Bad Boys or Bad Science

So here’s a recent New Scientist title: “Bad Boys Can Blame Their Behaviour on Hormones.”

All I can think is: New Scientist, Old School. Old, as in nature-nurture old and biological determinism old. Old as in moldy, rusted, failing ideas old.

But it’s not just New Scientist. Discover matches New Scientist with, “Teenage Hoodlums Can Blame Bad Behavior on Hormones.” And The Daily Mail delivers “Now Teenage Thugs Can Blame Their Hormones for Bad Behaviour.”

So what’s the problem? Well, it’s two-fold. First are journalists playing out a cultural script just like they subscribe to old-school cultural determinism. And second is some bad research that, not coincidentally, helps the journalists act like cultural automatons.

The cultural model goes like this: stereotypes, then blame, then biology. Take a stereotype we fear (“we” meaning journalists and readers alike). Bring in the politics and ideology of blame – hey, there’s a reason they are not like us, and why they threaten us. Invoke a cause, generally biological (though cultural causes come up too), outside of our particular realm of control. Hormones, nothing we can do about that, it means they were bad from the get-go. So we’re right to fear them and better make sure they don’t hurt us, whatever it takes.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the photos that accompany the articles. At the Daily Mail, a hooded guy point his hand like a gun at us the reader. Over at Discover, a crazed man with a clenched fist yells in our faces.

We all know journalists will play to stereotypes and will get research wrong and so forth. But in this case, like in most of the biologically-oriented research about complex human phenomena, the research only feeds into journalists typing out the normal crap.

The article in question is “Cortisol Diurnal Rhythm and Stress Reactivity in Male Adolescents with Early-Onset or Adolescence-Onset Conduct Disorder” (full access) by Graeme Fairchild, Stephanie van Goozen et al. and appears in the October 2008 issue of Biological Psychiatry. Neurocritic gives us the overview of the article if you don’t want to read the whole thing. (While I liked the Bad Boys music, I could have done with some more criticism in this particular Neurocritic post – but that’s okay, I’m going to play the bad boy this time.) Here’s the popular take from New Scientist on the article:

Out-of-control boys facing spells in detention or anti-social behaviour orders can now blame it all on their hormones. The “stress hormone” cortisol – or low levels of it – may be responsible for male aggressive antisocial behaviour, according to new research. The work suggests that the hormone may restrain aggression in stressful situations. Researchers found that levels of cortisol fell when delinquent boys played a stressful video game, the opposite of what was seen in control volunteers playing the same game.

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Culture on the Teen Brain

Harvard Magazine has a short piece this month on the work of neurologists Frances Jensen and David Urion to popularize information about the “teen brain” to audiences. As Jensen says, “This is the first generation of teenagers that has access to this information, and they need to understand some of their vulnerabilities.”

That information? That, given the way their brain is maturing (both fast-growing synapses and other sections relatively unconnected), adolescents are more “easily influenced by their environment and more prone to impulsive behavior.” As expected, there follows a typical line of parental angst: the sexes are different, drugs harm brains, kids need to sleep and get exercise, they are suffering from sensory overload from all the new technology. By implication, it is all due to being in “this paradoxical period in brain development.”

Certainly there are some intriguing results about brain development in adolescent related to differential brain maturation, developmental plasticity, and the like. Some early research based on longitudinal research is summarized here in an NIMH press release, which concludes in better fashion: “the teenage brain is a very complicated and dynamic arena, one that is not easily understood,” whether for parents or for researchers. But as I covered earlier in a post on emotion and decision making, teenagers can actually be seen as rather good decision makers, just focused on differential goals and contexts than most adults.

And come on, teenagers are overwhelmed by information and multitasking in today’s “brave new world”? I wish I had half the skills that my incoming freshmen display in this arena-I’m the one who doesn’t quite know how to handle the sensory overload…

Another graphic accompanies the Harvard article (only in the pdf though), an illustration by Leslie Cober-Gentry. For me, it shows the enormous gap between the brain imaging graphic and this more cultural graphic. As with all imaging research, there can only be correlations between level of activity and a particular task at hand. But that equation leaves out all the other important correlations that exists between, say, being impulsive and a particular environmental context. The juxtaposition of the two images capture perfectly what Urion and Jensen do, project our everyday life and concerns onto our newest explanatory cause-the brain.

British educational leader advocates The Matrix

The Telegraph yesterday ran with an article, Brain downloads ‘will make lessons pointless,’ about some comments made by Chris Parry, former Rear Admiral and the CEO of the Independent Schools Council. Parry believe that ‘”Matrix-style” technology would render traditional lessons obsolete,’ because we’ll soon be beaming knowledge into kids brains. Parry told the Times Educational Supplement: “It’s a very short route from wireless technology to actually getting the electrical connections in your brain to absorb that knowledge.”

Okay, you all need to help me: do I feel this under ‘hokum,’ ‘malarky,’ or ‘balderdash’? Rear Admiral Parry, sir, will the wireless technology use the brain’s Bluetooth or WiFi receptors? Which part of the brain’s RAM will you use when you install the new ‘human operating system’?

Okay, Admiral Parry, repeat after me: The brain is not a computer.

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Children integrating their senses

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchTwo of the pieces that I have wanted to discuss appear together in Current Biology, both on evidence of sensory integration in adults compared to their integration in children. Nature News carried a story about both articles, One sense at a time, by Matt Kaplan. As Kaplan explains, the research generally supports the idea that: ‘Adults readily integrate sight, sound, smell, taste and touch in their everyday lives without a second thought. But research is revealing that this is not the case with children. Two new studies hint that children under the age of eight only use one sense at a time to judge the world around them.

As I started to discuss in an earlier piece on human equilibrium (long ago — still working on parts two and three), adults learn how to weight different sensory information depending on context and the task at hand, evaluating one stream against another if they conflict. When confronted with two contradictory impressions from different senses — such as video of a person saying one thing and audio of a slightly different word — adult sensory systems figure out a way to integrate the sense world, sometimes creating ‘sensory’ compromises or syntheses. The ability to integrate sensory information is fundamental to normal human functioning, but it tends to undermine certain conceptions of brain ‘modularity,’ as I argued in the earlier post.

But with these two articles, I want to explore something a bit different, so I’m going to tackle each one individually, and then reflect on one issue that I think is important: the tendency to see child development in a teleological framework, that is, as an incomplete version of an adult system rather than as a deployment of the child’s distinctive neural resources. Before you click on ‘read more’ below though, be warned; this piece is a bit long…

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Kids falling down

The Appeal of DirtIf, like me, you find the sense of balance and its development fascinating, or if you just want to learn more about toddlers falling over, check out Cognitive Daily’s wonderful piece discussing research on toddlers’ balance. A research team put weighted vests on toddlers to see how they would compensate when they tried to walk, and the poor little folks leaned the wrong way. That is, put a bit of weight on a toddler’s back, and he or she tends to lean backward to try to compensate. Man, little kids are ka-razy!

The piece by Dave Munger is, What backpack-wearing toddlers can tell us about how kids learn to walk. As always, Munger’s discussion is very thorough and gives a great sense for the original research. The work is reminiscent of the research of the late Esther Thelen, one of the psychologists who really opened my eyes to dynamic systems theory and a rethinking of developmental theory.

Emotional intelligence in training

Although I’m not a real big fan of some of the work on ‘emotional intelligence,’ here’s an interesting short video of Daniel Goleman on Karma Tube (a positive, social change video site). As the page explains:

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, asks why we aren’t more compassionate more of the time. Sharing the results of psychological experiments (and the story of the Santa Cruz Strangler), he explains how we are all born with the capacity for empathy — but we sometimes choose to ignore it.

I’m really not sure what we gain by putting ‘emotional’ with ‘intelligence’ except that it does seem to increase the importance of empathy and perceptivity for those who undersell these human capacities. That is, I think the furor of ‘EI’ is in part simply that people who normally don’t get just how crucial interpersonal savvy is suddenly notice it.

Nevertheless, Goleman is a good big picture thinker, and in this piece he points out the malleability of human empathy, a crucial consideration for neuroanthropologists. It’s important to point out training effects on these abilities so that we’re not too prone to considering them permanent ‘personality’ traits.

How your brain is not like a computer

At the end of my last post, or the one before that, I had a late-night ‘inspiration’ that must have sounded a bit like an outburst about how our brains are not like computers. There’s lots of good reasons for making that assertion, whether or not it’s an outburst. But one of the key issues is concern about ‘embodiment’ in cognitive science and the discussion of embodied cognition. Daniel, in his comments, put a link to the posting by Chris Chatham, 10 Important Differences Between Brains and Computers, which is excellent. There’s also an interesting discussion of this going on at Dr. Ginger Campbell’s blog on her Brain Science Podcasts, both of which (discussion and podcasts) I strongly recommend. See the first two topics on the list you can find here on ‘Artificial Intelligence.’

For the anthropologists in our audience, however, the term ‘embodied cognition’ is a bit unfortunate, not because it’s not a great term, but because an earlier intellectual movement in anthropology already snagged the adjective ‘embodied’ and then didn’t push the issue far enough to actually deal with physiological and biological dimensions of being embodied. That is, in anthropology, the term ‘embodiment’ has not been allowed to really stretch its wings, and has instead been more narrowly constrained to dealing with phenomenological, interactional, and theoretical issues deriving primarily from feminism, Foucauldian post-structuralism, and Bourdieu-ian sociology. All of these streams are important, but they do not yet engage with the sort of material that cognitive scientists mean when they use the term ‘embodied.’ The danger is that anthropologists will see the term, ‘embodied cognition,’ and it will not seem quite as disruptive to anthropology-as-usual as it should be.

Chatham’s posting makes this key issue clearer in his tenth reason that brains are not like computers: brains have bodies:

This is not as trivial as it might seem: it turns out that the brain takes surprising advantage of the fact that it has a body at its disposal. For example, despite your intuitive feeling that you could close your eyes and know the locations of objects around you, a series of experiments in the field of change blindness has shown that our visual memories are actually quite sparse. In this case, the brain is “offloading” its memory requirements to the environment in which it exists: why bother remembering the location of objects when a quick glance will suffice? A surprising set of experiments by Jeremy Wolfe has shown that even after being asked hundreds of times which simple geometrical shapes are displayed on a computer screen, human subjects continue to answer those questions by gaze rather than rote memory. A wide variety of evidence from other domains suggests that we are only beginning to understand the importance of embodiment in information processing.

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