Monday Miscellany: BF Skinner, Baby Boxes, Ballet

For the whimsical macabre, you should be following the Night Vale twitter account. (I suppose you could also listen to their podcast, but I never got into it.)

Shannon Friedman on the anti-placebo effect:

Its easy to miss treatment working.  For example, as a kid grows up, its easy to miss how their vocabulary is growing, but for someone who doesn’t seem them every day, it may be immediately obvious “my how they’re talking more!”  In other words, an anti-placebo effect is what happens when someone is having an intervention that is causing their life to improve, but the person does not believe that they are improving.
The reason that this is important is that those recovering from anxiety and depression have a tendency to believe that they are not doing as well as they are – due to this cognitive bias creating an anti-placebo effect for them, which results in their giving up too soon on interventions which are effective and thus not getting better and regressing to old unpleasant patterns.

This is really important, but it’s also confounded by the fact that many interventions (particularly in cases of depression) don’t work for many–even most–people who try them. Taking your own metrics is a way to sift through this a little, but given how many people experience as a lack of motivation, “just track progress very carefully!” seems oversimplified.

As far as data tracking goes, I suggest SAM for anxiety tracking and MoodPanda seems to be a good start for charting ups and downs of emotional state.

Rats appear to model empathy, and also are much more accurate, much cheaper alternatives to drug dogs.

BF Skinner (known for behaviorism and operant conditioning) built a box….for his baby. (And it’s definitely not what you’re thinking)

Halloween always manages to assemble a collection of weird-‘sexy’ (sexy house costume), appropriative-‘sexy’ (sexy Cherokee warrior), and of course, the mental patients, the straitjackets, and the ‘sexy’ psychos. This year, the internet banded together against the portrayal of mental illness as sexy, and began to tweet pictures of themselves going about their business in their everyday #mentalpatient costumes. And companies responded!

What I won’t tell you about my ballet dancing son:

I’ll tell you about a baby boy who felt music in his soul before he could crawl, grooving to the beat of push-button toys in the church nursery and spawning jokes about his young parents’ need to curb the tendency if he was to become a “good Baptist baby.”

I’ll tell you about a toddler spinning on his head on the living room carpet, the grocery store linoleum, the church foyer tile, eliciting amused comments from strangers about his wannabe break dancing. I’ll tell you of his unquenchable need to move in the presence of rhythm and an obvious inborn ability to feel music.

I’ll revisit the memory of him bounding in the front door on a December afternoon, tossing his kindergarten backpack and, wild eyed, telling us of the music class in which people leaped and twirled to music, strong men jumped high in the air, danced on their toes and lifted ballerinas across the stage. He wore black sweat pants and a white undershirt every day of Christmas break that year, asked Santa for black ballet shoes, watched dozens of online videos of boys’ ballet techniques and by Christmas day had memorized every note and crescendo of the entire Nutcracker Suite.


Fun With Scientific Controversies

One of my classes this quarter is entirely about controversies in psychology. They’re pretty standard: is unconscious racism a thing? Does subliminal messaging work? And they’re interesting questions, to be sure. But I’m fairly familiar with the research already, and now I’m procrastinating on writing a paper for the class by thinking up other controversies in psychology–ones where I feel far less comfortable saying “here’s the answer!” or even “here’s where to start looking for the answer!”

I’ve got these four–and still no more headaway in the actual homework assignment–what are yours?

1) Why are we using p-values in psychology when they seem to be awful and allow people to fudge data more easily?
An interesting secondary question here is how do we make the switch? Hundreds of thousands of psych students will be trained in determining results by null-hypothesis testing. Research assistants and graduate students and precocious undergraduates with theses will all be doing research with the methods they’ve learned. How do we get all of them to change?

2) How should we be using social psychology findings when there seems to be only some evidence for mechanisms that would cause huge societal change?
Particularly since social psychology research tends to be done in labs, may not generalize to the outside world, and has the college sophomore problem. And it’s WEIRD.

3) What’s the best (or even just a better way) to categorize mental disorders? And while we’re at it, how do we fix our map-territory problem?
That is, are we expanding the definition of say, depression, to include more people with depression who went previously undiagnosed? Or are we considering more things to fall into the category of “being depressed”?

4) Willpower–how does it work? Is it a limited resource? How glucose-dependent is it?




Using Self-Help Anxiety (SAM) App: Initial Thoughts

I downloaded the Self-Help Anxiety Management (henceforth, SAM) app to my phone several weeks back with the intention of giving it a trial run. Today I got quite anxious and after knitting part of a scarf, walking three miles, trying to meditate, and taking a nap, all with zero success in stress-reduction, I remembered it. This is Day 1 of the test–I’ll write more well-rounded analysis in 7-10 days, when I’ve used it over time.  If you’re interested in testing alongside, this is the iOS link and here’s one for Android. 

Before: Yes, hi, this is anxious.

Before: Welp, even more anxious than I realized.

Thought 1: Wow, Kate, you are anxious a lot.

Thought 2: Wait, this seems to actually be helping quite a bit.

Cursory Look at the Best SAM Stuff:

-An anxiety tracker (data entry part pictured on left). I paired this with Annoyster (Apple/Android alternative), to pester me to chart anxiety at random intervals throughout the day. Goal: Getting a better picture than either charting when I’m calm enough to remember or charting when I’m anxious enough to open the app.

-The relaxation techniques appear to be gamified: though I haven’t levelled up yet, it appears that after using a relaxation techinque over time, you can “level up” to unlock tougher tools (Perhaps meditating or doing breathing exercises for longer periods of time? Will check back in next writeup.)

-Anxiety Toolbox: when you find activities in the app that are particularly helpful, you move them in here. I’m excited about this part for two reasons
-It indicates that the designers recognize that coping techniques vary widely. What works for me may leave you bored and still anxious.
-When the toolbox fills up, I won’t have to sift through all the activities on the main page to find what I want. Also, if I can make going from anxious to trying coping mechanisms quickly, it increases the likelihood that I’ll do that instead of getting wrapped up in a loop of self-defeating thoughts.

After: Anxious, but manageably so.

After: Anxious, but manageably so. Time invested to get to this point: 10 minutes.

-A little thing that just made me happy: in one of the calming techniques, guided breathing, you can adjust the inhale/exhale times. Attention to detail like this matters. I breathe quite shallowly, and likely wouldn’t have found the exercise practical without customization. Of course, if the app didn’t allow for this, I could have just done focused breathing exercises on my own….and been much less likely to make it a habit.

The Downsides:

-It’s not very intuitive. I had to read the directions and fiddle around with buttons for each screen. I strongly recommend playing with the app during a non-anxious time before putting it to use.

-There’s some sort of social network aspect where you can set up an account. I have no idea what the value of this is.

-All of the references, numbers to call, and resources are for the UK. (The app was developed by a university in Wales.

-I’m not sure how all the pieces of the menu fit together. Sure, it’s great that there’s a place for me to list things that make me anxious, and I like having coping techniques, but how can I use them most effectively? Not a lot of advice is offered. If this was the first app I’d tried or the first attempt I’d made to manage anxiety, I think I might be less enthused.

First thoughts: I like this! It’s the first app I’ve recommended to friends, and the first that I’ve seen immediate results from. It’s free, it’s made by people in the field, and worst case, I’ll have more data about my mood over time that I can use.

Links for downloading it yourself: Android, iOS

Disclaimer: I’m not a therapist. Definitely consult yours, and SAM and my advice aren’t alternatives to medical care. 


Monday Miscellany: Geeks & Gourds

The Five Geek Social Fallacies: back online again, and for those of us returning to school and friends, worth rereading. Numbers 1 and 3 always manage to trip me up.

It’s fall, otherwise known as decorative gourd season, motherfuckers. McSweeney’s is hit or miss–this one’s a hit.

City Ballet pays tribute to 9/11:

How well does CBT for bulimia generalize?

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is commonly described as the evidence-based treatment for bulimia nervosa. But do the findings from nearly perfectly crafted trials, with stringently followed protocols and “ideal” participants apply to the “real world”? How generalizable are the findings from carefully selected participants to clinical populations where, for one, the prevalence of psychiatric comorbidities is relatively high?

In other words, CBT has been shown to be efficacious (i.e., it works in a controlled experimental research trial setting) but is it effective (i.e., does it work in a clinical setting where clients might have multiple diagnoses and complex needs)?

The article that made me grin the most this week was a tribute to Nina Davuluri, and the one that made me think was this discussion of psychoanalysis and CBT.

And this is from two Skepticons ago, but I’ve been meaning to watch it for ages. Now that I’ve crossed it off my unending to do list (and, like the Hydra, it immediately sprouted two more tasks), I can say that yes, you should watch it too. It’s a nice intro-level talk for those unfamiliar with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), but won’t bore you–quite the opposite, actually!–if you’re more advanced.

What’s the last thing you memorized?
Me: O Captain, My Captain, by Walt Whitman. (Okay, this was about six years ago, where we had to present five pieces as part of our history studies. But I don’t know that I’ve memorized anything more recently)

[Repost] On Running Out of Feelings, and What to Do Next

[This is a repost from when I was co-blogging with Ashley. It seemed appropriate, as I’m feeling a wee numb myself, and with school starting and winter coming, this seems to be a shared feeling.]

Hello, internet.
This is where I come to spill my secrets, right?

Sometime between last week and this one, I went numb–ran out of feelings. I think it was somewhere after the third friend in forty-eight hours contacted me with questions about leaving abusive relationships, between finals and Steubenville and painful anniversaries and suddenly having a living situation that went from Absolutely Planned to Horrifyingly Tenuous. Oh, and it’s my last day of therapy this week.*

And that’s the simple stuff.

Add in friends who need a Social Kate who smiles and has opinions and wit and does not resemble a posed block of wood. Sprinkle in academics, and taking a quarter off to work at a small agency that expects a lot from me.  Roll it all in the stress of attending a competitive university where everyone Accomplishes Things that can be itemized on a resume–things that don’t contain scary words like atheist…and feeling anything outside Ron Weasley’s teaspoon involved too much work.

So I just started feeling numb.

It’s awful. I hate it and I go round and round between being irritated at not feeling anything, and getting angry about it…and then giving up because even anger feels muted and exhausting. It’s not terribly unusual–when you run out of emotional energy, that’s how it goes. It sucks, and I know I’m not the only one who gets this. So here’s how I minimize suckage. (The technical term, ya know.)


An idea stolen from someone–either the indomitable Captain Awkward or Keely. Each day gets two lists. List One: everything I have to accomplish that day in order to prevent the week from crashing and burning, and nothing more. Anything else you accomplish goes on List Two.

List Two starts out empty, and you have no obligation to fill it. It can be empty at the end of the day, and you will still have survived and accomplished important things and can sleep easily. If there is anything on List Two, you get to feel proud of it. You have gone above and beyond. Congratulations! Well done, you.

Excuses ahead of time are your friend.

Because the socially appropriate answer to a concerned “How are you feeling?” is almost never “My brain is being awful and I can’t feel anything and also everything fell apart last week.”, stock phrases are your friend. Among my favorites:

I haven’t been sleeping quite right, thanks for asking!
Because this is true even if it means you’ve been sleeping constantly and your brain feels like fuzz.

Oh, you know, long week. [Tired smile.]
Where a “long week” is defined as any set of days where life was hard and not worth explaining.

I’m a little out of it right now. It’s probably [related thing that may or may not explain your actual problems.]
Poor finals. I’m constantly blaming them–this is my most used phrase. I actually rarely find exams overwhelming, but they’re a fabulous explanation for why I’ve developed the habits of your average hermit crab.

Sorry, I have a touch of a stomachache.
People with stomachaches tend to get all silent and huddle in the corner of any given gathering, trying to force their gastric juices to cooperate. I don’t particularly advocate lying, but if this gets you out of an nosy stranger’s headlights, I approve.

This terrible clip art is not the Feelings Police

This terrible clip art is not the Feelings Police

Numb is okay.
There are no Feelings Police. They will not come find you and lecture you into submission for not possessing the correct emotional range. Feeling numb is weird and uncomfortable and unpleasant, but it goes away and you can survive it. Give yourself permission to feel as bad as  you do, to nap as long as you need to, and to feel a little hollow.

Be greedy.

And along with that, be greedy. Will taking day off to paint your nails and consume only popcorn make you feel better? Do it. Will skipping that party to play videogames in your room feel better than pretending to feel social? You suddenly have new plans for the evening. Within the limits of your wallet and abilities, do whatever seems as though it could improve your day.

Hide in groups.
The thing about large groups of people is that you can get lost in them. Everyone else will jump about and make noise and try to figure out how to split the check when Susan ate half of the onion rings that Johnny ordered, David and Sarah split an entree, and Jacob only brought large bills.  And you can just sit there. Let everyone else have wild, sweeping feelings. There’s less pressure to say interesting things when everyone else is being exciting. You can tune out, drop in for the occasional murmur of agreement, and still be holding up your little corner of being social.

Update: Puzzles
Stephanie explains.


So there it is. Ideally, these will work this time around, and I’ll kick the fuzzy-brain feels sometime before the end of my spring break.  What do you do?

* NU requires that I take the coming quarter off from classes to work Monday-Thursday, from 9-5. Therapy is only available Monday-Thursday, from 9-5. I’m sure there’s a witty name for the choice between skipping my lunch hour to get therapy and not having therapy for an eating disorder, but right now I can’t manage to find it.

Some Thoughts for The Therapist I’ll Be (Part 1)

I’m looking at grad school [gasps, slams laptop closed], and thinking about careers and plans and futures. (Adulting! It’s scary shit.) Which means lots of reflecting on what I’ve learned and heard about the good and awful things therapists can do. So, some notes, some things I want the future Therapist Kate to remember:

1. I will talk process.

Get an email from a potential client? Those are scary to send. Like, preventatively terrifying. And years from now, I will remember how hard it was to press ‘send’ this year. And then I will respond, right away. Even if it’s that I can’t help, that I’m not taking new clients, I will respond. Because it’s even scarier to have pressed send and never hear back.

2. I will continue to update and talk process in every step of the way.

Going to need a week to figure out my schedule? I’ll make sure to check in and update.

3. I will ask everyone pronouns and then use preferred ones in all notes and files.

Because really. This is just a habit worth developing.

4. I will have multiple avenues of contact.

Making my first therapy appointment involved no less than two websites for health services, three google searches, and one very very scary phone call. (Apologies to everyone who thought Moaning Myrtle briefly occupied the third floor bathroom that day. I didn’t have anywhere else to call from.) Then, to do intake? Another phone call. This time, a long one, conducted from my room. I had a roommate. Not to mention, this just about sums up my feelings about phones.

Email is easy! Email means clients can revise and edit and make sure they’re clearly stating what I need. They can write down lists and then give accurate pictures of their symptoms. I will have multiple ways to be contacted, because the barrier to entry shouldn’t be calling me. (Happy ending: my new counseling center takes–nay, encourages–scheduling via email.)

5. I will remember that I can’t help everyone. 

This is the stray cat principle. As nice as it would be to rescue every feline with big eyes and soft fur, you have a house, apartment, or commune of finite and inchangeable size. You know this. So which cats do you adopt? The ones who get along with your life. The ones who you think won’t tear all the drapes up every night and leave you stressed and angry and neglectful of other cats.

In the same way, I will remember that it’s both unethical and downright harmful to take on clients who have issues you’ve no experience in. It’s not acceptable to take on so many clients that I let them slip through the cracks. That I owe it to my clients to take care of myself, to make recommendations and decline and refer when I think I’m not the best practitioner.

Ideas? Put them in the comments!

Brains Lie

I’m heading into my last year of undergraduate degrees in psychology.* It’s what I’ve always wanted, if you can define ‘always’ as, ‘at least since I’ve had life plans’.

A sneaking suspicion that I wanted to know more about what made people tick in high school, a single psychopathology class during a visit to Stanford (I sat in the back, took six pages of notes, and promptly planned to major in the field), and one early-decision application to the school with my favorite psychology program, and here I am. So what have I learned? Can I guess your deepest motivations? Can I diagnose strangers at fifty paces? What have I gotten out of nine quarters of work and six figures of tuition?

A very valuable lesson, couched in reams of research papers and a small fortune in textbooks:

Brains lie.

They lie often and well and inconspicuously. They lie in beautiful, harmless ways, turning that pattern of dark and light into an optical illusion,giving color to numbers and taste to music, replaying that romantic memory in surround sound.

And they lie in dangerous, scary, unpredictable ways. Distorting memories where they matter most. Creating hallucinations, delusions, biases that lead us down evidentiary rabbit holes, confirm what we think we know, inflate our fears and skew our understanding of statistics. Anxiety. Impostor syndrome.

Brains tell the truth, sometimes, of course. But we know that. We’re much, much worse at remembering how often they don’t. We’re influenced by the order of choices presented to us, the race, age, weight, even accent of the person in front of us. There’s the foot-in-the-door effect, the door-in-the-face, wikipedia lists on lists of biases and loopholes and soft spots in our reasoning. And still we persist in this silly idea that we make independent choices, that no man is an island, but our brains are.

Brains lie.

*I got lucky and fulfilled two full psychology degrees; one in Psychology, one in Human Development & Psychological Services. The first is theory-based, the second geared towards practice. 

Monday Miscellany: Milgram, McCandless, & Radioactive Spiders

This is a link to play Set online. It is endlessly addictive, and if you can forgive the occasional typo, the instructions are simple and easy to understand.

I’m not sure I would go as far as this article does, to say that “the Milgram experiments—however suggestive they may appear at first blush—are absolutely useless.” But, this is new information about the famous conformity research. Well worth reading.

I had this plan to write a blog about failed social programs…but luckily I googled about first and found out that someone else had already written it.

s.e. smith on the ways we endorse problematic police behavior in the media.

Television is the land of nebulously legal police searches. We often see them used, in fact, as the crux of a case, and they’re generally presented in a positive light, as something that viewers should view as completely acceptable. After all, they allow our heroes to solve the crime and end up on top, bringing the bad guy in for punishment. They certainly aren’t something we should question or feel uneasy about, and the evidence uncovered during such searches should absolutely be valid in court because it was discovered in pursuit of justice.

Except that search and seizure isn’t about justice and who’s heroic.

Education needs more radioactive spiders. (Bear with me, this metaphor is excellent and involves very few actual arachnids.)

Now, Peter Parker was a good student. He had a real knack for chemistry, mathematics, mechanics, biology, physics, and photography. But he lacked confidence, drive, and self-belief. He was bullied constantly by the other students. He was lonely, shy, and socially isolated.

One day in high school, he attended a science exhibition about radiology. In a moment, something happened that forever transformed him.

He got bit by a radioactive spider.

This changed everything. He suddenly realized he had all these powers. He was much stronger and quicker than he ever realized.

I’m convinced that there is so much more possibility in all students than we realize. Imagine what would happen if educators helped all students see in themselves what is possible, and then helped them integrate that into the core of their identity?

I bet we’d have a lot more superheroes.

Speaking of bugs, this one has a gear in its leg!

The IgNobels happened! I’m quite proud of psychology for winning with “Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beer Holder’: People Who Think They Are Drunk Also Think They Are Attractive.”

We talk a lot around here about how skepticism and atheism need feminism. But it’s not a one-way street. Feminism needs skepticism. And if it results in articles like this: Dissecting “Sweetening the Pill,” a Completely Frustrating New Book on Birth Control…then, yesplz.

I like the skeptic movement. But I think th best thing we can offer the world is more work like this–using research to improve how we approach persuasion–in this case, convincing parents to vaccinate their children by understanding their motivations.

At nearly every atheist conference I attend, someone brings up cats. Yes, cats. Most particularly, why do all the atheists we know love (and own several) cats? Oh, we have research on that?

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this here, but I do contract work for the Secular Student Alliance. (yes, they’re amazing. yes, even more awesome than you think.) It’s been an especially great week because we’ve appeared in the Southern Poverty Leadership Center’s blog, and The Atlantic. Oh, and this happened.

How Chris McCandless Died. Decades after writing Into the Wild, Krakauer pursued the question, testing his own conclusions, and eventually finding them to be incorrect. This article is his update.

What have you been writing recently?

Pages Updated: Brain Self Help & Decompressing

Just some housekeeping here!

I’ve added more resources to the Brain Self-Help tab at the top of the page. Links are intended to provide resources for when you cannot access therapy, want to try something on your own time, or just find that therapy isn’t helping in the ways you want it to. The Anxiety and Depression sections have been combined (because most of the resources applied to both) and a number of books and applications have been added.

Need to decompress? That page has also been expanded, with about eight new fiddly or calming things to do when you really just need to shut your brain up for a few.

Have ideas for either page? Please, please, please comment below.