It is still unusual when the Catholic church allows a scientific study of one of their relics. So I was surprised to find the manuscript describing the study of the DNA of the remains of one of Europe's patron saints, St. Birgitta (Bridget of Sweden) in my PLoS One inbox one fine day in May, 2008. I'm a neurogeneticist by training, so I felt competent to take this manuscript on as academic editor. The manuscript stated that they had found through both DNA analysis and carbon dating that not only were the remains of St. Birgitta most likely not from the relevant time period, but that the remains stored with her, once thought to be her daughter, could not possibly have been from any of her relatives, let alone her daughter.Such claims, sure to stir some public attention, needed a thorough peer-review process. I selected a team of four high-caliber international experts in both the field of ancient DNA analysis and radiometric dating. I also used a scheduled visit to Uppsala, where the work had been done, to meet the last and corresponding author of the manuscript, Marie Allen, and have a good look at the laboratories where the experiments had been made. Marie was the most gracious host and took a lot of time out of her busy schedule to show me around her lab and explain how professionally she had handled the relics according to the latest techniques.The review-process was a lot more bumpy and time-consuming. The reviewers all liked the way she had handled and analyzed the DNA and only had minor suggestions for improvement in this respect. The radiocarbon dating itself was also ok, but two of the reviewers brought up the "reservoir effect". This could lead to a deviation in radiocarbon dating from the correct age if the two people had been on a high-seafood diet. To measure this reservoir effect, additional Nitrogen-dating techniques had to be applied. These proved difficult and time consuming, but after more than one year, the results were finally coming in. Indeed, there had been a measurable reservoir effect for both tested skulls, albeit not to a degree that would change the main conclusions of the study. Yesterday, almost 2 years after the initial manuscript had been submitted, the paper was finally published and I think both DNA and dating measurements are as accurate as they can possibly be, given today's technology. These measurements show that it is highly unlikely that the two skulls kept as relics by the Catholic church are the ones from St. Birgitta and her daughter. Most likely, not even one of the skulls comes from the person claimed by the church.Nilsson, M., Possnert, G., Edlund, H., Budowle, B., Kjellström, A., & Allen, M. (2010). Analysis of the Putative Remains of a European Patron Saint–St. Birgitta PLoS ONE, 5 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008986... Read more »
Nilsson, M., Possnert, G., Edlund, H., Budowle, B., Kjellström, A., & Allen, M. (2010) Analysis of the Putative Remains of a European Patron Saint–St. Birgitta. PLoS ONE, 5(2). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008986
Bonobos retain juvenile traits related to tolerance and cooperation. Image: Vanessa WoodsHow many times as a kid would your parents tell you to grow up and act your age? It turns out that not acting our age may be the very reason why we're so successful as a species.
Brian Hare and colleagues have just released a video (see below) showing a bonobo juvenile voluntarily helping another individual out of their cage to share a few delicious treats. In their study, to be released March 8 in Current Biology, the Duke researchers wanted to see if bonobos would choose to share with an unrelated individual even if they didn't have to.
Bonobos have long intrigued researchers for their unusual (except for us) propensity to cooperate and share with others, a trait not found to the same degree in our common ancestor the chimpanzee. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »
Wobber, V., Wrangham, R., & Hare, B. (2010) Bonobos Exhibit Delayed Development of Social Behavior and Cognition Relative to Chimpanzees. Current Biology, 20(3), 226-230. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.11.070
Slow Food is against standardization, right? Slow Food is for diversity, right? Well, sort of. That is certainly the rhetoric, but a paper by Ariane Lotti in Agriculture and Human Values suggests that the practice can be rather different.
Lotti, who’s something of an insider, analyzes one of Slow Food’s projects in detail and comes to [...]... Read more »
Lotti, A. (2009) The commoditization of products and taste: Slow Food and the conservation of agrobiodiversity. Agriculture and Human Values, 27(1), 71-83. DOI: 10.1007/s10460-009-9213-x
As reported in the New York Times, the cover article of Nature this week describes the sequencing of a Paleo-Eskimo genome from Greenland. This is the first ancient sequence from the New World, and is important for a number of reasons: The sequence analysis was conducted from a sample of human hair that was recovered [...]... Read more »
Rasmussen, M., Li, Y., Lindgreen, S., Pedersen, J., Albrechtsen, A., Moltke, I., Metspalu, M., Metspalu, E., Kivisild, T., Gupta, R.... (2010) Ancient human genome sequence of an extinct Palaeo-Eskimo. Nature, 463(7282), 757-762. DOI: 10.1038/nature08835
Well, its Valentine’s weekend, and a good excuse to talk about animals and love. And animals in love. And humans in love with animals. And such. Of course, I can’t talk about kissing and animals without giving a shout out to Sheril and her upcoming book The Science of Kissing, and her Science of Kissing [...]... Read more »
Melson, G. (2003) Child Development and the Human-Companion Animal Bond. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(1), 31-39. DOI: 10.1177/0002764203255210
I'm studying sacrificial deposits made by people of a lo-tech culture in Sweden 3000 years ago, largely in wetlands. This was long before any word relevant to the area was written. The objects were mainly recovered during the decades to either side of 1900. Yesterday while trawling through back issues of the Journal of Wetland Archaeology I came across a really cool paper on a similar theme. It's about wetland deposits made by lo-tech people and excavated during the 20th century. But in this case the stuff was still being deposited in the 19th century AD, the objects are perfectly preserved, and the ethnic group in question is still around with an unbroken oral tradition.
People came to New Zealand only in about 1280 from Polynesia. On the islands they eventually developed Maori culture. It was one of the last areas of the planet's land mass to be colonised by people, and also one of the last to be invaded by Europeans in turn. This happened at a time when colonial genocide was no longer comme il faut, and so the Maori are in unusually good shape today for an indigenous minority.
Caroline Phillips et al.'s 2002 paper treats Maori wooden objects found in wetlands. They range from combs and small tools over pieces of canoes to ornately carved lintels for ceremonial buildings. As so often with wetland small finds, the contexts are generally very poorly documented, but there's enough archaeological, historical and ethnohistorical information to state that the deposits were made for several distinct reasons. Many finds can probably be explained by a wood-carving technique where pieces were stored in a bog behind the workshop between carving sessions in order to keep the wood soft and free from cracks. Others look more like votive deposits. And then there's a fascinating episode from the 19th century that is alluded to only very briefly in the paper.
A group of Maori built a "house of parliament"on the North Island, in the traditional style with fine carvings. A brief period of use was cut short by an influenza epidemic, which I assume would have been highly lethal to the long-isolated Maori. The survivors tore the building down, deposited the carvings and structural timbers in a bog, and declared it taboo! This suggests to me that many pieces of fine wood carving found in New Zealand bogs were not placed there to keep the wood soft and did not remain there because a wood carver happened to get killed in one of the perennial raids.
Bronze Age deposits in the Lake Mälaren area, at least the subset of objects that farmers and ditch diggers have selected for submission to museums, consist almost exclusively of bronzes. There is no known practical reason to dunk them in a fen. But still, it's fascinating to think that Maori archaeologists are in a situation relative to the prehistoric period they study that is comparable to if I had begun my research into the Bronze Age some time in the 5th century BC. I wonder if there are stone axes in those New Zealand bogs as well.
Caroline Phillips, Dilys Johns, & Harry Allen (2002). Why did Maori bury artefacts in the wetlands of pre-contact Aotearoa / New Zealand? Journal of Wetland Archaeology, 2, 39-60 Oxford.
[More blog entries about archaeology, wetlands, newzealand, maori; arkeologi, våtmark, nyazeeland, maori.] Read the comments on this post...... Read more »
Caroline Phillips, Dilys Johns, & Harry Allen. (2002) Why did Maori bury artefacts in the wetlands of pre-contact Aotearoa / New Zealand?. Journal of Wetland Archaeology, 39-60. info:other/
Some of you might remember a panel I organized, along with Chris Vasantkumar and Mattais Viktorin, at the 2008 annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association called “How Is Anthropology Going? An Inquiry into Movement, Mode and Method in the Contemporary World” (if not, you can read a bit more about it in an earlier [...]... Read more »
Guyer, J. (2010) On 'possibility': A response to 'How Is Anthropology Going?'. Anthropological Theory, 9(4), 355-370. DOI: 10.1177/1463499609358143
Nadezhda Dimitrova Savova, . (2009) Heritage Kinaesthetics: Local Constructivism and UNESCO's Intangible-Tangible Politics at a Favela Museum. Anthropological Quarterly, 82(2), 547-585. DOI: 10.1353/anq.0.0066
So, turkeys. I mentioned in an earlier post that there’s been an important new paper about turkeys published in PNAS. It’s been mentioned in two good media accounts linked by Southwestern Archaeology Today in two separate posts. Unlike most PNAS articles, this one is Open Access, so both the article itself and its supplement are [...]... Read more »
Speller, C., Kemp, B., Wyatt, S., Monroe, C., Lipe, W., Arndt, U., & Yang, D. (2010) Ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis reveals complexity of indigenous North American turkey domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0909724107
It’s snowing like crazy here in New Jersey right now. Rutgers canceled all classes today and morning classes tomorrow, so I’ve got a lot of unexpected time off. Seeing all this snow is reminding me, as always, of Navajo linguistics. Words for “snow” play a disproportionately important role in understanding the history and dialectology of [...]... Read more »
Sapir, E. (1936) Internal Linguistic Evidence Suggestive of the Northern Origin of the Navaho. American Anthropologist, 38(2), 224-235. DOI: 10.1525/aa.1936.38.2.02a00040
Turkeys have long been an important foodstuff in many parts of the world. In the U.S., not only has our post-colonial society been fueled by this fowl; historically, turkey meat, feathers, and bones have provided important uses for pre-contact Native Americans. But where did these birds come from? By examining the remains of turkeys from [...]... Read more »
Speller, C., Kemp, B., Wyatt, S., Monroe, C., Lipe, W., Arndt, U., & Yang, D. (2010) Ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis reveals complexity of indigenous North American turkey domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0909724107
There are two main kinds of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) - the ones that involve actually doing stuff, and the ones that don't.Things like herbal medicine, chiropractic, and acupuncture could plausibly make someone better, as more than just a placebo, given what we know about physics and chemistry, because they involve physically acting on the body. I don't claim to know whether they do in fact work, but in theory, they could.Other CAM techniques, however, are just magic. Homeopathy is the best example of this: it cannot work, except as a placebo, unless our understanding of nature is fundamentally wrong. The "active ingredient" in a homeopathic remedy is diluted in water to the point where not a single molecule of it remains (and then diluted more, for good measure). If some mystical "essence" or "energy" can somehow survive in water despite dilution then, logically, all water must contain the essence of pretty much everything. It literally involves nothing beyond sugar pills and waterBut there's one useful thing about homeopathy: it shines a light on the rest of modern medical science, or rather, it holds up a mirror to it. Unfortunately, the reflection is not as pretty as you'd hope.These two graphs come from a paper by Shang et al, Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects?, which was a major meta-analysis of 110 randomized, placebo-controlled trials (RCTs) of homeopathy. It was published in The Lancet in 2005.Shang et al 2005 was bad news for homeopathy, because it concluded that "[the meta-analysis] is compatible with the notion that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are placebo effects." - i.e., homeopathy doesn't work. Since its publication the paper has been hotly criticized by homeopaths, and defended by skeptics, with the skeptics generally being right. But it was bad news for conventional medicine too.These two graphs are funnel plots. Each dot represents a published RCT. Dots to the left of the vertical line are trials where the 'active treatment' did better than the placebo control; the further left, the better. The higher up the dot is, the more "precise" the results of the trial, i.e. the less variability there was in the results. They may not look like much, but they're terrifying.The top funnel plot shows the 110 published RCTs of homeopathy for various illnesses. The bottom one shows 110 RCTs of "proper" medical treatments, for the same diseases, that Shang et al picked out as comparisons. You'll notice that the two plots look rather similar - there's a lot of spread, but most of the dots are to the left of the vertical line, meaning that the treatments were better than the placebos. Quite a lot are very far to the left, meaning the treatment worked really well. Very few are on the right.But homeopathic treatments, by definition, are placebos - they're literally sugar pills. So any trial of homeopathy should have an equal chance of finding it to be better than placebo, or worse. Placebos are placebos. It should be a coin toss, 50/50. In fact, Shang et al found only about 20 trials showing homeopathic placebos to be worse than placebo placebos, and 90 finding they were better.How can this be? Either homeopathy works, in which case we need to rewrite physics and chemistry, or there is something very wrong with the published literature. I find it easier to believe the latter. But then how could the published literature be so wrong?Almost certainly the answer is publication bias, broadly speaking. If people do a trial and don't get the result they want, they generally either don't write it up for publication; or if they try to, it doesn't get published. Related to this is selective outcome bias: they pick out and write up only those results that do match what they wanted; or they pick out statistical techniques to get the result they wanted, etc.The plot for homeopathy RCTs is what you get when people study a treatment that doesn't work, but that they believe does work, and publish their findings in a biased way. But the plot for "real" medicines looks disturbingly like that.In other words, the whole clinical trial literature - all of those RCTs and meta-analyses, published in respectable journals, the ones we rely on to determine what treatment decisions doctors make - could be produced even if all of our treatments were no better than placebos. Like I said, terrifying.I should stress that this doesn't mean that real medicines are no better than placebos. Shang et al's results are also what you'd see if there's no publication bias in conventional medicine, and the treatments work really well. (The evidence for positive effects in the "real medicine" trials was also somewhat stronger than in the homeopathy trials - the dots were further left - which is reassuring, but the difference was pretty small.) The problem though is that we can't tell - at least not on the basis of the clinical trial literature.Luckily, there's an answer - mandatory registration of clinical trials. Medical journals or, ideally, governments, can require researchers to publicly announce the details of each trial, and how they plan to analyze the results, before the trial takes place, and require that the final results are made public. The USA has had such a system in place, backed by law, since 2007, and most major medical journals now demand registration.Sadly, biases still seem to be happening in registered trials. But this doesn't mean the system doesn't work, it just means it should be more strictly enforced, and extended to other countries and, I'd argue, beyond just clinical trials. Either that, or we might as well take up homeopathy.... Read more »
Shang, A., Huwiler-Müntener, K., Nartey, L., Jüni, P., Dörig, S., Sterne, J., Pewsner, D., & Egger, M. (2005) Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy. The Lancet, 366(9487), 726-732. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(05)67177-2
It is a long-standing argument among religious believers that religiosity were necessary for morality. In a recent Trends in Cognitive Sciences article (requires subscription), Pyysiäinen and Hauser argue that morality can arise and indeed can be found without and before any religious education and thus religion is a by-product of pre-existing cognitive properties of the brain. Indeed, religion is not ubiquitous, as for instance the Hadza's religion has been described as 'minimal', and yet, cooperation and morality are - as in all human cultures - thriving. In fact, there is a clear negative correlation between socioeconomic status and supernatural beliefs, further arguing that religiosity is not really all that important for morality to evolve or to persist. Pyysiäinen and Hauser cite a series of studies in moral psychology showing that moral judgments for unfamiliar moral dilemmas are unaffected in individuals without any religious background. In their press release, the authors conclude: "This supports the theory that religion did not originally emerge as a biological adaptation for cooperation, but evolved as a separate by-product of pre-existing cognitive functions that evolved from non-religious functions," says Dr. Pyysiäinen. "However, although it appears as if cooperation is made possible by mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion, religion can play a role in facilitating and stabilizing cooperation between groups."Perhaps this may help to explain the complex association between morality and religion. "It seems that in many cultures religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions. Although, as we discuss in our paper, this link is not a necessary one, many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence," concludes Dr. Hauser.This leaves open some other, less social cognitive factors contributing to the origin of religiosity, to which to authors allude towards the middle of their article: "[...] the concept of God is based on extending to non-embodied agents the standard capacity of attributing beliefs and desires to embodied agents. According to this view, religious beliefs are a by-product of evolved cognitive mechanisms." The authors are referring to 'theory of mind'. Besides this, still social capacity, there are several other factors contributing to the origins of religion. One such factor is of course our concept of causality and our hunt for last causes. However, the factor that is, of course, closest to my own field of research is that religion works as an operant behavior. This means that religion, for instance, can provide us with a feeling of control where, ultimately, there is none (think rain dance). This is not counter-intuitive and so I'm not the only person who has realized that this may be an important contributing cognitive factor. There is even prior evidence that when experiencing or remembering an experience of lack of control, these cognitive capacities for imagining control and order are enhanced.These insights leave us with a set of pre-existing cognitive abilities providing a fertile ground on which the evolution of religion could occur as a by-product: Our capacity to detect agency (so helpful in our social interactions that we see it even in non-living objects), together with the concept of causality imply that everything happens for a reason and that this reason is the intention of someone. This someone can be controlled using certain rituals as evidenced, for instance, by the rain occurring after a rain-dance. This someone obviously punishes you if you do not perform these rituals, so of course this someone will also punish you if you do not cooperate or otherwise violate the rules of the in-group. In this way, religion provides you with a sense of order and controllability in an uncontrollable world which, in turn, keeps you sane, your society functioning and thus competitive and alive. As one of the commenters on the press release noted, 'competitive' may be the key word here, with religion providing a further tool for promoting self-sacrifice and suicidal fighting which might have provided some particularly religious groups with a competitive advantage.Methinks it's about time for someone to develop a computer model for the evolution of religion, the data are starting to provide enough parameters for such a project.Also in reply to one of the comments on the authors' press release, a very pertinent video via Pharyngula:Ilkka Pyysiäinen, & Marc Hauser (2010). The origins of religion: evolved adaptation or by-product? Trends in Cognitive Sciences : 10.1016/j.tics.2009.12.007... Read more »
Ilkka Pyysiäinen, & Marc Hauser. (2010) The origins of religion: evolved adaptation or by-product?. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. info:/10.1016/j.tics.2009.12.007
To wrap up my notes on Social Media Week, I thought I would pursue a comment made by Meebo CEO and co-founder Seth Sternberg during the Social Graph Optimization panel. He suggested that without proper education on the use of digital tools, we would see the a growing divide between two technological classes increase: those with access to information would be at a greater advantage than those
... Read more »
Hargittai, E. (2002) Second-level digital divide: Differences in people’s online skills. First Monday, Peer-reviewed journal of the Internet, 7(4). info:/
Jung, J. (2008) Internet Connectedness and its Social Origins: An Ecological Approach to Postaccess Digital Divides. Communication Studies, 59(4), 322-339. DOI: 10.1080/10510970802467387
At today's panel, Putting the Social Back in CSR (CSR = corporate social responsibility) at the Paley Center for Media, Jamie Daves, executive director of Think Social, began the discussion by reminding the audience (and panelists) of social media's potential. Characterizing it as both dangerous and powerful, he drew upon examples where revolutions in communication methods had profound impact on
... Read more »
KAS KALBA. (2008) The Adoption of Mobile Phones in Emerging Markets: Global Diffusion and Rural Challenges. International Journal of Communication, 631-661. info:/
There's an interesting newsreport that summarizes a recent paper on the discovery, context and characteristics of three Neanderthal teeth recovered from Stajnia Cave, in southern Poland. Urbanowski et al. (2010) suggest that, on the basis of the associated fauna, which comprises mostly reindeer as well as some red deer, horses and ibex, as well as some cut-marked cave bear bones, the most likely age for these remains falls towards the end of Oxygen Isotope Stage 5, somewhere between 80-100,000BP, which doesn't contradict the results of an infinite AMS radiocarbon date of 49,000BP. The report mentions three teeth, all of which are described has displaying a majority of features usually found in Neanderthal teeth, but only one (S5000) is described in detail in the paper. The supplementary evidence provided with the paper on the Naturwissenschaften web page provides solid information on the provenience of the teeth and their association with Micoquian stone tool assemblages.This find is significant for a number of reasons, the first being that it represents the first set of hominin remains north of the Carpathians in Eastern Europe. Previously, while many Mousterian assemblages had been found in Poland, no human fossils had been associated with any of them.Second, S5000, a permanent upper second molar, shows a degree of abrasion that, when the potentially faster Neanderthal enamel formation rate is factored in, suggests an age at death estimate of ca. 20 years or maybe a tad older for this individual. What DNA they were able to collect from the sample also indicates that the individual was a male, although it was too fragmentary to definitely establish that it similar to other Neanderthal mtDNA patterns.Third, S5000 bears a "mesial interproximal groove" similar to that found on many other Neanderthal posterior teeth. The authors report that the morphology of the groove "was probably made by thin, stiff and hard objects used as toothpicks" (Urbanowski et al. 2010: 4). Long-time readers of AVRPI may remember a post I wrote on the discovery of two Neanderthal molars at Pinilla del Valle, Spain that also bore groove indicative of habitual toothpicking. Now, as I argued then, there is strong evidence that toothpicking may go back as far as 1.8 million years BP, based on the presence of a similar groove on the Omo L 894-1 RP3 specimen (Hlusko 2003). Further, and perhaps more interesting with regards to Neanderthals, Agger et al. (2004) pointed out that the reason people toothpick is that the teeth and gum are very sensitive to small irritants that get lodged between them mainly because the nerves critically important to the fine lingual control necessary for speech are located just below them. Thus, evidence of toothpicking in Neanderthals may represent circumstantial evidence of their capacity for speech.Beyond this, the study is also interesting in that it briefly mentions the presence of tools and Levallois products made on "high quality flint form the southern part of the Polish Jura" (Urbanowski et al. 2010:2), which is interesting since the cave also apparently yielded "dozens of flint nodules" collected up to 12km away from the cave. This strongly suggests that raw material stockpiling was going on at the site, and that the site was used for prolonged periods of time, as suggested also by the density of artifacts recovered. Likewise, the presence of exotic, high quality raw material reinforces what is known about Neanderthal long-distance lithic raw material procurement patterns at certain sites. Unfortunately, not enough information is presented in the paper to assess the proportional importance of this behavior. Finally, and very intriguingly, the supplementary information to the paper underscores that bone technology might have been important for the occupants of Stajnia Cave, which is rarely associated with Neanderthals."The bone artefacts are now under taphonomical study, which reinforces the preliminary impression about the great importance of bone working in the Stajnia LMP assemblage. Numerous cut-marks have been revealed along with rich traces of reindeer antler processing." Urbanowski et al. 2010: Supp. 6)Again, however, this is mentioned, with no additional provided, which forces one to take this with due caution until more thorough analyses are published. That said, both in terms of human paleontology and archaeology, this new site is yielding very important information that, it seems, will be very important in understanding Neanderthals and their behavior at the northern edge of their range.ReferencesAgger, W. A., T. L. McAndrews, and J. A. Hlaudy. 2004. On Toothpicking in Early Hominids. Current Anthropology 45:403-404.Hlusko, L. J. 2003. The Oldest Hominid Habit? Experimental Evidence for Toothpicking with Grass Stalks. Current Anthropology 44: 738-741.Urbanowski, M., Socha, P., Dąbrowski, P., Nowaczewska, W., Sadakierska-Chudy, A., Dobosz, T., Stefaniak, K., & Nadachowski, A. (2010). The first Neanderthal tooth found North of the Carpathian Mountains Naturwissenschaften DOI: 10.1007/s00114-010-0646-2... Read more »
Urbanowski, M., Socha, P., Dąbrowski, P., Nowaczewska, W., Sadakierska-Chudy, A., Dobosz, T., Stefaniak, K., & Nadachowski, A. (2010) The first Neanderthal tooth found North of the Carpathian Mountains. Naturwissenschaften. DOI: 10.1007/s00114-010-0646-2
Neuroskeptic readers will be familiar with the idea that too many people are being treated for mental illness. But not everyone agrees. Many people argue that common mental illnesses, such as depression, are undertreated. Take, for example, a paper just out in the esteemed Archives of General Psychiatry: Depression Care in the United States: Too Little for Too Few.The authors looked at the results of three large (total N=15,762) surveys designed to measure the prevalence of mental illness in American adults. I've described how these surveys are conducted before: they took a randomly selected representative sample of Americans, and asked them a standardized series of questions (the CIDI interview) about their mood and emotions, in order to try to diagnose mental illness. The interviewers, while trained, were not clinicians.What did they find? The rate of people experiencing Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), as defined in DSM-IV, in the past year, was 8.3%. When they examined ethnicity, this ranged from 6.7% in African Americans to 11.8% in Puerto Ricans. The average severity of the depression was roughly the same in all ethnic groups.Of those with MDD, 51% reported that they'd had treatment in the past year, either antidepressants, psychotherapy, or both. This ranged from 53% for Whites down to just 29% of Caribbean Blacks and 33% of Mexican Americans. Therapy was somewhat more popular than drugs in all ethnic groups, although a lot of people used both. However, few of the treatments were classed as "guideline-concordant", i.e. long enough to do any good, which they defined asuse of an antidepressant for at least 60 days with supervision by a psychiatrist, or other prescribing clinician, for at least 4 visits in the past year. For psychotherapy...having at least 4 visits to a mental health professional in the past year lasting on average for at least 30 minutes each.Only 21% of depressed people were getting such treatment, even though these strike me as very lenient guidelines, especially in the case of psychotherapy - how much good is 2 hours per year doing to do?*So depression's undertreated. Too little, for too few. But this rests on an assumption: that we should treat Major Depressive Disorder.That might not seem like an assumption, but assumptions generally don't. It seems like common sense, almost a tautology - it's a disorder, of course we should treat it! Yet it's not so simple. DSM-IV criteria for MDD require you to have 5 or more out of a list of 9 symptoms, including either depressed mood or a loss of interest in activities, lasting at least 2 weeks, and causing significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.Fair enough. That's quite useful as a way of ensuring that psychiatrists in different countries are talking about the same thing when they talk about depression. But to think that depression is undertreated because only half of people meeting DSM-IV criteria for Major Depressive Disorder are being treated, is to put absolute faith in DSM-IV as a guide to who to treat. This is not what the DSM was meant to be, and there's no evidence it works for that purpose.Is it really true that people with 5 symptoms need help, and those with 4 don't? Why not 6, or all 9? Why 2 weeks - why not 3 weeks, or 3 months? It's not as if there are loads of studies showing that treating people who have 5 symptoms for 2 weeks, and not treating people who don't, is the best strategy. I'm not aware of any such research.This is not to say that any other criteria would be better than DSM-IV as guides to treatment, or that there is anything identifiably wrong with the DSM-IV criteria (although there is evidence that antidepressants are not useful in people with relatively "mild" MDD). The point is that doctors don't strictly apply textbook criteria when diagnosing and treating mental illness; they also use clinical judgement.I don't know any psychiatrist who would prescribe treatment for someone solely on the basis that they met DSM-IV criteria for MDD. They would also want to know about the severity of the symptoms, whether they're related to any stresses or life events, how far they're "out of character" for that individual, etc. In general, they would deploy their training and experience to try to judge whether this person would benefit from treatment. This is why the DSM-IV carries a cautionary statement that "The proper use of these criteria requires specialized clinical training that provides both a body of knowledge and clinical skills."So, it's far from clear that we should be treating everyone who answers interview questions in such a way that they meet DSM-IV criteria for Major Depressive Disorder. That's an assumption.This isn't to say that everyone who needs depression treatment gets it. Sadly, there are many sufferers who would benefit from help and don't get any, or don't get it as early as they should. We need to do more to help such people. In this respect, depression is undertreated, although it's hard to know the extent of the problem. Yet it's quite possible that depression is also overtreated at the same time.H/T Thanks to The Neurocritic for drawing my attention to this paper.Gonzalez, H., Vega, W., Williams, D., Tarraf, W., West, B., & Neighbors, H. (2010). Depression Care in the United States: Too Little for Too Few Archives of General Psychiatry, 67 (1), 37-46 DOI: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.168... Read more »
Gonzalez, H., Vega, W., Williams, D., Tarraf, W., West, B., & Neighbors, H. (2010) Depression Care in the United States: Too Little for Too Few. Archives of General Psychiatry, 67(1), 37-46. DOI: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.168
The structure of online discussions are partially determined by its platform. Whether it is through blogs, BBS, chat, email and other online platforms, the depth, dynamicity, communicability, accountability, communability and the behavior of the discussions vary. As an easy example, the presence of anonymity limits the responsibility and accountability of the communicator — diluting the constructiveness of the thought into a more emotional one. Huffington Post utilizes a thumbs up/down system to establish credibility, while DailyKos lets users post there own diaries. The ability of the latter to...... Read more »
"The Barefoot Professor", a behind-the-scenes look at the new Nature paper.
Humans that had to escape from saber-toothed cats, giant hyenas, and charging mammoths did not wear Nike or Adidas sneakers. They ran barefoot, but don't feel too bad that they did not have good running shoes to help them. As suggested by a team of researchers led by Daniel Lieberman in the latest issue of Nature, habitually shoeless runners have a unique step that may be better for our feet than even the most expensive, cushioned running shoe. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »
Lieberman, D., Venkadesan, M., Werbel, W., Daoud, A., D’Andrea, S., Davis, I., Mang’Eni, R., & Pitsiladis, Y. (2010) Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature, 463(7280), 531-535. DOI: 10.1038/nature08723
Ten days ago, the Sunday Times - Britain's "newspaper of record" - recorded thatBlonde women born to be warrior princessesWomen with fair hair are more aggressive and determined to get their own way than brunettes or redheads, according to a study by the University of California... “We expected blondes to feel more entitled than other young women — this is southern California, the natural habitat of the privileged blonde,” said Aaron Sell, who led the study...Well who'da thought it. Other sources repeated the story. The problem is, it was all made up. The study in question had nothing to do with blondes, or indeed hair at all. As originally reported over at Neuroworld, Dr. Aaron Sell, the lead author, denies saying the things he is quoted as saying in the article. His response -Journalistic ethics requires, at a minimum, that you remove from this article all references to me, and to the research I and my collaborators have conducted. This article consists almost entirely of empirical claims and quotes about blonde women that Mr. Harlow fabricated, and then attributed to me. Please take the article offline immediately. Once your investigation is completed, please issue a retraction...The Times has done neither - the article's still online. According to Dr. Sell, what happened was that journalist John Harlow noticed the paper, which is about, amongst other things, physical attractiveness and anger. Harlow, whose recent output includes "Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie no more" and that incisive piece of reportage, "Sandra Bullock overtakes Streep in dash for awards glory", wrote to Sell saying that he was writing an article about blondes, and asking whether Sell's data was relevant.Sell hadn't considered hair color in his research, but he reanalyzed his data on Harlow's request. He found no association between blondness and personality, which is not surprising because it's hair we're talking about. Harlow, apparently unhappy with this, wrote the article anyway, simply making up various claims about blondes and attributing them to Sell and his paper, backed up with some fake quotes.That's what Sell says, anyway. Maybe the Times dispute it, but since they haven't responded in any way, I guess we have to assume they agree. Science blogger Satoshi Kanazawa commented that "by American standards, all British newspapers are tabloids because they don’t distinguish between what is true and what they make up. " You can see his point. But I think the problem is especially serious when it comes to science journalism.A journalist who faked an interview with a politician would be sacked on the spot - so noone would even consider doing that. Scientists, apparently, are fair game. The standard of British journalism in general may not be fantastic, but what appears on the "Science" pages is bad even by the standards of the rest, as Neuroskeptic readers know. To be fair to other journalists, Harlow's article is even worse than average. But it's not unique - a couple of years ago the Guardian ran a front-page story about autism research which was also largely made-up.*In all the excitement over the Times, though, the paper itself hasn't attracted much discussion. What Sell et al actually found was that in men, physical strength (as measured by ability to lift weights, etc.) correlates with the tendency to get angry, and feelings of entitlement. And in both men and women, perceived physical attractiveness was also correlated with angriness and entitlement. Specifically, the men and women were University of California students.What does this mean? Sell et al describe their results as empirical proof of the "recalibrational theory" of anger. This is the idea that evolution provided us with anger to make other people treat us better, because early humans who got angry reaped benefits from it -The function of anger is to orchestrate behavior in the angry individual that creates incentives in the target of the anger to recalibrate upwards the weight he or she puts on the welfare of the angry individual.In essence: we get mad when we think that someone's not giving our interests the weight they deserve. Anger signals to the offender that if they don't pay the proper respect, we'll make them sorry, so they'd better fall into line... or else.Sell et al say that the recalibrational theory predicts that people with more power to make others sorry - people with "formidability" - should get angry more easily, because their formidability means that they're likely to triumph if things came to blows (either literally or metaphorically).They further say that in men, physical strength is an important part of formidability, while in women, attractiveness is more important. While men have the muscles, women have the babies, at least if they're fertile, so having a hot (a signal of fertility according to some accounts) woman, decide not to sleep with you is the ultimate evolutionary defeat for any male who wants to propagate his DNA, which, according to evolutionary psychology, is all of us -males will tend to preempt and hence monopolize ... Read more »
BMC Biology has recently published a paper (It’s Open Access!) which explores trends in brain size in the Primates. A trend toward a larger brain is usually considered one of the “hallmarks” of the Primates, but Stephen Montgomery and his colleagues have shown that in many lineages, there is a trend towards secondarily “shrunken” brains.
The [...]... Read more »
Montgomery, S., Capellini, I., Barton, R., & Mundy, N. (2010) Reconstructing the ups and downs of primate brain evolution: implications for adaptive hypotheses and Homo floresiensis. BMC Biology, 8(1), 9. DOI: 10.1186/1741-7007-8-9
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