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The tradgey of Tony Rosato

18 Jan

Yesterday, I heard a talk by a retired corrections officer. He told us that a large percentage of the incarcerated people he dealt with were not not criminals but suffered from mental illness. It reminded me of how poorly equipped we are to help people with psychiatric issues.

This point was made again when I read The New York Times obituary for comedian Tony Rosato. Rosato’s successful career was derailed because he suffered from Capgras syndrome, a devastating psychiatric disorder.

Mr. Rosato, who refused to acknowledge his mental illness, did not plead guilty and spent the next two years in a maximum-security facility awaiting trial.

News media reports attributed the gap between Mr. Rosato’s arrest and trial to a combination of his intractability and the punitive approach of the Canadian authorities. “Tony Rosato will have spent more time in custody on a harassment charge than any other convicted prisoner in Canada has ever spent on the same charges,” his lawyer, Daniel Brodsky, told The Toronto Star before his trial finally began in 2007. A judge found Mr. Rosato guilty of criminal harassment that September. He was remanded to a psychiatric hospital, where he was found to have Capgras syndrome, a rare mental illness characterized by the delusion that loved ones have been replaced by impostors.

Language sounds may not be arbitrary

28 Dec

When I teach about language development, I have always told my students that the sounds of language are arbitrary. The fact that the same animal can be “dog” in English and “inu” in Japanese, shows that the sound systems of different languages are just historic accidents.

Well, maybe not. A study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that there may be certain fundamental similarities between certain words across languages:

It is widely assumed that one of the fundamental properties of spoken language is the arbitrary relation between sound and meaning. Some exceptions in the form of nonarbitrary associations have been documented in linguistics, cognitive science, and anthropology, but these studies only involved small subsets of the 6,000+ languages spoken in the world today. By analyzing word lists covering nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages, we demonstrate that a considerable proportion of 100 basic vocabulary items carry strong associations with specific kinds of human speech sounds, occurring persistently across continents and linguistic lineages (linguistic families or isolates). Prominently among these relations, we find property words (“small” and i, “full” and p or b) and body part terms (“tongue” and l, “nose” and n). The areal and historical distribution of these associations suggests that they often emerge independently rather than being inherited or borrowed. Our results therefore have important implications for the language sciences, given that nonarbitrary associations have been proposed to play a critical role in the emergence of cross-modal mappings, the acquisition of language, and the evolution of our species’ unique communication system.

One possible explanation for these similarities is that they are survivals from prot0-world, the hypothetical first human language. But note that the authors argue against this:

The areal and historical distribution of these associations suggests that they often emerge independently rather than being inherited or borrowed

Our need for closure

14 Nov


Closure is a psychological construct that describes how we struggle with the ambiguity of the world. In the past week, I have thought about the importance that the need for closure plays in human affairs.  Arie Kruglanski explains why, in the video link below:

James Flynn on the Flynn Effect

24 Oct

I showed this video to my doctoral students last week. It’s a nice summary of Flynn’s work. I regard the Flynn Effect as one of the most important discoveries, a greatest mysteries, of scientific psychology.

Special brag point: I am the author of the study he mentions on Ohio school examinations.

Psychological explanations of physical illness: Time for some skepticism?

17 Oct

A startling paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science:

In some patients with chronic physical complaints, detailed examination fails to reveal a well-recognized underlying disease process. In this situation, the physician may suspect a psychological cause. In this review, we critically evaluated the evidence for this causal claim, focusing on complaints presenting as neurological disorders. There were four main conclusions. First, patients with these complaints frequently exhibit psychopathology but not consistently more often than patients with a comparable “organic” diagnosis, so a causal role cannot be inferred. Second, these patients report a high incidence of adverse life experiences, but again, there is insufficient evidence to indicate a causal role for any particular type of experience. Third, although psychogenic illnesses are believed to be more responsive to psychological interventions than comparable “organic” illnesses, there is currently no evidence to support this claim. Finally, recent evidence suggests that biological and physical factors play a much greater causal role in these illnesses than previously believed. We conclude that there is currently little evidential support for psychogenic theories of illness in the neurological domain. In future research, researchers need to take a wider view concerning the etiology of these illnesses.

From the paper’s conclusion:

Given our current limited understanding of medical disease and its markers, it is perhaps not surprising that not all physical complaints can be associated with a specific, well-recognized disease process. In these circumstances, it is tempting to offer a psychological explanation. However, in this review, we have argued that such explanations are not currently supported by the evidence, at least not in the domains considered here. Further, these explanations may be harmful for the patient. To find better treatments for these illnesses, researchers and practitioners may need to retire those overworked psychological explanations that are commonly invoked in the face of uncertainty and instead adopt a completely fresh perspective. Such an approach may lead to a much deeper understanding of this perplexing collection of illnesses.

“78 Surprising Authors of Psychological Publications”

28 Sep

Scott Lilienfeld and Steven Jay Lynn have a great paper in the most recent Perspectives on Psychological Science: “You’ll Never Guess Who Wrote That 78 Surprising Authors of Psychological Publications.” From the abstract:

One can find psychological authors in the most unexpected places. We present a capsule summary of scholarly publications of psychological interest authored or coauthored by 78 surprising individuals, most of whom are celebrities or relatives of celebrities, historical figures, or people who have otherwise achieved visibility in academic circles, politics, religion, art, and diverse realms of popular culture. Still other publications are authored by individuals who are far better known for their contributions to popular than to academic psychology.

Here’s my favorite entry:

Natalie Portman (1981– )
Baird, A. A., Kagan, J., Gaudette, T., Walz, K. A., Hershlag, N., & Boas, D. A. (2002). Frontal lobe activation during object permanence: Data from near-infrared spectroscopy. NeuroImage, 16, 1120–1126.
Academy-Award-winning American actress Natalie Hershlag, who later adopted the stage name of Natalie Portman, was a psychology major at Harvard University when she coauthored this article with several prominent researchers, including psychologist Jerome Kagan, on brain imaging correlates of the development of object permanence in humans. The authors reported that prefrontal cortical activity is related to the emergence of object permanence.

Who knew that Natalie Portman was a developmental psychologist!


“The narcissism of small differences”

9 Sep

The phrase appears in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. In explaining this to students, I used to use the example of Trotskyist sects that reserved a special hatred for other Trotskyist groups. But now I have found a better example, from Mary-Ann Kirkby’s memoir I Am Hutterite:

The cultural and religious differences between the three groups were minor, confined more to dress code than religious principles. To an outsider the discrepancies would hardly be discernible, but to the Hutterites they were so significant that intermarriage between the groups was rare. The Dariusleut in Saskatchewan were committed to simple buttons on their shirts and jackets, but the Schmiedeleut in Manitoba, which included New Rosedale, considered buttons too flashy, and opted for invisible hooks, eyes, and snaps. The Lehrerleut were the most conservative, insisting the zipper of a man’s pants be at the side rather than the front, in case some unmindful man forgot to zip up.

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