Observations

Brownell Delivers APS Lecture at NEPA

Kelly Brownell kicked off the New England Psychological Association’s 45th annual meeting with his APS-sponsored lecture on “The Toxic Food Environment.” The meeting was held at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, CT on October 14-15, 2005.

Brownell, delivering the APS William James Distinguished Lecture, opened with a slide containing a long list of unhealthy ingredients and scary-looking chemicals; audience members were asked to guess the product. The next slide revealed it was the popular breakfast snack Pop Tarts that contained the long list of chemicals and massive amounts of sugar hidden in various disguises, including the ever-popular high-fructose corn syrup.

Noting the increasing rates of obesity and associated health problems in children, Brownell described environmental factors that lead to over eating and obesity in children and create what he has termed “the toxic food environment.” These factors include: The lower cost of junk food relative to higher cost of nutritious food; junk-food ad campaigns that directly target children; and current food trends such as “super-sized” meals and vending machines in schools.

He also said there are significant political obstacles to change; for example, federal government subsidies of corn has resulted in the inexpensive production of large quantities of high-fructose corn syrup.

A Google search of Kelly Brownell results in more than 320,000 hits, clearly an index of the popularity of this well-known scientist and author. Although various Web sites label Brownell as a crusader and creator of “the Twinkie tax,” it is imperative to note that the content of Brownell’s crusade against the toxic food environment is based on empirical research. For example, Brownell and colleagues’ research has revealed that price decreases on healthy foods do in fact result in increased sales of those foods. Further, the effect of decreased prices was superior to the effect of “healthy choice” messages either alone or in combination with price reductions (Battle Horgen & Brownell, 2002).

Although Brownell has supported and suggested some “top down” solutions to cleaning up the toxic food environment — including a tax on junk food and banning child-oriented marketing of unhealthy food products — he said that change is more likely to come from the “bottom up,” and he called on audience members to become active in grassroots campaigns. He cited examples of successful grassroots campaigns in changing school lunch menus, removing vending machines and soft-drink advertising from schools, and increasing physical activity among schoolchildren.

Brownell’s talk showed instant results: During the extended question-and-answer period that followed, several audience members asked for Web sites and other resources for getting involved in such grassroots organizations.

References

  • Battle Horgen, K., & Brownell, K.D. (2002). Comparison of price change and health message interventions in promoting healthy food choices. Health Psychology, 21(5), 505-512.

Contributed by Deborah A. Carroll, associate professor of psychology at Southern Connecticut State University.

Zimbardo honored by Havel Foundation

Philip G. Zimbardo received the 2005 Vize (Vision) 97 Prize from the Dagmar and Václav Havel Foundation. The annual award was presented in October for “his devotion to enhancing the human condition by liberating people from the prisons of evil, ignorance, and shyness through innovative research, teaching, and social action.”

Each year the foundation of former Czech president Vaclav Havel and his wife acknowledges an individual whose work has made a major contribution to broadening human horizons; drawing attention to lesser known phenomena and contexts; integrating science into the general culture; and promoting alternative human views of the world, the universe, and fundamental questions of existence.

Previous winners include Umberto Eco, writer and semiologist; Robert Reich, economist and US secretary of labor (under President Clinton); Joseph Weizenbaum, computer scientist and philosopher; and Karl Pribram, neuroscientist.

Progress in Child Research Not Matched in Policy

Policies and programs that affect preschoolers are not always crafted from sound science. In fact, says US Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-RI: “We have more knowledge than ever, more data than ever, and yet we probably treat our children as poorly as we ever have in our history.”

Kennedy’s remarks opened Brown University’s 2005 Lipsitt-Duchin Lectures in Child Behavior and Development, a 5-year-old event endowed by Lewis Lipsitt, professor emeritus of psychology at Brown and APS Fellow and Charter Member, and his wife Edna Duchin Lipsitt.

Lipsitt created the lecture series to keep a spotlight trained on issues of importance to young children. This year’s lecture, held Oct. 17 on the university’s Providence campus, cast something more akin to a klieg light.

The attraction: Two heavyweights in the arena of early childhood policy.

Jack Shonkoff, Brandeis University, delivered the keynote address. APS Fellow and Charter Member Edward Zigler, Yale University, architect of Head Start and first director of the US Office of Child Development, offered remarks.

The title of this year’s lecture series was “The Science of Early Childhood Development: Closing the Gap Between What We Know and What We Do.” Shonkoff is a pediatrician and chair of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and coeditor of the Institute of Medicine’s landmark 2000 report From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, which argued that policies affecting young children should take advantage of nearly 50 years of advances in neuroscience, psychology, education, and other fields.

Crafting programs based on scientific findings, Shonkoff said, quite literally pays off. Results from the Perry Preschool Project, which studied the impact of high-quality preschool on children in poverty in the 1960s and then followed up with these children in their 40s, showed that every $1 invested in the preschool program netted a $17 public return in the form of higher tax revenues and lower costs for special education, welfare benefits, and incarceration.

After 50 years in the field, Zigler provided a historical perspective. Early child-development research focused only on what was observable. “We ignored both thought and the brain,” he said. “And we concentrated on the mother-child dyad. Fathers? They were nonexistent.”

At the time Head Start was created, Zigler said, there wasn’t much discussion about research-based programs. And critics abounded. But studies of the national early-childhood program, Zigler said, provide vindication: Head Start narrows the school readiness gap between low-income children and their more advantaged peers.

Lipsitt said the lecture, organized by Brown’s Center for the Study of Human Development, was cosponsored by the advocacy group Rhode Island KIDS COUNT. “They really brought the politicians and policymakers in,” he said. “And given the topic this year, that is what we wanted.”

Contributed by Wendy Lawton, Brown University.

The Gene Scene

In an October lecture at the National Institutes of Health, APS Fellow and Charter Member Robert Plomin discussed the exciting potential for new genetic research methods to continue expanding our understanding of behavioral science.

Compared with previous methods, new approaches that have emerged over the last several years – such as DNA pooling and microarrays — provide a relatively inexpensive way to obtain effective, reliable, and valid results, allowing for unprecedented ability to conduct genomic research and examine the genetic influences on mental health. DNA pooling is the practice of combining the DNA from many subjects in order to genotype large samples quickly. This pooled DNA can be coded using microarrays – glass or silicon slides that contain hundreds of thousands of DNA samples – allowing researchers to investigate larger portions of the genome at the same time.

Plomin’s own research is a prime example of using these techniques to understand behavioral issues. Plomin is currently leading the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), a large-scale study of twins born in England between 1994 and 1996. Using microarrays, which enable genome-wide scanning for single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), Plomin has investigated the importance of the Quantitative Trait Locus (QTL) model in understanding the genetic basis for developmental disorders in this population of twins. The QTL model proposes that many SNPs — small problems in individual alleles (one member of a pair or series of genes that occupy a specific position on a specific chromosome) — all contribute to an aggregate set of symptoms. This new model varies from the more traditional idea that mutations in a few alleles or even a single allele are at the root of genetic disorders. In addition, the variations leading to health problems may not even be in classical genes; they may be in noncoding segments. Plomin and his colleagues identified five SNPs associated with mild mental retardation in 6,000 7-year-old twins. The aggregate of these SNPs, the SNP composite, accounted for 0.8 percent of the variance. Plomin also found that the same SNPs associated with mild mental retardation in 7-year-olds were also present at 2 years old, pointing to stability that may be key in early detection and treatment. Through his work, as well as advocacy of broader genetic research, Plomin is leading the field into the future of behavioral science.

Robert Plomin was the 2004-05 APS William James Fellow Award recipient and is currently the deputy director of the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College, London. His invited lecture was part of the Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Lecture Series hosted by the NIH’s Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research.

By Ann Conkle, Observer staff writer.

Study Finds that Facial Expressions Reveal How the Body Reacts to Stress

Darwin long ago proposed that facial expressions of emotion signal biological responses. One lingering question has concerned the biological significance of facial responses to stressful circumstances. A new study finds that people who respond to stressful situations with angry — rather than fearful — facial expressions are less likely to suffer ill effects of stress like high blood pressure and high stress-hormone secretion.

In the study, published in the November 1 issue of Biological Psychiatry, 92 participants did math problems and were informed of each mistake they made — and urged to go faster — by a harassing experimenter. Participants’ emotional states and stress levels were measured before and after the exercises.

According to Jennifer Lerner, the Estella Loomis McCandless Associate Professor of Psychology and Decision Science at Carnegie Mellon University and lead author of the study, “Analyses of facial expressions revealed that the more fear individuals displayed in response to the stressors, the higher their biological responses to stress. By contrast, the more anger and disgust (indignation) individuals displayed … the lower their responses.”

This paper challenges two long-held assumptions: that stress elicits uniform emotional and biological responses and that all negative emotions provoke the same psychological and biological reactions.

It also shows that “Anger can sometimes be adaptive,” according to Lerner. “We’re showing for the first time that when you are in a situation that is maddening and in which anger or indignation are justifiable responses, anger is not bad for you.”

Observer Vol.18, No.12 December, 2005

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