Exposure to violence in childhood is associated with higher body mass index in adolescence

A research team from Boston Children’s Hospital have recently published a paper on a link between childhood adversity and increased body mass index (BMI) in adolescence.

The project looked at 147 teenagers, 60 of whom had experienced some kind of adversity in childhood.

The results were interesting: a history of sexual or emotional abuse, or of bullying by other children, did not correlate with any increase or decrease in BMI. However, those who had experienced physical abuse or who had seen domestic violence happen in the home had higher BMIs than their peers.

In participants who were witnesses of domestic violence, the likelihood of being overweight as an adolescent was almost six times the average, even after adjusting for potential confounders. There were no significant gender differences – the correlations seemed to be equally prevalent in all genders.

Read the full study here

Review – The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?

My colleague and head of The Pilgrimage Project research team, Miguel Farias, has recently written a book about meditation along with Catherine Wikholm.

I went to the launch party in Notting Hill a few weeks ago, took the book home and have been gradually reading it in between travels over the past few weeks.

Millions of people meditate daily, but can meditative practices really make us ‘better’ people?

In The Buddha Pill, pioneering psychologists Dr. Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm put meditation and mindfulness under the microscope. Separating fact from fiction, they reveal what scientific research – including their own groundbreaking study on yoga and meditation with prisoners – tells us about the benefits and limitations of these techniques for improving our lives. As well as illuminating the potential, the authors argue that these practices may have unexpected consequences, and that peace and happiness may not always be the end result.

Offering a compelling examination of research on transcendental meditation to recent studies on the effects of mindfulness and yoga, and with fascinating contributions from spiritual teachers and therapists, Farias and Wikholm weave together a unique story about the science and the delusions of personal change.

The book did something all my favourite academic books do: it gave me ideas for future research projects. There are now so many notes scribbled in the margins that it’d probably keep me going in research paperwork for the next twenty years (which perhaps speaks more to the amount of time each project takes than the number of ideas I had).

It did throw up some interesting questions though. The book talks us through some of the previous research into meditation and mindfulness, both the one or two studies that gave statistically significant results, and the vastly larger number that were conducted with inadequate controls (but often reported on in the media all the same).

The Buddha Pill begins with a discussion of a couple of projects which have been set up to aid prisoners to make meditation and similar practices a part of their day. It contrasts these with the experience of actually choosing to be an ascetic and discusses some of the difficulties that inevitably crop up when you’re essentially forced into an ascetic lifestyle.

The descriptions of the various types of meditation, mindfulness and yoga were comprehensive and useful. It’s an area I know very little about, although I have a passing interest in it as it often crops up when I’m researching modern Pagan practices, and it was good to find descriptions that both made sense and clearly delineated between different techniques and systems.

Some of the most interesting parts were the discussions about what had gone wrong with previous studies. In recent years I’ve discovered that failures and mistakes can teach us a lot more than successes can (a lesson learned the hard way) and The Buddha Pill backed this up.

When discussing some of the issues with research on transcendental meditation (TM), for example, the book stated:

One methodological limitation… is that the effects were probably less driven by TM’s ability to produce a ‘fourth state of consciousness’, than by the strong motivation of meditators to believe in its effects. A related problem was what scientists call a ‘sampling bias’ – basically, transcendental meditators were not the average American John Doe.

And actually, that quote brings me to another point I liked about the book: it’s equally accessible for psychologists and people with no academic experience alike. I find a lot of books written for a popular audience are so dumbed down as to be practically useless, and I find a lot of psychological books to be peppered with explanations that are fine for me, but not fine for people who don’t already have a grounding in the subject area. The Buddha Pill strikes the perfect balance, explaining terms that are commonly used by scientists in a way that anyone can understand, but still providing the reader with an in-depth analysis of the studies and concepts being discussed.

The book also discusses the more practical difficulties with prison intervention projects: the main one being money. After all, rehabilitating offenders isn’t just a case of finding what works and doing it, it’s a case of funding what works.

Chapter six, The Dark Side of Meditation, was particularly interesting as it looked into the elements of meditation that many people don’t like to think about. It discusses some of the side effects commonly associated with meditation, and why certain techniques may not work for different people; why it’s important to proceed with caution.

I don’t want to give away the ending of the study, or of the book itself, but I will say that I found the conclusions refreshingly sensible. So many studies in this kind of arena try to point to a ‘one size fits all’ solution, or they seem to have their own agendas to fulfill. Miguel and Catherine’s book is much more well-rounded than that, taking into account a lot of literature, personal experiences, their own research, and balanced points of view across the board.

I’d definitely recommend this for anyone who has an interest in meditation, mindfulness and yoga; for psychologists in general; and for people who don’t really understand what these things are but want an overview so they can decide whether or not to pursue them.

The Buddha Pill is published by Watkins Publishing and is available from Waterstones and on Amazon, priced £8.29.

Recommendations for Dealing with Cyberbullying

A few months ago, I spoke to Carole Williams, an expert in cyberbullying who speaks at schools and runs training sessions for parents about what to do if their child is being bullied online, and measures they can take to stop it from happening.

But what is cyberbullying? It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, often without explanation of what it means, and what the effects are on its victims.

Image © Michael Cordedda
Image © Michael Cordedda

A group of researchers at Stanford University have recently been looking into this, and their results bring back some good recommendations for its prevention.

The idea was that the researchers would conduct an interdisciplinary study. I’m an advocate of multidisciplinary research teams – my own is an example of one – because it allows a lot of different perspectives to come together, and you end up with analyses that you might otherwise have missed.

Aboujaoude et al searched through several medical journals as well as using open-source resources such as Google to find data about cyberbullying. They went through government legislation, community responses and books, which must have taken a huge amount of time.

Their initial discoveries were perhaps unsurprising. Cyberbullying is quite prevalent, with up to 40% of young people having been victims to it at some point. The most likely groups to be targeted are females and sexual minorities, with males being the main perpetrators. There is a well-established link to suicidal thoughts and actions, as reported in several previous studies.

The researchers conclude that the importance of taking action to combat cyberbullying cannot be underestimated, particularly in an increasingly connected world.

“Available data suggest a serious problem whose consequences are real and should not be dismissed as a “virtual” by-product of an increasingly digitalised childhood and adolescence.”

So, what can we do about it?

According to Aboujaoude et al, the best approach would be multi-faceted rather than simply relying on a single element, such as government legislation, to deal with the problem.

Recommendations included educational media campaigns; programs in schools to help young people deal with concerns about cyberbullying and learn about its effects; parental awareness and oversight; government legislation; and interventions by health professionals such as doctors and mental health workers.

It is good to see subjects like this beginning to receive the attention they need; too often the problems of the “digital native” generation are dismissed by adults as being somehow less than real, simply because they take place online. But it is important to remember that when the majority of a person’s life is lived interconnected with digital devices, traumatic events that occur via those devices are just as important to address as any that might happen offline.

You can find more details about the study via Science Direct.

Examining Subtypes of Sex Offenders

A very interesting study has recently been published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, discussing the various subtypes of sexual offenders and their corresponding personalities.

A distinction was made between four groups: paedophilic offenders, non-paedophilic offenders, rapists and a control group of non-sexual offenders.

What is a non-paedophilic offender?

It might sound like an oxymoron, considering that we’re discussing people who commit sexual crimes against children, but a distinction is made in the literature between those who claim to be attracted to children (paedophilic offenders) and those who claim to be attracted predominantly to adults, but who have committed sexual crimes against children. This latter subset are defined as ‘non-paedophilic’, due to the root words from which the term ‘paedophile’ is taken meaning ‘love of children’.

The study

The study aimed to look at different personality types of offenders, with a view to enabling social services and the justice system to provide useful intervention for the people who commit these crimes.

164 male convicted offenders were assessed, of whom 50 were rapists, 20 were paedophilic child molesters, 43 were non-paedophilic child molesters, and 51 were non-sexual offenders.

Four questionnaires were given to each participant: the Adult Attachment Scale, which measures a person’s levels of security, anxiety and avoidance; the Interpersonal Behaviour Survey, which distinguishes between assertive and aggressive behaviours and provides a scale for each; the Brief Symptom Inventory, which provides a brief assessment for psychological problems; and the Socially Desirable Response Set Measure, which evaluates a person’s tendency to give what they perceive to be socially desirable responses, rather than an accurate response.

The results

The results showed distinct differences between each group of offenders.

Paedophilic offenders were more likely to present anxiety in adult relationships than non-paedophilic offenders.

Non-paedophilic offenders were less aggressive compared to rapists and non-sexual offenders, and were less assertive than rapists.

Rapists were the group that scored the highest on aggression.

Further research is required – the group of paedophilic offenders in particular was quite small in comparison to the other groups studied – but the study seems to indicate that different types of offenders have different personality profiles, and therefore any interventions ought to be conducted in different ways depending on the type of offense committed.

The full study can be found in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine via ScienceDirect.

Guys, I Really Am A Ravenclaw!

Which Harry Potter house are you in? Ask anyone of a certain generation and you’ll probably receive an answer. J.K. Rowling’s series of books sparked huge international interest, and expanded into films, games, a real-world studio tour… the works.

To cope with this growing demand (or perhaps just because she wanted to), Rowling put together Pottermore, a site where fans can get together, play through challenges and unlock elements of the stories that aren’t mentioned in the books. They can also get sorted into one of the four Hogwarts houses – Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Slytherin – to find out about their personality.

But what does your Harry Potter house really say about you?

Without wanting to sound like a clickbait article title, it’s now possible to find out, or at least to measure some associated characteristics.

Crysel et al‘s new research paper in Volume 83 of Personality and Individual Differences aims to answer this question. The researchers asked fans from online Harry Potter groups to tell them which house they’d been sorted into on Pottermore, then asked them to complete a personality measure.

The results were intriguing.

Ravenclaws (my house!) are “known for wit and learning”, according to the books, and the study found that fans who had been sorted into this house on Pottermore scored highly on the ‘need for cognition’ scale.

GIF-bellatrix-lestrange-31336859-250-157Slytherins, who are “known for using any means to achieve their ends”, scored highly on Dark Triad traits. What are Dark Triad traits? Narcissim, Machavellianism, and psychopathy. Sound like Bellatrix to you?

 

Surprisingly, however, the other two houses didn’t bring back the results the researchers had expected. They saw no correlation between Gryffindor (known for bravery) and extraversion or openness, and no correlation between Hufflepuff (known for loyalty) and the need to belong.

Perhaps there’s something about Ravenclaws and Slytherins that just makes us relate even more to our houses than other personality types. But we’ll leave that for future research.

Which house are you in? Do you think your result is accurate?

Full research article available via ScienceDirect.

Stop. Talk. Listen.

A lot of the work I do touches on working with young people. Whether it’s mentoring, teaching and training, volunteering at youth groups or my other job which involves child protection cases, I often find myself in situations where I see some of the things the world throws at young people and the ways they have to try to deal with life.

The Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution also recognise this problem, and they’re working to solve it through a series of initiatives that have been set up since 2011.

The Background 

In a national survey commissioned by the SCCR, it was discovered that 25% of young people thought about running away on a monthly basis. 5,000 young people each year become homeless due to issues relating to home relationships breaking down. Mediation in the past has been sketchy, with help often only available after the point of crisis.

What’s Happening? 

To address these issues, the SCCR has launched a new public national awareness campaign called Stop. Talk. Listen. The idea is to get people talking about things before they become such huge problems that they prompt a breakdown of the family unit. There are campaigns on Twitter and Instagram using the #StopTalkListen tag, in which young people share the most common sources of consternation in their homes. These can range from the more mundane (“who does the dishes” seems to be a popular choice) to things that cause a great deal of distress.

Even the smaller problems can just be the tip of a bigger iceberg, though, and this is part of the SCCR’s campaign: to get people talking about the more everyday issues before they build into something larger and more unwieldy.

There’s a new interactive website as well, where people can download resources and you can watch video clips of people whose lives have been helped by mediation in the past. There’s also a forum on the website, and a few events and training courses coming up for people who are interested in conflict resolution.

Head over to the SCCR’s website and see what you can do to help.