Book review: Why Does He Do That, by Lundy Bancroft

The best part of Why Does He Do That? was the description/definition of abuse, which he doesn’t give formally until very late in the book.  Abuse arises from a miscalculated sense of entitlement.  Anger and substance abuse issues may influence how someone expresses those entitlement issues, but are completely orthogonal to its existence.  This is, according to the author, why conventional therapy is useless as a tool against abuse.  Modern therapy is explicitly aimed at helping patients meet their own goals.  Anti-abuse treatment is aimed at teaching someone their values are wrong and changing them.

The difficulty with this definition is it requires knowing *everything* about a situation before you can decide if abuse took place.  Someone telling a partner “Don’t go on that hike with your friends, your knee will hurt for days” could be an abuser isolating their victim, or an abuse victim trying to prevent pain their partner will take out of them, or a genuinely concerned partner in a healthy relationship.   You just don’t know until you know the state of the person’s knee, how they usually act after long hikes, whether there’s a pattern of isolation attempts, support of other endeavors…So you can’t help but come out of this book seeing abuse everywhere.

Given how wonderful the book was in understanding the psychology of abuse, I was extra disappointed to see the author so dismissive of female-on-male abuse.  He acknowledges that men can be abused (by other men), he acknowledges that women can abuse (other women), he acknowledges that men and women can be abused by people physically smaller and weaker than them (because no one tolerates physical abuse until emotional abuse has broken their defenses), he acknowledges the role of various privileges (money, citizenship, education, etc) in same -sex abuse, but he insists that there is no way a man can ever be abused by a woman.  In fact, he says a man accusing a female partner of abuse is a sign that he is abusive. I don’t doubt that most accusations of female-on-male abuse that this guy hears are false, because he’s hearing them in a program for male abusers.  And I suspect that the kind of entitlement he’s describing is more prevalent.  But categorically denying the possibility of the reverse is dangerous and damaging to male abuse victims and ultimately, because it constrains our conception of what abuse can be, female victims.

I am also really uncomfortable with the book’s title and associated goals.  It doesn’t actually matter why a person is abusive (which Bancroft agrees with).  And in many ways, it doesn’t matter if it’s entitlement leading to official Abuse or a sick system, because either way you have to leave.  But I acknowledge that the descriptions of abuser-types could be helpful to victims who think it can’t be abuse because he’s not throwing a lamp at you.

Overall, I think this book has some really good points and brings a lot to the table.  It also propagates some really toxic ideas.  I would absolutely listen to this author if I wanted to treat abusers.  And if I had a friend in a bone fida abusive relationship, I think this book could be helpful.  But it is the last thing I would use as abuse prevention, and especially the last thing I’d give to a young person starting to date. For them, I want a model of healthy relationships,  teaching in how to maintain them, and the self esteem to leave when they can’t.

Now I’m learning about hypothalamusing

Lots of people, including HAES subscribers, believe human beings have a set point or range where their weight will always be.  It takes great effort to get your weight above or below your set point, although repeated attempts can probably raise it.  If there is a set point, one likely candidate for its controller is the hypothalamus.  It comes up enough that it seems worth my time to find out what the hypothalamus is.

The hypothalamus is part of the brain.*  It translates the electrical impulses in your brain into signals to endocrine glands to produce and release hormones, which signal the rest of your organs to do their thing.  In this way, the brain is like general.  It dictates orders to its secretary, the hypothalamus.  The secretary than copies all the orders and sends them to the relevant lieutenant generals (glands), who respond by releasing the appropriate hormones.  For example, it coordinates the ebb and flow of melatonin (produced by the pineal gland) and cortisol (produced primarily by the adrenal glands), so that you can wake up in the morning and fall asleep at night.  It also translates from hormones to the brain, turning “I’m hungry” into cooking, or “I’m horny” into hitting on someone.

What does this have to do with food and weight?  If I had a definitive answer to that I would be rich (and better nourished).  Damaging specific parts of the hypothalamus while keeping environment constant causes weight change in rats that previously maintained a stable weight.  Damaging other parts causes the rat’s weight to be more affected by an environment (i.e. before damage they previously maintained a particular weight regardless of what food was offered.  After damage they lost weight when food was unpalatable and gained weight when it was more palatable).  And we’ve tracked several hormones that communicate status between the hypothalamus, adipose tissue, and digestive organs, in ways too complicated to fit into this overview post.

In summary, the hypothalamus is the connection point between the brain and your hormones, and no one really knows what either one is saying.

*One thing that always bugs me when I hear the phrase “part of the brain” is  “how sharp is the distinction between this part and other parts?  Can there be cells where it’s a matter of judgement which section they fall into?  Can you just look at an arbitrary brain and say “there, that’s the hypothalamus”?”  I eventually found this video, which very explicitly detailed how each part of the brain is separated, except for the hypothalamus, which he just sort of gestured around.  As we’ll read later, scientists are able to precisely destroy sub sections of of the hypothalamus so I guess its boundaries are pretty sharp.

Ghrelin: The Hunger and Lung Development Games

Writing about hormones is hard because anything I say will be incomplete by necessity.  I can only do so much research,  and will undoubtedly miss something.  More worryingly, there’s a lot nobody knows about our endocrine system, and all available overviews tend to overstate our level of certainty.  I will be ecstatic if in 10 years this entry turns out to be 60% true.  But we go to war with the facts we have, so:

Ghrelin is best known as… well if you’re me it’s “proof calories in/calories out is bullshit“, but it’s more commonly known as “the hunger hormone”.  The simple story is that cells in your stomach produce ghrelin in response to perceived space in the stomach (which may be one way gastic bypass surgery leads to decrease in food consumption: your stomach reports fullness almost immediately).  Your hypothalamus detects this and informs the brain, which interprets it as hunger, which should lead you to get food.

But nothing in the human body does just one thing.  For one, ghrelin is produced in other areas of the body.  Pancreas, intestines (sure, they have information about current digestion status), placenta (okay, the fetus needs a way to direct you to eat more), gonads, adrenal cortex, pituitary gland (well those are pretty general hormone production factories), kidneys (for…water…consumption?), and lungs (the hell)?

Ghrelin encourages storage of calories as fat, which could mean that eating more (to suppress ghrelin production)  would help you avoid fat gain or even allow fat loss.  But (one form of) ghrelin also triggers production of human growth hormone (in fact, that’s where the name comes from: Growth Hormone RELease INducing factor), which encourages burning fat and building muscle.  The important lesson here is that if someone every tells you “Do X lose weight because hormone Y does Z”, you should laugh at them, even if Y and Z are correct, because Y does 4 million other things, some of which are the opposite of Z.  Ghrelin’s presence in the lungs might be a mechanism to trigger HGH to trigger fetal lung development.  Or maybe not.  We don’t know.

Still in the realm of possibility, high ghrelin levels delay puberty and discourages ovulation.   This is a reasonable second job for the hunger hormone to have because transforming a zygote into a baby is an epic amount of work and you want to be well fed.   I seriously wonder about the effects on ghrelin on libido: given that humans have sex for both reproduction and social bonding,** I could see the effect going either way.

Ghrelin appears to have some mood effects.  When I first read this I assumed high ghrelin -> stress and depression, which would be a convenient way of explaining why I was so jumpy before my hypochlorhydria was treated.  Turns out, nope, ghrelin is an anti-depressant* , which may be one mechanism reinforcing anorexia.  But ghrelin also makes pleasant activities (eating, but also drugs, and it’s at least in the same brain neighborhood as sex) more rewarding.  It also has a bunch of effects on learning and memory and stress-based learning, mostly apparently positive.  This is the opposite of what I would have predicted, given how I and people I know act when hungry.

I'm sorry for what I said when I was hungry

Lastly, ghrelin inhibits inflammation. To the point it may be useful as a treatment for autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.   This concerns and confuses me, possibly even more than growth hormone effects. Hunger and long term calorie deficits are associated with increased susceptibility to disease (as your body prioritizes short term goals over long term health), so maybe this is a happy accident?  But no, ghrelin promotes development of at least one kind of white blood cell.  The anti-inflammatory effect may explain why people often don’t want to eat while injured- your body lowers ghrelin levels to allow healing to occur, and the loss of appetite is a side effect.  But that’s highly speculative, the truth is we just don’t know.

For all that, ghrelin is one of the simplest hormones I’ve studied.  It has one obvious primary job, and several of its lessen effects seem at least related to that job.  We know where it is produced and a good chunk of how it achieves its (known) effects.  More fundamental hormones like progesterone, testosterone, or oxytocin are infinitely more complicated.  So this post is a little bit about the science of hunger, and a lot about how the human body is complicated and people with simple answers are liars.

*Should you be laughing at me right now?  Maybe.  The study in question shows actual behavior change, not a potential mechanism of behavior change (that’s this paper), but it is just one study.  Perhaps compromise on chuckling.

**What about pleasure, you ask?  Irrelevant from an evolutionary standpoint.  We feel pleasure because there is some actual useful purpose served.

Open access journals

Scientific research is distributed in journals, a system which has a number of flaws, one of which is it is expensive.  Journals charge authors to publish their articles, readers to read the articles, and advertisers for space in the journals. This smells like bullshit before you know that both publication and access fees are often paid for out of government grants, with the second most popular source being “companies that want you to buy their product based on the publication.”  It’s why I’m often forced to work from abstracts, rather than full journal articles.  I can get the authors’ conclusions from abstracts, but they rarely contain enough information to evaluate the experimental methodology.  The US government has made various efforts at enforcing “open access” policies, which would force research funded by public money to be accessible to the public, but they’ve always been defanged.

The system persists because publishing is a prestige based system.  Scientists are most rewarded for publishing in the most respected journals (in biology that’s Cell, Nature, and Science), none of which are open access, and have no incentive to be as long as they are the first choice for scientists.  An individual scientist can make a principled stand and insist on publishing in open access journals, and I’ve known some who’ve done it.  After they get tenure. Before then, they can’t afford the risk that some committee member who still thinks the internet is a dump truck will take publishing in a less glamorous open access journal as a sign of failure.

But not all research is funded by the government or for-profit enterprises.  The Gates Foundation has just declared that any research they fund must be published under a creative commons license.   They also require the underlying data to be publicly available, which might be even more significant.  It’s not clear to me how this will play out: maybe a bunch of awesome Gates-funded research will be publicly available.  Maybe promising young academics will refuse to take Gates money (although given the relative availability of talented academics and money, they’re probably replaceable).  Maybe this will start a marginal revolution of ever higher prestige journals going open access, giving the public access to additional non-Gates research as well.

Either way, I think the Gates Foundation did a really good thing here, and I really want to see what happens.

Harm mitigation vs. cure

Scott Alexander has a very good post up about semantics and gender, which you should read in its entirety even though it is very long.  I have nothing to add to his main thesis, but there is a cute little anecdote about a woman with OCD whose life was nearly ruined by her fear she’d left the hair dryer plugged in, no matter how many times she checked it or how far she was from her house.  She was on the verge of living on SSDI for life despite trying every therapy and medication in the book.

Finally, a psychiatrist suggested she keep the hair dryer with her.  This transformed “checking if the hair dryer is unplugged” from a 40 minute task (to drive home and back) to a 2 second one.   The psychiatrists at the hospital were divided on this.  Scott doesn’t specify, but I assume the argument against was that you have to rip the problem out by its roots.  OCD is anxiety in search of a cause and if you assuage this one she’ll just find something new to worry about, and if you keep treating the symptoms she’ll end up loading her car with every appliance she owns every day.

This strain of thought is not baseless, and I think it’s important to keep in mind when developing population-level guidelines for treatment.  I also think that any doctor that argues that hairdryer therapy for this particular woman should be sent to a reeducation camp, because

  1. it worked, so shut up
  2. root-cause psychiatry and psychology had their shot.  They had in fact emptied an entire clip into the problem and had no more bullets.  At that point, unless something is actively and immediately harmful, they need to gracefully exit the field.

There’s also the matter that the problem was not just “she felt bad”, but also “she’s about to lose her job.”  Jobs are important.  They provide the money and health insurance that let you go to fancy psychiatrists that don’t believe in hair dryers.  Even if you’re independently wealthy, jobs are important psychologically and socially.  SSDI is oriented around the problems of factory workers who lost limbs, and really does not work well with people with high-variance mental disabilities, who can do some work some of the time but cannot function at the level society demands.   If hair dryer therapy does nothing more than buy you six more months before she experiences a negative shock from which it is very difficult to recover, that’s actually pretty good.

Even more than that, I think the psychiatrists are underestimating palliative care.  I absolutely do not think overcoming mental disorders is a matter of will power or wanting it enough, but I do believe that human brain and body are very good at repairing themselves, and that this implies that any non-traumatic disorder that persists must be in a self-reinforcing loop.  Chronic pain lowers your pain tolerance, worry that something will trigger a panic attack makes you anxious.  Pain and depression are mutually reinforcing.  Mental Illness saps your energy and cope and time, which makes it difficult to seek and follow through on treatment.  “Palliative” care like pain killers and anti-depressants give people energy they can use to heal, which is why oncologists sometimes prescribe them. For big scary things we don’t know how to cure, freeing up the patient’s own resources may be the most helpful thing we can do.

Meanwhile, my EA group is debating this article on charitable giving, which articulates something I’ve been trying to say for a long time, and not just about charities.  American capitalism is set up to encourage shooting the moon.  We’ve carried that over to charity, trying to find The One Simple Trick To End Poverty.  That is toxic on many levels: it doesn’t exist, we can’t measure finely enough to detect it, the most effective thing now is not going to be most effective thing after we’ve done it to death, finding things that work is a massive expense in its own right, and oh, poverty is a system of many millions of moving parts.  Waiting for the silver bullet is doomed and immoral, and perhaps a bit like refusing to let this patient adopt a hair dryer as her constant companion.  Yes, treating the root cause would be better, but it’s not on the table.

But that doesn’t mean we can stop doing RCTs and start firehosing money again.  It is tragically easy for aid to make things worse.  This is what the anti-hair dryerists were afraid of: that putting a salve on the symptoms will make the root problem, and thus eventually the symptoms, worse.  Possibly much worse.  Most people who gave food aid did it with the best of intentions: even the American agricorp executives who benefited probably convinced themselves this was a way of giving back .

So: you can’t tell people it’s cure or nothing, but you also have to be really careful with palliative care.  It’s even harder for charity, because you have to consider the externalities, not just the affect on the recipients.  This is one good argument for donating local, even if distant recipients are dramatically worse off: you will naturally get and give more feedback on a local charity’s effectiveness.  It’s also a very good argument for restricting yourself to charities that measure their effectiveness, almost independent of what the measurement says.  When we don’t know what to do, gathering new data is a good in and of itself.  And small pareto improvements may eventually free up the resources for societies to heal themselves.

Damnit

1.5 years ago I did a food sensitivity test, and it came back “yes”.  I gave up wheat, eggs, and milk.  After 4 weeks my chronic heartburn was gone and I generally felt better.  Not better enough to stick with it indefinitely- at the beginning of 2014 I fell off the wagon due to a combination of stress and changes in my access to food.  The problem with sensitivities is that it’s a very delayed feedback mechanism.  One bite of foods I am sensitive too doesn’t bother me at all, in the moment or later.  Conversely, giving up all those (delicious) foods doesn’t immediately make me feel better.

After many false starts, I re-gave up all the sensitivity inducing foods in August, and was pretty irked when my heartburn continued for weeks.  But like last year, I suddenly noticed that only do I not have heart burn, but I haven’t for weeks.  I forgot that it was a thing I had.  And sometime in the last three weeks my skin became flawless.

No, one subject-aware case study does not prove a thing.  But when you consider how much the subject wanted the opposite result because that was where the ice cream was, it becomes deserving of further study.

HAES pre-check

I’ve been meaning to do a “science of fat and health and food” series for a while now, but have never quite gotten it together. There’s too much stuff I remember reading in some blog years ago but can no longer find.  The library has finally delivered Health at Every Size to me (just in time for Thanksgiving), and I’m hoping to use that as both a serious source and a jumping off point for other research I want to do.  In the spirit of inquiry, here are my basic beliefs, as cobbled together from an undergrad biology degree, personal experience, things people said on the internet, and scientific studies I read the abstracts of.  When possible I’ve included a citation but mostly this is just stuff from my brain.

  1. Some diets are lead to a better functioning body than others.
    1. The healthiest diets supply all necessary trace nutrients, including ones we haven’t identified as necessary yet.
    2. Protein, fat (of multiple kinds) and carbohydrates are all necessary for proper functioning.  Right now a lot of people are pretty sure that you should minimize carbs and especially sugars, but 20 years ago they were equally sure fat was evil, so I’m unconvinced even though their numbers look very shiny.
  2. Exercise is super good for you right up until the point it is super damaging.
  3. Despite our astonishing lack of genetic diversity, humans have a pretty wide range of how they react to identical food and exercise inputs.  Additionally, the same person can react differently to things over time.
    1. For example, people’s beliefs about the deliciousness of the milkshake they are about to receive affects ghrelin production, which definitely affects satiety and probably affects nutrient and calorie absorption.
    2. Medication can do the same.  Cortisol makes you gain weight. Several psychiatric medications lead to severe weight gain.  Hormonal birth control definitely used to make you gain weight. Many scientists claim the newer drugs haven’t been shown to do so, but my feeling is that “baby chemicals lead to weight gain” is the default assumption and the burden on them is to prove it doesn’t.
    3. Past deprivation, including in utero, can decrease basal metabolic level, or make it more likely to decrease in the face of further calorie deficits.
  4. At the same time, people are remarkably resilient to environmental changes.  A given person can eat a wide range of calories and stay at the same weight.  No one understands why.
  5. So while calories in/calories out is literally true, in the sense that everyone is taking in and using calories, it’s not useful, because so many things affect intake and output.
  6. It is possible to have an excellent diet and exercise routine and still be fat.
  7. But any given person will probably be fatter the worse their diet and exercise.
  8. When you tease these out, fat is mostly a symptom of things that lead to bad health, not a cause of bad health.  Extreme amounts of fat are hard on the joints and heart.  But all evidence says (good diet, good exercise, 40% body fat) > (bad diet, no exercise, 20% body fat)
  9. Nonetheless, the general and medical public alike seem extremely fixated on fat, and this is hurting fat people.
  10. Shame around fat seems to contribute to both fat and the negative health outcomes associated with being fat.  Shaming fat people for the health is right up there with rescuing prostitutes by arresting them.
  11. To the extent fat itself affects health, the ideal body fat % from a health perspective is much higher than the ideal body fat % from an American aesthetic perspective.
  12. Lab animals are fatter than they were a generation ago despite provably identical conditions.  This has got to mean something about our food, and it’s probably not good.
  13. It is possible to be both fat and undernourished.  Most poor Americans are.
  14. Your body needs calories to run.  Faced with a calorie deficit, your body may choose to cut programs (like the immune system, or thinking) rather than dip into savings (stored fat).  This means that maintaining even an “unhealthy” weight may be the healthiest choice a person can make.