Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What does "Reverse Sickology" mean? This article says is all...

Life: A medical condition
(I)t seems that a new illness is invented every week, covering every potential quirk in human behaviour...Is the human condition becoming a medical condition? (snip) (I)t is estimated that 10% of US children take Ritalin to combat behaviour problems. (snip) "If you look at the American Psychiatric Association 'bible', you'll see almost every piece of human behaviour can be classified as being in some way aberrant."
Note: When I say the article "says it all" I don't necessarily mean I agree with the politics advocated in the article.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

My Neurons Saw Jesus on a Grilled Cheese Sandwich

I’m leafing through the current issue of Time while in the doctor’s office, and stumble upon an article on “Faith & Healing: A Forum.” It seems to be a moderated panel of three people discussing faith, science, and health. The “moderator” is often ridiculous. To one panelist: “(Y)ou are careful not to talk about humans as being hardwired for religion, because hardwiring implies a hardwirer, and science hasn't yet established that.” First, when humans are described as being hardwired, it generally refers to the fact that the brain consists of electrochemical neural circuits, and thus, talking about people being hardwired in no way implies a hardwirer. And second…Yet? Science hasn’t established a hardwirer “yet”? Science hasn’t established that the moon is made of green cheese, either. Not yet, at least. Anyway, one panelist, Richard Sloan, addresses “the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations,” which I just blogged on. He does it quite well, so I thought I’d mention it here.
TIME: (C)an't the tools of science (brain scans and the like) be used to teach us about the subjective experience of religion? Sloan: Let me ask you a different question. Would it be meaningful if we did a brain scan of someone before and after eating cheese? I don't understand the value of developing beautiful images, very appealing, aesthetic images of brain scans and people engaged in various religious experiences. I don't see the value any more than imaging people while eating cheese. TIME: We explore what the brain looks like in depressed people, in people struggling with memory issues ... Sloan: But why? To understand how the brain works so we can develop interventions to treat depression and to treat memory loss. And that's absolutely appropriate. Are there interventions that will come from [imaging religious experiences]? (…) (T)here's a seductive appeal about neuroscience explanations, that there must be something significant here because you can see it in the brain scan. We're infatuated with neuroscience because of the very beautiful images that we can see, but the real question is, What do those images tell us that's of any value, whether it's basic science or applied?
On an unrelated note, the magazine issue also has an article on one of my favorite authors, Donald Barthelme. Read my favorite story of his - “The School” - here. Buy an essay on the story because you’re too lazy to write 843 words (and hope your instructors are really stupid) here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Emotional Brain: Rational Brain as Right Brain: _____ Brain (answer: "Left")

The serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters in my brain have got me thinking that I'm going to start attending more to the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. One of my favorite types of psychology research is that which investigates the effectiveness of psychology research. Recent research has started to investigate what happens when an author throws in arbitrary brain information when explaining behaviors. In this study, for example, subjects were given poorly reasoned faux scientific articles to evaluate, with or without random pictures of a brain scan. In effect, both groups read the same nonsense, but one group had a picture of a brain included in the nonsense. Those who saw the picture of the brain thought the nonsense more convincing than those who didn’t. In this study, rather than using brain pictures, the authors included arbitrary brain words (“Hey, look, dopamine!”) and found a similar result, concluding:
Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people's abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation...(N)euroscience information...irrelevant to the logic of (an) explanation...had a particularly striking effect on nonexperts' judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.
What the studies indicate is that completely irrelevant brain information - words or pictures - sways people to think that an argument about behavior is better than it actually is. Which brings me to this article: Now think again: making the right decision calls for the heart as well as the head:
I once bought a pair of shoes that didn’t fit. I blame my brain. I was a victim of a dopamine rush. That pesky neurotransmitter had been primed by previous shopping highs to flood my brain with the desire to take another hit...That’s what dopamine does. It rewards successful strategies and, as soon as it finds one, it looks for more. So here’s the problem: dopamine is rational — it finds things that work and tries to do them again. But that makes you take irrational decisions.
I like the article. The article is a review of the book How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. It does a good job highlighting research that indicates how we often make irrational decisions. But, even ignoring the basic "My stupid decisions aren't my fault" premise, I have to ask: What's with the arbitrary dopamine info? In the article, the author discusses several scientific studies, none of which involve dopamine. First, the author relates the story of Eliot, reported as a case study in Eliot Demasio’s excellent book Descartes’ Error. Eliot’s issue is not about dopamine activity, though, but is instead about structural damage to the brain. All of the other studies mentioned deal with the effects of a manipulation of the social environment on decision making – none deal with dopamine. So if none of the research in the article deals with dopamine, but the author name-drops the neurotransmitter like Eminem with Carson Daly (Carson Daly? Yeah, that’ll sustain your music career), I can only assume the author is utilizing the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. The interview below, with the author of the book discussed in the "dopamine" article, is an excellent example. Seriously, did he just say, "I can feel my rational brain, my prefrontal cortex, go into overdrive..."? I'm all for metacognition. But if "thinking about thinking" leads you to the conclusion that dopamine caused you to buy shoes, you might not be thinking that well about thinking. Posted at Reverse Sickology

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Uncontrollable Desire to call Addiction a Disease is a Disease

I can’t come up with any other reason for such crappy argumentation being published in the Wall Street Journal. The urge to call addiction a disease has become an epidemic itself. Here’s GW Bush’s former director of the White House Office of National Drug Policy:
Substance abuse is a disease. Until recently, we failed to grasp the nature of this disease and how to reduce the suffering it causes… We have paid a high price for this confusion.
So how do we reduce the suffering caused by this disease?
The criminal justice system has become the most powerful force in the country supporting addiction treatment…
Aha. So it is a disease best treated through the criminal justice system. Perhaps we’ve been wasting our time trying to find a cure for cancer. Perhaps we should just make it illegal and see if that’ll solve it. I don’t accept the position that addiction is a disease, but if it were, wouldn’t it be better treated (as this article argues – thanks to Justin for the link) as a public health issue than a law and order issue? Can anyone name a single other disease that is best treated by the criminal justice system? Am I missing one? Wait, the author indeed argues addiction will start to be treated as a public health issue. He says:
Intervention is spreading in the health-care system with the prospect that screening for substance abuse will become as common as checking blood pressure for hypertension.
Excellent strategy. I say we start arresting those who test positive for high blood pressure and hypertension. Nip those problems in the bud. What might fascinate me most about this argument is that the author seems to believe readers will have no knowledge of history. Several times when talking about addictive drugs, he mentions alcohol. But when discussing the prospect of legalizing drugs, he says this:
No nation that has tried to avoid controlling supply has been able to stand by its permissive approach.
Isn’t that the *exact opposite* of what happened with alcohol? Didn’t we try to control supply, and then revert? Finally, he addresses an issue I mentioned recently – drug related violence in Mexico. He says,
Today there is terrible violence in Mexico. Those who carry out attacks do so with the intention of making us stop resisting them…Making it easier to produce and traffic drugs will strengthen, not weaken, these terrorists.
But this is nonsense. Yes, making it easier to produce and traffic *illegal* drugs will strengthen Mexican drug cartels. Give me a Celebrity Death Match between a Mexican drug cartel and an American/Internationl Pharmaceutical company, though, and my money’s on the Pharm company. If the drugs people wanted were legal, any US drug company could bitchslap a Mexican drug kingpin faster than you can say, “Let’s get it on.” Posted at Reverse Sickology