Laura’s Psychology Blog

One Professor’s Observations of the World of Psychology….   

August 28, 2009

An Evolutionary Look at Depression

Filed under: General Psychology,Hobbies,Psychology — Laura Freberg @ 2:22 pm

I’m not a clinician–I would never be able to master the non-judgmental part–but I’ve always been interested in psychological disorders. Given my other interests in functionalism and evolutionary psychology, I found a recent article by Andrews and Thomson about depression as an adaptation to be quite fascinating. Their basic idea was that psychological disorders should be rare (schizophrenia affects about 1% of the world’s population, while vastly reducing reproductive fitness), but depression is not rare at all. Nor does depression exclusively target those who are past reproductive age or who live in a particular culture.

An argument for depression as an adaptation suggests that something positive must be arising from the mood state, and Andrews and Thomson suggest several possibilities. The rumination that typically accompanies depression might encourage the analytical thinking needed to solve complex social problems. Depression also encourages social isolation, which Andrews and Thomson suggest helps the person avoid interruptions that interfere with problem solving.

While I agree with Andrews and Thomson on some points, I think one of the remaining issues is that depression is very complex, and can arise from many different sources. Andrews and Thomson suggest one functionalist view when they state that “depression is nature’s way of telling you that you’ve got complex social problems that the mind is intent on solving.” Depression can also be nature’s way of telling you that you majorly screwed up. Stop what you’re doing, figure out what went wrong, and learn to do things a different way. I’m always a little surprised at people who engage in self-destructive behaviors on a regular basis and then wonder why they’re not happy all the time.

In other cases, though, depression can result from an extreme loss, which all the mind activity in the world isn’t going to fix. In still other cases, depression seems to occur when no problems at all are on the horizon–this seems to me to be the most illogical and disordered of mood states. Your mood is supposed to match your circumstances.

Regardless of its source, depression is a very unpleasant state that people wish to escape as quickly as possible. I’m a fan of William James’ advice: To feel better, people are advised “to sit up cheerfully, to look round cheerfully, and to act as if cheerfulness were already there.”  Better yet, do something that is guaranteed to put a smile on your face and avoid the things/people that usually make you feel grumpy. I know that if I’m feeling bugged by something, that a quick bout of gardening will fix things, while housework will make it worse. Needless to say, my garden looks better than my house :)

Nobody Can Be Depressed in a California Garden

Nobody Can Be Depressed in a California Garden

August 21, 2009

The Class of 2013

Filed under: Teaching Psychology — Laura Freberg @ 8:49 am

Each of the last several years, I’ve posted about the Beloit Mindset List, which is a subtle reminder to faculty that the students sitting in front of us have had very different experiences than our own. My own children now range in age from 25 to 30, so they are different enough from these new students that a trip to the Mindset website is illuminating.

The Class of 2013 or 01?

The Class of 2013 or 01?

This time, just the “2013” hit me in the face. I will be 61 years old when this class graduates. I recall that as an elementary student practicing “borrow one” subtraction, I was given the task of figuring out how old I would be in the year 2000. The answer, 48, astonished me. Surely nobody ever lived to be that old! The other thing that came to mind, probably after watching movie trailers while awaiting Harry Potter, is that if the apocalypse 2012 people are correct, there will be no graduation at all. I refer, of course, to the end of a 5000 year cycle in the Mayan “Long Count” calendar, when the counter resets again to year zero. Although scholars discount the possibility that the Mayans even anticipated this, it is rather cool to note that on the Winter Solstice of 2012, the sun will be aligned with the center of the Milky Way for the first time in 26,000 years.

Okay, back to the Beloit list. Here are the top ten items:

  1. For these students, Martha Graham, Pan American Airways, Michael Landon, Dr. Seuss, Miles Davis, The Dallas Times Herald, Gene Roddenberry, and Freddie Mercury have always been dead.
  2. Dan Rostenkowski, Jack Kevorkian, and Mike Tyson have always been felons.
  3. The Green Giant has always been Shrek, not the big guy picking vegetables.
  4. They have never used a card catalog to find a book.
  5. Margaret Thatcher has always been a former prime minister.
  6. Salsa has always outsold ketchup.
  7. Earvin “Magic” Johnson has always been HIV-positive.
  8. Tattoos have always been very chic and highly visible.
  9. They have been preparing for the arrival of HDTV all their lives.
  10. Rap music has always been main stream.

Sometimes, I think these lists reflect the people writing them rather than the students themselves. In #1, for instance, I’m pretty sure that Gene Roddenberry and Dr. Suess are the only recognizable names. Personally, I’m finding from the professor’s point of view that the use of texting and the internet is improving literacy, self-motivated learning, and critical thinking. On the down side, I find that many of these current students do not have a moral compass. A survey of high school seniors found that 30% had stolen something of value from a store, 60% had cheated on a major exam, but 90% believed they were a “good person.” Clearly, the message of separating a person’s value from his/her actions (love the child, not the behavior) has sunk in. But if you are not your actions, what are you? Was Hitler just a good person who did bad things? We live in interesting times.

August 19, 2009

Adult Videogamers and Health

Filed under: General Psychology,Internet,Psychology,Technology,Videogames — Laura Freberg @ 9:01 am

A new article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine points to some correlations between depression in women and high BMI and Internet use in men and the likelihood that they played videogames. I’m fairly certain that the original article is careful about the distinction between correlation and causality, but this tends to get lost in popular press accounts. The research was a survey–we are not talking about randomly assigning people to videogame and non-videogame groups and then seeing what happens. I would also like to see the authors use television as a control. My guess is that chronic TV-watchers are far worse off than the videogame players.

At least videogames and computers are interactive...

At least videogames and computers are interactive...

Videogame playing is highly self-selected. It is very likely that depressed women choose very different activities than non-depressed women. Depression is often accompanied by fatigue and lethargy, which is not exactly conducive to heading to the gym for a brisk one-hour kickboxing session. As far as the high BMI men go, I doubt there is much discrepancy between men who watch an equal amount of TV and the men playing videogames, although my guess is that the men playing videogames and using the Internet are a great deal smarter than the ones watching TV.

Our own research suggests that people carry their existing predispositions with them into new technologies. In a poster session for last May’s APS, our student group discussed how lonely people had fewer offline friends and fewer online friends. In contrast to the idea that you can be someone different online, we found that people were consistent across these domains.

I’ve always been concerned that psychology and medicine have a biased starting point in the discussion of videogames. Somehow, there is a compulsion to find something terribly wrong with them and the people who enjoy them. My impression is quite the opposite. Many of my students have related that videogames sparked an interest in computers and how they work, maintained their attention spans, taught them to read (you have to read what the character is saying to get to the next level), and provided a lot of pleasure. Anyone who views videogames as a solitary, antisocial endeavor must be oblivious to the phenomenon that is World of Warcraft. Videogaming has been shown to make valuable contributions to rehabilitation following neural injury and even to improve spatial skills.

Yes, we’re all too sedentary, but let’s look at the whole picture, not just videogames. On my weekend trip to LA, I happened to turn on the hotel TV. Junk, junk, and more junk. Offensive, mind-numbing junk, with the major exception of a replay of last years’ USC-Penn State Rose Bowl game. You are what you think, and if watching TV is what America is doing, we’re in deep trouble.

August 14, 2009

Fired for Telling the Truth

Filed under: Dieting — Laura Freberg @ 11:11 am

I have a new hero–Dr. Jason Newsom, a veteran of the war in Iraq who is also not afraid to tell Americans that what they’re eating is killing them.

1 Donut = 55 Min Walk...Makes a Girl Think!

1 Donut = 55 Min Walk...Makes a Girl Think!

According to today’s news, Dr. Newsom lost his job at the Bay County Health Department for putting some less-than-subtle messages on the department’s electric signs. In particular, he picked on Dunkin’ Donuts by morphing their “America Runs on Dunkin'” into “America Dies on Dunkin’.”  In doing so, he angered some of the local Dunkin’ owners, including two attorneys. In general, it’s not a great idea to make attorneys mad at you. Dr. Newsom also forbade donuts at department meetings, angering his staff, and replaced candy bars in the vending machines with peanuts.

I know that there are some limits to free speech, and Dr. Newsom, by using his official capacity to target individual businesses may have crossed those lines, but at what point do we stop people from telling the truth? Dr. Newsom’s job was described as educational. The public definitely needs an education about obesity, as 2/3 of the American public believe they maintain a “healthy” weight. Given the fact that only 35% or so of the population actually maintain a healthy weight, half of those respondents are wrong, and likely to be dead wrong in short order.

It has been only recently that scientific journals have become aware of the need to make the funding sources of published research more obvious, as research at even prestigious universities funded by pharmaceuticals is much more likely to judge a drug as efficacious than research that has more objective funding sources (Cho & Bero, 1996; Lexchin, Bero, Djulbegovic, & Clark, 2003). The almost everyday removal of approved drugs from the market due to huge side effects speaks to the problems with this system.

Yes, as a county commissioner and donut store owner said about Newsome, “people borrowed money to go into business and they are being attacked by the government,” but at what point does consumer safety become more important than the business-owner’s investment? We certainly do not appear to have learned much from taking on “Big Tobacco.” “Big Alcohol” is very aggressive, as a boycott was launched against General Motors for supporting Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Who could possibly be in favor of drunk driving?

“Big Food” (read “food for big people”) is just as vigilant about any risks posed by an educated public. In my recent exploration of the high fructose corn syrup literature, I was appalled at the rhetoric being used. This account of how the producers of HFCS lobbied the US government until the importing of cheaper sugar was strictly curtailed, in order to make the price of HFCS more attractive, makes for a fascinating read.  CBS had an interesting story on the funding of the pro-HFCS research. It’s a deja vu of the pharmaceutical research.

Okay, I get the fact that jobs and money and whole industries are involved, but so is the health of a lot of trusting people. Instead of firing people like Dr. Newsom, how about letting him continue his free speech, and Dunkin’ Donuts and the rest of “Big Food” can use their free speech to argue their side of the issue, and then people can (gasp–warning of radical notion coming up) make up their own minds. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

August 13, 2009

Have a Lot of Work To Do? Don’t Eat Fat.

Filed under: Dieting — Laura Freberg @ 9:47 am

I don’t think that it’s just my imagination, but being lighter and eating our low-fat diet really seems to have helped all of us concentrate more easily and work harder. Experimental evidence supporting these anecdotal observations comes from Andrew Murray and his colleagues, who reported that only 10 days on a high-fat diet decreased endurance in treadmill running in rats by 35%. More importantly for those of us who make a living by thinking, the fat-eating rats also performed more poorly in a cognitive task, maze running. The results were described as a “high-fat hangover” by the editor of the publishing journal, FASEB.

Current government recommendations for diet suggest that fats make up only 20-35% of daily calories, so for me, that’s 20g or less. Considering that 1 oz of cheese has 6g, as does only 3 oz of ground beef, one cheeseburger a day would do the trick.  By the way, this little pdf on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is really packed with good advice, and is worth a read on its own. I was surprised to learn that 45% of American adults completely abstain from alcohol. I guess my university setting is not a representative sample. The 2010 version is apparently in preparation. Hope they warn people against high fructose corn syrup in that version.

An Easy-to-Follow Guide to Food Amounts

An Easy-to-Follow Guide to Food Amounts

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Quote to Ponder

It is not a lack of love,
but a lack of friendship
that makes unhappy marriages
-------- Nietzsche



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