Category Archives: murky research

Born This Way?


This, from last Tuesday’s Washington Post: “Fido won’t sit? Blame his genes.” This slipshod article is loosely based on a study conducted at the Department of Ethology & the Department of Medical Chemistry at 2 separate universities in Budapest, Hungary, entitled “Polymorphism in the Tyrosine Hydroxylase (TH) Gene Is Associated with Activity-Impulsivity in German Shepherd Dogs.” Still paying attention?

For me, the most fascinating finding was that, regarding this herenow gene, there was great variance between different dog breeds. (Which wasn’t the point of the study at all, mind you. They were supposed to be focusing on within-breed differences. Seem to have gotten a little sidetracked, no?) “For example, the frequency of allele 2 is 31% in Groenandaels [Belgian Shepherds to you & me], 0.89% in German shepherds, and 0.73% in wolves.” Got wolf? Yes, I do, near as dammit.

Now, to the weakest link of the study: the operational definition of Activity-Impulsivity in dogs. First they modified the standard parents-kvetching-about-their-kids ADHD checklist to “apply” to owners-kvetching-about-their-dogs. No items from this questionnaire appeared in the article. Trust them, it had great inter-rater reliability. Swell. How about validity? What they call ADHD, I might call hypervigilance [which is what my wolflike German shepherd manifests, ja?]. Or, possibly, Separation Anxiety, which she also has.

Next they conducted a 4-task individual test for 104 dog & owner pairs, with a female experimenter present. (1)”Spontaneous activity.” Dog on leash with owner [not giving any commands] for 1 minute. [How many leg movements did the dog make?] (2)”Separation & play.” With owner “hiding” behind a nearby tree & dog tied to another tree, the experimenter tries to engage the dog in a game of tug-of-war. [How active was the dog?] (3)”Lying on the side.” Owner commands the dog to lie down, then has it lie on its side for 30 seconds. [Does the dog obey?] (4)”Approaching the owner.” While experimenter holds the dog on a leash, the owner “hides” behind a tree. Then the dog is let off the leash and given the command “Go!” back to the owner. Now, get a load of this! The more quickly the dog returns to its owner, the more “ADHD” it is! Seriously.

Who knew the Hungarians placed such a premium on taking your sweet time when summoned by “the boss”?

Ooh! So, would they then predict that wolves [with an even lower frequency of the TH gene] would return to their pack leader even faster than our dog Lili? [Which I would have thought had survival value…] Wolves must be “ADHD” as all getout.

Notice that nowhere in the study was “Sitting on command” assessed.

May I suggest that you henceforth take the “Science News” section of the WaPo with a grain of salt? As they sing in Porgy & Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

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Filed under ethology, murky research, sharks and jets

"I have a bone to pick with you."


Like most idioms in your first language, the meaning of this one seems obvious: “You and I have a score to settle.” But why does it mean that? Why a zero-sum-game power-struggle vibe, rather than, “Oh, look! I’ve brought a bone that we can share, cuz I’m an altruistic mammal.” [See this week’s NYTimes Science section, for a heart-warming University of Chicago study of (relatively) “free” rats liberating caged rats, even if they did not then get to enjoy the newly-freed rats’ company. They even saved and shared their chocolates with their less fortunate brethren, like something out of a Festive Seasonal Disney flick.]

My extensive collection of Word & Phrase Origin books shed no light on the (bone) subject, so I ventured into [onto?] the web, where I found a site (Usingenglish.com) intended for the wising up of those for whom English is a second language. Mint, nar’mean? They don’t bother with derivations, just plug & chug [“This means that. Just memorize it, already.”] definitions. Other sites attempting to explain whence cometh the bone-to-pick-with-you idiom get all vague and say “Dating from the 15th or 16th century. Referring to two dogs fighting over a bone. See bone of contention.”

So, what? Before the 1400s, English dogs behaved with ratlike altruism and shared their bones? I should cocoa! [Try finding the derivation of that idiom, I dare ya. I’ve been looking ever since I first heard it used in Ealing Studios comedies, in the (19)60s.] Then came the reign of the Tudors, and the Great Bone Panic. [I just made that up. Use of the Poetic speech function.]

And thus, to the bone I have to pick with the NYTimes science reporter, Sindya N. Bhanoo. As with most attributions of species-wide behavioral traits [including the sweetie-sharing rats of Chicago], there is the danger of extrapolating beyond the data. I suspect, for instance, that the “altruism” of the lab rats [which was found more consistently in the females, incidentally] is another manifestation of the Oxytocin effect, in which In-group members are tended & defended, whereas Out-group members [street rats, for instance], would receive short shrift.

Likewise, the Tudor dogs who were observed [proverbially] contending over bones may have been those indolent little hand-fed ones who hung around Hampton Court Palace [not the noble Big Dogs who went out with the hunting parties, and could forage bones galore out in the woods].

Alas, the thoroughly modern Lili is only allowed stage prop Nylabones, which she nevertheless seems to value highly, since she usually tries to pick [gnaw] two of them at once.

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Filed under attribution theory, ethology, murky research, zero-sum-gaming

"Lean Toward the Sunny Side, but Don’t Overdo It"


Readers of this blog might expect this to be a post dissing the latest article from the Science section of the NYTimes, but no! This is the title of an inane article from the Business section [of the NYT], from September 23rd, so there. Its author, Alina Tugend, has combined a 2007 article by Profs. Puri & Robinson of Duke Business School, with Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman’s 1995 book, The Optimistic Child, adding contradictory [undated] “findings” from Prof. Sweeny of UC-Riverside and Prof. Phelps of NYU, to make rather a dog’s dinner of the topic, The Efficacy of Optimism. Her high-concept title says it all. Her experts would all [probably] agree, that [to use her own metaphor] being a bit more like Winnie-the-Pooh than like Eeyore [more optimistic than pessimistic] is often [not always] a better strategy for success [at least, in financial affairs, getting hired & promoted, and in managing stress while waiting for test results, whether academic or medical]. She has the grace to point out that all the research she cites was published long before our current all-bets-are-off economic predicament.

Quibbles about murky research and comparing apples to oranges, aside, she kinda has a point.

The Duke biz-whizzes were trying to say that both wild optimism and profound pessimism often result in an individual’s doing a whole lot of nothing: the Pooh bears, because everything will be all right anyway; and the Eeyores, because no personal effort will make things turn out all right anyway. One could say that both character types manifest external locus of control. Enter a more resilient character [Who, Piglet? Or maybe Tigger because of his bounces…], who is Cautiously Optimistic. He believes that most circumstances are temporary, not permanent (Where have you heard that before?), and that his personal efforts might affect them, thus manifesting internal locus of control. This character is willing to expend Therbligs galore, in the guarded hope of Good Outcome. He knows that Life offers no guarantees of success, but he likes his odds.

This weekend, we flew up to Boston to watch our elder daughter expend Therbligs galore, in her first ever half-marathon. Since her previous sporting triumphs have involved rowing boats over water and riding horses over fences, she and we were Not Sure of the Outcome. Her stated goal was to avoid being scooped up by one of the “Lame Gazelle” wagons that hounded the back of the pack of 7000 runners. My secret goals were that she avoid humiliation [however she chose to define it], and that she not incur an injury resulting in chronic pain & suffering. To counter my fear, I willed myself into a mindset of Cautious Optimism.

And it worked! My biggest challenge, as we scuttled from the 3-mile point to the 7-mile point, was the intrusion of desperately needing a restroom [which a kindly native informed me I would find at the boathouse in the park]. By the time we had found a legal parking spot (What are the odds?) on a side street not far from to the Zoo, just in time to see her make her way down the home stretch into the stadium, we were all in floods of joyful tears.

Meanwhile, remember Ruth [our spindly 21-y.o. Maine Coon]? Having spent the last few years as a howling Banshee on the top floor of our house (like a feline Mrs. Rochester from Jane Eyre), she has decided to venture down (into the realm of the Big Dog), just Looking for Some Touch, which I am giving her every few minutes, as I type this blog. Somewhere in that tiny cat brain, the fear of the dog is trumped by the Need for Affection; and with Cautious Optimism, she expends the Therbligs to get her arthritic 5-pound body downstairs and onto the couch, where purring (not howling) ensues.

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Filed under locus of control, murky research, therbligs

What’s your point?


Lately I’ve been asking the “What’s up my nose?” question about an insidiously lovely song by Ed Sheeran [currently #3 on the BBC 1 chart] called, innocuously enough, “The A Team.” As the [you should excuse the expression under the circumstances] “addictively” catchy lyrics clarify repeatedly, it is the “Class A team” to which the heroine/victim in the song belongs [meaning that she is fatally attracted to drugs classified in the UK as Class A, such as crack cocaine]. I badgered my visiting 20-something daughter about 2 aspects of this song. Why, when it seems to glamorize, without irony, lethal drug abuse, is it so popular? [Because it’s beautifully written, played & sung.Very few listeners downloading the song are thinking critically about its message.] And why, when such glamorization is as old as the opera La Boheme [and its current iteration Rent], does it make me so angry? As it happens, I was doing all this heavy “wolf-work” a week before Amy Winehouse’s untimely death.

Before I deconstruct my “issues” with Ed Sheeran, let me draw your attention to an editorial in yesterday’s NYTimes, entitled “Addictive Personality? You Might be a Leader,” by David J. Linden, “Professor of neuroscience @ Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods,Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good.” [2 fun facts about the author & then my critique of his research: before joining the Johns Hopkins faculty, he worked for Big Pharma; and his father is a high-profile “shrink to the stars” in Santa Monica, CA.] The burden of his argument, taken from the animal & human research of others [some of it, decades old], is that “addicts want their pleasures more but like them less.” This he attributes to “blunted dopamine receptor variants” in these individuals.

Point of order. As its title suggests, this is a very informally written Pop Psych book [not a peer-reviewed journal article]. How large was his human sample size? In the NYTimes, he cites mostly anecdotal evidence concerning famous dead guys [such as Baudelaire, Aldous Huxley, Winston Churchill, and Otto von Bismarck]. How do we know that these “I can’t get no-o satisfaction” folks are actually getting less satisfaction from their “cocaine, heroin, nicotine or alcohol” than their peers are? Just guessing, here: he asked them? [Or the researchers who actually carried out the studies did.] And the addicts said [in a variant of the old Irish joke], “This blow is terrible, and there’s not enough of it!”

And don’t even get me started on Theory of the Mind, which posits that we can never truly know another individual’s experience, so how can we possibly know that we liked the drug less than the Man on the Surbiton Omnibus [British legal term of art for “the average guy”] did?

Is the circularity of Linden’s argument making you dizzy yet? If you are an addict, there’s something wrong with your dopamine receptors. [Not your fault, you poor victim.] To quote one of my favorite famous dead guys, the comic novelist Evelyn Waugh [who wrote brilliantly about alcoholism in Brideshead Revisited], “your brains is all anyhow.”


Is this supposed to mean that everyone with this genetic variant is doomed to substance addiction? Back in the 70s there was a controversial theory that sought to “explain” [excuse?] alcoholism as the result of a genetic variant that metabolizes ethanol in the [poor victim’s] brain more slowly than in your man on the Surbiton omnibus’ brain, storing it as a morphine-like substance. [Thus, alcohol addiction was actually morphine addiction; and we all know how to “cure” that, right?] Studies suggested the prevalence of this gene variant in certain ethnic populations [such as my own, the Irish]. It’s not our fault! We’ve got a disease, innit? What? Like an allergy? Like a peanut allergy? Jeez! Well then, let’s just avoid peanuts. Or, mutatis mutandis, alcohol.

What’s my point? What’s up my nose, about Messrs. Sheeran & Linden? The fear, that by ceding locus of control over what we choose to ingest [by mouth, nose, or vein] to an “accident” of our brain physiology, we are condemned to fulfill the dark prophecy that “anatomy is destiny.” The humiliation, that we have no option but to follow our noses to the irresistible substances that we crave, even though they will [glamorously or sordidly] kill us.

As the Brits would say, “Blow that for a game of soldiers!”

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Filed under confounds, gets right up my nose, locus of control, murky research

"Can a leopard change its spots?"


Rhetorical questions get right up my nose. [Just for fun, notice how many RQs I sneak into this post, and how annoying they are.] This famous RQ is from the Old Testament prophet Jeramiah [13:23], who prefaces his animal metaphor with what these days would be called a racial slur: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” In both cases, one might be moved to reply, “Why would he even want to [change]?” [Jeramiah’s answer would be, to avoid the destruction of Solomon’s temple, silly! Go read his whole sarcastic, “Now you’ve gone and done it, and you’re gonna get it!” rant for yourself, if this isn’t ringing any distant bells from your Judeo-Christian-Islamic upbringing.]

Ever since I was assigned my first patient in 1971, the leopard-spot-changing question has dogged me. [Remember this variation on the theme of an old joke? Q:”How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb?” A:”Just one; but the lightbulb has to really want to change.”] Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels a little bit defensive about the efficacy of The Talking Cure. In this month’s issue of The California Psychologist, there’s an article with the subheading, “Psychotherapy is Effective!” Here’s what various cited outcome studies have “shown” it can do: “provide symptom relief and personality change, prevent future symptomatic episodes, enhance quality of life, promote adaptive functioning in work/school and relationships, [and/or] increase the likelihood of making healthy and satisfying life choices.” Not to mention buying a little time, when your colleagues, constituents & the media are baying for your blood. Nar’mean?

How do you suppose most of these studies determine whether the desired outcome has been achieved? Why, by self-report questionnaires, mostly. “After 10 sessions, I can definitely see my spots fading!” Got any methodological problems with that? Remember the principle of Cognitive Dissonance? [The more Therbligs/money/effort you invest in achieving a goal, the more likely you are to believe that you achieved it.] That’s why, explained our grad school profs, “no-cost” psychotherapy hardly ever “works.” “Charge ’em at least fifty cents, if you want ’em to change,” they advised. [The APA Ethics Committee is constantly chasing its tail, as to whether barter is a therapeutic form payment. “Taking it out in trade” (as the lewd British euphemism has it), is definitely not, and is punishable by loss of license to practice.]

But, even if a paying leopard really wants to change its spots, can it? How much of brain function is “hard-wired” [as neuro-scientists used to like to say], and how much is “plastic” [as they like to say, these days]? Turns out, the more the patient and the therapist believe in the plasticity of brain function, “the more positive change is observed.” Even if they insist on calling it “rewiring.”

These days, I regard “a good therapeutic outcome” as “changing a leopard into a snow leopard.”

And I hate RQs because they are at best intrusive [a big waste of time, since they promise an answer which they don’t deliver], and at worst humiliating [since, like Jeramiah, they imply, “Schmuck, you should know this already!”].

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Filed under gets right up my nose, murky research, pragmatics, therbligs

Big Love & Other Oxytocin Myths


My husband snapped this photo of me & our firstborn enjoying a stroll through the Muir Woods redwood park this Valentine’s weekend, exactly 30 years after he & I walked the same path. Everybody say, “Aww,” cuz that’s the last sentimental sentence in this pseudo-science-debunking post.

In 1953 Vincent du Vigneaud synthesized the so-called “pro-social” neuropeptide, Oxytocin (OT), for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1956 [but not for Peace]. Until the 21st century, researchers mostly studied the effects of this hormone in nonhuman mammals, concluding that it facilitates labor and lactation. From whence, it was only a short anthropomorphic leap of logic, to conclude that OT acts like a maternal love potion, cementing the mother-offspring bond, at least until the young can fend for themselves. Having witnessed at an impressionable age my cousin’s pet mouse giving birth and then eating all of her young that we were not quick enough to rescue from her, I can tell you [as they say Up North in England], “It don’t necessarily follow.” Apparently, the amount of OT sufficient to induce labor & delivery is not always sufficient to guarantee maternal feelings [let’s say, behavior] towards her progeny. Anyone who raises livestock is aware of this, and has one or two “foster mothers” on hand, to “adopt” the rejected newborns. Those who work in neonatology or “foundling” rescue have seen this occasional failure of Oxytocin to vincit omnia in humans, as well.

Nevertheless, OT has lately been hailed by [mostly European] neuroscientists, as the “Love Hormone” for shy, fearful and/or autistic humans, now available as a nasal spray [talk about “Gets Right Up Your Nose”], at least for research purposes. In April ’05, Kosfeld et al. [from Zurich] proclaimed “Oxytocin increases trust in humans.” In December ’05, Kirsch et al. [from Germany] reported “Oxytocin modulates neural circuity for social cognition and fear in humans.” By April ’10 Hurlemann et al. [from Bonn], in the article “Oxytocin enhances amygdala-dependent, socially reinforced learning and emotional empathy in humans,” began, “OT is becoming increasingly established as a prosocial neuropeptide in humans with therapeutic potential in treatment of social, cognitive, and mood disorders.”

Oh, yeah? Show me the data. More to the point, show me the methodology. The slender bough from which all these “findings” hang, is the Multifaceted Empathy Test: a self-administered computer instrument, on which a subject first categorizes a series of photos [happy, sad, or angry], and then rates [0 to 10] “how much you feel for the person in the photo.” With and without OT up your nose, double-blind. Seriously? Why not just ask subjects to rate Facebook pictures? “Would you ‘friend’ this person? Now, with OT up your nose, would you?”

Did I mention that trans-nasal Oxytocin is chemically similar to MDMA? [Google it.]

Let’s hear it for the Dutch [Carsten De Dreu et al., June ’10, Amsterdam], who used a slightly more real-world scenario, involving a game of strategy, allocating wealth [10 Euros] to Self, the In-Group, and/or the Out-Group. [Not unlike the contentious bail-out of debtor EU nations by (ahem) the Germans, nicht wahr?] They use wonderfully evocative terms, like “in-group love” and “out-group hate.” Here’s what they found: “The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans.” Absent OT up their nose(s) the (male) subjects mostly opted to keep their Euros to themselves. With a snootfull, though, they would sacrifice their Euros for the good of their in-group, especially if it “hurt” the out-group. Conclusion: OT “drives a ‘tend and defend’ response in that it promoted in-group trust and cooperation, and defensive aggression (including protectionism and preemptive strike) against perceived out-group threat.”

Sound familiar? Sounds like Circle-the-Wagons, Jets-versus-Sharks, Small Love [not Big Love] to me. Next time, a discussion of how OT gets into the bloodstream [other than via a nasal spray].

Hint: Consider the old English expression, “to curry favour.”

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Filed under murky research, pro bono publico, sharks and jets

Does a hangdog expression betoken guilt?


Funny, how old words morph their meanings, innit? Take “hangdog,” which has been around since the 1670s, adjective & noun, originally meaning “contemptible & sneaking.” [Think Dickens’ passive-aggressive character, Uriah Heep, always presenting himself as ‘umble, while surreptitiously scheming to bring the high & mighty down.] By 2010, The American Heritage Dictionary defined a “hangdog expression” as “looking shamefaced & guilty.”

Consider the word “guilt,” even. As late as 1934, the only definition in The Concise Oxford Dictionary was “culpability.” Guilt wasn’t a psychological construct. None of your subjective, self-referential, conceptual feeling [as in “survivor guilt,” or “Jewish/Catholic/Protestant guilt”]. Just the objective fact of the case: “How does the defendant plead? Guilty or not guilty?” Also, “How does the jury find: guilty or not guilty?” [Their verdict is a subjective opinion, but it’s presumably based on the objective, admissible facts presented.] The notion of remorse doesn’t come into it, until the sentencing phase of the trial, if the erstwhile “not guilty” defendant is found “guilty” [at which point, his lawyer advises him to show how sorry he is by adopting a hangdog expression].

So, here we are in the 21st century, with the burgeoning field of Social Neuroscience and its ugly Iron Maiden, the fMRI [colloquially referred to in the media as The Brain Scanner], claiming to have located the Seat of Guilt in the Brain, no less! Point of order, would that be the seat of objective or subjective guilt, they’ve found? Let me not bore you with my observations on the flawed research designs of such studies [like, having a subject read or watch scenarios of other people behaving badly, in order to light up the Guilt center(s) in the subject’s own brain… What? When I watch Othello snuff Desdamona, I’m the one who feels/is guilty?]. Let me instead quote the brain-imager, Dr. Gregory Miller of the University of Illinois: “Functions do not have a location. Decisions, feelings, perceptions, delusions, memories do not have a spatial location. We image brain events… We do not image, and cannot localise in space, psychological constructs.”

At most, then, the fMRI is currently no better than the 20th Century polygraph at measuring physiological changes correlated with limbic system changes correlated with psychological constructs, such as fear and humiliation. From which I know, having treated several Intelligence Officers who had failed the annual polygraph test because of an exaggerated sense of guilt, over sexual peccadillos, rather than because they were actually guilty of breaching national security. So dedicated were they to their Intel work [from which they were sidelined by the failed polygraph test], that some of them would ask [semi-jokingly], “Is there such a thing as a ‘guilt-ectomy’ that I could have, just so I could pass the polygraph?” Just give those brain-imagers a chance, and they’ll be in there before you can say “knife.”

Back to the title question, addressed on a pet behavior blog, in the form, “Do dogs feel guilt?” Their answer was, “No. Guilt is an abstract concept. Dogs express fear & submission, in response to the owner’s anger, which they sense through body odor, glaring eyes, stance and tone of voice.” The dog “looks hangdog” to avoid or lessen the Alpha Dog’s punishment [just like a defendant who has been “found guilty”].

The wolf looks “sheepish” in the presence of a more powerful wolf. It has correctly read the power subtext of the situation. It endures the humiliation of acting submissive, to avoid the pain & suffering of being put in its place [which might be completely beyond the pale, where chances of survival are slim] by the Big Dog. That’s more useful than guilt. That’s Social Intelligence.

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Filed under limbic system, murky research, power subtext