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.

What Effects Does Child Sexual Abuse Have On Adult Life?

15301376636_8ace6d2f1eThe title of this post is quite broad, and so is the study we’re discussing. It’s an ambitious task: to look at a broad array of adult roles and see which ones are the most likely to be affected by historic child sexual abuse, and what the effects are.

The research was conducted through a literature review of studies published since 1980. De Jong et al looked at the fulfilment of adult roles such as marriage, employment and parenting, with a focus on whether – and to what extent – a history of sexual abuse had an effect on people’s psychological and physical functioning in these roles.

Perhaps surprisingly, the results were not entirely straightforward. The attainment of the roles per se wasn’t significantly affected by the abuse suffered in childhood; however, the quality of these adult roles was affected.

I’d be interested to read the full study, as I’d like to know how the researchers are defining ‘quality’, but it’s behind a paywall so unfortunately I can’t access it. I am intrigued though, and I think it’s certainly an interesting area of study – there’s no doubt that child sexual abuse has some effect on adulthood, but it’s interesting that it tends to affect the quality of life rather than its generic categories.

Apparently the most consistent findings showed a link between child sexual abuse and physical intimate partner violence in adulthood. In other words, people who were sexually abused as children are more likely to end up with a partner who abuses them physically. This isn’t entirely surprising and tallies with my own prior research, but I’d be interested in looking a bit more closely at this link and trying to get to the reasons behind it.

The study is published in Aggression and Violent Behaviour and will be available online from the 2nd of May 2015.

photo credit: Sometimes… via photopin (license)

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.

Why Does Burnout Happen To Students?

Researchers at a Korean university have been studying the links between perfectionism, motivation and burnout in academic students.

I found the concept interesting because I’ve always been very motivated to study. Not necessarily to acquire pieces of paper with high marks on them, but to further my own learning. As a teenager I was constantly being told by my teachers that I was “doing too much”; advice which I stubbornly ignored as I added more and more A-level subjects to my teetering pile of exam preparation papers.


As an adult I’ve become a little more balanced, though my friends may not entirely agree. I’m still very motivated. I love learning and I enjoy efficiency, and where possible I try to learn at least one new thing every day. Sometimes this is just discovering that a city I’ve never been to before is very beautiful; sometimes it’s checking out a mathematics textbook from my local library and solving equations late into the night.

So I was interested to read the results of a study that focuses on precisely these points: if someone’s really motivated, and studying because they want to, then are they still likely to burn out?

It would seem not.

Chang et al surveyed 283 students, studying three areas: perfectionism, motivation, and academic burnout. The results were interesting (and I particularly like them because they back up my own arguments for being a bit of a workaholic).

They discovered that students who were intrinsically self-motivated – who drew their motivation from within; from a love of the subject they were studying, for example – presented as self-oriented perfectionists and had comparatively lower chances of burning out. In other words, there is a correlation between doing something because you want to, and because you love it, and it not making you ultimately burn out.

On the other hand, students who were socially-prescribed perfectionists – those who were pushed by parents, peers or similar to become “perfect versions” of themselves – were extrinsically motivated and had much higher chances of burning out.

In other words: do what you love, love what you do. That way, you can keep going even when other people might have burned out long ago.

The full study is available via ScienceDirect.

photo credit: Contemplate via photopin (license)

Reasons Why I Love Kierkegaard – Part Two

Kierkegaard has been a favourite of mine since I first discovered his work when I was seventeen. I developed a bit of an obsession (which, if I’m honest, continues to this day) and have recently unearthed a load of notes on scrappy pieces of paper, from when I first read Fear and Trembling and a couple of his other books. This is the mind of seventeen-year-old Scar, working her way through Kierkegaardian philosophy.

“It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand, and what those things are.”

“The individual is and remains the anchor in the confusion of pantheism.”

“I am the ultimate phase of the poetic temper.”

“Some things are so important that they cannot be communicated directly.”

Valentin Weigel in Astrology Theologised: “And because it is true – that every internal is more noble and more worthy than his external, in which it is and dwells; that even all of us do witness, nilling or willing, knowing or not knowing.” –> parallels with Kierkegaard; truth as subjectivity

Fear and Trembling: “Certainly [Abraham] was surprised by the outcome, but by means of a double movement he had come back to his original position and therefore received Isaac more joyfully than the first time.”
1. Necronomicon: magical rituals involving “death” that isn’t actual death
2. Circular nature of life/Biblical/folk stories; important for resolution that people go back to the beginning – Romany death traditions

“The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which can be put from another point of view by saying that it applies at every moment.”

“Faith… is this paradox, that interiority is higher than exteriority, or to recall again an expression we used above, that the odd number is higher than the even.” –> A few pages earlier he talked about Pythagoras believing that the odd numbers are the most perfect.

It’s in the transcending of the abnormal to the supernormal; read good book – average speed; read very good book – fast; read excellent, life-changing book – slowish. Same with Kierkegaard’s knight of faith. (I have no idea what I’m getting at here.)

At some point I’ll start actually looking through all these notes properly and seeing if there might be anything useful in them, rather than just blogging about them as they happen to come up.

Who are your favourite philosophers?

My Personal Inspirational Women for International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day, and this year’s theme is Make It Happen, which presumably means thinking about all the things you want to do and ensuring they get done. Something I struggle with from time to time, because I channel Kierkegaard a bit too strongly:

“Naturally, every person wants to be active in the world in accordance with his abilities, but this in turn implies that he wants to develop his abilities in a particular direction, namely in that which is best suited to his particular personality. But which direction is that? Here I am confronted with a great question mark. Here I stand like Hercules, but not at a crossroads. No, here there are a great many more roads, and it is thus all the more difficult to choose the right one. Perhaps it is precisely my life’s misfortune to be interested in far too many things, but not decisively in any one thing. My interests are not all subordinated under one heading, but are all coordinated.”

– Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, Joakim Garff, p.16

Oh Søren, sometimes I think you’re the only one who understands me.

Anyway, where was I? Right. Women’s Day. Trust me to manage to bring Kierkegaard into it somewhere.

I thought I’d post a few of the women whom I’ve found inspirational throughout the years, for a whole host of different reasons. Some whose careers I still follow, others not so much, but all of whom have been instrumental in helping me see that I could do all sorts of different things.

anigif_enhanced-6546-1403521073-25Captain Kathryn Janeway. That’s right, Star Trek. Start as you mean to go on. (Prior warning: there will probably be a lot of Star Trek in this post.)

Janeway inspires me because she’s strong and in control. She finds things difficult sometimes but she powers on through. She cares about her team and she lets them know it, but they also know that at the end of the day, she’s the boss and she calls the shots. She has an analytical mind and loves science, but she doesn’t tear people down for holding beliefs that are different from her own. She understands the importance of people’s personal beliefs and development paths and tries not to step on their toes. Unless you mess with her. Then she’ll shoot. Pew-pew-pew! Seriously though, she’s amazing.

Alana Davidson. Not a fictional character but a teacher at my old school. A capable, intelligent, strong woman who takes no shit. While I was at school, she had a reputation for being a bit terrifying, but she has a heart of gold. She doesn’t do the whole mushy-cuddly thing, which is good because neither do I, but she’s the kind of person who will be there for you when you really need her, and who will do her absolute utmost to help you out. Even when you don’t know what you need.

When my family had no money, rather than doing what most people did and trying to help me out in ways I was too immature and proud to accept (giving me lunch money), Alana got me a job. She pushed me hard in class because she knew I was capable of it, and she encouraged me to do what I knew was best for myself, but unlike a lot of other people she didn’t just discount the views of those who were discouraging me from getting an education. She understood that life is a complex balance of a whole load of different things and she didn’t patronise me by pretending to know my life better than I did.

She also had this fantastically irritating habit of snapping “Scarlett! Head UP!” at me if I was walking along staring at the floor when she passed me in the corridor. At the time, I found it a bit annoying (to put it mildly), but gradually I realised that she was applying basic psychology – if you look like you’re going to face the day, you’re more likely to do it – and it actually worked. Even now, if I’m having a bad day and I notice myself starting to look less than cheerful when I’m walking down the street, I hear her voice in my head, and it helps.

Barbra Streisand. Do I needanigif_enhanced-buzz-30493-1398353546-25 a reason? She’s beautiful and she has bucketloads of character. Plus an amazing voice, obviously. She could have easily given in to the demands of others, tried to make herself into something she wasn’t, and become a run-of-the-mill popular music artist, but instead she stayed true to herself and is now the official Queen of Music. Says me. You’re not allowed to argue.

From Streisand I learned that sometimes the best answer to people who pull you down for being yourself is to be even more yourself at them. It confuses them and eventually they either just give up or they end up loving you and feeling confused about it.

My ex-mother-in-law. She’s a very private person so I won’t mention her name or what she does, but she’s inspirational because she’s a strong, badass lady who does what she sets out to do. Plus, she cares a lot about the people who matter to her and about making the world a better place.

Deanna Troi. What’s that? Another Star Trek? But of course.

Troi was my first proper memory of Star Trek. I watched TNG before any of the other series; I’m not sure how old I was, but I was old enough to know that I wanted to have a job that had something to do with psychology when I was older. Seeing this effortlessly beautiful and totally badass space princess sitting on the bridge of the Enterprise was in no small way an influence on my career.

tumblr_mm3jlhNBNb1qd5tdto5_250She also wasn’t afraid to show her softer, more vulnerable side. In fact I’d say she spent most of the time being nice to people and only became an angry badass when absolutely necessary. I like this about her. I like that she had a chocolate obsession and wasn’t sure what to do about her relationship with Commander Riker and hung out with Beverly doing yoga and giggling about things. I think there’s a lot to be said for allowing yourself to be a woman, even if you’re working in a man’s world. (Everyone who’s ever worked with me is now shaking their head in confusion at how far removed this is from how I do things.)

Sunitha Krishnan. She runs Prajwala, an Indian NGO that rescues people who have been trafficked into the sex industry, rehabilitates them and reintegrates them into society. I can’t possibly do her justice, so here’s a video of her speaking at TED:

Esma Redzepova, partly because she’s Romany. Representation really matters, you know. Seeing someone you personally relate to on a screen, or listening to their music or hearing them speak, gives a certain amount of confidence. Or at least that’s always been the case for me.

And I think this is kind of the point of Women’s Day, and Black History Month, and all the other times when we 002190-001celebrate minority groups who aren’t always well-represented in mainstream culture. It’s really important to have people you can relate to in positions of influence. Otherwise, how do you know you can get there yourself?

As well as being an amazing singer and a great representation of Romany life, she’s also just a wonderful human being. During the 1970s and 1980s, she fostered 47 children. She is a cultural ambassador for Macedonia and holds a diplomatic passport. She works with a lot of different groups and this in itself does a huge amount to spread goodwill about the Romany people.

Also, she’s totally, unashamedly herself, and she wears giant colorful turbans and bright clothes. How could you possibly not love her?

2975_sarah-woodSarah Wood. The co-founder of Unruly, the company I used to work for, and a doer of many things. Sarah is an academic, a company director, a mother to three wonderful children, a writer, a manager, and probably about a hundred other things I’ve forgotten about. Her experience is wide-ranging; her life to date has been as broad as it has been long, and there’s no sign that she’ll be slowing down anytime soon.

As well as taking a chance on a slightly odd eighteen-year-old when she hired me, Sarah demonstrated that you could be personable and also be a leader, and that it’s OK to have a lot of interests and do a lot of things. She also proved time and time again that I could rely on her if things got tough in my personal life, but she expected excellent work at all times, something which made me greatly respect her and which I tried to carry on when I started managing my own teams.

B’Elanna Torres, because it’s about time for some more Star Trek.

I love B’Elanna because she’s not perfect. She’s a badass, but she’s also not always in control of herself. She gets angry, she finds things difficult, she sometimes makes really stupid decisions. But she’s great at her job and she rises to the rank of Chief Engineer on a starship that’s run by the very organisation she’d been fighting against.


B’Elanna showed me that imperfections aren’t all that bad. Which was a difficult lesson to learn, because I am traditionally quite the perfectionist. But Torres learns to take even the parts of herself she doesn’t like and turn them to her advantage.

Also, she’s half-Klingon, half-human, full badass, and is often the person I think about when I feel like giving up on something but know I might succeed if I just keep trying.

There are so many more amazing and inspirational women I could (and probably should) mention, but this post is long enough already so I’ll leave it there for now. I’ve been lucky to have been surrounded by such great female role models and to have watched Star Trek at a formative age, this being one of the few shows where women and men are openly shown to be equal.

What about you? Who are your top inspirational females?

P.S. Do I say ‘badass’ too much? I think I say ‘badass’ too much.