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Archive for the ‘Forensic evidence’ Category

school lunches repulsiveIt’s time for another installment of strange tidbits we’ve gathered as we have read potential articles for blog posts. This week we have information on why you would stick something icky and repulsive into your mouth, online anonymity, bias against homosexuals, and what horrible things can happen should you choose to ‘unfriend’ that person on Facebook who really annoys you.

Disgusting and repulsive is what that is—tell me more!

The popularity of television shows like Fear Factor tells us that we humans are drawn to disgusting and repulsive things. Some researchers (Hsee and Ruan cited below) think our curiosity drives us to risk negative outcomes (much like Pandora). There is a thorough write-up on this article over at Scientific American that is worth your time to review—although it is likely a good idea to not eat while doing so.

You are likely not as anonymous online as you think

Now this is sort of scary. Many of us want to be anonymous online as we go about our daily business. But a new research study says they can identify who you are just by the way you browse the internet. Apparently, each of us creates a “unique digital behavioral signature” and “they” can know way too much about you based on how you wield that electronic mouse or touchpad. Within a half hour of monitoring you, the researchers say they can measure personality characteristics like “openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism”. That’s pretty scary. The researchers appear to be very excited about this and appear to long to sell their strategies to online marketers. [I think these researchers should be denied tenure just on principle.]

How do we feel now about lesbian women and gay men?

There has been a cultural shift underway in the US in attitudes toward homosexuals. Some have wondered if there really is a change underway or if people just feel pressured to express more support for gay men and lesbian women. Now there is research published in a new open access journal called Collabra that says this societal change really has occurred. A team of researchers found that implicit or unconscious bias against lesbians and gays was down 13% in 2013 when compared to 2006. Nearly all demographic groups showed decreases in bias against homosexuals over that 7 year period which suggests the change is not just politically correct but actually real.

You may want to consider alternatives to “unfriending” on Facebook once you read this

Imagine you live in a “sleepy mountain town” with your young spouse and infant child. Then imagine you have been murdered (although your child survived) and no one can figure out who did it because, “everyone” liked you. You don’t really have to imagine since you can read the story of what happened to a young couple after they ‘unfriended’ a woman on Facebook. It’s a sadly bizarre tale of catfishing and loneliness and perhaps some psychopathy. Here’s a quote from the assistant district attorney’s opening statement to the jury:

“This is going to be the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. This is going to be the craziest thing you’ve ever heard. There is nothing in your lives or background that has prepared you to understand the Potter family.”

And to that we say, “Amen”. And we would like also to mention you can ‘unfollow’ rather than ‘unfriend’ to get them out of your timeline but not incite homicidal rage.

Hsee CK, & Ruan B (2016). The Pandora Effect: The Power and Peril of Curiosity. Psychological Science, 27 (5), 659-66 PMID: 27000178

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dormitory bathroomI first heard the term “over-valued belief” back in the mid-1990’s when I worked in forensic rehabilitation with a man adjudicated not guilty by reason of insanity. He had been very ill (psychotic) and very violent when unmedicated (and had killed more than once due to delusional beliefs) but had been in treatment and well-medicated for years when I met him.

One day he confided that he had been late for our treatment group because he couldn’t stop flushing the toilets on his ward. Later I asked him what he meant and he explained that when the State Legislature was in session and voting on bills, he felt he could also “vote” and perhaps sway their opinions. If he flushed the toilet at the right end of the group bathroom it was a vote for the Republican opinion and if he flushed a toilet at the left end of the group bathroom it was a vote for the Democrat perspective.

I asked him if the strategy worked and he grinned at me—“If I thought it worked, it would be a delusion and I am not delusional anymore. It’s just an over-valued belief at this point”. When I persisted by tilting my head and looking curious, he grinned more widely—“At this point, I can’t stop myself from doing it sometimes “just in case” but it only happens with bills that are really important”.

That lesson stuck with me so when I saw this article on the importance of defining the difference between a delusional belief and an over-valued idea—I knew it would end up as a blog post. It’s a good distinction to be aware of and perhaps especially important for those working on the criminal justice system.

First, a website story introduces today’s research article and includes a brief summary of the Norway killings (remember that one?) and the shooter’s rationale:

In the aftermath of violent acts such as mass shootings, many people assume mental illness is the cause. After studying the 2011 case of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, University of Missouri School of Medicine researchers are suggesting a new forensic term to classify non-psychotic behavior that leads to criminal acts of violence.

“When these types of tragedies occur, we question the reason behind them,” said Tahir Rahman, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the MU School of Medicine and lead author of the study. “Sometimes people think that violent actions must be the byproduct of psychotic mental illness, but this is not always the case. Our study of the Breivik case was meant to explain how extreme beliefs can be mistaken for psychosis, and to suggest a new legal term that clearly defines this behavior.”

Breivik, a Norwegian terrorist, killed 77 people on July 22, 2011, in a car bombing in Oslo and a mass shooting at a youth camp on the island of Utøya in Norway. Claiming to be a “Knights Templar” and a “savior of Christianity,” Breivik stated that the purpose of the attacks was to save Europe from multiculturalism.

In other words, when people commit violent acts (like mass murders), many others often assume mental illness was involved. For the most part, we are unable to imagine the rationale for such acts and so we explain it to ourselves by presuming the killer must be insane. So, if someone commits mass murders, the armchair observer often “diagnoses” the killer with mental illness and/or psychosis. While it may make intuitive sense (e.g., “No one in their right mind would do that….”), it is often, nonetheless, inaccurate.

That is where the forensic examiner enters the scene to see if the level of thought disturbance meets the legal bar for murder driven by delusions. The field of forensic evaluation is very complicated and there are specific rules about the height of the bar over which one must leap (in very technical terms) in order to be declared incompetent to stand trial or to be found competent to stand trial but ultimately tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but mentally ill.

When a forensic evaluator adjudges a defendant not legally responsible for having performed an unthinkable act (such as killing one’s family, child, or a group of random strangers), there are generally delusional beliefs (e.g., “I thought my mother was the devil”) driving the behavior. And there are strict definitions for what constitutes a delusional belief (see the DSM-5 diagnostic manual’s criteria here). So today’s researchers use the example of that well-covered mass murder in Norway to explain the killings were not driven by delusional beliefs (the legal bar) but rather, by non-psychotic “extremely over-valued beliefs”.

They define that new term by quoting the work of another author (McHugh in 1998) and say that extreme over-valued beliefs are typically accompanied by fanaticism:

An extreme over-valued belief is one that is shared by others in a persons’s cultural, religious, or subcultural group. The belief is often relished, amplified, and defended by the possessor of the belief and should be differentiated from a delusion or obsession. The idea fulminates in the mind of the individual, growing more dominant over time, more refined, and more resistant to challenge. The individual has an intense emotional commitment to the belief and may carry out violent behavior in its service. It is usually associated with an abnormal personality.

So one with an extreme over-valued belief may still commit very violent acts “in service” of that belief but they would not meet criteria for psychosis and would clearly understand what they were doing was wrong. From a legal perspective, they would be potentially guilty and subject to punishment. The authors say that “the court ultimately had to draw a line” in the Norway case and concluded that the shooter’s beliefs were “neither bizarre or delusional” and noted “the evaluators who opined that he was not criminally responsible should have consulted experts on right-wing ideologies before concluding that his grandeur was culturally implausible”.

In short, having extremely weird or bizarre beliefs is not the same as being mentally incompetent. This is a distinction worth keeping in mind during election years…

The authors (three prominent psychiatrists) say that “extremely over-valued beliefs” are going to be rigidly held (like delusions) but will be non-delusional. They close with two uncommonly clear sentences summarizing why they see this contribution as important.

The fact that a defendant committed a crime because of a delusional belief is a common basis for an insanity defense. It is therefore critically important that forensic psychiatrists properly identify a defendant’s belief as either a delusion or as an extreme over-valued belief.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, the takeaway for the prosecutor is that if a person’s behavior is driven by delusions, they may be successfully treated with medication. There is no medication that will help with the intractable extreme over-valued beliefs. The defendant is thus a potential danger to society since these beliefs are just as intractable as psychotic delusions.

While the distinction is a good one of which to be aware—the reality is that juries may well see the organized, plotting, and planning (probably psychopathic) predator with the “extremely over-valued beliefs” as potentially more dangerous than the mentally ill individual whose delusions will stop driving behavior when properly medicated. It makes sense for forensic examiners to be capable of differentiating between delusions and over-valued beliefs but for the layperson juror—these are just “two very scary” defendants and it’s likely they will want them both locked up.

Rahman T, Resnick PJ, & Harry B (2016). Anders Breivik: Extreme Beliefs Mistaken for Psychosis. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 44 (1), 28-35 PMID: 26944741

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maladaptive daydreamingRemember Walter Mitty? He was a fictional character who escaped his dull day-to-day existence by constructing elaborate daydreams wherein he was the hero rather than a wallflower. Well, apparently Walter was not so unusual. There are people who spend as much as 60% of their time lost in daydreams. These are people who realize their fantasies are not real but find the fantasies so enjoyable they cannot seem to stop engaging in the behavior. They are calling it maladaptive daydreaming.

Maladaptive daydreaming was defined by Eli Somer (in 2002) as “extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal or vocational functioning”. Somer also characterizes maladaptive daydreaming as having “themes that typically include highly complex fantasies of social attractiveness, power, fame, and love, as well as other fanciful plots, accompanied by acted out behaviors”.

There is an incredible amount of information on the internet about this condition—driven mostly by people who have it and want to educate others and relieve the isolation that often accompanies the condition. They have created information pages, symptom lists, descriptions of the behavior being uncontrollable by the person experiencing it, and much more.

The Atlantic recently shared a very readable article on the issue by an author who had experienced maladaptive daydreaming. One of the most descriptive sentences is this: “I made a lot of close friends [in college] and had a few boyfriends, but I found it tiring to keep up with their conversations while watching TV in my mind”. The author describes the proliferation of information on the disorder on the internet and concludes that her 12-year-old self (lost in maladaptive daydreaming) was certainly not alone.

One of the researchers mentioned in the Atlantic piece was Eli Somer (who defined the phenomenon) who is one of the authors of the new paper on maladaptive daydreaming we are looking at today. This article offers information on the daydream qualities of 340 “self-identified maladaptive daydreamers” in comparison to 107 controls—all 447 of whom responded to an online announcement for participation and then completed multiple questionnaires on-line. Here are some of the differences researchers identified between “maladaptive daydreamers” and their control subjects:

Maladaptive daydreamers “differed significantly from normative daydreaming in terms of quantity, content, experience, controllability, distress, and interference with life functioning”.

Maladaptive daydreamers reported higher symptoms of “attention deficit, obsessive compulsive and dissociation symptoms than did controls”.

Maladaptive daydreamers reported spending about 57% of their awake hours daydreaming—compared to 16% for control subjects.

Maladaptive daydreamers reported higher levels of difficulty limiting their daydreaming while at the same time being distressed over how much time they spent in daydream than did the control subjects.

There is now a discussion occurring as to whether maladaptive daydreaming is a condition of its own or symptomatic of another condition. Whichever decision is made, the authors believe that maladaptive daydreaming causes significant distress, interferes with life function, and needs more attention.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is an intriguing description of maladaptive daydreaming. While those who maladaptively daydream report they are rarely confused as to what is fantasy and what is reality—we anticipate this defense could certainly arise in the not to distant future.

An expert might testify that while the defendant did not usually have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality, in this instance the content of the maladaptive daydream was so disturbing, the dreamer sought to defend against a perceived attacker in the real world.

While another expert could counter that argument by pointing to the numbers of maladaptive daydreamers who do not report confusion between fantasy and reality—we suspect any juror hearing about the richness, depth and texture of maladaptive daydreams—and knowing the proportion of awake time invested in maladaptive daydreaming—would conclude it would be hard for the daydreamer to not be confused by the power of maladaptive daydreaming.

Our mock jurors would ask whether someone should not be held responsible for their actions while also getting treatment for a debilitating condition—they always want to address personal responsibility, and that would certainly be a good point for the prosecution to make. We foresee a lively deliberation room debate if this one ever makes it to the courtroom.

Bigelsen J, Lehrfeld JM, Jopp DS, & Somer E (2016). Maladaptive daydreaming: Evidence for an under-researched mental health disorder. Consciousness and Cognition, 42, 254-66 PMID: 27082138

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be-charismaticSometimes we find articles we want to blog about almost immediately and other times we go through a lot of reading to identify something appropriate for a post. But along the way we almost always have tidbits we thought intriguing, resonant of a past post or series of posts, esoteric, or just plain weird. When we pull together enough of them for a post of assorted “conversation starters”, you know we’ve been reading a lot more than we’re posting!

Calm down, you are not addicted to your smartphone! 

You simply have an anxious attachment style. The BPS Research Digest returns to a topic we’ve covered here before called nomophobia—which describes the anxiety experienced when we have no cell phone in our possession. They describe research completed in Hungary which says that everyone would experience anxiety over not having a cell phone—it is just expected in today’s society. The researchers say, that we should think of our relationship with our phones in terms of attachment theory. They suggest that anyone who has a fear of abandonment (an attachment issue) in their human relationships is likely going to be more anxious about being separated from their phone as well—it’s just an anxious attachment style. You were a worrier before, so you also worry about not having your phone. You feel better now, right?

When DNA implicates the innocent & Eye witness identification errors

In the event you missed them, Scientific American has had really good articles on the legal system recently. Don’t miss this article highlighting times when DNA is very, very wrong or this one on how level of certainty in eyewitnesses can improve the efficacy of police lineups. Both are worthy of your time to read.

How to sound charismatic

We’ve written about deep voices and how appealing they can be and now here is an article from the Atlantic dissecting how politicians vary their voice pitch and tone during speaking engagements in order to appeal to the widest audience possible. It’s disturbing.

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bad brains bad behaviorNeurocriminology, say the authors of today’s paper, is “the study of the brain and how it affects antisocial behavior”. When neurocriminology comes to the courtroom, we call it neurolaw and we have blogged about this intersection between neurosciences and law for years.

The paper we are posting about today is meant as a primer on the various regions of the brain so that those of us who are not brain scientists can understand the relationship between brain abnormalities and “bad” behavior. The authors are two academics in criminal justice and a postdoctoral fellow at the Mind Research Network in New Mexico. The language is plain, straightforward, and succinct—and as such, this is a terrific resource for the attorney who wants to understand basics of brain anatomy and function and how they relate to practical issues such as litigation and criminal behavior in general.

After describing the various parts of the brain and the functions they are supposed to address, the authors go on to discuss the most effective methods of assessing the structure and function of the brain (via CAT or CT scans, MRI, fMRI, PET, SPECT, and EEG—alphabet soup you have seen before if you’ve read any of the neurolaw articles in the media or our posts here). They discuss the advantages and limitations of each of these techniques and offer easy to understand language for what each method actually does.

Then, the authors move on to discuss the impact drugs have on the brain—especially illicit drugs with psychoactive effects, nicotine, alcohol, Viagra, and opiates. They discuss the initial high and the lasting effects on the brain as well as why drug abuse is such a difficult cycle to break. They also discuss pharmacological treatment, vulnerability to addiction, and criminal behavior with the perspective that these are issues directly related to brain function and structure (which may be damaged in multiple ways or have damage since birth).

While, the authors opine, biology is not our destiny—it does contribute at least half of the variance to the equation with the other half being composed of experiences and what we typically refer to as “nurture” in the nature vs. nurture debate.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this article is a terrific way to familiarize yourself with the issues when neuroscience facts are part of your case narrative and is likely a good reference piece to keep on hand as a refresher course when faced with issues related to brain injury or anomaly.

Jorgensen, C., Anderson, N., & Barnes, J. (2016). Bad Brains: Crime and Drug Abuse from a Neurocriminological Perspective. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 41 (1), 47-69 DOI: 10.1007/s12103-015-9328-0

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