FatherDaughterFor Father’s Day I had intended to post an in-depth article about the genetic and epigenetic influence fathers have on their children. In doing so, I’d hoped to talk about Annie Murphy Paul’s book Origens, among others. Sadly, Father’s Day follows the last week of school in our house, which is just about the busiest time of the year for us. 

Therefore, to save myself time and sanity, and to ensure I will be available to the fathers in my life tomorrow (especially the amazing father  of my daughters), I’ll direct you to a few articles that will give you a hint about where future research will take us:

Dad’s Life Stress Exposure Can Affect Offspring Brain Development

PHILADELPHIA, PA; June 12, 2013—Sperm doesn’t appear to forget anything. Stress felt by dad—whether as a preadolescent or adult—leaves a lasting impression on his sperm that gives sons and daughters a blunted reaction to stress, a response linked to several mental disorders. The findings, published in a new preclinical study in the Journal of Neuroscience by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, point to a never-before-seen epigenetic link to stress-related diseases such as anxiety and depression passed from father to child.
(Full story . . . )

Like Father, Like . . . Daughter

Baseball hard-hitter Harmon Killebrew tells a story that hints at the importance of fathers to boys: “My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard,” he says on his Web site. “Mother would come out and say, ‘You’re tearing up the grass.’ ‘We’re not raising grass,’ Dad would reply. ‘We’re raising boys.’”  Obviously, Killebrew’s father was tuned in to the needs of his sons, an admirable quality that seems only natural in a man. We accept that every boy needs a father as easily as we accept the notion that he needs a dog. But while society is beginning to acknowledge that a father is more beneficial than a dog to a boy’s well-being, the question of how fathers contribute to the well-being of their daughters has all but been ignored.
(Full story . . . )

Linda Nielsen: The Lost Relationship: Fathers and Daughters

Linda Nielsen is a psychologist and professor of adolescent psychology and women’s studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Author of Embracing Your Father: How to Build the Relationship You Always Wanted with Your Dad (2004), Nielsen also teaches a “Fathers and Daughters” course, the only one of its kind in the United States for nearly 20 years.
(Full story . . . )

Happy Father’s Day to all from Mom Psych~

June is PTSD Awareness MonthDuring the last week of May I blogged about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and pointed to some of the interesting new information that has turned up on this topic over the last few years. As luck would have it, yesterday—barely two weeks later—the United States Senate passed a resolution naming June as PTSD Awareness Month.

I must say this is a gratifying development. As someone who isn’t generally recognized as the poster-child for punctuality, I find myself in the unusual position of having shown up impressively early to an event.  In case you’re wondering whether there’s anything left to say after my rather lengthy May post on the topic, however, let me assure you there is plenty. That’s why we need a whole month to raise awareness.

As a side note, it should be understood that this is not simply an American effort, despite the Senate resolution. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) is also honoring PTSD Awareness month, right alongside the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) and the National Center for PTSD (which is a division of the United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs). 

All of that said, this post isn’t going to focus on the trauma side of PTSD. Instead, it seems appropriate to talk about resilience: that quality that helps us cope with crisis and heal after trauma. This is all the more appropriate because of the fortunate timing of a couple of recent studies.

Okay, so we know that being able to fit our experiences into a coherent narrative helps us cope with all kinds of negative events. Well, one of the best ways to construct that narrative seems to be along the lines of seeing a positive outcome from the experience, as difficult as that task may seem. However, a study from current issue of the journal Psychological Trauma published by the APA’s Division 56 points to an interesting silver lining for people who have experienced trauma: they tend to be more prosocial and perceive more meaning in their life—even as they have more PTSD symptoms. Their traumatic experiences actually lead them to care for and help others more than those who haven’t experienced trauma.

In fact, wrote the researchers, when people said their volunteer work was related to a life experience, the most common motivations were negative life events. . . . (e.g., ‘My mother was hit and badly injured by a drunk driver. Ever since I have volunteered for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.’)”

“Our findings,” they wrote, “consistently indicate that trauma exposure is positively associated with engaging in prosocial [helping] behavior. Individuals who reported experiencing more traumatic events in their lifetime reported engaging in more helping behaviors during a 2-week period and more volunteer activities annually than those who had experienced fewer traumas.”

Now, that seems like good fodder for constructing a positive narrative. It’s the essence of post-traumatic growth. And to take it a step further, that extra helping behavior comes with a payback: helping others helps us. We know this on a gut level, but here’s confirmation in case it—er—helps:

Resilience in Trying Times: A Result of Positive Actions

Humans are happier when they do the right thing; it also helps them overcome difficulties

Communities that stick together and do good for others cope better with crises and are happier for it, according to a new study by University of British Columbia researcher John Helliwell and colleagues. Their work suggests that part of the reason for this greater resilience is the fact that humans are more than simply social beings, they are so-called ‘pro-social‘ beings. In other words, they get happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others. The paper is published online in Springer’s Journal of Happiness Studies.

How does the social fabric of a community or nation affect its capacity to deal with crises and to develop resources that maintain and improve people’s happiness during those difficult times?
(Full story . . . )

If you click through to the article you’ll get half of the answer to that question. But the other half may be found in an old study of  a community of Italian immigrants in Roseto, Pennsylvania. I think we’ll talk about that in a future post.

PTSDFacesRecently in an online community dedicated to the discussion of trauma, I came across a comment that I’ve heard many times before. The gist was, “Whenever people find out I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they assume I must be a combat veteran.”

Now, it’s true that way too many soldiers end up with PTSD. And it’s true that we can thank soldiers for the fact that PTSD was ever taken seriously enough to study in the first place. But almost twice as many women succumb to PTSD than men, and only a relatively small number of these women are soldiers. Most, in fact, are survivors of child abuse. And while that might not surprise you, here’s something that might: Even among soldiers, child abuse may lie at the root of PTSD, as this study suggests:

Embattled Childhoods May Be the Real Trauma for Soldiers with PTSD

This makes perfect sense, of course, when we consider how the brain develops. We are born to connect with other people, and it’s through nurturing interactions early in life that our self-regulatory systems—including fear and stress circuitry—are calibrated.

Born to Connect: The Role of Secure Attachment in Resilience to Trauma

Considering the far-reaching effects of our first experiences with caretakers, we can see why neglect counts as trauma alongside physical and sexual abuse, and we can also see why adults who have been abused as children are so much more vulnerable to stress than others.

Child Abuse Changes the Brain

This vulnerability to stress can lead to a host of mental health challenges. But, here’s a duh! moment: The brain controls processes in the body as well as thinking processes, right? So how is it we’ve managed for so long to overlook the fact that harmful effects of abuse in childhood are not confined to mental health issues? We’re only just beginning to acknowledge that we can’t really separate notions of the biological, the psychological, and the social aspects of human well-being. So, what does child abuse do to the body? Not only does developmental stress accelerate aging,

Risk of Accelerated Aging Seen in PTSD Patients with Childhood Trauma

but it also makes us vulnerable to cancer,

Study: Children Abused by Parents Face Increased Cancer Risk

as well as cardiovascular problems. In men who have been abused as children, this tends to be seen in an increased risk for heart attack,

Childhood Sexual Abuse Linked to Later Heart Attacks in Men

while in women, it’s high blood pressure, poor cholesterol levels, and metabolic issues like diabetes.

Middle-Aged Women Survivors of Child Abuse at Increased Risk for Heart Disease, Diabetes

PTSD is a complex disorder, and the costs to human potential and national budgets are equally devastating. And child abuse is a major contributor to PTSD, for soldiers as well as civilians. With that in mind, perhaps when we read studies like the next one, we’ll remember that it isn’t only the soldiering that that led to these findings, but life before soldiering too.

For Combat Veterans with PTSD, Fear Circuitry in the Brain Never Rests

And instead of asking civilians with PTSD whether they’re veterans, maybe we’ll start asking veterans whether they’re survivors of developmental trauma. Or maybe we’ll just offer them the nurturing support and friendship they need to work through the healing process, instead of making assumptions about them. Hey—It could happen! 

On the bright side, good relationships later in life can help repair the effects of abuse.

Marriage, Education Can Help Improve Well-Being of Adults Abused as Children

And while some relationships will certainly have challenges, it is well worth the time to find support for them.

Couple’s Therapy Appears to Decrease PTSD Symptoms, Improve Relationships

ClassroomStressTeacher Appreciation Week has passed, along with “Mom Appreciation Day,” but parents and teachers continue the important work of shaping children’s brains all year long.

Unfortunately, there are challenges that can get in the way of this worthy goal, and perhaps the most fundamental of these is the widespread misunderstanding of the conditions children need for learning. Just as a child needs secure attachment with caregivers at home to lay the foundation for healthy brain development, they also need secure attachment with teachers in the classroom if they are to build on that foundation.

However, points out Pepperdine University professor Dr. Lou Cozolino in his book The Social Neuroscience of Education, schools aren’t always constructed with concern for human biology. “Most schools are based on a model of industrial production where raw materials are converted into a predetermined product,” he writes.  But students and teachers aren’t “uniform raw materials or assembly-line workers,”he says. “Relationships are our natural habitat. . . . Our ability to learn is regulated by how we are treated by our teachers, at home and in the classroom.”

This is a profound truth. The human brain is a social organ, shaped by our interactions with others. When those interactions are positive, we feel safe and connected, which allows brain chemicals to support new neural growth: the stage is set for learning. On the other hand, Cozolino points out, thinking and feeling are so intertwined that plasticity turns off when anxiety levels are high. “Stressed brains,” he underscores, “are resistant to new learning.”

Is all stress bad? Of course not. But the circuits involved in arousal, stress, and fear operate much like a muscle. They operate well under low levels of intermittent stress, when there is adequate time for repair, but high levels of chronic stress can cause these circuits to malfunction. Anyone who has done weight training can easily understand the concept: a muscle burdened with too much weight for too long will break down rather than grow. In the same way, chronic, high levels of stress flood the brain with cortisol, shutting down all systems but those required to fight or flee. Immune systems are shut down, as are systems involved in neural growth and learning.

On the other hand, when people around us make us feel safe, understood and cared for, these biological processes are reversed. When teachers are aware of the emotional needs of their students as well as tailoring tasks to their abilities, they help regulate children’s stress levels. Even children with poor attachment at home are capable, given time, of responding well to nurturing relationships in the classroom. “Brains grow best in the context of supportive relationships, low levels of stress, and through the creative use of stories,” writes Cozolino. “Secure relationships not only trigger brain growth, but also serve emotional regulation that enhances learning.”

Of course, no parent is attuned to their child at all times and teachers will also have stressors that get in the way of their ability to attune with students. But “good enough” parents supporting and supported by “good enough” teachers are the building blocks of the kind of school communities that are needed to create a fertile ground for learning.

It’s the American holiday called Mother’s Day, a time to let Mom know how much we appreciate all the little things she does to help us reach our potential. We’ll start with the reminder that “Mom” upside-down is “Wow.”

Of course, as much fun as Mom is, she also helps us in some pretty serious ways. (Keep your shirt on, Dad, we realize parenting isn’t all about Mom. But we’ll get to you next month.)  In any case, maybe the following video will make a point about just how crucial that parent-child bond is to a child’s lifelong mental health:

Attachment is the primary process through which children develop self regulation. Unfortunately, as much as researchers know about the importance of secure attachment, many parents don’t know how to achieve it. Fortunately, it doesn’t need to be all that complicated.

As you’ll hear in the following video, “we are basically genetically programmed  to seek a secure relationship with a caregiver.”

However, with our hectic lives and scattered extended families, we are steeped in a society that may be more “child illiterate” than ever before. Many parents have no clue about what children need most.

“Events that occur during infancy,” says this next  video, “especially transactions with the social environment–much more than with the physical environment–are indelibly imprinted in the structures that are developing in the first year of life.”

“We know more about children and development than anytime in history,” say researchers. “And yet, there is a huge gap between what is known and what is practiced in the culture.”

This might be a good time to point out that no one is expecting mom to be perfect. Even when we try our best to practice what is known, we’re going to fall a bit short some of the time. Maybe even a lot of the time. Fortunately, UCLA Neuroscientist Dan Siegel has some positive perspective:

Children pick up on our positive intentions, even when we fall short, says Siegel. (Whew!) That’s a relief to this less-than-perfect mother.

Here’s to a happy Mother’s Day, moms. Wow.

what are they thinkingThe latest issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science came this week and caused me a ‘major’ personal dilemma. My book club meets on Monday, and my Kindle tells me I’m only 2 percent of the way through Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I will be expected to discuss with a modicum of intelligence. But this is a special issue of CDPS, entirely devoted to research about the adolescent brain—a topic I’m going to be writing a 2,500-word article about in the very near future.

To read or not to read was not the question so much as which to read.

I settled on a compromise. I’d allow myself one article about teen brains and then devote myself wholeheartedly to Major Pettigrew. But where to begin among the fifteen research articles in this special issue? Clearly I stand to pick up some valuable personal pointers from the one on decision making. But I focused instead on an article about a skill that forms the foundation for good decision making. I began with B.J. Casey and Kristina Caudle’s research titled “The Teenage Brain: Self Control.”

The crux of their study was why teens are subject to a 200 percent higher risk of harm during this time of their lives compared to childhood, even though they actually have a much higher reasoning capacity and are faster, stronger, and more resistant to disease.

Before they focus on the answer to this question, Casey and Caudle suggest that many of us may already think we know it. But if we’ve been getting most of our information from oversimplified media reports or from pop-psych books, we may have fallen victim to one of the following myths about the teenage brain:

1. Myth: Adolescent behavior is by nature irrational or deviant.

You’ve heard the pat analogies about teen thinking. “Teen brains are like a race car with no brakes or steering wheel,” the saying goes.

Casey and Caudle have performed some of the research that may have led to popular overgeneralizations like this one. However they write, “To suggest that this period of development is one of no brakes or steering wheel is to greatly oversimplify it.” In fact, under certain circumstances adolescents can actually outperform adults in regulating impulses. Which circumstances? Those in which emotional information is absent.

Adolescence is a phase during which we need to practice independence in preparation for adulthood. Perhaps in part to prompt us toward independence, we also become increasingly sensitive to social cues during this time. Sometimes these social cues are powerful enough to exert an emotional pull. Thus, explain Casey and Caudle, “when decisions are required in the heat of the moment (ie., in the presence of emotional cues), performance falters.”

In other words, the “race car with no brakes or steering” analogy is only accurate in some “heat-of-the-moment” situations. In cooler, less emotionally-charged situations, teens are perfectly capable of acting rationally.

That said, this common adolescent “emotional hijack” condition is not the fault of an overactive amygdala as it is sometimes portrayed in popular media. The “amygdala hijack” described by psychologist Daniel Goleman is a very real phenomenon that can occur in children and adults alike, but it isn’t the same situation we see commonly in teen decision making. And neither is this adolescent hijack the fault of a “defective” prefrontal cortex, as we’ll see next.

2.  Myth: Adolescents can’t make rational decisions because of their immature prefrontal cortex.

It’s true that the prefrontal cortex is still developing in teens, but it is not defective. Teens can make rational decisions. Just before puberty, research has found, the brain experiences a burst of neuronal growth to provide for a period of pruning before adulthood. During the important adolescent stage of development, prefrontal connections are far from absent. Rather, as Casey and Caudle point out, they have been there since birth and are continually being strengthened through adolescence by the teen’s daily experiences.

“What is changing during this period of development is the strength of connections within prefrontal circuitry as individuals learn to adapt to changing environmental demands,” the researchers write. Specifically, they observe enhanced activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex when teens are successful in suppressing “heat of the moment” responses, an ability that increases with age. But when teens were unsuccessful in depressing “heat of the moment” responses, the researchers saw increased activity in the ventral striatum, “a region critical for detecting and learning about novel and rewarding cues in the environment.”

You might call it a “ventral-striatal” hijack, in a sense. But this tension between reward circuitry and control circuitry doesn’t indicate an irrational or deviant brain. Rather it’s a natural step on the way to achieving the control and independence necessary to prepare for adulthood.

3. Myth: All adolescents go through a perod of “sturm and drang,” or emotional rebellion.

Simply put, some teens go through a stormy period and some teens don’t, and like all other behavior, the difference seems to involve both genetic and environmental influences on self regulation.

A 40-year followup to the famous “marshmallow study” showed that the same people who had shown difficulty in delaying gratification as children still had difficulty with self regulation as adults in their mid 40s. Clearly, individual differences in self-control can persist. But we also know that self control is a skill that can be strengthened with practice.

Adolescence is a time when the brain is more capable than ever before and is being fine-tuned. It’s a period ripe with opportunity for parents to contribute to the process without taking full control over it. After all, teens need opportunities to practice, which includes being allowed the opportunity to fail as well as to succeed. “Indeed,” write Casey and Caudle, “if the objective of adolescence is to gain independence from the family unit, then providing opportunities for adolescents to engage in new responsibilities is essential. Without opportunities and experiences to help optimally shape the adolescent’s brain and behavior, the objectives of this developmental phase will not easily be met.”

Much like the objectives of my book club if I don’t return to Major Pettigrew immediately.

Autism Awareness Month isn’t primarily for people on the spectrum and their families—although, of course, they benefit from the discussion too. But more importantly, all this talk about autism is meant to help the rest of us learn to communicate with those who already know about autism from the inside. It’s for you and me.

So, as we near the end of April, I’d like to ask the general, neurotypical (as far as you know) population a couple of questions: Have you learned something new about autism this month? If so, what was it, and do you think it will change the way you relate to those on the spectrum who may be in your extended family, your school, or your community? Before you decide you have nothing to say, please watch the following 10-minute video and click on just one or two of the links below. If you still feel you haven’t learned anything new, I hope you’ll respond anyway—it’s always encouraging to know I’m writing to an especially well-informed audience.

Carly’s story may not be new to you; the ABC segment originally aired in 2008. But when I showed it to my nine-year-old, she immediately thought of a classmate who often wears noise-reducing headphones for autism. I’d like to think it will help her understand his behavior just a little bit better.

Of course, it’s important to remember that there is as much individuality on the spectrum as off. Carly’s experience is her own. But her perspective does offer one window into what autism is like. And it may also raise other questions. Why do children like Carly experience the world the way they do? And what causes autism in the first place?  These questions are harder to answer, but researchers have been tackling them with gusto in very recent years. As promised, here are ten of their recent findings that add to our understanding. I’ll try to give them some context, but Carly may already have done some of that for us. Remember what she said about input overload?

Autism Linked with Excess of Neurons in Prefrontal Cortex

November 8, 2011—This study by researchers at the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence shows that brain overgrowth in autism involves an excess number of neurons in areas of the brain associated with social and cognitive development, as well as communication development. Not just a small overgrowth: they found 67 percent more cortical cells—a type of brain cell only made before birth—in children with autism. The findings suggest that the disorder may arise from “prenatal processes gone awry,” says lead researcher Eric Courchesne.

Of course, more brain cells may cause problems because you take in a lot of information you don’t need; but it also may confer some advantages:

People with Autism Possess Greater Ability to Process Information, Study Suggests

March 22, 2012—People with autism have a greater than normal capacity for processing information even from rapid presentations and are better able to detect information defined as ‘critical’, according to a study published today in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Autism Severity May Stem from Fear

November 29, 2012—This BYU study finds that children with the diagnosis struggle with letting go of fear when a threat has passed. And the higher their level of fearfulness, the more severe their classic symptoms of autism, such as repeated movements and resistance to change.

This research highlights the need to help children with autism process their emotions, especially when they are fearful, but it also points to why so many studies have found similarities in the brain between children with autism and children who have been exposed to long-term childhood trauma: both show deficits in social development and some processes related to empathy. It’s important to clarify here that “deficits in the empathy centers” is NOT the same thing as “lacking in empathy.” There are two basic parts to empathy: the ability to feel what others are feeling through emotional contagion—and the ability to understand that other people’s minds are separate from yours. Children diagnosed with autism are thought to have the opposite problem to psychopaths. Psychopaths have theory of mind, but they lack what Bruce Perry calls the “emotional, caring core needed for compassion.”

Children with autism, on the other hand, have the capacity for compassion in spades but they may have significant delays in learning to separate the hurts of others from their own, which would, of course contribute to their sensory overload, and a need to dissociate. This affects their ability to develop the social skills necessary to bond with others.

Remember when autism was thought to have been caused by “refrigerator mothers”? Parents who were thought to be so “cold” that they didn’t bond with their children? Well, it’s true that severe neglect can cause symptoms that look very much like autism. But in autism, it’s the brain’s heightened sensitivity and information overload that interferes. Not a lack of loving parents. Fortunately, neuroplasticity comes to the rescue:

Early Autism Intervention Improves Brain Responses to Social Cues

October 29, 2012—An autism intervention program that emphasizes social interactions and is designed for children as young as 12 months has been found to improve cognitive skills and brain responses to faces, considered a building block for social skills.

Of course, to intervene early enough, we have to be able to detect autism earlier than we have been able to in the past.

Detecting Early Signs of Autism in the Brain

January 26, 2012—In their first year of life, babies who will go on to develop autism already show different brain responses when someone looks at or away from them. Only a first step toward earlier diagnosis, the findings suggest that direct brain measures might help predict autism in infants as young as six months.

Next steps toward earlier diagnoses would be to learn about where autism begins. When do the first changes in the brain begin to show themselves? If you clicked on the first study in this list and played Eric Courchesne’s video, you heard him say that the overgrowth of neurons occurs between the 10th and 20th week of pregnancy. And the epigenetic trigger has to come before the overgrowth, right? The following studies offer additional pieces of the puzzle.

Researchers Identify Epigenetic Signatures of Autism

November 7, 2011—We’ve known for some time that there are a number of genes associated with autism. But we also know from twin studies that having those genes doesn’t necessarily predict autism. This tells researchers that something in the environment has caused a gene to “express,” or activate.  Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School are the first to map these “epigenetic” changes in neurons from the brains of individuals with autism.  The question is, can we isolate when these changes are happening? Check out the next study:

Autism and Schizophrenia Genes Only Active in Developing Brains

February 12, 2013—We saw this coming, didn’t we? Genes linked to autism [and schizophrenia], are only switched on during the early stages of brain development, say researchers at the University of Oxford. This study adds to the mounting evidence that autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. (Which simply means it originates during early brain development.)

Gene Expression Abnormalities in Autism Identified

March 22, 2012—A study led by Eric Courchesne, Ph.D., director of the Autism Center of Excellence at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine has, for the first time, identified in young autism patients genetic mechanisms involved in abnormal early brain development and overgrowth that occurs in the disorder. The findings suggest novel genetic and molecular targets that could lead to discoveries of new prevention strategies and treatment for the disorder.

Epigenetic Changes Shed Light on Biological Mechanism of Autism

April 23-2013Scientists from King’s College London have identified specific patterns of epigenetic changes involved in autism spectrum disorder by studying genetically identical twins who differ in autism traits.  We’ve already talked about the fact that previous twin studies have shown both strong genetic as well as epigenetic components to ASD and Courchesne’s studies tell us the genes in question are involved in brain development which occurs during the second trimester of pregnancy.

There is still a lot left to learn, and it is certain that we won’t turn up any simple causes or solutions. The interplay between genetic and environmental influences is complex. But I’ll leave you with this intriguing study that hints at how huge that complexity might yet prove to be.

Women Abused as Children More Likely to Have Children with Autism

March 20, 2013—Women who experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse as children are more likely to have a child with autism than women who were not abused, according to a new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). Those who experienced the most serious abuse had the highest likelihood of having a child with autism—three-and-a-half times more than women who were not abused.

You’re never too young to be a teacher. At least, that’s Mary Gordon‘s philosophy.

The founder of a program called “Roots of Empathy,” which brings babies into classrooms to teach children in grades K through 8, Gordon is an internationally recognized educator, social entrepreneur and parenting expert who has established empathy-based educational programs that are now public policy in Canada while also having been implemented around the world.  Her Roots of Empathy program has proven particularly instrumental in bringing about dramatic changes in student behavior, helping them build core competencies that can generalize to the home environment as well as to the community.

Why bring babies into the classroom? “Roots of Empathy places babies in the role of teachers because babies love without borders or definition,” Gordon writes in her book about the program. “To the baby every child in the class is a new experience and she is ready to engage with all of them. In her worldview there are no popular children and no nasty children. What the baby does see, over and over again, are the children who are unhappy or troubled, and she usually reaches out to them. Children who have felt alienated or excluded are drawn into a circle of inclusion through the empathic contact made by the baby.”

Empathy, of course, is fundamental to solving the world’s most serious issues; and without the ability to extend it, there is no such thing as moral identity.

Gordon points to some of the bloodstains on the pages of human history, such as the Holocaust, to ask why some people were passive—or even active—participants, while others risked their lives to help victims and bring about change. “The difference lies in our capacity for empathy, our ability to identify with the feelings and perspectives of others,” she concludes. “If we cannot see the other person as human like us, we will not be able to identify with him. If we cannot put ourselves in his place, we will not recognize his experiences and feel what he feels. This failure of empathy at best leads to complicity and apathy; at worst, it leads to cruelty and violence.”

We like to think that nothing like the Holocaust could ever happen again. And perhaps it won’t if the next generation grows up understanding how to see others through a baby’s eyes.


Further Reading:

Take an Empathy Pill and Call Me in the Morning

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

gratitude researchEveryone knows healthy relationships require effective communication, but are all communication strategies equal? Take Thumper’s well-worn advice for instance: “If you can’t say something nice don’t say nuthin’ at all.”

On the surface, the principle seems sound. But if this tactic hasn’t been working for you lately, you may find it comforting to know you’re not alone. With all due respect to Bambi’s flop-eared friend, several studies have piled up over the years suggesting that silence may not really be the best solution to communication problems.

In fact, say researchers, “avoidant” strategies (such as saying “nuthin’ at all”) actually reduce intimacy and erect barriers to resolving conflict: they are every bit as destructive to relationships as yelling and name-calling. That said, saying something nice still beats both alternativesespecially when “something nice” includes expressing gratitude.

Most of us would have no trouble understanding why expressing gratitude to our partner strengthens his or her investment in the relationship, but in 2010, researcher Nathaniel Lambert and his colleagues found that it also increases the strength of our own sense of personal investment in the relationship. The simple exercise of finding as few as five things to express gratitude about each week may be the simplest and most effective first step toward bringing couples and families closer together.

What if you can find nothing to be grateful for? Is that the time to invoke the cliché and “say nothing at all?” Not so, say researchers. We need to find constructive ways to talk about the issues that bother us. Neglecting positive strategies could potentially be as detrimental to relationship quality as falling into destructive strategies, which include the use of inflammatory or emotional language, accusations, yelling or criticism.

Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude seems to be anti-gratitude, says Robert Emmons, a UC Davis professor who has focused on gratitude since 1998. His 2007 book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier explored the benefits and societal barriers to making the most of this important emotion.

“Outside of happiness, gratitude’s benefits are rarely discussed these days,” he wrote. “Indeed, in contemporary American society, we’ve come to overlook, dismiss or even disparage the significance of gratitude as a virtue.” As a result, he says, “We have become entitled, resentful, ungrateful and forgetful.”

Nevertheless, the research on gratitude continues to underscore its importance. Not only are grateful couples happier in their relationships, Berkeley researchers reiterated on February 5th, but levels of gratitude felt by partners can even predict who will break up and who will still be together months down the road.

Worse, the literature suggests that people who have a hard time finding reasons for gratitude may also find themselves with impaired psychological as well as physical health.  Among its physical health benefits, gratitude strengthens the immune system and lowers blood pressure, says Emmons. It supports mental health by blocking negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret. There’s even evidence, he writes, that “gratitude can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression.”

If your relationship is already suffering from lack of gratitude, please do yourself a huge favor and read “Love, Honor, and Thank” by researchers Jess Alberts and Angela Threthewey. And I promise you won’t regret following that up with “Why Gratitude is Good,” by Emmons himself.

Gratitude, like Thumper’s greens, is a “special treat,” fortifying our relationships with vital nutrients. A daily dose of thankfulness may not make for “long ears and great big feet,” but it protects us from attitudes that poison our communication and threaten our personal well-being. Fortunately, no matter how long we have been suffering from a gratitude deficiency, it’s never too late to add it to our family’s daily diet.

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