Brain Blogger » Psychology & Psychiatry Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Fri, 20 Feb 2015 00:15:36 +0000 en-US hourly 1 New Theory Reveals Secret to Turning Women On – Desire! Sat, 14 Feb 2015 12:00:07 +0000 Research into a newly coined theory, object of desire self-consciousness, is revealing secrets about both women and men’s sexual and romantic minds. Freshly published research in the sexology journal, Archives of Sexual Behavior, has posited that perceiving oneself as romantically and sexually desirable in another’s eyes, as an object of desire, plays a stronger role in women’s sexual arousal and fantasies than in men’s.

98 men and 100 women rated how aroused they were by items in a sexual fantasy questionnaire, completed sentences for sexually-charged scenarios and wrote an open-ended description of one of their personal sexual fantasies. By examining results from these three sexual fantasy measures, the three Canada-based researchers that published the study found;

‘direct evidence that object of desire themes are linked more to women’s sexuality than they are to men’s.’

How integral object of desire self-consciousness (ODSC) is to a woman’s sexual relationships is likely to vary, being largely dependent on how her sexual self-schemas, that is, her cognitive representation of her sexual self, represents her as an object of desire.

As the lead author of the study explains:

‘If a women is schematic [for ODSC], and she does perceive that she is an object of desire within her relationship, then her level of sexual desire and sexual activity may be fairly high. If, on the other hand, she does not feel a sense of her own desirability or being an object of desire, she may have very little sexual desire.’

While for some women, being an object of desire really turns them on, should we play on this objectification of women to get into women’s fantasies, minds and dare we say, their pants? Well, socioculturally speaking we already do so.

Since 1952 feminist scholars, and later psychologists, sociologists and media observers, argue that women’s self-objectification occurs due to repeated exposure to sexual objectification, an inarguable norm that has persisted since the dawn of mass media. Such objectification of women is thought to socialize women into commonly viewing themselves from a third person’s perspective, e.g. ‘Does he think I look hot?’, where they view themselves as an object whose function is to give pleasure to others.

On the flip-side, such presentations of women in the media put men in the driver’s seat, ready to use the womanly object as they see fit. Well then, what about men as objects of desire? Although men also included themselves as objects of desire in their own fantasies, albeit to a lesser degree than women, ODSC was not often the key theme. This is unsurprising given that heterosexual men’s sexual arousal has been strongly linked to visual cues from their female sexual partner, again perhaps in large part due to the objectification of women as sex objects throughout media history.

While the study focused on heterosexual men and women, the lead author Professor Tony Bogaert from the department of Psychology at Canada’s Brock University, suggests that:

‘ODSC may play more of a role in homosexual men than in heterosexual men, so that gay men are, on average, more schematic for ODSC than the average heterosexual man. This is in part because gay men tend to highly value attractiveness in their partners and objectify other men (like heterosexual men objectify women), so that the perception of being an object of desire themselves may occur frequently…[making] them develop ODSC-related schemas more frequently than the average heterosexual man.’

This is not an unsupported assumption, also considering new research published this January in the Journal of Homosexuality that indicates that the most popular gay men’s magazines are more appearance-led, and they idolize and sexually objectify the “perfect” male form more than straight men’s magazines – comparable to the portrayal of women. However, as Prof. Bogaert reminds us, straight men are not free from objectification in the media either:

‘I also think that the media is more likely to objectify men’s bodies than they used to do, and this may be playing a role in making more men “schematic” for ODSC than they once were.’

Although ODSC is undoubtedly useful for judging if someone is interested in you or not, media objectification and the degree to which our perceptions of being an object of desire are (or are not) reflecting reality may also lead to dangerous negative self-evaluations and low self-esteem that promote conditions like body dysmorphia, eating disorders, depression and sexual dysfunction.

Putting gender and sexual preferences aside, the study by Bogaert and colleagues is likely the first of many. Such research will take us one step further in understanding ODSC, its kinky role in our bedroom fantasies and sexual arousal, and significantly, whether modern media is wrongfully manufacturing society through exasperating a mechanism that may have evolved for the simple and humble purpose of detecting that others find us sexually and romantically desirable.

Until we know more, I can say with confidence that I personally think it is damaging to a progressive society to sexually objectify women – or men for that matter – but one thing is for sure, expressing a strong desire for a woman, be it as equal individuals or disappointingly not, will turn more women on than off. Ultimately, research emphasizes that expressing desire in the apple of one’s eye may well be the key to their fantasies and turning them on.


de Beauvior, S. (1952). The second sex (H. M. Parshley, Trans.). New York, NY: Knopf.

Bogaert AF, & Brotto LA (2014). Object of desire self-consciousness theory. Journal of sex & marital therapy, 40 (4), 323-38 PMID: 23905711

Bogaert AF, Visser BA, & Pozzebon JA (2015). Gender Differences in Object of Desire Self-Consciousness Sexual Fantasies. Archives of sexual behavior PMID: 25567072

Calogero RM, & Thompson JK (2009). Potential implications of the objectification of women’s bodies for women’s sexual satisfaction. Body image, 6 (2), 145-8 PMID: 19233750

Dakanalis A, Carrà G, Calogero R, Fida R, Clerici M, Zanetti MA, & Riva G (2014). The developmental effects of media-ideal internalization and self-objectification processes on adolescents’ negative body-feelings, dietary restraint, and binge eating. European child & adolescent psychiatry PMID: 25416025

Fredrickson, B., & Roberts, T. (1997). OBJECTIFICATION THEORY. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21 (2), 173-206 DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.x

Jankowski GS, Fawkner H, Slater A, & Tiggemann M (2014). “Appearance potent”? A content analysis of UK gay and straight men’s magazines. Body image, 11 (4), 474-81 PMID: 25129685

Image via Sean Nel/Shutterstock.

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When Does Collecting Become A Compulsion? Fri, 13 Feb 2015 12:00:03 +0000 For some, collecting things is a harmless way to spend time and introduce a healthy, harmless diversion into our lives. Meanwhile, for others, collecting can take a turn toward the tragic.

The purpose of science is to help us make sense of the world around us — or the much larger world inside our heads. It helps to give us an understanding of natural laws and helps demystify the inner workings of the brain. But sometimes, science fails to provide consensus. This is the case with the phenomenon we call collecting.

Whether it’s old coins, stamps, trading cards, or Beanie Babies, many of us have items that we find particularly alluring, and that we’re strangely compelled to collect. For me, it’s CDs; I find it strangely centering to tend to my physical music collection, even if the bulk of it also exists digitally on my computer.

But we’ve all heard stories about hoarders: those who impulsively keep a significant number of possessions, animals, or even trash, in their homes — to the detriment of their health and happiness.

This is the darker side of collecting, and one that reveals how science occasionally fails to provide us with a tidy explanation of our habits.

What Would Freud Say?

Over the years, a number of helpful (and some not-so-helpful) explanations have arisen to help explain why human beings seem predisposed to collecting and hoarding.

One theory was put forward by Freud, who suggested — unlikely as it might sound — that our predilection for collecting is a remnant from our potty training days. The theory goes something like this: as children, ownership is extremely important to us. We don’t like sharing our toys or our juice boxes. So when we become aware of our more private bodily functions — namely, the evacuation of liquid waste — we become distressed because we have lost ownership of something that was once ours.

It probably sounds strange, this notion that potty training and collecting are linked with the very human tendency to value control and ownership, but the scientific community has not yet roundly dismissed Freud’s theory.

Hoarding vs. Collecting

If science is the process of understanding and defining what we see around us, then understanding impulsive behaviors like collecting and hoarding depends very much on establishing a consistent basis for comparison. Given that, here are the two main differentiating factors we can use to separate the two:

  • Collectors have reasons for what they do. These can be logical, practical, or sentimental reasons, but reasons nonetheless. Collecting stamps, for example, is less practical than it is sentimental; you wouldn’t use these to send your mother-in-law a Christmas card. That doesn’t mean the pursuit is without merit — and it certainly doesn’t mean that collecting is in the same ballpark as a psychological disorder.
  • The habits of collectors don’t typically interfere with their lives in a negative way. Sure, mild domestic disputes might arise when Dad’s collection of Budweiser memorabilia spills into the family room, but this has little in common with the sort of desperate or self-destructive tendencies of the average hoarder. Collecting is a hobby — not a destructive compulsion.

The Language of Science

So if we wanted to diagnose our weird Matryoshka doll-obsessed neighbor as a hoarder, where would science tell us to draw the line?

Only in recent years has the APA actually settled on a DSM-5 definition for hoarding as a disorder. While certain reality TV shows have convinced us that we know the signs, the language of science is quite a bit more exacting. According to the DSM-5, the qualifications for hoarding disorder include:

  • Habits that result in the impairment of normal social or occupational functions
  • An absence of other disorders (depression, OCD) that could result in compulsive behaviors

Links to the Past

That probably doesn’t sound like the most detailed or exhaustive explanation, but it’s more than we had just a few years ago. For a less formal explanation, we may point to the fact that collecting often has to do with a desire to catalog and preserve history — either our personal or our cultural past.

Nobody would call out a lovingly curated art museum as evidence of a mental disorder; rather, it serves as a public collection of items from our shared past — an exercise in both preservation and mindfulness. And, as legendary stamp collector Earl Apfelbaum might remind us, nostalgia is sometimes a powerful motivator.

So, as rich as Freud’s bathroom imagery might be, it’s surely not the one-size-fits all explanation we might want for categorizing an important human behavior. But more than that, we’re reminded that the life of the mind is revealed only one tantalizingly small detail at a time.

Image via Patricia Hofmeester / Shutterstock.

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When Hoarding Becomes Dangerous Tue, 10 Feb 2015 12:00:05 +0000 Hoarding behavior demands intervention when it causes clinically significant distress for a person, or impairment in his or her social or occupational functioning. Governmental authorities may step in when the hoarding behavior endangers the health and safety of the hoarder and others in the community.

In front of her office was a gleaming white utility truck, bearing the motto With Respect and Compassion. Kathie Jo Kadziauskas-Hobbs, the principal of AAA Hoarding and Biohazard Removal, headquartered in Camarillo, California, was first called a few years back to deal with complicated hoarding situations, after establishing her reputation as an expert in the crime scene clean-up field.

Ms. Kadziauskas-Hobbs is an aficionado of antiques, folk art, and classic vehicles; she granted an interview in an exotic room, draped by a large multicolored silk kimono on one wall, bearing beautiful oriental paintings on another, and sporting, in a corner, a silver saxophone and an antique barber chair upholstered in wine-colored velvet.

The eclectic Ms. Kadziauskas-Hobbs wants family members to intervene early when they see a loved one begin to exhibit troubling hoarding behavior — preferably at Levels I or II of the Clutter-Hoarding Scale, a widely used home-descriptive scale devised by the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD) — so that therapeutic counseling or professional in-home help can begin, and Kadziauskas-Hobbs’ services will not be needed.

Level I is an essentially normal domestic situation: clutter in the home is not excessive; all doors, stairways and windows are accessible; the utilities and plumbing are functional; there is appropriate animal control; and household sanitation is safely maintained.

At Level II, housekeeping and maintenance are inconsistent, and a bit of help might be needed from professional home organizers or other professionals who have additional knowledge and understanding of chronic disorganization. Clutter may impede the function of key living areas or block a major exit from the home; one or more appliances or utilities may not be functional for more than a season; there may be visible or malodorous pet waste present in inappropriate places, or perhaps some evidence of insect pests or vermin.

Kadziauskas-Hobbs is not typically called in until the hoarding problem has progressed to Levels III-V of the Clutter-Hoarding Scale:

At Level III, the hoarding situation has progressed such that items normally stored indoors may overflow to clutter the shower, bathtub, or the outside of the home; several appliances may not be fully functional; animal sanitation is clearly inadequate, and the animal population in the home may violate local legal limits; expired medications or hazardous materials may be accumulating in a disordered, cluttered home, perhaps strewn with dirty laundry or smelling from overflowing garbage receptacles.

By Level IV, clutter inhibits access to exits, entrances, hallways and stairs; animal behavior may be destructive and sanitation poor; the smell of mold or mildew or rotting food or backed-up plumbing is striking; there is typically structural deterioration of parts of the home; the dishes are unusable; non-food items may be stored in the refrigerator; the use of other appliances may be inappropriate or even dangerous. There may be no linens on beds. The hoarder may be sleeping on a bare infested mattress, couch, or chair, or on the floor.

A Level V home is extremely cluttered; key living spaces are unusable; all the rooms are used for non-intended purposes; the toilets, sinks and tubs are not functioning, and human urine and excrement are where they do not belong. The structure may be severely damaged, with pervasive mold and/or mildew, moisture or standing water, and is typically heavily infested with insects, spiders, mice, rats, snakes, and other vermin. Any animals in the home are at risk and may be dangerous to people due to the animals’ behavior, ill health, and numbers. At Level V, it is not unusual for the hoarder to be involved in legal proceedings, such as a conservatorship, guardianship, eviction or condemnation proceedings.

If Kadziauskas-Hobbs’ services are retained by the hoarder and his family instead of by third parties or governmental authorities, the hoarder and family can exercise the greatest possible control in the remediation process and protect the hoarder’s ability to stay in his or her home, which are typically their foremost priorities. In a conversation with Kadziauskas-Hobbs before the removal work begins, the hoarder and the family will have an opportunity to instruct her about things of value she should look for and save for them — memorabilia of a dead spouse, family photographs, autograph albums, diaries, or other personal documents. Kadziauskas-Hobbs’ tact in working with the hoarder is one of her most important skills.

If the family neglects the problem, a landlord, Adult Protective Services, or a public administrator or guardian may call Kadziauskas-Hobbs in first; or Code Enforcement may issue an abatement warrant and hire her firm. Then, the hoarder and the family will have far less control. The third party or governmental agency, as the client, will provide the removal instructions, typically with emphasis strictly on the most economical, speediest possible remediation of health and safety code violations, rather than careful searching for, and preservation of, valued personal items.

Kadziauskas-Hobbs recommends to family members that the hoarder not be present when she and her crews are working on-site, in order to prevent additional unnecessary distress to the hoarder. However, sometimes law enforcement has been required to physically restrain a hostile hoarder during the removal work, in situations where the dwelling is subject to a court-ordered abatement warrant.

In California, the Trauma Scene Waste Management Act regulates waste management with respect to large quantities of spilled human blood or body fluids, but the state does not otherwise regulate hoarding and biohazard removal companies, except as to such medical waste, and the conventional rules of occupational safety and health.

Nevertheless, Kadziauskas-Hobbs requires her crews of two to eight individuals to undergo OSHA Blood-borne Pathogens training, to wear full biohazard suits on the job, including masks and disinfectable gloves and boots, and to use the same bacteriocides that crime scene crews do. She and other reputable operators recognize that a hoarding scene often involves biohazards, such as decomposing animal bodies and infectious biomaterials. These materials are too hazardous to be adequately handled with a pair of kitchen gloves and a bucket of bleach, to then be tossed in a dumpster. Her crews are trained to disinfect and dispose of contaminated mattresses, couches, and other large furnishings that medical waste companies will not handle.

As the DSM-5 informs, hoarding behavior can be a symptom of many different medical conditions and mental disorders, such as a brain injury, cerebrovascular disease (e.g. a cerebrovascular dementia), Prader-Willi syndrome-related food hoarding, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Hoarding may be a sign of decreased energy in major depressive disorder, or of delusions in schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder. Cognitive deficits resulting from a major neurocognitive disorder, such as fronto-temporal dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, or restricted interests in autism spectrum disorder, can also lead to hoarding behavior.

Since 2013, if none of the aforementioned conditions or disorders applies, then a separate Hoarding Disorder with its own ICD-9-CM and ICD-10-CM diagnostic codes, can now be applied. This enables a sufferer or his family to potentially access legal help with respect to coverage under mental health care insurance and government benefits, such as state disability and Medicare. The ICD diagnostic codes can also be important in making claims for property insurance benefits. For example, coverage for professional remediation/hoarding removal costs may now be available under provisions of some property insurance policies. In some states, such as California, an elected insurance commissioner is empowered to oversee compliance with such provisions.

Family members need to stay connected and alert to behavioral changes of their loved ones, including unusual collecting behaviors. Many counties and cities in the United States have a Hoarding Task Force, a valuable multi-agency resource to provide public education about hoarding, give out service agency information, offer training, and give support to families.

The nature of the underlying medical condition or mental disorder may lead to characteristic kinds of hoarding. For example, when hoarding is associated with OCD, a specific obsession can lead to collecting of items, such as feces, urine, hair, nails, trash, dead animals, or rotten food. With a major neurocognitive disorder, the onset of hoarding behavior is typically more gradual and may be accompanied by self-neglect and severe domestic squalor, alongside other neuropsychiatric symptoms, e.g. disinhibition, gambling, rituals/stereotypes, tics, and self-injurious behavior.

To Kathie Jo Kadziauskas-Hobbs and her colleagues in the business of hoarding and biohazard removal, advance knowledge of the particular clinical diagnosis may be helpful before they walk into a situation, but it is not for them to make a diagnosis or offer therapeutic counseling.

Kadziauskas-Hobbs often encounters families who know far less about their hoarding family member than she and her crews have discovered from the clues they find on the job site. She learns what the hoarder reads, eats, and wears. In profile, the hoarders Kadziauskas-Hobbs encounters tend to be female, above 50 years of age, surrounded by evidence they are well-educated, well-traveled, and had a professional career. They were interesting people. Then one day something caused the hoarding to start. Families need to be connected and involved with their loved ones, if that day comes.


Schmalisch, C.S. Hoarding and the Legal System. Accessed 3 February 2015.

New York Daily News (October 8, 2012).Las Vegas officials swarm home in ‘very tragic’ hoarding case, Associated Press. Accessed 3 February 2015.

Trauma Scene Waste Management Act, California Health and Safety Code Section 118321 et seq.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

World Health Organization, International Classification of Diseases (ICD),

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision, Clinical Modification (ICD-10-CM).

Christiana Bratiotis, Hoarding Task Forces,

Image via THPStock / Shutterstock.

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Dealing With Super Bowl Defeat Mon, 09 Feb 2015 01:18:26 +0000 The morning after the Eagles lost to the Redskins 24-27, my boyfriend removed his Eagles watch before he left for work. He didn’t wear it again for another two weeks. At first, I admit, I was a little annoyed. After all, that watch was one of the first things I gave him.

Now, after seeing the reactions of a slew of devastated Seahawk fans, I’m just glad my boyfriend didn’t smash the watch straight through the television set.

It’s not news that sport fans have strong connections to their teams’ fate. There are dozens of reasons why people choose to emotionally commit to a given sports team, but a few are especially prominent. Surveys show that the top three most common include:

  • Having parents who were fans
  • The favorability of the players and the overall characteristics of the team
  • Geography (i.e. supporting your local team) carrying with it, the influence of friends and community.

Adam Earnhardt, chairman of the communications department at Youngstown State University and co-author of Sports Fans, Identity and Socialization: Exploring the Fandemonium said:

‘Our research has shown that the number one reason people become fans is that it’s your connection to your first community.’

Being a “fan” is an expression and an extension of one’s identity. As such, it is not an illogical affectation for a fan to use the word “we” when talking about their team. In actuality, the brain does not differentiate between what is “me” and what is “the team.”

Mirror neurons are thought to be activated in the brain, causing a fan to take on the emotions, actions and even hormones of the players they are rooting for. Urine analysis performed on spectator fans after a game have shown quantities of unused sugar that resulted from the adrenal gland stimulus (i.e. caused by excitement), similar to that which is produced by the players in the game. The key difference: the player burns off said adrenaline while the fan does not. As such, it is scientifically understandable when a fan screams obscenities or even runs head first into their own television set after a bad loss. (I said “understandable,” not “acceptable”!) This is even more understandable if your team was one Marshawn Lynch yard away from winning back-to-back Super Bowls, only to lose it in a blink of an eye.

Team defeats, especially when they are narrow or unexpected (both true in Sunday’s Super Bowl), have a measurable effect on a fan’s self-regulation abilities. Yann Cornil, researcher at the INSEAD Business School, noted that:

‘Although prior studies had shown that sport outcomes influence reckless driving, heart attacks and even domestic violence, no one had examined how they influence eating.’

Cornil, along with fellow INSEAD professor Pierre Chandon, described how something as small as a rush play versus a pass play can determine what we eat the following day.

Using archival and experimental data, Cornil and Chandon demonstrated that vicarious defeats experienced by football fans (watching your favorite team lose) cause said fans to make severely unhealthy eating choices.

Comparing the outcomes of the 2004 and 2005 NFL seasons with people’s food consumption in over two-dozen cities, Cornil and Chandon were able to determine the quantities and types of food eaten after wins and losses. The researchers explained: ‘The data also allowed us to look at people living in cities without an NFL team or with a team that didn’t play on that particular day, providing us with two control samples.’

Overall, their results demonstrated that, on the the Monday after a big game, football fans of the losing team ate about 16% more saturated fats compared to their usual Monday consumption. Fans of the winning team ate about 9% less saturated fat compared to their usual intake. Surprisingly, these trends held even when people who did not identify as football fans were included in the sample. They found no evidence of anticipation or compensation effects and found no effects when the home team did not play or in cities without an NFL team.

‘People eat better when their football team wins and worse when it loses, especially if they lost unexpectedly, by a narrow margin, or against a team of equal strength,’ said the researchers. They also found that a simple technique of self-affirmation – where an individual reflects on what they personally value in life – eliminated the unhealthy effects of the loss.

This is perhaps particularly noteworthy for fans of teams that have a seeming perennial losing pattern. The fact that simply reaffirming the positives to ourselves can extinguish such aforementioned negative effects is reassuring. It’s a reminder that while the reasons for a disappointed fan drowning in Big Macs or jumping through their own television set may be explained from a biological, psychological, neurological, sociological, and physiological viewpoint, it isn’t justified in absolute terms that cannot be dealt with.

In fact, such over-the-top reactions arguably separate the individual from the team and the stratified team/fan collective they believe they belong to. For one thing, while Super Bowl XLIX ended with players brawling in the end zone, player reactions rarely go farther than that. Furthermore, while shared victory is always preferable, there is an undeniable element of shared misery and loss that is part of the basis for the fan community.

Loss can also have unintentional therapeutic results as well. The fan whose identity is so tightly merged with the identity of the team may find a sort of wake-up-call after an upsetting loss. The loss can result in the inclination to distance oneself from their defeated team. This concept, as coined by researchers C.R. Snyder, Mary Anne Lassergard and Carol E. Ford is referred to as CORFing (Cutting Off Reflected Failure).

It’s true that although watching the game can affect you in ways you cannot control, the majority of every fan’s faculties remain under their control. Furthermore, while losing has potential negative side-effects for the viewing fan, overall, the act of being a fan of any team is a positive thing. Whether it’s high self-esteem or being more active physically, politically and socially, sports fans are positively benefited by their love of the game.


Cornil Y, & Chandon P (2013). From fan to fat? Vicarious losing increases unhealthy eating, but self-affirmation is an effective remedy. Psychological science, 24 (10), 1936-46 PMID: 23925307

Image via zeljkodan / Shutterstock.

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January 2015 – What’s Hot and What’s Not in Psychology & Psychiatry Tue, 03 Feb 2015 12:00:52 +0000 The fields of psychology and psychiatry kicked the year off with a hefty focus on child development research, action and news. Here are the latest and greatest up-to-the-minute developments in both the hot and not-so-hot topics this January.

HOT: Transgender Children are Not “Confused”: They Identify with their Gender as Clearly as Cisgender Kids

Who: Team led by psychological scientist Kristina Olson from University of Washington.
Where: Scheduled for publishing in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Why: Here’s an example of science stepping up to lend informational support where the previous response to the keystone question of parents of transgender children, “Should my child be in therapy to try to change what they say they are, or should they be supported?” was “We just don’t know!”— a totally unacceptable response to our collective scientific mind.

Olsen and her team have well and truly opened the door for generating a research-based understanding of both transgender and cisgender children’s gender identity that can help guide and support healthy and strong child and parent development. As such, Olsen has now launched the first large-scale, nationwide, longitudinal study of transgender children in the United States.

HOT: Virtual Reality used to Reduce Sexual Victimization of Teenage Girls

Who: Research team of Psychology Professors from Southern Methodist University, Dallas.
Where: In press in the journal Behavior Therapy from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.
Why: Females who firmly resist unwanted advances stand a greater chance of escaping a sexually coercive situation, from which there are numerous immediate and long-term deleterious effects.

After completion of “My Voice, My Choice” virtual reality resistance training, girls in the study that had had higher rates of previous victimization experienced lower rates of psychological distress and psychological victimization, e.g. being yelled at or called names, or having a boy try to frighten or spread rumors about her.

“This finding is particularly noteworthy because other violence protection programs have generally been ineffective or less effective for previously victimized young women,” said Simpson Rowe, lead author of the study and Associate Professor and Graduate Program Co-Director of Psychology at SMU.

HOT: Global Mission to Help Child Victims of Trauma in Low Income Countries Around the World

Who: Professor of child psychiatry, Panos Vostanis, from the Greenwood Institute of Child Health based at the University of Leicester’s School of Psychology.
Where: Across a series of low-income countries throughout 2015, in Europe and beyond.
Why: To train volunteer workers and practitioners to effectively deliver aid to those most in need of it, including child mental health victims of drug abuse, poverty and medical illness. International universities, services and non-governmental organizations across the globe will establish new joint training programs for child mental health.

NOT: New Evidence of Mercury Containing Vaccinations Harming Child’s Mental Health

Who: Team of researchers from The Institute of Chronic Illnesses, USA.
Where: From the Biological Trace Element Research journal.
Why: The case control study reports that “routine childhood vaccination is an important public health tool to reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with infectious diseases, but the present study provides new epidemiological evidence of a significant relationship between increasing organic Hg (mercury) exposure from Thimerosal-containing vaccines and the sub-sequent risk of PDD (pervasive developmental disorders) diagnosis in males and females… it is also a public health imperative to end the unnecessary addition of organic Hg to vaccines in the form of Thimerosal used as a preservative or otherwise.”

NOT: Common Pesticide may Increase Child’s Risk of ADHD

Who: Rutgers researchers and colleagues from Emory University, the University of Rochester Medical Center and Wake Forest University.
Where: Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB)
Why: The study reported that children with higher pyrethroid pesticide metabolite levels in their urine were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.

“Although we can’t change genetic susceptibility to ADHD, there may be modifiable environmental factors, including exposures to pesticides that we should be examining in more detail,” says Richardson.


University of Leicester press release: Major project to help children traumatised worldwide. Accessed 2 Feburary 2015.

Geier DA, Kern JK, King PG, Sykes LK, & Geier MR (2015). A Case-Control Study Evaluating the Relationship Between Thimerosal-Containing Haemophilus influenzae Type b Vaccine Administration and the Risk for a Pervasive Developmental Disorder Diagnosis in the United States. Biological trace element research, 163 (1-2), 28-38 PMID: 25382662

Richardson JR, Taylor MM, Shalat SL, Guillot TS 3rd, Caudle WM, Hossain MM, Mathews TA, Jones SR, Cory-Slechta DA, & Miller GW (2015). Developmental pesticide exposure reproduces features of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. FASEB journal : official publication of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology PMID: 25630971

Rowe, L., Jouriles, E., & McDonald, R. (2014). Reducing Sexual Victimization Among Adolescent Girls: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Trial of My Voice, My Choice Behavior Therapy DOI: 10.1016/j.beth.2014.11.003

Image via Ollyy / Shutterstock.

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Invisibilia – Interview with the Co-Hosts of NPR’s Latest Show Fri, 23 Jan 2015 12:00:31 +0000 “What were you just thinking?”

“Are your thoughts related to your inner desires?”

“Do they reveal who you REALLY are?”

Invisibilia_Alix_LuluThese are the questions Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller explore in NPR’s new show, Invisibilia (Latin for “all the invisible things”).

With the first episode, The Secret History of Thoughts, we are introduced to a man referred to only as “S” gripped by violent thoughts of killing his wife, and another man trapped inside his body for 12 years; his thoughts being the only thing he could control.

Invisibilia proved to be a prime example of what The Hollywood Medical Reporter aims to examine and discuss. Granted film and television have taken much of the influence once held by radio, the later has not been extinguished by a long shot. Radio and podcasts remain quite popular. As such, so does their influence and power.

This show exemplifies the possibility of that power. Spiegel and Miller take a scientific topic – such as modern psychoanalysis – and shape their presentation with a personal human narrative. The listener gets pulled in – not wholly, but arguably in large part – by the human story of a man consumed with the thought of stabbing his wife, and along the ride learns of the various forms of psychoanalysis the man experienced.

The first episode alone offers such a vast array of topics to discuss that we will be breaking up this coverage into two parts. The first installment we will share our interview with co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller.

How do you pick your interview subjects?

AS & LM: This depends a lot on the subject of the story, but when our focus is someone with an unusual brain condition, we usually talk to a bunch of people with the condition (six to twelve, sometimes more sometimes less) by telephone. We interview them enough to get a decent sense of how they are experiencing the world and what they have to say – then we set up studio interviews with two or three of them. From there we will usually focus on one in particular to visit in person and build into the main subject of the story. That person is picked because there was something they said that seemed particularly interesting, or they are just open to talking about their experience. It’s not really a science, it’s more like a gut reaction to the interview. There are some stories where it’s not possible to talk to a bunch of different people. For example this season we did a story about someone whose brain makes her biologically incapable of fear. That is such a specific condition that it wasn’t possible to talk to a bunch of people about it.

How does this decision factor into the shaping of the tone and general content of the given episode?

AS: I think what’s important is that they seem representative of what it is that you are trying to explore and they seem trustworthy. It’s not possible to know before you sit down for the actual in-person interview what the shape of their story is going to take, what their real experience has been. You just have to talk and see where it goes.

What are your hopes for this program?

AS & LM: We hope it will be received kind of like The Interview was – we’re looking for a statement from President Obama and maybe a formal complaint against us at the UN by North Korea, but we’re kinda doubting that will happen.

Our more realistic hope is that these stories expand listeners’ own thoughts and understanding. We want to be thought-provoking! And we also hope that some people will find a kind of comfort or edification in the stories and that those people will tell their friends about it and then some of those friends will also find a comfort or edification in the stories. We’d be really happy with that.

Do you employ medical experts to assist and advise you on how to go about this project, particularly in regards to any potential caution that may or may not be needed in choosing your interviewees?

AS: I don’t think that we’ve talked to anyone on the show who has been dangerous in any way. Our first program involves someone who initially sounds like they could be dangerous, but the story is about how he is actually one of the most decent, non-violent people you will ever meet. We do talk to lots of scientific experts though – tons of them – and they always give us advice on what we are doing.

How did you come to choose this as NPR’s newest program? What went into this decision?

EN: At NPR, we like to maintain an innovative culture, so we are vetting new ideas all the time. Sometimes it is for a radio show, a special series, a podcast, a blog—lots of ideas percolate all the time. For new shows, like Invisibilia, we follow an iterative development process, which means we work on new ideas a little bit at a time so we can really understand the idea, the work involved, and its potential. So an innovative idea like Invisibilia isn’t unique at NPR; it’s just the only idea (of many) that made it this far in the process.

How do you balance being entertaining with being informative; not to mention being reliably accurate and consumer-friendly so as to produce good ratings?

AS: Well we try very hard to be both! Lulu came from Radiolab and Alix came from This American Life, and so we both were trained in how to tell stories that deliver a lot of information in a way that feels fun.

How much would you say good storytelling plays in the success of this and other radio/podcast programming (NPR and not)? In what way, if at all, does the role, technique and implementation of storytelling differ than in other media such as novel writing, screenwriting?

AG: Storytelling is not a technique for us. Because, if you think about it, we all are living our own stories. Life is a story. At home. At work. So, finding and telling stories seems to us like the most natural way to share information. Serving up information, facts by themselves, takes it out of context.

Sure, a lot of the time reporters don’t present the two together, because they need to be quick. Gathering information and getting it out to people fast is often the most important thing. But we are taking the time (and we hope our listeners will too) to keep story and information together.

As for radio versus other media, radio is the most intimate medium, a human voice connecting with your imagination. It’s probably the oldest too, isn’t it? Really fundamental to our human experience. So we think radio is the right medium for Invisibilia.

How common is “Harm OCD,” [the condition which caused “S” to be consumed with thoughts of killing his wife]? Does the intangible nature of its symptoms impact the ability to diagnosis it?

AS & LM: Turns out Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with harming obsessions, or Harm OCD, is a well-recognized condition that is regularly diagnosed. I (this is Alix) had never heard of it before I got an email from someone who had it, but once I started looking into it, I was surprised by how many people had it. To find out more about it you can look here.

Indeed, I have to say (now this is Lulu), once I starting talking to people about this piece we were working on — in which an otherwise normal man is plagued by violent thoughts everywhere he looks — the amount of people that privately confessed they had such thoughts really shocked me. I think maybe it is not as rare as you might think. I think there is huge stigma around it, and thus people are often left alone with these thoughts, worrying about them, which is exactly the perfect way to make them worse.

Also – and this is important – mental health professionals who work with people who have violent thoughts have various ways of diagnosing whether the thoughts are signs of OCD. It’s not as though everyone off the street who is complaining of murderous thoughts is told the thoughts should be ignored; it takes a therapist or psychiatrist time and investigation to get to that point.

And of course, as with any condition, medical or psychological, the diagnosis is always (at least in some very small sense) a bet. Which is sort of the point of the show. Frustrating as it may be, it’s very hard to get to an absolutely scientifically perfectly perfect absolutely certain answer to the question of “how are your thoughts related to your inner wishes?” But in the case of the mental health professionals we were talking to, some of them have been working on this condition for 20 years and never once been wrong on their “bet.”

When attempting to reach large audiences, how do you overcome the distance between the two types of knowledge involved: scientific knowledge and common knowledge?

AG: We let each one inform the other.

How would you define the genre of entertainment INVISIBILIA fits into? Is it a simplified scientific message or perhaps, does it belong to a different category? To that end, how does NPR effectively use mass media to popularize science and medical subjects?

AG: Invisibilia looks at things that have a profound and yet mostly unrecognized impact on us. Intangible things like thoughts, expectations, fears. And sometimes tangible things, like computers, that affect us in unseen ways. As scientific research reveals how these things shape our behavior and our lives, we will try to share what has been found. So Invisibilia is stories about what we don’t usually see about ourselves.

Regarding NPR and science and medical subjects, our feeling is that we don’t need to popularize them. We just need to make them accessible. We all want to know about ourselves and our world. Sharing this kind of information in stories can make it clear and meaningful.

Can you share a particular story and/or moment you heard or experienced during production that stuck with you on a deep level and why?

AS: There have been so many: for me (Alix) one of the most powerful was when we went to interview this woman who physically feels the things that the people around her physically feel. It made me think really differently about empathy. Lulu?

LM: Can I have two? I have two. 1) “BOTHER.” When I was interviewing a woman from India for a piece about an all-Indian retirement community in Florida, she mentioned that where she grew up (in a small Indian village), there was no word for “bother.” “Why would you say that word?” she asked me. Her point was that, when she came to the States, everybody was always afraid of ‘bothering’ each other, of showing up unannounced on a neighbor’s doorstep, or calling to talk on the phone. I completely knew what she meant. I spend a large portion of my life being TERRIFIED of ‘bothering’ people. I will look at a telephone and literally sweat… before dialing. And here she was pointing out – that where she came from ‘bothering’ wasn’t even a thing. It started to make me realize just how much my private interior life (like the pounding worry that can be produced by fear of bothering) is in fact created by exterior forces like culture and society. Alix has known this for a very long time, but I’ve been a little late to the party. 2) THERE IS A FOOLPROOF ANTIDOTE FOR FEAR. It is not a controlled substance. It requires no prescription. It is just a very simple equation that this man, Jason Comely, an IT guy in Canada, discovered and told us about. But I suppose I shouldn’t tell you what it is, because it’s kind of the treat we dangle at the end of the “FEARLESS” episode. So. You will just have to listen.

Can you share a bit on what we can expect for future episodes?

AS: We’ve done a whole show about fear (that’s the one with the person who is biologically incapable of fear) and another about expectations. In the future we want to do a whole show that looks at the concept of personality.

LM: Well, there is the show about fear we just mentioned (Jan 16). There is also a totally cool and spooky episode about entanglements, and all the ways we are connected to each other in ways that REALLLLLLLLY surprised me (and in ways that aren’t theoretical but quite earthly, and real, and being capitalized on by the US gov’t). That episode comes out Feb 6. There may or may not be a partly sung segment in our show about how computers are changing how we behave (Feb 13). And, if they let us keep making this stuff, we’ve talked about wanting to do the show on personality (how consistent it is over a lifetime, what forms it, does it come from the outside or in?), teen pregnancy, and a town in Belgium where being psychologically abnormal is the norm.

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Is Torture As Ineffective As It Is Abhorrent? Fri, 16 Jan 2015 11:57:08 +0000 Known as torture by some and the shameful euphemism “enhanced interrogation” by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the American Psychological Association (APA), is currently under investigation for their putative aiding and abetting of the CIA in such programs. The effectiveness of torture as a post-9/11 intelligence gathering tool has been questioned in a damning report released by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, based on a six year investigation into black site operations around the world.

David H. Hoffman, Chicago lawyer and former inspector general and federal prosecutor, has been hired by the APA to investigate accusations regarding their involvement in CIA torture programs. Despite the initial urge to cry “whitewash”, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter, James Risen, the main accuser of the APA in his book, Pay Any Price, feels “confident that Hoffman will investigate whether there was collusion between APA staff and government officials to manipulate APA ethics policy to give legal and ethical cover for torture.” More light is unlikely to be shed on the matter until the formal report is issued to select APA board members in March 2015.

At odds with both recent allegations and the APA’s refusal to outright ban members from involvement in torturous interrogation, the APA, as well as the European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations (EFPA), issued statements in outrage at the two psychologists that were shamed in the Senate report.

The report disclosed that they received over $80 million to run a company for the development and implementation of the CIA’s psychologically and physiologically abusive interrogation program, including sleep deprivation, waterboarding, rectal feeding and other gruesome torture techniques. One of the two psychologists, James Mitchell, was reportedly a member of the APA at the time. Seeing as he is no longer a member, APA claims that the two psychologists “are therefore beyond the reach of our ethics enforcement program.”

While many consider torture a morally abhorrent crime against humanity, that’s a philosophical matter. The only justifiable and testable argument for the reportedly global use of torture tactics is that they produce reliable intelligence. However, Diane Feinstein, the Senate Committee Chairwoman that released the report, stated that “at no time did the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques lead to the collection of intelligence on an imminent threat that many believe is the justification of these techniques.”

In a perfect world, justifying the effectiveness of torture would be considered nonsensical. Back in reality however, according to a study conducted by the American University’s School of Public Affairs, simply witnessing “torture” being effective in a video clip increases the chances of signing a petition in support of such tactics. If this effect, dubbed the “Hollywood Effect”, can be extended to the countless movies that collectively comprise many hours of effective torture viewing pleasure, then one could assume that our views on torture may easily fall prey to subjective bias.

Yet, for the majority of us that are lucky enough to have a lack of personal experience with torture, published research that could enlighten us further is near non-existent, and instead there are a great number of studies probing how best to treat torture victims’ horrific traumatization. It is important to acknowledge that while confronting detainees with excruciating pain could possibly lead to the disclosure of accurate information, many torture survivors report that the truthful information they revealed was intentionally incomplete or mixed with false information, often leading to false confessions and fabrication of information in an effort to stop the pain.

How can we expect the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques to be reliably effective when they are designed to “create a destabilizing sense of shock; undermine an individual’s grasp on reality; and provoke internal psychological division, self-conflict, and confusion”, as reported in the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation?

In surprisingly stark contrast, adopting an adaptive rapport-based interrogation style in which suspects are treated with respect, dignity and integrity, provides an effective approach for suspect cooperation and reduced use of counter-interrogation tactics, like silence or repeating scripted responses. These results are based on the Centre for Critical and Major Incident Psychology’s study at the University of Liverpool, analyzing 181 police interrogations with international (Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda-inspired), paramilitary and right-wing terrorists.

As with the two protestors arrested on a “Torturers Tour” outside Dick Chaney’s residence on January 10th, we must place our hopes that Hoffman won’t be easily silenced, and he will be equally ruthless and fearless should the accusations against the APA hold true, whether the torture techniques were effective or not.


Alison, L., Alison, E., Noone, G., Elntib, S., Waring, S., & Christiansen, P. (2014). The efficacy of rapport-based techniques for minimizing counter-interrogation tactics amongst a field sample of terrorists. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 20 (4), 421-430 DOI: 10.1037/law0000021

Costanzo, M., & Gerrity, E. (2009). The Effects and Effectiveness of Using Torture as an Interrogation Device: Using Research to Inform the Policy Debate Social Issues and Policy Review, 3 (1), 179-210 DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-2409.2009.01014.x

Kearns, E., & Young, J. (2014). If Torture is Wrong, What About 24?: Torture and the Hollywood Effect SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2483131

McCarthy M (2014). Psychologists’ firm was paid $81m to implement CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 349 PMID: 25510396

Putnam FW (2013). The role of abusive states of being in interrogation. Journal of trauma & dissociation : the official journal of the International Society for the Study of Dissociation (ISSD), 14 (2), 147-58 PMID: 23406220

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s redacted report:

Documentary: Doctors of the Dark Side.

Image via View Apart / Shutterstock.

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Schizophrenia and the Demands of Emotion Thu, 08 Jan 2015 12:00:22 +0000 It is clear and obvious that the mind is intentional in terms of its activity. Intentional cognitive activity is seen simply in the ability to solve math problems. It is perhaps more subtle that emotions influence the direction of cognitive activity. Emotional activity is driven less by intention than cognitive activity.

Emotions, which are non-rational, implicate defense mechanisms when they impact thought. Three of the defense mechanisms, developed by Anna Freud, are as follows: denial, sublimation and regression. The defense mechanisms have been modified, construed and categorized by psychiatrist George Eman Vaillant. Vaillant has constructed an extensive theory regarding defense mechanisms based upon Anna Freud’s paradigm. Further comments related to his theory will appear in a latter part of this discussion. In terms of Anna Freud’s definition of certain defense mechanisms, the following is relevant:

  • Denial can be represented by the refusal to accept realities of the mental and material worlds, or actively contending against ideas that provoke in one anxiety. Denial, like other defense mechanisms, relies on “Repression,” a defense mechanism that is understood to underlie all other defense mechanisms.
  • Sublimation represents the alteration or conversion of negative emotions or instincts into positive actions, behaviors, or emotions. This defense mechanism shapes our perspectives by negating the impact of ego gratification, for example, allowing a person to view himself as altruistic, as he denies his unconscious intent to transform negative feelings into ethical and helpful ones. Nevertheless, this defense mechanism is that upon which many good aspects of our society are perpetuated. Individuals who uphold values that are embraced by most people typically use sublimation. The defense mechanism of sublimation allows us ego gains by convincing us of the morality and ethics behind our good deeds.
  • Regressive behavior allows us to retreat to a more comforting and nurturing view of our environments in spite of the fact that this view does not correspond to reality. Regressing into a previous and less mature state of mental and physical development allows one to achieve more psychological and physical comfort than facing a situation without unconsciously distorting it through regression.

As stated by Vaillant, it is also evident, and perhaps more evident, that psychotic thought is skewed by emotion that is the impetus for defense mechanisms. This implicates more psychologically pathological use of defense mechanisms. Through a description of the following three types of delusions, based upon mechanisms of psychological defense, it is possible to discern the emotional motivation for psychotic thinking:

  • Psychotic delusions of persecution represent a category of defense mechanisms. Delusions of persecution may fulfill a need for self-importance, and, moreover, they provide us with a sense of reason, fabricated or not so, for our suffering.
  • Delusions of grandeur, what Vaillant terms as signifying a “superiority complex”, allow for both better self-esteem and the self-perception that one is more powerful in the world than one really is, in spite of the fact these feelings represent pseudo-positive feeling.
  • Erotomanic delusions may reward us sexually, but they may also fulfill desires for intimacy.

These considerations point to the emotional neediness of psychotic individuals. As if the term, “emotional neediness”, is not insulting and deprecating, it is nevertheless relevant. The alienation and the subjugation of the mentally ill are real, and the emotional reasoning behind their defenses are obvious. These facts point to the best answer to the problem of mental illness such as schizophrenia: Fulfill the biopsychosocial needs of the psychotic mentally ill.

In terms of these considerations, medication is effective, and, as science advances, it is becoming increasingly more effective. Relief from alienation is important, and it should be psychotherapeutically approached with as much empathy as possible. Lastly, we should combat the stigma associated with schizophrenia.

As stated, the answers are simple. Enacting them is not. However, if the emotional neediness of schizophrenics is understood compassionately and without judgment, the reality of schizophrenia can be less stigmatizing, it may draw less criticism, and, ultimately, it may be ameliorated. It should be asserted, however, that the problem is not simply the label: “schizophrenic”. The problem may be a matter of assuming the label of “schizophrenia” by the schizophrenic as indicative of personal identity. It is obvious that mental illness of the psychotic mentally ill impacts these individuals possibly more than any other circumstance of their lives ever will. Nevertheless, the realities of these individuals, while perhaps “unreal”, can be viewed with compassion — unless the sane people will not or cannot do so.


Vaillant, G. (1986). An Empirically Validated Hierarchy of Defense Mechanisms Archives of General Psychiatry, 43 (8) DOI: 10.1001/archpsyc.1986.01800080072010

Image via Olly / Shutterstock.

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Immortality at the Click of a Mouse? Sat, 03 Jan 2015 12:00:25 +0000 Human beings have always longed for immortality. Magic potions, fountains of youth and time travelling are just some of the ideas found in fantasy and science fiction. However, the digital world is not lagging far behind. If we want to become immortal we now have another option: when we pass away we can leave our digital being behind.

That is what is being claimed by the start-up project Developed as part of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Development Program, it already has thousands of registered users. is a project that could integrate all the information we have produced online and use it to create a digital simulation of us as individuals. Our discourses, our possible answers to questions, and even characteristics such as our voice could become part of our digital avatar. If taken further, these kinds of digital technologies could one day even be used to develop videos or some kind of holograms of us once we are dead. is the product of an ongoing attempt at creating artificial intelligence online. Its prehistory lies in the chatbots, talkbots or Artificial Conversation Entities which started to appear online almost two decades ago, although the very first versions date back to the 1960s. Some examples include Jabberwacky, Dude and Alice.

Not so many years ago, certain sites made use of these technologies to claim that they could create a “digital you” by interacting with these robots, chatting, and exchanging ideas. The more we interacted with this programs, the more information they were going to be able to gather from us, and therefore, their recreations of us would become more “complete”. By paying a certain sum of money, these sites would keep our programs for loved ones to chat to anytime they wanted. draws on these ideas, trying to integrate not only our conversations with one program, but actually compiling most of the material we produce in communicating digitally – that generated on Facebook, Twitter, Skype, blogs, and so on.

For some people this idea is exciting or even seemingly inevitable, since it’s human nature to try to leave a mark and be remembered. Creating simulated digital replicas of ourselves is certainly simpler than becoming a famous artist, prophet or revolutionary. Of course it may benefit not only ourselves but the general public, as expressed by Marius Ursache, from in Wired, “can you imagine how it would have been… [to]… preserve Socrates or Einstein?”

In one of the episodes of the British TV series Black Mirror, broadcasted in 2013, the director Owen Harris brings to the screen some of the implications of digital replicas. A mourning pregnant wife decides to “bring to digital life” her deceased husband who was an “avid user” of digital new media. She seems so excited about the option that she buys an artificial body which appears like a clone of her loved one.

As we could expect, important human factors seem to be missing in the end, and this is precisely the main complaint voiced by critics of this area of technological development: However good a replica gets, it’s always going to lack the authenticity of a real human subject. We can recreate the appearance of a mind, but at least until the dawn of computer sentience, the essential subjectivity, the person themselves will necessarily be left out of the picture.

However, this does not seem to be an obstacle for the developers and enthusiasts of these programs. The sound of “I can die but my online self will be there to help you,” seems very tempting.


Abu Shawar, Bayan; Atwell, Eric. (2007). Chatbots: Sind Sie wirklich nutzlich? (are they really useful?). LDV-Forum Journal for Computational Linguistics and Language Technology, vol. 22, pp. 31-50.

Abowd, G., & Mynatt, E. (2000). Charting past, present, and future research in ubiquitous computing ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 7 (1), 29-58 DOI: 10.1145/344949.344988

Image via Ociacia / Shutterstock.

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Keeping Your Resolutions – An Expert’s Guide Tue, 30 Dec 2014 12:00:27 +0000 Psychology research is making a fool out of books like The Secret, which say that thinking positively and focusing your mind on your goals will miraculously have them materialize. So how can we best use the workings of our minds to make New Year’s resolutions a reality in 2015?

Peter Gollwitzer PhotoWe have turned to the renowned Professor of Psychology, Social Psychology and Motivation, Peter Gollwitzer. As one of the world’s leading authorities on goal attainment and motivation, he certainly knows a “secret” or two about how to achieve your New Year’s resolutions. Without further ado, here are 5 invaluable tips based on what he had to say.

1. The Secret is not enough

Gollwitzer: “Traditionally, the psychology of motivation has focused on motivating people to make strong goal commitments. It was assumed that if people manage to strongly commit to their goals, the likelihood will be really high that they actually reach their goals. However, in the last 15 to 20 years, researchers have been arguing that people can do more than merely commit to goals – they can also use their minds to strategically improve the striving for their goals.”

2. Turn goal planning into action with “if-then” plans

Planning is paramount if you want to achieve your New Year’s resolutions. Be it breaking or creating habits like quitting smoking and starting regular exercise, or any other goal you can imagine. Hundreds of studies support the use of if-then planning, also known as implementation intentions, as making such plans can double or even triple your chances of success.

It’s insanely simple yet undeniably one of the most effective ways to ensure goal success. If-then plans specify when, where and how you will take specific actions to reach your goal. For example, if your goal was to lose weight, an if-then plan might be: If I get late evening sugar cravings at home, then I will have a cup of calming tea with a teaspoon of honey.

Gollwitzer: “When you link the when and the where to the how using an if-then statement, you get a more reliable goal attainment effect. This is because strong links between the situation and response are created in your mind, which usually only originate through effortful learning, failing and repeating things. But you can prepare such links in your mind… you consciously spell out an if (critical situation) – then (constructive response) plan. As a consequence, encountering the critical situation will automatically elicit the goal-directed specified response.”

3. Make the most of if-then plans with mental contrasting

Gollwitzer: “There is a new book, Rethinking Positive Thinking by Gabriele Oettingen. Get it, because at the end of the book there is a large section on how to best form implementation intentions, using a method called mental contrasting to find the critical situations and then link them to instrumental goal-directed responses.

This method is also explained in a free app she recently developed. The app is called WOOP, short for Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan, discussed recently in the New York Times. It’s free and very easy to use as it is explained by referring to many examples.”

4. Motivation and emotion make things happen

Gollwitzer: “I always say ‘watch out!’, as motivation needs to be in place. Without it being in place you are not going to have those if-then plan effects. If you only have the means, e.g. a hammer, this will not guarantee you will put your pictures on the wall if you are not motivated to do so.”

Especially for year-long goals that require you to keep at it through thick and thin, you won’t get far without fueling your motivational fires along the way. Don’t forget about the goal associated with your if-then plans. If successfully following through with an if-then plan does not provide motivation in and of itself, monetary “prizes” for reaching key points on the road to goal achievement have also been shown to pave a smoother road to success.

Similarly, emotion, which is integral to motivational brain circuitry, can strongly influence the effectiveness of if-then plans. While such research is in its infancy, the stirring up of strong emotions when forming if-then plans can markedly increase your chances of goal attainment.

Gollwitzer: “Emotions that are associated with a lot of excitement and arousal, like joy, surprise and anger are of particular importance. Focusing on anger in our research, we learned anger can aid forming stronger implementation intentions as well as enacting them. If your boss is nasty to you, you are angry, and the more readily you form if-then plans, and the better you are at acting on these plans: “If I see him today, then I will immediately tell him that he was insulting.” You see him, you are angry, and boom… the if-then plan is implemented.

“However, if-then plans are flexible as they are created and acted upon in the context of a person’s ultimate goals. For instance, the person who wants to complain to her boss also has the goal of not losing her job, so she will make sure that she won’t push things too far. Or, if another colleague in a meetings says to the boss “don’t be so cynical,” that person has already enacted your plan so you don’t have to do it anymore … you’re not a robot, your plans are in the service of your goals. Your superordinate goals take care of these things, they look out for you!”

5. Beware of how you use self-defining goals

Gollwitzer: “People can also strive for a self-defining goal, like being a great parent or scientist for example. In this case, simply describing to others what one intends to do to reach these goals does already create a sense of goal completion. Funny thing is that you pay a price for that, your motivation goes down.”

Being a good parent or partner, or becoming an amateur cyclist or musician, are all examples of self-defining goals that unlike goals that typically end up on your daily to do list, are important in defining your self-identity.

Try to avoid casually announcing your self-defining intentions to people who won’t hold you accountable if you fail to achieve them. That social recognition and pat on the back you are likely to receive simply from communicating your intentions can lead to a feeling of completeness that saps away at your motivation, as if you have already embodied what you had hoped to become.

So, please say no to wacky blind optimism and instead start your morning by addressing your if-thens in order to direct the challenges and opportunities the day provides towards effectively achieving your New Year’s resolutions this 2015!


Gollwitzer, P. M. (2014) Weakness of the will: Is a quick fix possible? Motivation and Emotion, 38, 305-322.

Gollwitzer, P. M., and Oettingen, G. (2013). Implementation intentions. In M. Gellman and J. R. Turner (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine (pp. 1043-1048). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Gollwitzer, P. M., and Oettingen, G. (2011). Planning promotes goal striving. In K. D. Vohs and R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications. (2nd Ed., pp. 162-185.). New York, London: The Guilford Press.

Gollwitzer, P., Sheeran, P., Michalski, V., & Seifert, A. (2009). When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap? Psychological Science, 20 (5), 612-618 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02336.x

Maglio, S., Gollwitzer, P., & Oettingen, G. (2014). Emotion and control in the planning of goals Motivation and Emotion, 38 (5), 620-634 DOI: 10.1007/s11031-014-9407-4

Oettingen, G. (2014). Rethinking positive thinking: Inside the new science of motivation. Penguin.

Image via Sondem / Shutterstock.

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Are We Superhuman? Part 2 – Precognition Mon, 22 Dec 2014 12:00:41 +0000 Could your brain have the potential to predict what will happen in the future?

In the first installment of the series, Part 1 – Feeling the Future, we touched upon the easier to swallow concept of predictive anticipatory activity (PAA), known to the psychic community as presentiment.

It almost seems logical, even expected, that a system that potentially employs quantum principles- your brain – would be capitalizing on phenomena that could aid your survival. But if I said to you that your brain may have the potential to make accurate predictions about what will happen in the future, as opposed to the generalized physiological PAA premonitions indicating something will happen, you might think this is taking things a step too far. No?

Well, it’s not too far for some scientists, who are boldly exploring waters teaming with shrewd scientific sharks ready to chew up and spit out their work. In 2011, one of the most notorious scientific supporters of precognitive phenomena, Cornell University’s Professor Daryl J. Bem, urged researchers to attempt to replicate his time-reversed experimental findings, in order to create a database that as it grows, will increasingly allow for a more scrupulous analysis of precognition research.

Now, in 2014, Bem and colleagues have published a meta-analysis based on this database that included 90 experiments from 33 laboratories across 14 different countries involving 12,406 participants. The analysis yielded an overall positive Hedges’ effect size, albeit relatively small, in favor of the theory that a persons’ cognitive and affective response in the present can be influenced by events in the future that are yet to occur. This was coupled with pretty strong statistical significance (p=1.3×10-11) indicating that the experimental results are not due to chance. But are they due to precognitive thought? Now, that is the real question.

Let’s take a look at the experiments themselves, which were of ten main types, all aimed to test for the existence of the time-reversal of four well-established psychological effects:

  1. Approach/avoidance experiments: The first set of experiments were, in essence, standard presentiment studies, with a cognitive twist. Instead of simply detecting whether a randomly presented image is emotionally and physiologically arousing, in this case sexually arousing, before it is revealed, test subjects had to guess which of two curtains the picture was behind. A time-reversed effect was considered present when the subject was able to correctly identify the location of the image more often than chance, with the effect only observed for emotionally arousing images.
  2. Affective priming: Traditional priming experiments involve using a briefly flashed positive or negative word, e.g. beautiful or ugly, prior to viewing an image and asking subjects to judge as quickly as they can whether a picture is pleasant or unpleasant. When the image and the word are of the same valence (both positive or both negative), we make a correct choice quicker, than if one is negative and the other positive. To time-reverse the experiment, the priming word was shown after the participant made their choice. As priming effects are associated with specific changes in brain activity, extending this experiment to include fMRI analysis would prove very enlightening.
  3. Habituation: This involves repeated exposure to an emotionally arousing stimulus, be it an image, word or sound, resulting in subjects having a dampened emotional response to the stimulus (habituation). To time-reverse the experiment, the session comprising of stimulus familiarization by repeated exposure was performed after the level of arousal was measured from seeing the stimulus for the first time in a single exposure session.
  4. Facilitation of recall: Put simply, random words are displayed which have to later be recalled. Half of the words are repeated (e.g. typed out) in a practice session. In standard experiments the practice session occurs before the recall session, and in time-reversed experiments the practice session occurs after the recall session.

If we put any methodological and interpretational caveats aside and we take the results for face value, all experiments tested for time-reversed psychological capacities. However, most of the experiments were fast-thinking experiments, with the only slow-thinking experiments being of the facilitation of recall type. All of the fast-thinking experiments are quite easily explained by the more palatable PAA phenomenon. Slow-thinking experiments on the other hand, that involve specific details of future events, are clearly more in-line with the concept of precognition.

Interestingly, while the meta-analysis presented a strong effect size for fast-thinking experiments, the slow-thinking experiments achieved a negligible effect size, failing to achieve even a conventional level of statistical significance. Notably, of the 29 slow-thinking experiments included in the analysis, analyzing the 15 that were exact replications of Bem’s experiments (i.e. with minor if any modifications) resulted in a statistically significant effect size comparable with fast-thinking experiments.

All in all, the measured effect does NOT definitively correlate with precognitive slow-thinking. Instead, the results support theories of fast and instinctive retrocausal thinking far more readily, and quite easily aligns with PAA theory. Even meta-analysis of Bem’s results performed by other researchers lead to the conclusion that people may be able to feel the future with strongly valenced emotional stimuli, i.e. presentiment, but did not go so far as to consider precognition.

And even if we consider that all of the modified facilitation of recall experiments had negatively skewed results, remembering one or two words slightly better than expected is nowhere near as grand as psychics’ claims of conjuring up visions and precognitive dreams. So don’t go running for your crystal balls just yet.

Alone, these experiments might not have us believing we have the psychic powers of Professor Xavier, but collectively they certainly warrant further investigation. We may find that all of the experiments suffer from the same fatal flaw, producing false positive results, as some skeptics propose. Further developments in experimental design are undoubtedly needed for theories to be more widely acknowledged, or indeed debunked.

Nonetheless, the progression of research into time-reversed psychological phenomena thus far is impressive, especially with such overwhelming opposition in the scientific community. It is not unrealistic to assume that with a few more years of avid research we shall finally reach a paradigm shift, and enter a world where psychic capabilities like precognition get a modern makeover, or are left for tricksters, dreamers, the gullible and fairy tales.

Whatever holds true, as Lewis Carroll’s Queen in Alice in Wonderland quite aptly put it: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards”.


Bem, D., Tressoldi, P., Rabeyron, T., & Duggan, M. (2014). Feeling the Future: A Meta-Analysis of 90 Experiments on the Anomalous Anticipation of Random Future Events SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2423692

Bem DJ (2011). Feeling the future: experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of personality and social psychology, 100 (3), 407-25 PMID: 21280961

Rabeyron T (2014). Retro-priming, priming, and double testing: psi and replication in a test-retest design. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8 PMID: 24672466

Rouder JN, & Morey RD (2011). A Bayes factor meta-analysis of Bem’s ESP claim. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 18 (4), 682-9 PMID: 21573926

Schwarzkopf DS (2014). We should have seen this coming. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8 PMID: 24904372

Image via Nikkytok / Shutterstock.

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Mental Context – A Delicate Subject Wed, 10 Dec 2014 12:00:43 +0000 Differentiating psychotic experience from religious experience is a delicate matter. The discussion that follows is not intended to validate psychotic experience or denigrate religious experience. Rather, it is meant to address the questions of whether hallucinations and delusions can be distinguished from religious experience.

M. Pierre, a noted researcher, wrote an article entitled “Faith or delusion? At the crossroads of religion and psychosis”. In this article, he evaluates clinical psychiatric or psychological practice concluding that, “in clinical practice, no clear guidelines exist to distinguish between ‘normal’ religious beliefs and ‘pathological’ religious delusions.” Clearly, differentiating psychotic experience and religious experience represents a difficult conundrum.

It should be noted that both psychotic experience and religious experience largely rely on events in the mental realm. Scientists who attempt to empirically evaluate and validate religious experience often overlook the fact that facts emerge from and in the material world, and religious faith is generated from mental experience perhaps in synchronicity with material experience. As such, religious experience is subjective instead of being objective. However, this does not mean that it is invalid.

Synchronicity is a concept that can explain religious experience. Synchronicity is defined as the simultaneous appearance of events which appear significantly related but have no discernable causal connection. Religious experience relies on the reality that there are no discernable causal connections regarding the synchronicity of parallel events in the material and the mental realms. Synchronicity may be characteristic of religious experience, and it is the lack of a causal connection that forms a basis for individuals to understand this experience as miraculous. Causal realities are thought to rely on chance events. When experience appears to be meaningful but strongly improbable, it is thought not to be based upon chance events.

The psychotic individual may experience synchronicity of chance events, but in terms of this experience, synchronicity generates delusions instead of faith in religious ideas, including miracles.

Psychotic ideation and religion may be differentiated, and the key to this differentiation may be based on the context in which they occur. Religious ideas usually occur in the context of benevolence, perhaps that of God, as well as a positive view of the world in terms of non-normative experience. Psychotic ideation occurs in the context of a punitive and deceptive state of mind and the world. Religious experience is sought in the mental and the material worlds, while psychotic hallucinations and delusions result in the psychotic individual cringing in both the mental and the material worlds. It should be noted, however, that what is defined by religious experience can be negative, as well. However, it may be meaningful to the individual whether it is positive or negative, while psychosis tends to be dismissed by the non-psychotic as not meaningful.

I’ve suggested in previous articles that the mind is whatever we imagine it to be. This is a simple and perhaps dubious statement, but it is not entirely dissimilar to and incompatible with the idea that the mind is Skinner’s “black box”. The appearance of what constitutes experience outside of what can be considered causally explicated may be understood as relying on the mental context of this experience.

While religious individuals may welcome “miracles” nonjudgmentally, paranoid psychotic individuals go to extremes of thought in order to make sense of them or avoid them. The psychotic individual may not be able to make sense of “religious experience” because, to them, the only rational and logical ways of understanding psychosis rely on metacognition instead of faith. If psychotic individuals could exercise faith that hallucinations are just that – hallucinations – then they would function in a more positive way.

It is the case that psychosis is ego-dystonic, incompatible with the self-conception and the- definition of the psychotic individual. This may be the result of stigma that accompanies the self-denigration by the psychotic individual or the possible insidious, but relentless, auditory hallucinations that may clamor within the mental experience of the psychotic individual. What clinicians treating the mentally do not seem to realize is that, while the psychotic should accept psychosis, psychosis may be unacceptable.

Overall, it seems to be the context of religious and psychotic experience that differentiates them. The specific religious context of this perceived experience may determine whether this experience is positive or negative. Even though religious experience can have positive or negative connotations, it is still regarded as more meaningful than psychotic experience, and it is responded to with faith. Faith implicates a tendency on the part of the religious person to accept with little evaluation the perceived meaning of experience. Faith, like self-confidence, may elicit faith or trust in religious experience as defined by the individual, and this faith or trust may frame experience in a way that is compatible with a perceived unification with God. If the mind is whatever we each imagine it to be in terms of projection onto the mental realm, then religious experience will have an appearance of validity simply because this validity is expected.

Psychotic experience remains more problematic to the individual dealing with hallucinations and delusions. Often, psychotic individuals imagine their minds to be punitive arenas that present as deceptive. Because they imagine their experience to be irrational, as is told to them by clinicians, their experience of their minds and even their material environments are confusing and painful.

While a perceived experience of God or the identification as experience emanating from God within the mental realms of the religious person, one is forgiven, loved and trusting. God is represented as faithful in doing what is best for the individual, even when the experience of what seems to be God’s will can be painful. When the imagined mental context represents God as trustworthy, good thoughts and feelings will emanate from this experience. Conversely, the experience of the psychotic mind is painful. Due to the difference in the way mental experience is framed in terms of religion and psychosis, the subjective realities of the mind’s presentation will conform to divergent representations of reality in both the mental and the material realms.

This discussion is not meant to imply that religious experience is invalid or that psychotic experience should be considered valid. The essential idea that is proposed in this article is that the mind is whatever it is imagined to be by the individual experiencing it. Although this idea may be identified as a weak explanation of the mind, this understanding of the mind implicates projection onto the mental world of what the mind is believed to be by the individual. What the mind is believed to be then generates a context of the mental realm, and the appearance of psychosis and religious views of the mind rely on context.


Pierre JM (2001). Faith or delusion? At the crossroads of religion and psychosis. Journal of psychiatric practice, 7 (3), 163-72 PMID: 15990520

Image via umbertoleporini / Shutterstock.

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Is Anxiety Really a Gift? Sun, 07 Dec 2014 12:00:07 +0000 Anxiety is most known as a “thinking” disorder which can be evidenced through symptoms such as chronic worrying. Science now shows that human beings have on average between 60,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day and according to author Joe Dispenza, roughly “70% of those thoughts are negative in nature.” Negative thoughts create negative emotions which over time neurologically create redundant behaviors such as rushing, nervousness, preoccupation with the future as well as the past. How is it then, that anxiety could be a gift?

The truth is the actual symptoms itself may not be a gift, however the experience of the symptoms are. It turns out thoughts and emotions are made up of energy. They are simply molecules and atoms in motion. These send off a vibrational frequency. When the frequency is low (has little movement) this corresponds to low level emotions such as fear, insecurity and guilt. When the frequency is high (more movement) this corresponds to higher emotions such as courage, love and appreciation. This information has been scientifically tested and validated by scientists and clinicians such as Dr. David Hawkins.

This information allows us to approach, interpret and treat the symptoms of anxiety in a new way. Rather than attempt to beat, cure, prevent or control the symptoms the focus becomes on learning how to convert lower vibrational emotions into higher ones. This creates quite a shift in the field of psychology not only in the role of a therapist but also for the client. When applied consistently techniques such as visualization, mindfulness, and breathing have proven to transform emotions such as fear and worry into faith. As this occurs, new interpretations and insights develop. Similar to receiving clues in a board game symptoms become assets rather than barriers. For example, an emotion such as shame when released from the body has the capacity to uncover the gift of empathy.

Transforming emotions such as guilt into courage can be quite rewarding however, as stated in The Four Gifts of Anxiety “a life with your gifts does not mean a life without challenges, vulnerability or pain. Instead, a life with your gifts allows you to become empowered by the very same symptoms you once believed disempowered you.” The symptoms of anxiety when viewed in this light become a guidepost rather than a barrier. Rather than being a signal for what is wrong, think of a symptom such as increased heart rate as a marking of a buried treasure (in this case a buried emotion) waiting to be discovered.

Through skill development and awareness one can begin to surrender the stigmas and stereotypes anxiety has formally attached to. Some of these include subconscious beliefs that you have anxiety rather than a reflection of your current experience (I am experiencing worry). It is not until each and every one of us breaks the habit of becoming our symptoms, instead choosing to pay attention to how they may in fact be our greatest ally, as they often point out exactly which emotions are looking to be acknowledged and cleared so we may open up the pathway to our gifts.


Dispenza, Joe Ph.D. (2014) You Are the Placebo. Hay House, Inc. pp 45.

Hawkins, David R. M.D., Ph.D. (1995, 1998, 2004, 2012.) Power vs. Force. Hay House, Inc.

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Psychosis – A Dream-Like State Of Mind? Sat, 06 Dec 2014 12:00:18 +0000 Have you ever thought of psychosis as a dream-like state of mind? Dreaming does actually bear strong similarities with the psychotic state of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Psychotic states are characterized by hallucinations, loosening of associations, incongruity of personal experience, and a loss of self-reflective capacity. Dreams can also be seen as a kind of delusional thought during which there is a complete lack of insight into one’s true state of consciousness. Both the psychotic patient and the dreamer are in a state of acceptance of nonsensical experiences as real.

That dreaming may be a model for psychosis is a long-standing idea that has now been supported by recent studies on dream phenomenology. There are extensive similarities in measures of cognitive bizarreness between the waking thoughts of psychotic patients and dream reports of both psychotic patients and healthy controls. But whereas healthy subjects shut down those hallucinations while awake, psychotic patients continuously experience such dream-like mental activity.

One of the key aspects of the dreaming-psychosis model is the issue of insight, i.e. awareness of the mental state. Lack of insight into the dream state is a hallmark of the dream experience; likewise, 50-80% of schizophrenia patients have poor insight into their illness.

However, in contrast to normal dreaming, there is a special kind of dreaming in which the sleeping subject becomes fully aware of the mental state: lucid dreaming. In lucid dreams, the dreamer is aware that he is dreaming and is frequently able to control the ongoing dream. During normal rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when the most vivid dreams occur, there is an increased activity in higher visual and motor areas, reflecting the occurrence of visuomotor hallucinations, the hallmark of typical dreaming.

In contrast, areas associated with willingness and critical thinking show decreased activity. During lucid REM sleep, on the other hand, there is increased activation of regions involved in attention and in higher cognitive processes like intelligence or working memory. Nevertheless, lucid REM sleep still includes all classic dream features such as visuomotor hallucinations, but the lucid dreamer can recognize dreams as such.

Lucidity during dreaming represents what patients during psychosis lack: insight into the delusional nature of their state of consciousness. Given these characteristics, it has been suggested that lucidity during dreaming may be a good model for insight in the dreaming-psychosis model. This model hypothesizes that the neural processes of lucid dreaming extensively overlap with those of insight into the psychotic state, and that the means to achieve lucidity during normal dreaming may also increase insight into the pathological state in psychotic patients.

Actually, for all brain regions associated with lucid dreaming there has been at least one study demonstrating the involvement of that region also in psychotic insight deficits; likewise, brain regions linked to insight problems in psychosis have shown remarkable overlap with brain regions in which activation increases during lucid dreaming, which strongly supports the theoretical idea that dreaming may indeed serve as a model of psychosis.

Interventions to promote insight are thought to be a promising alternative for schizophrenia therapy. Lucid dreaming can be trained, which makes this phenomenon an interesting tool and research topic, even though it occurs rarely in untrained subjects. Insight deficits in psychosis have been targeted with different interventions, but without noteworthy success.

Lucidity training has already been applied to other clinical settings such as nightmare therapy. If it proves to be successful in enhancing insight capabilities during psychosis, lucidity training may allow the psychotic patient to become aware of his state and, hopefully, even control it.


Dresler M, Wehrle R, Spoormaker VI, Steiger A, Holsboer F, Czisch M, & Hobson JA (2014). Neural correlates of insight in dreaming and psychosis. Sleep medicine reviews PMID: 25092021

Kahn D, & Gover T (2010). Consciousness in dreams. International review of neurobiology, 92, 181-95 PMID: 20870068

Limosani I, D’Agostino A, Manzone ML, & Scarone S (2011). The dreaming brain/mind, consciousness and psychosis. Consciousness and cognition, 20 (4), 987-92 PMID: 21288741

Stumbrys T, Erlacher D, Schädlich M, & Schredl M (2012). Induction of lucid dreams: a systematic review of evidence. Consciousness and cognition, 21 (3), 1456-75 PMID: 22841958

Image via Bruniewska / Shutterstock.

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The Hollywood Medical Reporter – Big Eyes and Delusional Disorder Wed, 03 Dec 2014 12:00:15 +0000 Simultaneously grotesque yet tender material is director Tim Burton’s specialty. Burton was therefore the perfect choice for a film about Margaret Keane’s art, which was mostly recognizable by children with strange – but sweet – over-sized eyes. Big Eyes is easily among my personal favorite Tim Burton films.

Left to Right: Tim Burton, Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams

Left to Right: Tim Burton, Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Film Independent at LACMA screening series for the world premiere of Big Eyes, which will open Christmas Day. Burton and stars Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, after watching it for the first time themselves, participated in a panel discussion moderated by Film Independent curator, Elvis Mitchell.

Big Eyes tells the story of Margaret and Walter Keane in the 1950s and 1960s. The Keanes’ marriage ends after years of Walter defrauding the world, and perhaps even himself, into thinking that his wife’s paintings of wide-eyed children were his own creation.

The film begins with Margaret (Amy Adams) packing her things and driving off with her daughter (Delaney Raye), just having left husband number one. She moves to San Francisco, where she soon meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) at an outdoor art fair where they both have set up shop.

You can instantly see why Burton was the right director for this story. The over-sized, pastel teal car, driving along a bright and symmetrical suburban street of 1950s San Francisco is iconic of his work. A voice-over narration, used throughout the film, adds to the storybook feel.

However, this storybook suburbia is real. While the aesthetics of the time and place fit right in with Burton’s taste, the larger than life character of Walter Keane truly seems to have lived for the sole purpose of providing Tim Burton with an ideal subject for a film.

The moment Margaret and the audience meet Walter we both fall in love. Who wouldn’t? He is the definition of charming and charismatic, with a mouth so smooth and fast it deserves its own Olympic category. At first, the worst we may think is that he is a delightfully manipulative scoundrel. However, we soon understand that Walter’s ability to manipulate the truth is out of control, and a symptom of deeper issues. In 1986, 20 years after Margaret leaves Walter, she decides to sue him for slander to finally set the record straight on who the true artist of the family is. During the case, a court psychologist diagnoses Walter as having delusional disorder.

Delusional disorder, according to the DSM-IV, is characterized by the presence of either bizarre or non-bizarre delusions (or a fixed, false belief that is resistant to any reason or opposition with genuine fact), which perseveres for at least one month. The inclusion of bizarre delusions was a fairly recent addition, updated in the latest edition of the DSM 5.

A bizarre delusion is one that is clearly implausible and not understandably derived from ordinary life experiences. For example, if a person claimed that someone took out his or her organs and replaced them with someone else’s organs without leaving any scars or physical evidence of any kind, this belief would be deemed “bizarre.”

Non-bizarre delusions typically are about something occurring in a person’s life that is not out of the realm of possibility. Some examples include when a person believes: their significant other is cheating on them; a close friend is about to die; a friend is really a secret government agent; and so on. All of these examples are situations that technically could be true, or at least could be labeled as a possibility, but when checked by a third-party, proves not to be.

People like Walter Keane, who had delusional disorder, by and large do not show a noticeable impairment in their daily life. Their outward behaviors cannot generally be labeled as objectively out-of-the-ordinary or show clear signs of alarm.

Much of diagnosing delusional disorder can be categorized as being one of exclusion: the delusion in question cannot be better diagnosed as schizophrenia, a mood disorder or any other clear and strong potential diagnostic alternative.

Even without knowing the specifics, the average viewers could easily walk away from the film having made the diagnosis about Walter Keane for themselves. Even more convincing than his threats to “whack” his wife if she speaks the truth, are the wide smiles and fantastical justifications Waltz makes while calmly explaining his way out of whatever hole he happens to have been caught in. For example, years into their marriage (and lie) Margaret is taken aback by a surprising stepdaughter Walter never bothered to tell her about. While it is obvious to you, me and of course Margaret, Walter, through a clenched but convincing smile tells Margaret that he was sure he told her, and that it must just be a simple misunderstanding, not worthy of another thought. This character clearly does not deal with reality well.

The film is a far cry from perfect, or even greatness. No one could delude themselves into thinking Big Eyes is a masterpiece worthy of Keane’s own ego. There are many narrative threads it left unresolved, such as the surprise daughter. It seems as if Burton may have been a bit overwhelmed by the details of this story, unable to resist including each one, since they were all so awesomely perfect for the screen. Unlike some other films by the director (such as Alice in Wonderland, where the convoluted exploitation of the narrative may have been caused by overreaching), in Big Eyes, the filmmaker curbs his enthusiasm: he is firmly in control of his subject.

Nevertheless, the Burton touch is very much alive and all the more effective for its restraint. It maintains the fairytale feel while at the same time being both real and realistic.

The depiction of Walter Keane’s delusional disorder is 100% realistic. While the film never actually uses the phrase, “delusional disorder” it knows it could not deny this fact about the character. But more importantly, it wouldn’t want to. This character’s condition defines what happens in the film.

For example, the court sequence draws the viewer in with the fantastically absurd actions of Walter. While serving as his own lawyer, he questions himself, literally scurrying back and forth from the witness stand to behind the examiner’s table. After the judge orders both Margaret and Walter to paint in order to prove who is telling the truth, Walter still does not, and perhaps cannot, admit the truth. Rather, he clutches his arm in pain and claims to be suffering from an injury that renders him incapable of painting. Such actions, while not obviously irrational, are far more deluded than your average lie.

In the end, Big Eyes depicts the disorder accurately and exploits it with integrity. Without the disorder, there would be no conflict. Some films sacrifice accuracy (of such disorders) for the sake of heightening the drama. That is not the case here: the disorder underlies the conflict of the film without sacrificing authenticity.

Image via Ramon Espelt Photography / Shutterstock.

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