Category Archives: psychosis

Magical Thinking

There is an interesting article in Psychology Today regarding Magical Thinking and though one should read it in its entirety, I’ll also post some snippets.

1. Anything can be sacred.
What makes something sacred is not its material makeup but its unique history. And whatever causes us to value essence over appearance becomes apparent at an early age. Psychologists Bruce Hood at Bristol University and Paul Bloom at Yale convinced kids ages 3 to 6 that they’d constructed a “copying machine.” The kids were fine taking home a copy of a piece of precious metal produced by the machine, but not so with a clone of one of Queen Elizabeth II’s spoons—they wanted the original.

2. Anything can be cursed.
Essences are not always good. In fact, people show stronger reactions to negative taint than to positive. Mother Teresa cannot fully neutralize the evil in a sweater worn by Hitler, a fact that fits the germ theory of moral contagion: A drop of sewage does more to a bucket of clean water than a drop of clean water does to a bucket of sewage. Traditional cleaning can’t erase bad vibes either. Studies by Rozin and colleagues show that people have a strong aversion to wearing laundered clothes that have been worn by a murderer or even by someone who’s lost a leg in an accident.

3. Mind rules over matter.
Wishing is probably the most ubiquitous kind of magical spell around, the unreasonable expectation that your thoughts have force and energy to act on the world. Emily Pronin and colleagues at Princeton and Harvard convinced undergrads in a study that they had put voodoo curses on fellow subjects. While targeting their thoughts on the other students, hexers pushed pins into voodoo dolls and the “victims” feigned headaches. Some victims had been instructed to behave like jackasses during the study (the “Stupid People Shouldn’t Breed” T-shirt was a nice touch), eliciting ill will from pin pushers. Those who dealt with the jerks felt much more responsible for the headaches than the control group did. If you think it, and it happens, then you did it, right? Pronin describes the results as a particular form of seeing causality in coincidence, where the “cause” is especially conspicuous because it’s hard to miss what’s going on in your own head.

4. Rituals bring good luck.
To witness the mindless repetition of actions with no proven causal effect, there’s no better laboratory than the athletic field.
We use ritual acts most often when there is little cost to them, when an outcome is uncertain or beyond our control, and when the stakes are high—hence my communion with the fuselage. People who truly trust in their rituals exhibit a phenomenon known as “illusion of control,” the belief that they have more influence over the world than they actually do. And it’s not a bad delusion to have—a sense of control encourages people to work harder than they might otherwise. In fact, a fully accurate assessment of your powers, a state known as “depressive realism,” haunts people with clinical depression, who in general show less magical thinking.

5. To name is to rule.
Just as thoughts and objects have power, so do names. Language’s ability to dredge up associations acts as a spell over us. Piaget argued that children often confuse objects with their names, a phenomenon he labeled nominal realism. Rozin and colleagues have demonstrated nominal realism in adults. After watching sugar being poured into two glasses of water and then personally affixing a “sucrose” label to one and a “poison” label to the other, people much prefer to drink from the “sucrose” glass and will even shy away from one they label “not poison.” (The subconscious doesn’t process negatives.)

6. Karma’s a bitch.
Belief in a just world puts our minds at ease: Even if things are beyond our control, they happen for a reason. The idea of arbitrary pain and suffering is just too much for many people to bear, and the need for moral order may help explain the popularity of religion; in fact, just-worlders are more religious than others. Faith in cosmic jurisprudence starts early. Harvard psychologists showed that kids ages 5 to 7 like a child who found $5 on the sidewalk more than one whose soccer game got rained out

7. The world is alive.
To believe that the universe is sympathetic to our wishes is to believe that it has a mind or a soul, however rudimentary. We often see inanimate objects as infused with a life force.Lindeman Marjaana, a psychologist at the University of Helsinki, defines magical thinking as treating the world as if it has mental properties (animism) or expecting the mind to exhibit the properties of the physical world. She found that people who literally endorse phrases such as, “Old furniture knows things about the past,” or, “An evil thought is contaminated,” also believe in things like feng shui (the idea that the arrangement of furniture can channel life energy) and astrology. They are also more likely to be religious and to believe in paranormal agents.

In the end they also list the benefits of magical thinking and how some magical thinking has indeed proved somewhat correct!!

Who are WE to say the dreamers have it wrong? Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin point out that many magical beliefs have gained some element of scientific validity:

  • Magical contagion: Germ theory has shown that we have reason to fear that something invisible and negative can be transmitted by contact. Bacteria are the new curses.
  • Holographic existence: The idea that the whole is contained in each of its parts is born out by biology. Every cell in your body contains all of the DNA needed to create an entire person.
  • Action at a distance: Can voodoo dolls and magic wands have an impact? Well, gravitational pull works at a distance. So do remote controls, through electromagnetic radiation.
  • Mind over matter: The placebo effect is well-documented. Just thinking that an inert pill will have a medical effect on you makes it so.
  • Mana: Mana is the Polynesian term for the ubiquitous concept of communicable supernatural power. There is indeed a universally applicable parcel of influence that is abstract and connects us all: money.

Overall, an interesting piece indeed.

Autism / Psychosis: Agency and Joint Attention

A recent study by Tomosello’s group indicates that children with autism, can help a stranger pick a pen (and thus can apparently infer goal and intentional states of others), but cannot indulge in co-operative behavior that may involve shared goals and shared attention.

As per Translating Autism blog:

This fresh-off-the-press article comes to us from Dr. Michael Tomasello’s group at the Max Planck institute in Germany. The authors present the results of two studies looking at helping and cooperation in children with autism. The first study compared 15 children with ASD (14 with Autism and 1 with PDD-NOS) with 15 children with other non-ASD developmental delays (40 months of age average). During this study the children were place in situations that either called for helping behaviors (such as picking up a pen that the researcher dropped and could not reach) or a similar situation that did not necessarily call for helping behaviors (such as when the researcher threw the pen on purpose and did not attempt to pick it up). Both groups (children with Autism and children with other developmental delays) showed more helping behaviors when placed in the situation that called for such behaviors. That is, when the experimenter was “trying” to reach an out-of-reach object, both groups were more likely to help than when the experimenter was not trying to reach for the object. The authors concluded that these behaviors showed that both groups understood the adult’s goals and were motivated to help her. In the second study, the same children were placed in situations that called for “cooperative” behaviors, such as a task requiring them to work with the researcher by simultaneously pulling at two cylinders to reach a toy. The results showed that children with autism were less likely than kids with other developmental delays to successfully complete the cooperation tasks. Furthermore, the children with autism were less likely to initiate additional attempts to complete the task when the task was interrupted. The authors concluded that, at least at this developmental period, children with autism seem to understand the social components of situations that call for “helping” behaviors and engage in helping behaviors, but only when such help does not require interpersonal cooperation. However, when cooperation is required to complete the task, these children are less likely to correctly engage with another partner, possibly because the unique “shared” component of cooperation. That is, cooperation requires shared goals, shared attention, and a shared plan of action, processes that seem to be affected in children with autism.

Here is the abstract of the Tomosello paper:

Helping and cooperation are central to human social life. Here, we report two studies investigating these social behaviors in children with autism and children with developmental delay. In the first study, both groups of children helped the experimenter attain her goals. In the second study, both groups of children cooperated with an adult, but fewer children with autism performed the tasks successfully. When the adult stopped interacting at a certain moment, children with autism produced fewer attempts to re-engage her, possibly indicating that they had not formed a shared goal/shared intentions with her. These results are discussed in terms of the prerequisite cognitive and motivational skills and propensities underlying social behavior

From the above it is clear that children with Autism lack shared attention: a pre-requisite for language and their language impediments may also be due to this fact. If we contrast this with Schizophrenia/ Psychosis ( and assuming they are at opposite ends) it is not hard to see that with too much shared goals/ intentions/ attention, one may likely confuse between one’s own goals and those of others and in a joint scenario be more susceptible to delusions of control/ though insertion, wherein the shared space has become so vast that one seems to be controlled by the other or intruded by the other. thus , I propose that children susceptible to psychosis should show enhanced cooperating behavior indicating an overactive shared goals/ attention module.

Another interesting study I would like to discuss is the recent reporting of a dysfunctional ‘self’ module/model in a Trust game as compared to the ‘other’ module/ model. Here is how the Science Daily describes the Trust game that was used in the game.

In the trust game, one player receives an amount of money and then sends whatever amount he or she wants to the other player via computer message. The amount sent is tripled and the player at the other end then decides how much of the tripled amount to send back. The game has several rounds.

The ‘self’ module was identified as the brain areas (cingulate cortex) involved when making the decision to share the initial amount of money with another person. The ‘other’ module was defined as network region activated when the decision of the other player was revealed to them.

It was found that autistics showed lowered activity in the ‘self’ module. The authors construe this as evidence that they have a defective self concept.

“To have a good self concept, you have to be able to decide if the shared outcome is due to the other person or due to you,” said Montague. “If people can’t see themselves as a distinct entities at deeper levels, there is a disconnect.”

I beg to differ. In my view the findings can be explained using the joint attention / goal/ outcome defect outlined above. Although I believe that their explanation that people with autism may have a diminished sense of self or Agency also makes intuitive sense and I have argued the same previously. I contrast that with the Psychotic case where one attributes too much agency- even to inanimate objects or animals for example. However, in this case a more parsimonious explanation can be that the autistics were not able to model the others goal as their own (the familiar simulation argument) and could not indulged in joint goal intention and thus failed to optimally use the ‘self’ module i/e failed to take whatever actions were needed for a co-operative and trustful behavior .

The Friths adequately sum that up:

In a preview in the journal Neuron, Chris and Uta Frith wrote, “This is an exciting result because it suggests that some mechanisms of social interaction are intact in these high-functioning cases. What is the critical difference between the self phase and the other phase? We believe that the simple distinction of self versus other is not adequate. “It involves higher-order mentalizing: you care what another person thinks of you, and even further, you care that the other person trusts you. You would not do this when playing against a computer. In autism there is no difference,” wrote the Friths, who are at University College London.

good mood= intuition + good mood = psychosis?

I recently blogged about how good mood may lead to diminishing of working memory and I have blogged in the past regarding how good mood + intuitive thinking styles may lead to Magical thinking.

Now there appears a new study that shows that good mood, in and of itself, may lead to more reliance on Intuition or conscious gut feelings while making decisions. DeVries et al use the Iowa Gambling Task to ascertain whether an experimental manipulation (watching 2.5 minutes happy or sad clips) affected the performance on the IGT, in the window (20 to 40 cards from start) when the participants were using the conscious gut feeling or intuition to form their decisions . What they found was that a good or happy mood made the people rely more on their intuitive or conscious gut feelings vis-a-vis controls and the negative mood had the opposite effect of making them more deliberative. This was reflected in respectively good and poor performance on the second block of trial in the two affect cases . I present below the abstract of the study.

The present research aimed to test the role of mood in the Iowa Gambling Task . In the IGT, participants can win or lose money by picking cards from four different decks. They have to learn by experience that two decks are overall advantageous and two decks are overall disadvantageous. Previous studies have shown that at an early stage in this card-game, players begin to display a tendency towards the advantageous decks. Subsequent research suggested that at this stage, people base their decisions on conscious gut feelings. Based on empirical evidence for the relation between mood and cognitive processing-styles, we expected and consistently found that, compared to a negative mood state, reported and induced positive mood states increased this early tendency towards advantageous decks. Our results provide support for the idea that a positive mood causes stronger reliance on affective signals in decision-making than a negative mood.

I tend to put this in a broader context and it is apparent to me that good mood leads to more reliance and usage of intuitive thinking styles. this may even be mediated by the fact that working memory deficits associated with good mood prevent a deliberative approach to problem solving and instead favors an affective driven or intuitive approach. Taken together this implies that good mood leads to more intuitive thinking and decision making style. However, we have seen earlier that good mood and an intuitive thinking style are a dangerous mixture and lead to Magical thinking styles. Taken together this would mean that good mood induces a positive runaway process that causes more reliance on intuitive thinking which causes more
Magical thinking style and ultimately the good mood spirals upwards from good mood to Mania to full blown psychosis. I am excited by these linkages as they may provide additional points of attack where one can address the cognitive factors behind Mania / Psychosis and lead to additional therapeutic paradigms. How about you? Does this correlation and causation form Mood to Intuition to Magical thinking excite you too?

Auitsm, Valproate and Mania/Psychosis

There is a new open source journal available called Frontiers in Neuroscience , and in the first edition there is an article expounding autism as an Intense world syndrome. It is a very intriguing article that claims amongst other things that autistics have very rich local neural circuitry (perhaps in lieu of sparse global circuitry) and this may be the reason why they have rich modular cognitive abilities like memory etc. I am tempted to contrast this with Schizophrenia/ psychosis where there may be more global processing of information. But before my main thesis an abstract of the paper.

Autism is a devastating neurodevelopmental disorder with a polygenetic predisposition that seems to be triggered by multiple environmental factors during embryonic and/or early postnatal life. While significant advances have been made in identifying the neuronal structures and cells affected, a unifying theory that could explain the manifold autistic symptoms has still not emerged. Based on recent synaptic, cellular, molecular, microcircuit, and behavioral results obtained with the valproic acid (VPA) rat model of autism, we propose here a unifying hypothesis where the core pathology of the autistic brain is hyper-reactivity and hyper-plasticity of local neuronal circuits. Such excessive neuronal processing in circumscribed circuits is suggested to lead to hyper-perception, hyper-attention, and hyper-memory, which may lie at the heart of most autistic symptoms. In this view, the autistic spectrum are disorders of hyper-functionality, which turns debilitating, as opposed to disorders of hypo-functionality, as is often assumed. We discuss how excessive neuronal processing may render the world painfully intense when the neocortex is affected and even aversive when the amygdala is affected, leading to social and environmental withdrawal. Excessive neuronal learning is also hypothesized to rapidly lock down the individual into a small repertoire of secure behavioral routines that are obsessively repeated. We further discuss the key autistic neuropathologies and several of the main theories of autism and re-interpret them in the light of the hypothesized Intense World Syndrome.

The authors use the valproate model of autism for their discussion and it is a well established mouse model of autism. In this model, mother rats are given valproate during pregnancy and the children later had autistic syndromes and were developmentally retarded. There is also some literature documenting a linkage between fetal valproate syndrome and autism.

Rodier et al. have reported that, in a rat model for teratogen exposure, the administration of valproic acid in early development induces morphological brainstem pathology similar to changes sometimes observed in autism. Alterations in the distribution of serotonergic neurons in brain, suggestive of abnormal neuronal differentiation and migration, have also been observed in the animal model. Further work in rats has shown that the prenatal challenge with valproic acid induces behavioral changes, including delayed maturation, decreased social exploration, deficits in sensorimotor gating, and repetitive, stereotyped responses in an open field. In mice, exposure to valproic acid while in utero leads to behavioral retardation and regression during neonatal and juvenile development

Thus from the above discussion it is apparent that exposure to valproic acid has something to do with autism. It is to be noted that valproic acid/ sodium valproate is a well-known anti-convulsant that is also given in bipolar disorder as a mood stabilizer. Now readers of his blog will be familiar with my model of autism , whereby I stress the opposite polarity to schizophrenia/ psychosis. I believe that what we witness in Autism is the converse of what we witness in psychosis. Both are pathological states, but one with too much reality orientation (including not attributing agency to fellow humans/ animals) while other too much fantasy orientation (with tendency towards anthropomorphism). Also while autistics may be the proverbial detail-oriented missing forest for the trees sort of people, schizophrenics are more meaning-and-big-picture-obsessed people with possibly more hyper-active and hyper-plastic global neural circuitry as opposed to what is hypothesized in autistic intense world syndrome.
I also consider bipolar and schizophrenia to be closely related and am not surprised that while lack of valproic acid is used to treat the bipolar psychosis and the bipolar condition; an exposure to the same teratogen during pregnancy ( a critical developmental window ) may have the opposite effect of leading to the opposite disorder like autism. To me this valproic acid linkage proves further that autism and schizophrenia/ psychosis are opposite of each other.

Obesity: The Dopamine Connection

In a recent news article, there is a surprising revelation, that obese people have fewer dopamine receptors. The article author links this to a state akin to addiction (with amphetamine etc) as in addicted individuals too the dopamine system is involved and after prolonged usage of the drug, the dopamine receptors become less in the system.

It turns out that food also affects the brain’s dopamine systems. When Volkow, who is also director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her colleagues compared brain images of methamphetamine users with obese people, they found both groups had significantly fewer dopamine receptors than healthy people. Even more interesting: The higher the body mass index, the fewer the dopamine receptors — a finding that may open the door to a better understanding of why it is so difficult for some people to lose weight and keep it off.

What role dopamine may play in obesity — and how eating affects it — is still to be determined. No one knows when the obese people in the study lost their dopamine receptors in the brain or if that loss could be reversed with weight loss. Are some people more susceptible to the effects of eating sugary, high-fat fare because they start out with lower levels of dopamine receptors in the brain? Or could eating those foods decrease dopamine receptors? Might food additives, preservatives and other substances also have an effect on dopamine receptors?

While several alternatives are provided above as to why this link exists, I would like to advance my own thoughts on the matter. First and foremost, I would like to speculate that when we eat something , we get a dopamine rush, and all of us carve food (get hungry) when we haven’t had a food-associated-dopamine-rush for a long time. Now, if the dopamine rush that we feel, when eating, is not strong enough, we would still feel hungry. This cycle may lead to obesity. Now, from the above study it is clear, that obese people have fewer Dopamine receptors than the rest of us. thus, when they eat something, though the dopamine released in synapses may be the same as that in normal people, due to lesser dopamine receptors, they will experience a subdued dopamine rush. To compensate for this they may overeat and thus gain weight.

This theory (which seems so obvious, once stated) also explains the fact that why people on anti-psychotics sometimes gain weight as a side effect. the anti-psychotics (most of them) work as dopamine antagonist; i.e. they bind to the dopamine receptors and thus make fewer dopamine receptors available. Thus, with reduced bind able dopamine receptor sites, the food we eat, would not lead to a dopamine rush of great magnitude; thus causing overeating and weight gain.

Here, I would like to highlight that dopamine and serotonin system interact a lot, and as indicated in a previous post, those people who have low serotonin levels in brain (i.e. are depressed) also have reduced sensitivity to sweet taste. Thus, they too overeat sweet items to compensate for their reduced sweet taste. Having low serotonin and fewer D2 receptors, may be a potentially deadly condition that may lead to more food craving (especially sugary food) and may lead to obesity.

Hat tip: Center for emotional wellbeing.

Good Mood + Intuition = Magical Thinking = Psychosis?

There is a nice little study that shows that good mood induces one to be more superstitious or prone to believe in things like UFO’s or the Voodoo dolls.

In the experiment they induced good mood by making people imagine a scenario wherein the participant helped a lost child find his/her parents. The mood was thus experimentally manipulated. subsequently they were showed a documentary about UFOs. Those who were in good mood as compared to neutral mood, were more likely to believe in the UFO’s. This was true for only those whose decision making style was intuitive. Those, who were more rationally inclined, were not made to believe in UFO’s by the good mood manipulation.

In a follow up study, those who were more happily inclined and intuitive were less successfully at a dart throwing game in which the target was a photo of a baby. This is due to their attributing some similarity to the target with themselves and thus this impedes their performance.

Now, it is well known, that those bipolar patients who are having a high can also have psychosis. Also while depressive phase of bipolar is marked by sad mood (amongst other), the manic phase is characterized by a happy and exuberant mood (although irritability of mood is also present). It thus seems evident that in a manic phase , people who are intuitive may resort to Magical Thinking and this may lead to full blown psychosis as they lose contact with reality. This is an interesting hypothesis and I would like to see some studies on bipolar patients – both those who are rationally inclined and those whose thinking style is intuitive- and investigate is those who have psychotic episodes are more intuitively inclined- as a happy mood is a commonality to all bipolars in the manic phase.

Also, I haven’t read the original study – couldn’t find on the web- so if someone can point me to a link to the same, or to some other related studies, I would be very thankful.

Hat tip: Mind Hacks