Monthly Archives: September 2014

Differential recall as an objective test for abuse?

Peter Watts is one of my favorite fiction authors, a fact that should probably worry me.  Normally I don’t like hard sci-fi, but Watt’s biology is interesting, plot-integrated, and plausible.*   For example, see this presentation from Blindsight, “literary first-contact novel exploring the nature and evolutionary significance of consciousness, with space vampires”, explaining how vampires came to be.

Those of you who can’t be arsed with videos in blog posts, I understand, and please take my word for it that he presents a very scientific explanation for how a subspecies of humans with vampire-like traits could evolve, interbreed with the normal humans, die out, and then be revived via collection and activation of dormant vampire genes.  And it is absolutely plausible.

His other big work is The Rifters Trilogy, which is based in part on the idea that people with untreated traumatic backgrounds (the protagonist was molested as a child) are more suited than their emotionally healthy peers for dangerous, stressful work (e.g. maintaining a power facility miles under the ocean seeing no one but each other for months).  I don’t remember how much he justified this at the time, because what he said was plausible enough to make for a good story and that was enough for me.

My current non fiction book is Blind to Betrayal.  The awful cover implies it’s solely about infidelity, but it is actually about how people willfully blind themselves to all sorts of betrayal from people they are dependent on- everything from children pretending their parents don’t molest them to people discriminating based on race while claiming to be race blind.  In chapter 8, they discuss divided-attention versus selective attention.  Divided attention is what lets us multitask, selective attention is what let’s us filter out extraneous information.  People (both adults and children) who score highly on the Dissociative Experience Scale (which the authors contend is associated with trauma and selective blindness to evidence of betrayal) tend to score better than low-DESers on divided attention tasks and worse than low-DESers on selective attention tasks.  People with traumatic pasts also have worse memories for trauma-associated words (e.g. rape, kick) and pictures, but no deficit for neutral words and pictures.

I take these results with a grain of salt, because they are very close to implicit association tests and that methodology has come under question.  But if we accept them as correct for now, I see three very obvious conclusions:

  1. Peter Watts was dead on
  2. Human beings are amazingly adaptive, and this is another reminder that what often looks like sheer dysfunction is at least an attempt to adapt, although it doesn’t always work.
  3. If individual variation is low enough, we have a test for abuse.

One of the tragedies of investigating abuse of children is that it’s very very hard.  Children lie, in both directions.  They lie spontaneously, and they lie after being deliberately coached.  A well meaning investigator can accidentally induce a child to invent a story of abuse.  And the investigation can itself be traumatizing to a child if they weren’t actually abused.  But if the variation in recall of trauma to non-trauma words is low enough, you could just give every kid a memory test every year.  Any wild variation from the norm or the kid’s historical record could be flagged for further investigation.

You could also use it when you have worrisome but highly ambiguous indicators, like for example the time I told my girl scout leader “something bad is happening at home” and refused to elaborate. I have no recollection of this, but according to my parents it happened right after my brother had some intensive medical testing, and they had had a talk with me about not blabbing about it around our school.  My girl scout troop leader quite rightly couldn’t let that go, but she also knew my mom worked with kids and even a whiff of investigation could ruin her life forever.  This story turns out okay.  My parents dropped me off for interrogation by my troop leader with instructions to answer everything she asked honestly, she correctly deduced I was not being abused, and she did not report my parents to CPS. But an objective test would have saved everyone a lot of anxiety.  It would also be useful in situations with a high false report rate, such as custody battles.

I don’t know if this research is at the stage where they could use it diagnostically, but I hope someone is working on it.

*Although noticeably less so in his recent release Echopraxia, where I had trouble following both the plot and the science.  I thought it might be surgery-brain, but a friend had the same reaction.

The origins of traumatic bonding

There’s a phenomenon known as traumatic bonding, in which an abused child or spouse bonds to their abuser even more strongly than they would in a health relationship. It’s usually attributed to intermittent reinforcement.

I have an alternative explanation. My cat currently has a retinal tear, which means his life consists of pain, a mysterious cone around his neck that blocks his vision and hinders his movement, and waking up several times a day to the being he loves most in the world, his sole source of food and protection pinning him down and stabbing his eyeball (antibacterial eye drops). Three times in one week this being has put him in a tiny cage and takes him to a place where they torture him even more (fluorescent staining at the vet). He used to love head rubs, now he flinches every time I touch the top of his head, because he associates it with eye drops. He is displaying every symptom of human depression an animal is capable of.

The thing is, I’m inflicting all this on him because I love him.  I am trying to save his eye, and I have absolutely no way to explain that to him.  And it got me thinking: lots of parenting is like this.  Even once the kids are technically old enough to understand English (a feat Nemo looks increasingly unlikely to to master), there’s lots of things you have to do for their long term good that they really hate in the short term.  Some of these things they will eventually understand and be grateful for, some they will always hate.   Either way, no human would ever survive to adulthood if they rejected their parents every time they did something that, from the child’s perspective, looks like torture.

So maybe we’ve evolved to have the capacity to love someone even if they hurt us, because we can’t tell good hurt from bad.  Traumatic bonding could arise either straight from that, or from a perversion of that system, the same way chronic clinical depression arises out of useful emotions.