General Psychology

Lives in the Asylum

Committed: Stories About Stays in Psychiatric Facilities.

A collection of four stories gathered on the Longreads blog site.

1. "Something More Wrong" (Katherine B. Olson, The Big Roundtable, July 2013)

2. "Mentally Unfit" (Zachary McDermott, Gawker, April 2014)

3. "My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward." (Mark Luckach, Pacific Standard, January 2015)

4. "Mr Bad Weekend" (Alan Hanson, Matter, January 2015)

Chomsky and Developmental Language

Prof. Dorothy Bishop, the eminent UK/Oxford professor of developmental neuropsychology, researcher on children's language disorders, and one of the most astute social media authors in science that I know of, has posted a great set of comments on the difficulty that Noam Chomsky seems to have with understanding (or even knowing the current research regarding) the development of language by children. It can be found on her weblog at l found it terrific.

Her weblog:
Her Twitter feed: (@deevybee)

RIP George A. Miller

George Miller APA 2003
Online sources are announcing that Prof. George A. Miller, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University, died yesterday, July 22, 2012, at the age of 92. Previously on the faculty of Harvard University from which he received his doctorate in 1946, Miller co-founded the seminal Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard with Jerome Bruner in 1960. Undergraduate students have almost always been introduced to Miller's work via his famous 1956 lecture, "The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information," published in the Psychological Review. In Toronto in 2003, he received the APA's highest honor, the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement in Psychology Award. I took the photo on the right at the ceremony bestowing the award on Miller. At the time of his award, the American Psychological Association noted that Miller was a pioneer in psycholinguistics as an independent research area, had contributed fundamental ideas to the study of language and cognition, and had established the Princeton Cognitive Science Laboratory in 1986 as well as served as the principal investigator in developing WordNet, an online lexical database of English at Princeton (APA Monitor in Psychology, February, 2003, p. 65). Miller himself served as the president of APA in 1969.

Determining Scientific Truth Online

There is a wonderful posting on Lifehacker with the title "How To Determine If A Controversial Statement is Scientifically True". I sure wish that more people would develop their critical thinking skills by following this sort of advice. The entry has been put together by consulting with Phil Plait, Ph.D. (author of The Bad Astronomer blog) and David McRaney (author of the blog You Are Not So Smart). They offer a multi-step approach including
  • Learning to avoid confirmation bias
  • Using Google, Snopes and other sites as a first line of defense
  • Searching public journals and contacting science advocates
  • And, finally, visiting your local library and consulting both librarians and reference materials there.
All of these steps, they emphasize, have to be carried out with a sharpened sense of critical thinking.

What Happened to the Girls in Le Roy?

Story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (registration required) about the eruption of tics, writhing, and other manifestations of what might be conversion hysteria in a modern context. The article by Susan Domus begins:

"Before the media vans took over Main Street, before the environmental testers came to dig at the soil, before the doctor came to take blood, before strangers started knocking on doors and asking question after question, Katie Krautwurst, a high-school cheerleader from Le Roy, N.Y., woke up from a nap. Instantly, she knew something was wrong. Her chin was jutting forward uncontrollably and her face was contracting into spasms.

She was still twitching a few weeks later when her best friend, Thera Sanchez, captain of one of the school's cheerleading squads, awoke from a nap stuttering and then later started twitching, her arms flailing and head jerking. Two weeks after that, Lydia Parker, also a senior, erupted in tics and arm swings and hums. Then word got around that Chelsey Dumars, another cheerleader, who recently moved to town, was making the same strange noises, the same strange movements, leaving school early on the days she could make it to class at all. The numbers grew--12, then 16, then 18, in a school of 600--and as they swelled, the ranks of the sufferers came to include a wider swath of the Le Roy high-school hierarchy: girls who weren't cheerleaders, girls who kept to themselves and had studs in their lips. There was even one boy and an older woman, age 36…"
A fascinating story well worth a look….

Blog & News Media Roundup (April 2-9, 2009)

Here are some entries online from the blogs and other news media which caught my attention this past week.

New York Times
  • Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory • Benedict Carey • 2009045 • “Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain. Could make you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, even a bad habit. Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.“
  • When All You Have Left Is Your Pride • Benedict Carey • 20090406 • “Keeping up appearances, psychologists say, is about much more than appearance...”
  • A Life’s Journey in Neuroscience • 20090401 • “New Scientist has an excellent cover article on 'The five ages of the brain', looking at how the brain changes as we grow and how these transformations are reflected in our lives. It breaks the life span down into 'five ages', with a short article for each - tackling gestation, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age.”
  • Solitary Confinement • 20090403 • “The New Yorker magazine has just published an important article questioning whether the widespread use of solitary confinement in the US prison system should be outlawed as a form of torture. It's an in-depth piece that piece that looks at numerous cases of people who have experienced solitary confinement first hand, either as hostages or legitimate prisoners, and discusses the psychological impact of this extreme form of social isolation”
  • The Myth of Thomas Szasz? • 20090404 • “Psychiatrist and iconoclast Thomas Szasz takes part in a hard-hitting interview on ABC Radio National's All in the Mind where he shows that at the age of 89 he's lost none of his fire which has raged through psychiatry for almost 50 years. It's a two part interview with the second appearing next week and it's classic Szasz. He's an important thinker because he relentlessly attacks the conceptual foundations of psychiatry, the definitions which usually can't be empirically tested because they're philosophical issues - in other words, the assumptions we need to make about the world before we can start measuring anything.”
  • Imaging the transgendered brain • 20090405 • “For the first time, the brain structure of male-to-female transsexuals has been investigated in living individuals using MRI brain scans, helping to fuel the debate over the possible neural basis of gender identity.”
  • When dreams come to life • 20090408 • “But dreams can come to life and the effect is no less fantastical. In REM sleep behaviour disorder (RBD), normal sleep paralysis breaks down and sleepers act out their dreams - giving observers a remarkable insight into the dreaming mind. An article recently published in Neurology charted the range of sleep behaviours seen in people with neurological disturbances such as narcolepsy, Parkinson's disease or other types of dementia, all of which can trigger the problem.”
The Frontal Cortex
  • Stress, Poverty, Working Memory • 20090402 • “A new study has demonstrated, once again, that being poor is stressful, and that chronic stress is poison for the brain.”
  • Money Illusion • 20090403 • “This is known as the money illusion, since people appear more likely to think about money in nominal rather than real values. In other words, we forget that money is subject to inflation, and that a dollar can mean different things at different times...A new paper by a team of German neuroscientists and economists outlines the cortical anatomy underlying this profound violation of the rational agent model.”
  • Investing in the Developing Brain • 20090408 • But there has been one major payoff from our investigations of the brain: an increasing emphasis on educating young children, before they reach kindergarten. Decades of research have demonstrated that the cortex is astonishingly plastic at a young age and that many important traits and habits seem to solidify before the age of 4. (This isn't to discount the power of plasticity in the adult brain - it just takes a lot more work to make it happen.) When combined with the brilliant work of James Heckman, this research led policymakers to realize that investing in pre-K education had an incredibly high-rate of return.”
  • Do Parents Matter? • 20090409 • “Over at Mind Matters, I've got an interview with Judith Rich Harris, author of the influential and infamous The Nurture Assumption, which provocatively argued that parents aren't particularly important when it comes to determining the behavior of their children, at least outside of the home. Instead, Harris argued that the most important variable was the child's peer group.”
  • Stress and Sadness • 20090409 • “Sometimes, the human brain can seem astonishingly ill-equipped for modern life. Our Pleistocene olfactory cortex craves glucose and lipids, which makes us vulnerable to high-fructose corn syrup and Egg McMuffins. We've got an impulsive set of emotions, which makes us think subprime mortgages are a good idea. And so on. If I could only fix one design flaw, however, I'd focus on our stress response. We're stuck with a mind that reacts to the mundane mundane worries of modern life - a falling stock market, a troubled marriage, taking the SAT - with a powerful set of primal chemicals that, once upon a time, were reserved for moments of "fight or flight". In other words, we treat everything like an existential threat, which is why a multiple choice exam can leave us panicky and breathless...The problem with this blunt reaction to stress - it's too often all or nothing - is that, as I've written numerous times, chronic stress is really bad for you. It causes chronic back pain, weakens the heart and kills brain cells.”
Cognitive Daily
  • Even isolated cultures understand emotions conveyed by Western music • Dave Munger • 20090408 • “The researchers say this shows that at least some portion of music appreciation may be universal. The more dramatic effects among Western listeners suggest that cultural influences may also contribute, but some basic part of the the way we understand music may be shared by everyone, no matter what we have learned from our culture.”
  • Possibility Of Brain Scan-assisted Diagnosis For PTSD A Step Closer • 20090406 • “Preliminary research examining the difference in brain activity between soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and those without it moves scientists a step closer to the possibility of being able one day to use brain scans to help diagnose the condition...”
U.S. News & World Report
  • Depression in Teenagers: Experts Say to Screen All • Lindsay Lyon • 20090407 • “The subject of depression in teenagers was thrust into the national dialogue recently when a government-appointed panel of medical experts advised that primary-care doctors routinely screen all patients ages 12 to 18 for major depression, an about-face from a 2002 conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to recommend for or against doing so. Now, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says in April's Pediatrics, there's "adequate evidence" that screening tests do a good job of accurately detecting depression in teenagers and adolescents—important, it says, since "the majority of depressed youth are undiagnosed and untreated.’ “

Back Again (with Narrative and the Body)

Wow, haven’t I been awfully silent for the last year at this site? It’s been thirteen months since I last posted an entry. I will try to resume some blogging on psychology and science here.

Steve Pinker, Sarah Strout
I’m prompted to do so by the publication last week of my latest article, “Why Narrative Psychology Can’t Afford to Ignore the Body” at the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology (JSEC). It is one of the 11 articles in a JSEC issue serving as the proceedings of the 2nd annual conference of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychological Society (NEEPS). The NEEPS meeting had been held last May (2008) at Southeastern New Hampshire University, just outside of Manchester, NH. Organized by Sarah Strout of the SNHU faculty and co-editor o
David Sloan Wilson
f JSEC, the conference brought together a pretty sizable number of young and senior scholars. Steve Pinker of Harvard gave the keynote address and David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University was certainly among the most prominent other speakers.

My paper attempts to explore the ways in which the narrative perspective in psychology might enter into a fruitful dialogue with evolutionary psychology despite the almost complete absence of recognition of each subarea in psychology by the other. I also suggest a kind of lingering Cartesianism that may affect both narrative and evolutionary perspectives. When I got home from the conference I did an awful lot of additional investigation of evolutionary models and biological research pertaining to narrative. The published paper expands significantly on each of my four points of contrast compared to what I had the chance to review at the conference. I got the paper out to the journal for review just in the nick of time and was really happy when the word came back of acceptance by the editors with only minor revisions.

Browsers of this blog can look over the scope of the articles in the special issue at this link and can download my own article in pdf format at this link. The article runs 17 printed pages.

  • Hevern, V. W. (2008). Why narrative psychology can't afford to ignore the body (Special issue: Proceedings of the 2nd annual meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society).  Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2(4), 217-233. Available from

Denial Is Certainly More Than a River in....So Say The Psychologists

The New York Times has a thought-provoking article today by Benedict Carey on the role of denial in the daily social lives of ordinary people. So much more than the relatively primitive defense mechanism described by Freud and his adherents, denial appears to be central to the ways in which our social lives are rendered tolerable. The crucial summary in Carey's article notes

Yet recent studies from fields as diverse as psychology and anthropology suggest that the ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships. The psychological tricks that people use to ignore a festering problem in their own households are the same ones that they need to live with everyday human dishonesty and betrayal, their own and others’. And it is these highly evolved abilities, research suggests, that provide the foundation for that most disarming of all human invitations, forgiveness. In this emerging view, social scientists see denial on a broader spectrum — from benign inattention to passive acknowledgment to full-blown, willful blindness — on the part of couples, social groups and organizations, as well as individuals. Seeing denial in this way, some scientists argue, helps clarify when it is wise to manage a difficult person or personal situation, and when it threatens to become a kind of infectious silent trance that can make hypocrites of otherwise forthright people.

I could not help but be struck by the way in which this article suggests in preliminary fashion an understanding of how scandals may arise among those in positions of authority or by those who "should have known better." I am thinking both about what goes on in the political world as well as the religious one as well. The doleful news that the Jesuits in the Oregon Province have just agreed to a $50 million settlement for the abuse that went on in the Alaskan mission during the past forty or so years is haunting. The painful reality that the victims experienced seems so obvious now that a final explanation of malice and sheer injustice by Jesuit superiors seems almost inescapable. But, if the work cited by Carey here among social psychologists is accurate, then a more nuanced understanding may eventually begin to emerge to explain the failure of the Church and its superiors in this horrendous scandal. Toward the end of his report, Carey summarizes: "In short, social mores often work to shrink the space in which a conspiracy of silence can be broken: not at work, not out here in public, not around the dinner table, not here. It takes an outside crisis to break the denial, and no one needs a psychological study to know how that ends." This seems like something that we'll need to think about very hard in the years ahead.


Carey, B. (2007, November 20). Denial makes the world go round (Electronic version). New York Times. Retrieved from

The Internet and Children: What's the Impact?

The November, 2007 issue of the Monitor on Psychology, the monthly magazine sent to all members of the American Psychological Association, has a set of articles exploring various ways in which the Internet is influencing the development of children. The articles include
  • "It's Fun, but Does It Make You Smarter?" (Internet use and academic performance)
  • "Socially Wired" (Instant messaging & email; friendships; how much is too much?)
  • "Web Pornography's Effects on Children" (Development of unhealthy attitudes toward sex)
  • "Creating a Place for MySpace" (Advice for parents)

Washoe, 42, Dies

This has not been a great year for the pioneers in animal-human communications. In the late summer, Alex the Parrot died at Brandeis University. And, now comes word that Washoe, the chimpanzee who learned 250 words of American Sign Language, has died at the age of 42 in the state of Washington. Back in the mid- and late-1960s, Washoe's adoptive caretakers, R. Allen and Beatrix T. Gardner, began to teach the young chimp to use American Sign Language. Their efforts were a way of circumventing the inability of primates other than humans to vocalize sounds across a broad range of frequencies. Roger and Debbie Fouts took over the early work of the Gardners with Washoe at their research center at Central Washington University.

In the four decades since Washoe's adoption, researchers from a variety of universities and perspectives have worked to establish the parameters of animal (particularly primate) language abilities and the potential for animal-human communications. As Dr. Rosalyn King has summarized on her website, these efforts extend beyond Washoe and the team at Central Washington University to include important projects such as Sue Savage-Rumbaugh with Kanzi, Duane Rumbaugh (Georgia State University) and the Language Research Center, Matsuzawa Teturo and the chimp, Ai (Primate Research Institute, Kyoto University, Japan) and several others.

The success of these efforts has been highly disputed by such linguistic and psychological scholars as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. Neither of them believe that these primates have actually learned an actual language rather than a sophisticated series of behaviors which receive reinforcement such as feeding. Some researchers have concluded that primates fail to use sign language spontaneously, an observation which undermines the notion of real language learning. Nevertheless, those who have worked with animals such as Washoe argue that their charges learn language at the level similar to the abilities of a 2 1/2 year old human child. Obviously the debate will continue. For now, though, one of the founding figures of these conversations will no longer take part in them


Alex the Parrot


APA San Francisco (Fri): The Question of Torture

APA Welcome to San Francisco
Well, the annual APA convention has gotten underway in San Francisco at its usual venue downtown, the Moscone Center South (and West) plus some of the local hotels. I've been out in this area of California since almost the beginning of the month and, for the last week, have been visiting friends in the City. It has been an extraordinary August, so far: the fog has been minimal or absent in the mornings and the rest of the days have been sunny and warm. A rebuke to the supposed remark of Mark Twain ("the coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco") which he may or may not have said.
The pressing issue of this convention turns out to be the question of the torture of prisoners by the United States government's forces in places like Guantanamo Bay, the involvement of psychologists in developing or advising about interrogation techniques which are torturous, and the ethical lapses or failures of both these psychologists and the American Psychological Association itself in rejecting such activities. My first session this morning involved a symposium/discussion on the topic: "Ethics and Interrogations-Confronting the Challenge: What Does the Research on
Panel on Ethics & Interrogations @ APA
Interrogations Tell Us?" The room for this session was both filled with listeners and a host of people from the media who are here to cover the conference's various sessions on this topic. Indeed, I don't think in the 20+ years I have been attending APA meetings I have ever seen as many reporters and writers as I did today. Mark Costanzo (Claremont-McKenna) led off by describing what we know about coersive interrogation techniques and false confessions in the forensic/criminal justice world. He demonstrated the frequent occurrence of false confessions and the inability of the interrogators to identify when suspects are lying or not. Charles Morgan (Yale Medical School) offered a defense of many techniques and quibbled with notions like "do no harm" or objections to coersion, deception, and other similar issues which, he claimed, physicians routinely carry out in order to help their patients. He was later attacked by an questionner from the audience as a apologist for the government. Shara Sand (Yeshiva) read through the report of the Office of the Inspector General of the Defense Department about the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistence, and Escape) program and its supposedly sole use as a defensive, rather than offensive instrument by the American military. She detailed the connection between recent work on programs like SERE and early work (in the 1950s) on brainwashing and mind control by the CIA and DOD under the help and direction of psychologists and other behavioral specialists, the so-called MKULTRA program. Finally, Phil Zimbardo (Stanford) gave an incredibly lively and empassioned talk on the history of interrogation research (including his own very early, but ignored work in the 1950s) and made a sharp distinction between the positive findings of social psychology on how to foster rapport and a willingness to confess by suspects and the uniformly negative findings about interrogations employing coersive and abusive techniques. These, he stressed, regularly result in poor information and are often utterly a waste of time. The moderator/chair of the symposium, Bradley Olson (Northwestern), offered somewhat extended comments after each speaker despite his disclaimer that he would not be an "activist chair" (though he was). And while I agreed with many of his points, the structure of these off-the-cuff comments tended to wander and seemed to be out of place.

Demonstration against Torture @ APA San Francisco Meeting
APA: San Jose Says Stop the Torture

Later in the day, there was a demonstration in the Yerba Buena Gardens across from Moscone South by Psychologists for an Ethical APA. The crowd it attracted seemed to me to consist of about 200-300 pretty committed and enthusiastic. On Sunday morning, the APA Council of Representatives is going
APA Coersion is the Cloak of Cowards APA Psychologists for an Ethical APA APA A.P.A.THETIC traitors, Torture is Wrong
to take up a resolution which moves toward (but not quite endorse) the notion that there should be a moratorium by psychologists cooperating with the government in detainee interrogations (see these documents on this matter submitted to APA). The rest of the convention is going to have programming detailing different aspects of this topic (Ethics and Interrogation) through to Monday afternoon. It will be intriguing to see what the final outcome is going to be. Stay tuned.

Wellcome Trust Opens Image Collection Online

The Wellcome Trust has made available both its historical and contemporary image library for biomedical topics. Read More...