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Think of mental disorders as the mind’s ‘sticky tendencies’
Some hold that mental disorders are brain diseases. Others argue that they're social constructs used to medicalise aberrant behaviour.
The answer to this question is important because it informs how researchers should go about trying to explain mental disorders, how the public responds to people who experience them, and how we should go about developing treatments for them.
Despite the importance of this question, there's little consensus on the answer. Some hold that mental disorders are brain diseases. Others argue that they're social constructs used to medicalise aberrant behaviour. Some think that they're evolutionarily adaptive behavioural responses that no longer work for us in a modern context. And some think that they're errors or biases in our cognitive 'coding'. Yet others believe that they're just normal responses to terrible situations.
When I started my training as a clinical psychologist, I felt uncomfortable being exposed to these wildly different understandings of what exactly mental disorders are, and why they might or might not count as a disorder or a dysfunction. So, when I embarked on my PhD research, I decided to seek some clarity around this concept that serves as a foundational pillar for psychiatry, clinical psychology, and for so much of our discourse around mental health.
My starting observation was that what we take mental disorder to be is intimately related to how we think the human body and mind work, in a general sense. For example, a cellular biologist is more likely to take the view that mental disorders are brain diseases, compared with a sociologist, who might see the entire concept of mental disorders as a social construct. One's understanding of how humans work influences one's understanding of what it means for humans to be 'dysfunctional'. In a silly example, if we got in a time machine, visited René Descartes, and asked him what mental disorders are, we might assume that his answer would be grounded in his dualistic understanding of the mind-body. Perhaps he would suggest that mental disorders represent corruptions of the soul, or maybe some sort of mechanistic breakdown in the soul communicating through the pineal gland.
This observation points to some interesting questions: might certain frameworks of human functioning be better than others at helping us to think about mental disorder? Might a more helpful view of human functioning produce a richer understanding of mental disorder? Narrowing the scope of my research, these questions brought me to a position known as 'embodied enactivism'.
Embodied enactivism is a growing position in the philosophy of mind and cognitive sciences. It is a 'biological' position in that it recognises physiological processes vital in the quest to understand human behaviour, yet it places equal value on personal meaning and interpersonal scales of explanation. In this way, it manages to be non-reductionistic without ignoring the importance of our embodiment as biological creatures. It is this breadth of perspective that initially drew my attention to embodied enactivism as a framework of human functioning from which to consider mental disorder. Embodied enactivism sees the various scales of explanation relevant to understanding human behaviour as different aspects of the same dynamic whole – an organism standing in relation to its world.
To break it down a little further, embodied enactivism views the mind as embodied, embedded and enactive. 'Embodied' refers to the idea that the mind is fully material, including not just the brain, but the brain-body system. We're not just brains driving our skeletons around like cars, but rather our 'self' is constituted by our whole body. 'Embedded' refers to the idea that we're richly and bi-directionally connected to the world around us, and that this connection has a massive influence on our behaviour. We live in both a physical and a sociocultural environment. Over time, we both shape this world and are shaped by it. Lastly, 'enactive' refers to the idea that the meaning we experience is enacted through our inherent purpose as striving organisms. We don't just see the world around us as dry facts, but experience the world as having immanent meaning. This meaning isn't out there in the world, nor is it constructed by us, but rather it concerns the very real relation between the state of the world and our purpose of trying to keep living. The world has meaning for us.
Embodied enactivism pushes us to think about the brain, body and environment all acting together as a complex system. This broad perspective aligns with clear evidence that, when it comes to mental disorder, everything from genes to culture seems to play an important role. More and more, it seems that mental disorder might not be defined by a single biological deviation or essence (such as an imbalance of chemicals in the brain); rather, mental disorders seem to be composed of networks of mechanisms, spanning the brain-body-environment system, that together maintain engagement with maladaptive behaviour.
Alongside this encompassing perspective, embodied enactivism has a particular understanding of values and normativity, seeing them as real things in the world that exist for organisms via their needful relationship with the environment. This has the potential to address a divide that currently exists between those who view mental disorders as defined by norms and values (referred to as 'evaluativists') and those who see mental disorders as naturally defined phenomena (known as 'objectivists'). From the view of an embodied enactivist, mental disorders are both natural and normative: they're patterns of behaviour, thought and emotion that are in conflict with a person's mode of functioning in the world.
One quandary, in particular, highlights the usefulness of seeing mental disorder through the lens of embodied enactivism, a view for which there is growing support. Mental disorders might be best thought of as networks of mechanisms, rather than as diseases with clearly defined essences. Yet despite being affected by factors spanning the brain, body and environment, we still see apparently recognisable patterns of distress and dysfunction – such as depression and anxiety – rather than a melange of idiosyncratic problems in living. Why is this? Embodied enactivism suggests the possibility that these patterns of thoughts, behaviours and emotions represent 'sticky tendencies' in the human brain-body-environment system.
'Sticky' is my way of describing the concept of an attractor basin – in mathematics, a state into which a system tends to fall and remain despite different starting conditions. Putting this in plainer language, mental disorders might be patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion into which the human brain-body-environment system has a tendency to fall, and these patterns are hard to change because they are self-maintaining.
Depression is depression, in part, because it's a pattern of thought, behaviour and emotion that the human brain-body-environment system has a tendency to fall into and get stuck in. From this perspective, mental disorders are fuzzy but real patterns in the world that can be discovered, rather than decided upon. Most importantly, this means that they're still the kind of things we can try to explain.
To understand this concept a little more, imagine holding a kitty-litter sized container with both hands. The floor of this container is shaped like a little landscape with hills and valleys. Now imagine placing a marble in the container and moving your hands so that the marble rolls over the landscape. Notice how the marble gets stuck in the valleys and bounces off the hills; how sometimes it falls into patterns or particular tracks across the landscape. In this analogy, the marble being in different places in the container represents different states that a person can be in, and the shape of the landscape represents the combined influences – ranging from chemicals to culture – that affect a person's behaviour. In the top-left corner there is a particularly deep valley that represents depression or some other mental disorder. If the marble gets stuck in this valley, you really have to tilt and shake the container to get the marble to move out of there. While the marble is stuck in the valley, it can move only back and forward, stuck in the same pattern of behaviour; hence, depression is 'sticky'.
In this view, if we're going to explain depression (or another mental disorder), what we need to understand is the network of factors that shaped and maintain this valley. We need to understand how this network is constituted in such a way that it maintains this pattern of behaviours, thoughts and emotions, despite being maladaptive for the person affected.
I'm certainly not making the claim that an embodied enactive perspective is the final word on the nature of mental disorder. Rather, I think it represents one viable answer to the question What are mental disorders? and one that has helped me find clarity as I continue my clinical psychology training. If the sciences of psychopathology are to progress, we need to keep asking this question and refining our answers.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
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The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
Decades of studies have shown parents to be less happy than their childless peers. But are the kids to blame?
- Folk knowledge assumes having children is the key to living a happy, meaningful life; however, empirical evidence suggests nonparents are the more cheery bunch.
- The difference is most pronounced in countries like the United States. In countries that support pro-family policies, parents can be just as happy as their child-free peers.
- These findings suggest that we can't rely on folk knowledge to make decisions about parenting, on either the individual or societal levels.
The parent trap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTAwODQ0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwODA0ODk5OH0.3_snhX2jGScMJUxqk5o69elvasEsqJLZd6q7wM5cu44/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1788%2C0%2C1788&height=700" id="6d899" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c097c2fdeb8fbdd78b220a80a10b0646" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A mother soothes her baby child
(Photo by Jenna Norman / Unsplash)<p>Headlines claiming parents to be more dejected than nonparents certainly grab our attention, but such stories are hardly news. Empirical studies have been tracing out this pattern since the 1970s. Here are three sample papers demonstrating the trend:</p><p><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11205-011-9865-y" target="_blank">A 2011 review by Thomas Hansen</a>, a researcher at Norwegian Social Research, compared our folk understanding on the relationship between parenthood and happiness to the evidence. It found that people believe "the lives of childless people are emptier, less rewarding, and lonelier than the lives of parents," but that the opposite proved true. Children living at home interfered with their parents' well-being.</p><p>A meta-analysis by the <a href="https://www.jstor.org/stable/3600024?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents" target="_blank">National Council on Family Relations</a> looked at a more specific metric of happiness: marital satisfaction. It found that couples without children reported more romantic bliss. The difference was most pronounced among mothers of infants, while fathers disclose less satisfaction regardless of the child's age. The authors noted the discrepancy likely resulted from role conflicts and restrictions on freedom.</p><p>Finally, a study published in the <a href="https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/many-parents-will-say-kids-made-them-happier-they-re-probably-lying-a7124851.html" target="_blank"><em>American Journal of Sociology</em></a> looked at 22 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and compared the association between parenthood and happiness. Researchers Jennifer Glass (University of Texas, Austin) and Robin Simon (Wake Forest University) found that nonparents reveal higher levels of well-being in most advanced industrialized societies. </p><p>The happiness gap was widest in the United States, where parents were 12 percent less cheerful than childless adults. Fourteen other countries—among them Ireland, Greece, Britain, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Australia—also showed a less-than-sunny outlook for parents, but not to as large a degree as in the U.S.</p>
Are the kids alright?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTAwODQ2MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0Njk4MjgxOH0.VGCj-VukX5_O5OCj03HitYdLpUvDlMh5nkb82Jh0Yzg/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C45%2C0%2C45&height=700" id="182af" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="55e3502bbb49f5bf1766f58cdf7a7be8" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A Spanish family sit down together for a meal.
(Photo from Flickr)<p>Based on a glance at this research, one could posit that children are a predominant source of unhappiness—and yes, we all know that one kid who is Exhibit A for this statement. But these researchers were careful to note that these effects are correlative, not causative, and there are many factors in the mix beyond progeny.</p><p>Hansen's review points out that the parents most susceptible to unhappiness were women, singles, those in lower socioeconomic strata, and those living in less pro-parenthood societies. Meanwhile, the National Council on Family Relations saw the largest decrease in martial satisfaction among the higher socioeconomic groups, likely because their status afforded them greater freedoms before having children.</p><p>Glass and Simon found eight countries where parents reported higher levels of happiness than nonparents, including Spain, Norway, and Portugal. Their analysis indicated that countries offering "more generous family policies, particularly paid time off and childcare subsidies, are associated with smaller disparities in happiness between parents and nonparents."</p><p>A potential reason? Parents in countries supporting pro-family policies contend with fewer stressors. They can take more parental leave, enjoy expansive subsidized care, and aren't as financially burdened by educational expenses. This is especially true when compared to the U.S., which provides <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-37159686" target="_blank">little support for parents </a>compared to the other countries in the study.</p><p>Importantly, Glass and Simon also found that such policies had no detrimental effect on the happiness of nonparents. In fact, the presence of strong pro-family policies led to greater happiness for women of all statuses.</p>
Parental unhappiness is... complicated<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTAwODQ1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MzA4MDgxMn0.YbPudG_8EkNAtorw6j_Hg1Y3gCv51RhiP2lD785q1ug/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C664%2C0%2C664&height=700" id="4accf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="655320f4bc4dc910408fecd3bf36b184" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A young mother sits with her daughter.
(Photo by Katie Emslie / Unsplash)<p>Taken together, these three studies suggest a major cause of parental despondency is scarcity. Lower-class parents find it difficult to patch together the money, resources, and social networks necessary to succeed in their own lives while also supporting their children. Even upper-class parents can grow weary if a resource in short supply is traded off, such as time or the freedom to self-actualize. </p><p>Countries with pro-family policies can offset these scarcities to help balance the happiness gap between parents and nonparents. </p><p>But research in this field casts a wide net. As studies shift their focus, they draw different conclusions to give us a fuller, if more complicated, picture of parenthood's many pitfalls. Taken together with scarcity, all of the following factors likely have some pull on parental happiness, though it is difficult to say to what degree. </p><p><strong><em>Culture of extended families.</em></strong> Countries like Spain and Portugal, where parents report being 3.1 and 8 percent happier than nonparents respectively, culturally center on <a href="https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/spanish-culture/family-a4358dcc-b8cd-42c3-8a31-ed5b462af240" target="_blank">extended families</a>. The Spanish manage personal problems through family, an approach that extends to child rearing where many hands make light work.</p><p>In sharp contrast, the United States culturally centers on a <a href="https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/american-culture/american-culture-family" target="_blank">sense of individualism and mobility</a>. Its nuclear family model consists of small family units where parents take near sole responsibility for raising children while the extended family lives in separate domiciles, sometimes hundreds of miles away.</p><p><em><strong>Who becomes a parent</strong></em><strong>.</strong> Glass and Robin note that their results could be tempered by parental selectivity. They propose that countries like Spain and Italy, which have low fertility rates, may select toward people who truly desire to have children. The United States, with its much higher fertility rate, could have people not strongly predisposed to parenthood having children nonetheless.</p><p><em><strong>Children in the home</strong></em><strong>.</strong> An analysis from <a href="https://ifstudies.org/blog/does-having-children-make-people-happier-in-the-long-run" target="_blank">the Institute for Family Studies</a> found that men aged 50-70 are happier than their childless peers if their children have left home. However, men who still had children at home reported being less happy than either nonparents or empty nesters. For women of the same age, being an empty nester resulted in a slight decrease in happiness compared to nonparents, but a steep decline if the children lived at home.</p><p><em><strong>Number of children</strong></em><strong>.</strong> The same analysis showed that women with only one child were seven percentage points less likely to report being happy than nonparents, while women with three or four children showed no discernible difference. No significant variance emerged for men.</p><p>Nicholas H. Wolfinger, the analysis' author, admits these results are counterintuitive and posits two possible explanations. The first is unmet family size preference redounding unhappiness, as many people settle for fewer children than they'd like. The second is a strong sense of <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Familialism" target="_blank">familism</a> offsetting parenthood's more negative effects. It is unlikely that family size in-and-of-itself causes a decline in happiness.</p><p><em><strong>Parenting style</strong></em><strong>.</strong> The way a parent approaches parenting may have substantial effects on their happiness. Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik argues in her book <em>The Gardener and the Carpenter</em> that our modern parenting model, in which we view children as material to be molded into a particular type of adult, is not only wrongheaded but also a source of stress and misery for many parents.</p><p>"It isn't just that the [current] parenting model isn't the natural model, it's also just not a very productive model," developmental psychologist <a href="https://bigthink.com/videos/alison-gopnik-on-parenting-and-human-evolution" target="_self">Alison Gopnik told <em>Big Think</em></a>. "It hasn't helped parents or children to thrive. It's led to a great deal of anxiety and guilt on a part of parents and a great deal of hovering expectations for children that really aren't necessary and in fact may even be counterproductive if we still want children to innovate and create."</p><p><em><strong>Self-perception</strong></em><strong>.</strong> <a href="http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/02/07/parenthood-and-happiness-its-more-complicated-than-you-think/" target="_blank">A Pew Research Center survey</a> found that parents who reported being very happy with life also believed they were doing an excellent job as a parent.</p><p>We still have much to learn about parenthood, and the results of so much variegated research can sometimes feel in contention. Even so, it should be clear that our folk assumptions about family are in need of a major update, and we must reconsider our views on parenthood, both from an individual perspective and with regard to social policy.</p><p>With that said, there are two strong conclusions we can draw from what we do know. For nonparents, your choice to be childfree will not doom you to a sullen, meaningless existence where you'll spend your final days contemplating a life wasted, like some inverse <em>It's a Wonderful Life</em>.</p><p>Nor are parents doomed to immolate their happiness on the altar of their child's future. Parenthood can be a source of exuberance, but simply raising a child will not magically bring contentment to your life. If anything, you'll have to work harder for that contentment as many factors, some in your control, some not, dictate parental happiness. Anyone considering parenthood should weight them judiciously before making a decision.</p>
MRI scans show that hunger and loneliness cause cravings in the same area, which suggests socialization is a need.
- A new study demonstrates that our brains crave social interaction with the same areas used to crave food.
- Hungry test subjects also reported a lack of desire to socialize, proving the existence of "hanger."
- Other studies have suggested that failure to socialize can lead to stress eating in rodents.
People sometimes crave socialization, literally.<p> Forty participants underwent 10 hours of either social isolation or fasting before being placed in an MRI machine. Those who fasted had their brains imaged while viewing pictures of food; those emerging from isolation viewed photos of socializing people. <strong><br> <br> </strong>The areas of the brain related to hunger pains, reward, and movements, the substantia nigra pars compacta and ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA), are also associated with cravings for food or addictive substances. When those who fasted viewed images of food, these regions of their brains lit up. Most interestingly, the same brain regions lit up when those who had been isolated for 10 hours saw pictures of other people socializing. <br> <br> Test subjects also filled out questionnaires during and after the fasting and isolation periods. Not only did this confirm that people felt cravings for what they had missed, but that the effect was similar in both cases. </p><p>They also showed that very hungry people were less responsive to images of socializing, suggesting that "hanger," the state of being irritable as a result of hunger, is a demonstrable <a href="https://www.insider.com/loneliness-and-hunger-have-similar-effects-on-the-brain-study-2020-11" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state</a>. </p>
How can I use this information? I’m asking for a friend.<p> The obvious takeaway is that it is perfectly normal to feel a need for interaction with others after an extended bout of isolation. Our brains treat some form of interaction as a basic need that must be met. While not shown as clearly in humans, not getting these needs often drives mice to <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29334694/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress ea</a><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29334694/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">t</a>, a finding that makes a great deal of sense in light of these new findings. <br> </p><p>Exactly how we can meet the need for socialization outside of just meeting up with people (a tricky proposition at the time of writing) remains up for debate. Anybody who has tried a Zoom party during the pandemic can attest to it just not being as nice as seeing friends in person. <br> <br> The study's authors are aware of this issue and note that:<br> <br> "A vital question is how much, and what kinds of, positive social interaction is sufficient to fulfill our social needs and thus eliminate the neural craving response. Technological advances offer incessant opportunities to be virtually connected with others, despite physical separations. Yet, some have argued that using social media only exacerbates subjective feelings of isolation.<sup>"</sup><br> </p><p>Unfortunately, the study cannot offer us an answer to this question just yet. </p>
Like always, there are limitations to this study.<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/sgxMsgDWnAU" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> This study involved 40 participants. While its essential finding is likely to be generally applicable, exactly how applicable it is to the broader population cannot be known with certainty from such a small group. The participants were also healthy, well-connected young adults who might react to various problems differently than other demographic groups. </p><p>Their tendency to do so while being the focus of endless studies on psychology is a well-recorded problem. <br> <br> Likewise, the fact that the participants knew they would only be isolated for 10 hours may have impacted how they reacted to the isolation—it is often easier to endure something when you know precisely when it will end. </p><p>Getting around that in future experiments may prove impossible. From an ethical standpoint, it would be difficult to structure an experiment on humans predicated on the idea that they will be kept isolated from all social interaction indefinitely. <br> <br> Lastly, while all of the participants were quite hungry after 10 hours, there were enough variations in how lonely people felt after isolation to suggest a more significant variance in need for socialization than in demand for food. While this seems obvious, we all know both introverts and extroverts; it does make it more challenging to determine how much social interaction counts as a "need" that the brain craves just as it craves food. </p><p>As usual, more research is needed.</p><p> The idea that humans are social animals existed long before modern neuroscience was possible. Now, we can see exactly what happens in the brain when we can't socialize. While the final word on the subject is still to be said, it might be time to give a friend a call. </p>
Researchers document the first example of evolutionary changes in a plant in response to humans.
- A plant coveted in China for its medicinal properties has developed camouflage that makes it less likely to be spotted and pulled up from the ground.
- In areas where the plant isn't often picked, it's bright green. In harvested areas, it's now a gray that blends into its rocky surroundings.
- Herbalists in China have been picking the Fritillaria dealvayi plant for 2,000 years.
Fritillaria dealvayi<p>The plant is <em> </em><a href="http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=2&taxon_id=200027633" target="_blank"><em>Fritillaria dealvayi</em></a><em>,</em> and its bulbs are harvested by Chinese herbalists, who grind it into a powder that treats coughs. The cough powder sells for the equivalent of $480 per kilogram, with a kilogram requiring the grinding up of about 3,500 bulbs. The plant is found in the loose rock fields lining the slopes of the Himalayan and Hengduan mountains in southwestern China.</p><p>As a perennial that produces just a single flower each year after its fifth season, it seems <em>Fritillaria</em> used to be easier to find. In some places its presence is betrayed by bright green leaves that stand out against the rocks among which which it grows. In other places, however, its leaves and stems are gray and blend in with the rocks. What's fascinating is that the bright green leaves are visible in areas in which Fritillaria is relatively undisturbed by humans while the gray leaves are (just barely) visible in heavily harvested areas. Same plant, two different appearances.</p><div id="19cbf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c68d3086f5411ffd951edaad1cb811b9"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1329832938985435138" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">2/2: The picture on the left shows a Fritillaria delavayi in populations with high harvest pressure, and the one on… https://t.co/oriBNZGcsV</div> — University of Exeter News (@University of Exeter News)<a href="https://twitter.com/UniofExeterNews/statuses/1329832938985435138">1605891854.0</a></blockquote></div>
How we know we're the cause<p>There are other camouflaging plants, but the manner in which <em>Fritillaria</em> has developed this trait strongly suggests that it's a defensive response to being picked. "Many plants seem to use camouflage to hide from herbivores that may eat them — but here we see camouflage evolving in response to human collectors."</p><p>"Like other camouflaged plants we have studied," Niu says, " we thought the evolution of camouflage of this fritillary had been driven by herbivores, but we didn't find such animals." His close examination of Fritillaria leaves revealed no bite marks or other signs of non-human predation. "Then we realized humans could be the reason."</p><p>In any event, says Professor Hang Sun the Kunming Institute, "Commercial harvesting is a much stronger selection pressure than many pressures in nature."</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDgyNzM0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMDc3NDQwMn0.lXwsG0ShcnMcVLl06APdEeEOY5_WOs4UfN8oVCKsgtc/img.png?width=980" id="ccc8e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="907e152dd5ad0429aa6350c53f5a85aa" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="herb shop" />
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