5/31/2008

Dropping Babies for Good Luck & Good Health

TOPIC: bizarre, sad, religious rituals


You are not alone if you think superstitions and religious beliefs are innocuous personal choices and harmless forms of self-expression. But check this out — a brief video of religious devotees tossing babies off a building in some kind of "good luck" ritual:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MV9EsQU5YgE

A brief description can be found all over the web now as various news agencies and blogs have picked this up. For example at:

http://news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,30200-1314661,00.html

But we all might benefit from the moderating influence at a site devoted to renewed anthropological perspectives in this article focusing on anthropology and the popular media:

http://openanthropology.wordpress.com/2008/05/02/

Also very interesting right now: despite the almost month-long time since the original story, there's a surprising dearth of real information about this particular ritual and its practitioners &hellip I've been looking but have found only hundreds of copies (some more true to the original than others) of some original news blurb and lots of hysteria. I'll post again when I find further, perhaps less sensationalized, information.

UPDATE: the original news piece seems to be the following from CNN

http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/05/01/babies.tower/index.html#cnnSTCText

5/27/2008

Summer Camp, Hold The Religion

TOPICS: religion, summer camp, popular press


As a child, I was truly puzzled by the religious beliefs of family, of friends, and of adults in general. The beliefs and belief systems seemed so . . . blatantly irrational, and the vigor with which people espoused their fantastic beliefs seemed inversely correlated with the humanity with which they lived their lives and treated those around them. But as a youngster, this was difficult to articulate.

Difficult in part because I was too young, too inexperienced, to understand what I was seeing and feeling, often leading me to simply dismiss the beliefs and associated behaviors as unimportant — because (my innocent self thought) how could such irrationality have any great force in the world? Wouldn't that be bizarre? So (my naive self concluded), such irrational beliefs and related behaviors must not, could not, be terribly important or influential in the day-to-day “real world” of people and things and schools and governments, etc. It must be merely some odd quirkiness of human society, so I thought. Older now, but not much wiser, I still feel that pull of amazed disbelief. How could someone be so … blatantly irrational? Surely such irrational beliefs and related behaviors couldn't (and couldn't be allowed to) influence society in any but the most superficial ways? But the amazed disbelief is increasingly tempered with outrage, disgust, and discouragement: how can people be so … blatantly irrational? And how can such irrationality be so pervasive, insidious, and so forceful?

My concerns as a youngster were difficult to articulate also because I never, ever encountered anyone else questioning such things. Friends, family, children and adults around me … the only criticism I witnessed of religious belief was leveled by others with a different religious belief. Our irrational belief system, they seemed to say, is better than that irrational belief system over there. As a kid, who was I going to talk to about my lack of belief? And why did I feel embarrassed when confronted with weird religious beliefs and rituals of my friends? I wasn't embarrassed for them — I was truly embarrassed myself.

I think I would have really appreciated an escape to something like Camp Quest, described on the Camp Quest website as “The Secular Summer Camp” founded explicitly to

… provide children of freethinking parents a residential summer camp dedicated to improving the human condition through rational inquiry, critical and creative thinking, scientific method, self-respect, ethics, competency, democracy, free speech, and the separation of religion and government guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.


USAToday picked up a piece on Camp Quest by Valerie Bauman of the Associated Press.

Camper Caitlin Fox, 16, said the camp has helped her build confidence.

“Before I attended I used to feel really embarrassed,” she said. “I was afraid my friends would reject me if I didn't believe in some higher power.”


Bauman points out, of course, that

Critics say the camps appear to espouse a particular point of view.

Erika Chopich, a psychotherapist, chaplain and founder of the nonprofit Hope America Ministries Foundation, said the invisible creatures in the exercise are obvious metaphors for God. "It's clearly meant to teach that God cannot possibly exist," Chopich said. "... There's obviously some teaching going on, there's some philosophy there. It's not completely neutral."


Chopich has a good point, of course, although it's not the point she intended. Rational thought is never neutral when used to confront nonsense.

And I wish I had such support when I was a kid.

Quick note: try a Google search on this topic — it's amazing (and encouraging? I don't know) how many sites have picked up this news item.

Mindfulness-Based Therapies in The New York Times

TOPIC: mindfulness, popular press


Here's a great article by Benedict Carey in the New York Times on the increasing clinical interest in mindfulness-based practices and therapies:

Lotus Therapy, a New Old Path (NYT 5/27/2008)


Lotus therapy? Yes … well, in addition to the ridiculous title, someone decided to throw in two really silly pictures, one of a pseudo-Freudian-looking man, presumably a psychologist, floating in a lotus position with pen and notepad in hand, and the other an equally silly picture of Zindel Segal titled “a psychologist, demonstrating meditative therapy.” [see below, originally captioned as “ANXIETY AID Zindel Segal, a psychologist, demonstrating meditative therapy. Jim Ross for The New York Times.”].

I don't mean that Zindel Segal himself is silly, of course. I can just imagine some poor staff photographer sent over to get pics for this article and discovering that . . . there's nothing to photograph.

Photographer: well, maybe you could demonstrate the technique, you know, for a picture to go along with the article.

Segal: the technique?

Photographer: yeah, you know, like doing something mindfully?

Segal: you want to take a picture of me doing something mindfully?

Photographer: yeah, like just for a few seconds do something mindful and I'll take a few snaps and get out of here.

Segal: Hmmm. OK. [sitting down and crossing legs] How's this?

Photographer: Uh huh. Well, could you do something more active? I mean, something more obviously mindful?

Segal: So people will see it in the picture?

Photographer: yeah man, exactly.

Segal: no.

Photographer: well that sucks.



DESPITE that silliness, the article itself is a treat, mentioning all in one place a good handful of pioneering researchers in the field of mindfulness studies and applications (in order of appearance): Zindel Segal, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Marsha Linehan, J. Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale, & S. Helen Ma, and striking a reasonable balance between the pros and cons, the positive and negative results flowing from research into mindfulness-based applications to physical and mental health.

Among any number of nice bits of information, Carey quotes Segal as thinking “… a big part of [the rising interest in mindfulness] is that more and more therapists are practicing some form of contemplation themselves and want to bring that into therapy.” In fact (something Carey probably didn't have the space to point out), there are at least two other significant aspects to that particular influence — not just the therapists bringing contemplative practices from home into the office, but also taking mindfulness practices home to help with the stress of the job and using mindfulness practice to make themselves better therapists/practitioners. Just a few examples of recent research include:

Carson, S. H. & Langer, E. J. (2004). Mindful Practice for Clinicians and Patients. In Haas, L. J. (Ed) Handbook of primary care psychology, 173-183. New York:Oxford University Press.

Christopher, J. C., Christopher, S. E., Dunnagan, T., & Schure, M. (2006). Teaching Self-Care Through Mindfulness Practices: The Application of Yoga, Meditation, and Qigong to Counselor Training. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 46(4), 494-509.

Grepmair, L., Mitterlehner, F., Nickel, M. (2006). Promotion of mindfulness in psychotherapists in training and treatment results of their patients. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 60(6), 649-650.

Grepmair, L., Mitterlehner, F., Loew, T., Bachler, E., & Rother, W. (2007). Promoting mindfulness in psychotherapists in training influences the treatment results of their patients: A randomized, double-blind, controlled study. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 76(6), 332-338.

Shapiro, S. L., Brown, K. W., ; Biegel, G. M.(2007). Teaching self-care to caregivers: Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on the mental health of therapists in training. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 1(2), 105-115.

Stratton, P. (2006) Therapist mindfulness as a predictor of client outcomes. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 66(11-B), 6296.

Wexler, J. (2006) The relationship between therapist mindfulness and the therapeutic alliance.Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 67(5-B), 2848.

Carson & Langer (2004), e.g., note that “Increasing mindfulness rather than mindlessness can help patients recast their experiences in a different light as well as help clinicians approach patients' problems from a different perspective,” and argue that “a mindful perspective can have a useful impact on the decisions of a mental health professional regarding diagnostic issues and coordination with the primary care physician and staff.”

Carey points out that “Many researchers now worry that the enthusiasm for Buddhist practice will run so far ahead of the science that this promising psychological tool could turn into another fad.” The enthusiasm, of course, is building in both the professional health-care system and in the general public.

But this just reminds us that we need to carefully evaluate the science, continue to do the critical research, and remind ourselves that no single treatment will be effective or appropriate for complex human behaviors with multiple underlying causes.

Some Related References

Hahn, T. N. (1987). The miracle of mindfulness: an introduction to the practice of meditation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994/2005). Wherever you go, there you are: mindfulness meditation in everyday life (10th anniversary edition). New York: Hyperion.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Coming to our senses: Healing ourselves and the world through mindfulness. New York: Hyperion.

Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. D (2002). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression. New Tork: The Guilford Press.

Prebish, C. S. & Baumann, M. (Eds) (2002). Westward Dharma: Buddhism beyond Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

5/25/2008

Scientists vs. Non-Scientists

TOPIC: Science Humor


Ever wondered about the fundamental differences between scientists and non-scientists? Logic? Creativity? Rationality? Skepticism? Hmmmm … try this:

http://xkcd.com/242/

Confirmed: The Phoenix has Landed!

Here's one of the first images from Phoenix — a look at the northern polar region of Mars. (photo courtesy of the NASA website at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/phoenix/main/)

Photos from an alien world. What an amazing way to end the weekend.

The Phoenix has Landed!

TOPIC: science news, current events


Looks like a successful landing for Phoenix! Check this out at NASA’s own web site:

http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/phoenix/main/

and a report at the New York Times web site:

NYT: NASA Spacecraft Appears to Have Landed on Mars


And this is really cool — watch the NASA control room live:

NASA Control Room TV

Alzheimer’s Disease As Infection

TOPIC: science & health news


COULD Alzheimer’s disease (AD) be caused in part by infection?

Evidence has gradually accumulated to suggest that this theory about the etiology of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) should be taken up more seriously. And the serious tone is evidenced now in a series of articles in a special May 2008 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease as reported on ScienceDaily and EurekAlert! (Both ScienceDaily and EurekAlert have good summaries of the news, so I'm not attempting a summary here — just passing along the news.)

But hasn't public scientific discussion of AD centered primarily on the genetic bases for the disease, for which we have good accumulating evidence? (See e.g. Ertekin-Taner, 2007, below.) And doesn't the apparent genetic basis/susceptibility for AD rather contradict an infection-based theory about the causes of the disease?

Yes … and most definitely No. The approaches are quite compatible. After all, genetics can determine in no small part, for example, one’s susceptibility to certain types of infection. So a disease may have significant genetic and environmental components — essentially a diathesis-stress model of disease.

Moreover, roughly 95% of cases of AD are non-familial late-onset Alzheimer’s disease (LOAD), also called “sporadic” AD, which has a number of known genetic risk factors — but risk factors aren't the same as determinants of the disease. Somehow such risk factors interact with environmental factors (in the broad sense of that phrase) to ultimately determine the course (if any) of the disease.

The work on AD is exciting and our growing understanding of its causes inspires hope that we'll eventually be able to treat and prevent this awful affliction.

Ertekin-Taner, Nil├╝fer (2007). Genetics of Alzheimer’s disease: a centennial review. Neurologic Clinics, 25(3), 611–667.

Balin, B., Little, C. S., Hammind, C. J., Appelt, D. M., Whittum-Hudson, J. A., Gerard, H. C., & Hudson, A. P. (2008) Chlamydophila pneumoniae and the etiology of late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 13(4), 371–380.

Hammer, N. D., Wang, X., McGuffie, B. A., & Chapman, M. R. (2008) Amyloids: Friend or Foe? Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 13(4), 407–419.

Itzhaki, R. F. & Wozniak, M. A. (2008) Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 in Alzheimer’s disease: The Enemy Within. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 13(4), 393–405.

KRamer, A. R., Dasanayeke, A., Craig, R. G., Glodzik-Sobanska, L., Bry, M., & de Leon, M. J. (2008) Alzheimer’s disease and peripheral infections: The possible contribution from periodontal infections, model and hypothesis. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 13(4), 437–449.

Miklossy, J. & Martins, R. (2008) Preface: Chronic inflammation and amyloidogenesis in Alzheimer’s disease: The emerging role of infection. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 13(4), 357.

Miklossy, J. (2008) Chronic inflammation and amyloidogenesis in Alzheimer's disease – role of spirochetes. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 13(4), 381–391.

Schwab, C. & McGeer, P. L. (2008) Inflammatory Aspects of Alzheimer Disease and Other Neurodegenerative Disorders. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 13(4), 359–369.

Scott, L. C., Hammind, C. J., MacIntyre, A., Balin, B. J., & Appelt, D. M. (2004) Chlamydia pneumoniae induces Alzheimer-like amyloid plaques in brains of BALB/c mice. Neurobiology of Aging, 25(4), 419–429.

Urosevic, N. & Martins, R. N. (2008) Infection and Alzheimer’s disease: The ApoE e4 connection and lipid metabolism. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 13(4), 421–435.

Weinberg, E. D. & Miklossy, J. (2008) Iron withholding: a defense against disease. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 13(4), 451–463.

5/24/2008

Challenging GAD with Mindfulness

TOPIC: psychology, peer-reviewed research


ResearchBlogging.orgRECENT results from a small pilot study by Susan Evans & colleagues (2008, see full citation and summary below) add to the growing literature on the efficacy of mindfulness-based approaches to various psychological disorders, in this case applied to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a disabling anxiety disorder characterized by chronic anxiety and associated physical symptoms in the face of little-or-no provocation (see, e.g. the NIMH site on GAD).

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), perhaps best described in Segal, Williams, & Teasdale’s (2002) book Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy For Depression, combines elements of cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) originally pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn (see Full Catastrophe Living, 1990). Cognitive Therapy, or Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), in general seeks to challenge a patient’s cognitive distortions (such as all-or-nothing thinking, labeling, etc). On the other hand, Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally" (see e.g. Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are, 1994). Combined in MBCT, participants learn to reflect nonjudgmentally on their own thought, a metacognitive process in which participants treat their thoughts as thoughts per se rather than reality and in which participants train themselves in attentional control.

Evans & colleagues point out that, although CBT is an effective treatment for GAD,
… GAD nonetheless remains the least successfully treated of the anxiety disorders (Brown, Barlow, & Liebowitz, 1994). Ninan (2001) points out that nearly twice as many patients in treatment for GAD achieve partial remission as those who achieve full remission and indicates the persistence of residual symptoms in many who respond to treatment. [pg 717]
But what’s the motivation to try MBCT for GAD? Why would we think that mindfulness training might complement and possibly enhance CBT treatment for GAD through mindfulness-based cognitive therapy? After all, attentional training is a big component of mindfulness training, and it’s superficially counterintuitive to suggest we should increase the attentional awareness of patients with GAD &mdash aren't they essentially too aware already?

Not necessarily. And mindfulness training isn't really about increasing awareness per se (although it can certainly have that effect). Instead, mindfulness is an exercise in attentional control. In this sense, there are several plausible mechanisms for the palliative effect of mindfulness training, including (1) the ability to redirect attention away from troubling thoughts; (2) the ability to relate to thoughts as thoughts instead of true reflections of reality; and (3) the redirection/redistribution of cognitive resources (i.e.thinking about one thing makes it difficult to think about some other thing). Evans’ team reminds us:
Roemer and Orsillo (2002) point out that since the nature of worry is future directed, training in present-moment mindful awareness may provide a useful alternative way of responding for individuals with GAD. Astin (1997) suggests that the techniques of mindfulness meditation help the person to develop a stance of detached observation towards the contents of consciousness and may be a useful cognitive behavioral coping strategy. [pg 217]
The results of the pilot study are consistent with MBCT being helpful in treating GAD, although firm conclusions aren’t possible from this non-experimental design. A summary of the paper appears below.

Article Summary

SOURCE:

EVANS, S., FERRANDO, S., FINDLER, M., STOWELL, C., SMART, C., HAGLIN, D. (2008). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22(4), 716-721. DOI: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2007.07.005

General Methodology Small, pre-test post-test, non-experimental pilot study. No control group. Participants screened for inclusion/exclusion criteria, but otherwise self-selected.

Participants and Sample Size(s) 11 (6 female, 5 male), mean age = 49 yrs, mean educ = 17 yrs, resulting from first screening 36 applicants down to 12, then dropping 1 from data analysis due to unrelated medical problem.

Conditions/Manipulations8-week mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) program

Dependent Measures included Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI);
Beck Depression Inventory (BDI);
Penn State Worry Questionnaire (PSWQ);
Profile of Mood States (POMS);
Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS)

Other Measures Anecdotal participant self-reports.

Results

Before MBCT:  moderate levels of anxiety (BAI); pathological degree of worry (PSWQ); significant levels of anxiety and tension (POMS); mild levels of depression (BDI); & mindful awareness significantly lower than normal (MAAS)

After MBCT:  statistically significant improvement on all scales except the MAAS;
MAAS scores improved to approximately normal, though the change didn't reach statistical significance (probably due to small sample size);
all participants completed the 8-week MBCT course;
very positive anecdotal stories from participants.

Discussion/Conclusions

MBCT appears to be "a feasible and acceptable treatment for individuals with GAD" [pg 720];
stronger conclusions not possible because of non-experimental design, and external validity (generalizability) difficult to assess.

Related references.

Astin, J. A. (1997). Stress reduction through mindfulness meditation: effects on psychological symptomatology, sense of control and spiritual experiences. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 66(2), 97–106.

Brown, T., Barlow, D., & Liebowitz, M.(1994). The empirical basis of generalized anxiety disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 151, 1272–1280.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990) Full Catastophe Living. New York: Delta Publishing.

Ninan, P. T. (2001). General anxiety disorder: why are we failing our patients? Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 62(Suppl. 19), 3–4.

Roemer, L., & Orsillo, S. M. (2002). Expanding our conceptualization of and treatment of generalized anxiety disorder: integrating mindfulness/acceptance-based approaches with existing cognitive-behavioral models. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 9(1), 54–68.