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santa tracker

We’re taking a break until 2016 so we’ll see you in January!

Most of us grew up watching the weather report on TV and seeing a NORAD ‘Santa Tracker’ showing where Santa and his sleigh were on their way for a long night of work. But this is 2015 and if you celebrate the holiday, you likely want something a bit more scientific to show you that there is a “Christmas spirit” if not a Santa Claus. Thankfully, we can rely on the annual December issue of the British Medical Journal to enlighten us on holiday traditions and offer a light-hearted look at important questions on many of our minds.

In this case, the researchers wanted to figure out if there was a “Christmas spirit” within the human brain. The authors are neurology researchers, neuroimaging researchers, a professor of clinical physiology, and a medical physicist. A quick glance at the author names on this paper will show you that they are presenting, as they describe it themselves, “a cross cultural group study with functional magnetic resonance imaging” to “detect and localize the Christmas spirit in the human brain”. Participants were 10 “healthy people from Copenhagen who routinely celebrate Christmas and 10 healthy people living in the same area who have no Christmas traditions”. Some further research into whether this project was the result of typical, careful funding proposals or left over slush funds that were set to expire by Christmas morning seems warranted. But our skepticism at this time of year has an unfortunate “Scrooge-like” quality, so we won’t look very hard.

The participants completed a questionnaire about their Christmas traditions, feelings associated with Christmas and their ethnicity. The researchers are careful to let us know “no eggnog or gingerbread was consumed prior to the scans”. While the participants were in the MRI, they were shown 84 images (displayed for 2 seconds each and organized so there would be six Christmas associated images and then six images devoid of Christmas symbolism).

The researchers say they found a “cerebral response when people view Christmas images, and there are differences in this response between people who celebrate Christmas compared to those with no Christmas traditions”. They also greatly contribute to science in this area by saying there is a “functional Christmas network comprising several cortical areas, including the parietal lobules, the premotor cortex, and the somatosensory cortex”. These areas of the brain have been shown in previous studies (according to the authors) to be related to spirituality and transcendence, experiencing emotions shared by others, and “observation of ingestive mouth actions” which the researchers think is likely related to recall of shared meals with loved ones. All in all, they say, “these cortical areas possibly constitute the neuronal correlate of the Christmas spirit in the human brain”.

The researchers have carefully thought through their study design and interpretations and have compelling rejoinders to any of their colleagues whom they “suspect could be afflicted by the aforementioned bah humbug syndrome”. They would like further research on this issue—perhaps with subjects who’ve been given “tacky jumpers” (known here in the US as ‘ugly Christmas sweaters’) as gifts since they may well have different brain activity than those who received more attractive gifts for the holiday. They close with this comment in the acknowledgements section…

“We call ‘dibs’ on any profitable non-invasive or even invasive treatment of the bah humbug syndrome. We are currently preparing a patent application on a Santa’s hat you can buy for family members with symptoms. When they start grumbling at Christmas dinner, with the touch of a button you can give them electric stimulation right in the Christmas spirit centers.”

Hougaard A, Lindberg U, Arngrim N, Larsson HB, Olesen J, Amin FM, Ashina M, & Haddock BT (2015). Evidence of a Christmas spirit network in the brain: functional MRI study. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 351 PMID: 26676562


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Reducing racial prejudice in just seven minutes 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015
posted by Douglas Keene

loving-kindnessThis is a very different strategy for quickly reducing racial prejudice than past research has examined. This one involves the Buddhist practice called a Loving-kindness meditation (LKM) which involves focusing on a specific individual and repeating phrases like “may you be happy and healthy”.

Researchers wanted to see if practicing a Loving-kindness meditation (LKM) would reduce racial prejudice and they found it did—but only toward the group targeted by the meditation. A loving-kindness meditation “aims to self-regulate an affective state of unconditional kindness toward the self and others”. Techniques to induce this shift vary but typically include repeating “phrases such as “may you be happy and healthy” while visualizing a person (the target) experiencing the outcome of such wishes”. Prior research has shown that LKM increases pro-social attitudes and thoughts and even reduces explicit racial prejudice in longterm LKM practitioners. According to the authors, a 2014 study showed that 6 weeks of LKM training even reduced implicit biases as measured by the IAT (the Implicit Association Test)—which measures biases of which we are unaware. The current work focused on whether something short of a 6 week exposure would also reduce implicit biases.

Here’s what the researchers did:

Sixty-nine undergraduate students were recruited (all White, 50 women, 19 men, with an average age of 23.7 years). The participants were told they were participating in a study “investigating the effect of imagery on categorization”. None of the participants reported they meditated more than 30 minutes a week.

All participants took the Implicit Association Test using the categories “black” and “white” and the categories “good” and “bad”. As always on the IAT, racial bias is “thought to be indicated by faster identification of positive attribute terms when the positive category was paired with the “white” (in-group) category term than when it was paired with the “black” (out-group) one and also by faster identification of negative attribute terms when the negative category was paired with the out-group category term than when it was paired with the in-group one.”

In addition to the IAT, participants completed another measure to rate their specific emotions (such as awe, wonder, or amazement, gratitude, elevation or love) during the course of the experiment. Target images used were photographs matched by gender but all of Black people (photos were taken from the Center of Vital Longevity’s face database) since all the participants in the study were White.

Participants were placed in either a loving-kindness meditation (LKM) or a visualization (Imagery) condition. In each condition, participants listened to about 7 minutes of instructions transmitted via headphones. Prior to beginning the instructions, participants were asked to “close their eyes, relax and take some deep breaths”. Those in the LKM condition were asked to visualize people “who deeply cared for them” standing on either side of them and “sending them love”. Then after about 4 minutes, they were instructed to open their eyes and “redirect the feelings of love towards [the] gender-matched black person shown in a photograph and then wish them health, happiness and wellbeing”. Those in the Imagery condition were instructed to think about the physical characteristics of two people who were acquaintances only and for whom the participant had no strong feelings. Then, they were asked to open their eyes and pay close attention to the physical features of the same gender-matched black person shown in a photograph as we used in the LKM condition. In other words, say the authors, participants received similar instructions but “only those in the LKM condition imagined receiving and sending loving thoughts and feelings”.

And it worked. As the researchers report, “just seven minutes of loving-kindness meditation directed to a member of a racial out-group was sufficient to reduce racial bias towards that out-group”.

You may be thinking “what in the world does this have to do with litigation advocacy?” since no one would ever expect any judge anywhere to allow this sort of technique in the courtroom. We think it has everything to do with litigation advocacy and it is one more study that reinforces the effectiveness of a technique used by one of our clients to great effect. We think of it as a variation of the “best self” strategy, which can be a powerful theme for closing arguments. As regards the LKM research, the message is in part that we all want to have positive thoughts about others, and we are ready to admire those who embody values and principles that represent our best potential as people. There is a great deal of evidence to support jurors being put off by parties who don’t take responsibility, don’t try to mitigate harm, and who blame others unreasonably when things go wrong. Imagine a party taking the stand and saying “I/We thought long and hard about this from all sides. We considered our own interest, and also what we would expect of someone else if they roles were reversed. We have known others who have experienced similar things, and felt we had no choice but to challenge what [opposing party] is trying to do.” While “golden rule” strategies are not permitted, a persuasive witness who is able to exhibit open-minded thoughtfulness is often admired.

While the research we are looking at today is about intervening to block racism, it appears to be relevant for any kind of bias. Slow the tempo, cool the anger, and elevate the discussion to one of principles, not just the issue of the moment.  So you can think of this strategy as a way to level the playing field for any litigation party by calling on jurors to visualize their “best self” and ask themselves what the facts disclose, and whether whatever the source of bias might be (e.g., anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-corporate, anti-immigrant, anti-ethnic minority, anti-industry, et cetera) should make a difference in their verdict. Jurors are open to being guided toward the realization that the trial may be over this week, but their verdict has ramifications for years to come. Their desire to feel proud of their contribution to a just outcome—not as an impulse but as an expression of their truest values—will live in their hearts forever.

Stell, A., & Farsides, T. (2015). Brief loving-kindness meditation reduces racial bias, mediated by positive other-regarding emotions. Motivation and Emotion DOI: 10.1007/s11031-015-9514-x


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Tattoo women 2015We write a lot about tattoos here—perhaps because we have Millennial aged kids and at least half of them have tattoos.  Okay, more than half. The meaning of tattoos has changed over the years and there seems little stigma still associated with them any longer. The authors of new research on college students (2,394 of them from six different North American public universities, most between 18 and 20 years of age, 67% White and 59% female) opine that a “single rose or zodiac sign [tattoo] is no more edgy today than the Beatle haircut in the early ‘60s”.

In their review of the literature, the authors indicate that tattooed individuals are more likely to be risk-takers and to have a need to express their uniqueness. While historically the opposite, more women (23%) than men (19%) now have tattoos. However, women—in addition to being more likely to have tattoos—are also more likely to seek tattoo removal. There appears to be a relationship between having tattoos and having a history of emotional, physical or sexual abuse and in fact, there is a relationship between having multiple tattoos and also having a history of suicide attempts.

These researchers wanted to update the research on tattoos and well-being and here are some of their major findings:

Females were more likely to report at least one suicide attempt and to have lower self-esteem and more depression.

The number of tattoos on any one individual had no association/relationship to suicidal thoughts (aka ideation) but was related to reports of at least one suicide attempt, to depression, and to self-esteem (higher self-esteem).

Suicide attempts were related to depression and suicidal thoughts. Higher self-esteem was more likely to occur in the absence of suicide attempts.

A fair reading of those two sentences raises some odd questions. How can it be that among those who report depression and suicide attempts there is a boost to self-esteem? It may speak to two (or more) subgroups within the younger tattooed population. So the researchers wanted to learn more—particularly as higher numbers of tattoos have been associated with greater amounts of deviant behavior in past research. So they dug in (statistically speaking) and found a bit more.

The level of self-esteem among those with tattoos increased as they got more tattoos. For example, those with four or more tattoos reported one or more prior suicide attempts (and this was at a rate three times higher than those with no tattoos at all). For women with four or more tattoos, the suicide attempt rate was even more dramatic—almost four times higher than among those without tattoos.

But where does the increased self-esteem enter the picture? Overall, the self-esteem of women was lower than the self-esteem of men participating in the study. (This is not really a news flash since women do tend to report higher depression and lower self-esteem than do men.) However, as the researchers continued to statistically delve into their data, what they found was that while women with four or more tattoos did have a history of prior suicide attempts they were also more likely to have higher self-esteem. It is, say the researchers, as though there is something restorative and life-affirming for women about getting tattooed.

“We know that breast cancer survivors sometimes get tattoos in an effort to express, control, or reclaim ownership of their bodies.”

Perhaps, they say, women who are struggling with depression and/or suicidal thoughts seek out tattoos and imbue the process with meaning or symbolism that elevates their self-esteem and is therefore emotionally restorative. It’s an intriguing statement. And certainly a more positive one than saying that when you have multiple tattoos you are likely deviant.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this research tells us to, once again, keep up with the times and the changing meanings of tattoos. Rather than a sign of deviance—perhaps that young woman with at least four visible tattoos is a survivor of trauma who has reclaimed her life. And that simple fact may move her from being a juror you might think is anti-social or unreliable, to one with a compelling story and persuasiveness, who can lead a deliberation focused on themes of re-invention, reclaiming the self, and rising above negativity.

Koch, J., Roberts, A., Armstrong, M., & Owen, D. (2015). Tattoos, gender, and well-being among American college students. The Social Science Journal, 52 (4), 536-541 DOI: 10.1016/j.soscij.2015.08.001


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treatment advocacy centerWe’ve heard for a number of years now that the untreated mentally ill are more likely to end up in prisons than hospitals. And we’ve certainly read complaints about how the police treat those with mental illnesses. But a new report from the Treatment Advocacy Center tells us that people with untreated mental illnesses are 16x more likely to be killed by the police. They offer a sobering statistic:

Numbering fewer than 1 in 50 U.S. adults, individuals with untreated severe mental illness are involved in at least 1 in 4 and as many as half of all fatal police shootings, the study reports. Because of this prevalence, reducing encounters between on-duty law enforcement and individuals with the most severe psychiatric diseases may represent the single most immediate, practical strategy for reducing fatal police shootings in the United States, the authors conclude.

This is an issue that strikes close to home for us as a videographer we knew— who developed an untreated mental illness—was killed by a police officer while fleeing from the squad car in which he was being transported for a non-violent episode, a few years ago in North Carolina. While we were shocked and distressed by the facts of that specific incident, what this report says is it appears to happen all too often. Law enforcement officials say that interactions with mentally ill individuals are the most volatile interactions they have and can quickly turn dangerous. Some police departments have begun special training programs to effectively deal with “total collapse of the mental health system in the US. People who should be wards of the hospital are wards of the street”. The reality remains, however, that few police officers have been adequately trained and that results in a dangerous situation for both the citizen with mental illness and the police officer(s) responding.

About one in four fatal police encounters involve someone with a mental illness according to the report. Other disturbing statistics include that overall, about one in 10 police encounters with citizens involve someone who is mentally ill and one in five people in prison have mental illnesses. Why does this happen? Here’s what the report says about the rate of serious mental illness and the rate of medication compliance in those with mental illness.

An estimated 7.9 million adults in the United States live with a severe mental illness that disorders their thinking. Treatment in most cases can control psychiatric symptoms common to these diseases, but the system that once delivered psychiatric care for them has been systematically dismantled over the last half-century. Today, half the population with these diseases is not taking medication or receiving other care on any given day.

The problem is huge but remains mostly invisible. The Treatment Advocacy Center also offers some recommendations from the report on how to address the inadequacies of our system as it exists today:


Shifting the responsibility for responding to acutely ill individuals from mental health professionals to police has criminalized mental illness at enormous cost to individuals with the most severe psychiatric diseases, the criminal justice system and society. The mental illness treatment system must be restored sufficiently so those with mental illnesses receive treatment before their actions provoke a police response.

ACCURATELY COUNT AND REPORT the number of fatal police encounters.

The U.S. government does not possess a comprehensive, accurate database of fatal police encounters. Factors that contribute to the absence include the lack of reporting requirements that are realistically funded, the absence of standardized definitions and methods to produce consistent data, and the lack of centralized oversight. Congress must enact legislation to direct resolution of these issues and to fund the operation of a reliable federal database of fatal police interactions nationwide.

ACCURATELY COUNT AND REPORT all incidents involving use of deadly force by law enforcement.

Fewer than half of police shootings result in a death. Counting only fatal shootings produces an incomplete picture of the use of deadly force and its attendant impacts, including injury and disability. A system for tracking and incentivizing the reporting of all use of deadly force by law enforcement must be established and maintained.

SYSTEMATICALLY IDENTIFY the role of mental illness in fatal police shootings.

Severe mental illness is an identifiable factor in at least 25% and as many as 50% of all fatal law enforcement encounters, but its role has been rendered virtually invisible by the failure of the government to track or report its presence. Questions to identify psychiatric factors must be included in the official surveys used to capture data about both fatal and nonfatal police shootings.

The full report is well worth your time if you are concerned about issues related to closing psychiatric hospitals and the untreated mentally ill who end up in interactions with the police as well as those who simply stop taking their medications for a time and end up in police custody or altercations with the police.

Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters. Treatment Advocacy Center.


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“Oh come on—I’m 26 years old! 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015
posted by Rita Handrich

I am 26Here at KTC our kids are all Millennials (and we happen to be very fond of them), so we’re sensitive to the experience of Millennials being treated like children even though they have, in some cases, been in the workforce for years. Two recent experiences bring the work of the Pew Research Center to mind.

In the first instance, during a recent focus group we asked individual potential mock jurors if they could maintain confidentiality if they found the story particularly interesting (which it was). One young man we had recruited worked in IT support and was clearly bright and articulate. As we questioned him about confidentiality, he blurted out in frustration, “Oh come on! I’m 26 years old” and we both grinned and said, “Oh, well then!” and laughed a bit harder than he probably believed the comment merited.

The next day, I took my car in for warranty work and was waiting in the service area trying to read and blog in what I’d hoped would be a quiet environment. An older woman was making phone calls to multiple volunteers for a community meal of some sort where they would require those bringing food to give the food “an interesting holiday themed name” and repeated the same lines on every call at several decibels louder than she needed to speak. She was behind me and I looked up in frustration several times only to make eye contact and share mutual eye rolls with multiple 20-somethings also obviously trying to get some work done. Finally, one of the young people sharing my tall table with power outlets went over to her and politely (and quietly) asked her to make her calls outdoors as some of us were trying to get work done. The three of us seated at the table all turned and looked at her so she knew it was not just one person making the request.

It is one thing to be in your 50s (or older) and have to ask someone older than you to keep it down in a public shared space. It is another to be in your 20s or early 30s and do the same thing and I admired the courage and assertion of that young woman who spoke up for all of us making meaningful but silent eye contact. Then I thought back to the young man frustrated by our asking him if he could maintain confidentiality (which in truth is something we ask everyone—not just Millennials) when he’d been working for a number of years and had “signed multiple non-disclosure agreements”. He probably was insulted by our laughter and for that, I apologize as well. It just struck both of us as so funny since it was not at all why we were inquiring. Discretion has little to do with chronological age.

According to Pew Research, Millennials are now ages 18 to 34 years but only about 40% of them identify with the label “Millennial generation” and 33% (mostly the older Millennials) consider themselves part of Generation X. And despite the constant media sniping toward Millennials, the Millennials themselves are the most likely generation to identify with negative labels as descriptors for their generation (while Boomers and Silents see themselves most positively). On the other hand, young adults think there is strong evidence of climate change and that we should prioritize development of alternative sources of energy. Oddly, given the Millennial support of climate change and alternative energy sources, there is no difference in how people across different generations describe themselves as environmentally conscious.

It’s a reminder to us that how we see ourselves and how others see us are not necessarily the same. Whether you are 26 or 66—there are more similarities than differences across generations. Some of us are able to maintain confidences and others are not. Some of us are tolerant and others are not (although they may describe themselves as tolerant). Some of us are organized and capable and others are disorganized and yet can still get things done. We find Pew’s work on describing the generations useful as it tells us (over and over again) how similar we all are—regardless of age. Remember that when you are approaching voir dire and jury selection. Know how we are different but also remember how we are the same.

Pew Research Center. 2015. Most Millennials Resist the ‘Millennial’ Label—Generations in a Mirror: How They See Themselves. September 3.


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