Cultural Aspects of PTSD, Part II: Narrative and Healing

Bremner et al. 2000.  MRI showing decreased hippocampal volume in Vietnam veterans diagnosed with PTSD.

Narrative and memory are interwoven in our consciousness, and thus explorations into trauma from both humanities and social science perspectives almost invariably discuss narrative in one form or another. An ongoing debate within psychological research, for example, ponders whether the coherence of trauma stories is correlated to the amount of emotional distress associated with a given traumatic memory. It is hypothesized that the greater the distress, the less organized the narrative. If this were the case, we might expect that the coherence with which an individual is able to talk about the trauma would increase as the memory is processed and resolved, a finding for which we have some evidence.

We do know – when it comes to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – that narrative matters. As I wrote in an earlier post, the most effective therapies yet proven for reducing PTSD symptoms are the exposure therapies, particularly Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy. These therapies are more effective for reducing the full range of PTSD symptoms than any pharmaceutical yet identified. And the crux of these therapies rests on telling the story of the trauma, sometimes over and over again. This simple practice, this process of speaking, has been reliably demonstrated to result in an improvement of PTSD symptoms for many patients.

But for all its clinical benefit, this extraordinary observation tells us very little about the mechanisms of psychic healing after trauma. Instead, it points to a growing body of evidence that suggests it is not just narrative that matters in PTSD, but, more intriguingly, that it is the type of narrative that matters. Unstructured psychodynamic therapies, for example, have not been demonstrated to lessen the severity of PTSD, even among patients who continue in therapy for years. And yet certain ways of narrating memory do make a difference, and this phenomenon once again points to a role for anthropologists and other culturally-minded researchers in exploring the cultural-emotional-physiological-environmental interactions at play in post-traumatic processing.

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A softer ‘neo-Whorfianism’

At Neuroanthropology, we’ve had a number of posts about language and the brain (such as here, here, and here); it’s a issue of lasting importance in anthropology, linguistics, cognitive science, and psychology. There’s a really nice piece in The New York Times about it though, and for once, I just want to do a summary and reflection rather than a critique of one of their pieces. The article is When Language Can Hold the Answer by Christine Kenneally.

Daniel recently mentioned this piece in his post, A Times Trifecta, but I wanted to add a comment on it. Daniel relays the quote that the article uses to sum up the debate around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: ‘Does language shape what we perceive, a position associated with the late Benjamin Lee Whorf, or are our perceptions pure sensory impressions, immune to the arbitrary ways that language carves up the world?’ He’s just providing a thumbnail sketch, so he doesn’t include the next paragraph, which I think helps to elevate this article above the usual either-or, black-or-white dross that happens in public press about the role of language in thinking:

The latest research changes the framework, perhaps the language of the debate, suggesting that language clearly affects some thinking as a special device added to an ancient mental skill set. Just as adding features to a cellphone or camera can backfire, language is not always helpful. For the most part, it enhances thinking. But it can trip us up, too.

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Differences in dyslexia

A fascinating article came out in the Science section of The New York Times: Patterns: Dyslexia as Different as Day and Night, by Eric Nagourney. The article is based on an original research piece by Wai Ting Siok, Zhendong Niu, Zhen Jin, Charles A. Perfetti, and Li Hai Tan, who examined the abnormalities in brain activity associated with dyslexia in Chinese speakers (in comparison to better documented examples of the disorder in English speakers).

The basic result is simple, but intriguing, especially in light of some of the other research we’ve discussed on how brain areas linked to language differ, Two languages, one brain and theory of mind:

The report, which appeared last week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that changes in the brain that may contribute to dyslexia are different for English speakers and Chinese speakers.
The difference may be explained by the fact that English is an alphabetic language, the researchers said. A reader sees a letter and associates it with a sound. Chinese characters, on the other hand, correspond to syllables and require much more memorization.

In English-speaking individuals, dyslexia shows up in neuroimaging studies as weak activity in left occipitotemporal and temporoparietal regions of the brain. The researchers find out, however, that readers of Chinese with dyslexia have a different anomaly in their brain, perhaps due to the difference between alphabetic and ideographic languages. Children with (from the abstract) ‘impaired reading in logographic Chinese exhibited reduced gray matter volume in a left middle frontal gyrus region,’ an area that had already been found to be active in reading and writing Chinese characters. ‘By contrast, Chinese dyslexics did not show functional or structural (i.e., volumetric gray matter) differences from normal subjects in the more posterior brain systems that have been shown to be abnormal in alphabetic-language dyslexics’: the abstract details.

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Two languages, one brain and theory of mind

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAt first, when I read this journal article in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, I thought, ‘Stop the presses; this one’s a barn burner.’ Since then, I’ve backed off my enthusiasm a bit, but I still think it’s fascinating. Chiyoko Kobayashi, Gary H. Glover, and Elise Tem have a really intriguing piece on brain-imaging studies done on bilingual Japanese-English speakers, when the subjects worked on false belief questions that tested their ability to solve ‘theory of mind’ problems. The piece, entitled ‘Switching language switches mind: linguistic effects on developmental neural bases of “Theory of Mind”‘ (abstract available here), comes to a number of conclusions, some of them needing to be confirmed by other research, but they’re worth mulling over at Neuroanthropology.

I discussed “false belief” (FB) tests and how they indicate developmental changes in children’s ability to perceive the thoughts of others in my post, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is right… sort of? Kobayashi and colleagues asked bilingual subjects to solve FB problems in either Japanese or English, and they compared both younger and older subjects, who had learned their second language later in life than the younger subjects.

Different theorists disagree about how important language is to the development of ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM) ability, affecting how children solve (or fail to solve) FB problems. For this reason, different experiments have sought to distinguish whether language ability supports the development of ToM or vice versa, but, as Kobayashi and colleagues summarize, ‘the evidence is mixed on this issue’ (62). Children improve on FB tests when given language training and yet pre-verbal children seem to be able to solve some ToM problems that are not based on language. I feel that the authors’ conclusion is warranted, that the evidence seems ‘to support a conjecture that some aspects of language affect ToM throughout development and adults may process ToM more verbally than children’ (63).

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(insert clever French grammar title here)

Every once in a while, I drop some comment about language being ‘un-language-like’ when I’m talking about culture. It’s a tick, aggravated by my envy of linguistic anthropology, my wish that bodily practice was studied in anthropology as much (or had produced as much cool theory), and by my secret insecurity that I never took a course from Michael Silverstein when I was at the University of Chicago (what can I say? I was busy…). Most readers probably overlook my comments about language, chalking them up to PGSSD (post grad-school stress disorder) or some moral failing that they don’t want to know any more about. But I feel compelled to explain, especially since I found this great article on French speakers disagreeing on the gender of nouns (thanks to Dr. X’s Free Associations and grant-writing avoidance behaviour on my part).

Too often I think anthropologists use language ‘to think with’ when they are talking about ‘culture.’ Language is a kind of subliminal or suppressed metaphor guiding how they talk about this thing, culture. It leads to various problems, such as ‘code’ metaphors, reification of ‘the language/culture’ in things like meme theory, and the like. That is, people say some pretty daft things about ‘culture’ guided by the analogy with language.

The problem is, they’re not just committing sloppy thinking about human variation, they also don’t generally have a very grounded, empirically based view of language. That is, they assume things about language that linguistic anthropologists would dispute, especially those coming from a pragmatic approach (like Silverstein, from whom i took no courses and thus feel inadequate to be writing this).

Well, every once in a while, web surfing drops the perfect example right in your lap.

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Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was right… about adults

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchNature recently carried a short piece, Perception coloured by language (written by Kerri Smith), on several research papers, including one by Paul Kay at the University of California, Berkeley (well, actually, Kay is also the co-author on another of the three papers, too). The original article, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US), is not openly accessible, but the abstract is here (Franklin et al. abstract). We’ve had a number of related posts on Neuroanthropology, including Daniel’s Language and Color, and my piece that the title of this one references, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is right… sort of?

The subject of language learning’s effect on the brain is an especially important one for a number of reasons to us at Neuroanthropology (other than our tendency to flog the occasional dead horse); not only is language a frequent surrogate for more amorphous concepts like ‘culture,’ but it is also one of the capacities that, due to the work of Chomsky, is frequently believed to have innate foundations in the brain. Chomsky’s discussion of a language function innate in all human brains provides one of the foundational texts for much broader, sweeping assertions about ‘massive modularity’ in the brain covering a wide variety of functions.

Work by Kay’s team focused on the brain hemisphere used to classify colours. They tested subjects by showing them coloured targets randomly in their visual fields, and then seeing how long subjects could shift attention to the targets. As Smith writes:

It is well known that in adults, perception of colour is processed predominantly by the left hemisphere, which is also where most people process language. Studies have shown that the language one speaks can have an impact on the colour one sees.

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Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is right… sort of?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchI’ve been away from Neuroanthropology for a few days, typing my fingers numb working on a grant application for the Australian Research Council. I won’t go into it too much here (maybe later), but I will say that I have NEVER seen a more complicated, bureacratized, byzantine system than the ARC grant competition. I felt semi-conscious when I finished the ‘interactive’ budgeting section alone (I put ‘interactive’ in quotes only because the system would have to give the applicant something back to call it ‘interaction’). Many thanks, especially to Daniel, for covering my absence while I was ‘away,’ or at least pulling out clumps of hair trying to figure out what the instructions on the application were asking me to do.

But I’ve been wanting to post a number of things, including a recent article by Ashley Newton and Jill de Villiers that appeared in Psychological Science. Special thanks to Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily whose posting about this article drew it to my attention. (And Prof. Munger is also responsible for creating the ‘Blogging about refereed research’ system that we’re trying to work with on Neuroanthropology.)

Newton and de Villiers ran experiments in which subjects were asked to solve ‘false-belief’ problems, questions about how individuals would act when it was likely that they had developed false beliefs; for example, if the subject see Max watch Sam put food in one place, then Max leaves the room, only to have Same move the food to a new location. Will Max believe the food is in the first place, or in its actual location, when he returns to the room? These problems test the subject’s ability to reason about another person’s beliefs, even when they are false. Young children tend to get these problems wrong, saying that Max will look for the food in the new location because the child knows the food is there. Very young children do not recognize that Max will have a ‘false belief.’ (Alright, so ‘false belief’ problems aren’t that hard, but the researchers made the tasks a bit more difficult…)

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Language and Color

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchEdge asked prominent scholars a great question, What Have You Changed Your Mind About?

 Lera Boroditsky, in Cognitive Psychology at Stanford, called her post, “Do our languages shape the nuts and bolts of perception, the very way we see the world?”  (And just for the record, I got turned onto this great collection at Edge by kerim’s post, Rethinking Language and Culture, over at Savage Minds, so please check what kerim has to say!)

 Here’s the opening Boroditsky provides us:

 “I used to think that languages and cultures shape the ways we think. I suspected they shaped the ways we reason and interpret information.  But I didn’t think languages could shape the nuts and bolts of perception, the way we actually see the world.  That part of cognition seemed too low-level, too hard-wired, too constrained by the constants of physics and physiology to be affected by language.”

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