psychology

RECENT POSTS

Beyond Good And Evil: New Science Casts Light On Morality In The Brain

Harvard brain scientist Joshua Buckholtz has never forgotten a convict he met back when he was an undergrad conducting psychological tests in prisons. The man had beaten another man nearly to death for stepping on his foot in a dance club.

“I wanted to ask him,” he recalls, “‘In what world was the reward of beating this person so severely, for this — to me — minor infraction, worth having terrible food and barbed wire around you?’ ”

But over the years, Buckholtz became convinced that this bad deed was a result of faulty brain processing, perhaps in a circuit called the frontostriatal dopamine system. In an impulsive person’s brain, he says, attention just gets so narrowly focused on an immediate reward that, in effect, the future disappears.

He explains: “If you had asked this person, ‘What will happen if you beat someone nearly to death?’, they will tell you, ‘Oh, I’ll be put away.’ It’s not that these people who commit crimes are dumb, but what happens is, in the moment, that information about costs and consequences can’t get in to their decision-making.”

For two decades, researchers have scanned and analyzed the brains of psychopaths and murderers, but they haven’t pinpointed any single source of evil in the brain. What they’ve found instead, as Buckholtz puts it, “is that our folk concepts of good and evil are much more complicated, and multi-faceted, and riven with uncertainty than we ever thought possible before.”

In other words, so much for the old idea that we have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, and that morality is simply a battle between the two. Using new technology, brain researchers are beginning to tease apart the biology that underlies our decisions to behave badly or do good deeds. They’re even experimenting with ways to alter our judgments of what is right and wrong, and our deep gut feelings of moral conviction.

One thing is certain: We may think in simple terms of “good” and “evil,” but that’s not how it looks in the brain at all.

In past years, as neuroscientists and psychologists began to delve into morality, “Many of us were after a moral center of the brain, or a particular system or circuit that was responsible for all of morality,” says assistant professor Liane Young, who runs The Morality Lab at Boston College. But “it turns out that morality can’t be located in any one area, or even set of areas — that it’s all over, that it colors all aspects of our life, and that’s why it takes up so much space in the brain.”

So there’s no “root of all evil.” Rather, says Buckholtz, “When we do brain studies of moral decision-making, what we are led into is an understanding that there are many different paths to antisocial behavior.”

If we wanted to build antisocial offenders, he says, brain science knows some of the recipe: They’d be hyper-responsive to rewards like drugs, sex and status — and the more immediate, the better. “Another thing we would build in is an inability to maintain representations of consequences and costs,” he says. “We would certainly short-circuit their empathic response to other people. We would absolutely limit their ability to regulate their emotions, particularly negative emotions like anger and fear.”

At his Harvard lab, Buckholtz is currently studying the key ability that long-ago convict lacked — to weigh future consequence against immediate gratification. In one ongoing experiment (see the video above), he’s testing whether he can use electrical stimulation to alter people’s choices. Continue reading

‘Did You Ever Kill Anyone?’ 5 Things Not To Say To A Veteran

U.S. Soldiers depart Forward Operating Base Baylough, Afghanistan, June 16, 2010, to conduct a patrol.  (Photo: Staff Sgt. William Tremblay, U.S. Army/Released)

U.S. Soldiers depart Forward Operating Base Baylough, Afghanistan, June 16, 2010, to conduct a patrol. (Photo: Staff Sgt. William Tremblay, U.S. Army/Released)

By Tommy Furlong and Dr. Paula K. Rauch
Guest contributors

“So, did you ever kill anyone?”

It’s not a question you would ask a police officer, but it’s one that many veterans get all the time. Most people have good intentions, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to guide people in what to say and what not to say to a returning veteran. It has become commonplace to say, “Thank you for your service,” but then what?

So here, in advance of our most patriotic holiday, is a brief guide for speaking with post-9/11 veterans and their families. We begin with five things not to say, and end with five that maybe you should:

1. I can’t understand why anyone would join the military.

Oftentimes, people hear the word “military” and immediately think of warfare. In reality, that is just one of the components. The military puts a lot of its resources toward humanitarian efforts. And if you list almost any civilian job, that same position can be found in the military.

So why would someone join the military? They might enjoy the structure. The job security is alluring, as are the benefits. Many young people also choose to serve for educational or economic opportunity, family tradition, seeking a challenge or as a path out of a difficult situation.

Serving our nation is an intense and rewarding career choice. So is being a firefighter, a nurse or a surgeon. Different individuals are drawn to different vocations. Choosing military service is one choice — and it’s not a crazy one.

Family members often hear “Why did you let him (or her) enlist?” or “I would never let one of my kids join the military.” The suggestion is that loving parents don’t let their children serve in the armed forces. These types of comments leave parents and spouses of veterans feeling isolated and unappreciated because, as any military family knows, when one member serves, the entire family serves. Family members have pride in their service member, but they also live with anxiety during the years of service. But all that aside, most parents don’t get to choose their adult child’s life path — and that includes career, partner and place to live.

2. How could you leave your children? Continue reading

Falling Into The Postpartum Mood Disorder Abyss: A Personal Story

By Deb Wachenheim
Guest Contributor

Over the past two days, The New York Times published a series of articles about postpartum depression and other related mood disorders. The first article looked at the science and policy on this topic and highlights a few women’s stories.

Today’s article is about my sister, Cindy Wachenheim, who took her own life in March of 2013 after struggling for six months with postpartum mood disorders. I say mood disorders because it was not just depression (and the fact that there are other postpartum mood disorders in addition to postpartum depression was something about which I was previously completely unaware). She had extreme anxiety about, and obsession with, her baby’s health and she was depressed because she believed she caused him to have serious health problems. Also, according to what I have been told by experts, she may have been psychotic: she was so convinced that something was seriously wrong with her baby — despite doctors telling her otherwise — that she strapped him to her chest when she jumped out of her apartment window, believing, I can only assume, that this was what was best for him. Thank goodness, he survived and is thriving.

Beyond what is written in the article, I think it is important to give more detail and information on some resources and policy activities in Massachusetts, in the hope that this could possibly help others who are facing similar struggles. As is mentioned in the article, I reached out to Cindy’s son’s pediatrician after Cindy had gone to see her multiple times about her concerns.

Pediatricians are key to screening for postpartum mood disorders and making referrals for needed treatment. Most women see their OB a few weeks after giving birth and if everything seems okay at that point then they are sent on their way until the following year’s annual exam.

However, woman bring their infants to see the pediatrician many times over that first year. It is pediatricians who could notice if something seems to not be right with the mother. Continue reading

Can Brain Science Help Lift People Out Of Poverty?

Five years ago Lauretta Brennan was a single mom on welfare with a pack-a-day smoking habit, stuck in a “bad” relationship and living in the South Boston projects where she grew up.

Now, she’s still living in the projects with her young son, but the bad boyfriend is gone and Brennan’s got a job as an administrative assistant after receiving a business management degree. And she quit smoking.

Her childhood in the projects was marked by alcoholism and violence all around, Brennan said; “having no adult role model was the norm, being with a man who’s ignorant, that was the norm.”

Lauretta Brennan graduated from Bunker Hill Community College with an Associates Degree in Business Management in June 2013 (Courtesy)

Lauretta Brennan graduated from Bunker Hill Community College with an Associates Degree in Business Management in June 2013 (Courtesy)

But now, thanks to a novel program that uses the latest neuroscience research to help women dig themselves out of poverty, Brennan says: “I don’t want to live off welfare. I want to make money and be around people who work and go to school. In five years, the program got me to think more like an executive — I have goals, I’m an organizer managing my family well. I’m not scared anymore.”

This shift in thinking — from chaotic, stressed-out, oppressed and overwhelmed to purposeful and goal-oriented — may not sound like brain science. But it fits into an emerging body of research that suggests that the stress of living in poverty can profoundly change the brain: it can undermine development and erode important mental processes including executive function, working memory, impulse-control and other cognitive skills.

To fix that damage, the new thinking goes, people must engage in activities and practices that strengthen this diminished functionality and, exploiting the brain’s ability to change (plasticity in neuroscience lingo) re-train themselves to think more critically and strategically.

“Poverty whacks executive function and executive function is precisely what’s needed to move people out of poverty,” says Elisabeth Babcock, chief executive of the nonprofit Crittenton Women’s Union, a Boston-based group that draws on the latest brain research to help families achieve economic success. “What the new brain science says is that the stresses created by living in poverty often work against us, make it harder for our brains to find the best solutions to our problems. This is a part of the reason why poverty is so ‘sticky.’”

In a recent paper, “Using Brain Science To Design New Pathways Out Of Poverty,” Babcock makes the case that living in an impoverished environment “has the capacity to negatively impact the decision-making processes involved in problem-solving, goal-setting and goal attainment.” In other words, this type of stress can “hijack” the brain.

As other researchers, including Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, have noted, this chronic vise of pressure — to pay the bills, function at work, raise the kids, and simply survive in an atmosphere rife with social bias and harsh living conditions — “places extraordinary demands on cognitive bandwidth.” Babcock writes:

“The prefrontal cortex of the brain — the area of the brain that is associated with any of the analytic processes necessary to solve problems, set goals and optimally execute chosen strategies — works in tandem with the limbic system, which processes and triggers emotional reactions to environmental stimuli…When the limbic brain is overactive and sending out too many powerful signals of desire, stress, or fear, the prefrontal brain can get swamped and the wave of emotion can drown out clear focus and judgement…”

How does this play out in real life? Chuck Carter, senior VP of research at Crittenton Women’s Union, explains:

“One of the things the brain science brings is something of an ‘aha’ in terms of why things are sometimes harder than we expect them to be. When you’re looking at a family that is struggling and making decisions that you don’t really understand, having that research helps you reassess…it adds another perspective. A lot of nonprofit organizations look at the social determinants [of poverty] but not a lot look at the science that says, ‘What else is at play?’

“I think that, on the ground, it gives us creative ways to think about the work and how we might approach it…Often families are in a lot of crises…and they feel they need to do things ‘right now.’ So, for instance, we’ve got a family, and they’re in a hallway and they’ll have to talk to the case manager ‘right now.’ And we ask whether it’s a true emergency, and if not, can we talk about this the next morning, and not in the hallway. It’s a problem with executive function and poor impulse control, but we can help them slow down and figure out the right time to figure this out and what information do they need. It’s about not responding so impulsively in other parts of their lives. So, in thinking about what to do with money, it can be a question of, ‘Do I buy cigarettes now or save the money for some new furniture when I move?’”

So how do you begin to fix all of this?

I asked Babcock a bit about the science behind her organization’s Mobility Mentoring program, in which low-income — mostly single — mothers apply to get training, professional mentoring, financial and other support for three to five years, in hopes of attaining economic independence.

Here, edited, is our discussion:

RZ: What does the research say about how poverty changes the brain? And how does a “hijacked” brain function compared to a brain not experiencing intense, chronic stress?

EB: Poverty hits what scientists call our executive functioning skills: our ability to problem-solve, set priorities and goals, juggle and multi-task, focus and stick to things. And it does this in at least two very important ways. First, the stress of dealing with new problems every day and never having enough to make ends meet overwhelms our heads and swamps us. It overloads the circuits in our brains and compromises our decision-making in the moment. Continue reading

When Your Writing Is Part of Your Healing

We recently ran an essay by Sarah Baker, exploring the links between her childhood asthma, her mother’s early death, the family chaos that followed and how it all played out physically and psychologically into adulthood.

Sarah told me the response to her post, which also raised the question of whether becoming a mother herself helped alleviate her asthma, was overwhelming and gratifying. Now, Dr. Annie Brewster, a Boston internist and frequent CommonHealth contributor who uses storytelling therapeutically, as a path toward healing, followed up with Sarah in a revealing audio interview. (For more on Brewster’s approach to personal storytelling for health, listen to her recent TedX Talk above).

Sarah Baker, around age 3, before her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Sarah Baker, around age 3, before her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Here’s a snippet from the interview, which you can listen to in full on Brewster’s website, Health Story Collaborative:

Annie Brewster: I’m really interested in what you said about that you never really consciously thought about this until you started to write about it. I’m really fascinated with the process of storytelling and how that sort of helps move somebody from one place or another. So, can you speak to the process that you went through in writing this and how that helped you and what it meant then to put it out there in a public way and get feedback on it; what that was like for you and what did it take to get to a place where you felt ready to take that on as a writing project?

Sarah Baker: I remember a number of years ago when I started writing, a friend of mine who is a successful writer said, “write what’s raw” so I always try to write what hits a chord in my heart. So writing about my childhood and writing about my mother’s death is what I tend to write about. This was the first time I wrote about my asthma and it was hard to write about it because I don’t have a lot of memory. I had to interview my Dad, I had to do some research, and I had to relive the trauma. I just kept working at [the story] and sometimes felt a little sick after writing but I just kept working. I usually write ten drafts before I show it to any one. I showed it to my husband and he reacted positively. I showed it to a class that I was in and to my teacher and they responded positively. I thought maybe I’ve struck something here. Then the story sat in my computer for a year; it did. And it was after I started taking a class about the book I’m working on that I decided to send it out. Maybe the year allowed it to percolate so it didn’t feel as scary. Continue reading

Weather Sexism: Female-Named Storms Deadlier, Seen As Less Threatening

Forget the brouhaha over Jill Abramson’s firing and questions about sexism running rampant in America’s newsrooms: here’s some really hard-core sexism that could kill you.

Researchers from the University of Illinois and Arizona State report that female hurricanes have proven to be more deadly than male hurricanes. Why? The researchers theorize that hurricanes with girly names like Alexandra aren’t taken as seriously as male-named storms, like Alexander; so, faced with a female storm, people don’t prepare as fully, or heed evacuation orders as intently.  

As USA Today notes: “The paper claimed that a masculine-named storm would kill about 15 people, but a hurricane of the same strength with a female name would kill about 42.”

Hurricane Katrina, 2005 (News Muse/flickr)

Hurricane Katrina, 2005 (News Muse/flickr)

Here’s more from the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

[Researchers] use more than six decades of death rates from U.S hurricanes to show that feminine-named hurricanes cause significantly more deaths than do masculine-named hurricanes. Laboratory experiments indicate that this is because hurricane names lead to gender-based expectations about severity and this, in turn, guides respondents’ preparedness to take protective action.

And in conclusion, the authors write:

…these findings suggest the value of considering a new system for hurricane naming to reduce the influence of biases on hurricane risk assessments and to motivate optimal preparedness. For media practitioners, the pervasive media practice of giving gendered descriptions of hurricanes should prompt a reconsideration of the use of “he” or “she” when communicating about hurricanes. Finally, making members of the general public aware of the impact of gender biases on subjective risk perceptions may improve preparedness in the face of the next Hurricane Fay or Laura. Continue reading

P.S. To Jill Abramson: Grads, You Must Learn The Word ‘Fungible’

Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, speaks at the commencement ceremony at Wake Forest University on Monday. (Neil Redmond/AP)

Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, speaks at the commencement ceremony at Wake Forest University on Monday. (Neil Redmond/AP)

On Monday, ousted New York Times editor Jill Abramson began her post-firing public life by speaking at the Wake Forest University commencement, and shared her father’s buck-up maxim for when you’re dumped or disappointed: “Show what you’re made of.” Here, I add one other bit of advice: Learn the word “fungible.”

Dear soon-to-be-college grads:

I regret to inform you that at the last minute, we at the University of Hard Knocks have added one additional graduation requirement: You must learn the meaning of the word ‘fungible.’

But not to worry. We’ll help you out with the dictionary definition:

fun·gi·ble [fuhn-juh-buhl]: adjective.
(especially of goods) being of such nature or kind as to be freely exchangeable or replaceable, in whole or in part, for another of like nature or kind.

And here’s the deeper meaning: When you enter the working world, you will almost certainly be fungible. That is, no matter how hard you work, you will remain, at base, replaceable. Disposable.

This is not a cynical-making thing. It’s just a hard fact that it’s important to know as you plan your life and make decisions along the way. You might love your work as much as Jill Abramson loved hers, to the point that you wear your love not just on your sleeve but in a tattoo on your shoulder. But your work may not — cannot — love you back the same way.

The fact of her presence before a gigantic crowd said — indeed, shouted — ‘I am not ashamed. I soldier on.’

I use “work” here as a collective noun, and your working-world fate will likely rest in collective hands, just as Jill Abramson’s firing stemmed from rejection not only by the publisher but by the “masthead” — the newspaper equivalent of nobility. You’ll never know all the structural constraints and financial challenges and personal machinations that could converge into a pink slip for you. You just need to know, deep down, that it’s possible.

What to do with that knowledge?

First, you need to watch for the signs. Is your industry in trouble? Is your company hemorrhaging cash or known as a brutal shucker of staff? Have you noticed that you have no higher-level manager who seems invested in you, who has your back?

Second, live your life accordingly. There are some people for whom you are not fungible. Your parents. Your partner, if you’re lucky. Most of all, your children, if and when you have them. “The currency of love is time,” they say. Work can suck you in and make you forget that. But there are unpaid tasks that only you can perform. Continue reading

Post-Mother’s Day Memo: Don’t Forget Women Who Can’t Have Kids

(clappstar/flickr)

(clappstar/flickr)

By Karen Shiffman
Guest contributor

I know it’s late but I’m still recovering. (And no, this isn’t a rant against Mother’s Day. I salute Moms. Hooray for flowers, manicures, homemade cards. I bought my mother earrings with blue lapis to match her eyes. I hope to borrow them, soon.)

But for me, Mother’s Day is the hardest date on the calendar: I can’t have children and will never be a biological mother. Bad genes, bad luck and a huge cancer scare a while back left me without a womb and a few other body parts.

But at least I have no cancer; I dodged the big one — twice. After my surgery, friends danced around the fertility issue, but I shut them down with this effective retort: “I’m lucky to be alive.” Looking back, I think they were just projecting their own anxieties about their biological clocks. I, on the other hand, was fine.

And I continued to feel fine for a while. I looked at condos. Got back in the pool. Went back to work. Everyone marveled at how quickly I’d bounced back. Then Mother’s Day came, and I fell apart. Bam. I couldn’t even buy my mother a card that first year. It was ugly.

The following year, as Mother’s Day approached, I didn’t do much better. My family went out for a celebratory brunch; I stayed home. I said it was too painful to be out with all those happy moms and families. I took my mother out to dinner later that week.

I confided to a friend about my struggle. He listened, comforted me and then did something extraordinary. The Sunday after Mother’s Day he lifted the chalice at his church, and spoke these words to the congregation:

“I light this second candle for all the special women for whom Mother’s Day last Sunday brought pain and anguish. For those women who are infertile or medically unable to conceive a biological child.”

He went on to talk about women who had suffered miscarriages or were estranged from their children by divorce or misunderstandings. He ended the blessing this way: “May our prayers and concerns be with all of you, this day.”

He got it. He heard me. I wasn’t alone. Continue reading

Unraveling My Childhood Asthma: Did Motherhood Cure It?

By Sarah Baker
Guest contributor

I recently started singing lessons — a rather mind-blowing pursuit, since for much of my life, singing was out of the question. How can you sing when you can’t even breathe?

At 18 months old, while my dad, mom, older brother and I were driving from Virginia to San Francisco for my father’s new Naval deployment, I started wheezing. The asthma attack landed me in the hospital.

Emergency room visits and hospital stays punctuated my childhood and early adulthood. I could have been a tour guide of any Intensive Care Unit: “Over on the right is a shot of adrenaline, or epinephrine — try that first. If that doesn’t work, try the nebulizer on the left and IV over there.” These visits became so routine that as I got older, I often told the doctors and nurses what medicines I needed: Prednisone. Albuterol. Theophylline. These were the mainstays, but there were many others over the years. I took them in such large doses that one time they made my blood toxic.

Circa 1970: The author, center, with her brother and mother, shortly before the discovery of her mom's fatal brain tumor.  (Courtesy)

Circa 1970: The author, center, with her brother and mother, shortly before the discovery of her mom’s fatal brain tumor. (Courtesy)

Emergency was a word my family understood. My mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was 3 years old; she was 28. For five years, until her death, she battled her disease in and out of the hospital, too. I went to Bethesda Naval and she went across the state to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I don’t remember ever seeing her hospital nor do I recall her ever seeing mine.

A Motherless Child’s Stress

Asthma is a disease of the respiratory system. It is serious business. Seneca, the Roman philosopher and Stoic dedicated an essay to it, called “Asthma,” in which he said that of all the ailments he’d suffered, asthma was the worst of them all. “Doctors have nicknamed [asthma] ‘rehearsing death,’ he wrote.

But asthma also has a powerful psychological or psycho-social component; with symptoms potentially exacerbated by emotional stress. As a child, I never realized it, but looking back I see it clearly: for all my suffering, asthma distinguished me. Got me noticed. In a childhood of disorder — marked by my mother’s death, and family chaos and constant moving — my own illness provided order. It wasn’t until the birth of my first child that my symptoms truly ceased. Continue reading

Meditation ‘Overrated’? Not So Fast.

(RelaxingMusic/Flickr via Compfight)

(RelaxingMusic/Flickr via Compfight)

My doctor recently suggested I stop multi-tasking. Focus on one thing at a time, she said: our brains aren’t wired to take on the kind of intense juggling — from chauffeuring to food prep, extracurricular logistics, work strategies, worry over aging parents, anxiety about climate change — that many of us attempt (with varying degrees of success) every day.

For me, meditation and yoga offer a lifeline: a quiet sanctuary where focusing on one thing is the only thing required.

So I was slightly annoyed by the headline of a recent Scientific American story: “Is Meditation Overrated?”

The premise of the piece is this: Many people report that meditation improves their mood and relieves various symptoms of chronic stress and other health problems, BUT the data on this isn’t terribly robust. So, the story continues, “Johns Hopkins University researchers carefully reviewed published clinical trials and found that although meditation seems to provide modest relief for anxiety, depression and pain, more high-quality work is needed before the effect of meditation on other ailments can be judged.”

So shouldn’t the headline be: “Meditation Relieves Some Modern Woes; More Research Needed To Conclusively Prove Further Benefits?”

Or, my own personal headline: “Meditation Helps Me Scream At My Kids Less And Not Attack My Husband When There’s Yet Another Wet Towel On The Bed.” (See also, a new study, entitled: “I Am A Nice Person When I Do Yoga!!!)Continue reading