Monthly Archives: December 2011

Scientists to study psychological benefits of birdsong

Three-year research project will explore the impact of birdsong on creativity and sense of wellbeing

Patrick Barkham
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 21 December 2011 09.46 GMT

bird song

A song thrush perched on a post; their song is one of the classic sounds of early spring. Photograph: Alamy

Three-year research project will explore the impact of birdsong on creativity and sense of well-being

Remove birds from poetry, Aldous Huxley once said, and we would have to cast aside half of the English canon.

Now, the impact of birdsong on our creativity and on our sense of wellbeing is to be explored in a three-year research project at the University of Surrey, supported by the National Trust and Surrey Wildlife Trust.

The study will examine the psychological impact of being exposed to birdsong, including whether it helps us relax, can assist our ability to complete tasks and even think creatively.

Listen to the National Trust audio guide to Britain’s bird species Link to this audio
Eleanor Ratcliffe, the researcher undertaking the study said while there was a growing body of environmental psychology looking at how the natural world affects people, there was still a lot to understand about the power of specific natural sounds.

Sounds of prey

Click on the pic to listen to sound.

Serious birdwatchers may have to sit out the early stages of the research as Ratcliffe will first interview a representative sample of the general public to understand how people perceive natural sounds and whether birdsong does, as bird lovers aver, have a restorative effect.

The raucous screech of a feral parakeet or the aggressive chitter of a magpie may not have quite the soothing effect as a melodious song thrush however, and Ratcliffe hopes to explore the effect of different songs and how individuals relate birdsong to their own memories and sense of place.

Ratcliffe will later recruit subjects through social media and examine the effect of birdsong on their brains and behaviour, as well as testing whether recorded birdsong – played on an iPod for example – could have the same impact as listening to birdsong in cities and in the countryside.

“A great deal of anecdotal evidence suggests that we respond positively to birdsong. However, currently there is a lack of scientific research on the psychological effects of listening to birds,” said Ratcliffe. The research project is being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council with further assistance from the National Trust and Surrey Wildlife Trust.

Peter Brash, National Trust ecologist, said: “As a lifelong birder I’ve always had birdsong as a natural soundtrack to my life and believe it’s good for the mind and soul. Birdsong gets us closer to nature and links people to places and memories in a way that few other sounds can.”

For Ratcliffe, the study will necessitate long hours listening to birdsong on nature reserves in the countryside. “Hopefully I’ll be pretty restored by the end of the three years,” she said.

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Tackling homelessness requires a more psychological focus

We need to examine psychologically why people become homeless, rather than just a providing housing or medication

Homeless man

A psychological understanding can be useful to find ways to tackle the factors behind behaviour that leads to loss of tenancy.

There are fewer than five NHS specialist clinical psychology posts in England specifically serving homeless populations. Why such a small number? One factor is that the focus when tackling homelessness has been on housing and a lack of tenancies. This may be an important issue for homeless families, but it tends to leave out many of the issues facing single people who repeatedly lose their homes and find themselves sleeping rough.

Latest figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government put the number of rough sleepers in England in autumn 2010 at 1,768 and, according to the homelessness charity Crisis, that number is growing. Despite good work done by third sector agencies and the government, homelessness seems an intractable problem. This is due, in part, to changes to housing benefit policy and funding cuts for measures aimed at reducing homelessness.

Perhaps another part of the problem is the way that services are provided, related to how we understand rough sleeping. It is understood to be caused by social factors (such as poverty, housing shortages and so on); or individual factors (fecklessness, alcohol, drug use, mental health problems, for example). So, either society is to blame or the individual is. This polarised understanding promotes social solutions, such as housing, or interventions that try to “fix” people, such as medication, or sweep them off the streets (arrest).

A psychological understanding of the problem, however, makes explicit the interaction between the person and their environment. Rough sleeping should be considered as a behaviour. The logical question is why do people do it? What precipitated it? For many, the answer is that they were evicted from or abandoned their residence, often because of antisocial behaviour, such as violence and drug use, and practical issues, such as non-payment of rent.

Growing evidence for homelessness implicates mental health problems associated with early childhood trauma. People struggle with how they think about themselves, and aggressive outbursts are common as intentions and motives are misinterpreted. Importantly, many then have problems managing these difficult emotions and may use alcohol or drugs to temporarily reduce them.

The dominant way of thinking about mental health is in terms of medical diagnosis, resulting in services being funded according to those diagnoses (either mental health programmes or treatment for addiction). Once there are service categories, there are service gaps through which people fall.

Rather than over-simplifying complex problems using diagnostic boundaries, a psychological understanding can be useful to find ways to tackle the factors behind behaviour that leads to loss of tenancy. Clinical psychologists are trained to do this.

Until we rethink why people become homeless, and move away from a categorical, diagnostic approach towards a psychological understanding, the dearth of specialist psychologists working with this group will remain, and the elimination of rough sleeping will continue to elude us.

• Dr Nick Maguire is a chartered clinical psychologist at the University of Southampton.

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Methylene Blue Studied for Bipolar as FDA Issues Warning

Methylene blue By Kenneth J. Bender, PharmD, MA | October 5, 2011

A study presented by Canadian investigators at the 24th Congress of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) in Paris, September 5 evaluated whether methylene blue can reduce residual symptoms of depression and mania in bipolar disorder.1

Weeks before, on July 26, the FDA issued a safety warning on the risk of serotonin syndrome when methylene blue is given concurrently with serotonergic psychiatric medications;2 and Health Canada issued a similar warning in February.

The compound is better known as a treatment for methemoglobinemia and as a dye in diagnostic applications, but it is also a potent, reversible monoamine oxidase inhibitor. Its potential to improve symptoms in bipolar disorder arises from other, possibly neuroprotective mechanisms including inhibition of nitric oxide synthase and guanylate cyclase, according to investigator Martin Alda, MD and colleagues, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The investigators administered methylene blue to 37 subjects meeting criteria for bipolar disorder, while maintaining lamotrigine(Drug information on lamotrigine) as their primary mood stabilizer. Patients were randomized to receive 13 weeks treatment with either 195 mg methylene blue daily, or 15 mg as a putative subtherapeutic dose in lieu of a placebo that mimics the color in urine; with groups switching the regimen for an additional 13 weeks.

Alda reported that the active dose was associated with statistically significantly improved mood symptom scores from baseline on multiple measures, including the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS). There was no therapeutic effect apparent on cognitive performance, but no decrement observed with its use.

The compound was generally well tolerated in this controlled population, but this use remains investigational and, as the FDA warns, “methylene blue should generally not be given to patients taking serotonergic drugs unless the benefit is deemed to outweigh the risk.”

References

1. Alda M, MacQueen G, McKinnon M, et al. Methylene blue for residual symptoms and for cognitive dysfunction in bipolar disorder: Results of a double-blind trial. Presented at the 24th Congress of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP), Paris, September 5, 2011. Abstract P.2.e.001.

2. FDA. Drug Safety Communication: Serious CNS reactions possible when methylene blue is given to patients taking certain psychiatric medications. July 26, 2011. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/ucm263190.htm. Accessed September 28, 2011.

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Nietzsche was right: adversity makes you stronger

It is the quote used by many to bolster resilience in the face of adversity. But the words “what does not kill me, makes me stronger”, by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, could have scientific merit too, according to research.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, 12:55 PM GMT 19 Dec 2011

Nietzsche

US psychologists found that while traumatic experiences such as assault, bereavement or natural disaster can be extremely damaging, smaller amounts of trauma may help people develop resilience. “Everybody’s heard the aphorism ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ ” Mark Seery, a researcher at the University at Buffalo, said. “But in psychology, a lot of ideas that seem like common sense aren’t supported by scientific evidence.

“Indeed, a lot of solid research shows that having miserable life experiences is bad for you.

“Serious events, like the death of a child or parent, a natural disaster, being physically attacked, experiencing sexual abuse, or being forcibly separated from your family, can cause psychological problems. Some research has suggested that the best way to go through life is having nothing ever happen to you.

But not only is that unrealistic, it’s not necessarily healthy.”

In one study, although researchers found that people who experienced lots of adversity were generally more distressed than others, those who had experienced no traumatic events in their lives had similar psychological problems.

The people with the best outcomes were those who had experienced some negative events in their lives.

Another study found that people with chronic back pain were able to get around better if they had experienced some serious adversity, whereas those who had suffered either large amounts of adversity, or none at all, were more impaired in life.

Dr Seery said one possibility for this pattern was that people who have been through traumatic experiences have had the opportunity to develop their coping mechanisms more acutely.

He said: “The idea is that negative life experiences can toughen people, making them better able to manage subsequent difficulties.”

Dr Seery also said people who have gone through stressful events may have stronger social networks than others, as they have learnt how to get help from others when they need it.

“I really look at this as being a silver lining,” he added.

“Just because something bad has happened to someone doesn’t mean they’re doomed to be damaged from that point on.”

Dr Seery’s paper on adversity and resilience was published in the latest issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

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Psychopaths: Born evil or with a diseased brain?


Scans of serial killer Brian Dugan’s brain showed limited activity in the area processing emotions

When Brian Dugan pleaded guilty to the brutal rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl, Jeanine Nicarico, he seemed to be the very sketch of a brutal serial killer.

She had been murdered in 1983, though Dugan only pleaded guilty in 2009. By then, he had also been convicted of rape several times over, and the murder of two others – another seven-year-old girl and a 27-year-old nurse whom he ran off the road before raping and killing her.

If the death sentence had not been withdrawn in Illinois, Dugan would have been executed.

Yet strikingly, he showed no remorse for any of his murders or crimes. Scientists now believe this lack of empathy may in fact be linked to the reason he committed these acts.

Neuroscientist Dr Kent Kiehl of the University of New Mexico scanned Dugan’s brain, as part of a unique project to understand how anti-social behaviour is related to brain structure and function.

“He struggles to try and understand why people even care about what he did,” says Kiehl, describing his time interviewing Dugan. “Clinically, it is fascinating.”

Psychopathy
Dr Kiehl is seen as a pioneer in a cutting-edge area of behavioural neuroscience: the attempt to understand psychopaths’ brain functions and use this to develop treatments for their condition.

It is controversial because for thousands of years, men like Dugan have been labelled not as ill, but as evil.

In literature and cinema, the term “psychopath” is not used for a diagnosis for which we might have sympathy, but rather as something we might fear.

Dr Kiehl has a different view: “I tend to see psychopaths as someone suffering from a disorder, so I wouldn’t use the word evil to describe them.”

So what exactly is a psychopath?

“Clinically, we define it as someone who scores high on traits such as lack of empathy, guilt and remorse,” says Dr Kiehl.

“They are very impulsive: they tend not to plan or think before acting. They tend to get themselves in trouble by a very early age.”

We have long known that many people in prisons display symptoms of psychopathy, but until now we have had little insight into their condition.

Brain scans
To address that using neuroscience, Dr Kiehl’s lab has built a unique mobile brain scanner. It is equipped with the latest imaging technology but fitted into a truck he can drive into high-security prison facilities.

He used this to perform two types of analysis on Dugan’s brain: looking at its density and its function.

“Brian’s brain has very low levels of density in a system we call the para-limbic system,” he explains.

The para-limbic system is a “behaviour circuit” of the brain, including brain regions known as the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex.

Scientists have long known that these areas are associated with the processing of emotions.

Over the past century or so, people with brain damage to these areas have been studied because their behaviour suddenly changed and became anti-social.

“Those systems, we think, didn’t develop normally in Brian,” says Dr Kiehl. Psychopathy seems to involve a lack of development in these regions – which may be genetically determined.

Dr Kiehl also monitored Brian Dugan’s brain’s reaction to a number of distressing images, such as the faces of people suffering, which were displayed in front of him while he was in the scanner. By scanning his brain in real time, the aim was to test his brain’s function.

The scans showed there was relatively low activity in Dugan’s para-limbic system during processing of emotion.

“Brian would come out of the scanner during those studies and he said, wow, I had problems trying to process what you wanted me to do,” Dr Kiehl recounts. “He made more mistakes than others would.”

According to Dr Kiehl, it is part of a pattern of brain activity which proves that psychopaths simply lack an emotional ability, in much the same way others lack intellectual ability.

He has found similar results in large numbers of subjects, in prisons across the US.

This means Dugan simply has no concept of the harm he has caused. “Talking about his crimes, it’s like asking him what he had for breakfast,” says Dr Kiehl.

He also admits that in a sense, it is not surprising that the brain of somebody so different and anti-social also looks different from other brains. “But it’s only now that we can look at how dramatically different their brains are that people are starting to take notice,” he says.

“It has a very powerful influence on the legal system,” he adds.

Neuro-law
So what should the legal system do with this knowledge?

Research like Dr Kiehl’s has fuelled the debate over how much the legal system should change to accommodate what we now know about how bad behaviour is “hard-wired.”

This view of criminal law is often referred to as “neuro-law”.

It is a controversial vision of a future in which a moral judgement of criminal behaviour is replaced by a view that some criminals have diseased brains that need to be treated.

But Dr Kiehl does not see his work resulting in any change to the prosecution of violent psychopaths like Brian Dugan. Instead, he argues that understanding psychopathy may lead us to different types of sentencing – in particular an end to the death sentence for psychopaths.

“My hope is that the neuroscience helps the legal system to understand that these individuals have a disorder and this disorder is treatable,” he says.

Such treatment should not begin after someone has committed a terrible act, he says. Instead, he is working with other scientists to try and design interventions for children who display the same symptoms, before those symptoms escalate.

brain dugan
Brian Dugan showed no remorse for the crimes he committed, including rape and three murders

Treating children

He thinks Dugan’s life story shows key moments when interventions could have been made. “Brian suffered at a very early age,” says Dr Kiehl. “He did classic things: he set fires, he hurt animals, he injured his brothers and sisters.”

Although Dugan was seen by specialist child services, they lacked an understanding of his condition. In fact, children who have symptoms linked to psychopathy often respond poorly to the kinds of techniques used with other badly behaved children.

Because they lack emotional capability, when teachers attempt to get them to feel remorse it may make them confused and more likely to hurt others.

The hope now is to develop a specific diagnosis for these children – callous and unemotional disorder – and to develop programmes and treatments specifically geared to their condition. In essence, these children have to be painstakingly taught reactions which the rest of us have automatically.

Dr Kiehl’s work in high security prisons is inspiring other labs, in the US and UK, who are working directly with children. “You could prevent those individuals like Brian from ever developing and escalating into the individual that he is today,” he says.

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Skilled readers rely on their brain’s ‘visual dictionary’ to recognize words

Christmas tree made from books. Skilled readers can recognize words at lightning fast speed when they read because the word has been placed in a visual dictionary of sorts, say Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) neuroscientists. The visual dictionary idea rebuts the theory that our brain “sounds out” words each time we see them.

This finding, reported at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Neuroscience 2011, matters because unraveling how the brain solves the complex task of reading can help in uncovering the brain basis of reading disorders, such as dyslexia, say the scientists.

“One camp of neuroscientists believes that we access both the phonology and the visual perception of a word as we read them and that the area or areas of the brain that do one, also do the other, but our study proves this isn’t the case,” says the study’s lead investigator, Laurie Glezer, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow. She works in the Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience at GUMC, led by Maximilian Riesenhuber, Ph.D., who is a co-author.

“What we found is that once we’ve learned a word, it is placed in a purely visual dictionary in the brain. Having a purely visual representation allows for the fast and efficient word recognition we see in skilled readers,” she says. “This study is the first demonstration of that concept.”

Glezer says that these findings might help explain why people with dyslexia have slower, more labored reading. “It could be that in dyslexia, because of phonological processing problems, these individuals are not ever able to develop a finely tuned visual representation of the words they have encountered before,” she says. “They can’t take advantage of the fast processing of words using this dictionary.”

Glezer and her co-authors tested word recognition in 12 volunteers using fMRI. They were able to see that words that are different, but sound the same, like “hare” and “hair” activate different neurons, akin to accessing different entries in a dictionary’s catalogue. “If the sounds of the word had influence in this part of the brain we would expect to see that they activate the same or similar neurons, but this was not the case, ‘hair’ and ‘hare’ looked just as different as “hair” and “soup”. This suggests that all we use is the visual information of a word and not the sounds.”

“When we see a word for the first time, it requires some time to read and sound it out, but after perhaps just one presentation of the word, you can recognize it without sounding it out,” she says. “This occurs because our brain first uses phonology to encode the word and match the sound with the written word. Once we do that and encounter the word a few more times, we no longer need the phonology at first, just the visual input to identify the word.”

“We hope these findings will serve as a foundation to examine reading disorders,” Glezer says. “For example, if people with dyslexia have a problem forming this visual dictionary, it may be that there could be ways of helping train children with dyslexia to form a more finely tuned visual dictionary.”

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Kim Jong Il: Revered at home; remembered outside as repressive

kim j

(CNN) — North Korea’s longtime leader Kim Jong Il, the embodiment of the reclusive state where his cult of personality is deeply entrenched, has died.
He was believed to be 69.

Regarded as one of the world’s most-repressive leaders, Kim Jong Il always cut a slightly bizarre figure. His diminutive stature and characteristically bouffant hair have been parodied by some in the West.
“He’s a mysterious person — I think by design,” said Han S. Park, director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues at the University of Georgia and a frequent visitor to North Korea. “Mystery is a source of leverage and power. It’s maintaining uncertainty.”

But for the citizens of his Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim was well regarded.
This Just In: Up-to-the-minute news on the death of Kim Jon Il
His father, Kim Il Sung, founded North Korea with Soviet backing after World War II.
Kim Jong Il was just a little boy when the Communist North invaded the American-backed South, sparking the Korean War in 1950.

After the fighting ended, Kim became steeped in his father’s philosophy of “juche” or self-reliance — the basis of North Korea’s reclusive nature.
North and South Korea never formally signed a peace treaty and remain technically at war — separated by a tense demilitarized zone.

What is North Korea’s future? Report: Kim Jong Il dead North Korea: Our leader is dead Can the son of the ‘Dear Leader’ lead?

North Korea gives Kim’s official birthplace as sacred Mount Paektu. The peak, on the northern border with Chinese Manchuria, is the highest on the peninsula and the site where Korean legend says the nation came into existence 5,000 years ago.
Cause of death reported to be “overwork”

Researchers who are more objective place Kim’s birth in the Far Eastern region of the Soviet Union on February 16, 1942. His father had fled to the Soviet Union when the Japanese put a price on his head for guerrilla activities in occupied Korea.
The family returned to the northern part of the peninsula after the Japanese surrender in World War II, and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin anointed Kim Il Sung as the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kim Jong Il’s younger brother drowned as a child and his mother died when he was 7 years old. Shortly after, when the Korean War broke out , he was sent to Manchuria, returning three years later when it ended.

Despite these hardships, Kim Jong Il was presumably surrounded by luxury and privilege for most of his upbringing. As the first-born son of an iron-fisted dictator, “the doors were likely opening for him from a very young age,” according to Dae-sook Suh, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii who specializes in the Pyongyang government.

TIME: The iconography of Kim Jong Il

 

kim boxing

Gradually Kim Jong Il was groomed for the top position, making public appearances in front of cheering crowds.

In 1980, Kim Il Sung formally designated his son as his successor.

Kim Jong Il was given senior posts in the Politburo, the Military Commission and the Party Secretariat.
He took on the title “Dear Leader” and the government began spinning a personality cult around him patterned after that of his father, the “Great Leader.”
In 1991, Kim Jong Il became commander-in-chief of North Korea’s powerful armed forces, the final step in the long grooming process.

Three years later, when Kim Il Sung died suddenly from a heart attack at 82, most outsiders predicted the imminent collapse of North Korea. The nation had lost its venerated founding father.

Just a few years earlier, its powerful alliances had evaporated with the fall of the Soviet bloc and China’s move toward a market-based system. The economy was on the rocks and energy and food were in short supply. A series of weather disasters, combined with an inefficient state-run agricultural system, further eroded the food supply, leading to mass starvation.

The timing could not have been worse for replacing the only leader North Korea had known.
“Heaven didn’t smile on Kim Jong Il,” said the University of Hawaii’s Dae-sook Suh.
After his father’s elaborate public funeral, Kim Jong Il dropped out of sight, fueling rumors, but he soon managed to consolidate power.

Zakaria: Will the North Koreans rise up?

Under his newly organized government, his father’s presidential post was left vacant and Kim took the titles of general secretary of the Workers Party and chairman of the National Defense Commission — a group of 10 men that includes the heads of the air force, army and navy, who are now considered the most powerful in the country.

“It’s a peculiar government to say the least,” Dae-sook Suh said. “He honors the legacy of his father, but the new government is a Kim Jong Il government. It’s quite different from his father’s.”
Kim Il Sung’s unique style of Stalinism was subordinated to the more militant theme of Kim Jong Il’s “Red Banner” policy, introduced in 1996.

The changes afoot were dramatically illustrated in 1997 by the defection of Hwang Jang Yop — the architect of the juche philosophy and the first high-level official to seek asylum in South Korea.
In a news conference after his defection, Hwang warned of a growing possibility that his homeland might launch an attack. “The preparation for war exceeds your imagination,” he said.

Many outsiders viewed the flight of Hwang as another sign that the North Korean regime was on its last legs, but once again it weathered the storm, perhaps even benefiting from the fears of war heightened by Hwang’s warning.

Despite sending a test missile over Japan in June 1999 and other such incidents, North Korea under Kim Jong Il also sent signals that it is open to new alliances after decades of isolation. Billions of dollars in international aid poured into North Korea during the 1990s, which did little in return.

Many analysts conclude that Kim Jong Il has played a poor hand of cards skillfully.
“I tend to disregard rumors that he’s irrational, a man that nobody can do business with,” said Alexander Mansourov, a longtime Korea scholar and a former Russian diplomat who was posted in Pyongyang in the late 1980s. “I believe that he is smart. He’s pragmatic. And I think he can be ruthless. He’s a man who will not loosen his grip in any way on the people around him.”

His obsession for movies led to one of the strangest incidents associated with him: The 1978 kidnappings of South Korean actress Choi En-hui and her director husband Shin Sang-ok. The couple’s account of their ordeal, given after they escaped North Korea in 1986, sounds like a B-movie script.

movie madness

They said Kim Jong Il held Choi under house arrest and imprisoned Shin for four years for a failed escape attempt. Kim then forced them to work in the North Korean film industry, paying them handsomely while keeping them in the gilded cage of his artistic and social circles. Although the country was having problems paying its debts, Kim lived extravagantly and spent tens of millions of dollars on their film productions, according to Choi and Shin.

The couple told Washington Post reporter Don Oberdorfer that Kim was a “micro-manager” who made all the major decisions in North Korea because of his father’s ailing condition. Shin described Kim as “very bright,” but said that he had no sense of guilt about his misdeeds “due to his background and upbringing.”

While the Dear Leader is said to have indulged his appetite for the finer things, his people were literally starving to death. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s hit North Korea hard when guaranteed trade deals with Moscow came to an end.

And then devastating floods compounded the famine. The North Korean regime admitted almost 250,000 people perished between 1995 and 1998, but some outside groups believe it was more like ten times that figure.

Nevertheless, an artifice of a successful state was maintained in the capital, Pyongyang, including an opulent subway — proof that Kim would say reflected North Korea’s progress under his and his father’s leadership.

In 2000, there appeared to be a thaw in North-South relations leading to the first-ever summit meeting between Kim Jong Il and his then counterpart from the South President Kim Dae Jung. South Korea’s so-called “sunshine policy” of engagement seemed to be bearing fruit.

But Kim Jong Il pressed ahead with his nuclear weapons program and then-U.S. President George W. Bush labeled North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address. A year later, North Korea withdrew from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

In 2006, the North conducted a nuclear test and test fired missiles adding extra urgency to the six-party talks designed to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program.
A breakthrough came in 2007, when Kim Jong il finally agreed to disable the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon in return for fuel and better relations with the U.S.

But despite dramatically blowing up Yongbyon’s cooling tower, North Korea seemed to backtrack afterwards and the deal appeared to be jeopardy. In August 2008, Pyongyang halted the disabling of the plutonium-producing plants in after a stalemate over verification measures.

Months later — as Bush wrapped up his final term in office — the U.S. government agreed to take North Korea off its list of countries that sponsor terrorism. The move was a turnaround from the Bush administration’s previous refusal to drop North Korea from the list until Pyongyang agreed to set up an internationally recognizable mechanism to verify it was revealing all its nuclear secrets.

Analysts say it is easy for outsiders to demonize Kim Jong Il, a dictator who spent an estimated 25% or more of his country’s gross national product on the military while many in his country went hungry.
But in North Korea, closed off from outside influences, fearful of threats from its neighbors, and subjected to decades of political socialization on top of a long tradition of a strict hierarchical system, Kim Jong Il is viewed positively by most people, said Han Park of the Center for Study of Global Issues.

“The level of reverence for Kim Jong Il in North Korea is quite underestimated by the outside,” Park said. “He is regarded by many as not only a superior leader but a decent person, a man of high morality. Whether that’s accurate is not important if you want to deal with North Korea. You have to understand their belief system. Perception is reality.”

But to the outside world, Kim Jong Il will be remembered as one of the worst despots in history, according to Andre Lankov, an author on Korea’s history.

“He will be remembered as a person who was responsible for awful things: for the existence of one of the worst dictatorships in not only Korean history but the world history at least in the 20th and 21st centuries,” Lankov said.

“Yet he did not create this dictatorship — it was his father’s but he took responsibility, and he made sure it continued for many more years.”

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War’s mental toll

The Iraq War is over.
“It must be over,” a British colleague of mine, still in Baghdad, wrote. “It must be because yesterday I saw the Yanks take down the flag. It was a rather anticlimactic end to eight and a half years of mayhem.”

Over 4,500 American servicemen and women have died since the Iraq War began. Many tens of thousands of Iraqis have died, too, in car bombings, suicide attacks, torture chambers, death squad hits, American bombings and assassinations. As terrible as this toll is, however, the long-term consequences of the American invasion of Iraq will probably continue to mount for years to come.

Sadly, many of these consequences are going to be just as challenging as the last eight years of mayhem my colleague described — harder to see, more difficult to assess and discuss and even harder to fix. I’m talking about the mental health toll that years and years of war will leave with American soldiers, sailors and Marines, their families and friends and the country that is still learning how to help them. I’m also talking about the collective trauma that some 28 million Iraqis continue to grapple with day after day.

Since the war began, many of the Iraqis I worked closely with have left their homeland and sought shelter abroad. One of them fled Iraq in 2008 after his 16-year old son was kidnapped, tortured and killed. When the father went looking for him, he too was tortured. He fled with his three surviving sons and now lives in Texas. His wife refused to come, preferring instead to remain behind so she can visit her dead son’s grave.

In this country, the Iraq War continues to take a toll on American soldiers and their families long after they return from the battlefields of Baghdad or Yussifiyah. In Phoenix earlier this week, a retired U.S Army sergeant who struggled with PTSD and mental health issues killed his wife. After killing his wife, the man turned himself into police, telling them he “snapped” and his military training “kicked in.” His Army colleagues told a local newspaper that roughly 90 percent of his unit was diagnosed with PTSD upon their return from Baghdad.

Stories like this are too numerous to count, and yet they will likely continue to plague this country for years. By most estimates, at least 20 percent of all returning Iraq War veterans are diagnosed with PTSD. These numbers don’t include the tens of thousands of private security contractors whose jobs put them in situations often just as dangerous and in many cases more dangerous than those of their active-duty counterparts. They too could face years of recovery from PTSD and without the assistance of the Veterans Affairs.

To its credit, the VA has ramped up efforts to cope with the increasingly large population of traumatized veterans suffering from crippling mental health problems related to the war. But it has not done enough. Veterans and their families regularly point out that the care they are offered doesn’t come close to what they require.

And what of the countless thousands of Iraqis who are going through similar traumas thousands of miles away? When last I visited, there were less than a hundred trained psychologists working in the entire country. Electric shock therapy was practiced regularly and frequently. Mental hospitals were in dire need of routine maintenance and help.

Now that the war is officially over, survival is going to require more than just dodging bullets. For Iraqis, Americans, everyone, it’s going to mean a full reckoning, and a slow process of healing. It’s not going to be easy. And it’s going to take a long time.

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Some violent movies can increase violent responses to provocation and acceptance of violence in real life

I saw the devil
Jee-woon Kim’s ‘I Saw The Devil’ Starring Min-sik Choi

Two recently published studies show that prolonged exposure to gratuitous violence in the media can escalate subsequent hostile behaviors and, among some viewers, foster greater acceptance of violence as a means of conflict resolution.

The two studies were conducted by James B. Weaver III, head of the Department of Communication Studies at Virginia Tech, and Dolf Zillmann of the University of Alabama. In one study, the researchers wanted to see if frequent, consistent exposure to violence in films would bring out in people a greater support of violent solutions to social problems. The researchers set up an investigation in which 53 male and 40 female college students with various behavior types (empathetic, Type A, etc.) participated for extra credit in a class. They first took tests to determine their primary personality traits. Then they were told they would view five films, one each evening, to evaluate the films’ viability in the video market. They were exposed to nonviolent or gratuitously violent films over four consecutive days and rated those films. The films included innocuous movies, such as “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Little Man Tate,” in which conflicts are resolved without bodily harm, and violent films, such as “Universal Soldier” and “Excessive Force,” representing the new cinematic genre of superviolent movies that are laden with maimings and killings and often have a hero who uses such violence.

On the fifth day, approximately 24 hours after viewing the fourth film, the students were told the researchers had enough data on the video-rental study, but they could participate in a substitute project to earn their full credit. They took part in a project that they were not told was a part of the film study. An experimenter and helper administered tasks that the students were told would indicate whether they possessed important interaction skills or lacked them. The experimenter then gave them either good scores or poor grades with comments such as “Awful!” and “I sure wouldn’t hire you!” The students then were sent to the professor’s office, where they were asked to help the professor decide whether the new assistants should be given financial assistance or denied it.

Weaver and Zillmann found that no matter what type film the students saw, they reacted in a hostile manner toward the experimenter if they were provoked,. (recommending that they be denied financial assistance). Exposure to the gratuitously violent film also produced this effect without provocation by the experimenter. The study showed that prolonged exposure to gratuitously violent films is can escalate hostile behavior in both men and women and instigate such behavior in unprovoked research participants. They determined that the effect is not short lived, but remains for some time after the viewing of the films.

The researchers were surprised at the strong effect of media violence on the responses of non-provoked persons. They speculate that perhaps the fact that the fifth film was replaced with more demanding assignments annoyed the participants enough to reactivate the hostile concepts implanted by the movies. “If that is the case,” Weaver says, “it could be showing that prolonged exposure to media violence can facilitate hostility indiscriminately. That is, it may be that the concepts of hostility planted by the media violence can be activated by any ill feelings and can foster mean-spiritedness toward the person’s social environment at large.”

The researchers found other surprising responses. Women rated the experimenter as less courteous than did males, and people with empathetic, extraverted, or Type A behaviors also were more hostile. The researchers speculate that, since the experimenters were all female, the women participants were hostile to their authority and “felt comparatively uninhibited in their hostile behavior toward female targets.” Too, the male participants may have been exhibiting chivalry in rating the experimenters as more courteous, Weaver says. As for extraverts, they may be more apprehensive of being evaluated and react negatively to the authoritative – and especially to the abusive – evaluations. Type A people may have been impatient and annoyed at changing from viewing a film to taking tests, the researchers said.

In a second study, Weaver and Zillmann took a more global approach to see how violence in the media affected participants’ reactions to things that did not involve them personally. They first gave them tests to determine the level of psychoticism in their personality. (Psychoticism as measured on the revised Eysenck scale used by the researchers is a trait characterized by hostile disposition, lack of empathy, and contempt for risks and danger – a general disregard for society’s preferences. It is not the mass-murderer/ultra dangerous person associated with the general term psychopath.) The researchers exposed participants (also students who would get class credit for completing the experiment) to four types of films – nonviolent, old-style violence (e.g., “Glory”), gratuitous violence (e.g., “Death Warrant”), and horror (e.g., “Howling VI”), again ostensibly so the participants could rate them for marketability. A day after the fourth film, the researchers told the participants they were taking part in a different study on conflict resolution. They were given conflict scenarios, ranging from two kindergarten children fighting to domestic violence, and asked to evaluate various violent and nonviolent resolutions and to indicate how they would respond to the situation. Two-hundred ten men and women completed the study.

The researchers found that men who perceived themselves as socially deviant and egocentric (Eysenck’s version of psychotic) were more likely to accept violence as a means of resolving societal conflicts after watching four movies with gratuitous violence. Watching old-style violence or horror movies did not have that effect. The psychotic men also more strongly endorsed the death penalty after watching such movies. The result is socially significant, Weaver says, because roughly half of the college men in the study fell into the upper half range of this socially indifferent personality.

Other results showed that women prefer to negotiate settlements to problems and men deem violent options more effective, including recklessly violent options. Women, whether high or low in psychoticism, failed to prefer violent resolutions even after viewing the gratuitous violence. Males at the lower end of the psychoticism scale also preferred nonviolence. The fact that men with high-psychotic profiles elected violent solutions may simply reflect a general preference for violent options by men in this group, Weaver says. They may, in fact, seek out such violent movies.

The two tests, Weaver says, were not looking for the mass murderers of the world, but were trying to determine the effects of films with gratuitous violence on the general population. “We’re talking here about some people in everyday life who may not find it okay to beat up someone, but do find it all right to exchange harsh words and insult other people. These films with gratuitous violence make people less civil, more willing to say things in a meeting or in a classroom that were inappropriate a few years ago. It seems tied to the role models seen and the lessons learned from different types of films.”

The studies show a callousness of world view, Weaver says. Person A says something bad to Person B and, because Person B has viewed gratuitous violence, he reacts more harshly than he would have reacted otherwise. “I think this tendency will increase,” Weaver says, “because these films are teaching people it’s okay to break the rules of civility.”

The two studies were published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology and the journal Personality and Individual Differences, respectively. Overall, Weaver says, both studies indicate a need to take personality traits into consideration when studying the effects of violent films on the subsequent behavior of individuals

‘Magic Mushrooms’ Trigger Lasting Personality Change

Bill Hicks

The psychedelic drug psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”) may produce lasting, positive changes in personality, new research finds. People who took the drug showed increases in the key personality dimension of openness — being amenable to new ideas, experiences and perspectives — more than a year later.

“It was sort of like an anti-inflammatory for the ego,” says Brian, a 50-year-old scientist, who participated in the research (he declined to reveal his last name). “The swelling went down and I got to see what was underneath.”

Researchers led by Katherine MacLean, a postdoctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, analyzed personality data on 52 participants (average age 46) who had participated in the group’s earlier research on the drug. These volunteers took psilocybin during two to five sessions, at various doses, under highly controlled conditions at the hospital. They were also given personality tests before taking psilocybin, again a couple of months after each drug session, then again about a year later.

The earlier study had found positive psychological changes — documented by both participants and their family members and other associates — in calmness, happiness and kindness. The new research found that the drug takers also saw long-term changes to their underlying personality. “The most surprising thing was that we found a change in personality that is really not expected in healthy adults, not after such a discrete event,” says MacLean.

MORE: ‘Magic Mushrooms’ Can Improve Psychological Health Long Term

While other research has found that some therapies, including intensive meditation, effective treatment with antidepressants or dialectical behavioral therapy to treat borderline personality disorder, can change adult personality, lasting positive change has never been documented as a result of just a few doses of a drug.

The personality changes also ran counter to those expected as people age. Normally, as people grow older, they become increasingly less open to new ideas and new experiences. In contrast, in participants who experienced had what researchers call a “full mystical experience,” the scientists saw a shift toward increased openness, as though the volunteers had become decades younger.

People became more curious and more interested in new ideas and experiences and in trying new things. “It ended up being the best experience of my life,” says 67-year-old retiree Maria Estevez. “It was marvelous, radiant. I felt like I was coming into a magnificent palace, expansive and joyous.”

Those who didn’t have a full mystical experience showed no personality change, however. The researchers defined full mystical experiences as those that engendered the sense that “all is one” and that everything is connected, an experience of having transcended time and space, a sense of sacredness and peace and an inability to describe accurately the experience in words.

Brian’s mushroom trip was exactly that. But it didn’t happen during his first drug session. For his first dose, he had been randomly assigned to get placebo, so he simply sat blindfolded, listening to classical music through headphones in a calm, elegant room attended by a study monitor, whom Brian had met with over the several preceding weeks to prepare for the experiment. “Four hours went by and nothing really happened,” he says.

Meanwhile, Estevez had the opposite initial experience. She was randomized to receive the highest possible dose first, which ended up being the worst experience of her life. “I was slammed, I was inundated, I felt like I was drowning,” she says. “I was knocked around and tumbling beyond all sanity.”

The monitors helped her through it, but she still considered dropping out. She reconsidered after realizing that she might never get another chance to have a better psychedelic experience. Estevez had originally learned about the study in a classified ad, a day after she’d re-read Aldous Huxley’s famous account of his mescaline experience, and wished she could try something similar for her own spiritual exploration.

Indeed, many of the participants in the experiment were self-motivated to enroll, out of curiosity about the effects of magic mushrooms or because they too wanted the opportunity to self-reflect. Many participants already engaged in spiritual activities like meditation, religious services and prayer. That may help explain why they were so sensitive to the effects of the drug, the researchers acknowledged.

MORE: More Evidence That Marijuana-Like Drugs May Help Prevent PTSD

Brian had always been a deeply spiritual man. He had recently been drawn to Eastern religions and the notion that the separation of our selves from the rest of the world was illusory, and said he signed up for the study because he was curious. He jokes that he hadn’t tried psychedelics earlier because “I was actually a victim of my own good judgment in my youth.”

During his experience with a higher dose of psilocybin, he says, “I was just able to drop ego totally and experience the world without all those filters, and experience Brian without all that.”

He describes his experience on the highest possible dose of psilocybin this way:

There was this point where, basically, I forgot about anything Brian-like or who Brian was. I was really in touch with all experience: whatever happened was part of me. I was not observing — I was whatever was happening. The other thing that was so memorable was that everything was so beautiful and it made me cry because the beauty was so exquisite. And then I’d remember how painful and how messy it all was. I was laughing and crying for like three hours straight.
I was absolutely that certain that everything was just the same thing, just different flavors and tastes of one underlying reality and being so grateful to be alive and able to experience it.
Brian says that this recognition made him more tolerant and more compassionate. “What was happening to me was real and [yet] the person next to me might not be seeing the same thing. It became absolutely obvious that perspective determines your experience with reality and that maybe being able to take more perspectives than one will give you a more rich and probably more true version of what reality is.”

MORE: here for more info.) The scientists ultimately hope to be able to use psychedelics in treatments for mental illness and to study the nature of consciousness itself.

The new research was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Updated: The original post did not include the full title of the journal in which the research appeared.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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