The Holocaust intrudes into conversations about psychiatric diagnosis: Godwin’s rule confirmed

peter_kinderman_140x140The President-elect of the British Psychological Association drops the N word and invokes the Holocaust in denouncing mental health professionals who embrace the biomedical model.

The conversation concerning Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia  (hereafter UPS) took another wrong turn with extended references to Nazism and the Holocaust in a blog post by Peter Kinderman, Me, my brain and baked beans. Goodwin’s rule is once again confirmed.

British psychological societyPeter Kinderman is one of the main spokespersons for the British Psychological Society UPS document. The blog further identifies him as a Professor at University of Liverpool, and the President-elect of the British Psychological Society.

Godwin’s Rule or Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies is “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.“ Michael Godwin elaborates on it in I Seem To Be A Verb: 18 Years of Godwin’s Law:

I created Godwin’s Law and began to repeat it in online forums whenever I encountered a silly comparison of someone or something to Hitler or to the Nazis…. My feeling is that “Never Again” loses its meaning if we don’t regularly remind ourselves of the terrible inflection point marked in human culture by the Holocaust. Sure, there has been genocide before that point and genocide after it, but to see an advanced, highly civilized nation warp itself into something capable of creating such a horror—well, I think Nazi Germany does count as a first in that regard. And to a great extent, our challenge as human beings who live in the period after that inflection point is that we no longer can be passive about history—we have a moral obligation to do what we can to prevent such events from ever happening again. Key to that obligation is remembering, which is what Godwin’s Law is all about.

Those horrified by the Holocaust as a unique historical event see invoking it casually in political or professional rivalries as a “gross misappropriation of the past and an obscene misuse of history.”

The continued misuse  and trivialization of the word prompted Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate and chronicler of the Holocaust, to discontinue using it. “Whatever mishap occurs now, they call it ‘holocaust,'” Wiesel said. “I have seen it myself in television in the country in which I live. A commentator describing the defeat of a sports team, somewhere, called it a ‘holocaust.'”

This will be a long read edition of PLOS Mind the Brain because of extensive direct quotes from BPS President-elect Kinderman. His statements strain all credibility. I don’t want any ambiguity as to whether I made them up.

Readers are encouraged to retrieve Kinderman’s blog post and see for themselves. It is posted at the anti-psychiatry blog, Mad in America.

A résumé of what his blog reveals

  1. President-elect Kinderman has unusual psychological experiences which he traces to growing up in a family environment with a harsh, unloving mother.
  2. In ways that frighten him, he fantasizes about winning Nobel or Pulitzer prizes and being awarded knighthood. And “I lurch forwards and jump to conclusions in my mental logic.” He is prone to tangential connectivity and abstract, ‘clang’ associations.
  3. He believes that these experiences would have caused him to be castrated if the Nazis had won World War II.
  4. He believes that those who adhere to what he terms a disease model of psychological disorder are essentially following the Nazis.
  5. He believes the connection is obvious to friends and colleagues, who consider him brave in making it public.
  6. He makes extensive references to the Holocaust in developing his argument.
  7. Kinderman is particularly frightened by advocates of this disease model because of the rise of right-wing political parties in Europe.
  8. He ends with a plea “don’t use the ‘disease-model’ as a framework.”

A résumé of my commentary

  1. Kinderman sees his unusual experiences as giving him privileged status to condemn those who accept the biomedical model of psychopathology.
  2. He invokes the Holocaust and Nazi analogy to bolster his argument in what he sees as a turf war between his supporters and psychiatrists. Actually, the overwhelming majority of academic mental health professionals accept some version of a biomedical model.
  3. He has long been caricaturing psychiatric diagnosis in reductionist terms,  referring to the biomedical model as a “genetic disease” model. But by invoking the Holocaust and the Nazis, he is excluding himself from participation in any subsequent conversation.
  4. Until President-elect Kinderman apologizes to the larger community which accepts the need to protect the memory of Holocaust from such desecration, the credibility of the British Psychological Society remains damaged. The BPS Board of Trustees should condemn him or accept responsibility for having such a spokesperson.
  5. Kinderman indicates that his blog is “a slightly longer version” of an article published elsewhere. The earlier article lacked any reference to the Holocaust or Nazis and he expresses appreciation to Anne Cooke for editing the transition. She therefore shares responsibility with Kinderman for the references to the Holocaust and Nazis. She is similarly disqualified as a participant in any conversation in the social media until she apologizes.
  6. In place of scientific evidence, Kinderman’ frequently claimed the authority of personal eminence associated with his professorship. This is disallowed by his references to the Holocaust and Nazism, which place him outside of academic discourse.
  7. UPS was explicitly aimed at influencing mental health service users and policymakers. Vigorous debate should continue, but critics should not require the authors to engage them. After all, what do you expect from somebody who considers you a Nazi? And to get back into the conversation, the authors of Understanding Psychosis have to address Kinderman putting the Holocaust and Nazism on the table.

I hope that these résumés will inform, but do not satiate you. I  hope they encourage you to read further in what will prove a fascinating discussion. But regardless, begin asking yourself what responsibility the trustees of the British Psychological Society have in dealing with the situation that Kinderman has now created. Or does it really matter that the President-elect of this organization has written such things?

Kinderman’s Me, My Brain, and Baked Beans

beans_on_toast430x300Kinderman starts off with a statement of annoyance but gives no indication where he is going.

In mental health, resolving the relative contributions of our biology and genetics and how these interact with social and environmental factors (our parenting, peer-relationships, learning, and experiences of both abuse and nurturing) is more than an intellectual puzzle. I’m occasionally annoyed by what appears to be a rather simplistic suggestion that, if there’s a biological, even heritable, element, to a psychological phenomenon, then we’re inevitably discussing an illness, a disease.

A Difficult Childhood

He soon gets to depicting his early family environment and readers can again ponder ‘where is this taking us?’

After my mother’s death, we discovered that, when she had confessed to a religious mentor that she was in danger of loving her children more than God, there was a subsequent process of re-adjustment … she was encouraged to practice loving her children less. My parents rejected the material world as merely a stepping-stone to heaven (or hell) and paid little attention to worldly pursuits. I remember opening a letter from Cambridge University confirming an offer of a place as an undergraduate. I told my mother, whose reply was; “Very nice dear, now, do you want baked beans on toast for breakfast?”

Kinderman’s point seems to be that he and his siblings were not reared in a loving and accepting environment. His mother’s religiosity was pivotal. Kinderman discourages us from having any sympathy for the mother. But now that he has brought her up, we can nonetheless wonder about how she might have been suffering.

An astute reader with a sense of history might also wonder if we are being set up for a simplistic refrigerator mother explanation of psychological problems in offspring.

In the 1990s, Irish motivational speaker Tony Humphreys  drew upon his own adverse childhood experiences to extend a discredited theory of the refrigerator mothers of children with autism to explain schizophrenia and diabetes. He was subsequently censored by the Irish Psychological Society.

Humphreys was following up on the 1940s work of Leo Kanner  who coined the phrase in describing mothers of autistic children as “just happening to defrost enough to produce a child.”

refrigerator motherAs an antidote to this nasty mother bashing, I strongly recommend Refrigerator Mothers,  an hour-long movie freely available on the Internet. It provided an opportunity for mothers with autistic children to talk back against the stereotype of them.


Once isolated and unheard, these mothers have emerged with strong, resilient voices to share the details of their personal journeys. Through their poignant stories, Refrigerator Mothers puts a human face on what can happen when authority goes unquestioned and humanity is removed from the search for scientific answers.

Kinderman claims to be an expert by experience

Kinderman then describes his unusual psychological experiences and behavior.

So I am emotionally labile; my self-esteem and emotions are very fragile and very much dependent on what I imagine other people are thinking. Or, at least, I think I am; my observations of my own behaviour are themselves subjective, and it’s possible that others do these things as much as I do. I frighten myself (given my relative’s experiences) by fantasising about… winning Nobel prizes, winning Pulitzer prizes, being elected to this and that, being awarded knighthoods… and that’s frightening because I’ve seen self-referent fantasies ruin other people’s lives.

…And, perhaps most saliently, I lurch forwards and jump to conclusions in my mental logic. So, if you give me the sequence “A, B, C” and ask me to complete the sequence, I’ll say Z. Maybe that’s a bit of a joke (a pun on ‘complete’), and it’s unequivocally good for me in my academic career. A creative professor is a good professor. I also and simultaneously make abstract and surreal connections. It’s a recognised part of my teaching style – I’ll veer off on a tangent. Again, perhaps useful in an academic and possibly engaging or at least entertaining for students (if they can keep up…). But jumping to conclusions, tangential connectivity and abstract, ‘clang’ associations all have very interesting connotations in the field of mental health.

Too much information. What shall we to make of these deeply personal and out-of-place disclosures from the President-elect of the British Psychological Society? Kinderman claims benefit from it these experiences and does not want to discredit himself. Yet he is giving live ammunition to critics who have long been frustrated with his distinctive torrents of scrambled anecdata and pomposity. No worry, Kinderman is about to discredit himself more thoroughly.

But for a bit, Kinderman continues quite reasonably:

So I am very interested (and, I hope, open-minded) about what it is, if anything, that we inherit. How do I differ from other people? What proportion of the variance in these traits can be accounted for by genetic differences? What proportion of the variance in these traits comes from being brought up by repressed religious extremists? What proportion comes from being reinforced, through my childhood, for being academic? Which elements of my upbringing were different other people’s anyway?

Kinderman brings in the Nazis

Out of context, this appears a reconciliatory statement that invites agreement from critics. But there is a disaster ahead. Kinderman’s train of thought transports unknowing readers to the death camps of the Holocaust with contemporary psychiatrists branded Nazis. Kinderman apparently thinks his friends and colleagues will consider him brave for exposing this obvious connection.

…I think it’s perfectly possible to be intelligent and open-minded about the contribution of genetic and environmental factors in our mental health. We can intelligently and respectfully discuss how experiences and heritable traits can interact to produce the wonderful variety of human experience. This, I think, is a much more accurate and helpful way to conceptualise what’s going on than to say that some of us – but only some of us – have ‘mental illnesses’. Labels such as ‘schizophrenia’ not only suffer from the validity problems that we’ve discussed elsewhere, but also obfuscate these important considerations. I don’t think it’s helpful to consider how I have managed to avoid developing ‘schizophrenia’, or whether I have ‘attenuated psychosis syndrome’. To do that, to reduce these discussions to binary considerations of the presence or absence of disorders, necessarily constrains the scientific debate. It can also sometimes have frightening consequences in the real world. When I’ve mentioned some of these issues before in less public settings, friends and colleagues have often told me that I’m being brave, and that it’s a potentially risky topic of conversation. So why might that be?

The eradication of undesirable genetic traits

Part of the reason that people might be reluctant to talk about such issues is that we have a very poor track record in this area. This is a difficult topic, but I think it is important to remember the infamous 1933 Nazi Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses). Arguments of genetic science not only led to the drafting of this law (which permitted the compulsory sterilisation of any citizens who were judged to possess a ‘genetic disorder’ which could be passed onto their children) but indeed led German-American psychiatrist Franz Kallmann to argue that such a policy of sterilisation should be extended to the relatives of people with mental health problems (in order to eradicate the genes supposedly responsible). The notorious Action T4 ‘eradication’ programme was the logical extension of these policies.

From Kinderman’s Me, my brain and baked beans.

Adolf Hitler’s order for the Action T4 programme

Adolf Hitler’s order for the Action T4 programme.

Reich Law Gazette on 25 July 1933: Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring













Kinderman accuses Franz Kallmann of being a war criminal. Kinderman should have spent more time at Google University learning about Kallmann who fled the Nazis in the 1936.

Considered a Jew by the Nazis although not by himself, he could not publish his work, and had to rely on friends at Munich to read his papers for him. He could only get his statistics into print by quotation in papers of others’ authorship.

… Despite of all obstacles, he succeeded in organizing the first research department in psychiatric genetics in the United States at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. This department became the main source of intellectual support of psychiatric genetic research in the U.S. for a generation.

Kinderman’s description of Kallmann as a “German-American psychiatrist” is used to smear all of contemporary psychiatry with the taint of Nazism.

At the Bath Conference on Understanding Psychosis, Kinderman refused to engage other members of the panel. It is too bad that the event was not recorded and that the BPS insisting on editing a journalist’s account. But those who were there will recall Kinderman closed with a rambling, incoherent rant about the horrors of mental health professionals telling psychiatric patients that they had a genetic disease.

Perhaps uncomfortable with having invoked the Nazis, in his blog he tries to shift to fascism. He introduces a non sequitur in claiming that if schizophrenia represents “a biological problem, we can dismiss any further troubling considerations.” Then he insists in a most extraordinary way on his privileged status talk of the Holocaust because of its personal relevance and threat.

Of course, a focus on biological aspects of mental health problems is not in any sense necessarily synonymous with fascism. But for many of us, there are echoes of blame, of stigma, when we identify the pathology within the genetic substrate of the person. I’m reminded of Eric Pickles’ notorious throw-away comment to a voter campaigning about the abuse she’d experienced that she should “adjust her medication”. If the pathology lies in the person, and particularly if it is a biological problem, we can dismiss any further troubling considerations.

So one way to understand these kinds of experiences is to diagnose some form of ‘subclinical’ syndrome, perhaps attenuated psychosis. If the Nazis had won the second world war, I would have been castrated as a first-degree relative of a ‘schizophrenic’. Disease-model, eugenic, thinking is a direct threat to me personally, especially given the recent rise of UKIP and other far-right parties in Europe. I am interested in whether the traits that make me a good professor may also be related to the traits I listed earlier, and on their impact on my emotions. I am interested in whether they may have emerged from a similar mix of genes and environment that led my relative to experience psychosis. I am very interested in the practical implications; I have always, for example, avoided certain classes of street drugs. It is absolutely possible to discuss gene × environment interactions, but – please – don’t use the ‘disease-model’ as a framework.

Why Peter Kinderman and Anne Cooke are excluded from further discussions of Understanding Psychosis until they publicly apologize.

“A good rule in most discussions is that the first person to call the other a Nazi automatically loses the argument.”  This has been elaborated in Godwin’s Law FAQ:

godwin faq

Nonetheless, gratuitous references to the Holocaust in Nazis regularly occur around the world, highlighting all the more the need to insist on them being obscene.

The memory of six million Jews and the eleven million other human beings who died in the Holocaust is too sacred for calculating politicians and their paranoid cheerleaders to be turned into a semantic missile.

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is incorrigible. In 2014 he said


If you felt something incredibly powerful at Auschwitz and Birkenau over the 11 million killed worldwide and the 1.5 million killed on those grounds, cannot we feel something extraordinary about 55 million murdered in our own country in the wombs of their mothers? Does that not speak to us?

Now Huckabee is being condemned by Israel for saying the Iran nuclear deal is “marching the Israelis to the door of the oven.”  Israel does not need that kind of support.

Why did Kinderman destroy his credibility by publishing this?

For the same reason that Mike Huckabee made the comparison between abortion and the Holocaust. He believes these things, he has bad judgment, and he thought he wouldn’t be caught.

Huckabee speech was captured on a videotape in 2014 and subsequently distributed by Right Wing Watch, a non-profit working to expose the Far-Right’s extreme and intolerant agenda. Otherwise most of us would not have learned of his statements.

Kinderman similarly may have thought that he was in a closed environment where he could express views that would resonate with an important part of his constituency. He surely would not have made them at an international scientific psychology gathering.

The long thread of comments Kinderman elicited at the blog site showed little indignation and tacit acceptance that psychiatrists are Nazis. He seems to have only tweeted once about this blog post and probably didn’t think it would come to the attention of the larger community.

He may be a professor at University of Liverpool and President-elect of the British Psychological Society, but he plays to a constituency that is neither academic nor professional.

Dealing with the offense to all comes first

Even before the references to the Holocaust and Nazis aside, there there have been many reasons be offended by Kinderman’s promotion of the BPS UPS.

  • Serious academics have been outraged by Kinderman’s arguments without evidence against diagnosis, his claim that antipsychotic medication is toxic and ineffective, his crass emotional appeals, and his slandering of the large other side on an important issue. UPS simply not does not adhere to academic standards in terms of logic and reference to evidence and would not pass independent peer review.
  • Mental health service consumers and their family members have been upset that issues that concern them are being framed in such a misleading and irrational way by a professional. They are unrepresented and silenced by the carefully selected clinical examples in the UPS. Treatment options have been misrepresented in ways intended to frighten them. They have legitimate concerns about having to be diagnosed or treated by psychologists who hold such warped views.
  • Many members of the British Psychological Society are embarrassed by the organization sinking to this level. They would not want to be asked in a public gathering if UPS represents solid science. Many UK psychologists who are not members of BPS are upset that the organization that supposedly speaks for them is associated with such ridiculous statements.

All who are offended should feel free to speak out. But the preemptive issue is before the larger community is that Kinderman has behaved in an unacceptable manner. Kinderman is out of the discussion. His license is revoked and he needs to reapply.

If Kinderman or Anne Cooke pop up in these discussions, they should simply be asked “Don’t you have a problem with desecrating the memory of the Holocaust?” and then ignored.

The dilemma facing the British Psychological Society

Kinderman blurs any distinction between his personal views and those of the organization with which he incessantly claims to speak, often in forums only available because he represents BPS. It’s incumbent upon the BPS to clarify where they stand on what is now a game-stopping issue. Do they condemn Kinderman or are they left implicitly condoning him?

Here is a list of members of the Board of Trustees and some of their email addresses I was able to obtain from the internet. Readers might want to individually and collectively inquire about where the board stands about Kinderman casually invoking the Holocaust and Nazism in a context where references to these historical events have no place.

  • President Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes CPsychol CSci FBPsS
  • Vice President Professor Dorothy Miell CPsychol FBPsS
  • Honorary General Secretary Dr Carole Allan CPsychol Csci FBPsS
  • Honorary Treasurer Professor Ray Miller CPsychol FBPsS
  • Chair Education and Public Engagement Board Professor Catriona Morrison CPsychol AFBPsS
  • Chair Research Board Professor Daryl B O’Connor CPsychol AFBPsS D.B.O’
  • Chair Professional Practice Board Dr Ian Gargan CPsychol AFBPsS
  • Chair Membership Standards Board Dr Mark Forshaw CPsychol CSci FBPsS FIHPE

It is fair game to raise the issue of Kinderman’s transgression when members of the BPS Board of Trustees appear at public gatherings. I intend to do so when Daryl B O’Connor shows up at the European Health Psychology Conference in Cyprus and encourage others to do so as well. “Hey Daryl, about Kinderman’s references to the Holocaust and Nazis…”

BPS President Jamie Hacker Hughes announced the launch of Understanding Psychosis on Twitter and then unsuccessfully tried to squelch discussion when it turned negative.

hacker huges exchangeIt was foolish for the BPS President to insist that conversation about a document that could not conceivably pass independent peer review be confined to venues gated by peer review. It would be a disaster for him to adopt this strategy in trying to squelch the conversation about what Kinderman has done.

The other authors of UPS and Kinderman’s bringing in the Holocaust and the Nazis

Anne Cooke is given credit for the transition for an earlier blog post by Kinderman that lack references to the Holocaust and the Nazis to the present one.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Anne Cooke for helpful comments and advice on earlier drafts.

She also edited UPS. Some of the contributors  have expressed previously extreme anti-psychiatry sentiments in public. Now that Kinderman’s blog post is distributed, they need to get clear on where they stand on desecrating the memory of the Holocaust.

UPS Contributers

The conversation about Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia

From its launch, critics of Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia lots of abuse. Their own blog posts have been spammed with threats and demands the blog posts be taken. There have been hit and run attacks on blog comment threats and Twitter by pseudonymous commentators who morph and disappear from the internet. Often, outrageous comments are left and elicit responses, only to later be removed,leaving whole threads incoherence.

The day of the official launch of Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia, Keith Laws, Alex Langford, and Samei Huda posted a detailed critique that became one of the most viewed posts at Mental Elf ever. Angela Wilson Ursery posted a comment attacking the three as engaging in mutual masturbation and bragged about it on Twitter. The moderator at Mental Elf quickly edited her comment, but Kinderman retweeted her announcement and Anne Cooke favored it.

welcome circle jerk full

So, Kinderman has now gone from endorsing the views of UPS critics as masturbating each other, to expressing worries about being castrated, and now tying in the Holocaust and Nazis. Very strange for a President-elect of the BPS

At 1Boring Old Man  psychiatrist Mickey Nardo unflinchingly takes aim at NIMH Director Thomas Insel and American Psychiatric Association President Jeffrey Lieberman. Mickey approvingly quotes long statements from the Critical Psychiatry Network and engaging its representatives in long threads of comments on his blog posts. But he has grown frustrated trying to deal with the authors of UPS and their followers.

I’ve sort of stopped responding to comments myself because they focus on anything I say as evidence of my being some insensitive psychiatrist who holds people back and snows them with medication. I’m not that…The cases of psychotic illness I followed in my practice were treated much in the same way as the BPS Report suggests, though my attitude about medications changed over time because of frequent relapses.

But I don’t think the responders want to know what my objections really are, and would prefer to keep me in the bad guy role. I’m not interested in being defensive. If my writings about this aren’t clear, ask me a question. If you prefer to see me as some doom-sayer, that’s your call…

Well, now you know, Mickey, some of them think you are a Nazi.

The conversation about UPS must continue, without Kinderman and Cooke

BPS offered UPS as

A resource for people who work in mental health services, people who use them and their friends and relatives, to help ensure that their conversations are as well informed and as useful as possible. It also contains vital information for those responsible for commissioning and designing both services and professional training, as well as for journalists and policy-makers”.

UPS is chock-full of posturing in what its authors see as a turf war, misinformation, and simple nonsense. We should continue to provide mental health service uses, policymakers, and other professionals with evidence-based alternative information. From the first day of its launch, the UPS authors have not been keen on sustained evidence-based exchanges. We should continue without them, despite Kinderman having seriously damaged the debate.


DISCLAIMER: I am grateful for PLOS blogs providing me the space for free expression. However, the views I present here are not necessarily those of PLOS nor of any of my institutional affiliations.


Category: antipsychotics, cognitive behavioral therapy, Holocaust, Psychiatry, psychosis, schizophrenia | Tagged , , , | 20 Comments

Prions, Memory and PTSD: A conversation with Nobel prize winning neuroscientist Dr. Eric R. Kandel

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been described as a disorder of memory. It has become quite apparent that there are two types of memory in PTSD: the first being the involuntary intrusions of the trauma, and the second being the voluntarily recalled memories that constitute the trauma story, also known as the trauma narrative. Both are fundamentally different in their quality and form. The involuntary intrusions are vivid, highly emotional, and involve a sense of reliving the original trauma. In contrast, the voluntarily recalled trauma narratives do not share this same intensity, but their content is notable for being significantly disorganized. Such disorganization can be found very soon after the traumatic event and hence is not attributable to poor recall, but to the very nature of these traumatic memories themselves. In essence, there is an inability to put into words the most emotional part of a traumatic event, a period of time which could have lasted anywhere from several seconds to several hours. Traumatic memories are also unstable, so what is under voluntary and involuntary control varies over time. For this reason, the recall of trauma over different points in time creates different trauma accounts, with such discrepancies being more noticeable as the symptoms of PTSD become more severe.

For such disorders of memory, a natural follow up question is what are the molecules and chemical building blocks that our memories are made from? Unlike taking a blood sample, a saliva swab or a sample of bone marrow, there is no simple way to sample brain tissue from a live human. For this reason, neuroscientists have relied on animal models to discover what goes on in the brain when memories are made. The work of Eric R. Kandel forms the basis for much of what we understand about how memories are formed. Dr. Kandel was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his extensive body of pioneering work investigating the synaptic connections between nerve cells in sea slugs. His work has illuminated some of the basic molecular mechanisms underlying learning and memory in animals and is central to understanding not only normal memory, but also disorders that affect memory, such as PTSD. More recently, Dr. Kandel and his colleagues identified a molecule, a prion protein called CPEB, (cytoplasmic polyadenylation element-binding protein 3) that plays a key role in the maintenance of long-term memories in the sea slug Aplysia and in mice. In a 2015 study, Kandel and his colleagues trained mice to memorize a way to navigate through a maze, then the researchers knocked out the mouse homolog of the CPEB gene called CPEB3 and this knocked out the maintenance of long-term memories and caused the mice to forget how to navigate the maze.

Dr. Kandel is a Professor at Columbia University, the Kavli Professor and Director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science, Co-Director of the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute and a Senior Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. I spoke with him about this recent publication and the relevance of such findings to disorders of memory, such as PTSD.

Credit: NIAID

Credit: NIAID

Dr. Jain: The first question I had was about prions. They have a really bad reputation in the world of medicine as being associated with horrific diseases like Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). Your work has shown that in order to maintain long term memory, we need local protein synthesis at the synapse. You and your colleagues have identified the CPEB protein as a functional prion which has this role of keeping memory indefinitely. Could you talk a little bit more about functional prions and how they differ from prions that cause pathological changes in the brain?

Dr. Kandel: Well, functional prions differ from pathological prions in two ways. First, in pathological prions, the conversion from the soluble form to the aggregated self-perpetuating form is spontaneous. In functional prions, it is regulated by a physiological signal. Secondly, in pathological prions, once the prions assume an aggregated self-perpetuating form, prion proteins then kill the cell. They are then released by the dying cell and taken up by other cells, they kill the next cell and are passed on from one cell to another like an infection. The functional prions are not only turned on by a physiological signal, but when they are turned on and reach the aggregated self-perpetuating form that is their normal function. They are inactive when they are not in the aggregated form. So they fulfill their normal function, which in this case is regulating local proteins synthesis.

Dr. Jain: Taking this one step further, when we think specifically about a psychiatric disorder, such as PTSD, can you speak a little bit as to what these recent findings mean in terms of understanding what the molecular basis for PTSD might be?

Dr. Kandel: Before we come to PTSD, we now have  information on  Age Related Memory Loss indicating that one of the key defects is  upstream from CPEB-3,  the same  functional prion that we found important for maintaining normal memory.

PTSD very likely has prion mechanisms. Joseph Rayman in our lab identified a second prion in addition to CPEB that seems to play a role as a protective factor in PTSD. We have not done enough to talk about it and it has not been published yet.

image credit: Rama

image credit: Rama

Dr. Jain: Neuroscience data comes from studies using animal models (sea slugs, mice etc.). Can you speak a little bit to those of us who are not so familiar with cutting edge neuroscience methodologies, how do we infer from animal models what might be happening in the human brain?

Dr. Kandel: Well, one cannot be certain unless one explores the molecules directly in the human brain, but there is a homologue in the human brain. There is no obvious reason for thinking it does not have a similar function, but until one tests it one cannot know for sure.

Dr. Jain: We hear about these amazing discoveries about these prions and homologues in humans. What is your vision for how basic science research will actually translate clinically into impacting people living with memory disorders?

Dr. Kandel: We are already there in some areas. We have far to go in other areas, but I will give you an example. We have a pretty good understanding of Alzheimer’s disease. We know the toxicity of beta amyloid. We do not know why the drugs that are directed against beta amyloid do not work, but one possibility that is being seriously entertained is that by the time the patient comes to see a physician, they have had the disease for ten years. That is a very long time and you lose a lot of nerve cells in ten years, and drugs do not bring nerve cells back once they are dead.

We need to diagnose the disease earlier and a major effort now, in Alzheimer’s research, is early diagnosis. Imaging, cerebral spinal fluid, genetic warning signals etc.

The other thing is it has proven possible to define an independent disorder, age related memory loss. Recent work from our lab, and that of Scott Small, ,has shown there is a separate entity, independent of AD, called Age Related Memory Loss. We have identified the molecular pathways involved in that disorder. We have treatments that work very effectively in animals. I think the time is going to come soon when these will be tried in people.

All of these came out from a basic science and work with experimental animals. So even though we are in the very early stage of understanding the really complex functions of the brain, we are making progress and all of this will hopefully have some therapeutic impact.

Category: mental health care, Psychiatry, PTSD | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

More sciencey than the rest? The competitive edge of positive psychology coaching

sciencyIs positive psychology coaching better than what its competitors offer? Is positive psychology coaching the science-oriented brand or does it just look sciency? How do we judge?



In Mind the Brain, we have been showing that critical appraisal tools like risk of bias assessment for studies evaluating interventions and a vigilance for signs of confirmatory bias, p-hacking, and significance chasing are crucial in interpreting often untrusworthy scientific claims. Yet, these alone are not enough.

We have also been seeing the need to pay attention to the institutional context, like how journals decide what is publishable, and how universities require that professors prove their worth by publishing lots of papers and telling them where they should publish.

We need to look at the incentives for individual researchers. Do they get rewarded for telling like it is- publishing the fairest interpretation of all their studies  or rather for claiming breakthrough, newsworthy  findings even when the data don’t show that? We need to consider what is suppressed or radically distorted because of these powerful filtering processes. Or else place our faith in the fairness and thoroughness of the peer review Peer-Review-Cartoon2-604x256process: it must be good science because it got through peer review.

We can’t understand what passes for science in positive psychology unless we grasp the larger context of the positive psychology community, the multimillion dollar industry associated with positive psychology, and incentives that the community and its industry offer to those claiming to provide the science of positive psychology.

Shaping what passes for science are the needs of thousands of positive psychology coaches competitively marketing their services. These coaches are themselves a market for positive psychology ”science,” and they promote their “science-based” products and services to individual clients and corporations. At both levels, claims become important of being more sciencey than competitors not sharing the brand of positive psychology.

A recent interview with a designated “positive psychology expert”, Lisa Sansom provides some fascinating insights into the sciencey branding of positive psychology coaching. Positive Psychology Coaching: 12 Urgent Questions Answered is available at PositivePsychologyProgram: Your One-Stop Positive Psychology Resource. At the outset, the interview promises to answer the questions

What is positive psychology coaching? How does it differ from regular coaching? When can I call myself a positive psychologist?

And more. In this blog post, I’m going to probe this interview to understand the distinctiveness of the positive psychology brand of coaching and its implications for what passes for science and evidence in positive psychology.

We will encounter some tensions. Calling oneself a coach does not require any background in psychology or research methodology. Yet coaches claim they interpret and apply scientific findings and promise that makes their brand better than the rest.

If coaches don’t have a background in psychology and the critical skills to interpret new findings, how are they going to do this? They depend on the eminence of those whom they consider scientists, not the actual evidence their research provide. Researchers may become gurus to an audience that cannot appreciate either whether authoritative statements by the researchers are faithful to their actual findings or whether any evidence is actually relevant to the pronouncements being made.

resident_science_guru_novelty_mug-r2eca08dfba82417d91c636949ef1a320_x7jg5_8byvr_324What a temptation! An audience that cannot tell the difference between reasonable and unreasonable interpretations of the evidence, but will pay more for interpretations that help them sell more of their product and services.

Being an authoritative source has rich rewards in terms of opportunities for lucrative trainings corporate talks and direct-to-consumer marketing of their “science.” But success in this market benefits from claiming stronger findings than the spin and confirmatory bias required for publication.

i know more than you doPositive psychology research comes out of social and personality psychology that already has rampant problems with hype, hokum, and unreproducible findings. Do the temptations of the positive psychology market increase pressures on psychologists doing relevant research to produce simplistic, but seemingly unambiguous answers ? Think of having to match reporting of findings to the wonder, drama, and magic of advertisements for positive psychology products.

Positive psychology articles rarely if ever has declarations of conflict interest. Yet, we know investigators’ financial stakes in obtaining particular outcomes lead to exaggerated and simply false claims. Do investigators seeking market claims in positive psychology further contaminate troubled areas of personality and social psychology with undisclosed conflicts of interest? In other areas of social science, there is growing appreciation for the need for routine declarations of conflicts of interest. Some areas have seen dozens of errata and correction notices to articles that previously did not have a declarations.

The interview quotes a chapter by Carol Kauffman, Ilona Boniwell and Jordan Silberman  in giving a definition of positive psychology coaching:

“Positive Psychology Coaching (PPC) is a scientifically-rooted approach to helping clients. increase well-being, enhance and apply strengths, improve performance, and achieve valued goals. At the core of PPC is a belief in the power of science to elucidate the best.”

The interview keeps emphasizing that it is being rooted in science that distinguishes positive psychology coaching from its competitors.

So how does it differ from regular coaching?

On the surface, it might not look or feel much different to a client. However, what is different is that the PP coach continues his or her life-long learning in the field of positive psychology by staying engaged with the research, the literature, the researchers and other PP professionals.

The PP coach also adjusts his or her coaching techniques, methodologies, etc, accordingly when new findings are discovered. “Regular” coaches may not be as tied to the empirical evidence and research findings, and so their techniques and methodologies may change only as a function of their own experiences, or attending conferences where they learn from other coaches’ anecdotal experiences, or they may not change substantially at all.


Perhaps the one thing that is different, as I alluded to above, is that the PP coach also believes in staying close to the science and adjusting his or her approach (etc) accordingly. Coaches that are getting their PP from mass media books only are not getting the full richness and subtleties that are inherent in positive psychology research.

Yet no background in psychology is required to do this:

Overall, to be an effective PP coach or practitioner, one does not need a strong background in traditional psychology and one does not need to be a certified, qualified psychologist.

Even without a coach having a background in psychology,

the benefits to working with a PP coach who is well-trained and qualified are potentially that you will be drawing on a valid body of research (as opposed to just intuition and that individual’s personal coaching experience) and that your coach will know the why and wherefore of the practices, rather than just guessing that things might work for you.

27 factsSurfing around the PositivePsychologyProgram website, I encountered the free resource, 27 of Positive Psychology’s Most Fascinating Facts that advertised

To the point and easy to read (37 pages)

Written by academics, 100% science-based

More free PDF’s, Downloads, Videos…



Of course, I clicked on the

yes send mePNG

And opened to

Fascinating Fact #4: Positive psychology interventions have the power to reduce depressive symptoms.

Sin and Lyubomirsky’s meta-analysis is the single source. It is described as revealing

positive psychology really does increase wellbeing and sooth depression. Furthermore, the status of depression, the age of the participants and the intervention all had an impact on the effectiveness of the interventions. Because of this, clinicians are strongly encouraged to begin incorporating positive psychology techniques into their work.

You can find specifics here  of my evaluation of Sin and Lyubomirsky. I used the same standards I would apply to any other meta-analysis. I found it to be substandard work:

 Sin and Lyubomirsky provides a biased and seriously flawed assessment of positive psychology interventions. Uncritical citation of this paper suggest either subsequent authors are naïve, careless, or bent on presenting a positive evaluation of positive psychology interventions in defiance of available evidence.

But on to

Fascinating Fact #6: The principles and practice of positive psychology are relevant to brain injury rehabilitation.

 Positive Psychology actually has the ability to foster posttraumatic growth, meaning it can make injury sufferers over-all happier (even more so than they were before). Positive psychology allows individuals to re-assess what is important in life, live more in the moment, identify what they are grateful for and to develop personal and intra­personal goals for recovery. All this makes individuals with brain injuries more appreciative of all aspects of life and allows them to return to their social and physical lives faster.

These are patently ridiculous claims. They leave me thinking that we should all put in our advance directives that if we ever suffer traumatic brain injury, we must be protected from positive psychologists and coaches trying to help us to grow from the experience. And just what the hell do these coaches think they are doing in caring for persons with traumatic brain injury?

In the context of a great debate about positive psychology in cancer care, Howard Tennen and I concluded

We are at a loss to explain why positive psychology investigators continue to endorse the flawed conceptualization and measurement of personal growth following adversity. Despite [Chris] Peterson’s warning that the credibility of positive psychology’s claim to science demands close attention to the evidence, post-traumatic growth—a construct that has now generated hundreds of articles—continues to be studied with flawed methods and a disregard for the evidence generated by psychological science.

More recently, Patricia Frazier, Howard Tennen , and I published a commentary  on Jayawickreme and and Blackie’s updated Posttraumatic Growth as Positive Personality Change: Evidence, Controversies and Future Directions. We concluded that a lot of research had accumulated but it did not change our skeptical assessment. We suggested a lot less, but better research was needed.

thank youAnyone who assumes that psychological science will produce a set of 27 fascinating proven facts ready for application in interventions seriously misunderstands both science and psychological interventions.

Just look at any other area of psychological interventions. Research does not produce fascinating facts, but tentative findings, graded in terms of strength of evidence. That evidence is likely to be limited in quality and quantity and will probably have to be modified with new findings.

Taking a larger overview, we can expect that psychological interventions that are credible and structured will have modest differences among themselves and modest advantages over interventions that are simply supportive and delivered with positive expectations. And psychological interventions are most reliably effective when they are delivered to persons who are sufficiently distressed to register benefit.

The large literature concerning psychological interventions will be very disappointing to anyone seeking ways to produce dramatic change with simple interventions. Anyone or anything that guarantees this should be treated with great skepticism.

Look at the personality and social psychology research from which the positive psychology community draw. Findings are not robustly durable. Newsworthy dramatic breakthroughs typically prove to be false positives or simply nonsense. The shelf life of spectacular claims is increasingly shortened by critics waiting to show the tricks by which such magic was produced.

The positive psychology community may be collectively engaging in wishful thinking, but it attracts and richly rewards those who promise to fulfill the great hunger and pressing marketing needs for sciencey findings. And few in the community will understand the difference in what they get.

If the positive psychology community is serious about making a credible claim for the distinctiveness of their approach, I suggest that everybody drop the vague references to “science” and substitute “evidence-based.”

The  “evidence-based” brand is subject to lots of abuse, but the label at least invites application of some well specified principles for deciding the extent to which claims are indeed evidence-based and grading of the evidence by noncontroversial, established criteria. And to keep a grounding in being evidence-based, interventions need to adhere to the procedures that were validated. This is not a matter of jumping from a correlational study with college students to claims of dramatic effects being achieved in everyday life, as so much of the positive psychology literature does. It is a matter of being faithful –having fidelity to the manualized procedures of the original study.

Or is all of this analysis for naught because the claims of positive psychology being more sciencey than the rest are just vapid advertising slogans and not to be taken seriously? Some researchers notably pitch their work to this waiting audience that lacks the critical skills to evaluate. Should we treat their scholarship as less serious or should we scrutinize it more for bias because of their undeclared conflicts of interest?

DISCLAIMER: I am grateful for PLOS blogs providing me the space for free expression. However, the views I present here are not necessarily those of PLOS nor of any of my institutional affiliations.

Category: coaching, Conflict of interest, evidence-supported, happiness, positive psychology, publishing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Barney Carroll on domesticating psychosis

Although posted only a couple of days ago, my presentation from Royal Edinburgh Infirmary, Division of Psychiatry, University of Edinburgh is now passing the benchmark of over 1000 views.


Chrys Muirhead

You can also find an interesting Storify of my lecture by a mental health activist and correspondent for the Critical Psychiatry Network, Chrys Muirhead. I’m sure she’ll also be presenting an alternative view of my lecture at her blog.

In one of my introductory slides [slide 2], I acknowledge a number of go-to’s to whom I am indebted. I actively engage with the go-to’s through social media with questions and requests for feedback. They have kept me from what would have been embarrassing gaffes.  They allow me to present and write smarter than I am, when I let them. However any excesses or inaccuracies in my work are entirely my own.

One of these go-to’s is Bernard “Barney” Carroll. In future blogs I will be saying a lot about his influence on me, although we have never actually met. In hindsight, it’s too bad that my decade at the University of Michigan Mood Disorders Program that he developed started only after he had left.

Barney has

made major contributions to research on the biology and treatment of depression. He is best known as a pioneer of the neuroendocrine research strategy for depression, and as developer of the field of laboratory markers in psychiatry.

Barney often says profound things with a relaxed elegance, particularly when engaging in debate. Long before Kris Kristofferson, I’m sure those with whom he disagreed saw him as the original silver tongued devil.

I realize this comment dates me, because few of my younger readers even know Kris Kristofferson is, not even that he wrote Me and My Bobbie McKee that Janis Joplin made famous. So, here, distract yourself with some 70s music.


domesticating-page-0Anyway, on slide 37 of my presentation, I used Barney’s term domesticating psychosis as a heading for some direct quotes from Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia, the British Psychological Society Division of Clinical Psychology document that I  critiqued in coming slides. Here is the elaboration on that graphic phrase that Barney provided on my Facebook wall July 27, 2015.

Barney Carroll, in his own words:

I guess I am the person who gets the credit for characterizing the BPS report Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia as domesticating psychosis. Ronald Pies called it romanticizing psychosis and Joseph Pierre termed it trivializing psychosis.
The BPS folks, and Lucy Johnstone in particular, deserve all the frowns and brickbats that are coming their way for this misstep. It is an appalling document: Self-neglect due to impaired frontal executive function is niced down to “When people are in a state of distress and confusion they can sometimes need help to maintain an adequate diet, or look after their home.” That does not begin to capture the clinical reality of decompensating psychotic patients smashing furniture to stop the voices, smearing faeces, living in filth, going to the streets, eating out of dumpsters…. The report’s pervasive focus on just hearing voices as emblematic of psychosis is a domesticating strategy: One hallucination does not a schizophrenia make. This domestication distracts attention from the more serious features of psychosis such as negative symptoms, social and occupational decline, first rank positive psychotic symptoms, formal thought disorder, formal language disorder, catatonia, cognitive impairment, affective lability, delusions, and loss of ego boundaries in psychotic decompensations. These get short shrift in the terminal niceness of the BPS report.

fear my squirreley wrathI can only agree with James Coyne that the BPS folks, and Lucy Johnstone in particular, have been squirrelly in their responses to challenges. We saw that earlier this year. Look at the threads linked here on the 1Boringoldman blog:; and They are especially reckless in their glossing over of completed suicide in psychotic states. I discussed that on Joseph Pierre’s blog earlier in the year: see the several comments on this thread –

1 Boring Old Man » which side of the street?…

You can read Barney’s set of comments at Mickey Nardo’s 1 Boring Old Man website, along with Barney’s engagement with critics. But here’s an excerpt

… This approach is what I call domesticating psychosis. The BPS document fails adequately to convey the range of symptoms and associated behaviors in psychosis/schizophrenia. Even when these are mentioned, they are not addressed in a way that matches their clinical salience. Thus, decompensating psychotic crises are discussed unhelpfully in the framework of poor sleep habits. Acute inpatient psychiatric units are discussed in a patronizing way and are faulted as being unhelpful for some patients – never mind their rescue function. Catatonia as a common feature is not acknowledged. Psychotic terror and panic are not acknowledged. Formal thought disorder with truly crazy speech is not acknowledged. The 10% lifetime incidence of suicide among schizophrenic patients is not acknowledged. Core negative symptoms are brushed away as demoralization or as neuroleptic drug side effects. All of the recommendations made in the BPS document for improvement of psychological and social services are admirable but none are really new – they all fall within the traditional biopsychosocial model of psychiatry. We can all agree that psychiatry has not implemented that model consistently, in large measure because of underfunding, but that does not invalidate the model.

Their intellectual bias is further evidenced by their halfhearted endorsement of the need for antipsychotic drugs. They go out of their way to emphasize that, even though these are sometimes helpful, “… there is no evidence that (the drugs correct) an underlying biological abnormality.” Well, bless my heart, we can say the same of most drugs used in medicine: steroids for autoimmune diseases; bronchodilators for respiratory diseases; anticonvulsant drugs for seizure disorders … So, what is their point here, exactly, beyond gratuitous negative innuendo? It seems to me that the BPS document is a manifesto in the professional turf wars, heavily slanted towards gaining funds from the U.K regulators, rather than driven by an understanding of the classic psychotic disorders

Well said.

From Where's NAMI?

From Where’s NAMI?

Category: antipsychotics, mental health care, psychosis, schizophrenia | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Lucrative pseudoscience at the International Positive Psychology Association meeting

A plenary session dripping with crank science may be an outlier, but it’s on a continuum with the claims of mainstream positive psychology.

 Follow the conference attendees following the money, does it take you to science?


HMI-Bio-Speaker-Rollin-217x300Imagine a PhD student going to her first positive psychology conference, drawn by the opportunity to hear research oriented psychologists such as Richard Davidson and Jonathan Haidt in one place. But at the first plenary session she attends, Rollin McCraty is talking to an enthralled audience about “the science of what connects us.” McCraty says the heart radiates a measurable magnetic field which carries emotional state information, and can be detected by the nervous systems of nearby.”

Puzzled, she googles McCraty and comes to websites and articles making even more bizarre claims, like

 There is compelling evidence to suggest that the heart’s energy field (energetic heart) is coupled to a field of information that is not bound by the classical limits of time and space.

And even better

This evidence comes from a rigorous experimental study conducted to investigate the proposition that the body receives and processes information about a future event before the event actually happens (McCraty et al 2004a, b). The study’s results provide surprising data showing that both the heart and brain receive and respond to pre-stimulus information about a future event. Even more tantalizing are indications that the heart receives intuitive information before the brain, and that the heart sends a different pattern of afferent signals to the brain which modulates the frontal cortex.

“…about a future event before the event actually happens”? Wow, this puts Daryl Bem’s  claim of precognition to shame. But this claim cannot possibly prepare our PhD student for

A Tidal Wave of Kindness

In the fall of 2013, the IHM [Institute of HeartMath, where McCraty is Director of Research] launched the Global Coherence Initiative. The ambitious goals of this campaign are unprecedented: to quantify the impact of human emotion on the earth’s electromagnetic field and tip the global equation toward greater peace. While this may sound like a utopian fantasy, Dr. McCraty points out that science once again supports this possibility. “If the earth’s fields are a carrier, we are all coupled to this field, all the signals are out there,” he says. “So every emotion we experience is coupled to that field. This creates a global humanity field, if you will.” According to Dr. McCraty, this field is continually fed by our feelings, both positive and negative. The goal is to shift the balance toward the positive. “Any time we’re putting out love and kindness, that energy is not wasted,” he adds.

HeartMath graphThis is crank science far beyond the satire of Alan Sokal hoax article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. But we’re not done yet:

Current IHM research demonstrating the interconnectedness between people has Dr. McCraty very excited. Two studies going on in northern California and Saudi Arabia are monitoring HRV 24/7 to help quantify the interconnectivity between people and how it is affected by nervous system dynamics, the earth’s magnetic fields, solar flares, and even radio frequencies.

happy facesAt the reception that evening, our PhD student desperately searches for familiar faces of other research oriented PhD students. She manages to find only a few among the oppressively bubbly crowd. And none of her colleagues actually went to the McCraty plenary. Some dismissed him as just pushing the merchandise of the very commercial HeartMath.

Who was attending the International Positive Psychology Association meeting?

Advertisements for the conference advised

who should attend

But any research-oriented attendees were disappointed if they sought first-ever reports of breakthrough, but reproducible science. Personal coaching and organizational and executive consulting themes predominated in the preconference workshops and presentations.

Elements of a trade show blended into a revivalist meeting. Hordes of “certified” life coaches and wannabes were seeking new contacts, positive psychology products, and dubious certificates to hang in their offices. These coaches had paid out-of-pocket, without scholarship for degrees from “approved” masters of arts in positive psychology programs (MAPPs) costing as much as $60,000 a year. Many were hungry. But there are inspiring -positive psychology is about inspiring- stories on the Internet of big bucks being made immediately:

make money

  • MAPP programs typically require no background in behavior science and provide very little training in critical appraisal of research or even ethics.
  • Graduates of MAPP programs general lack ability to determine independently whether claims are evidence-based. They are suckers for anything that superficially sounds and looks sciencey. They are as vulnerable as marital and family therapists who can be readily seduced by claims about therapies that are “soothing the brain” hawked by unscrupulous “neuroscientists” and self-promoters.

Indeed, just go to some coaching websites and see claims of being able to provide clients with wondrous transformations take takes little effort from them.

Positive psychology merchandise. Get certified as a trainer now.

The science is often superficial and even quack. Yet, to compete effectively in a crowded field, positive psychology coaches brandish a label of ‘we are more sciencey than the rest’.the pp scientist

McCraty’s HeartMath promises that big time science backs its claims of effectiveness.

Over the years we have received numerous reports that coherence training has improved performance in a wide range of cognitive capacities, both short and long-term. These include tasks requiring eye-hand coordination, speed and accuracy, and coordination in various sports as well as cognitive tasks involving executive functions associated with the frontal cortex such as maintaining focus and concentration, problem solving, self-regulation, and abstract thinking.

A study of California correctional officers with high workplace stress found reductions in total cholesterol, glucose, and both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (BP), as well as significant reductions in overall stress, anger, fatigue and hostility with projected savings in annual heath care costs of $1179 per employee (McCraty et al 2009).

stand back scienceUnfortunately McCraty et al 2009 turns out to be a rather dodgy source

McCraty R, Atkinson, M., Tomasino, D., & Bradley, R. T (2009) The coherent heart: Heart-brain interactions, psychophysiological coherence, and the emergence of system-wide order. Integral Review 5: 10–115.

But why stop there?

Hospitals implementing HM programs implementing have seen increased personal, team and organizational coherence. The measures most often assessed are staff retention and employee satisfaction. Cape Fear Valley hospital system in Cape Fear, North Carolina, reduced nurse turn over from 24% to 13%, and Delnor Community Hospital in Chicago saw a similar reduction from 27% to 14% – as well as a dramatic improvement in employee satisfaction, results that have been sustained over an eight year period. Similarly, Duke University’s Health System reduced turnover from 38% to 5% in its emergency services division. An analysis of the combined psychometric data from 3,129 matched pre-post HM coherence trainings found that fatigue, anxiety, depression and anger were reduced by almost half. Another workplace study conducted in large chain of retail stores with in-store pharmacies that employed 220 pharmacists across multiple locations found a reduction is medical errors ranging from 40 to 71%, depending on the store location (HeartMath 2009).

Specific statistics, yes, but, alas, these data are not independently peer reviewed claims nor even transparently presented. They call upon our faith in HeartMath.

If your methods are so powerful, HeartMath, submit your evidence for legitimate peer review.

Shame on me for not doing a systematic review of this literature.

When I posted a critical comment about McCraty on my Facebook wall, I was quickly chastised by a “friend” whom I do not actually know:

Have you read the body of research published by HeartMath? Which articles have you critically reviewed and found flawed? Can you discuss that in detail? Do you know what the Global Coherence Project is? Do you know those methods, their datasets? Are you dismissing this on the idea alone, or on the details of their generated body of scientific work? Are you an expert on electrical fields generated by the human body? Do you know all the work on heart rate variability and its associations with human health and communication? Which part of that body of work are you taking issue with?

Dear Facebook “friend,” don’t you realize that the burden of proof lies on the quacks who wish us to believe ridiculous claims with zero obvious scientific basis? Evidence, please. No plausible mechanism means not worth a serious investigation. And by the way, does anyone know ‘their methods, their data sets,’ outside of HeartMath?

There is so much junk out there and so little time to evaluate it. Skeptics should not waste their time, when they quick-screen for plausible mechanism and find none. That eliminates the bulk of the nonsense bombarding us, even from successful academic positive psychology gurus. Sure, we might miss some dramatic breakthroughs, but prior probabilities are on our side.

The positive psychology – corporate – military complex

Touchy question in the positive psychology community: Was US Defense Department grant money used to reward psychologists for involvement in the CIA torture program for those who protected them from ethical sanctions? There has not been much discussion of this on the tightly controlled Friends of Positive Psychology listserv, only swift denials, but can others get in on the money? Can Rollin McCraty help? A good reason to go to his talk. But, first, some background.

Psychologist Stephen Soldz, Ph.D and colleagues produced a report, American Psychological Association’s Secret Complicity with the White House and US Intelligence Community in Support of the CIA’s ”Enhanced” Interrogation Program. The report contained a number of linked emails that included Paul Ekman, James Mitchell and…Marty Seligman.

Blogger Vaughan Bell states

 To be clear, I am not suggesting that Ekman and Seligman were directly involved in CIA interrogations or torture. Seligman has gone as far as directly denying it on record.

But there is something else interesting which links Ekman, Seligman and Mitchell: lucrative multi-million dollar US Government contracts for security programmes based on little evidence.

Seligman was reportedly awarded a $31 million US Army no-bid contract to develop ‘resilience training’ for soldiers to prevent mental health problems. This was surprising to many as he had no particular experience in developing clinical interventions. It was deployed as the $237 million Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme, the results of which have only been reported in some oddly incompetent technical reports and are markedly under-whelming. Nicholas Brown’s analysis of the first three evaluative technical reports is particularly good where he notes the tiny effects sizes and shoddy design. A fourth report has since been published (pdf) which also notes “small effect sizes” and doesn’t control for things like combat exposure.

Money from the ineffective Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Progam has been an enormous bonanza for positive psychologists – and even critics willing to mute what they say. Is Rollin McCraty a useful way in? Aside from being Director of Research at Institute of HeartMath (IHM), Rollin McCarty is also Director of Military Training – the HeartMath website tells us – he is working with Major Robert A. Bradley (USAF, Ret., Director of Veterans Outreach.

HeartMath once had a million dollar grant from the US Navy. Their grant portfolio has apparently shrunk to a few thousand dollars. But HeartMath offers training and certification in nice sounding programs. Can hungry MAPP graduate attendees get trained and certificates suitable for framing and make big bucks through HeartMath? The hell with the science, there are sciencey claims that must sell.

We cannot tell how much profit HeartMath is making. We can only get the financial details on their not-for-profit institute, not their for-profit wing. The split between profit and nonprofit wings of training institutes making money and the secrecy is common in training enterprises a common organizational structure for entrepreneurs.

An outlier, but on a continuum with positive psychology (pseudo) science?

Rollin McCraty may be an outlier, but he still lies on a continuum with the most recognized scientists of positive psychology.

Barbara Fredrickson is considered a rock star in the positive psychology community. She has an endowed chair, lots of grant money, and numerous publications in journals where you would never find Mcraty. Yet her papers are often tied to her heavily marketed commercial products, though without the requisite declaration of conflict interest in her papers. Some of her claims have not fared so well with strong hints of shaky and even pseudo science.

Positivity ratio. Fredrickson and Losada (2005) infamously applied a mathematical model drawn from nonlinear dynamics and claimed that a ratio of positive to negative affect of exactly 2.9013 separated flourishing people from those who are merely languishing. Nick Brown, Alan Sokal, and Harris Friedman examined this claim and found

no theoretical or empirical justification for the use of differential equations drawn from fluid dynamics, a subfield of physics, to describe changes in human emotions over time; furthermore, we demonstrate that the purported application of these equations contains numerous fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors.

In response, Fredrickson partially retracted her claim, where visitors can take a 2- minute test to determine whether they are flourishing or languishing and watch Youtube videos.

Meaning is healthier than happiness. Fredrickson and colleagues claimed to have used functional genomics to settle the classical philosophical question of whether we pursue meaning (eudaimonism) in our lives or happiness (hedonism). These claims echoed in the popular press  as

People who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity.

My colleagues and I (including Nick Brown and Harris Freidman) took a critical look and reanalyzed Fredrickson and colleagues’ data. We concluded

Fredrickson et al.’s article conceptually deficient, but more crucially that their statistical analyses are fatally flawed, to the point that their claimed results are in fact essentially meaningless.

The journal where the article originally appeared, PNAS has so far resisted a number calls, including one from Neuroskeptic for retraction of the original article.

Better health and relationships through loving kindness meditation. Much like McCarty, some of Fredrickson’s work makes strong claims about transforming people’s lives by changing cardiac vagal tone. She and colleagues claimed to have shown that practicing loving-kindness meditation (LKM) generates an “upward spiral” of mutual enhancement among positive emotions, social connectedness, and physical health. So,

“Advice about how people might improve their physical health . . . can now be expanded to include self-generating positive emotions.”

My group -again with Nick and Harris, but also James Heathers – took a closer look and reanalyzed the data. We found the study was actually a badly reported clinical trial with null results, evidence concerning the association of cardiac vagal tone and established valid parameters of physical health were contradictory, and carrdiac vagal tone was certainly not a suitable proxy outcome for health in a clinical trial, especially for persons of the age included in Fredrickson’s trial.

love 2Nonetheless, the first hit when I googled “Fredrickson loving kindness meditation” was another Fredrickson commercial website, Love 2.0  offering a book and other products with an eye-catching question:

What if everything you know about love is wrong?

It’s time to upgrade your view of love. Love 2.0 offers new lenses for seeing and more fully appreciating micro-moments of connection. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson gives you the lab-tested tools to unlock more love in your life.

Any wonder why the attendees at International Positive Psychology Association had trouble distinguishing between science and nonsense like what McCarty offered?



Category: coaching, genomics, happiness, hedonia, positive psychology, social genomics | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments