Archive for the ‘Empathy’ Category

There are a few things we take for granted in social interactions with people. We presume that we see the world in roughly the same way, that we all know certain basic facts, that words mean the same things to you as they do to me. And we assume that we have pretty similar ideas of right and wrong.

But for a small – but not that small – subset of the population, things are very different. These people lack remorse and empathy and feel emotion only shallowly. In extreme cases, they might not care whether you live or die. These people are called psychopaths. Some of them are violent criminals, murderers. But by no means all.

Professor Robert Hare is a criminal psychologist, and the creator of the PCL-R, a psychological assessment used to determine whether someone is a psychopath. For decades, he has studied people with psychopathy, and worked with them, in prisons and elsewhere. “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,” he says.

Our understanding of the brain is still in its infancy, and it’s not so many decades since psychological disorders were seen as character failings. Slowly we are learning to think of mental illnesses as illnesses, like kidney disease or liver failure, and developmental disorders, such as autism, in a similar way. Psychopathy challenges this view. “A high-scoring psychopath views the world in a very different way,” says Hare. “It’s like colour-blind people trying to understand the colour red, but in this case ‘red’ is other people’s emotions.”

At heart, Hare’s test is simple: a list of 20 criteria, each given a score of 0 (if it doesn’t apply to the person), 1 (if it partially applies) or 2 (if it fully applies). The list in full is: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of “revocation of conditional release” (ie broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour. A pure, prototypical psychopath would score 40. A score of 30 or more qualifies for a diagnosis of psychopathy. Hare says: “A friend of mine, a psychiatrist, once said: ‘Bob, when I meet someone who scores 35 or 36, I know these people really are different.’ The ones we consider to be alien are the ones at the upper end.”

But is psychopathy a disorder – or a different way of being? Anyone reading the list above will spot a few criteria familiar from people they know. On average, someone with no criminal convictions scores 5. “It’s dimensional,” says Hare. “There are people who are part-way up the scale, high enough to warrant an assessment for psychopathy, but not high enough up to cause problems. Often they’re our friends, they’re fun to be around. They might take advantage of us now and then, but usually it’s subtle and they’re able to talk their way around it.” Like autism, a condition which we think of as a spectrum, “psycho­pathy”, the diagnosis, bleeds into normalcy.

We think of psychopaths as killers, criminals, outside society. People such as Joanna Dennehy, a 31-year-old British woman who killed three men in 2013 and who the year before had been diagnosed with a psychopathic personality disorder, or Ted Bundy, the American serial killer who is believed to have murdered at least 30 people and who said of himself: “I’m the most cold-blooded son of a bitch you’ll ever meet. I just liked to kill.” But many psychopathic traits aren’t necessarily disadvantages – and might, in certain circumstances, be an advantage. For their co-authored book, “Snakes in suits: When Psychopaths go to work”, Hare and another researcher, Paul Babiak, looked at 203 corporate professionals and found about four per cent scored sufficiently highly on the PCL-R to be evaluated for psychopathy. Hare says that this wasn’t a proper random sample (claims that “10 per cent of financial executives” are psychopaths are certainly false) but it’s easy to see how a lack of moral scruples and indifference to other people’s suffering could be beneficial if you want to get ahead in business.

“There are two kinds of empathy,” says James Fallon, a neuroscientist at the University of California and author of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain. “Cognitive empathy is the ability to know what other people are feeling, and emotional empathy is the kind where you feel what they’re feeling.” Autistic people can be very empathetic – they feel other people’s pain – but are less able to recognise the cues we read easily, the smiles and frowns that tell us what someone is thinking. Psychopaths are often the opposite: they know what you’re feeling, but don’t feel it themselves. “This all gives certain psychopaths a great advantage, because they can understand what you’re thinking, it’s just that they don’t care, so they can use you against yourself.” (Chillingly, psychopaths are particularly adept at detecting vulnerability. A 2008 study that asked participants to remember virtual characters found that those who scored highly for psychopathy had a near perfect recognition for sad, unsuccessful females, but impaired memory for other characters.)

Fallon himself is a case in point. In 2005, he was looking at brain scans of psychopathic murderers, while on another study, of Alzheimer’s, he was using scans of his own family’s brains as controls. In the latter pile, he found something strange. “You can’t tell just from a brain scan whether someone’s a psychopath,” he says, “but you can make a good guess at the personality traits they’ll have.” He describes a great loop that starts in the front of the brain including the parahippocampal gyrus and the amygdala and other regions tied to emotion and impulse control and empathy. Under certain circumstances they would light up dramatically on a normal person’s MRI scan, but would be darker on a psychopath’s.

“I saw one that was extremely abnormal, and I thought this is someone who’s way off. It looked like the murderers I’d been looking at,” he says. He broke the anonymisation code in case it had been put into the wrong pile. When he did, he discovered it was his own brain. “I kind of blew it off,” he says. “But later, some psychiatrist friends of mine went through my behaviours, and they said, actually, you’re probably a borderline psychopath.”

Speaking to him is a strange experience; he barely draws breath in an hour, in which I ask perhaps three questions. He explains how he has frequently put his family in danger, exposing his brother to the deadly Marburg virus and taking his son trout-fishing in the African countryside knowing there were lions around. And in his youth, “if I was confronted by authority – if I stole a car, made pipe bombs, started fires – when we got caught by the police I showed no emotion, no anxiety”. Yet he is highly successful, driven to win. He tells me things most people would be uncomfortable saying: that his wife says she’s married to a “fun-loving, happy-go-lucky nice guy” on the one hand, and a “very dark character who she does not like” on the other. He’s pleasant, and funny, if self-absorbed, but I can’t help but think about the criteria in Hare’s PCL-R: superficial charm, lack of emotional depth, grandiose sense of self-worth. “I look like hell now, Tom,” he says – he’s 66 – “but growing up I was good-looking, six foot, 180lb, athletic, smart, funny, popular.” (Hare warns against non-professionals trying to diagnose people using his test, by the way.)

“Psychopaths do think they’re more rational than other people, that this isn’t a deficit,” says Hare. “I met one offender who was certainly a psychopath who said ‘My problem is that according to psychiatrists I think more with my head than my heart. What am I supposed to do about that? Am I supposed to get all teary-eyed?’ ” Another, asked if he had any regrets about stabbing a robbery victim, replied: “Get real! He spends a few months in hospital and I rot here. If I wanted to kill him I would have slit his throat. That’s the kind of guy I am; I gave him a break.”

And yet, as Hare points out, when you’re talking about people who aren’t criminals, who might be successful in life, it’s difficult to categorise it as a disorder. “It’d be pretty hard for me to go into high-level political or economic or academic context and pick out all the most successful people and say, ‘Look, I think you’ve got some brain deficit.’ One of my inmates said that his problem was that he’s a cat in a world of mice. If you compare the brainwave activity of a cat and a mouse, you’d find they were quite different.”

It would, says Hare, probably have been an evolutionarily successful strategy for many of our ancestors, and can be successful today; adept at manipulating people, a psychopath can enter a community, “like a church or a cultural organisation, saying, ‘I believe the same things you do’, but of course what we have is really a cat pretending to be a mouse, and suddenly all the money’s gone”. At this point he floats the name Bernie Madoff.

This brings up the issue of treatment. “Psychopathy is probably the most pleasant-feeling of all the mental disorders,” says the journalist Jon Ronson, whose book, The Psychopath Test, explored the concept of psychopathy and the mental health industry in general. “All of the things that keep you good, morally good, are painful things: guilt, remorse, empathy.” Fallon agrees: “Psychopaths can work very quickly, and can have an apparent IQ higher than it really is, because they’re not inhibited by moral concerns.”

So psychopaths often welcome their condition, and “treating” them becomes complicated. “How many psychopaths go to a psychiatrist for mental distress, unless they’re in prison? It doesn’t happen,” says Hare. The ones in prison, of course, are often required to go to “talk therapy, empathy training, or talk to the family of the victims” – but since psychopaths don’t have any empathy, it doesn’t work. “What you want to do is say, ‘Look, it’s in your own self-interest to change your behaviour, otherwise you’ll stay in prison for quite a while.’ ”

It seems Hare’s message has got through to the UK Department of Justice: in its guidelines for working with personality-disordered inmates, it advises that while “highly psychopathic individuals” are likely to be “highly treatment resistant”, the “interventions most likely to be effective are those which focus on ‘self-interest’ – what the offender wants out of life – and work with them to develop the skills to get those things in a pro-social rather than anti-social way.”

If someone’s brain lacks the moral niceties the rest of us take for granted, they obviously can’t do anything about that, any more than a colour-blind person can start seeing colour. So where does this leave the concept of moral responsibility? “The legal system traditionally asserts that all people standing in front of the judge’s bench are equal. That’s demonstrably false,” says the neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. He suggests that instead of thinking in terms of blameworthiness, the law should deal with the likelihood that someone will reoffend, and issue sentences accordingly, with rehabilitation for those likely to benefit and long sentences for those likely to be long-term dangers. The PCL-R is already used as part of algorithms which categorise people in terms of their recidivism risk. “Life insurance companies do exactly this sort of thing, in actuarial tables, where they ask: ‘What age do we think he’s going to die?’ No one’s pretending they know exactly when we’re going to die. But they can make rough guesses which make for an enormously more efficient system.”

What this doesn’t mean, he says, is a situation like the sci-fi film Minority Report, in which people who are likely to commit crimes are locked up before they actually do. “Here’s why,” he says. “It’s because many people in the population have high levels of psychopathy – about 1 per cent. But not all of them become criminals. In fact many of them, because of their glibness and charm and willingness to ride roughshod over the people in their way, become quite successful. They become CEOs, professional athletes, soldiers. These people are revered for their courage and their straight talk and their willingness to crush obstacles in their way. Merely having psychopathy doesn’t tell us that a person will go off and commit a crime.” It is central to the justice system, both in Britain and America, that you can’t pre-emptively punish someone. And that won’t ever change, says Eagleman, not just for moral, philosophical reasons, but for practical ones. The Minority Report scenario is a fantasy, because “it’s impossible to predict what somebody will do, even given their personality type and everything, because life is complicated and crime is conceptual. Once someone has committed a crime, once someone has stepped over a societal boundary, then there’s a lot more statistical power about what they’re likely to do in future. But until that’s happened, you can’t ever know.”

Speaking to all these experts, I notice they all talk about psychopaths as “them”, almost as a different species, although they make conscious efforts not to. There’s something uniquely troubling about a person who lacks emotion and empathy; it’s the stuff of changeling stories, the Midwich Cuckoos, Hannibal Lecter. “You know kids who use a magnifying glass to burn ants, thinking, this is interesting,” says Hare. “Translate that to an adult psychopath who treats a person that way. It is chilling.” At one stage Ronson suggests I speak to another well-known self-described psychopath, a woman, but I can’t bring myself to. I find the idea unsettling, as if he’d suggested I commune with the dead.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10737827/Psychopaths-how-can-you-spot-one.html

Thanks to Steven Weihing for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

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bibliotherapy_WEB

By Leah Price

More than 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. Fewer than half receive any treatment; even fewer have access to psychotherapy. Around the turn of the millennium, antidepressants became the most prescribed kind of drug in the United States. In the United Kingdom, 1 in 6 adults has taken one.

But what if a scientist were to discover a treatment that required minimal time and training to administer, and didn’t have the side effects of drugs? In 2003, a psychiatrist in Wales became convinced that he had. Dr. Neil Frude noticed that some patients, frustrated by year-long waits for treatment, were reading up on depression in the meantime. And of the more than 100,000 self-help books in print, a handful often seemed to work.

This June, a program was launched that’s allowing National Health Service doctors across England to act upon Frude’s insight. The twist is that the books are not just being recommended, they’re being “prescribed.” If your primary care physician diagnoses you with “mild to moderate” depression, one of her options is now to scribble a title on a prescription pad. You take the torn-off sheet not to the pharmacy but to your local library, where it can be exchanged for a copy of “Overcoming Depression,” “Mind Over Mood,” or “The Feeling Good Handbook.” And depression is only one of over a dozen conditions treated. Other titles endorsed by the program include “Break Free from OCD,” “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway,” “Getting Better Bit(e) by Bit(e),” and “How to Stop Worrying.”

The NHS’s Books on Prescription program is only the highest-profile example of a broader boom in “bibliotherapy.” The word is everywhere in Britain this year, although—or because—it means different things to different people. In London, a painter, a poet, and a former bookstore manager have teamed up to offer over-the-counter “bibliotherapy consultations”: after being quizzed about their literary tastes and personal problems, the worried well-heeled pay 80 pounds for a customized reading list. At the Reading Agency, a charity that developed and administers Books on Prescription, a second program called Mood-Boosting Books recommends fiction and poetry. The NHS’s public health and mental health budgets also fund nonprofits such as The Reader Organization, which gathers people who are unemployed, imprisoned, old, or just lonely to read poems and fiction aloud to one another.

At best, Books on Prescription looks like a win-win for both patients and book lovers. It boosts mental health while also bringing new library users in the door. Libraries loaned out NHS-approved self-help books 100,000 times in the first three months of the program; no doubt some of their borrowers must have picked up a novel or a memoir en route to the circulation desk. At worst, it’s hard to see what harm the program can do. Unlike drugs, books carry no risk of side effects like weight gain, dampened libido, or nausea (unless you read in the car).

For book lovers, an organization with as much clout as the NHS would seem to be a welcome ally. Yet its initiatives raise troubling questions about why exactly a society should value reading. What’s lost when a bookshelf is repurposed as a medicine cabinet—and when a therapist’s job gets outsourced to the page?

In 1916, the clergyman Samuel Crothers coined the term “bibliotherapy,” positing tongue-in-cheek that “a book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific.” In the intervening century, doctors, nurses, librarians, and social workers have more seriously championed “bibliopathy,” “bibliocounseling,” “biblioguidance,” and “literatherapy”—all variations on the notion that reading can heal.

Only recently, however, have the mental health effects of one genre—self-help books—been rigorously studied. As early as 1997, a randomized trial found bibliotherapy supervised by therapists no less effective in treating unipolar depression than individual or group therapy. More surprisingly, a 2007 literature review by the same researcher found that books treated anxiety just as effectively without a therapist’s guidance as with it. A 2004 meta-analysis comparing bibliotherapy for anxiety and depression to short-term talk therapy found books “as effective as professional treatment of relatively short duration.”

None of this means a book can outperform a therapist, even if it can underbid him. A 2012 meta-analysis of anxiety disorders concluding that “comparing self-help with waiting list gave a significant effect size of 0.84 in favour of self-help” nevertheless cautioned that “comparison of self-help with therapist-administered treatments revealed a significant difference in favour of the latter.” Translation: A book does worse than a therapist, but it’s better than nothing. And in the short term, at least, nothing is what many patients get.

Books on Prescription can be understood as an extension of larger changes in psychiatry over the past few decades. For most of the 20th century, psychodynamic therapy placed more emphasis on the therapist-patient relationship than on the content of the therapist’s words. More recently, insurers’ interest in cutting costs and researchers’ interest in protocols that can be measured and replicated have combined to nudge treatment toward short-term, standardized methods such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. Books take this trajectory to its logical conclusion. If your aim is less to help patients explore the underlying causes of their condition than to offer step-by-step instructions for managing it, then who cares whether the exercises emanate from a mouth, a manual, or even a smartphone app?

But even therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy require the patient to feel recognized and understood by another human being. Asked how a printed page can mimic that face-to-face encounter, Frude comes up with an unexpected word: “magic.” The best books give the illusion of listening and caring, he explains, because authors who are also clinicians can draw on years of experience interacting with patients to leave each reader saying “that book was about me.” He does acknowledge that not every case fits books “off the peg” (or off the rack, as we say in the United States). But it’s a striking metaphor to choose—one that makes psychodynamic therapy sound like a luxury good as unattainable as Savile Row tailoring.

Where Frude sees magic, a cynic might smell pragmatism. Even short-term cognitive-behavioral therapy costs more than a $24.95 hardcover. But in any case, many patients read whether or not they have the NHS’s blessing. If recommended titles crowd out the misinformation that patients might otherwise stumble upon, whether in print or online, Books on Prescription will already have helped.

It’s hard not to notice that Books on Prescription was developed in the same years when American universities began to offer MOOCs, or massive open online courses. Even if an online course lacks the give-and-take of a seminar, it’s better than nothing. Like Books on Prescription, MOOCs scale up an activity whose face-to-face version was traditionally out of reach of the masses. Also like Books on Prescription, MOOCs create a cost-effective alternative that may eventually squeeze out personal contact even at the high end of the market.

That concern aside, it’s no surprise that self-help books can help the self. That literature might help, however, is a more controversial proposition. The other half of the Reading Agency’s two-pronged Reading Well initiative, Mood-Boosting Books, promotes fiction, poetry, and memoirs. Its annual list of “good reads for people who are anxious or depressed” mixes titles that represent characters experiencing anxiety or depression (Mark Haddon’s “A Spot of Bother”) with others calculated to combat those conditions. Some go for laughs (Sue Townsend’s “The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾”); others, such as “A Street Cat Named Bob” and “The Bad Dog’s Diary,” read like printouts of PetTube.com. Others are darker and more demanding: Reading Well anointed Alice Munro’s short stories as a selection before the Nobel Prize Committee did.

The Reading Agency’s endorsement of imaginative reading stops short of recommending specific titles. Its website bristles with disclaimers that the works of literature are nominated by reading groups rather than tested by scientists. Yet the charity has given Mood-Boosting Books prestige—and the NHS has put hard cash behind them as well, providing some libraries with grants to purchase the recommended works of literature along with the “prescribed” self-help titles.

I ask Judith Shipman, who runs the Mood-Boosting Books program, whether recommending books “for people who are anxious or depressed” implies that poems or novels can treat those conditions. “I don’t think we could claim that they are therapy or a substitute for therapy,” she hazards after a long pause. “But for those who don’t quite need therapy, Mood-Boosting Books could be a nice little lift.”

Today it might seem commonplace to suggest that books are good for you. In the longer view, though, the hope that both literature and practical nonfiction can cure reverses an older belief by doctors that reading could cause physical and mental illness. In 1867, one expert cautioned that taking a book to bed could “injure your eyes, your brain, your nervous system.” Some social reformers proposed regulating books as if they were drugs. In 1883, the New York State Legislature debated whether to fine “any person who shall sell, loan, or give to any minor under sixteen years of age any dime novel or book of fiction, without first obtaining the written consent of the parent or guardian of such a minor.” As late as 1889, one politician called fiction “moral poison.”

As radio, TV, gaming, and eventually the Internet began to compete with books, though, fiction-reading came to look wholesome by comparison. Today, with only half of Americans reading any book for pleasure in a given year, reading is finding new champions from an unlikely quarter: science. This year, Science published a study concluding that reading about fictional characters increases empathy; in his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” the psychologist Steven Pinker correlated the rise of imaginative literature with a centuries-long decline in violence. And while correlation doesn’t imply causation, randomized trials have also attempted to link fiction-reading to physical health. In a 2008 study of 81 preteens, girls assigned fiction in which characters eat balanced breakfasts ended up with a lower body mass index than the control group. The Reading Well website itself cites a 2009 study that compared heart rates and muscle tension before and after various activities and found that reading is “68% better at reducing stress levels than listening to music; 100% more effective than drinking a cup of tea.” The numbers may be less telling than the fact that someone would think to compare books to tea in the first place.

It’s too early to predict the long-term effects of bibliotherapy programs. There’s little precedent for a government to make neuroscientists and psychiatrists the arbiters of what books should be read and why. And literary critics like me recoil from reducing the value of reading to a set of health metrics. But as library budgets shrink and any text longer than 140 characters gets crowded out by audio and video, white-coated experts may be the only ones prospective readers can hear. Racing to find out what happens next, seeing the world through a character’s eyes, wallowing in the play of language—all are becoming means to medical ends. Today, for an increasing number of people, the pleasures of reading require a doctor’s note.

http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/12/22/when-doctors-prescribe-books-heal-mind/H2mbhLnTJ3Gy96BS8TUgiL/story.html

baby

Cry-it-out is a sleep training method that advocates letting your baby cry (or the more innocuous-sounding “self-soothe”) for varying periods of time before offering comfort. The goal is to get your baby to learn how to fall asleep on her own, so you, too, can rest.

Central to it all is stress and sanity: the baby’s, yours and that of everyone with earshot.

The method is the subject of intense debate, passionate opinions and conflicting research findings.

A few weeks ago, the journal Developmental Psychology published a study supporting the notion that a majority of infants over the age of 6 months may best be left to self-soothe and fall back to sleep on their own.

Noting that sleep deprivation can exacerbate maternal depression, Temple University researcher and professor Marsha Weinraub concluded: “Because the mothers in our study described infants with many awakenings per week as creating problems for themselves and other family members, parents might be encouraged to establish more nuanced and carefully targeted routines to help babies with self-soothing and to seek occasional respite.”

There is broad agreement that parents’ well-being is critical to infants’ health and development. Weintraub suggested that the link between infant awakenings and maternal depression would benefit from further research.

Adequate sleep is, of course, key to parents’ stress levels. Loss of sleep has been associated with a dramatically higher risk of depression in mothers and marital problems.

It is how well (or not) the baby fares in the cry-it-out scenario that muddies the waters.

On the pro sleep-training side, an Australian study published in September followed 326 children with parent-reported sleep problems at 7 months. Half the babies were placed in a sleep-training group and the other half in a control group that did not use sleep training.

Five years later, researchers followed up with the now-6-year-old participants and their parents.

The children in the two groups showed very little to no significant differences in terms of emotional health, behavior or sleep problems. Mothers’ stress or depression levels were roughly the same, as were the parent-child bonds in both groups.

The researchers found no harm in permitting children to cry for limited periods of time while they learned to sleep on their own.

Directly contradicting this study is research conducted at the University of North Texas that was published in the Early Human Development journal last year. Observing 25 infants aged 4 to 10 months in a five-day inpatient sleep training program, researchers monitored levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the babies, who were left to cry themselves to sleep without being soothed.

The scientists measured how long the infants cried each night before they fell asleep. The mothers sat in the next room and listened to their children cry but were not permitted to go in and soothe their babies.

By the third night, the babies were crying for a shorter period of time and falling asleep faster. However, the cortisol levels measured in their saliva remained high, indicating that the infants were just as “stressed” as if they had remained crying. So while the infants’ internal physiological distress levels had not changed, their outward displays of that stress were extinguished by sleep training.

In the mothers, on the other hand, the stress hormone levels fell as the babies appeared — at least outwardly — to settle down and sleep.

The study did not clarify whether the babies’ stress levels lowered as their sleep patterns settle over time. The researchers are now studying this issue, among others, in a longer follow-up.

As with most things in life, when it comes to babies and the science of sleep, the only certainty is that there is no certainty. Those of us on the roller coaster of modern parenting are the first to attest to the fact that perfection simply does not exist, especially when you’re bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived at 4:15 a.m., with a full workday looming.

Some researchers suggest that parents may gain clarity by working backward from a longer-term goal.

Darcia Narvaez, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, studies moral cognition and development. Her research examines how early life experience may influence brain development, moral functioning and character in children and adults.

Narvaez advocates a more responsive style of parenting that mirrors nurturing ancestral practices, including breastfeeding, frequent touch, soothing babies in distress, outdoor play and a wider community of caregivers.

According to Narvaez, research shows that responsive parenting can help develop infants’ self-regulation and may influence conscience, impulse control, empathy, resilience and other character-related attributes.

Narvaez’s list is strikingly similar to a set of character traits discussed by journalist Paul Tough in his book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.”

In the book, Tough examines the skills and traits that lead to success and ultimately advances the hypothesis that character attributes may be more crucial than cognitive skills like IQ and intelligence.

“(I)n the past decade, and especially in the past few years,” writes Tough, “a disparate congregation of economists, educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists have begun to produce evidence that … (w)hat matters most in a child’s development … is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years.

“What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.”

Can responsive parenting in a child’s first year lay the groundwork for better regulation of social and behavioral responses and perhaps even greater life success? Seems like a heavy burden. And no one knows for sure — not even the dueling Upper West Side mothers.

http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/24/health/child-sleep-debate-enayati/index.html?hpt=he_c1

 

Science is painting a dramatic picture of how childhood neglect damages developing brains, so stunting them that neglect might be likened to physically violent abuse.

The latest addition to this research narrative comes from a study of mice placed in isolation early in their lives, an experiment that, on its surface, might seem redundant: After all, we already know that neglect is bad for humans, much less mice.

But they key to the study is in the details. The researchers found striking abnormalities in tissues that transmit electrical messages across the brain, suggesting a specific mechanism for some of the dysfunctions seen in neglected human children.

“This is very strong evidence that changes in myelin cause some of the behavioral problems caused by isolation,” said neurologist Gabriel Corfas of Harvard Medical School, a co-author of the new study, released Sept. 13 in Science.

 

Corfas and his team, led by fellow Harvard Med neuroscientist Manabu Makinodan, put 21-day-old mice in isolation for two weeks, then returned them to their colonies. When the mice reached adolescence, the researchers compared their brains and behavior to mice who hadn’t been isolated.

The isolated mice were antisocial, with striking deficits in memory. Their myelin, a cell layer that forms around neuronal networks like insulation around wires, was unusually thin, especially in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region central to cognition and personality.

Similar patterns of behavior have been seen, again and again, in children raised in orphanages or neglected by parents, as have changes to a variety of brain regions, including the prefrontal cortex. The myelin deficiencies identified by Corfas and Makinodan may underlie these defects.

 

“This is incredibly important data, because it gives us the neural mechanisms associated with the deleterious changes in the brain” that arise from neglect, said Nathan Fox, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Maryland.

Fox was not involved in the new study, but is part of a research group working on a long-term study of childhood neglect that is scientifically striking and poignantly tragic. Led by Harvard Medical School pediatricians Charles Nelson and Margaret Sheridan, the project has tracked for the last 12 years children who started their lives in an orphanage in Bucharest, Romania, a country infamous for the spartan, impersonal conditions of its orphanages.

Among children who spent their first two years in the orphanage, the researchers observed high levels developmental problems, cognitive deficits, mental illness, and significant reductions in brain size. When the researchers measured the sheer amount of electrical activity generated by the brains of children who’d been isolated as toddlers, “it was like you’d had a rheostat, a dimmer, and dimmed down the amount of energy in these institutionalized children,” said Fox.

These problems persisted even when toddlers were later adopted, suggesting a crucial importance for those early years in setting a life’s neurological trajectory. “There’s a sensitive period for which, if a child is taken out of an institution, the effects appear to be remediated, and after which remediation is very, very difficult,” Fox said. The same pattern was observed in Corfas and Makinodan’s mice.

One phenomenon not studied in the mice, but regularly found in people neglected as children, are problems with stress: mood disorders, anxiety, and general dysfunction in a body’s stress responses.

Those mechanisms have been studied in another animal, the rhesus monkey. While deprivation studies on non-human primates — and in particular chimpanzees — are controversial, the results from the monkey studies have been instructive.

Early-life isolation sets off a flood of hormones that permanently warp their responses to stress, leaving them anxious and prone to violent swings in mood.

Isolation is so damaging because humans, especially as infants, literally depend on social stimulation to shape their minds, said psychologist John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago.

“Human social processes were once thought to have been incidental to learning and cognition,” Cacioppo wrote in an e-mail. “However, we now think that the complexities and demands of social species have contributed to the evolution of the brain and nervous system and to various aspects of cognition.”

Corfas and Makinodan’s team linked specific genetic changes to the abnormalities in their mice, and hope they might someday inform the development of drugs that can help reverse isolation’s effects.

A more immediate implication of the research is social. As evidence of neglect’s severe, long-term consequences accumulates, it could shape the way people think not just of orphanages, but policy matters like maternity and paternity leave, or the work requirements of single parents on welfare.

“What this work certainly says is that the first years of life are crucially important for brain architecture,” Fox said. “Infants and young children have to grow up in an environment of social relationships, and experiencing those is critical for healthy cognitive, social and psychological development. As a society, we should be figuring out how to encourage all that to happen.”

Thanks to Kebmobee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/09/neuroscience-of-neglect/

Onlookers laughed and did nothing to help as a man was beaten, stripped and robbed on the street in Baltimore.

The attack, which police say happened on March 18 after St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, was captured by at least two cameras. Video of it went viral.

“Not only did they rob him, but they attempted to strip him of his dignity. They tore his clothes off; they mocked him. That behavior just will not be tolerated,” said Detective Nicole Monroe with the Baltimore police.

Police say they have identified one suspect, but have made no arrests.

They are not releasing the victim’s identity except to say he was a 31-year-old man from Arlington, Virginia.

The victim was on the way to his hotel from a downtown Baltimore club when he was attacked, according to a police report. The man had been drinking. He told police he couldn’t recall exactly what happened, but the videos fill in the blanks.

In them, a man is seen standing, unsteadily, against a row of mailboxes. A crowd starts to gather and women dance suggestively against him. Someone notices his watch and a hand seems to grab something from one of the man’s front pockets.

He pursues the supposed thief and is punched in the face. The man falls over backward and his head hits the sidewalk so hard it can be heard on the video.

“Smackdown!” someone yells.

His pockets are rifled and his clothes pulled off. Some people can be heard laughing. No one comes to his aid.

According to the police report, the man lost his Tag Heuer watch, which he valued at $1,300, his iPhone and car key.

CNN showed video of the attack to a number of people in Baltimore to gauge their response.

“That’s pretty sad,” said Finley George of Virginia, who was visiting the city with family. “I mean he obviously didn’t do anything to anybody. They just got up on him and started beating him.”

http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/09/us/maryland-beating/index.html

 

Gravediggers jumped up and down on the coffin of an elderly woman to force it into a tight hole as her family looked on in horror, it has been claimed.

The workers at a Roman Catholic cemetery near Pittsburgh are also accused of poking the coffin with poles.

They are alleged to have carried jumped on 91-year-old Agnes Zimmick’s coffin after her funeral of on December 1, 2009.

Mr Zimmick’s family are now suing the Pittsburgh diocese and its Catholic Cemeteries Association.

Mrs Zimmic’s son, Theodore Zimmick, his daughter Lisa Carey, and granddaughter, Shannon Soxman complained after seeing ‘jumps and shoves’ on the coffin.

‘Frankly, it’s shocking this happened at a Catholic cemetery,’ the family’s lawyer, Richard Sandow told the the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.

‘You’re not dealing with lumber. You’re dealing with the deceased. There were many jumps, shoves and stomps.’

Mrs Zimmick’s body was taken to the cemetery on December 1 after a Mass of Christian Burial which had been attended by the family.

After the funeral service, the family said they went to visit the graves of other family members, and then saw workers stamping and walking on the coffin and otherwise jamming it into the grave.

Annabelle McGannon, executive director of the US cemeteries association, says the family’s claims have been investigated and are ‘unfounded.’

She said: ‘The family filed a complaint and we investigated it thoroughly. We are confident after our investigation that the allegations are unfounded.

‘Beyond that, it’s our policy not to comment on issues in litigation.’

The 14-page lawsuit was filed in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. The family are seeking compensation for emotional distress and ‘tortious interference with dead bodies.’

Mr Sandow said the family do not want other grieving relatives to go through the same experience.

‘No member of the church was supervising the burial. It’s disappointing,’ Sandow said. ‘Her body is supposed to be handled appropriately.’
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2067775/Family-sues-gravediggers-jumped-91-year-olds-casket-squeeze-hole-small.html#ixzz1g3feQYcA

The act of helping others out of empathy has long been associated strictly with humans and other primates, but new research shows that rats exhibit this prosocial behavior as well.
In the new study, laboratory rats repeatedly freed their cage-mates from containers, even though there was no clear reward for doing so. The rodents didn’t bother opening empty containers or those holding stuffed rats.

 
To the researchers’ surprise, when presented with both a rat-holding container and a one containing chocolate — the rats’ favorite snack — the rodents not only chose to open both containers, but also to share the treats they liberated.
 
Peggy Mason, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and lead author of the new study, says that the research shows that our empathy and impulse to help others are common across other mammals.
 
“Helping is our evolutionary inheritance,” Mason told LiveScience. “Our study suggests that we don’t have to cognitively decide to help an individual in distress; rather, we just have to let our animal selves express themselves.”
 
Empathetic rats
In previous studies, researchers found that rodents show the simplest form of empathy, called emotional contagion — a phenomenon where one individual’s emotions spread to others nearby. For example, a crying baby will trigger the other babies in a room to cry as well. Likewise, rats will become distressed when they see other rats in distress, or they will display pain behavior if they see other rats in pain.
 
For the new study, Mason and her colleagues wanted to see if rats could go beyond emotional contagion and actively help other rats in distress. To do so, the rats would have to suppress their natural responses to the “emotions” of other rats, the result of emotional contagion. “They have to down-regulate their natural reaction to freeze in fear in order to actively help the other rat,” Mason explained.
 
The researchers began their study by housing rats in pairs for two weeks, allowing the rodents to create a bond with one another. In each test session, they placed a rat pair into a walled arena; one rat was allowed to roam free while the other was locked in a closed, transparent tube that could only be opened from the outside.
 
The free rat was initially wary of the container in the middle of the arena, but once it got over the fear it picked up from its cage-mate, it slowly began to test out the cage. After an average seven days of daily experiments, the free rat learned it could release its friend by nudging the container door open. Over time, the rat began releasing its cage-mate almost immediately after being placed into the arena.
 
“When the free rat opens the door, he knows exactly what he’s doing — he knows that the trapped rat is going to get free,” Mason said. “It’s deliberate, purposeful, helping behavior.”
 
The researchers then conducted other tests to make sure empathy was the driving force in the rats’ behavior. In one experiment, they rigged the container so that opening the door would release the captive rat into a separate arena. The free rat repeatedly set its cage-mate free, even though there was no reward of social interaction afterwards. [Like Humans, Chimps Show Selfless Behaviors]
 
True motivations
While it appears that the rats are empathetic, questions about the rodents’ true motivations still remain.
 
“It is unclear whether the rats sympathize with the distress of their cage-mates, or simply feel better as they alleviate the perceived distress of others,” Jaak Panksepp, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Washington State University, wrote in an article accompanying the study.
 
Mason says they don’t yet know if the free rats are acting to relieve their own distress, the distress of their cage-mates, or a combination of both, but this is definitely a topic for further research. She’s also looking to study if the rats would behave the same way if they weren’t cage-mates, and she would like to tease out the brain areas and genes involved in the behavior.
 
But, she says, “We now have this incredibly controlled, reproducible paradigm.” Other scientists should be able to use the model they developed to see if empathy and prosocial behavior are present in other animals, she said.
 
The study was published today in the journal Science.