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May 2010

t r u t h o u t | Joe Brewer | Why You Should Care About the Psychology of Disgust

Are you someone who struggles to understand why people behave the way they do in politics? Perhaps you've been confused by all the fervor against gay marriage. Or maybe you're taken aback by the strong emotions waged against government-sponsored health care.

To understand political behaviors like these, you'll need to become familiar with the psychology of disgust. Researchers have learned a lot about it in recent years, such as:

  • Disgust – like all emotions – is biological and can be explained through the workings of the brain;
  • Disgust is the physiological foundation for moral notions of purity and sacrilege;
  • Disgust, once felt, creates a persistent association that is very difficult to get rid of;
  • Disgust is a powerful motivator of behavior, helping deter us away from perceived threats to our health.

So what does this have to do with politics? In a word, everything.


Cathie's notes: Very interesting article and links. Here is a related article from Joe in April: Why You Need to Understand Political Psychology. Good links in this one too.

This is your brain on air pollution

The evidence keeps coming in: If we're serious about reducing health care costs, we need to stop blaming sick people and start cleaning up our land, air and water.

Back in April, stream ecologist Nathaniel Hitt, and epidemiologist Michael Hendryx published an article that examined the relationship between human health in coalfield communities and the health of Appalachian streams. This month, Science News reports on a study by Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas on air pollution and human health risks:

Scientists have known that air pollution can impair airways and blood vessels. The emerging surprise is what it might do to the brain. Increasingly, studies have been highlighting inflammation-provoking nanopollutants as a potential source of nerve cell damage.

Calderón-Garcidueñas has been correlating Mexico City’s stew of air pollutants with a suite of symptoms in people of all ages. In March in Salt Lake City at the annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology, Calderón-Garcidueñas unveiled some of her latest data.

I was especially interested in findings related to an area of the brain that is of interest to me as a psychoanalyst:

Brain scans and screening for chemical biomarkers in the blood pointed to inflammation affecting all parts of the brain, says Calderón-Garcidueñas, of the National Institute of Pediatrics in Mexico City and the University of Montana in Missoula. On MRI scans, white spots showed up in the prefrontal cortex. In the elderly, she says, such brain lesions tend to denote reduced blood flow and often show up in people who are developing dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease.

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) has a huge role in what are generally termed executive cognitive functions of the brain. Insight (in the neuropsychological sense of it), for example, represents a complex process that requires us to be able to observe ourselves, to evaluate what we are doing and to know whether the consequences that we experience because of what we're doing are consistent with what we wanted to happen. An intact and well functioning PFC helps us stay focused on a task and to hold all the information in short term memory that we need to process a task at hand.

Lesions of the prefrontal cortex are known to interfere with these functions. There are lots of other things that can interfere with function of the PFC as well. Evidence suggests that environmental pollution should be on that list.

For me, this issue of the interrelatedness of human and environmental health is both fascinating and unsettling. By polluting ourselves, are we literally risking damage to those functions of the brain that we'll need not only to recognize the consequences of our actions on the environment, but to think and feel our way out of the mess we've created?


This is a cross-posting from Earthbytes.

The Moral Life of Babies -

Many parents and educators would endorse a view of infants and toddlers close to that of a recent Onion headline: “New Study Reveals Most Children Unrepentant Sociopaths.” If children enter the world already equipped with moral notions, why is it that we have to work so hard to humanize them?

A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.


Cathie's notes: Fascinating article by Paul Bloom.

School for Disabled Forces Students to Wear Backpacks That Deliver Massive Electric Shocks | | AlterNet

A former employee of  the center told an investigator, "When you start working there, they show you this video which says the shock is 'like a bee sting' and that it does not really hurt the kids. One kid, you could smell the flesh burning, he had so many shocks. These kids are under constant fear, 24/7. They sleep with them on, eat with them on. It made me sick and I could not sleep. I prayed to God someone would help these kids."

Noting that it believes United States law fails to provide needed protections to children and adults with disabilities, MDRI calls for the immediate end to the use of electric shock and long-term restraints as a form of behavior modification or treatment and  a ban on the infliction of severe pain for so-called therapeutic purposes.

"Torture as treatment should be banned and prosecuted under criminal law," the report states.


Cathie's notes: Well, here's a companion piece to my earlier post on psychiatric drugging of kids. This article also has links to the report and to a great Mother Jones article in 2007: School of Shock, by Jennifer Gonnerman.


Leigh Donaldson: Psychiatric drugging of American children is cause for alarm | The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram

According to a 2010 study of data on more than a million children reported by American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry's journal, the use of powerful anti-psychotics with privately insured U.S. children, ages 2 through 5, doubled between 1999 and 2007.

In the 2007 study, the most common diagnoses of anti-psychotic treated children were pervasive developmental disorder or mental retardation (28.2 percent), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (23.7 percent) and disruptive behavior disorder (12.9 percent).

Fewer than half of drug-treated children received a mental health assessment, a psychotherapy visit, or a visit with a psychiatrist, during the year of anti-psychotic drug use.


Cathie's notes: Author of this article, Leigh Donaldson, is a Portland writer who is completing a series of investigative feature articles exploring mental health issues among people of color for national publication. This is an extremely important issue. I'll be back later with other links to his series (I hope)