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  • January 20, 2011
  • 06:30 AM
  • 931 views

Medieval soldiers illuminate modern stunting

by Jeremy in Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

A couple of sentences in one of The Economist’s celebrated Christmas articles brought me up short. The article detailed a forensic investigation of soldiers who fell in 1491 at Towton, “perhaps the bloodiest battle ever fought in England”. The good thing about Towton is that a mass grave yielded 40 skeletons, 28 of them complete, [...]... Read more »

  • January 19, 2011
  • 06:56 PM
  • 799 views

Entomophagy: moths for dinner

by Chris Grinter in The Skeptical Moth

I have always known that in many places of the world, especially off the beaten track, caterpillars of moths and butterflies are on the menu.  From Africa to Australia there are dozens of species that might taste good enough to be reasonably edible or even delicious.  But here in the US insects rarely . . . → Read More: Entomophagy: moths for dinner... Read more »

  • January 18, 2011
  • 11:11 PM
  • 797 views

Speciation and reticulation

by zacharoo in Lawn Chair Anthropology

Hey, "all you lovers out there," which is how Marvin Berry introduced "Earth Angel" at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance back in good-olde 1955. And by "lovers" I mean "geneticists."
Poring over the recent Neandertal nuclear genome paper (Green et al. 2010) for seminars, we're struck by two contradictory ideas. On the one hand, the authors demonstrate pretty convincingly that Neandertals and the more 'anatomically modern' humans of Europe and Asia interbred. This doesn't come from genetic comparisons of Neandertal and contemporaneous human fossils, but of Neandertals with living humans traipsing modern soil. But on the other hand, the authors estimate the time of the divergence of Neandertal and living human populations.
Herein lies the rub:"Population divergence [is] defined as the point in time when two populations last exchanged genes." (Green et al. 2010: 717)Which they estimate, based on genome sequence divergence and some other assumptions, to be anywhere from ~270,000 - 440,000 years ago. But then this:"[The Out-of-Africa] model for modern human origins suggests that all present-day humans tace all their ancestry back to a small African population that expanded and replaced [Neandertals] without admixture. Our analysis of the Neandertal genome may not be compatible with this view because Neanertals are on average closer to individuals in Eurasia..." (Green et al. 2010: 721)Though they say "may not" they probably should've just said "isn't." Either way, they estimate an ancient date at which the groups in question "last exchanged genes," but also demonstrate that these populations last exchanged genes much more recently.
So what is "population divergence," then? As a wise man asked, "what does divergence mean when there is reticulation?" (I'm assuming he would prefer to go nameless) Reticulation referring not to pythons or chipmunks, but to mating between individuals in different populations. Is "divergence" not so much the last time genes were exchanged, but rather the time when the genomes began to become different?
Now that I bring it up, wouldn't it also be neat to see a fight between the reticulated python and northern reticulated chipmunk?

ReferenceGreen, R., Krause, J., Briggs, A., Maricic, T., Stenzel, U., Kircher, M., Patterson, N., Li, H., Zhai, W., Fritz, M., Hansen, N., Durand, E., Malaspinas, A., Jensen, J., Marques-Bonet, T., Alkan, C., Prufer, K., Meyer, M., Burbano, H., Good, J., Schultz, R., Aximu-Petri, A., Butthof, A., Hober, B., Hoffner, B., Siegemund, M., Weihmann, A., Nusbaum, C., Lander, E., Russ, C., Novod, N., Affourtit, J., Egholm, M., Verna, C., Rudan, P., Brajkovic, D., Kucan, Z., Gusic, I., Doronichev, V., Golovanova, L., Lalueza-Fox, C., de la Rasilla, M., Fortea, J., Rosas, A., Schmitz, R., Johnson, P., Eichler, E., Falush, D., Birney, E., Mullikin, J., Slatkin, M., Nielsen, R., Kelso, J., Lachmann, M., Reich, D., & Paabo, S. (2010). A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome Science, 328 (5979), 710-722 DOI: 10.1126/science.1188021... Read more »

Green, R., Krause, J., Briggs, A., Maricic, T., Stenzel, U., Kircher, M., Patterson, N., Li, H., Zhai, W., Fritz, M.... (2010) A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome. Science, 328(5979), 710-722. DOI: 10.1126/science.1188021  

  • January 18, 2011
  • 01:57 PM
  • 2,270 views

The Emotional Depth of a Turnip—Do Men and Women Read Emotions Differently?

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice


She was clearly upset. The disgust on her face was apparent. As was her frustration when she shook her head at the man standing numbly beside her and said, "You have the emotional depth of a turnip!" The rest of us in the subway car did our best to look busy—headphones were put on, games were played on cell phones, even the morning newspaper made a few reappearances even though it was the evening rush hour.
I have to admit that I was somewhat amused by the situation because I'd recently directed this phrase at a male friend myself, albeit in a less charged environment. The subway man's response was interesting: He appeared bewildered. And the response was eerily similar to that of the recipient of my own statement (though in fairness he accepted my diagnosis with some grace). Admittedly, I don't know the cause of this couple's argument, and I certainly don't know anything about their personalities or the nature of their relationship. Still the perceived shared response made me pause. I don't mean to imply that all men lack complex emotional responses—emotions and relationships are difficult to analyze and label in broad, social terms. Appropriate social and emotional responses are often culturally driven, and produced to various degrees dependent on personality. Nonetheless, regardless of cultural association, some people, both male and female, seem more emotionally expressive and perceptive when compared to others—is there a biological explanation for this?
Possibly. But not in the way you would think.
Emotions are a conscious experience. They're physical and we know they're happening. Even when we incorrectly identify them (e.g., saying "I'm not angry!" when in fact you're furious), we still experience them. But researchers Winkielman and Berridge (2004) have suggested that in some cases, emotional processes may be unconscious, or implicit—that is, we may feel something without being aware that we're having the feeling or behaving in a certain way. We may be influenced by subliminal stimuli. For example, research participants were exposed to several expressive faces and asked to then either pour themselves a drink or rate the drink. After viewing happy expressions, participants were more likely to drink more and pay more for their drink, especially if they were in fact thirsty (122).  Participants were asked to rate their own mood and reported no changes, which suggests no awareness about changes in mood. This consequently implies that they were swayed by subliminal messaging.
Winkielman and Berridge argue that the evolutionary purpose of emotions is to regulate appropriate responses—it helps us negotiate our networks:Basic affective reactions are widely shared by animals, including reptiles and fish, and at least in some species may not involve conscious awareness comparable to that in humans. The original function of emotion was to allow the organism to react appropriately to positive or negative events, and conscious feelings might not always have been required (2004: 122).Basic affective responses, such as liking pleasant experiences or feeling fear in threatening situations, may be hardwired into our social circuitry. These responses are controlled by subcortical structures in the brain—such as the amygdala—which carry out preconscious operations. Anencephalic infants, for example, who possess only a brainstem still demonstrate positive reactions to agreeable experiences like tasting sugar, and negative reactions to tasting bitter items.
The role the amygdala plays in emotional response is not fully understood. As discussed above, there may be some connection between the amygdala and basic affective responses. Anderson and Phelps (2000) presented a case study of a patient known as SP who suffered from lesions in the region of the amydala. In tests that asked her to identify the emotions of others, she demonstrated a diminished sensitivity to interpreting disgust and happiness: Across patients, however, damage to the amygdala is most associated with impairments in the recognition of fear. Further, SP exhibited a pattern of impairment in the evaluation of expressions other than fear that is largely consistent with her extra-amygdalar damage in the right anteromedial temporal lobe. Thus, we conservatively assert that SP's deficits in recognizing expressions of fear are associated with lesions of her amygdala (Anderson and Phelps 2000: 108).There is some belief that the amygdala in particular may play a role in our ability to learn and interpret nonverbal social communication. Both Winkielman and Berridge (2004) and Anderson and Phelps (2000) make reference to the importance for nonhuman primates to recognize social displays of fear and suggest that these responses may be based in this structure: "fearful facial expressions may be important for learning to fear previously neutral environmental stimuli" (Anderson and Phelps 2000: 111).
However, I'm going to work with the assumption that both the subway man and my clueless friend have fully functional amydaloid regions. It's possible that there is a gender difference when it comes to emotional understanding and response. A recent article from Hoffman and colleagues (2010) reports that women are better at interpreting subtle emotional clues. When asked to appropriately label facially expressed emotions, women were significantly better at picking up on low intensity emotional cues, so a glance or a movement may be significant to woman in a way that's very different to a man. In light of the discussion by Winkielman and Berridge, I'll venture to say that women may be more likely to respond to subliminal stimuli as well. Men appear to have trouble distinguishing anger and sadness from each other at low intensity expressions—so men aren't likely to pick up that you're upset if you're silently fuming, ladies.
The reasons for this difference isn't clear. There isn't a clear biological divide as to why women may be more perceptive than men when it comes to emotions. Certainly socialization may play a role in emotional sensitivity. But is that all there is to it? Perhaps emotional sensitivity plays a role in our evolutionary history—in hierarchical groups, it would have been beneficial to be able to read the social cues of others, particularly when they ranked higher within the group. It could have potentially saved the lives of offspring, and assured continued group membership and protection. For example, knowing when to avoid the group's matriarch or the Alpha male, could have been useful knowledge to have.
In this case, and in my own experience, these studies highlight that that there is in fact the potential for a biological and social divide in communication between the sexes that goes beyond simple socialization. Again, this is not to suggest that all men are emotional turnips or that women are all hypersensitive and savvy to emotions, but it does advocate for a bit of patience on both of our parts—particularly in public confrontations.

Referenced:... Read more »

  • January 17, 2011
  • 07:19 AM
  • 1,462 views

Vital topics forum in AA: ‘Nature and the human’

by gregdowney in Neuroanthropology

The question of ‘human nature’ is a fraught one for many anthropologists, especially those of us who pay special attention to human variation, Darwinian theory, and dynamic approaches to diversity in developmental questions.
The very concept ‘human nature’ can be the theoretical equivalent of the double-bind question, ‘So can you confirm that you no longer are a Creationist?’  Even conceding to respond to the question places us in a position where we wind up between the Scylla of the essentialist fallacy and the Charybdus of the ‘blank slate,’ the Devil of ethnocentric universalism and the deep blue sea of ascribing innate and irreducible differences to human groups.
Nevertheless, former colleague Agustín Fuentes, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, has brought together a number of prominent anthropologists to ponder the question of ‘human nature’ in a ‘Vital Topics Forum’ in the American Anthropologist (AA): ‘On Nature and the Human’ (abstract here).  As Fuentes lays out the challenge for anthropologists:
Of late, psychologists, historians, political scientists, economists, and even philosophers have been in the public eye speaking about these issues of the human; anthropological voices have been muted in comparison. I propose we take this topic by the horns and advance a new public debate about it.  (Fuentes 2010: 512)
The Forum brings together Fuentes’s thoughts with short pieces by Jonathan Marks, Tim Ingold, Robert Sussman, Patrick V. Kirch, Elizabeth M. Brumfiel, Rayna Rapp and Faye Ginsburg, Laura Nader, and Conrad P. Kottak, some heavyweights from across our field.
Unfortunately, given the illiberal policies on publication access practiced by the American Anthropological Association, the forum is behind a subscription wall, so you cannot access it without going through an academic library (unless you’re an AAA member).  I’m still grousing about the complete absence of open-access journals in our field, as I think any discussion of ‘public outreach’ given the way we’ve locked up our publications is a bit hypocritical.  So, because you likely can’t get to it, I’m going to quote liberally from the original forum and reference each author’s contributions separately.

One of the first important points that gets made by biological anthropologists Prof. Jonathan Marks (UNC – Charlotte) is that, even though the comparative inter-species perspective on human evolution is important, too-simple equations between humans and other living great apes can be misleading.  Marks argues that we have ‘evolved into biocultural ex-apes’ (2010: 513).  His point is that, as Fuentes (2010: 519) clarifies, we are not simply ‘upgraded versions of out ancestors’ but something distinctive.
I don’t think, by any stretch, the Marks is advocating the polar opposite view, that humans are so exceptional that we can essentially disregard our relations to other animals.  Rather, attempting to roll back our species’ recent biological, cultural, cognitive, and social innovations in an attempt to get to what is really ‘human nature’ is misguided.  Or, as Marks puts it (and I’ve long admired his writing stylistically):
To imagine that we are nothing but apes, and to find human nature there (e.g., de Waal 2005; Wrangham and Peterson 1996), actually constitutes a denial of evolution. We evolved; get over it. In a classic midcentury synthesis, George Gaylord Simpson explained the problem with “nothing-butism”: “Such statements are not only untrue but also vicious for they deliberately lead astray enquiry as to what man really is and so distort our whole comprehension of ourselves” (1949:283). Evolution is the production of difference and novelty, and you are not your ancestors. (Marks 2010: 513)
I recently made a similar argument in filming a documentary on sexuality that will be broadcast here in Oz on SBS, supposedly in June: if you strip away everything that makes humans distinctive in reproduction, social relations, and expression as a species, you can’t then say you’ve discovered our ‘sexual nature.’  Likewise, you can’t try to imagine a human without language, culture, learning, sophisticated intelligence, tools and the like, and then say ‘that’s human nature.  We’re nothing but bald apes!’
The thought exercise of stripping human characteristics to discover (or more likely, invent) ‘human nature’ is certain to produce some other imagined non-human species of hominids, likely a hybrid of contemporary biases, comparative guesswork, and plain stabs into the paleoanthropological dark.  Interesting for science fiction, perhaps, but not as scientific theory.  Or, as Marks himself puts it much more acerbically, ‘the quest to imagine a human condition without culture is simply the tortured dream of a hack philosophe’ (2010: 513).
This argument follows from Marks’ critique of some of the most prolific and widely cited contemporary theorists of ‘human nature,’ ones who commit what I referred to above as the ‘essentialist fallacy.’  Marks describes the contemporary trend as a paradox: individuals who believe that they are upholding the theoretical legacy of Darwin are, in fact, operating with a pre-Darwinian concept that a species has an essential and irreducible ‘nature’:
One of the most extraordinary paradoxes of modern science is the way in which a pre-Darwinian concept (deriving the essential properties of the human beast) has been transformed into a Darwinian litmus test: if you don’t believe sufficiently in the idea of human nature, then you must be a creationist (Konner 2002; Pinker 2003). But in an intellectual arena where facts are notoriously difficult to come by, one fact is certain: human nature is a politically contested turf. Anyone who pronounces on it, while simultaneously arguing that their pronouncements are disconnected from society and politics, is not to be taken seriously. (2010: 513)
Marks is collapsing together what I think are two separate and equally important critiques: the first is that arguing any species has a ‘nature’ or essential being is not consistent with the most basic of Darwinian understandings of natural selection, which assume that variation is inherent in reproduction.  To argue that ‘human nature’ is any one thing — violent, cooperative, thoughtful, credulous or whatever — may be rhetorically important but it runs afoul of the most basic invariant of ‘descent with modification’: variation.
Marks’ second critique is that the invocation of ‘human nature’ is inevitably political, an argument that I don’t wholly agree with although I would concede that statements about human nature often have a political subtext, even if the person making them may not be aware of the subtext.  Marks (2010: 513) argues that ‘the most consistent scientific invocation of human nature has been to explore, or, rather, to construct, limits to human social progress,’ that arguments asserting human nature are often conservative ‘biopolitics,’ rearguard actions to defend hereditary aristocracy, racial inequality, sexual hierarchy or other social problem as inherently, biologically irreducible.
Professor Tim Ingold, Chair in the Department of Anthropology of Aberdeen University, parses the question of ‘human nature’ into what he argues are fundamentally two different questions: ‘What is a human being? What does it mean to be human?’  The first we typically answer biologically with a discussion  of our species, but the second of which we answer existentially because our self-awareness transcends our biological reality.  In other words, Ingold is pointing out that the question of ‘human nature’ is both biological and philosophical, and one question can’t be reduced to the other.
Ingold, for reasons slightly different from Marks, suggests that some current explorations of ‘human nature’ are profoundly inconsistent with evolutionary theory although they loudly profess to be ‘evolutionary.’  As Ingold writes, the problem is as obvious as the nose on your face (although you’re likely not to notice your own nose if you’re not looking for it), but some scholars:
persist in the search for a universal architecture underwriting the capacities of the human mind while attributing the evolution of these capacities to a theory—of variation under natural selection—that only works because the individuals of a species are endlessly variable. This is not a mistake that anatomists would make. Every human being, for example, has a protuberance in the centre of the face with two holes that allow the inhalation and exhalation of air. We call it the nose. No two noses are alike: they vary among individuals and among populations.  Yet no one conversant with modern biology would attribute these variations to developmentally induced inflections of a universal nasal architecture, identically keyed in to all humans. Did not Darwin finally refute the essentialist doctrine that for every species there exists a preestablished, formal template? Yet this is precisely the doctrine to which evolution... Read more »

Fuentes, A., Marks, J., Ingold, T., Sussman, R., Kirch, P., Brumfiel, E., Rapp, R., Ginsburg, F., Nader, L., & Kottak, C. (2010) On Nature and the Human. American Anthropologist, 112(4), 512-521. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01271.x  

  • January 17, 2011
  • 12:20 AM
  • 1,257 views

Plague DNA from Late Antique Bavaria

by Michelle Ziegler in Contagions

The first plague pandemic was not recorded in Bavaria, or anywhere in the Germanic territory that I am aware of. The grave was not a typical ‘plague pit’. It was a rich grave of an adult woman and a young girl (individuals 166 and 167) from a cemetery in Aschheim, Bavaria. With no visible signs [...]... Read more »

  • January 15, 2011
  • 04:53 AM
  • 900 views

Autistic Children In The Media

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Emory University's Jennifer Sarrett offers an interesting although sadly brief analysis of the way in which autism is treated in the mass media: Trapped Children.She examines media depictions of children with autism, first in the 1960s, and then today. In those 40 years, professionals radically changed their minds about autism: in the 60s, a lot of people thought it was caused by emotionally distant refrigerator mothers; nowadays, we think it's a neural wiring disorder caused by deleted genes.Yet, she says, while theories about the causes have changed, the media's view of what autism is hasn't, and assumptions from the 60s are still around (even amongst professionals). She identifies two enduring themes:Fragmentation. The child with autism is somehow not a whole person; they are fundamentally "broken". And the family with an autistic child is emotionally shattered, too. In the 60s, the theory was that the broken family caused the autism. Nowadays, it's the other way round: having an autistic child stresses family relationships to breaking-point.Imprisonment. The child with autism is at heart "normal", but their autism has them trapped, blocked-off from the world. Bruno Bettelheim, a leading champion of the refrigerator mother theory, called his major book The Empty Fortress. Either professionals, or parents, need to "break through" the autism to contact the "real" child imprisoned by the disorder. Likewise, this real child is eager to get out, but this is very difficult: they are crying out for help. In the 60s, it was psychoanalysis that could free the child. Today, it's anything from Prozac to chelation and other quack "biomedical" cures.The problem with these kinds of articles is that you can really make up any themes you want, and find examples to fit. That doesn't mean it's a pointless exercise, it just means that the examples can't prove the analysis right. You need to ask yourself: does this, in general, ring true?I think Sarrett's analysis does ring true, especially the theme of imprisonment, which is almost never made explicit, but it seems to lurk in the background of a lot of modern thought about autism. The autistic isn't really autistic. Their autism is something external - if only we could reach the normal child underneath! Every attempt to "cure" or "rescue" the autistic child relies on this belief.I said that this paper is sadly brief. There's so much more to say on this topic; in particular, I think we need to compare representations of autism to those of other developmental disorders like Down's syndrome, in order to work out what's specific to autism as opposed to just general "disability" or "disorder".However, I think if you did this, you'd probably end up agreeing with the paper. I can't remember Down's syndrome being portrayed as a kind of self-fragmentation or imprisonment; this article seems quite typical.Sarrett recommends accounts by authors who have autism themselves for an alternative and more valid view of autism: people like Temple Grandin and Daniel Tammet:autistic voices can promote a much needed faithfulness and tolerance to future representations of autism and those diagnosed with autism.Although she admits that these authors only speak for a subset of those with "high-functioning" autism or Asperger's, and thatthere remains a population of people with autism who are not writing, speaking and reading, making the representations advanced by these narratives subject to questions about generalizability.Sarrett JC (2011). Trapped Children: Popular Images of Children with Autism in the 1960s and 2000s. The Journal of medical humanities PMID: 21225325... Read more »

  • January 14, 2011
  • 04:58 PM
  • 1,275 views

The inevitable rise of Amish machines

by Razib Khan in Gene Expression

About 20 years ago I lived for a year in a rural area where Amish were a common feature of country roads and farmers’ markets. My parents, being Muslims, would sometimes buy chickens from the local Amish and slaughter them according to halal. We had a relationship with a particular family. They were nice people, [...]... Read more »

Rowthorn R. (2011) Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society. PMID: 21227968  

  • January 13, 2011
  • 02:00 AM
  • 741 views

When a “home” becomes a “house”: care and caring in the flood recovery process

by SAGE Insight in SAGE Insight

From Space and Culture             As Australia has become the latest victim of severe flooding, we are mindful of the potentially devastating consequences. This article looks back to the 2007 floods in North East England, to consider the care needs that are revealed, disrupted, and produced by the dependencies and vulnerabilities associated with flood recovery. It also uses diaries [...]... Read more »

  • January 12, 2011
  • 09:45 PM
  • 1,233 views

Chimpanzee Warfare?

by Dan Bailey in Smells Like Science

The Chimpanzees who live at the Ngogo site deep within Uganda’s Kibale National Park spend their days foraging and feeding, wrestling and playing, grooming and socializing. But every 10 to 14 days a group of males gathers and moves away from the rest of the group. They form a single-file line as they walk purposefully toward the edge of their territory, eventually striking out into the territory of a neighboring group of chimpanzees. They move in atypical silence, scanning the underbrush and listening for any sign of other chimps. If they encounter a large group of neighboring chimps, and are outnumbered, they flee back to their territory. But if they come across a single chimp from a neighboring group, they attack – surrounding, beating, and jumping on the victim. Some victims are killed outright, others manage to escape, broken, bleeding, and unlikely to survive. Infants are often torn away from female chimpanzees and are killed and cannibalized.... Read more »

  • January 11, 2011
  • 02:50 PM
  • 1,103 views

Chinese Mothers, American Anxieties and the Nature of Parenting

by David Berreby in Mind Matters


Over the weekend I read Amy Chua's paean to "Chinese parents" in The Wall Street Journal with morbid fascination. What felt morbid was Chua's "Mommie Dearest" anecdote about battling with her 7-year-old because the little girl couldn't master a difficult piano piece (which involved threatening to ...Read More
... Read more »

QUINN, N. (2003) Cultural Selves. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1001(1), 145-176. DOI: 10.1196/annals.1279.010  

  • January 11, 2011
  • 12:20 PM
  • 959 views

What Was Lost in the Fire: A Conservation Memorial

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted by Reconciliation Ecology:The modern conservation movement began at dawn on December 8, 1850, above the north fork of California's San Joaquin river. Soft orange light had just begun to spill over the craggy peaks of the eastern Ahwahnee mountains causing the jagged minarets to ignite like still burning embers from the Indian campfires below. All remained still inside the wigwams of the Ahwahneechee camp. But an attuned ear would have noticed that the early morning trills of the hermit thrush were strangely absent. A disturbed silence had entered the forest, broken only by the occasional clumsy snap of twigs as if from an animal unfamiliar with its surroundings. There was also the faint smell of smoke.Suddenly, fires roared to life throughout the camp as multiple wigwams were engulfed in flame. White men quickly scattered from the light and into shadow. A party of vigilantes in the company of Major John Savage had used smouldering logs from the Indians' own campfires to set the shelters ablaze. It was a tactic that those with experience in the Indian Wars knew to inspire panic and the crucial element of surprise. Dozens of Ahwahneechee fled their burning wigwams as the fire rapidly spread to the surrounding forest. Thick plumes of smoke were bathed in the same searing glow that was now descending from the rocky peaks above."Charge, boys! Charge!!" bellowed the gravelly voice of Lieutenant Chandler. A heavy drumbeat of foot falls now joined the sound of crackling pine. Thirty men, many wearing identical red shirts and crude suspenders purchased at the mining supply depot, dashed from the surrounding bushes with their rifles. Read the rest of the post here and stay tuned for the next entry in the Primate Diaries in Exile tour.Reference:Scholl AE, & Taylor AH (2010). Fire regimes, forest change, and self-organization in an old-growth mixed-conifer forest, Yosemite National Park, USA. Ecological applications : a publication of the Ecological Society of America, 20 (2), 362-80 PMID: 20405793... Read more »

  • January 11, 2011
  • 12:20 PM
  • 832 views

What Was Lost in the Fire: A Conservation Memorial

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries in Exile

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted by Reconciliation Ecology:The modern conservation movement began at dawn on December 8, 1850, above the north fork of California's San Joaquin river. Soft orange light had just begun to spill over the craggy peaks of the eastern Ahwahnee mountains causing the jagged minarets to ignite like still burning embers from the Indian campfires below. All remained still inside the wigwams of the Ahwahneechee camp. But an attuned ear would have noticed that the early morning trills of the hermit thrush were strangely absent. A disturbed silence had entered the forest, broken only by the occasional clumsy snap of twigs as if from an animal unfamiliar with its surroundings. There was also the faint smell of smoke.Suddenly, fires roared to life throughout the camp as multiple wigwams were engulfed in flame. White men quickly scattered from the light and into shadow. A party of vigilantes in the company of Major John Savage had used smouldering logs from the Indians' own campfires to set the shelters ablaze. It was a tactic that those with experience in the Indian Wars knew to inspire panic and the crucial element of surprise. Dozens of Ahwahneechee fled their burning wigwams as the fire rapidly spread to the surrounding forest. Thick plumes of smoke were bathed in the same searing glow that was now descending from the rocky peaks above."Charge, boys! Charge!!" bellowed the gravelly voice of Lieutenant Chandler. A heavy drumbeat of foot falls now joined the sound of crackling pine. Thirty men, many wearing identical red shirts and crude suspenders purchased at the mining supply depot, dashed from the surrounding bushes with their rifles. Read the rest of the post here and stay tuned for the next entry in the Primate Diaries in Exile tour.Reference:Scholl AE, & Taylor AH (2010). Fire regimes, forest change, and self-organization in an old-growth mixed-conifer forest, Yosemite National Park, USA. Ecological applications : a publication of the Ecological Society of America, 20 (2), 362-80 PMID: 20405793... Read more »

  • January 11, 2011
  • 12:08 PM
  • 854 views

Fat Genes Make You Happy?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Does being heavier make you happier?An interesting new paper from a British/Danish collaboration uses a clever trick based on genetics to untangle the messy correlation between obesity and mental health.They had a huge (53,221) sample of people from Copenhagen, Denmark. It measured people's height and weight to calculate their BMI, and asked them some simple questions about their mood, such as "Do you often feel nervous or stressed?"Many previous studies have found that being overweight is correlated with poor mental health, or at least with unhappiness ("psychological distress"). And this was exactly what the authors found in this study, as well.Being very underweight was also correlated with distress; perhaps these were people with eating disorders or serious medical illnesses. But if you set those small number of people aside, there was a nice linear correlation between BMI and unhappiness. When they controlled for various other variables like income, age, and smoking, the effect of BMI became smaller but it was still significant.But that's just a correlation, and as we all know, "correlation doesn't imply causation". Actually, it does; something must be causing the correlation, it didn't just magically appear out of nowhere. The point is that shouldn't make simplistic assumptions about what the causal direction is.It would be easy to make these assumptions. Maybe being miserable makes you fat, due to comfort eating. Or maybe being fat makes you miserable, because overweight is considered bad in our society. Or both. Or neither. We don't know.Finding this kind of correlation and then speculating about it is where a lot of papers finish, but for these authors, it was just the start. They genotyped everyone for two different genetic variants known, from lots of earlier work, to consistently affect body weight (FTO rs9939609 and MC4R rs17782313).They confirmed that they were indeed associated with BMI; no surprise there. But here's the surprising bit: the "fat" variants of each gene were associated with less psychological distress. The effects were very modest, but then again, their effects on weight are small too (see the graph above; the effects are in terms of z scores and anything below 0.3 is considered "small".)The picture was very similar for the other gene.This allows us to narrow down the possibilities about causation. Being depressed clearly can't change your genotype. Nothing short of falling into a nuclear reactor can change your genotype. It also seems unlikely that genotype was correlated with something else which protects against depression. That's not impossible; it's the problem of population stratification, and it's a serious issue with multi-ethnic samples, but this paper only included white Danish people.So the author's conclusion is that being slightly heavier causes you to be slightly happier, even though overall, weight is strongly correlated with being less happy. This seems paradoxical, but that's what the data show.That conclusion would fall apart, though, if these genes directly effect mood, and also, separately, make you fatter. The authors argue that this is unlikely, but I wonder. Both FTO and MC4R are active in the brain: they influence weight by making you eat more. If they can affect appetite, they might also affect mood. A quick PubMed search only turns up a couple of rather speculative papers about MC4R and its possible links to mood, so there's no direct evidence for this, but we can't rule it out.But this paper is still an innovative and interesting attempt to use genetics to help get beneath the surface of complex correlations. It doesn't explain the observed correlation between BMI and unhappiness - it actually makes it more mysterious. But that's a whole lot better than just speculating about it.Lawlor DA, Harbord RM, Tybjaerg-Hansen A, Palmer TM, Zacho J, Benn M, Timpson NJ, Smith GD, & Nordestgaard BG (2011). Using genetic loci to understand the relationship between adiposity and psychological distress: a Mendelian Randomization study in the Copenhagen General Population Study of 53,221 adults. Journal of internal medicine PMID: 21210875... Read more »

  • January 10, 2011
  • 06:02 PM
  • 1,200 views

What Killed the Hominins of AL 333?

by Laelaps in Laelaps

Over 36 years since its discovery in Ethiopia’s Afar Depression, the 3.2 million year old skeleton of Lucy is still the most famous in all of paleoanthropology. Older fossil humans have been found, as have more complete remains, but none have generated the same swell of interest that has virtually turned these Australopithecus afarensis bones [...]... Read more »

Anna K. Behrensmeyer. (1978) Taphonomic and Ecologic Information from Bone Weathering. Paleobiology, 4(2), 150-162. info:/

Anna K Behrensmeyer. (2008) Paleoenvironmental context of the Pliocene A.L. 333 “First Family” hominin locality, Hadar Formation, Ethiopia. GSA Special Papers, 203-214. info:/10.1130/2008.2446(09)

Kruuk, H. (2009) Surplus killing by carnivores. Journal of Zoology, 166(2), 233-244. DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.1972.tb04087.x  

Reno, P., McCollum, M., Meindl, R., & Lovejoy, C. (2010) An enlarged postcranial sample confirms Australopithecus afarensis dimorphism was similar to modern humans. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 365(1556), 3355-3363. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0086  

  • January 10, 2011
  • 08:15 AM
  • 2,384 views

Delusions, odd and common: Living in the prodrome, part 2

by gregdowney in Neuroanthropology

Author Rachel Aviv talked at length with a number of young people who had been identified as being ‘prodromal’ for schizophrenia, experiencing periodic delusions and at risk of converting to full-blown schizophrenia, following some of the at-risk individuals for a year.  In December’s Harper’s, Aviv offered a sensitive, insightful account of their day-to-day struggles to maintain insight, recognizing which of their experiences are not real: Which way madness lies: Can psychosis be prevented? (Freely accessible pdf available here.)
Psychiatric Research by Ted Watson
Aviv’s piece was really moving and inspired this post and an earlier one. The first part (Slipping into psychosis: living in the prodrome (part 1)) provides some sense of Aviv’s interviews, especially the story of ‘Anna,’ a woman who feared that she, like her mother before her, might be losing her grasp on reality.  In addition, the earlier post covered the controversy surrounding the attempt to formalize a diagnosis in the DSM-V of ‘prodrome’ and the ethical problems created by trying to identify who is at risk of ‘going mad.’
This post is my more speculative offering, contemplating the relation of the content of delusions to the cultural context in which they occur. How do the specific details of delusions arise and how might the particularity of any one person’s delusions affect the way that a delusional individual is treated by others?  Are you mad if everyone around you talks as if they, too, were experiencing the same delusions?
Aviv’s remarkable detailed account of prodrome, especially because it’s so strongly based in sensitive biographies of living on the boundary with schizophrenia, offers an opportunity to reflect on how the specific content of delusions — not simply the fact of having delusions — might provide the sufferer with different avenues to relate with others.
This piece, however, unlike the first, comes with a pretty serious caveat that this is not my area of expertise by any stretch.  As I mentioned at the end of the other post, bloggers rush in where fools fear to tread.   Moreover, as I try to finish off this piece, news from Tucscon about the shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is provoking a much more heated discussion of the role of society in shaping the thoughts of delusional individuals. I won’t be talking about Jared Lee Loughner, the suspect apprehended at the scene where six people were killed and almost twenty others injured, in this post, but I may have to write a third piece separate from the discussion of Aviv and the people she presents.
Daniel has already begun the discussion of the recent shooting in Jared Lee Loughner – Is Mental Illness the Explanation for What He Did? Daniel’s piece comments on an article in Slate by Dr. Vaughan Bell, the writer behind the excellent blog Mind Hacks.  Bell’s Slate piece on Loughner and the attribution of mental illness to him is entitled Crazy Talk.
But I can’t help but think about prodromal delusion as Aviv’s article is so reminiscent of anthropological accounts, with sensitivity to the worldview of the subjects, in this case, individuals who are at the fraying edge of a shared reality with society around them.  As an anthropologist, I can’t help but wonder how the prodromal-schizophrenic-recovery trajectory might be influenced by different contexts, so I’ll offer some thoughts with the caution that my experience with schizophrenic individuals is severely limited.

The cross-cultural variation in schizophrenia
In 1977, anthropologist Arthur Kleinman (1977: 9) influentially called for an injection of cultural sophistication into medicine, a recognition that some cross-cultural psychiatrists took that they needed to better understand the complicated relationship between ‘disease,’ the psychological and biological problems leading to disturbance, and ‘illness,’ ‘the personal, interpersonal, and cultural reaction to disease.’
This awareness that social worlds entered into the experience of disease helped bring together cross-cultural psychology and psychological anthropology and cleared the ground for the cross-cultural analysis of schizophrenia.
In the case of schizophrenia research, López and Guarnaccia (2000) point out that cross-cultural research has tended to focus on two issues: prognosis and family emotional structure.
First, early findings from global mental health surveys like the World Health Organization’s (1979) International Pilot Study of Schizophrenia (IPSS) seemed to indicate that ‘schizophrenia in developing countries has a more favorable course than in developed countries’ (López and Guarnaccia 2000: 582).
Lin and Kleinman (1988: 555), for example, reviewed discussions by mental health practitioners and suggested that,
Concurrently, a number of psychiatrists with extensive clinical experiences in various parts of Asia and Africa have reported that the majority of psychotic patients they treated in these “Third World” countries tended to suffer from a disease process that was characterized by acute onset, fulminant but typically short clinical course, and, more often than not, complete remission…
Those who believe schizophrenic individuals are more likely to fully remit in developing countries point to a number of possible reasons (see for example Lin and Kleinman 1988: 561-563):
1) without clinical definitions of disorders, both sufferers and those around them are more likely to believe the condition is temporary whereas the expectation in industrialized societies is often that mental illness will be either chronic or even identity-defining;
2) industrialized societies demand greater individual autonomy and expose individuals to greater isolation and changing circumstances;
3) social roles exist for impaired individuals in developing economies that are not heavily stigmatized, especially in the workplace where individuals who have been institutionalized in industrialized communities can find it very difficult to reestablish employment;
4) smaller families and higher expectations on individuals in industrialized societies subjects mentally ill individuals to greater criticism and negative emotion; and
5) families are more invested in recovery of individual members who suffer psychotic symptoms and work actively to integrate the individual into social interaction.  (Paraphrasing and summary with some elaboration of Lin and Kleinman, not a direct quote.)
The idea that an individual was more likely to recover from schizophrenia if living in the developing world than in a wealthy, industrialized country is widespread in the area of public mental health, although some critics think that the prognosis is not so positive among the poor (see Cohen et al. 2007; see also Lin and Kleinman 1988 for a discussion of methodological complications).
In fact, even if the pattern found in the WHO study holds, the contrast between industrialized and developing economies is overly broad, as there are exceptions in both cases — for example, developing economies where mental illness is heavily stigmatized and industrialized countries with greater optimism about recovery (Cohen et al. 2007).
Cohen and colleagues’ (2007) review significantly complicates the picture for understanding global schizophrenia across cultures and economic status.  If this post were really to consider the global epidemiology of schizophrenia, Cohen et al.’s review would be central to asking some penetrating questions about the forces that affect the emergence and prognosis for schizophrenic individuals around the world.  But that’s a different post…
The second area of concentration in cross-cultural research is that a number of researchers have explored whether emotional expression and interaction patterns in the family increase the chances of a relapse when schizophrenic patients return home. This research explores whether inter-ethnic differences in households may affect patient susceptibility to relapse (see Weisman 1997).
I’ll come back to this point in a bit, but the basic discussion revolves around the observation that the small nuclear family residence structure in many industrialized countries can place extraordinary burdens on immediate family members to care for schizophrenic kin. The resulting friction, especially combined with an individualized, medicalized understanding of the origins of schizophrenia, can produce resentment, criticism, fa... Read more »

Bauer, S., Schanda, H., Karakula, H., Olajossy-Hilkesberger, L., Rudaleviciene, P., Okribelashvili, N., Chaudhry, H., Idemudia, S., Gscheider, S., & Ritter, K. (2010) Culture and the prevalence of hallucinations in schizophrenia. Comprehensive Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1016/j.comppsych.2010.06.008  

Corcoran, C., Davidson, L., Sills-Shahar, R., Nickou, C., Malaspina, D., Miller, T., & McGlashan, T. (2003) A Qualitative Research Study of the Evolution of Symptoms in Individuals Identified as Prodromal to Psychosis. Psychiatric Quarterly, 74(4), 313-332. DOI: 10.1023/A:1026083309607  

Koenig HG. (2009) Research on religion, spirituality, and mental health: a review. Canadian journal of psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatrie, 54(5), 283-91. PMID: 19497160  

Roth, T., Lubin, F., Sodhi, M., & Kleinman, J. (2009) Epigenetic mechanisms in schizophrenia. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - General Subjects, 1790(9), 869-877. DOI: 10.1016/j.bbagen.2009.06.009  

  • January 10, 2011
  • 08:15 AM
  • 1,604 views

Delusions, odd and common: Living in the prodrome, part 2

by Daniel Lende in Neuroanthropology PLoS

Author Rachel Aviv talked at length with a number of young people who had been identified as being ‘prodromal’ for schizophrenia, experiencing periodic delusions and at risk of converting to full-blown schizophrenia, following some of the at-risk individuals for a year.  In December’s Harper’s, Aviv offered a sensitive, insightful account of their day-to-day struggles to maintain insight, recognizing which of their experiences are not real: Which way madness lies: Can psychosis be prevented? (Freely accessible pdf available here.)
Psychiatric Research by Ted Watson
Aviv’s piece was really moving and inspired this post and an earlier one. The first part (Slipping into psychosis: living in the prodrome (part 1)) provides some sense of Aviv’s interviews, especially the story of ‘Anna,’ a woman who feared that she, like her mother before her, might be losing her grasp on reality.  In addition, the earlier post covered the controversy surrounding the attempt to formalize a diagnosis in the DSM-V of ‘prodrome’ and the ethical problems created by trying to identify who is at risk of ‘going mad.’
This post is my more speculative offering, contemplating the relation of the content of delusions to the cultural context in which they occur. How do the specific details of delusions arise and how might the particularity of any one person’s delusions affect the way that a delusional individual is treated by others?  Are you mad if everyone around you talks as if they, too, were experiencing the same delusions?
Aviv’s remarkable detailed account of prodrome, especially because it’s so strongly based in sensitive biographies of living on the boundary with schizophrenia, offers an opportunity to reflect on how the specific content of delusions — not simply the fact of having delusions — might provide the sufferer with different avenues to relate with others.
This piece, however, unlike the first, comes with a pretty serious caveat that this is not my area of expertise by any stretch.  As I mentioned at the end of the other post, bloggers rush in where fools fear to tread.   Moreover, as I try to finish off this piece, news from Tucscon about the shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is provoking a much more heated discussion of the role of society in shaping the thoughts of delusional individuals. I won’t be talking about Jared Lee Loughner, the suspect apprehended at the scene where six people were killed and almost twenty others injured, in this post, but I may have to write a third piece separate from the discussion of Aviv and the people she presents.
Daniel has already begun the discussion of the recent shooting in Jared Lee Loughner – Is Mental Illness the Explanation for What He Did? Daniel’s piece comments on an article in Slate by Dr. Vaughan Bell, the writer behind the excellent blog Mind Hacks.  Bell’s Slate piece on Loughner and the attribution of mental illness to him is entitled Crazy Talk.
But I can’t help but think about prodromal delusion as Aviv’s article is so reminiscent of anthropological accounts, with sensitivity to the worldview of the subjects, in this case, individuals who are at the fraying edge of a shared reality with society around them.  As an anthropologist, I can’t help but wonder how the prodromal-schizophrenic-recovery trajectory might be influenced by different contexts, so I’ll offer some thoughts with the caution that my experience with schizophrenic individuals is severely limited.

The cross-cultural variation in schizophrenia
In 1977, anthropologist Arthur Kleinman (1977: 9) influentially called for an injection of cultural sophistication into medicine, a recognition that some cross-cultural psychiatrists took that they needed to better understand the complicated relationship between ‘disease,’ the psychological and biological problems leading to disturbance, and ‘illness,’ ‘the personal, interpersonal, and cultural reaction to disease.’
This awareness that social worlds entered into the experience of disease helped bring together cross-cultural psychology and psychological anthropology and cleared the ground for the cross-cultural analysis of schizophrenia.
In the case of schizophrenia research, López and Guarnaccia (2000) point out that cross-cultural research has tended to focus on two issues: prognosis and family emotional structure.
First, early findings from global mental health surveys like the World Health Organization’s (1979) International Pilot Study of Schizophrenia (IPSS) seemed to indicate that ‘schizophrenia in developing countries has a more favorable course than in developed countries’ (López and Guarnaccia 2000: 582).
Lin and Kleinman (1988: 555), for example, reviewed discussions by mental health practitioners and suggested that,
Concurrently, a number of psychiatrists with extensive clinical experiences in various parts of Asia and Africa have reported that the majority of psychotic patients they treated in these “Third World” countries tended to suffer from a disease process that was characterized by acute onset, fulminant but typically short clinical course, and, more often than not, complete remission…
Those who believe schizophrenic individuals are more likely to fully remit in developing countries point to a number of possible reasons (see for example Lin and Kleinman 1988: 561-563):
1) without clinical definitions of disorders, both sufferers and those around them are more likely to believe the condition is temporary whereas the expectation in industrialized societies is often that mental illness will be either chronic or even identity-defining;
2) industrialized societies demand greater individual autonomy and expose individuals to greater isolation and changing circumstances;
3) social roles exist for impaired individuals in developing economies that are not heavily stigmatized, especially in the workplace where individuals who have been institutionalized in industrialized communities can find it very difficult to reestablish employment;
4) smaller families and higher expectations on individuals in industrialized societies subjects mentally ill individuals to greater criticism and negative emotion; and
5) families are more invested in recovery of individual members who suffer psychotic symptoms and work actively to integrate the individual into social interaction.  (Paraphrasing and summary with some elaboration of Lin and Kleinman, not a direct quote.)
The idea that an individual was more likely to recover from schizophrenia if living in the developing world than in a wealthy, industrialized country is widespread in the area of public mental health, although some critics think that the prognosis is not so positive among the poor (see Cohen et al. 2007; see also Lin and Kleinman 1988 for a discussion of methodological complications).
In fact, even if the pattern found in the WHO study holds, the contrast between industrialized and developing economies is overly broad, as there are exceptions in both cases — for example, developing economies where mental illness is heavily stigmatized and industrialized countries with greater optimism about recovery (Cohen et al. 2007).
Cohen and colleagues’ (2007) review significantly complicates the picture for understanding global schizophrenia across cultures and economic status.  If this post were really to consider the global epidemiology of schizophrenia, Cohen et al.’s review would be central to asking some penetrating questions about the forces that affect the emergence and prognosis for schizophrenic individuals around the world.  But that’s a different post…
The second area of concentration in cross-cultural research is that a number of researchers have explored whether emotional expression and interaction patterns in the family increase the chances of a relapse when schizophrenic patients return home. This research explores whether inter-ethnic differences in households may affect patient susceptibility to relapse (see Weisman 1997).
I’ll come back to this point in a bit, but the basic discussion revolves around the observation that the small nuclear family residence structure in many industrialized countries can place extraordinary burdens on immediate family members to care for schizophrenic kin. The resulting friction, especially combined with an individualized, medicalized understanding of the origins of schizophrenia, can produce resentment, criticism, fa... Read more »

Bauer, S., Schanda, H., Karakula, H., Olajossy-Hilkesberger, L., Rudaleviciene, P., Okribelashvili, N., Chaudhry, H., Idemudia, S., Gscheider, S., & Ritter, K. (2010) Culture and the prevalence of hallucinations in schizophrenia. Comprehensive Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1016/j.comppsych.2010.06.008  

Corcoran, C., Davidson, L., Sills-Shahar, R., Nickou, C., Malaspina, D., Miller, T., & McGlashan, T. (2003) A Qualitative Research Study of the Evolution of Symptoms in Individuals Identified as Prodromal to Psychosis. Psychiatric Quarterly, 74(4), 313-332. DOI: 10.1023/A:1026083309607  

Koenig HG. (2009) Research on religion, spirituality, and mental health: a review. Canadian journal of psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatrie, 54(5), 283-91. PMID: 19497160  

Roth, T., Lubin, F., Sodhi, M., & Kleinman, J. (2009) Epigenetic mechanisms in schizophrenia. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - General Subjects, 1790(9), 869-877. DOI: 10.1016/j.bbagen.2009.06.009  

  • January 7, 2011
  • 10:50 AM
  • 863 views

Guest post: sex-differential use of the same objects versus sex-differences in object preference

by Kate Clancy in Context & Variation

This is a response to the Kaylenberg and Wrangham 2010 paper on stick-carrying chimpanzees.... Read more »

  • January 7, 2011
  • 02:13 AM
  • 851 views

Human Tears Are Not Sexy

by zacharoo in Lawn Chair Anthropology


Let's have a mature, adult conversation for a moment. I understand that there are lots of things in the world that turn people on in a sensual sort of way. People get aroused by the strangest things, stuff that when you hear about it you think you're being lied to. But women's teardrops are not such a fetish, at least not among the men in a recent study.
Shani Gelstein and colleagues report in the journal Science that human tears not only fail to arouse male test subjects, but the smell of tears actually decreases arousal. The researchers had men sniff two womens' "negative-emotion-related" tears, which were induced by having the women watch sad movies all alone :(
Apparently, most men will think a woman in a picture is less hott (see Tanya Harding, right), when he has just smelled the human female tears that soak the cloth taped to his lip. Having now considered it, I suppose having tears taped under my nose would probably not be an expeditious way to arouse me, either. I shudder at the thought of the man who finds a vial of tears the choice aphrodisiac.
What's more, when the male test subjects smelled plain, unadultered saline solution (as a control) they were less likely to think, "Buzz, your girlfriend - wuff!' but were more amenable think damngrrrl. Testosterone levels also declined after tear treatment, as did sex-related brain activity. Which I figure is synonymous with death for a man. Apparently human female tears send a chemical signal that males receive and it keeps their minds from contemplating ribald grabassery.
So why do humans cry when we get sad? Are tears mere spandrels in the sense of Gould and Lewontin (1979), or do they serve some adaptive purpose for us? I figured it was so other people could more easily detect if we were upset and thereby take advantage of our weakness. But Gelstein and her crew of tear harvesters make a pretty compelling case for some kind of chemical signal. After all, the men never saw pictures of women crying - the women just stared off plain-faced - what differed was males' olfactory exposure to the salty milk of female sadness.
Another question they raise is an interesting one - do all tears make people find others sexually unappetizing? Would women react the same way to man-tears, how would children react to their grandparents' tears? Or what about our tears from crying because of the 'e pluribus anus' flag on Community? Is sexual de-arousal even the selected purpose of tears in the first place?
Needless to say, I'm concerned about our tears. But I'm not gonna cry about it, because it might make women not see me as hott.ReferencesGelstein S, Yeshurun Y, Rozenkrantz L, Shushan S, Frumin I, Roth Y, Sobel N. 2011. Human tears contain a chemosignal. Science, in press. doi: 10.1126/science.1198331
Gould, S., & Lewontin, R. (1979). The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 205 (1161), 581-598 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.1979.0086... Read more »

  • January 5, 2011
  • 06:37 PM
  • 2,439 views

Slipping into psychosis: living in the prodrome (part 1)

by gregdowney in Neuroanthropology

How might it feel to sense your own sanity eroding? Would you realize it? How might you sift the phantoms from physical reality, daydream from delusion, the irrefutable from the implausible? Or, as author Rachel Aviv puts it,
When does a strong idea take on a pathological flavor? How does a metaphysical crisis morph into a medical one? At what point does our interpretation of the world become so fixed that it no longer matters “what almost everyone else believes” [part of the definition of ‘delusion’ in the DSM]? Even William James admitted that he struggled to distinguish a schizophrenic break from a mystical experience. (Aviv 2010: 37)
Aviv wrote in the December issue of Harper’s Magazine: Which way madness lies: Can psychosis be prevented? As Aviv told me in an email, the story arose, in part, out of following young patients at clinics who might be in the prodrome to psychosis, the early stages of experiencing intermittent breaks from shared reality that might lead up to schizophrenia.  Based on interviews with patients and clinicians, Aviv explores how both seek to cope with the warning signs that someone may be sliding toward a definitive break, or ‘conversion’ as it is termed in psychiatry, bolstering the individual’s sense of self and reality against corrosion.
The piece is a powerful, troubling, and thought-provoking read.  Aviv explains:
It is impossible to predict the precise moment when a person has embarked on a path toward madness, since there is no quantifiable point at which healthy thoughts become insane. It is only in retrospect that the prelude to psychosis can be diagnosed with certainty.  (36)
What I particularly appreciate about Aviv’s account is that she writes extensively about the nature of the delusions themselves, about the flow of delusional ideas, their relation to the collapse of a clear sense of self, and the challenges facing an individual who begins to feel the implausible welling up in everyday reality.  She writes that much of psychiatry has tried to get around the specificities of the delusions — Who’s putting thoughts in your head?  How are you being watched?  What sort of ghosts or angels or aliens are following you?
Patients and some clinicians alike have a vested interest in discrediting the content of delusions, dismissing the ideas as errant chemicals or glitches in brain function.  But as Aviv so clearly demonstrates, the specificities of the delusions are both what the patients struggle with daily and the source of the leverage that some of them find to fight off further drift into idiosyncratic worlds.  The delusions matter, both because patients search in them for signs of their truth or unreality, but also because the details of the delusion, not just the fact of having them, arise from our shared reality.
As Aaron (not his real name) told Aviv: ‘What happens if there’s some truth to your delusion? What if it is tied to reality?… They don’t want you to come up with mythical explanations. So they keep telling you over and over again that it’s just your brain’ (44).  This will be part one of a two-part post, the first of which will explore Aviv’s writing and the controversy around prodrome; the second post will follow by tomorrow and talk about the anthropological study of schizophrenia and my own thoughts on the how the content of delusion might affect the experience of psychosis.

Rachel Aviv’s work on prodrome
Rachel Aviv has won a number of awards for writing about mental health, but in 2010 she secured a Writers’ Award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation.  Aviv used the support to follow young people who had been identified as in danger of schizophrenia at a Maine psychiatric clinic and at a specialized clinic in upper Manhattan.  As she explained on the Rona Jaffe Foundation webpage, ‘I am drawn to [the Maine] clinic because it offers a rare glimpse into a community of adolescents self-consciously struggling to maintain their grasp on reality.’
Aviv, out of the blue, sent me her wonderful article in Harper’s Magazine: Which way madness lies: Can psychosis be prevented? (appeared in the December 2010 issue).  Consider it my belated Christmas present to all of you to recommend that you should go read Rachel’s powerful piece, available through Harper’s online archive.  The only reason I haven’t posted something on it sooner is that I wanted to do Ms. Aviv’s piece justice, and it’s taken me longer to do it than I like.
According to Aviv, sixty clinics around the US work on early psychosis, about a third of which focus exclusively on people in the prodrome of psychosis.  The prodrome is:
the aura that precedes a psychotic break by up to two or three years. During this phase, people often have mild hallucinations—they might spot a nonexistent cat out of the corner of their eye or hear their name in the sound of the wind—yet they doubt that these sensations are real. They still have “insight”—a pivotal word in psychiatric literature, indicating that a patient can recognize an altered worldview as a sign of illness, not a revelation.  (36)
In other words, mild (or not so mild) hallucinations alone are not the specific problem with psychosis, but the failure of what we might call the ability to recover the normal, the ‘insight’ to realize that something was a hallucination. Other symptoms seem to precede the onset of serious psychosis — conversion — and demonstrate a process of degeneration.
More recent studies have shown that in the years before people have a psychotic break, they struggle to identify tastes and smells—a banana no longer tastes like a banana, or fresh water begins to carry the odor of mold—and they lose gray-matter volume in certain parts of their brains, particularly the hippocampus, which is crucial for learning and memory.  (38)
In another study, researchers found that subjects with a tendency toward psychosis could discern words in recordings of multiple voices intentionally overlaid so as to make it impossible under normal conditions to understand what was being said.  Normal subjects could not perceive anything.
Part of the loss of reality then was an over-projection of meaning and exaggerated concentration on some aspect of reality that most of us, by consensus, choose to ignore (I’ll come back to this because of course, the consensus is not everywhere the same).
Rachel tells Anna’s story
One thing Aviv brings to the piece in Harper’s is a non-judgmental gentleness and generosity to people who are clearly experiencing the fragility of their own grasp of reality. Aviv tells the story of ‘Anna’ (not her real name), a young woman who had grown up with a schizophrenic mother and lived in fear of following her mother into madness.
Although Anna struggles to communicate her profoundly alien sensations — she described in her personal journal, written while first experiencing troubling thoughts, feeling ‘migrating electrical sensations’ and the sense that ‘words were alive’ (Aviv 2010: 37) — together, Anna and Rachel produce a moving description of the edge of our shared reality. I emphasize this because I don’t want to underestimate the skill of either Aviv or the people she interviewed in piecing together compelling accounts of unusual realities.  As an anthropologist, I very much appreciate the skill of the translator, making another world comprehensible and yet preserving its distinctiveness.
I’m going to take the liberty of piecing together from a number of places in the article a version of the story of Anna because I think it captures with profound sensitivity the fragility of her reality.  Aviv’s (2010) telling of the story is excellent, and I don’t think I can do it justice in paraphrase.
I met Anna last year at her Illinois home, a small, brightly painted town-house apartment, and she tried to pinpoint when she had stopped believing in the reality she’d contentedly inhabited all her life. A petite twenty-eight-year-old with cleanly parted blond hair, she spoke in a thin, strained voice and avoided looking at me. My lips, she said, appeared as if they were moving at a different pace than my voice, and she had to bat away the thought that she was watching a dubbed film.
Anna’s mother is schizophrenic, and Anna had always found her mother’s world-view—derived in part from messages she deciphered in processed-food packaging—distasteful and impossible to comprehend. She assumed that when her mother had a schizophrenic break, the delusions had taken her by force, engulfing her. But an alternate reality did not come to Anna fully formed….
One day, wandering the halls of an academic department, she became fascinated by the physical details of the building: tiny cracks in the wall, a light swit... Read more »

Addington, J., Cadenhead, K., Cannon, T., Cornblatt, B., McGlashan, T., Perkins, D., Seidman, L., Tsuang, M., Walker, E., Woods, S.... (2007) North American Prodrome Longitudinal Study: A Collaborative Multisite Approach to Prodromal Schizophrenia Research. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 33(3), 665-672. DOI: 10.1093/schbul/sbl075  

Corcoran, C., Davidson, L., Sills-Shahar, R., Nickou, C., Malaspina, D., Miller, T., & McGlashan, T. (2003) A Qualitative Research Study of the Evolution of Symptoms in Individuals Identified as Prodromal to Psychosis. Psychiatric Quarterly, 74(4), 313-332. DOI: 10.1023/A:1026083309607  

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