Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

I get high with a little help from my sugar

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been experimenting with a diet low in carbs and sugar. I haven’t been totally consistent—this weekend was my girlfriend’s birthday party and it was impossible to avoid sweets—but I find it easy to maintain. I’ve noticed one curious side effect: a subtle smoothing out of my mood. It’s hard to really pin down and it could be all in my head (which is, of course, where mood should be) but I feel more on an even keel.

This makes sense. We all know sugar amps us up and then gives us a sugar crash. So, if I’m avoiding those ups and down in body chemistry it should be no surprise that I feel calmer. But it’s interesting to actually observe this effect in myself.

I will say it is, at times, a calmness that borders on being bored. Whatever the evils of sugar, they make life interesting; sugar gives the day an added punch when one is lacking. And I suppose for some people that punch could be addictive.

An obvious question arises: Can sugar be blamed for people’s psychological problems? Since one can find evidence for almost any opinion on the web, we shouldn’t have to look long. And indeed we don’t. (In this case, a Psychology Today article.)

The roller coaster of high blood sugar followed by a crash may accentuate the symptoms of mood disorders. Research(link is external) has tied heavy sugar consumption to an increased risk of depression and worse outcomes in individuals with schizophrenia.

There’s more at the link. As with sugar, consume at your own discretion.

Nothing is certain

I’ve gotten a sense over the years of the futility of most debates about politics and related topics—history, philosophy, ethics etc. I can think of very few discussions where I changed someone’s mind or had mine changed. People seem very fixed in their opinions and unwilling to move in the face of evidence.

This may not be entirely unreasonable. I think we all have a certain sense that how evidence is presented can distort reality. For example, someone could say, “A 1998 study showed that people who ate mouse droppings lost weight,” while declining to mention all the studies that did not support this argument or the fact that the particular study that did was rife with methodology errors. We’re smart not to take things at face value.

But sometimes the evidence is pretty solid and people seem unwilling to change. I find myself guilty of this; I read something contrary to my beliefs and I almost feel physically resistant. We want our truth to be the truth. Which is really a matter of ego, I suppose.

I find myself particularly bothered by conspiracy theories. Donald Trump just recently repeated the idea that vaccines cause autism. This idea has been as disproved as possible but refuses to die. Because, I guess, people just want to believe it.

I’ve been reading an interesting book by Micheal Shermer called “The Believing Brain” where he examines why we are so prone to believe things that fly in the face of evidence. It’s stuff you’ve probably heard before: we want control over uncertainty and conspiracy theories give us knowledge which is a stepping stone to control Why’d your kid get autism? The correct answer is: who knows? The psychologically comforting answer is because he was poisoned by vaccines.

If there’s been an overall trend in my thought for the past 8 or so years it’s been that things are pretty uncertain and we basically need to embrace that. As I’ve recounted a million times, I had pretty solid faith in the medical establishment until I came down with a dizziness they could not explain. I had hand pain that lasted for years and was impervious to any number the “fixes” medicine offered. To solve these problems you basically have to stumble around in the dark until you find something. Few experts saw the economic bust of 2008 coming. It seems like nobody predicted the rise of ISIS in the middle east. Did anyone six months ago seriously think Donald Trump would be the leading Republican candidate? The experts on these matters seem to be largely a group of know-nothings*. But if they know nothing, then we know nothing and that’s not solid ground to stand on.

But maybe that’s where we are. And maybe accepting that is the best course of action. Embrace the mystery of life and all that.

*I’m reminded of the study that political pundits are mostly spectacularly wrong in their predictions.

Shaming the shamers

Lately I’ve been reading Jon Ronson’s book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” which is about the advent of public shaming that has overtaken the internet. (For the latest example, see the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion.) Ronson explores a number of cases one might have heard of—Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone, even my old acquaintance Mike Daisey who fabricated details of a radio report he did on Chinese workers. These are all people who committed some offense and were basically torn apart by strangers on Twitter.

I’m reminded of an event I observed on my facebook feed. (I’ll keep it anonymous but if you know the story you’re sure to recognize it.) A local songwriter performed at a local bar some months ago and when he went to get paid they basically told him to get lost. The songwriter reported this on facebook and dozens of his followers and their friends, maybe over a hundred, went to the facebook page for the venue and basically screamed at them.

I don’t fault the songwriter for doing what he did, but there really was some sense that he was unleashing a mob. The venue owners relented, apologized and paid him. They’ve stopped doing music and I wouldn’t be surprised if their revenue has dropped as a lot of people have probably sworn off ever going there.

The event bugged me a bit though I have a hard time saying why. Maybe it comes down to two things. These kinds of online mobs deliver a form of justice but is it equal to the crime? These bar owners basically stole 100$ (the payment for the performance) but it seems very possible that they’ve lost thousands in lost revenues. And on top of that I imagine these guys have lost some friendships and had their reputations forever tainted over what used to be a private dispute. Screaming mobs are very imprecise tools of justice.

My second concern is that the people who mete out these shamings—the people posting negative comments on someone’s facebook page or tweeter feed or whatever—aren’t being entirely honest with themselves as to their reasons. They may see it as a purely moral statement but I think everyone likes being a bully, likes the catharsis of damning others. I’m not sure shaming is so much about punishing the perpetrator as much as it allows the shamer to feel good about themselves, and in step with their society, to get high with self-righteous fury

The Cecil the Lion case brings this up for me. I like animals and the guy sounds like a douchebag, but lions are killed by hunters every day (as are plenty of other animals.) Why go after this guy? Because this particular lion was somehow protected? That feels like a pretty arbitrary, legalistic reason. Because Cecil was sort of a “famous” lion? Frankly, I’d never heard of him (I don’t know any celebrity lions.) It seems more likely that people saw a mob movement growing online and jumped at a chance to scream at another person. But I think that mob power can be corrupting. It should be avoided not to protect the target but to protect yourself. (Now, I’m far from perfect on this. I’m often having mental conversations with myself mocking this or that person. But I seldom, if ever, participate in online attacks.)

There’s probably a third reason I’m wary of the idea of online shaming. If you go through the archives of acid logic there’s are doubtless many things that would offend a lot of people. And I wonder of the online mob will ever come for me?

Omega-6 fatty acids and violence?

I’ve been reading the book “The Big Fat Surprise” which strongly makes the argument that foods high in saturated fat have been unfairly chastised for being unhealthy. I think the author is probably on to something though there’s so many variables at play in these discussions it’s hard to keep it all straight in your head.

The book does bring up an interesting point that I have seen made before (specifically in a book I discussed here called “The Anatomy of Violence.”) There seems to be a real correlation between consumption of Omega-6 fatty acids (which are found in the vegetable oils that became popular as alternatives to oils high in saturated fats) and suicide and violence. The following Psychology Today article looks specifically at the violence part of the equation.

Violence: Are There Dietary Causes?

One major dietary change that may have contributed to rising rates of violence has been the shift toward omega-6 rich seed oils, such as soybean oil and corn oil, in foodstuffs.

Joseph Hibbeln and collaborators had the idea of comparing omega-6 consumption to rates of violence. They found, across countries and over a period of decades, that omega-6 consumption was correlated to homicide rates…

It seems pretty absurd that diet could cause violence (we all jokingly recall the Twinkie defense) but I think we do have some sense that our mood is affected by what we eat. Certainly I’m less likely to go out and kill after having a satisfying meal.

I’m not sure what to make of it all but it’s an interesting observation.

The anti-guilt pill

For a while now I’ve heard of a particular drug that purports to dull the formation of painful memories. I’ve always been a little unclear on how it works but I believe it takes away the emotional sting of the memory while leaving the recollection of the events. Ideally it could aid people who have suffered horrible crimes or soldiers suffering from PSTD. I had not heard of a more controversial use: the pill as a way of ducking emotional damage caused by committing heinous acts, especially in war time. This article, from 2003, describes a scenario.

The artillery this soldier can unleash with a single command to his mobile computer will bring flames and screaming, deafening blasts and unforgettably acrid air. The ground around him will be littered with the broken bodies of women and children, and he’ll have to walk right through. Every value he learned as a boy tells him to back down, to return to base and find another way of routing the enemy. Or, he reasons, he could complete the task and rush back to start popping pills that can, over the course of two weeks, immunize him against a lifetime of crushing remorse. He draws one last clean breath and fires.

That sounds a little overdramatic but makes the point. The rest of the article is a very even handed look at the whole issue. Some might say we can never use the pill in this way as it will destroy our humanity. But the response is that, look, if a killer is wounded during his crime, he still gets medical treatment for his physical wounds. Why would we deny him treatment for his psychological wounds? And if the person is a soldier why should he be doomed to a lifetime of guilt why the politicians who put him in the position get off scot-free*? It’s quite an interesting ethical debate.

* Writing this sentence made me consider how the term “scot-free” came to be. You’d think it was based on some story about a guy named Scot, but not so. it’s derived from an old english term that means exempt from royal tax.

Timing your mental activity

A while back I was reading a book titled “The Circle of Consciousness.” One point it made, one that we’ve all heard before, is that different people are more alert and functional at different times of day. Some people are morning people, some are night owls, and some are, according to the book, a kind of hybrid person that comes alive after waking up, then burns out after a few hours but can then have a second wind around afternoon or evening. I suspect I fall into that category.

So why is this? I don’t really know though I suspect it has to do with the way your metabolism varies throughout the day. At certain points maybe energy can better get to your brain or something.

It seems our eating schedule affects this as well. I usually wake up and have a not-heavy breakfast (plus coffee!) I can then work on whatever for a good couple hours and get things done. Eventually the nagging of hunger gets to me and I’ll have a lunch. And almost always my brain then conks out a bit; I become more sluggish. This seems like the opposite of the way you’d think it would work—more food should give me more energy. But I find that slightly hungry morning period is my best period for mental activities. (I tend to write these erudite blog posts during that period.) To be slightly hungry actual makes my brain run better.

I could look up the whys of this but in a way it doesn’t matter. What I try to do is organize my day so that key mental activity takes place during that first hungry period (or perhaps later in the day at my second wind) and mundane, unintellectual stuff is after lunch.

Maybe the trick for optimum mental ability is the classic six light meals a day program that keeps your metabolism burning but never overwhelms you digestion.

Are we wired to created Gods out of our heroes?

If you take a look at rock history you notice that a lot of rock stars were or are complete douchebags. I’ve noted before that John Lennon, icon of peace, was actually kind of a violent fucktard. Warren Zevon, whom I’m a great fan of, was a violent alcoholic. It’s only recently I learned of Eric Clapton’s famous racist speech from the 70s.
(You can hear his clueless defense decades later, here.)

The truth is, you seldom hear people talk about this. Fans and music journalists seem to be able to look past these behaviors and continue their adulation of these musicians.

I was recently reading a text that touched on the idea that humans are wired for a certain kind of spirituality, a certain sense of mysterious forces in the universe. We are, the idea goes, wired to believe in god. (There’s actually are very interesting, albeit flawed book called “The God Part of the Brain” which is all about this stuff.)

And I wonder if this is partly why we can be so forgiving of rock stars who go bad? Are we programmed to view them as Gods and therefore incapable of evil? (Ironically, graffiti that peppered London in the 60s did claim that “Clapton is God.”)

The philosophy of past and future tense

For a while now, I’ve been going through the Pimsleur language CDs program for French. I was listening to one on the bus the other day and it got to the explanation as to how you put verbs in past tense; how to say, “I bought something” as opposed to “I am buying something.” In essence, you put the verb “have” in front of the verb, like “I have bought something.” (It’s not quite that simple but that’s the gist.) This is pretty similar to English, where adding “have” puts the experience in the past. If you say, “I have eat something” it sounds like baby talk but gets the point across.

This is an interesting role for the word “have” isn’t it? We think f have as denoting ownership, like “I have a cat.” It’s almost implied that by experiencing something we take ownership of it. We own the experience of having eaten.

And how about future tense? In French, like english, you add the verb for “going.” For example, “I am going to eat a sandwich” makes clear the act will take place in the future. Again, this is curious. We tend to first think of “going” as traveling through space but here it’s almost like you’re saying “I am traveling through time into the future and there I will eat a sandwich.”

I’d be curious how this problem (how to place an action in the past or future) is handled in different languages. It would be quite interesting if all cultures used the same techniques but I’m almost certain that isn’t true. (I seem to recall reading about some tribal culture that really didn’t differentiate between the past and present or future—it was happening in some giant “now.”)

Language, as Wittgenstein noted, really gives illumination into the mind. And our thoughts are limited to the words we can use to express them.

Morning moodiness

Years ago my Dad mentioned to me that he would often lie in bed in the morning worrying about largely inconsequential things. For example, when he was building a house in Montana he would worry about whether or not he had enough material for flooring or whatnot. This surprised me because he was generally the epitomy of cool, of a non-worrier.

The admission also struck me because I have had periods of similar morning anxiety. (Not lately though – I sleep like a baby these days.) Could we (my dad and I), I wondered, share some genetic trait for morning worrying?

Well, I don’t know and may never know. But today I was thinking about this and was reminded of a bit of knowledge I’d picked up at some point. You body tends to make hormones at night and then “use them up” during the day. So in the morning as you wake up, you have peak hormone levels. I also recalled that the hormone cortisol is associated with anxiety. Is cortisol one of these “morning buildup” hormones? A little research on cortisol confirmed that it is.

Blood levels of cortisol vary dramatically, but generally are high in the morning when we wake up, and then fall throughout the day.

That makes sense. Ever get the sense later in the day that you’re too tired to worry? Your cortisol levels have fallen.

So I was thinking about this fact that cortisol is associated with anxiety and moodiness. I considered that there’s a particular time of the month when women are especially moody. (A great Modern Family rerun I recently watched highlighted this.) Is cortisol to blame here?


After ovulation, the empty follicle that once contained the egg begins to secrete the hormone progesterone to thicken the lining of the uterus and prepare it for the possible implantation of an embryo. As progesterone levels rise, you may begin to feel moodier. This happens because progesterone helps the body make cortisol, a hormone that tends to be higher in people who are stressed. If cortisol levels are already elevated because of outside factors, like a busy workweek, the progesterone can cause an excess of cortisol in the body. “If I’m already doing something to give myself high cortisol levels, by the time I get to the second half of my cycle, I’m going to be irritable,” Schwarzbein says.

(I have to say, this article ends with what I consider troubling advice. “If you’re practicing good habits and still have period-related moodiness, contact your doctor, as you could have a hormone imbalance that needs correcting.” Doctors. There’s nothing nature can do that they aren’t eager to “fix.”)

Anyway, this all seems indicative of what I’ve suspected for some time, that we are puppets on a string dancing to the rhythms supplied by our hormone and neurotransmitter masters.

Morgellons disease

I’ve discussed in the past my interest in psychogenic diseases (though I tend to use the term “psychosomatic.”) What are they? Let’s ask wikipedia.

Psychogenic diseases are physical illnesses that stem from emotional or mental stresses.

I have, for example, talked about the girls of Le Roy who developed weird, twitching body tics though for which no cause could be discovered.

Now I stumble on a Vox article on Joni Mitchell’s bizarre illness called
Morgellons. It’s a disease that causes debillitating pain and the appearence of strange fibers in the skin and flesh. But…

For the past decade, researchers have searched for a biological cause or single underlying factor that might explain the suffering. But they have mostly concluded that Morgellons is “a psychosis or mass-shared delusion.”

In one of the most comprehensive studies to date, published in the journal PLOS, researchers from the CDC collected detailed epidemiological information, medical histories, and skin samples from 115 Morgellons sufferers in Northern California.

“No parasites or mycobacteria were detected,” they reported. The researchers also couldn’t find any environmental explanation for patients’ suffering.

The fiber-like strands on sufferers were mostly just cotton debris, probably lint from clothing. Their skin damage seemed to be caused by nothing more than sun exposure. While some patients had sores, these appeared to have arisen from chronic picking and scratching.

I, of course, am in no position to definitively say whether the disease is real or not. But if it is not, we are again forced to examine a disturbing conclusion, that the mind* alone is capable of inflicting serious distress on on the body. Bizarre.

*Of course, I don’t really believe in a “mind” (in the sense of some non-material soul or whatever); I use the term here to designate the variety of what we call mental processes that go on in the brain.