Friday, 31 July 2015

Size really does (grey) matter

It's the size of the matter that matters, according to the results of a new study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, snappily entitled 'Significant grey matter changes in a region of the orbitofrontal cortex in healthy participants predicts emotional dysregulation.'

Effective regulation of the emotions seems to be an increasingly prized commodity, with soaring diagnoses of borderline personality, bipolar and antisocial personality disorders dominating the mental health terrain. It has long been known that people diagnosed with such disorders exhibit compromised emotional regulation and a decrease in volume of certain regions of the brain.

The researchers on this study were interested to discover whether individuals deemed to be mentally healthy (i.e. not diagnosed with mental health disorders), but who rated themselves as having difficulty with regulating their emotions, also exhibited diminished brain volume on MRI.

Reassuringly, the answer was yes!

Such 'healthy' individuals were found to have a smaller volume lower frontal lobe (orbitofrontal cortex) than those who were 'healthy', but rated themselves as having no difficulty in regulating emotions.

Furthermore, the greater the problems with regulating emotions, the smaller the lobe volume. (This same area, by the way, corresponds to the area diminished in those diagnosed with mental disorders.)

The lead author on the study, Associate Professor Pedrag Petrovic, commenting on the findings, said:
The results support the idea that there is a continuum in our ability to regulate the emotions and if you are at the extreme end… this leads to a psychiatric diagnosis."
Or how about the possibility that there are many more people wandering around who could easily be diagnosed with mental illness - they just happen to slip through the net!

This study is encouraging in that it points to the fact that the so-called 'healthy' and the 'mentally ill' may have more in common than we are taught to think. Perhaps we are not so different from each other after all.

Rather, maybe we are all just a diagnosis away from a DSM-defined mental health disorder - as the saying goes, you don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps!

Written by Jacqui Hogan

Monday, 27 July 2015

The value of humility

How much do you think you know? And would you be right in your assessment?

A new piece of research places into question the seemingly straightforward task of judging one's own knowledge on a particular subject, and suggests that those who think they 'know it all' are more prone to lies and deception.

Psychological scientist Stav Atir of Cornell University and his colleagues set out to discover whether individuals who perceived (and stated) themselves to be experts in a particular subject, were more likely than others to lie about their knowledge.

As part of the experiment, they asked 100 individuals to rate their knowledge of personal finance, as well as their understanding of specific financial terms. Most of the terms were genuine, but the researchers also included a handful of fake terms (e.g. pre-rated stocks, annualised credit).

Interestingly, those who saw themselves as having a high degree of financial expertise were more likely to claim themselves to be experts in the bogus terms. This trend was also repeated in other subject areas, including geography, literature, philosophy and biology.

More fascinating is the observation that even when participants were told that some of the terms they were rating their knowledge against were fictitious, the self-proclaimed experts were still more likely to brazenly claim familiarity with made-up terms.

The research team concluded that a tendency to lie about knowledge in self-proclaimed experts might prevent them from educating themselves in these areas and thereby lead to negative consequences for them. Never mind about the consequences for those who may be victims of their advice!

Since when do we sympathise with the perpetrator and ignore the plight of the potential victim?

This research exposes the scourge of hubris, defined in the dictionary as 'excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance'. It is the opposite to humility, which is defined as 'a modest opinion or estimate of one's own importance, rank, etc.'

To cultivate humility, we must first distinguish it from low self-esteem; humility comes from a position of strength. When we are humble, we know that we are intrinsically valuable as human beings, but fallible by virtue of our human nature. When we are humble, we have no need to 'big ourselves up' in order to look good in the eyes of the world.

By contrast, when we have low self esteem, we lack this understanding and are influenced by what others think. We need to look good, lest we be discovered for our perceived 'crime' of being less than perfect. Since perfection is unattainable, we are always falling short of the mark and always needing to cover up for our lack of perfection.

True humility is now becoming as rare as hen's teeth. If you are lucky enough to encounter it, you will be speaking to someone who is indeed an expert - an expert in life.

Written by Jacqui Hogan

Friday, 17 July 2015

Surveillance - a new treatment for depression

In case you hadn't noticed, there's a revolution going on. The rise of the machines, you might call it, or perhaps technology on steroids.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the brave new world of healthcare, where technology-enabled clothing and accessories can monitor your heart rate, contact lenses can detect blood sugar for diabetics and robotic walking devices are just a tip-toe away from changing the lives of wheelchair users.

Recent research published in The Journal of Medical Research suggests that depression may soon be in on the act, with an app that gathers data from sufferers' smartphones.

Forty participants were asked to complete an online health questionnaire, specifically designed to probe for symptoms of depression. They were then monitored over the course of two weeks, with the so-called 'Purple Robot' app gathering data on their phone usage and geographical location.

The results showed that those participants with symptoms of depression used their smartphone three times more often (an average of 68 minutes per day) than those who did not have depressive symptoms (an average of 17 minutes).

Furthermore, participants with depressive symptoms travelled to fewer locations than those without symptoms. Senior author, David Mohr, PhD, observed that 'when people are depressed, they tend to withdraw and don't have have the energy or motivation to go out and do things'. Commenting on the findings he also said:
"[This] information could ultimately be used to monitor people who are at risk of depression, and to perhaps offer them interventions... or to deliver the information to their clinicians."
So let's get this straight. What's being suggested here is to track the movements and phone calls of those at risk of depression, then submit their data to a third party, who (or which - don't discount a computer interface) would then presumably verify a diagnosis and trigger treatment.

If you didn't have depression to start with, odds are you would wind up with it, or, at the very least, a heightened sense of (justified) paranoia.

Though reliable figures for the incidence of depression are hard to come by, with anything between 1 in 4 and 1 in 10 in Western countries afflicted, the scope for mass surveillance with a system like this would be irresistible to those in big government. Expect to see more funding making its way into research like this.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that depression, which can be difficult to diagnose and treat, and as individual as the experience, circumstances and temperament of the sufferer, requires a slightly lighter touch than this. Happily, it is impossible to reduce the spiritual to data points and app-fodder.

Written by Jacqui Hogan

Friday, 10 July 2015

How to spot a psychopath

Most people, if you ask them, will tell you that a psychopath is someone at the extreme end of the mental health spectrum. Which is true, but we tend to assume they are easily identifiable by the crimes they commit (most notoriously, murder).

Many who commit murder are indeed psychopathic, but the number of people who express superficial charm, lie, lack empathy and feel emotion only at surface level (thereby placing them on the diagnostic spectrum) may be greater than you think.

Professor Robert Hare, a Canadian criminal psychologist and the creator of a psychological assessment used to diagnose psychopathy, is one man who probably understands better than most the nature and true incidence of the disorder at large. He has studied and worked with psychopaths, in prisons and elsewhere, over a long career. He says of his experience:
"It stuns me, as much as it did when I started 40 years ago, that it is possible to have people who are so emotionally disconnected that they can function as if other people are objects to be manipulated and destroyed without any concern.”
Hare's test covers 20 criteria, each of which is given a score of 0 (psychopathy absent), 1 (psychopathy partially present) or 2 (psychopathy fully present). Scores over 30 represent 'red alert' and anything under 5 'breathe a sigh of relief'. They are, in no particular order:
  • Glibness and superficial charm
  • Over-inflated sense of self-worth
  • Lying
  • Cunning and manipulation
  • Lacking remorse
  • Emotional shallowness
  • Lack of empathy
  • Unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions
  • Tendency to boredom
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsivity
  • Irresponsibility
  • Lack of behavioural control
  • Behavioural problems in early life
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Criminal versatility
  • History of broken parole
  • Multiple marriages
  • Promiscuous sexual behaviour
Recognise anyone you know?

Hare has been quoted as saying that 1% of the general population can be categorised as psychopathic and that prevalence in the financial services is 10%. While this latter figure has been disputed (and it would be, wouldn't it, given that the financial services run the media) the good professor may not be too far off the mark. Personally, I think it sounds a bit low.

We shouldn't be so surprised. Troubling research reported by Forbes showed that 3% of those assessed on a management development programme scored highly for psychopathy - well above the number for the general population. Prison populations weigh in at 15%.

Practically, it's worth remembering the reality and the scale of the problem, for those (hopefully) rare occasions when we ask of ourselves 'is it me who's gone mad or X?'

For more insight on the subject, with specific reference to the workplace, check out 'Snakes in suits: when psychopaths go to work', published in 2006 by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare.

Written by Jacqui Hogan

Friday, 3 July 2015

Sniffing around for answers to autism

Some time in the last ten years, it seems that autism has made its way into the public mind. A bit like 'bipolar', it is now not uncommon to meet people (that is, children) who suffer from the condition.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in America, one in every 68 children is now born with autism, compared to a rate of around one in 2,000 in the 1980s.

Some experts will tell you it's all about better diagnosis. Others will tell you it's a consequence of children's greater (and increasing) exposure to toxic chemicals.

One such proponent is Dr Stephanie Seneff, PhD and Senior Research Scientist at MIT. She predicts that, if we carry on as we are, we can expect half of all children to have autism by 2025. Which is why the following research, reported recently, may come in very handy.

Noam Sobel and Liron Rozekrantz from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel showed that children with autism can be reliably diagnosed using a simple 'sniff test'.

They presented 18 children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and 18 'normal' children, with pleasant and unpleasant odours and measured their olfactory responses. Children without ASD recoiled from an unpleasant odour within 305 milliseconds, whereas children with ASD did not react. The difference in response was enough to correctly classify children with autism 81% of the time.

The authors concluded that such a test might turn out to be very useful in the clinical setting, and also raised the question 'is olfactory impairment possibly at the heart of social impairment?'

While their work is interesting, it seems that such a question ultimately distracts from the elephant in the room. Should we not be doing more to understand why the incidence of autism is skyrocketing, rather than becoming ever-more proficient at perfecting its diagnosis?

According to Dr Seneff, who has published over 170 scholarly peer-reviewed articles and has studied the link between environmental chemicals and neurological disorders for three decades, symptoms of glyphosate toxicity closely resemble those of autism. At a recent conference, she presented data (some of which in the chart above) which shows an oddly consistent correlation between the use of glyphosate pesticides and rising rates of autism. (Glyphosate pesticides are specifically formulated for genetically modified food crops.)

There is also mounting evidence that increased rates of vaccination are playing a significant role in the autism epidemic, with additives such as mercury, aluminium and formaldehyde being routinely administered by this means to children in the first year of life.

Does anyone else smell a rat in the growing number of cases of autism? Your insights, experience and observations welcomed.

Written by Jacqui Hogan