In the News

convicted brain

When a press release carrying the title, “Can brain scans predict future criminal behavior?” came across the Mom Psych feed recently, I knew it needed a little extra commentary. If you clicked through to the article just now, you may have had the same reaction I did. Or maybe not. Were you curious? Hopeful? Skeptical? Doubtful? Apprehensive?

Personally, I will admit to a distinct inward cringe, and not just because an image of Tom Cruise sprang unbidden to my couch—er—I mean mind. Naturally I thought of his character in Minority Report, accused of murder long before any such intention had entered his head. But I’m not paranoid enough (yet) to think we’ll ever use fMRI technology to justify “Precrime” units. Still, I couldn’t shake a sinking feeling that establishing a culture of rehabilitation in the criminal justice system may be an impossible mission.

This is not a criticism of the research. We do learn quite a bit about the human brain and behavior from fMRI studies and these investigators are very clearly thinking in terms of therapeutic interventions for likely re-offenders. But of course, that doesn’t mean politicians, attorneys, judges or juries will apply the technology in the intended spirit. As we know, history is replete with examples of science gone wrong: discoveries that initially seem to portend good for mankind all too frequently end up being used to inflict murder and mayhem, and all sorts of other injustices along the way.

My point (in case it needs to be stated outright) is that a reasonable degree of caution is warranted when applying studies like this one to real life. Not only because they may lead down a perilous road from a policy perspective, but also because “neuroprediction” in itself can be tricky business, as Russell Poldrack points out. Director of the Imaging Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Poldrack calls this particular study an “impressive” one, although he notes that the predictive accuracy wasn’t validated on out-of-sample data. After performing the missing cross-validation on his own, however, Poldrack found a “slight benefit” to out-of-sample prediction of future rearrest, and concluded:

The take-away message from this analysis is that fMRI can indeed provide information relevant to whether an individual will be rearrested for a crime.  However, this added predictability is exceedingly small, and we don’t know whether there are other (unmeasured) demographic or behavioral measures that might provide similar predictive power.  In addition, these analyses highlight the importance of using out-of-sample prediction analyses whenever one makes a claim about the predictive ability of neuroimaging data for any outcome.  We are currently preparing a manuscript that will address the issue of “neuroprediction” in greater detail.

Well, that’s one very real problem. But statistical analysis aside, there’s another important question we need to ask ourselves: Why do we want fMRI scans to predict recidivism? If we’re profiling so that we can better target therapies for rehabilitation—okay, fine. On the other hand, if we hope to use fMRI scans to make decisions about sentencing, probation, parole, involuntary commitment or juvenile detention, we would be overstepping bounds on many fronts. Even if we could be sure there was nothing misleading about a defendant’s individual scan results seen apart from the average of many test subjects (a big “if”), we would essentially be dismissing the brain’s ability to change. But the brain is malleable—researchers have shown there are ways to help people alter activity levels throughout the brain, including in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which happens to be the area of focus in this study.

Make no mistake, there is still much to learn about the neural mechanisms underlying human behavior, despite the fact that fMRI studies add to the store of knowledge on a daily basis. But it is clear that neuroscience has moved into the legal system to stay, spawning a relatively new area of study christened neurolaw. “Neurolaw studies not only the descriptive and predictive issues of how neuroscience is and will be used in the legal system but also the normative issues of how neuroscience should and should not be used within the legal system,” explain researchers Annabelle (Mimi) Belcher and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. A neuroscientist and neuroethicist respectively, Belcher and Sinnott-Armstrong’s 2010 paper on the topic points out some of the prevailing thinking about how neuroscience may build on psychology and social science research in the courtroom.

“We are not, of course, endorsing any of the many uses of neuroscience mentioned here,” they caution. “The point is only that neuroscience can, in principle, be used in a great many ways within the legal system; some of these uses of neuroscience are coming quickly, and we had better get ready. We need to get ready both to prevent misuses and accompanying mistakes and also to encourage the best uses of any legitimate applications of neuroscience in law.”

. . . . .

CBC RADIO Interviews Annabelle (Mimi) Belcher (Along with Michio Kaku and Steve Laken): The End of Privacy

family fightsToday’s guest post was written by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, Resident Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center:

Talking about guns is even more difficult than talking about sex these days. The two issues have much in common. The generations may certainly have very different views on the subject, but even the partners may disagree. Both topics are infused with passion and irrationality. Both have extreme consequences unless practiced safely. Both guns and sex are so politicized that it feels like there’s little room for compromise. Abortion or life . . . more armed guards or restrictions on guns. The truth is, most of us can agree that protections are needed in both cases. Yet we are so polarized by the rhetoric that we are terrified to begin the discussion with our loved ones for fear of a conflagration.

Parents and grandparents may differ on their philosophies about gun control. One may think that having more guns equals more safety, while the other may think that getting all the guns off the street is the only way to reduce gun violence. They may not be able to talk about their differences without, well, taking out a gun. Families would do well to begin the discussion by focusing on the desire to keep the kids safe. Just as sex education begins at home, so does gun control.

If grandparents want to reassure their adult children, they can check their closets and drawers to make sure they have locked up all their guns. They can put the ammunition in a separate place and then tell their adult children they have made these safety precautions. Parents who own guns can reassure the grandparents by doing the same. No matter how you may feel about gun control, we all know that guns must be kept out of reach of children and all safety precautions must be observed.

Whether or not you support the President’s gun control proposals, every gun owner has an obligation to help prevent gun violence.

By Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D., speaker and author of  Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children and Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family.  Dr. Nemzoff is a Resident Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center.

For more from Dr. Nemzoff, see:

In-Laws: A Gift or a Curse?

True Love Comes with In-Laws

Parent Talk: Ruth Nemzoff on Relationships between Parents and Adult Children

In honor of October’s status as  National Bullying Prevention Month, dozens of non-profit groups have been working to raise awareness of bullying and how to prevent it. It makes sense that the vast majority of the activities focus on educating parents, teachers and students about school bullying and cyberbullying. These two forms not only interfere with learning and emotional development, but have sometimes even led to suicide as in Amanda Todd’s recent case. Fortunately, many organizations are making important contributions toward teaching children the prosocial behaviors necessary to transform the schoolyard, if not yet the Internet, from a traumatic place into a safe, supportive one.

But what if the bully lives with you? What if it’s a sibling or parent? Worse, what if there are multiple family members who join forces against one family member to the point that there really is no escape from the abusive behavior?

In April 2008, I addressed this topic on another blog, referring to work by psychologist James R. Holmes examining the family influences on bullying. Holmes examined the existing research to tease out factors that contribute to bullying behaviors at school and found that most of them have their origins at home. It’s not really surprising that he found “boys who bullied others as adolescents were more likely in their 30’s to have children who were bullies.” There are certainly genetic components, which include  temperament and intelligence or attention problems. But there are environmental components too, says Holmes. These would include behaviors that occur between parents and children or perhaps between siblings.

The upshot, says Holmes, is that “bullying is associated with families in which people do not treat each other with respect or families in which children are not taught to respect the rights of others.”

Of course, parents can’t teach what they never learned. Holmes points out that the effects of poor family management and discipline can extend back several generations. More than having a parent who bullied, having grandparents who also bullied is an even stronger predictor of bullying for an adolescent.

After first writing about this topic, I found the online responses to be both sad and illuminating. Nearly 100 posts described the personal experiences of people who had been on the receiving end of bullying from family members at home. Sometimes it was the bully who commented, as in this instance:

When I was a child and teen I did act in a bullying way to some of my sisters. Often it was teasing gone too far. Mostly it was a case of intolerance, boredom and abusing my power as the eldest.

Sometimes my sister annoyed me just by her presence. She was often sulky and sullen and humorless. I annoyed her just for entertainment and to get a laugh from other siblings. I didn’t physically hurt her, but I verbally teased and niggled. Sometimes I just gave her hateful looks. Over time it wore her down. My parents didn’t intervene as they thought ‘kids will be kids.’ Plus a lot was done out of their sight.

These days I am a lot more self-aware and feel very badly for the way I behaved.

It’s worth highlighting the reference to the lack of intervention by parents. As you might expect, similar observations were made by many who had been on the receiving end of bullying. Also common were references to the mental health issues bullied siblings now faced as adults. This isn’t surprising considering that childhood is a crucial period of development for the brain and that a healthy and resilient neural structure depends heavily on positive social interaction. As one reader describes it:

My parent’s way of dealing with it [was] to ask me to just ignore it and to ask my other siblings to also just ignore it so that tension within the family is minimized and that we remain a family—this is after they tried to talk to the bullying sister and were met with denial and hostility. It has caused so much hurt and anguish in my life. After 10 years of bearing it, I began to experience panic attacks and nightmares as family events approached . .

Sometimes parents not only fail to intervene, they may also become an active part of the problem, particularly if there are multiple family dysfunctions:

I’ve been bullied all my life by my family. My brother beat me to a pulp every day and my mother took savage pleasure in stopping it by punishing me instead of him. She herself takes her temper out on me frequently. My sisters have now started picking on me online . . .

It can be tempting to blame the victims in these cases. Certainly, many of Amanda Todd’s tormentors continued to lash out at her for “weakness” even after her death. Almost like predatory animals, we tend to pounce on the fragile, blaming them for succumbing to their circumstances. It’s not only that the weak are easy prey, but seeing weakness in others can also make us feel uncomfortable. If there can be chinks in someone else’s armor, perhaps that means we are vulnerable to finding chinks in our own. This is not a conscious thought, of course. When spoken aloud it often comes out in terms such as, “I’ve had family issues, but I came through them fine. Why can’t that person?” Rather than seeing ourselves as fortunate that we had optimum circumstances to develop resilience, we see our resilience as something we’ve managed to work up on our own, and therefore everybody else can too if they’d just grab hold of their bootstraps with both hands. This is a misconception that all too easily gets in the way of our compassion for others whose circumstances are different.

That said, resilience can be strengthened: The really good news is that we aren’t stuck forever with the vulnerabilities we carry with us out of childhood. Research is zeroing in on influences that can promote resilience and is finding that supportive relationships are key to this process. In other words, the weak need the strong to give them a compassionate hand up rather than kicking them off the ladder.

The anti-bullying programs that have been leveraged over National Bullying Prevention Month have gone far in raising awareness of bullying behaviors in schools. Amanda Todd’s tragic death this month has made us all keenly aware of the issue of bullying behaviors online. The way forward in both of these venues, it would seem, is to raise awareness of bullying behaviors where they first take root: Home, sweet home.

On January 2, 1928, Time Magazine featured its first “Man of the Year,” aviator Charles Lindbergh. It was a brilliant solution to the year-end dilemma presented by a traditionally slow news week. As a result, what is now called (in modern parlance) the “Person” of the Year, has been an eagerly anticipated feature of Time Magazine ever since. This was, in fact, the reason I stayed glued to CNN on the evening of December 16. It was a Saturday night . . . a night when anything can happen and no one ordinarily wants to stay home. So why did I? I wanted to find out whether for 2006, by some wild fluke, the person of the year just might be me.

And it was! Imagine my surprise. I should mention there was just the tiniest unexpected letdown though. Once you’ve made the cover of Time as Person of the Year (as I now have), there’s not really all that much more to anticipate in that quarter. I mean—obviously it’s not going to be me again next year, so where’s the incentive to hang on to the edge of my seat anymore?

I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way either. In fact, my message to Time is, “move over, my friend, there’s a more interesting year-end prospect in town. Quite frankly, you have been plutoed!” (At this point, the blank expression on Time’s face clues me in to the fact that perhaps it’s having trouble understanding my dialect.) “Plutoed,” I repeat. “Surely you know what it means to be plutoed? And if not–well, then! That’s precisely the reason you have been plutoed.”

But plutoed by whom? Plutoed by what? Well, every January from now on, instead of tuning to CNN to watch the unveiling of Time’s Person of the Year; we will all be glued (via the Infobahn) to http colon, double backslash, www dot, americandialect dot org, in order to discover the current recipient of the honour of . . . “The Word of the Year.”

Just in case you’re wondering, the 2006 “Word of the Year” title (by the power of the American Dialect Society), has been awarded to the new expression “to pluto, or to be plutoed.” According to the ADS, ‘to pluto,’ is “to demote or devalue someone or something, as happened to the former planet Pluto when the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met its definition of a planet.” (See: Dogged! Pluto Stripped of Planetary Status, August 2006).

The ADS (it should be noted) is no fly-by-night organization. “Founded in 1889,” says their website, “the American Dialect Society is dedicated to the study of the English language in North America, and of other languages, or dialects of other languages, influencing it or influenced by it. Our members include academics and amateurs, professionals and dilettantes, teachers and writers.” (More than likely, the dilettantes bit is just to make the Society seem more personable, since the other members listed evoke images of 9th grade English teachers).

At this point it’s important to acknowledge that most of the time, the ADS concentrates on serious language issues. However, like Time Magazine, each December the Society likes to reminisce about those of the past year’s events that could be considered significant in relation to their particular line of work. Also like Time Magazine, the ADS has an effective process for collecting nominations, discussing the merits of each, and counting votes. Distinctly unlike Time Magazine, however, the American Dialect Society has two other important assets. An actual working knowledge of how to relate to the average American, and an understanding of the nation’s sense of humour.

Witness the accuracy of the ADS in identifying past winners:

Most Likely to Succeed for 2002: “Blog: from “weblog,” a website of personal events, comments, and links.”

Word of the Year for 2000: “Chad: a small scrap of paper punched from a voting card.”

Most likely to Succeed and Most Useful for 1999: “dot-com: a company operating on the web.”

Most Likely to Succeed for 1997: “DVD: for Digital Versatile Disk; an optical disk expected to replace CDs.”

Most Likely to Succeed for 1992: “snail mail: mail that is physically delivered as opposed to e-mail”

Most Likely to Succeed for 1991: “rollerblade: to skate with rollers in a single row.”

But where the Society’s understanding of the nation’s sense of humor surfaces is in what might be considered the “lesser” categories of new additions to the American dialect:

Most Creative word of 2005: “Whale-tail: the appearance of thong or g-string underwear above the waistband.”

Most Euphemistic of 2004: “Badly-sourced: false.” (This narrowly edged out “Wardrobe malfunction: unanticipated exposure of bodily parts.”)

Most Euphemistic of 2000: “Courtesy Call: an uninvited call from a telemarketer”

Most Euphemistic of 1998: “Senior Moment: momentary lapse of memory due to age.”

Most Original of 1998: “multislacking:” (the ADS defines it as “playing at the computer when one should be working,” although I think this is currently more usefully defined as, “ignoring several high-priority tasks at once.”)

So, to wrap up my message to Time Magazine, the next time a I get a call from them asking if I’d like a subscription, I’m going to say this:

“Maybe I’m having a senior moment, but your assumption that I would welcome your courtesy call while I’m in the middle of some important multislacking was badly-sourced. Next time don’t call, send me an ad by snail mail so at least I can deep-six it in the circular file, pronto. If you try any more phone-spamming I might come down with sudden jihad syndrome, or possibly go postal–and that would just be so low-rent.”

Christine Lavin’s folk albums have been enjoyed in our house since before my oldest child was born. Of course, if you aren’t familiar with the singer, you may well wonder why her name opens an article purporting to discuss the latest news about Pluto. (You know – that heavenly body formerly known as a planet.) It’s not a complicated story really, but a little background information might help.

It all started back in 1996 when Lavin wrote a song entitled Planet X, her musings sparked by a USA Today article about the controversy surrounding Pluto’s planetary status. After a brief rhyming history of Pluto’s discovery and the scientific arguments over its importance, she asked the question,

But how are we going to deal with it
if science comes up with the proof
that Pluto was never a planet.
How do we handle this truth?
As the PhD’s all disagree
we don’t know yet who’s wrong or who’s right
but wherever you are, whatever you are,
Pluto, we know you’re out there tonight.

We found the song (and the question) amusing, but we never really expected events to come to a head as they did this week when Pluto’s status was decided once and for all at a meeting in Prague of the International Astronomical Union. This, apparently, is the body that sets standards for the field of astronomy, which means they have always had the power to demote Pluto to a lowly Kuiper Belt object (KBO), Trans-Neptunal object (TNO), or even a “Plutino.” Plutinos, by the way, are objects that orbit the sun beyond Neptune. Most are much smaller than Pluto and are believed to be similar to comets, but they are defined by orbital patterns which resemble Pluto’s. This of course makes it all a bit confusing. How does one imagine classifying Pluto among its own namesakes? And incidentally, are they going to have to rename plutonium now?

More to the point, why does the International Astronomical Union even care? Why all the fuss over a tiny frozen planet whose only real value to the universe was (thanks to a little help from Walt Disney) its ability to capture the imaginations of school-children on a planet more sure of its status a couple of billion miles away?

The truth is that Pluto was beginning to make the solar system seem a bit more complicated than the average astronomer likes. As more and more “bodies” are making themselves known at the edges of our solar system, Pluto has begun looking less and less like another planet, and more and more like the rest of the non-descript and far-flung debris littering space. This has resulted in increasing scientific disdain for the ninth planet, despite the fact that new discoveries reveal Pluto has at least three of its own moons—a distinction that would give any of the rest of us a great deal of personal significance. Nevertheless, astronomers began to think that if they allowed Pluto to join the planetary club, the door might have to be opened to dozens or even hundreds more. At the very least, they would certainly have to admit a tenth body discovered last year which is even further from the sun than Pluto but seems to be slightly larger and has been popularly nicknamed “Xena.” As long ago as 1996, Christine Lavin could see where all this was going:

and now 20 astronomy textbooks
refer to Pluto as less than a planet
I guess if Pluto showed up at a planet convention
the bouncer at the door might have to ban it.

On the other hand, the International Astronomical Union may have done Pluto a good turn. If the IAU had given Pluto the thumbs up and with it hundreds of other “planets,” one might imagine the beleaguered entity responding in Groucho Marx style, with the words:

“Please accept my resignation from the solar system. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”

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