Jerome Kagan: Reminding us not to get complacent

In response to your insightful interview with Professor Jerome Kagan ("The ghost in the lab," October Monitor), anybody who can constructively criticize the many misadventures of psychological research ("Psychology's Ghosts") and tell us how genes, culture, time and luck make us who we are ("The Temperamental Thread") gets my attention, especially when the author is one of the world's most distinguished psychologists with a resilient nature and more than 50 years of experience.

In these recent books, Dr. Kagan elaborates on the pioneering work of Drs. Paul McHugh and Phillip Slavney in "The Perspectives of Psychiatry."

Dr. Kagan outlines four "families" of psychological disorders, which have their origins in brain disease (e.g., autism, schizophrenia); temperamental biases for anxiety and depression (e.g., phobias, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder); temperamental biases that make it difficult to regulate impulsive behavior (e.g., ADHD, conduct disorder); or distressful life encounters (e.g., grief, adjustment disorders).

One single "family" or method cannot explain all mental distress.

Lest we get too complacent about what we know about the secrets of human nature, Dr. Kagan reminds us that the DSM-IV and the V to follow soon consist of a list of ingredients for many psychological disorders with no recipes for the causes or etiology of any of the increasing number of mental maladies — our answers to what mental illness is often sound muddle-headed or simple-minded.

Steven J. Ceresnie, PhD
Plymouth, Mich.

Speaking out on obesity

While I appreciate APA President Johnson's kind words in her "President's Column" on behalf of those of us who suffer from obesity (October Monitor), she makes a statement that reveals her own bias against us. In reference to stigmatizing obese people, she states, "There is no evidence that it motivates people to make healthier choices." This implies that obesity is a result of choices! Are eye color, race, height or a host of other genetically determined characteristics "choices"? Please ask yourself, "Who in their right mind would choose to be obese?"

In my 65 years on this earth, of my many thousands of acquaintances, I have encountered only four people who have managed to lose a substantial amount of weight (50 or more pounds) and keep it off for five years or more. Most of these were people who remained thin only with a herculean effort bordering on obsessive-compulsive disorder.

We all know that diets and weight loss products are frauds, with astronomical failure rates. We all know of celebrities, and others, who have resorted to bariatric surgery, only to fail at maintaining their weight loss. So let's all try to put our own prejudices aside, accept that people come in all sizes for reasons we don't understand, and stop judging people for something beyond their control.

Donald H. Olsen, PhD
Denver, Pa.

In regard to the October "President's Column," although I appreciate Dr. Johnson's focus on obesity, I am concerned that the article may have done a disservice for those struggling with obesity. It is not about blaming the victim. It is about empowering the individual. Without doing this, practitioners are left with few immediate options to help those in need. All the policy changes in the world fail to adequately address what happens in the privacy of our own homes. By removing a clear sense of personal responsibility from the discussion, I fear that we are enabling a learned helplessness among those who desperately seek to experience a healthier life. There is no doubt that our culture and corporations should share in this responsibility.

However, I found myself cringing when I read the line "The obesity epidemic is not the result of an increase in laziness and a decrease in motivation and self-discipline in U.S. adults and children." I strongly suggest that this should not be a foregone conclusion. A quick examination of the financial trends of companies who market products designed to increase leisure or convenience (e.g., gaming, mobile, internet, satellite television, etc.) would indicate that over the last 25 years, Americans are engaging in sedentary activities like never before. It is not a far stretch to theorize that changes in the patterns of consumption would coincide with a decline in motivation and self-discipline. I know many teachers who believe that these trends are real.

We should always be empathetic. But this should never lead to minimizing each person's opportunity to make huge life changes through small, committed daily decisions, even in difficult circumstances.

James F. Schroeder, PhD
Evansville, Ind.

The eyes have it

In the September Monitor Kirsten Weir outlined the recent study by Tabak and Zayas (PLoS One, May) on how people go about recognizing faces. This study, perhaps unfortunately, focused on students' ability to identify the sexual orientations of others from photographs of their faces, and it is this feature of their study that has attracted wide attention. Tabak and Zayas found that female students were better able to do this than men were and that the overall success rate for identifying the sexual orientation of men and women from photographs was 60 percent. This does not appear to me to be an impressive figure, given that each of the 18- to 25-year-old student samples in both of the two studies reported contained almost four times as many women as men. Further, the sexual orientations of these student judges were not reported. Surely a more interesting hypothesis to test would be whether or not gays detect fellow gays better than straights and vice versa? Judging carefully prepared photographs for periods of 50 ms at a time hardly seems to reflect how people go about such behaviors. In my experience attending to the eyes and the signals exchanged between them in real-life situations are more important. But this is getting a long way from facial recognition.

James Hartley, PhD
Keele University

Autism? How about learning?

The October Monitor article on autism centers on diagnosing autism early so that treatment can begin early. Various programs can give children learning experiences effective in treating the disorder.

But the contemporary focus on brain causation prevents realizing that if learning experiences can treat autism that means earlier learning experiences could have prevented the disorder from developing. I suggest learning is a major cause of autism. Some autistic children don't display such behaviors as language, social relations, love for parents and imagination in use of toys. There is strong evidence, however, that those consist of complex learned repertoires. As my new book "The Marvelous Learning Animal" spells out, an infant already has over 10 billion neurons in the brain and learns prodigiously from the very beginning. That learning, moreover, shapes the brain.

What are the implications of this explanation of autism? Psychology centrally needs knowledge of the child's learning experiences from infancy on. Strangely no studies place trained observers, or cameras, in the home to study those continuing learning conditions. We don't know if children with autism have had different experiences than normal children. That goes for all the disorders and for other traits as well. Horrendous deficit.

Here lies an explanation of autism's increase. It arises because the popular belief about brain causation and early diagnosis can change parenting from spontaneous love and play to cautious, distant diagnosing. This too should be researched.

Arthur W. Staats, PhD
University of Hawaii

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