This Week in Research: Children and Race; Your “Seizure” is Actually Just Stress

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The Trayvon Martin shooting has led to a lot of soul-searching about how Americans approach race. And it turns out that our understanding of racial dynamics begin to take shape early in life — and not always in a good way, according to research that Anderson Cooper and CNN commissioned from the University of Maryland.  Child psychologist Melanie Killen showed groups of six year-olds images that were designed to be ambiguous:  one child is on the ground looking sad, but it’s impossible to tell if he fell or he was pushed. Then Killen and her team asked the children questions like “What’s happening in this picture?”, “Are these two children friends?” and “Would their parents like it if they were friends?”

Researchers found that the black first-graders tended to see the images in a positive, helpful light; only 38 percent offered a negative interpretations (ie, “Chris pushed Alex off the swing.”) In contrast, 70 percent of white children gave a negative interpretation of the scene.

One explanation for the divergent views of the same image is that black parents might have more open and overt discussions about race with their children. “African American parents … are very early on preparing their children for the world of diversity and also for the world of potential discrimination,” said Killen, adding, “they’re certainly talking about issues of race and what it means to be a different race and when it matters and when it doesn’t matter.” In contrast, white parents might believe that there’s no need to address race because children are colorblind:  “They sort of have this view that if you talk about race, you are creating a problem.”

But the research clearly shows that children are aware of racial differences from an early age. And if discussions about race don’t happen at home, the kids will absorb messages from the culture at large — which can be problematic.

Oh, and that optimism about interracial friendships that black six year-olds have? It fades by the time they’re thirteen. At that age, both black and white children have equally pessimistic views. The one upside of the study? Children at racially diverse and majority black schools were less negative than those at majority-white schools.

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According to my dad (who’s a doctor), people fake seizures all the time.  I always found this hard to believe — it seems like a lot of work, after all! — but new research from Johns Hopkins seems to back him up. Researchers looked at patients admitted to the Johns Hopkins Hospital for epileptic seizures and found that as many as one-third of them weren’t exactly having seizures. But they weren’t faking it, either — the patients’ “uncontrollable movements, far-off stares, or convulsions” can’t be traced back to abnormal electrical discharges in the brain, but instead come from stress. They are, in the words of the study’s authors, “psychogenic non-epileptic seizures.”

The good news is that there isn’t anything wrong with these people’s brains.  The bad news is that there definitely is something wrong. “It turns out that their life stresses weren’t all that high, but they’re very sensitive to stress and they don’t deal with it well,” said Jason Brandt, a professor of neurology and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Hopkins. In other words, they lack coping mechanisms.

If this all sounds a little familiar, it’s because pseudo-seizures have a long and storied history.  In the Victorian era, these symptoms were called “hysteria.” They tend to appear in patients who are highly suggestible, so doctors are in a double bind — drawing attention to the condition might make it more pronounced.



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