Monday, February 25, 2013

The Neurotransmitter Dopamine May Be A Key Mediator Of The “Superiority Illusion”

The concept “superiority illusion” refers to the fact that people tend to judge themselves as being superior to the average person when it comes to positive traits such as intelligence, desirability or other personality traits. This is mathematically not possible, because in a normally distributed population, most people cannot be above average. The “superiority illusion” belongs to a family of positive illusions, such as the “optimism bias”, which is characterized by an unrealistic positive outlook regarding our future. It is thought that such positive illusions may help ward off depressive symptoms and promote mental health.

The neural mechanisms responsible for the “superiority illusion” are poorly understood. The recent study “Superiority illusion arises from resting-state brain networks modulated by dopamine” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Yamada and colleagues used resting functional MRI (fMRI) and PET imaging of the brain in 24 male subjects without known psychiatric or neurologic disease to investigate the neural mechanisms involved in the generation of the superiority illusion. Their findings suggest that the degree of superiority illusion correlates negatively with functional connectivity between two parts of the brain (the anterior cingulate cortex and the striatum) and that the proposed mediator is the neurotransmitter dopamine. This would mean that increasing dopamine levels in the striatum could promote a person’s superiority illusion.
One limitation of the study was that the findings were purely associative and did not prove an actual causal link between dopamine levels and the superiority illusion. Another limitation of the study was that the researchers only performed imaging at one time point and did not track whether changes in the self-perception of superiority in the subjects (over time or in response to certain interventions) also correlated with changes in the brain imaging.
Despite these limitations, the study is quite novel in that it attempts to define the neural mechanism for the “superiority illusion”. The fact that it points to dopamine as a mediator could have important implications. The authors of the paper believe that the “superiority illusion” promotes self-esteem and is an innate counterbalance to depressive symptoms. If further studies confirm a causal role for dopamine in promoting the “superiority illusion”, one could conceivably design novel pharmacologic therapies that target the dopaminergic system and help patients with severe depression who suffer from low-self-esteem.
However, a lot more mechanistic research needs to be conducted before pharmacologic dopaminergic stimulation can be pursued as a treatment for depression. We also need to be aware of the fact that psychiatric medications are often over-prescribed. If newer medications become available which are able to raise self-esteem and foster “superiority illusions”, they might be unnecessarily prescribed to many people who do not suffer from true major depression. The last thing we need is a world in which everyone becomes even more convinced how superior and wonderful they are.

Image credit: Striatum from Anatomography maintained by Life Science Databases(LSDB) via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons License). Yamada, M., Uddin, L., Takahashi, H., Kimura, Y., Takahata, K., Kousa, R., Ikoma, Y., Eguchi, Y., Takano, H., Ito, H., Higuchi, M., & Suhara, T. (2013). Superiority illusion arises from resting-state brain networks modulated by dopamine Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1221681110

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

New Survey Shows That Plagiarism Creates Job Opportunities

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Plagiarism is back in the headlines. The German Education Minister Annette Schavan recently resigned because of allegations of plagiarism in her doctoral dissertation. There was also significant outrage when it became public that the now discredited science journalist Jonah Lehrer was paid $20,000 to speak at the Knight Foundation about plagiarism and other forms of journalistic misconduct that he has engaged in.

Christopher Robin of the Winnie Foundation feels that plagiarists are unfairly maligned. His foundation conducted a survey, which proved that plagiarism scandals usually result in weeks of extensive reporting and investigations, thus providing new job opportunities for investigative journalists and academic committees. "Plagiarists create jobs for others. They should be seen as heroes and not as villains, especially during a recession when there aren't too many jobs out there."

Robin also said that plagiarism may soon become a highly attractive career for US college graduates. "Lehrer is becoming an excellent role model. He shows that you can earn good money while you are engaging in plagiarism. Even if you are caught, you still receive large honoraria to speak about your misconduct. Plagiarists have excellent job security."

Meanwhile, the Cocaine Retailer Association of Chicago (CRAC) says that at least three of its members are applying to the Knight Foundation for an opportunity to give a lecture. "They would like to speak about how wrong it is to sell drugs and some of them would be willing to do it for only half of the Lehrer honorarium."

Image Credit: Bengt Ruda's chair and a plagiarized version via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Teju Cole on W.G. Sebald

Teju Cole writes in the New Yorker about the German author W.G. Sebald:

Throughout his career, W. G. Sebald wrote poems that were strikingly similar to his prose. His tone, in both genres, was always understated but possessed of a mournful grandeur. To this he added a willful blurring of literary boundaries and, in fact, almost all his writing, and not just the poetry and prose, comprised history, memoir, biography, autobiography, art criticism, scholarly arcana, and invention. This expert mixing of forms owed a great deal to his reading of the seventeenth-century melancholics Robert Burton and Thomas Browne, and Sebald’s looping sentences were an intentional homage to nineteenth-century German-language writers like Adalbert Stifter and Gottfried Keller. But so strongly has the style come to be associated with Sebald’s own work that even books that preceded his, such as those by Robert Walser and Thomas Bernhard, can seem, from our perspective as readers of English translations, simply “Sebaldian.”Sebald’s reputation rests on four novels—“Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn,” and “Austerlitz”—all of them reflections on the history of violence in general, and on the legacy of the Holocaust in particular. Our sense of this achievement has been enriched by his other works: the ones published in his lifetime (the lectures “On the Natural History of Destruction” and the long poem “After Nature”), and those that were released posthumously (including the essay collection “Campo Santo,” and the volumes of short poems “Unrecounted” and “For Years Now”). Sebald’s shade, like Roberto Bolaño’s, gives the illusion of being extraordinarily productive, and the publication now of “Across the Land and the Water,” billed as his “Selected Poems 1964-2001,” does not feel surprising. Ten years on, we are not quite prepared for him to put down his pen.

Read more here

Abdul Ghaffar Khan: Pioneer of Nonviolence

Nasim Saber writes in Qantara:

He was a contemporary of Indian pacifist Mahatma Gandhi and always preached an Islam of nonviolence: Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the man who was venerated by the Pashtuns as "King of Chiefs" died 20 years ago in Peshawar.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan was born in 1890 in Charsadda near Peshawar in the British-occupied northwest sector of the Indian subcontinent. He was a member of the Mohammadzai family, a respected Pashtun dynasty, to which Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, also belonged.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan grew up to become a pioneer of nonviolence in a region plagued by wars. The Pashtuns still revere him today as "Badshah Khan" (King of Chiefs).

In 1910, when he was only 20 years old, Abdul Ghaffar Khan already built a school near Utmanzai in the northwest region of what is today Pakistan. He went on to found the "Anjuman-e islah ul Afghana" (Afghan Reform Association) and to publish the magazine "Pashtoon" in order to reach the masses under British domination.

Read more here

Image Credit: Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Gandhi in 1940, Public Domain image via Wikimedia

Monday, February 11, 2013

Seven Myths About Obesity And Weight Loss?

Whether we cruise the internet, turn on the TV or simply open up our email Inbox, we are bound to encounter advice regarding obesity and weight loss. The problem is that a lot of the circulated opinions about obesity and weight gain are only poorly supported by medical and scientific evidence. The recent paper “Myths, Presumptions, and Facts about Obesity” published in the New England Journal of Medicine on January 31, 2013 by Krista Casazza and colleagues investigates popular notions about obesity and tests whether they are actually backed up by peer-reviewed, evidence-based studies. Their findings are quite surprising and unravel many of the “myths” that relate to obesity and weight problems. The authors refer to these notions as “myths”, because they were unable to find adequate evidence to back them up and even find some evidence that actually refutes the notions. Unfortunately, the data presented by the authors does not always provide definitive evidence, so it may be rather premature to dismiss these widely held beliefs as “myths”.

Here are the seven “myths” about obesity and weight gain that the authors discuss:

Myth number 1: Small sustained changes in energy intake or expenditure will produce large, long-term weight changes.

The authors claim that this is a myth, because it is based on the assumption that small dietary or activity changes yield benefits that continue to accumulate and result in large changes. They think that these calculations overestimate the achieved weight loss, because they do not adequately take into account that the metabolism adapts to the ongoing weight loss. A very obese person with a high caloric intake may respond strongly to a minor increase in daily exercise levels, but the degree of weight loss will decrease over time.
I have to disagree with Casazza and colleagues on this point, because I think that their analysis does not refute the idea of small sustained changes having long-term benefits. One can disagree about the magnitude of the long-term benefit, but there is still a long-term benefit.

Myth number 2: Setting realistic goals for weight loss is important, because otherwise patients will become frustrated and lose less weight.

Casazza and colleagues cite multiple studies which show that ambitious weight loss goals may be associated with better outcomes.

Myth number 3: Large, rapid weight loss is associated with poorer long-term weight-loss outcomes, as compared with slow, gradual weight loss.

The authors point to a meta-analysis (summary analysis of multiple published studies) which showed that very low energy diets (rapid weight loss) and low energy diets are similarly successful in terms of achieving weight loss.

Myth number 4: It is important to assess the stage of change or diet readiness in order to help patients who request weight-loss treatment.

The evidence does not support the need to wait for people being “ready” for weight loss. It may be best to start right away.

Myth number 5: Physical-education classes, in their current form, play an important role in reducing or preventing childhood obesity.

The authors of the paper summarize the results of multiple studies which did not show any statistically significant and consistent benefit of increasing physical education time in school on childhood obesity. They state that there is probably a level of activity that will be beneficial, but that this level may not be achieved in the limited amount of time that children have in school for physical education.
The problem with the analysis of the Casazza and colleagues is that they dismiss the findings as “inconsistent”, but this inconsistency may reflect that some children do benefit from the intervention while others do not. One study, for example, showed a benefit in girls that were overweight, but not in boys. This “inconsistency” does not necessarily invalidate the notion, it merely means that we need to identify the group of children that are most likely to benefit and to perhaps modify the type and duration of physical education in schools to help even more groups of children.

Myth number 6: Breast-feeding is protective against obesity.

Casazza and colleagues reviewed all the major studies in this area and found no significant evidence that breast-feeding children protects them against obesity, but they concede that breast-feeding may be associated with other benefits for the child, unrelated to obesity.

Myth number 7: A bout of sexual activity burns 100 to 300 kcal for each participant.

The authors calculate the amount of calories burned during sexual activity and estimate that the actual amount is probably closer to 20 to 30 kcal (calories) and not 100 to 300

These are the seven “myths” that the authors claim to have debunked. I also think that it is important to note the disclosures at the end of the article, which shows that the authors have very strong ties to food manufacturers. Here are the financial disclosures for just one of the authors:

“Dr. Astrup reports receiving payment for board membership from the Global Dairy Platform, Kraft Foods, Knowledge Institute for Beer, McDonald’s Global Advisory Council, Arena Pharmaceuticals, Basic Research, Novo Nordisk, Pathway Genomics, Jenny Craig, and Vivus; receiving lecture fees from the Global Dairy Platform, Novo Nordisk, Danish Brewers Association, GlaxoSmithKline, Danish Dairy Association, International Dairy Foundation, European Dairy Foundation, and AstraZeneca; owning stock in Mobile Fitness”

These financial ties do not invalidate the analysis, but they should be considered when interpreting the results.

Overall, I think this is an important paper, because it shows us that we often operate under certain assumptions about obesity and weight loss without there being adequate evidence to back it up. This highlights the need for more unbiased research in this area. However, I am disappointed by some of the analyses made by the authors, when they summarily dismiss a belief as a “myth”, just because there are some inconsistencies or differences in estimated benefits. Instead of using the somewhat sensationalist term “myth”, it would have been better if the authors had just focused on pointing out weaknesses in the current evidence and need for more studies.

Image credit: Painting “Schlaraffenland” (“The Land of Cockaigne”, 1567) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder – via Wikimedia Casazza K, Fontaine KR, Astrup A, Birch LL, Brown AW, Bohan Brown MM, Durant N, Dutton G, Foster EM, Heymsfield SB, McIver K, Mehta T, Menachemi N, Newby PK, Pate R, Rolls BJ, Sen B, Smith DL Jr, Thomas DM, & Allison DB (2013). Myths, presumptions, and facts about obesity. The New England journal of medicine, 368 (5), 446-54 PMID: 23363498

Council Of Muslim-Americans (COMA) Says Next Pope Should Be An American Muslim Woman

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Pope Benedict XVI surprised everyone by announcing that he is going to retire. He will be the first pope in nearly 700 years to resign, because most popes retain their office until they die.

The Council Of Muslim-Americans (COMA) responded to this announcement by pointing out a long tradition of anti-Muslim discrimination among Catholic clergy. At a press conference, the COMA spokesperson Abdullah Abdullah said that this was an opportunity for the Catholic Church to prove that it has moved beyond Islamophobia.

"We have reviewed the religious affiliations of all the previous popes and we noted that none of them have been Muslim. This is clearly a sign of anti-Muslim discrimination and Islamophobia. There has also never been an American pope and none of the popes have been women. As proud Americans and advocates for the rights of women, we believe that the Vatican should engage in papal equality and choose an American Muslim woman as the next pope."

Image Credit: Pope Innocent, Fresco at the cloister Sacro Speco via Wikimedia Commons

Teju Cole on literary empathy, humanity and drones

Teju Cole writes in The New Yorker about literary empathy, humanity and drones:

I know language is unreliable, that it is not a vending machine of the desires, but the law seems to be getting us nowhere. And so I take helpless refuge in literature again, rewriting the opening lines of seven well-known books:
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s.
Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowl of lather. A bomb whistled in. Blood on the walls. Fire from heaven.
I am an invisible man. My name is unknown. My loves are a mystery. But an unmanned aerial vehicle from a secret location has come for me.
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone.
 Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His torso was found, not his head.
Mother died today. The program saves American lives.

You can read more here.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Professor Hands Out "Erase Undesirable Data Points" Coupons To PhD Students

TIJUANA- Obtaining a PhD in the life sciences now routinely takes six or seven years, whereas 30 or 40 years ago, students could graduate from a PhD program in just 3 or 4 years. The University of California, Tijuana (UCT) hired a consultancy firm to help them identify the reasons for the prolonged PhD duration. The consultants found the culprit: Data outliers.

Richard ("Dick") Tator is a Professor for Complementary and Alternative Science (CAS) at UCT and explains the findings.

“If a PhD student conducts an experiment with eight mice and five respond one way, but three mice the opposite way, most students then have to conduct additional experiments with many more mice to obtain a definitive, statistically significant result. This can prolong the duration of a PhD by months or even years.”

Professor Tator has now come up with a very innovative program to address this problem. He hands out “coupons” to his students which allow them to simply erase any data points which are interfering with the statistical significance of the results or which do not conform with the anticipated findings.

Lay Zee is a student in Professor Tator’s laboratory and is a big fan of the new system. “Dick is just a wonderful mentor. He basically allows every graduate student to earn up to three coupons a year, and each coupon is good for up to two years. So you do not have to use them all up at once and you can keep them in stock for a future data point that does not support your hypothesis.”

Lay says that Professor Tator gives out one “erase undesirable data coupon” for performing three chores, such as walking his dog, picking up Professor Tator’s laundry and baby-sitting his children. Lay feels that implementing “erase undesirable data coupons” is a win-win situation for everyone.

“I get to graduate sooner and we get to publish our results faster. Some of my friends in other programs are going to be stuck in their PhD program for another two or three years, performing mundane experiments, just to ensure that they will have statistically valid results, whereas I am already receiving job offers.”

Tator’s colleagues are also impressed with his innovative approach. Knott Eggsist is a professor of philosophy and UCT and admits that he is a bit envious.

“Professors in the humanities also have dogs that need to be walked and our students are also stuck in a PhD program for a very long time, sometimes as long as 8 or 9 years. We would love to have something similar to Dick’s coupons, but our problem is that we do not really have any actual data in the humanities.”

“How do you erase a data point that never even existed?”, Eggsist asks. After a brief pause, his eyes light up and he then nods vigorously, “Now that would be a great dissertation topic!”

Eggsist then talks about an equally innovative program that his department might implement.

“We are considering an entirely different approach in the philosophy department. We have determined that PhD in philosophy is prolonged unnecessarily because one has to deal with all the complex and long-winded thoughts of German philosophers. We will therefore start using an ‘Erase a German philosopher coupon’. With each coupon, our students will be able to write their dissertation and pretend that for example Hegel, Kant or Nietzsche or any other German philosopher of their choosing never existed and simply ignore all their writings.”