Fuss Over Fussy-Baby Book:

“Believers call Dr. Harvey Karp a miracle-worker who can trigger almost opium-like serenity in a crying baby within seconds.

Detractors say the pediatrician uses nothing more than an old bag of tricks that have no basis in scientific fact.

Like him or not, Karp’s new book and video, The Happiest Baby on the Block, have become the talk of pediatric circles, landing him on national television and at medical meetings, including a patient education conference next month co-sponsored by the American Academy of Family Physicians.” Nando Times

Brain tumour ’caused paedophilia’

This BBC piece summarizes an extraordinary case report, presented at the recent American Neurological Association annual meeting, of a 40-year-old married schoolteacher with no previous history of sex offenses who was on the point of incarceration after the abrupt onset of escalating sexual aberrations when his complaints of headaches led to the discovery of an egg-sized tumor in his right orbitofrontal cortex. The excision of the tumor extinguished the behavior; the recurrence of the behaviors was shown to correlate with the recurrence of the tumor, and after its re-excision his behaviors again disappeared.

The association of a brain tumor in the prefrontal cortex with such a behavioral disturbance should not be surprising. As neuropsychologically astute FmH readers know, “this is the part of the brain responsible for judgement, impulse control and social behaviour…” The question for me is whether the authors should be forgiven for so limiting the scope of the conclusions they allow themselves to draw:

Russell Swerdlow and Jeffrey Burns of the University of Virginia who treated the patient said it suggested that doctors should consider brain tumours as the reason why some people became sex offenders.

But they warned that this only applied to people who suddenly become obsessed with sex and who have no previous history.

“If someone argues that every paedophile needs a MRI, the difference in this case was that the patient had a normal history before he acquired the problem,” Dr Burns said.

Typical neurologists, they will consider brain influences on behavior only in cases of gross pathological changes (which, I agree, would be the only alterations detectable on MRI scan). The real challenge this case presents is to where we will draw the line about responsibility for antisocial actions, given that there are so many other processes, more subtle than a brain tumor, that can impair orbitofrontal (not to mention other brain) functions. Indeed, as a behavioral neurologist comments close to the end of the article, even in this case the effect of the tumor may have been indirect, via altering hormonal function, rather than structural and direct.

Emperor-without-clothes Dept:

Joy Press: Eggers on His Face:

“Let’s try an experiment. Pretend you know nothing about Dave Eggers. You’ve never read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, never set eyes on McSweeney’s archly antiquated typeface. You’ve perused neither the Web sites mocking him nor the puff pieces lionizing him. Dave Eggers is just a fledgling novelist who has produced a self-published debut called You Shall Know Our Velocity.

In an ideal world, this is how a critic should approach You Shall Know: separate the book from the miasma of hype and cult of personality that surrounds its author, and consider the work as an entity in itself. The novel doesn’t have a sleeve or a first page, only a rough-hewn cover that serves as the story’s first page. “Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River”: Not a classic first line, but not a complete stinker. By the bottom of the cover, though, he’s dropping clunkers about “wind coming low and searching off the jagged half-frozen lake.” If my mind were a critical blank slate, I might have stopped reading right there. But OK, I do know something about Eggers, and so the benefit of the doubt kicks in: Maybe this is a pastiche of an overwritten novel that will unfurl into majestic cleverness.” [more] Village Voice

Correlation but not causation:

Chemical Sensitivity Tied to Anxiety, Depression

Anxiety and depression may be important features of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a controversial diagnosis given to some people with apparent allergic reactions to a range of everyday exposures.

A small study of MCS patients found that they were more likely to suffer depression than either healthy individuals or people with asthma. And both asthmatics and those with MCS showed greater-than-average “anxiety sensitivity,” an exaggerated response to anxious feelings that is characteristic of panic disorder.

People diagnosed with MCS typically report a range of symptoms, from headaches and joint and muscle pain to fatigue, memory loss and depression. The medical community is divided over whether MCS actually exists, but some believe that low-level exposures to everyday chemicals like those in cosmetics, soaps and detergent trigger physical reactions in MCS patients.

Some researchers have also proposed that the psychological disorders that often accompany MCS are a reaction to the syndrome, and not the underlying cause, according to the authors of the new study. Reuters Health

While some organic basis to some MCS may exist, most of the cases I have seen seem to be of people using a physical metaphor for emotional distress. Investigation of physiological parameters, immune function, etc., in MCS show no consistent findings. This may be because it is non-physiological or because the study group is heterogeneous. A study finding consistent psychological alterations in MCS sufferers is more supportive of psychological causation of the syndrome, although the authors are hesitant to draw that conclusion [being more cautious than I am about being seen as opinionated… — FmH].

Do Our Thoughts Cause Actions?

Review: The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel M. Wegner (MIT Press, 2002):

“A book with this title is likely to cause a reaction even before you read it. Some will immediately dismiss it as more of the obviously wrong idea that, despite appearances, iron laws rule our behaviour, while others will welcome it as a much-needed thump on our grandiose convictions of free-will. Those who actually read the book may very well be surprised to find out that Daniel Wegner is not so much concerned with taking sides on the subject of free-will vs. determinism, but rather in providing a psychological theory of how the experience of conscious will arises in us and how reliable it is in tracking down the causes of our behaviour. To be sure, the book is of direct relevance to all those interested in the more traditional puzzles about the nature of free will but warning should be made that what you’ll find here is mostly on the theme of mental causation.

…His view is that “the experience of consciously willing an action is not a direct indication that the conscious thought has caused the action”, and the book does a good job of supporting that claim with empirical studies showing how our experience of consciously willing (or not) an action often bears little relation to the actual causes of the action. While at times we will claim authorship for actions we could not possibly have caused, others we will dismiss authorship for actions that clearly have been cause by us. Particularly instructive in this respect are Wegner’s analyses of automatisms (i.e., actions we would deny having consciously willed) such as ‘table turning’, ‘pendulum divining’ and ‘automatic writing’, and action projection. Equally interesting is his exploration of the ‘ideal agent’, someone who always knows his actions prior to their occurrence. The use of the term ‘illusion’ to characterize the experience of conscious will is, thus, justified by the fact that first-person impressions of agency are not by themselves guarantee that the subject is indeed the cause of a particular action.”

Should Writing Hurt?

A Conversation With Master Fictioneer Harry Mathews

Harry Mathews and Joseph McElroy met last week to talk—about the writing of fiction, strange maps of New York, and other topics—and celebrate the release of Mathews’s The Human Country: New and Collected Stories (Dalkey Archive). Mathews, the author of five novels and several volumes of poetry and nonfiction, is the sole American member of the Oulipo, the legendary Paris-based “workshop for potential literature,” whose members have included Italo Calvino and Georges Perec. On October 15 he was decorated with the title of Officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters. McElroy’s eighth novel, Actress in the House, is forthcoming from Overlook next year. Village Voice

I wanted to quote some particularly pithy piece of Matthews’ wisdom as a ‘hook’ to this interview, but I wound up wanting to quote every paragraph. I can’t wait for the bookstore to open…

Just Say Yes:

“Paul Kingsnorth seeks out the Yes Men – the ultimate ‘cyber- hoaxers’, whose spoof WTO website has led to them giving lectures to committed neo-liberals subverting and ridiculing their beliefs by taking free trade logic to its most absurd extreme.” The Ecologist

The sky is falling:

Universe is ‘doomed to collapse’

Forget the idea that we live in a youthful universe.

If two American professors are correct, the cosmos is middle-aged.

And it has not got an old age to look forward to.

Despite what recent observations suggest, Professor Andrei Linde from Stanford University and his wife Professor Renata Kallosh say the universe will stop expanding and collapse in the relatively near future.

New insights into the mysterious “dark energy” that appears to be pushing the universe apart suggest it may eventually lose its power. BBC


Coca to Congress

‘Rights depend on money. This has to end…’: “You may not have heard of him yet, but peasant farmer Evo Morales is one of Bolivia’s most influential figures. With popular support established for his party MAS, he is a force to be reckoned with in congress and may well be his country’s next president. The US has other ideas, however…

A tireless campaigner for the rights of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, Evo Morales is at the forefront of the cocaleros movement in the jungle region of Chapare. The movement has pitted peasant farmers against US-sponsored attempts to eradicate the production of coca leaves. (The latter are used – but by no means exclusively – to make cocaine.) Morales has been involved in struggles over land and resources since he moved to Chapare as a teenager. ” The Ecologist

Our Desensitized World:

Sweet Smell of Excess:

It has been said that humanity has three main needs – security, stimulus and identity. What effect on these are we having as we manipulate our most instinctive and discerning sense? We live in an age of insecurity, where we do not trust our neighbour and are unable to smell whether they are friend or foe. We are obsessed by the need for short-term stimulus, drenching ourselves in cheap and toxic perfumes and soaking our anaemic food in artificial smells. And as we scrub away our own natural odours, preferring to smell of Poison or Escape, might we not be losing our sense of identity too? The Ecologist

It really is contagious:

Why it is hard to keep a straight face: “If you meet someone who looks angry or happy, it is often hard to remain expressionless yourself – and now scientists believe they know why.

Researchers in Sweden believe your unconscious mind exerts direct control of your facial muscles.

However much you struggle to keep a blank face, your brain may be letting you down.” BBC