Saturday, November 12, 2016

Solidarity in the twilight: how to fight darkness post-election?

Image credit: Pete Linforth via
In the wake of the Trump victory in the US Presidential election, I read a number of confused posts. I see people wondering how they will cope now that forces of darkness have been unleashed, and I read people asking how a campaign built on hatred could do so well. Comparisons with the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, comparisons with Brexit... there is fear all around that, yet again, with a result going the way of those who incite hatred, acts of hatred will follow. A fear that angry white men in particular, but not exclusively, will see the result as legitimising their acts of hatred. Apparently hate crimes against Muslims are already on the rise with only September 11 2001 as a comparable precedent - see this article about just one such incident in Wisconsin, a state in which 300,000 registered voters were turned away without sufficient ID.

I was shown a facebook post today written after an experience in a restaurant that goes like this:
...there's a Muslim family sitting nearby. The woman, wearing a hijab, keeps glancing around warily. Like she's expecting a confrontation any minute. They passed by my table as they left, and I told her that I thought her hijab was beautiful and I loved the color. She smiled and said, 'Thank you,' and I said, 'I hope y'all have a good rest of your night. Stay strong,' to all of them.

It got me thinking - for all the people who are really upset after Trump's victory and wonder what they can do to prevent darkness descending... what have people done in the past? What works and why?

The first thing that came to mind was the trending hashtag after an attack on a Sydney cafe #illridewithyou. The truth of the story at the beginning of the movement is disputed but even if it is a fictionalised account, a fantasy of 'what I should have done' then it fits here. The story goes like this:
and the (presumably) Muslim woman sitting next to me on the train silently removes her hijab.... I ran after her at the train station. I said 'put it back on. I'll walk with u'. She started to cry and hugged me for about a minute - then walked off alone'  and when the story was shared by a journalist, others created the hashtag, with commuters sharing schedules to at least provide company to those who were scared.

I would like to acknowledge an interesting perspective on this kind of helping, which suggests that aiding those who are afraid in this kind of situation actually perpetuates islamophobia, It concerns me, because it is well-argued, and I don't want to suggest that a patronising approach is the best solution under the circumstances. But I don't think that's where I'm going.

So far what I see is the idea that there are people eager to express solidarity but they don't know how. A quick search for explanations of what solidarity actually is led me to a couple of websites quoting from Pope John Paul II.
“Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” 
Pope John Paul II image credit ddouk via

The website I have taken this quote from is thoughtful, giving a reasoned explanation for action.
Solidarity is a radical expression of compassion. Solidarity is rooted not in my distress at the pain of others, but in the objective reality of their distress. Solidarity is rooted not in transient feelings of distress at the pain of others, but in a lifelong commitment to alleviating the pain of others. Solidarity derives not from our sense of generosity but from our sense of justice, from an acknowledgment that we are all united in our common humanity and the pain of others is our responsibility. 

This reminded me of something important, perhaps obvious, but easily forgotten. Feeling distress because of the pain of others is already a step beyond what many adults can manage. Transcending that feeling of distress, recognising that the feeling is best understood as concern for injustice and a desire to act to correct a perceived imbalance... that's even rarer.

This brought to mind the footage of Bernie Sanders being arrested for his involvement in protests against segregation in Chicago schools in 1963. With a history of standing up against injustice, it's no surprise that he's still there to be counted:
Bernie Sanders image credit Max Goldberg via

Here are some ideas about what you can do to make it more difficult for people to commit those acts of hate.
1. Start your own conversation with someone who's being verbally assaulted. Your conversation will win.
2. If you're in a position of power/authority/respect, you have the ability to affect whether potential victims feel safe or not. Another post on facebook I saw today was a photograph of a notice on a teacher's classroom door stating that he/she was in support of Mexicans, Muslims, LGBQT... basically saying everyone is welcome. Do you feel like everyone is welcome in your world? Maybe at the moment you need to find a way to say it.
3. The safety pin. Did it work? I suspect it was too subtle.
4. You've got your own social media accounts, right? If you feel bad, why not post about it? This video had popular appeal, probably to people who already weren't racist, but still, why not look and share?
5. If you feel bad, the closest thing there is to a political voice to your feelings is probably Bernie Sanders. Look at his twitter feed and think.
6. Keep your eyes open - more and more messages like this are coming out. Here's Nicola Sturgeon.

7. Follow the advice here:

So where's the link to research?

Empathy. One model of empathy that I have spent some time looking at identifies four components of empathy. While perspective-taking, fantasy and empathic concern increase over time, personal distress goes down. On one hand you could argue that personal distress goes down with the development of a mature detachment from others' distress (Erikson's definition of wisdom), or you might also argue that personal distress decreases when other avenues are found to express concern at injustice. Some of the work from the Berlin approach to measuring wisdom found that many of those nominated as wise in the 1980s had been actively working against the Nazis during World War II (refs. on request).

A situation like this can be a growth experience, for individuals and for society as a whole - it can push you and people like you towards a more active empathic stance. Take the opportunity and at least start to support those who could use it. Think solidarity, not just compassion.

Davis, M. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44 (1), 113-126 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.44.1.113

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

If depression is biological, does that change how you feel about it?

Last week a story reached my twitter feed that I couldn't resist looking into because the claim in the title looked outrageous.

"Depression isn't a choice, it's a kind of brain damage" on exists under the same title at

In his bio there, the author describes himself as

an introverted extrovert with a thirst for life. He is a full time web developer and freelance programmer. You can find him online at In his spare time he DJs, loves coffee and practices yoga.

Apparently he's also a writer... with the same story all over the place on the net. Is it any good?

The first claim is that researchers have definitively shown (finally) that persistent depression causes brain damage, not the other way round.

That's not where I thought this was going. If the claim in the title is correct - that depression is a kind of brain damage, wouldn't you expect researchers to have shown that brain damage causes depression? So I'm already confused after two sentences - what does Erichsen mean by brain damage, and what by depression?

The next two paragraphs take us down a difficult path:

The study, which consisted of 9,000 individual samples, collected from the ENIGMA group, succeeded in definitively proving a causal relationship between persistent depression and brain damage. Magentic resonance images (MRIs) showed evidence of hippocampus shrinkage in 1,728 patients diagnosed with chronic depression compared to the 7,199 healthy individuals partaking in the study.

Specifically, the study found that those patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder, “showed robust reductions in hippocampal volume (1.24%) in MDD patients compared with healthy controls.” You can read the full study here.

Problems in these paragraphs and beyond:
1. It's unlikely that it definitively proved a causal relationship, because science doesn't often do that, but we'll see...
2. Magentic? Not the most persuasive spelling...
3. 1728 + 7199= 8927. Close to 9000 but not the same. Just sayin'. Notice the big difference in sample size between healthy and chronically depressed. We'll see if that matters.
4. I'll forgive the awkwardness of that quote and skip to the problem of the 'here' bit. There's no link. Eventually I found a facebook post by someone else linking to the story and the original article so we can check some of the claims.
5. The diagram is a little unconventional. Is the hippocampus labelled correctly? Compare... Would we say the amygdala is inside it?
6. Most of my concerns are explained by this article - Erichsen's post is mostly a rewrite that introduces inaccuracies.

The original study (Schmaal et al., 2016) is a meta-analysis of other studies. As such it cannot provide definitive proof but it can do what is otherwise difficult: accumulate a sample size big enough to draw some conclusions about brain changes in people with major depression. There are enormous difficulties in bringing together data from different studies with variables like these: criteria for 'depression' vary and there will be differences in samples and techniques used to carry out scans. Their findings included decreased volume in the hippocampus that was more pronounced among those with earlier onset depression but not among those with more severe symptoms. The researchers speculate that their findings may relate to a premorbid vulnerability factor (abnormal hippocampal development) but there is no way to draw conclusions about this from their data.

So let's be absolutely clear: the study associates the size of brain regions with presence of a diagnosis of major depression. As a cross-sectional study, it does not show that size differences represent atrophy, although this seems a likely cause, and it certainly cannot show that depression causes atrophy or that atrophy causes depression.

So why the title in Erichsen's article? Depression is not a choice - that's fine - I'm not sure who says it is. But the validity of that claim does not rest on proof that depression is causing or caused by changes in the size of brain regions. Erichsen's work misrepresents the original article, borrows heavily from someone else's work online, and then goes on to suggest that the choices you make as a depressed person can cure your depression. The epistemological confusion here as well as misinformation is really unhelpful - yet another example of a desperate attempt to find biological evidence for the mechanisms of depression. Of course they can be found and research like the original here is part of an ever-increasing body of literature that finds correlates of depression in the brain.

But what's the point of writing like Erichsen's that trumpets an unsupportable claim that something has been definitively proven? Why is it so important to identify these biological changes? Is it important to you? How does it change your feelings about depression
a) if biological mechanisms are found, and
b) if you see writing like Erichsen's that is factually inaccurate?

Let us know...

This post written by Alan Law Schmaal L, Veltman DJ, van Erp TG, Sämann PG, Frodl T, Jahanshad N, Loehrer E, Tiemeier H, Hofman A, Niessen WJ, Vernooij MW, Ikram MA, Wittfeld K, Grabe HJ, Block A, Hegenscheid K, Völzke H, Hoehn D, Czisch M, Lagopoulos J, Hatton SN, Hickie IB, Goya-Maldonado R, Krämer B, Gruber O, Couvy-Duchesne B, Rentería ME, Strike LT, Mills NT, de Zubicaray GI, McMahon KL, Medland SE, Martin NG, Gillespie NA, Wright MJ, Hall GB, MacQueen GM, Frey EM, Carballedo A, van Velzen LS, van Tol MJ, van der Wee NJ, Veer IM, Walter H, Schnell K, Schramm E, Normann C, Schoepf D, Konrad C, Zurowski B, Nickson T, McIntosh AM, Papmeyer M, Whalley HC, Sussmann JE, Godlewska BR, Cowen PJ, Fischer FH, Rose M, Penninx BW, Thompson PM, & Hibar DP (2016). Subcortical brain alterations in major depressive disorder: findings from the ENIGMA Major Depressive Disorder working group. Molecular psychiatry, 21 (6), 806-12 PMID: 26122586