a heightened sensitivity to aesthetics in general. This sensitivity might be evident in their choice of employment or education, in that they might be more prone to seek out a career in the creative and fine arts. Their study involved 150 participants divided into three groups, namely: 1) 50 BDD sufferers, 2) 50 students of arts and design, and 3) 50 non-art, non-BDD controls. Using an appreciation of symmetry as a measure of aesthetic sensitivity, Lambrou and her colleagues administered a combination of tests and experiments to the three groups. This would enable them to discern to what extent the BDD group differed from the art and design group in terms of each one’s aesthetic sensitivity.

In the experimental condition the groups were exposed to nine manipulated photographs of their own face. They were asked to select the images that gave them the most “pleasure,” which gave them the most ‘disgust’ as well as quantify the amount of pleasure and disgust felt in each case.

When it came to selecting the photographs of themselves that gave them the most pleasure, the results showed that the BDD group as well as the group of art and design students tended to choose the most symmetrical versions of their own face. There was a significant difference between the choices of these groups relative to those of the controls. Similarly, the BDD and art groups also picked a significantly less symmetrical version of themselves, compared to the controls, when selecting the image that filled them with the most disgust.

Between the BDD group and the art and design group, however, the differences were to be found in magnitude. Firstly, the BDD group was not as happy with the picture of their “ideal” self as the art and design group — the amount of pleasure they received from this image was significantly less than that felt by the art and design group. The situation was similarly negative in the second case where BDD participants expressed significantly greater amounts of disgust at their least favorite images of themselves than their art and design counterparts.

There was a third part to this experiment as well. In the final condition, from the nine pictures of themselves, the subjects were also asked to select the one they thought looked most like them. That is, participants had to choose the image that they felt most closely resembled their actual self. In this case the BDD group outshone both the other groups in displaying the most “perceptual accuracy.” This is to say their skill at being able to make out what they really looked like was significantly superior to both the other groups.

This final result may seem disheartening, as it looks like those of us who do not suffer from a body-image disorder are looking at rose-tinted reflections of ourselves. However, the explanation behind this perceptual accuracy in individuals with BDD may be explained with neuroscience.

Feusner and his colleagues have proven that people suffering from body image disorders do not process visual elements like the rest of the population. Their “distorted” perception applies not just to their own reflection but also to photographs of buildings, forms of art and so on. Feusner et al used an fMRI to observe the brain activity of 14 BDD patients in response to a series of photographs of houses and compared the results to those observed in a group of healthy controls. Specifically, the brain activity mapped for sufferers of BDD showed them to be less able to view a visual stimulus “holistically,” seeming instead to zoom in and focus on intricate details of the image, rather than taking it in in its entirety.

Furthermore, returning to the initial study by Lambrou et al, BDD sufferers are also noted to spend greater amounts of time examining their reflection in front of a mirror than their peers. Thus their enhanced perceptual accuracy might be the result of the more atomistic way in which they process of visual stimuli, or it might be due the greater familiarity they have with their own facial appearance. Most likely, it is a combination of both that is responsible for the unforgiving attention to give to every facet of their own reflection.


Lambrou C, Veale D, & Wilson G (2011). The role of aesthetic sensitivity in body dysmorphic disorder. Journal of abnormal psychology, 120 (2), 443-53 PMID: 21280932

Feusner JD, Hembacher E, Moller H, & Moody TD (2011). Abnormalities of object visual processing in body dysmorphic disorder. Psychological medicine, 1-13 PMID: 21557897

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Electroconvulsive Therapy in Pediatric Psychiatry http://brainblogger.com/2011/05/30/electroconvulsive-therapy-in-pediatric-psychiatry/ http://brainblogger.com/2011/05/30/electroconvulsive-therapy-in-pediatric-psychiatry/#comments Mon, 30 May 2011 12:00:25 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=6471 Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a controversial practice of dealing with mental disorders and one that has attracted its fair share of detractors. Despite the fact that it was first used as long ago as 1938, it still carries with it a stigma that some find difficult to overlook. One might believe this method is one as harebrained as those employed in the middle ages to rid people of the demons that had possessed their minds. Unlike holes drilled into the skull, the use of ECT as a form of psychiatric treatment has continued into the present day. However, the ethical questions and legislations governing its practice mean that its use in the resolution of the severe symptoms of mental disorders in children is bound to be a delicate topic.

In recent years, the research on the effective ECT has been extended to its application in pediatrics. A recent study provides hope that the may be beneficial in the treatment of the more severe symptoms of autism as well as mood disorders in children. This study, undertaken by Wachtel, Jaffe and Kellner, examined the effectiveness of pediatric ECT in treating the symptoms exhibited by an autistic prepubescent boy with bipolar affective disorder. The 11-year-old child had been diagnosed with autism when he was two and a half years old. This combined with his unpredictable mood swings had resulted in him behaving aggressively towards his own family and caregivers. However the damage meted out to those who looked after him in no way compared to that he inflicted on himself. Photographs included with the research show the child with his face and hands bloodied from self-abuse.

A slew of pharmaceuticals prescribed to subdue these symptoms had no discernible effect on his behavior. As an inpatient, he was put on a new combination of drugs that led to some improvement but the violent symptoms returned in full force shortly after he was discharged. It was possibly the severity of the situation that led to his case being accepted as a candidate for pediatric ECT.

Eight ECT treatments were conducted on a three-times-a-week basis. By the fourth treatment, the child who had been unable to go to school or interact with other children due to “safety concerns” and needed two adult supervisors around him at all times, could now enjoy family outings and community interaction. He was reported to be “happy and calm” and, for what might have been the first time, could sleep soundly through the night. The paper closes with a recent picture of this boy we know only as J., sliding down a tunnel in a public playground smiling broadly for the camera. Following the end of J.’s ECT treatment he still required “maintenance” ECT on a weekly or fortnightly basis to prevent the symptoms from returning. While his therapists work on weaning him off the treatment entirely, his parents and carers continue to report on his ever-increasing cache of achievements, most recently spending five days away at summer camp.

Lee Wachtel has done some extensive work in the field of autism and the catatonic symptoms that accompany it in its more severe forms. She tends to focus her research on disorders that affect children and adolescents and the effectiveness of ECT on cases that are exceptionally severe. In addition to this study, Wachtel together with Griffin, Dhossche and Reti also put together a paper documenting their work with 14 year old autistic boy who was exhibiting the standard symptoms of catatonia including waxy flexibility, mutism and unresponsiveness. In this case, the symptoms were non-violent but more resistant to treatment. A number of variants of electroconvulsive therapy were utilised before a change in behavior was evident. However, those changes in behavior include independent performance of all activities of daily living, an active return to academics via home-schooling, and participation in sports including running, swimming, basketball and even horse-riding as a component of equine therapy.

The use of ECT in pediatrics is inadequately researched, not just because of the stigma associated with the practice,, but also because of legislation that governs the administration of this form of therapy on minors due to ethical concerns. In addition, Croarkin et al say that most psychologists who deal with adolescent and child psychiatry are not sufficiently trained in the use of ECT. Even more sparsely researched are the long term effects of ECT on its recipients. Though a handful of longitudinal studies do exist that attempt to cover this, the standard of the research methods employed remains ambiguous. Studies such as those conducted by Wachtel and others like her demonstrate the almost immediate benefits ECT has to offer in the field of pediatric mental health. However the question remains as to whether these benefits will hold in the long run without causing in any additional damage to the brain. Unfortunately, the answer is one we will have to wait for, but till then we can hope.


Avery D, & Winokur G (1977). The efficacy of electroconvulsive therapy and antidepressants in depression. Biological psychiatry, 12 (4), 507-23 PMID: 889984

Croarkin, P., McCaffrey, P., McClintock, S., Rodez, C., & Husain, M. (2009). Electroconvulsive Therapy in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Current Psychiatry Reviews, 5 (4), 298-305 DOI: 10.2174/157340009789542141

Greenberg RM, & Kellner CH (2005). Electroconvulsive therapy: a selected review. The American journal of geriatric psychiatry : official journal of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, 13 (4), 268-81 PMID: 15845752

Payne NA, & Prudic J (2009). Electroconvulsive therapy: Part I. A perspective on the evolution and current practice of ECT. Journal of psychiatric practice, 15 (5), 346-68 PMID: 19820553

Wachtel LE, Griffin MM, Dhossche DM, & Reti IM (2010). Brief report: Electroconvulsive therapy for malignant catatonia in an autistic adolescent. Autism : the international journal of research and practice, 14 (4), 349-58 PMID: 20591959

Wachtel LE, Jaffe R, & Kellner CH (2011). Electroconvulsive therapy for psychotropic-refractory bipolar affective disorder and severe self-injury and aggression in an 11-year-old autistic boy. European child & adolescent psychiatry, 20 (3), 147-52 PMID: 21249407

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Adventures in the Study of Altruism http://brainblogger.com/2011/05/24/adventures-in-the-study-of-altruism/ http://brainblogger.com/2011/05/24/adventures-in-the-study-of-altruism/#comments Tue, 24 May 2011 12:00:34 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=6584 Altruism is a perplexing human trait. It is a form of behavior wherein one individual assists another without an expectation of reward and sometimes even in the face of causing oneself harm. Altruism might be considered one of those traits that distinguishes human beings from animals as it appears to be almost unique to the species. In the animal kingdom, such selfless behavior is limited to the assistance of family members and behavior that may appear altruistic in some pack animals is usually performed for the purpose of benefiting both parties.

Within the realm of game theory, trust games are a useful method of studying altruism and reciprocity in human beings. When employed in conjunction with neuroimaging these games can provide some insight as to the causes behind this kind of behavior. The Dictator Game, for instance, is a game where one of the players has to divide a sum of money as he chooses between himself and a partner. The second player is a passive recipient of the first’s generosity and is required to accept whatever division is proposed. An individual who offers his partner any proportion of the sum would thus be regarded as altruistic and the amount offered would act as a measure of the magnitude of his altruism. This game stems from the more complex Ultimatum Game wherein the two players are in a similar situation, but in this case the second has the option of accepting or rejecting the offer made by the first. If the offer is accepted, the money is divided as decreed. If the offer is rejected both parties receive nothing.

If we were to believe that humans behave the way they do to serve their own self-interest then we would expect the first player to not offer any money in the Dictator Game, and for the second player to accept any offer in the Ultimatum Game. However, this is not always the case and more often than not, human beings seem to be willing to take the risk of placing their trust in another, presumably for the purpose of establishing and maintaining a long term mutually beneficial relationship. Thus the player who provides his partner with a part of the sum of money in the Dictator Game might be doing so with the innate expectation of reciprocation.

The part of the brain that tends to be associated with the performance of this kind of trusting behavior is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC). A study by Krajbich and his colleagues showed how individuals with damage to this part of the brain tend to display less trusting behaviors than a control group. Krabjich’s study together with a more qualitative analysis by Koenigs and Tranel are both consistent in demonstrating how the VMPFC might also be responsible for the affect of guilt where patients with VMPFC damage displayed lower levels of guilt and empathy.

It is interesting to observe how such physiological observations tie in with cognitively-oriented explanations for behavior. One of these explanations theorizes that reciprocal altruism in human beings might be the consequence of a tendency to avoid feelings of guilt. People might engage in altruistic behavior not only because they expect reciprocity on the part of the other person but also because they seek to minimize the guilt that they predict they will experience if they do not. This ties in neatly with a theory of the VMPFC as altruism’s home base. Not only are VMPFC patients likely to be less trusting, less empathetic and less prone to feelings of guilt, but a fully functioning VMPFC operates under a reward mechanism which causes it to light up when performing an altruistic act. Moll and colleagues, in an experiment that compared VMPFC activity in the case of making a charitable donation to activity when the subject was the recipient of a monetary award, found that this part of the brain was noticeably more active when the subject was the giver rather than the recipient of the reward.

Taking psychological and physiological findings together it is not difficult to conclude that altruism, reciprocity and an inclination towards justice and fairness appear to be traits unique to human beings. Cooperative behavior has been observed in some primates but these species, like people, have a larger prefrontal cortex relative to their physical size. Furthermore, such behaviors do not appear in these species quite to the extent that they can be observed in people. These observations, made by Rilling and Sanfey in the Annual Review of Psychology, hold important implications for social psychology. The use of neuroimaging methods (functional MRI in the case above) to discern the physiological bases of behavior not only assists in understanding and verifying cognitive theories of social decision making but also allows for more effective research into the treatment of social disorders.


Koenigs, M., & Tranel, D. (2007). Irrational Economic Decision-Making after Ventromedial Prefrontal Damage: Evidence from the Ultimatum Game Journal of Neuroscience, 27 (4), 951-956 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4606-06.2007

Krajbich, I., Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., Denburg, N., & Camerer, C. (2009). Economic Games Quantify Diminished Sense of Guilt in Patients with Damage to the Prefrontal Cortex Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (7), 2188-2192 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5086-08.2009

Moll J, Krueger F, Zahn R, Pardini M, de Oliveira-Souza R, & Grafman J (2006). Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103 (42), 15623-8 PMID: 17030808

Rilling JK, & Sanfey AG (2011). The neuroscience of social decision-making. Annual review of psychology, 62, 23-48 PMID: 20822437

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When Dieting Interferes with Dieting http://brainblogger.com/2011/05/18/when-dieting-interferes-with-dieting/ http://brainblogger.com/2011/05/18/when-dieting-interferes-with-dieting/#respond Wed, 18 May 2011 12:00:26 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=6505 The good news is that a tendency to binge on diet-destroyers is likely to be a matter of genes. The bad news is that our brain, body and external environment can fire up this tendency making some of us more likely to binge eat than others.

Dietary restraint or just plain dieting involves a conscious and voluntary reduction in caloric intake, or at the very least, an intent to do so. In a well controlled experiment involving 1,678 women, each a twin of another, Sarah Racine and her crew of four researchers employed a series of tests with the aim of conclusively determining the relationship between dietary restraint and genetic factors.

Decreasing one’s caloric intake might be seen to be positively correlated with the chances of binge-eating. Oddly enough, the less you eat, the more likely you are to overeat. There are three reasons for this. At a physiological level, the body does not welcome this drop in energy. Your physical self is infuriatingly more attached to its weight than you are. Depriving it of the amount of food its used to makes it crave those ‘missing’ calories so it’s difficult to diet without feeling hungry. On a psychological level, if we equate dietary restraint with control then even a tiny shift into “bad” territory might be perceived as a total loss. We have one square of milk chocolate, figure we’ve blown our diet entirely and decide to have another one, promising ourselves we’ll start again tomorrow.

Finally, and maybe most frighteningly, studies have demonstrated that just because we say we’re dieting, it doesn’t necessarily imply we are. The research in question cites a series of such studies which demonstrate this by comparing people’s own reports of reduced intake of calories with objective measures of how much they were eating — unfortunately, even when we think we’re doing a good job at eating less, it is quite possible that we’re eating the same amount or more.

Racine and her colleagues thus set out to verify the hypothesis that a genetic predisposition might make some people more prone to going on a binge when they practice this kind of dietary restraint. Since dieting doesn’t inevitably lead to binge eating, it’s possible that some of us have the misfortune of possessing genes that make us vulnerable to developing such behaviors. Indeed, on putting their subjects through a battery of tests to quantify their levels of dietary restraint and binge-eating behaviors, the researchers became the first to conclusively prove that there was indeed a significant relationship between the control we exert on our diet and our genetic makeup. Specifically, such voluntary behaviors as a conscious reduction of caloric intake is likely to flare up the tendency to binge eat in those of us who are genetically predisposed to do so.

However, seek solace in the fact that while nearly a quarter of the adolescent and adult female population practises some form of dietary restriction or the other, only somewhere between 1.8-5% of women engage in behavior that might be classed as binge eating. Both genetic and environmental factors have to interact to incite such behaviour, so just because you watch what you eat, you’re not likely to be at risk for developing a binge-eating disorder.


Racine SE, Burt SA, Iacono WG, McGue M, & Klump KL (2011). Dietary restraint moderates genetic risk for binge eating. Journal of abnormal psychology, 120 (1), 119-28 PMID: 21171725

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