Monday Miscellany: Trolley Killers, Pain, PTSD

1. Via Stephanie, new and fascinating pain research out of Stanford.

Neuroimaging studies from several different labs examining diverse types of pain offer tantalizing clues. They all show that chronic pain patients have stronger connections among brain regions involved in pain perception and processing, as well as losses in gray matter in those areas and perturbations in brain chemistry compared to healthy individuals.

These changes are so profound and consistent that a computer can be trained to spot chronic pain patients by their brain scans alone. In 2011, Mackey’s team demonstrated just that. They taught a computer to recognize the brain activity pattern of a person experiencing acute pain. In 2012, they extended the work to chronic pain. When they fed structural MRI pictures from patients with lower back pain and healthy controls into a computer, it was able to distinguish these groups with 76 percent accuracy, based largely on gray matter changes.

Working with colleagues at Lucas, Mackey, who has a PhD in electrical engineering, also perfected a technique to obtain functional imaging scans of the spinal cord (tricky because the spine shifts with every breath). At a 2013 conference, his team presented preliminary evidence of amped-up connections in the spinal cord—which is responsible not only for routing messages to the brain but for sending inhibitory signals back to the body—that may play a role in chronic pain.

2. Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future

3. Genetic Russian Roulette (and read the comments, too, for some discussion of Sudbury Schools)

4. The words you use matter. We’ve known for a while about how much self-report can be skewed, but in clinical interview settings, it’s particularly important to talk so people can understand you.

5. Nightmares as a problematic and intrusive symptom of PTSD, and techniques for treating them.

6. And speaking of nightmares, here’s a comprehensive-but-readable roundup of the research.

7. ….YES.
Screen Shot 2013-11-24 at 2.44.33 PM Screen Shot 2013-11-24 at 2.44.46 PM

8. I know everyone’s going to be bowled over in shock, but an actual longitudinal study in the UK found that videogames don’t seem to measurably change kids’ behavior.

9. On teaching consent to children. I post versions of “teach kids to honor and expect consent-based ethics!” posts pretty regularly, but it’s an important enough idea to bear repeating.

I cannot express how important it was to actively practice saying “No” and “Stop” forcefully. I’m not going to lie: I thought the playful ‘Smiley-No’ was kinda fun. I’m not sure how I got the idea that saying “no” when I actually mean “yes” was fun. Does that idea come from ambient social-messaging, or some sort of natural impulse? I doubt I will ever know. But for my brother, the playful ‘No’ was indistinguishable from the serious ‘No’ so long as I still had a smile on my face.

There are plenty of reasons why someone (females in particular) would present a ‘Smiley-No’ when they seriously mean ‘No’. In fact, it’s totally natural to smile and laugh when afraid as a form of appeasement. There’s even a catchy name for this behavior; its called ‘tend and befriend‘. Additionally, females are socialized from a young age to suppress their voices, to be soft- spoken, and not-be-forceful in general.

Whether the tendency to give a ‘Smiley-No’ when we are truly frightened comes from nature or nurture, the fact that it’s so ingrained is all the more reason to actively break the habit by practicing.

10. I’m breaking my own rule about only posting linking to things I think are worth rereading and sharing, but how could I not link to something that contains these arguments?

Once both heterosexual marriage and gay marriage are legal, there will be no reason to prohibit bisexual marriage.


The secular case for polyamory will go something like this: If it’s legal to be right handed, and legal to be left handed, then it should be legal to be ambidextrous.

11. So I’ve said this several times now, but go read Worm. I can’t say you won’t regret it–it will certainly suck you in and eat up your free time, but it will be SO WORTH IT.

In Which Scary Things Happened, Decisions Were Made, And I Didn’t Blog


Dear readers.

I have been really great about blogging Monday Miscellany link posts. Except for that time I posted on Tuesday last week. And when I haven’t done them.

Okay, so I’ve been mediocre.

But! There are reasons!

1) Big Life Changes. I’m increasingly sold on the idea of graduate school following this year. This means applying to graduate school. Which eats a lot of time. Common App? No such luck. Individual applications with ambiguous instructions? Yeah, got that bit covered.
      a) This meant picking graduate schools. Yeah, that’s hard to do. I’m intending to get a Masters in Social Work (MSW), and I needed to decide exactly where to do that. Since certification as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker varies from state to state–and licenses don’t transfer–I’m effectively picking where I want to live for a long while. That’s…scary. I don’t have a strong identification to a place as My Place.
      b) In the absence of having My Place Where I Want To Live Somewhat Permanently, I have to decide what I need and value from a location. Real seasons seem to be a minor but notable requirement. A support system seems very necessary. At the same time, I feel a strong aversion (which seems to be socially conditioned and not useful at all) to not be That Girl, who moves because of friends, who isn’t independent enough, etc. This is probably a stupid feeling, since all my experience in the last four years says that I like being in places with people who make me happy, care about my feelings, and will sit in coffee shops and blog with me. Unfortunately, stupid feelings want be just as loud as reasonable feelings, and don’t come with warning labels.
     c) Good news! I have a whole list of places I’m applying to now. I have started those applications! This feels delightful. The future seems a little less like a big scary black hole of paperwork and failure.

2) It’s finals. It was midterms. (These keep happening.) This results in lots of stressing and very little writing. What little writing that does occur does seem to be in the pursuit of finishing papers.

3) I’ve been working. I just finished a teaching assistantship on the weekends, and I’m the social media contractor for the SSA. These are both fun, but they take time, and I haven’t managed to get my hands on a Time Turner.

4) Fear. For some reason–perhaps reading more specialized science blogs, perhaps jerkbrain, I’ve started a number of posts over the last weeks, and then just…stopped. The impulse would die, or I’d get caught up in another project, or I’d look at 300 words and think, nah, someone else has written a much better version of this anyways. So…link posts reigned. These will continue! But I’m trying to talk myself into more blogging. I LIKE it. I really do! So! Ideas for blogging? Stick them in the comments? Topics you want to see? The same!

Monday Miscellany: Vivaldi, Fourier, TUESDAY

I failed at posting this properly on Monday. Mostly because I was so busy having fun at Skepticon. Can you blame me? (Answer: yes, but you should click these links anyways)

1. Facts So Romantic is exactly my kind of column. Romance is good research tailor to your interests, y’all. Or flowers. Whatever floats your boat. Anyways, FSR is here making the Fourier transform seem positively dreamy.

2. Signaling and the stress of ‘whistling Vivaldi’:

Social psychologist Claude Steele revolutionized our understanding of the daily context and cognitive effects of stereotypes and bias. The title of his book alludes to a story his friend, NY Times writer, Brent Staples once shared. An African American man, Staples, recounts how his physical presence terrified whites as he moved about Chicago as a free citizen and graduate student. To counter the negative effects of white fear he took to whistling a classical music piece by Italian composer Vivaldi. It was a signal to the victimless victims of his blackness that he was safe. Dangerous black men do not listen to classical music, or so the hope goes. The incongruence between Staples’ musical choices and the stereotype of him as a predator were meant to disrupt the implicit, unexamined racist assumptions of him. It seems trite perhaps, an attempt to make whites feel at ease unless we recall the potential consequences of white dis-ease for black lives.

3. I’m lucky enough to know Erik in Real Life(tm) and this piece about UnderArmor, Northwestern football, and what it means that we glorify injury is amazing.

[...] we’d much rather see “service” and “country” written across the backs of our players’ blood-stained uniforms than “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” the neurodegenerative condition that is responsible for what most people know as “the concussion scandal” sweeping the NFL. Because just like real warriors, we want our football players to keep fighting when they get blood spattered on them, or have a concussion, or, like legendary quarterback Brett Favre, can’t remember their daughters’ soccer games. What we don’t want them to do is kill themselves, like four NFL players or ex-players did in an eight-month span last year. You could be retired Chargers icon Junior Seau, or a young, active player like Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who shot himself outside the team’s practice facility after murdering his girlfriend in front of his 3-month old daughter. It doesn’t matter. No one’s immune to the mysterious but all too common “something” that football can do to you. Of course, our real warriors also kill themselves—at a rate a recent estimate placed at around 22 veteran suicides every day. It turns out that it’s much easier to fight through some blood on the outside of your jersey, or uniform, or flag, than it is to fight through what can go on inside your head.

4. Now that we’re married, can we go back to being queer?

5. Language and how it can give you more ways to divide and clarify your understanding.

6. On consent in romantic relationships:

There’s a lot of fuzzy usage around the word consent. I would like to propose a tightening of the definition, because if we are not clear about what consent is, we cannot possibly succeed in communicating about it. Consent is about me: my body, my mind, and my choices. My consent is required to access the things that I own. You do not need my consent to act, because I do not own your body, your mind, or your choices. However, if your behavior crosses into my personal space, then you need my consent. If my romantic partner goes out and sleeps with a dozen random hookups, he may have broken an agreement, but he has not violated my consent. If he then has sex with me without telling me about his actions, he has violated my consent because he has deprived me of the ability to make an informed choice.

7. People with really great memories are actually not so great at sifting through misinformation. Hunh.

8.This one isn’t a link. I just had a wonderful time at Skepticon 6 and I am just starting to come down from the ridiculous happiness of seeing dearly loved people. I twirled and made silly faces and tabled and was recognized by some of you dear readers. (This still leaves me speechless and flabbergasted) and wow, waking up in Chicago was a bit of a letdown today. So many thanks to the wonderful people who made that happen.

At This Absurd Hour…

….I am sitting in the airport, about to catch my flight to St. Louis, where I will drive with Miri and Adam Lee to SKEPTICON.

-I am going to be tabling for the Secular Student Alliance. You should come by and hear about how awesome we are. I am almost as exclamatory in person as I am online.

-I have a twitter! I use it significantly more than I’ve been blogging, and you should follow it. Or not. Or you should. (It’s really early and I’m reversing my reverse psychology. Or something.) But you should definitely be following @SecularStudents.

-I’m reading Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. I like it, but it gives me perpetual deja vu. Near constant instances of “oh, yes, of course everyone knows about this study with the–OH. You did this study!?” Fun fact: Hare Krishnas, the ones who will give you a flower or religious text and then immediately ask for a donation? (My university has them regularly.) This is actually a widely successful and planned campaign based on needing to raise more funds as Krishnas expanded into the United States. Less fun fact: this totally works by playing on our need to reciprocate favors, even when we didn’t want the favor in the first place.

-This is Worm. It is a web novel (free!) and it involves superheroes! And character depth! And near-dystopian settings! And people making reasonable decisions based on the information they have, rather than blind faith and/or dues ex machina! I am also reading it, swapping between dead-tree book and online, but it’s horribly addictive and may take over all of my Cialdini time.


See you all in a few hours! I will probably be terribly, horribly sleep deprived, and have some dear ones to see before I do normal conference socializing, but normal!Kate will be back by the evening.

Monday Miscellany: Gorilla Opacity, Polyamory, Bad Statistics

1. Polyamory doesn’t get a free pass at being radical without an analysis of power in our interactions.

2. On signaling status and using luxuries to get past gatekeeping, The Logic of Stupid Poor People.

Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And, not just for the psychic rewards, but belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on. Someone mentioned on twitter that poor people can be presentable with affordable options from Kmart. But the issue is not about being presentable. Presentable is the bare minimum of social civility. It means being clean, not smelling, wearing shirts and shoes for service and the like. Presentable as a sufficient condition for gainful, dignified work or successful social interactions is a privilege. It’s the aging white hippie who can cut the ponytail of his youthful rebellion and walk into senior management while aging black panthers can never completely outrun the effects of stigmatization against which they were courting a revolution. Presentable is relative and, like life, it ain’t fair.

3. Statistics Done Wrong: A Woefully Complete Guide

If you’re a practicing scientist, you probably use statistics to analyze your data. From basic t tests and standard error calculations to Cox proportional hazards models and geospatial kriging systems, we rely on statistics to give answers to scientific problems. This is unfortunate, because most of us don’t know how to do statistics. Statistics Done Wrong is a guide to the most popular statistical errors and slip-ups committed by scientists every day, in the lab and in peer-reviewed journals. Many of the errors are prevalent in vast swathes of the published literature, casting doubt on the findings of thousands of papers.Statistics Done Wrong assumes no prior knowledge of statistics, so you can read it before your first statistics course or after thirty years of scientific practice.

4. Bystanders won’t always interpret you as charitably as I do.

5.  Miri responds to this post in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

 Folks, nobody will hear you loudly doing nothing about bigotry. Nobody will care that you determinedly, passionately shrugged and closed the browser tab and moved on. The best case scenario of this is that trolls will keep trolling and bigots will keep bigoting.

The best case scenario of speaking up is that you change minds. The good-but-not-best case scenario is that you don’t necessarily change any minds, but the bigot will stop posting bigotry because they’ll realize they’ll be hated for it. And others won’t see that bigotry and either be hurt OR assume that it’s okay and they can do it too.

6. Back in my homestate, Texas A&M combines religion and neuroscience into a new course. How this could be a course I’d jump at the chance to take: what does religion change (if anything) in the brain? Are those changes religion-specific? Do certain kinds of rituals result in certain kinds of responses? What about spirituality? Does one have to believe in the supernatural stuff, or just participate in the ritual?  What this course actually is:

[...]when discussing evolution of the nervous system, the students will also consider the Biblical book of Genesis and other creation stories. The lesson about action potentials — the cellular process that transmits information within and between neurons — will also include a discussion of Descartes and dualism between mind and brain.

7. Found this pullquote on tumblr from Allie Brosh’s new book, Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened. You should almost definitely buy it here.

Most people can motivate themselves to do things simply by knowing that those things need to be done. But not me. For me, motivation is this horrible, scary game where I try to make myself do something while I actively avoid doing it. If I win, I have to do something I don’t want to do. If I lose, I’m one step closer to ruining my entire life. And I never know whether I’m going to win or lose until the last second.

8. Via Scott at Slate Star Codex, this study, entitled The Invisible Gorilla Strikes Again: Sustained Inattentional Blindness in Expert Observers. And you know, I think I’m just going to let him explain:

You remember the Invisible Gorilla Test? Now they’ve done the same thing, except that this time they ask radiologists to evaluate a patient’s lungs for potential cancer, and see how many of those radiologists fail to notice that the patient’s lungs also contain a gorilla. I am not making this up. One day, we will tell our grandchildren about the bad old days when science was about discovering bosons and stuff instead of just cataloguing the situations in which we can trick people into ignoring gorillas.

Yes, this is a link post that just quoted a link post. Let’s just ignore that.

Aaaand, now that I’ve linked you to something that used “gorilla opacity” in serious terms, I think that’s enough silliness for Monday.