The Dangers of American Sexual Prudishness

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Is the US the world’s most uptight nation regarding sex? Maybe not the most, but certainly among them. For example, the US has more laws regulating sexual behavior than all European countries combined. US prudishness is so severe as to be deadly. To end sexual violence and harassment against women, something has to change.

Is America the World’s Most Uptight Nation When It Comes to Sex?

Less than half of girls and boys in the US have received the HPV vaccinations that can protect them from deadly cancers. Why? Because HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), and discussing teen sexual activity is taboo. Many doctors refuse to recommend the vaccine because they are uncomfortable discussing STIs.

Related to this prudishness is the view that women’s bodies are purely sexual and therefore all female nudity is provocative and shameful. Even public breastfeeding makes most Americans uncomfortable because a woman’s breast is exposed.

This prudishness about women’s bodies claims to be “protecting” women. At its heart, however, it is about power rather than sex. The “protection” it provides is both seductive and insidious. Seductive, because many women find it comforting to imagine that men are protecting them from danger, even strangers such as legislators—insidious in its implications.

Whom do we protect? Children and adults who are too young, inexperienced, weak, or incompetent to protect themselves. Putting a normal adult woman into this category disempowers her, ensuring that someone else can dictate the most intimate conditions of her life: how she dresses, where she can go alone, whether she has final authority over her own body.

Prudishness also justifies a perceived division between “good” and “bad” women. The former are  modest, compliant and “covered up.” The latter, bold, proud, and independent. That separation buttresses men’s sense that they can treat “bad” women badly. Because the women are “out there,” they can be objectified, attacked, harassed, groped. The result is evident, as the tidal wave of sexual violence and harassment reports continues to grow.

Despite broad recognition of this public health epidemic and dedicated efforts to end sexual violence and harassment, few programs have been successful. The problem is that they are fighting an uphill battle against the prevailing social mores described above. If men are inherently more powerful than women and can define “good” and “bad” women, the only way to end sexual assault and harassment is to convince men they should not assault women. Otherwise, the only option is to mitigate the impact by convincing bystanders to intervene, or training women to defend themselves.

We need a completely new approach. Let’s consider societies with two striking cultural differences from the US. These cultures hold that women are equal to men and that women, from teenhood, should have complete control over their own bodies.

Consider the Kreung society of the lovely Ratanakiri (“Mountain of Jewels”) Province in Cambodia. The Kreung believe that healthy, loving marriages require women who are strong, self-assured, and have self-confidence about their sexuality. Parents help each teen daughter achieve this state by giving her a room of her own. She can invite a boy she likes to spend the night in her room. There, she makes all the rules and reigns supreme. Will they talk the night away? Sleep? Cuddle? Have sex? She alone decides. In this completely secure space, she is free to explore her own sexuality, to discover what pleases her. When she says, “No,” he obeys instantly, without argument or bad feelings. A boy who flouts this rule faces severe penalties from the entire community, as do his parents.

Take another interesting group, the Vanatinai, a small island society off New Guinea. There, women and men are equal in all major aspects of life: decision-making, ritual practices, spiritual power, property holdings, and sexual activity. By working hard to gain goods and giving them away through ritual generosity, anyone of any sex can become one of the authoritative and influential leaders known as “gia”. Everyone is free to engage in sex before marriage, to end a marriage, and to marry as often as, and with whomever, he or she wishes.

The result? Divorce is rare in these societies; sexual violence virtually unknown.

The Takeaway

Sexual violence and harassment are rooted in the very foundations of culture. It is not enough to tell men they should not indulge, or bystanders that they should intervene, or women that they should protect themselves. Ending sexual violence and harassment requires a fundamental shift in cultural attitudes and values, beginning with equality between women and men, and women’s complete control over their own bodies. This change includes ending the putative “protection” of women—including laws to restrict abortion, to regulate women’s attire in ways that are different from those for men, or other social and legal constraints that claim to “protect” but actually disempower and diminish women. Only such basic cultural and legal changes will make it possible to end sexual violence and harassment against women.

References (2017). Sexual Violence: Prevention Strategies. [online] Available here.

Lepowsky, M. (1993). Fruit of the motherland. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mullin, E. The Cancer Vaccine That Too Many People Ignore. (2017). MIT Technology Review, 120 (6), pp.16-17.

Muong, V. (2014). ‘Love huts’ of Ratanakiri minorities: Is a tradition quietly slipping away?. The Phnom Penh Post.

Procida, R. and Simon, R. (2007). Global perspectives on social issues. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

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The Neuroscience Behind the Placebo Effect

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As a child, did you ever feel better after your mother kissed your bumped knee? How do you think that worked? The power of suggestion—or the placebo effect—is a powerful psychological phenomenon that affects every aspect of our lives, dictating our preferences for food, drink, medication, social activities, and more.

Pioneering experiments describing the use of sham drugs date back to the late 18th century. A version of John Quincy’s Lexicon Medicum published in 1811 defines the placebo as ‘an epithet given to any medicine adapted more to please than to benefit the patient’. However, physicians of the past tended to use forms of treatment that they assumed were ineffective, as opposed to the modern day usage of inert substances.

A wide variety of conditions have been proven to be amenable to placebos, including depression, sleep disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and pain2. The placebo effect has been shown to impart tangible changes on the immune system similar to those who received real medication, where patients given syrup had increased white blood cell counts. Remarkably, patients with Parkinson’s disease stopped experiencing tremors and muscle stiffness after taking inert sugar pills. The success of mirror therapy in relieving phantom pain in amputees can be thought of as another example of the power of suggestion.

How our minds are fooled is not fully understood. The placebo effect may be an evolutionary adaptation that allows the brain to make quick decisions and assumptions about the environment. Consider this: if we had to analyse every single stimulus that our environment threws at us, we’d go mad in no time.

Scientists have identified that the psychological mechanisms of the placebo effect lie in both conscious expectations and learning. Although learning and expectations are not mutually exclusive, they are heavily dependent on each other.

To explain, when we expect a drug to reduce pain levels, our brains release endogenous endorphins that in turn are responsible for alleviating pain. On the other hand, the learning process involves integrating environmental and social cues in order to generate an internal expectation and subsequent placebo response. Experiencing repeated patterns of learning conditions (as in classical conditioning – think Pavlov’s dogs), causes a person to respond in a way that has spill-over-effects effects that influence unconscious physiological processes.

Multiple studies have singled out the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) as a main player in mediating the placebo effect. Other areas of significant importance are the dorsolateral PFC, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, periaqueductal grey area, rostroventral medulla, and nucleus accumbens-ventral striatum.

In short, the complex underlying neuronal circuits involve the higher functioning areas of the brain (frontal cortices) and the seat of unconscious processes such as breathing, the brainstem. Interestingly, rsearch reports that the placebo effect is absent in those with Alzheimer’s disease (due to degeneration of the frontal cortex) and in patients subjected to external suppression of frontal cortex function via transcranial magnetic stimulation.

The endogenous opioid system and its role in placebo-induced analgesia is perhaps the best studied neurotransmitter system involved in the placebo effect. Naloxone, an opioid receptor antagonist, has been found to nullify the effects of placebo pain-killers. Other systems that have been implicated include the cannabinoid system.

These neuroanatomical and neurobiological findings likely have much room for growth and refinement considering that different placebo responses have been found to invoke different parts of the placebo circuit.

Given the complicated psychological mechanisms behind the placebo, it comes as no surprise that various factors are able to modulate its strength. Social context has a real impact on the placebo effect, as it fosters preconceived notions regarding treatment. For example, several trials showed that similar benefits were experienced by both groups of patients who underwent either traditional or sham Chinese acupuncture (the latter involving superficial needling at non-acupuncture points). The physician attitude and appearance of competency, as well as the cost, branding, shape, size, color, and taste of the pills were able to affect the perceived treatment efficacy.

It is common beleif that one must be unaware of the placebo in order for the placebo effect to work. Not so, argue a group of researchers from the University of Basel (Switzerland) and Harvard Medical School. They demonstrated that participants who were told that they were getting placebos and who received detailed explanations of the placebo effect experienced significant relief from heat-induced pain compared to those that were not told that they were given bogus drugs.

These surprising results underscore the formidable effects of the placebo effect and how much more there is still left to learn. Furthermore, this study opens doors to more ethically designed placebo-controlled studies. Withholding potentially beneficial treatment from patients in placebo-controlled trials is considered inherently unethical. However, with this study, it appears that full disclosure may not be that different to the traditional practices of keeping placebo patient groups in the dark.

In order to manipulate the placebo effect for clinical benefit, the notion of placebo responders and non-placebo responders was investigated. Are some people more amenable to the power of suggestion than others? If so, is it due to unchangeable genetic makeup or individual personality? Other questions that come to mind regard the persistency of the placebo effect. For how long does it last and does it transfer to other types of placebos? To illustrate, will a person responding to placebo painkillers for pain relief also respond to placebo antidepressants for improved moods?

In conclusion, we know that the placebo is a strong weapon in the clinician’s armamentarium. Despite that, the unpredictable variability of its effects obligates future research that enables us to get a better understanding of exactly when and for how long the placebo effect will work.


de craen A, Kaptchuk T, Tijssen J et al. Placebos and placebo effects in medicine: historical overview. J R Soc Med. 1999;92:511-515. PMCID: PMC1297390

Price DD, Finniss DG, Benedetti F. A comprehensive review of the placebo effect: recent advances and current thought. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2008. 59:565–90. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.59.113006.095941

Colloca L, Miller FG. How placebo responses are formed: a learning perspective. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 2011;366(1572):1859-1869. doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0398.

Geuter S, Koban L, Wager TD. The cognitive neuroscience of placebo effects: concepts, predictions and physiology. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 2017. 40:167–88. doi:10.1146/annurev-neuro-072116-031132.

Wager TD, Atlas LY. The neuroscience of placebo effects: connecting context, learning and health. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2015 Jul;16(7):403-18. doi:10.1038/nrn3976.

Miller FG, Colloca L, Kaptchuk TJ. The placebo effect: illness and interpersonal healing. Perspectives in biology and medicine. 2009;52(4):518. doi:10.1353/pbm.0.0115.

Buckalew LW, Coffield KE. An investigation of drug expectancy as a function of capsule color and size and preparation form. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 1982 Aug;2(4):245-8. PMID: 7119132

Howe LC, Goyer, J. P., & Crum, A. J. Harnessing the placebo effect: Exploring the influence of physician characteristics on placebo response. Health Psychology. 2017;36(11):1074-82. doi:10.1037/hea0000499.

Locher C, Frey Nascimento A, Kirsch I et al. Is the rationale more important than deception? A randomized controlled trial of open-label placebo analgesia. Pain. 2017 Dec;158(12):2320-2328. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001012.

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Marijuana And Sexual Dysfunction — Could Your Marijuana Usage Be Hindering Your Performance in Bed?

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What is marijuana? Marijuana, also called pot, cannabis, weed, reefer, Mary Jane, dope, broccoli, chronic, reefer, and 420, among countless others, consists of a mixture of dried plant leaves, flowers, and/or stems of the Cannabis Sativa plant. In addition, there is a resin-based version of marijuana that is called hash. Most people either smoke marijuana or vape it (warming it, but not cooking it), but it can also be ingested in oil form. The most common way to ingest marijuana is to roll it up and smoke it like you would a cigarette or cigar, or use a smoking tool like a pipe. Some users, however, consume weed by infusing foods (i.e., butter and cooking oil) or teas.

What happens to your body when you ingest marijuana? THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the most active ingredient in marijuana. When you smoke this herb, it travels to your lungs before entering your bloodstream. Once in your blood, it travels to your brain and other organs (i.e., heart, tissues, etc.). FYI: Drinking or eating marijuana can delay the effects of THC. But, once it bonds with your brain’s neural receptors you become “high.”

THC can also affect the sections of your brain that control memory, thinking, concentration and focus, and coordination. When this occurs, it can trigger unpleasant side effects like distorted thinking, delayed learning, lethargy, increased appetite, low inhibitions, hallucinations, distorted perception, clumsiness, and memory loss. These side effects are normally temporary; however, they can still lead to dangerous consequences, especially if you drive while under the influence.

Is marijuana legal in the U.S.? Yes and no. The state legalization process (for medical marijuana) first began during the seventies. But, unfortunately, even though the process started 40-plus years ago, there has been very little progress on this front, in many states. Why not? Because each state is tasked with developing and enforcing its own laws, rules, and regulations.

Ironically, marijuana possession (in small amounts) has been legalized in other parts of the world (i.e., Czech Republic, Canada, and Israel), yet only 29 states (Oregon, Montana,  Alaska, Ohio, New Mexico, Arkansas, California, Illinois, New York, Colorado, Delaware, Washington, DC, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Vermont, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Arizona, Maine, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Washington, and West Virginia) have moved to decriminalize the herb for medicinal purposes.

It is important to point out that medical marijuana has not been thoroughly tested due to government regulations and production limitations. However, research suggests that it may ease nausea and vomiting during chemo treatments, alleviate chronic pain, boost appetite in those with HIV/AIDS, and relieve muscle spasms. In November 2016, Nevada, Massachusetts, California, and Maine also passed measures to legalize recreational marijuana.

Common Sexual Dysfunctions and the Effects of Marijuana

What are sexual dysfunctions? Sexual dysfunctions, also known as erectile dysfunction (ED), sexual disorders, premature ejaculation (PE), sexual malfunctions, and sexual arousal disorders, are issues that can occur during any stage of the sexual response cycle (i.e., anticipation, plateau, orgasm, and decline). This issue can prevent couples from experiencing sexual fulfillment during sexual intercourse.

What are the different types of sexual dysfunctions? They usually involve four categories: (1) desire disorders (a lack of sexual desire or a loss of interest in sex); (2) arousal disorders (an inability to become or stay aroused during sex or sexual activities; (3) orgasm disorders (unable to climax (orgasm) or a delay in climaxing); and (4) pain disorders (pain that occurs during sexual intercourse).

Should I use marijuana for my issue? Regarding marijuana and sexual dysfunction, THC can negatively affect penile function, possibly leading to premature ejaculation. How? Well, there are receptors in a man’s penile tissue that when confronted with THC, increases the risk of erection and orgasm issues. Why does this happen? Marijuana boosts dopamine levels in the body. Dopamine regulates moods and emotions. If you get accustomed to really high levels of dopamine, you may subsequently find that your natural level of this hormone may not be high enough to sexually stimulate you, thus, making it harder for you to maintain an erection.

Is it Even Safe?

Is it safe to use pot for sexual dysfunctions? Unfortunately, the answer is complicated. Study results have been both inadequate and variable. For instance, a recent La Trobe University study interviewed over 8000 Australian men and women, between 16–64 years old, to determine how marijuana usage could affect sexual function. Researchers focused on condom use, sexual partners, sexual dysfunctions, and sexual-transmitted diseases (STDs).

Results indicated that men, who use marijuana daily, are four times more likely to have orgasm problems and three times more likely to experience premature ejaculation, than men who do not use it or don’t use it regularly. In addition, researchers also found that daily male marijuana users are at-risk for delayed orgasms. So, why do men use it if it has serious side effects? Well, the researchers of the La Trobe University study believe that some men with premature ejaculation use marijuana because they believe that the herb will help them “last longer” – the reality is, however, that for many men, it actually worsens their conditions, causing them to ejaculate even faster. The common practice methods used to fix premature ejaculation don’t involve the use of marijuana.

Similarly, another study on sexual dysfunctions and marijuana found that marijuana usage is linked to lower testosterone levels, which is a contributor to erectile dysfunction. Like the previous study, the results also suggested that cannabis (marijuana) is associated with orgasm problems like premature ejaculation and an inability to achieve orgasm. Likewise, a 2010 study found that marijuana can affect sexual functions by disrupting the part of the nervous system that regulates erections, thereby, possibly leading to sexual dysfunctions like erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation.

What are the Signs of Overuse?

To better understand the possible signs of overusing marijuana, it is important to answer the following questions. Have you gained or lost any weight, since using marijuana for sexual dysfunction? Do you need a higher amount of pot to get the same results, i.e., “last longer?” Are you spending exorbitant amounts of money on this herb hoping it will improve your sexual performance? Do you suffer from terrible withdrawal symptoms (i.e., cravings, insomnia, increased hunger, mood swings, irritability, depression, and/or anxiety) when you ease up on it or quit taking it all together? And lastly, is it creating a disturbance at work and/or issues in your relationship?

The truth is, most people believe that marijuana, in general, is harmless, but this is certainly not the case when it is being overused for sexual dysfunctions. Dr. Juan Paredes, a South Beach Clinic board-certified psychiatrist, specializing in male sexual dysfunctions, asserted that one of the major consequences of marijuana overuse, when treating sexual dysfunctions, is that it can lead to extremely weak orgasms, premature orgasms, or no orgasms at all.

In summary, marijuana usage and allowances have started to relax in some states and countries. And, legal restrictions and people’s perceptions of the herb have also eased over the last ten years. Because there is an increased acceptance of marijuana usage for a variety of reasons (i.e., from recreational to medicinal), it is important to learn the possible consequences of regularly ingesting it. Why? Well, because more and more studies are finding that there is a relationship between marijuana and male sexual dysfunctions. And, although smoking, eating, or even drinking marijuana may relieve some symptoms for some men, for others, it could end up being a disaster waiting to happen—in the bedroom.


Pro Con. (2017). 29 Legal medical marijuana states and DC. Retrieved from here.

Wu, B. (2017). Marijuana and erectile dysfunction: What is the connection? Medical News Today. Retrieved from

Harclerode J. (1984). Endocrine effects of marijuana in the male: preclinical studies. National Institute on Drug Abuse Research Monograph Series, 44, 46-65. Access here.

Smith, A. M.A., Ferris, J. A., Simpson, J. M., Shelley, J., Pitts, M. K. and Richters, J. (2010). Cannabis use and sexual health. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7, 787–793. DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01453.x

Localization and Function of Cannabinoid Receptors in the Corpus Cavernosum: Basis for Modulation of Nitric Oxide Synthase Nerve Activity

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Re-Learning the Joy of Living with Journaling and Meditation

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Moving along the treadmill of life, many of us succumb to the ever-present pressures to be faster, stronger, more efficient, and smarter. Perspective on what is happening in our lives is lost. We focus on failure and lacking within ourselves, rather than the abundance and opportunities for growth that surround us.

We stop taking the time to appreciate the simple pleasures of our lives as we spiral our way into a depleted existence—physically, emotionally, and mentally. Now more than ever, there is a global need to circumvent this pattern of being. We need to learn to unconditionally love and appreciate ourselves just as we are, how we are.

Growing Epidemic

Traditionally, it was believed the cause of stress, anxiety, and depression was attributable to genetic disposition, personality traits, the existence of stressful events, physical health problems, and substance abuse, as well as serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine imbalances within the brain. Whilst this is largely still the case, this perception has altered over the last decade or so.

In our fast-paced world, we judge ourselves as harshly as we judge others. We are encouraged and manipulated to compete with others with whom we continually compare ourselves. We try so hard to emulate or exceed expectations placed upon us that we forget our personal needs in the process (no time for that!). Stress and anxiety often manifest as a result as we try and prove our worth to the world, and depression looms when we judge ourselves as falling short of the benchmark that is set for us to achieve.

Prolonged periods of stress wreak havoc on the human mind and body. Chronic muscle tension leads to tension headaches and migraines. The cardiovascular, respiratory, and endocrine systems become over-taxed and the risk increases for the development of diseases like asthma, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease (just to name a few).

In recent times the media has reported stress, anxiety, and depression as reaching epidemic proportions, reportedly attributable to numerous causes including an increase in hours in front of computer screens, national and cultural competitiveness, the exposure to a broadening range of choices due to advances in technology, and the belief that worthiness is related to monetary success.  Additionally, there is a sense of “collective stress” in regards to issues such as climate change and terrorism.

Mindfulness & Self-Reflection

Whilst living a faster pace, society has forgotten the art of living in the present moment, and yet there is much evidence to support that engaging in mindfulness and self-reflection enables sufferers to break the cycle of anxiety, stress, and depression as it promotes a greater sense of well-being and perspective.

Those who engage in the art of mindfulness and self-reflection can improve their ability relate to the world around them in a more compassionate and empathetic manner.  A feeling of gratitude, joy, and abundance is also often a pleasant side effect.

The Value of Meditation & Journaling

Studies have shown that journaling can positively impact a person’s mental health as it allows one to “capture” a thought for long enough to acquire a 360-degree perspective on what that thought is about, where it came from, and how acting on that thought might impact those around us.

Many forms of meditation, like mindfulness meditation, work particularly well with journaling as it takes the mind out of a conscious, judgmental state and into a reflective, sub-conscious state. Such meditative practices smooth the path for writing down thoughts and feelings by prompting less judgment of the thoughts being written down.

Meditative practice can be merely taking five minutes to go for a walk in the park or to focus on breathing patterns—anything that promotes being in the present moment. Likewise, there are many effective journaling techniques that may help people with self-reflection and mindfulness that work well with meditation, and they are not restricted just to writing.

For many, mindfulness can be achieved through writing, art, photography – any means that allows a person to step into a reflective zone. It is for an individual to explore what takes them to that special place where they can set down their emotional and mental baggage to touch base with their soul, and nurturing a sense of gratitude and appreciation for all the simple attainable pleasures within day to day life.


University of Michigan Depression Center, Depression Journaling

Tams, L, Journalling To Reduce Stress (1 May, 2013) Michigan State University Extensiona,

Hidaka BH, Depression as a disease of modernity: explanations for increasing prevalence, 2013,

McCormack, A, “Lovitude: Trying To Calm The Monkey Mind”, 2016, Peacock Dreaming Publications, Nelson (NZ)

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God in the Brain: the Science of Neurotheology

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We are the only species on the planet known to practice religion. This feature is universal among humans: there is no nation on Earth that does not practice one or another form of spiritual belief.

The question is what makes our brain different so that we practice spirituality? Does religion serve any purpose to our species in terms of benefiting survival and progress? These questions are very philosophical. Many thinkers believe that religiosity is what distinguishes Homo sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom and brought our species to dominate this planet. On the other hand, a large numbers of thinkers believe that religion impedes progress and keeps our society in a barbaric state. There is no doubt that religion played a very important role in early human history: providing the first explanations for the existence of the world around us. The need for such explanation highlights an important step in the development of the brain and cognitive processes.

Behavioral traits might become strengthened by evolution if they bring survival benefits. Researchers think that altruism, for instance, is this kind of behavioral trait: it might be disadvantageous for a particular individual at a particular instance, but it brings advantages to the species in general. Altruistic behavior is promoted by the majority of the world’s religions. Therefore, religious practices might have provided evolutionary advantages for early humans in terms of survival too.

Some people are so deeply religious that the system of beliefs they practice shapes their whole life. It would be reasonable to assume that something interesting should be going on in their brain. It is also quite likely that these brain processes are different from the processes in the brains of unbelievers. This is what the new science of neurotheology is aiming to study. Neurotheology investigates the neural correlates of religious and spiritual beliefs. Such studies may help to uncover why some people are more inclined towards spirituality, while others remain deeply skeptical about the whole idea of God’s existence.

There are already some interesting findings from the field of neuroscience that can help to open the window into the spiritual brain.

First, there is no single part of the brain which is “responsible” for an individual’s relationship with their God/s. Like any emotionally intense human experience, religious experiences involves multiple parts and systems of the brain. Several experiments with the use of brain scanners confirm this point of view. In one study, Carmelite nuns were asked to remember their most intense mystical experience while neuroimaging of their brain was conducted. The loci of activation in this experiment were observed in the right medial orbitofrontal cortex, right middle temporal cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobules, right caudate, left medial prefrontal cortex, left anterior cingulate cortex, left inferior parietal lobule, left insula, left caudate, and left brainstem.

Similarly, an fMRI study on religious Mormon subjects found areas of activation in the nucleus accumbens, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and frontal attentional regions. The nucleus accumbens is the brain area associated with reward. It is also involved in emotional responses to  love, sex, drugs, and music. One recent study also identified a number of changes in regional cortical volumes that are associated with several components of religiosity, such as an intimate relationship with God and fear of God.

It appears likely that life-changing religious experiences may be linked to changes in brain structure. For instance, one study demonstrated that the brains of older adults who reported such experiences feature a degree of hippocampal atrophy. Hippocampal atrophy is an important factor in the development of depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. It remains unclear exactly how structural changes in the brain and the level of religiosity relate to each other.

It is well known that some drugs simulate spiritual experiences. For instance, psilosybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”, stimulates temporal lobes and mimics religious experiences. This implies that spirituality is rooted in neuronal physiology. It is no wonder that psychoactive compounds are often used in ritualistic and shamanistic practices around the world.

All studies that involve brain imaging of people in specific states suffer from one major limitation: it is hard to be sure that people are actually in that particular state at the time of measurement. For instance, if we measure the brain activity when a subject is supposed to solve a mathematical task, we can’t be 100% sure that his or her mind is not wondering around instead of focusing on the task. The same applies to the measurement of any spiritual state. Therefore, the patterns of brain activation obtained through brain imaging should not be viewed as ultimate proof of any theory.

Various religious practices have the potential to influence our health, in both positive and negative directions. It was noted that religious people, in general, have a lower risk of anxiety and depression. This, in turn, is linked to a stronger immune system. On the other hand, people engaged in religious struggles might experience the opposite effects. Research into the brain’s response to religious practices might help to develop further our understanding of the connection between health and spirituality.


Beauregard M and Paquette V (2006) Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns. Neuroscience Letters 405(3):186-90. DOI: 10.1016/j.neulet.2006.06.060

Ferguson MA et al. (2016) Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religious experience in devout Mormons. Social Neuroscience: 1–13. doi:10.1080/17470919.2016.1257437.

Griffiths RR et al. (2006) Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology. 187 (3): 268–83; discussion 284–92. doi:10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5.

Griffiths RR et al. (2008) Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later. Journal of psychopharmacology. 22 (6): 621–32. doi:10.1177/0269881108094300.

Kapogiannis D et al. (2009) Neuroanatomical Variability of Religiosity. PLoS ONE4(9): e7180.

Kapogiannis D et al. (2009). Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(12), 4876–4881.

Owen AD et al. (2011) Religious factors and hippocampal atrophy in late life. PLoS ONE. 6 (3): e17006. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017006.

Sayadmansour A (2014) Neurotheology: The relationship between brain and religion. Iranian Journal of Neurology, 13(1), 52–55.

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Medicinal Plants and the Brain — St. John’s Wort, Skullcap, and Ashwagandha

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Medicinal plants still comprise a nebulous cloud in biomedical science. We know they have been used since the dawn of man, but there are precious few good quality scientific studies that support their use. Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, plant medicines consist of many different molecules that interact together in the body to have a variety of, poorly understood, pharmacological effects. Despite variably successful attempts to identify single molecules in plants for drug development, we should acknowledge that the whole is greater than a single part. There is an increasing number of clinical studies which strongly imply that root, leaf, and flower extracts of medicinal plants can influence the brain and are effective at treating cognitive disorders. This article series will examine plants where we have double-blind, placebo-controlled studies to support their medicinal influence on the human brain.

St. John’s wort is a commonly known plant that is native to Europe and yields bright yellow flowers. Its name comes from flowering around St. John’s day on the 24th June. St. John’s wort has been used as long ago as the ancient Greeks, and the physician Dioscorides (40–90AD) used it in the treatment of sciatica. However, St. John’s wort has become known as less of a treatment for nerve pain and more so for depression, with multiple double-blind, placebo-controlled trials confirming its antidepressant properties. Authors typically compare St. John’s wort with mainstream anti-depressant drugs and find it has a preferable side effects profile. It is not without its downsides however, as excessive use has been linked to serotonin syndrome, sun sensitivity, and easy skin burning, and more generally with increased pharmaceutical drug metabolism by the liver. This means St. John’s wort may not be suitable for applications alongside other pharmaceutical drugs, and it is contraindicated with serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

American skullcap is a member of the mint family that is native to North America and grows wild in meadows and swamps. It was used by the Native Americans as a sedative and America’s 19th century physicians, the Eclectics, widely used the herb for complaints involving an overactive nervous system such as insomnia, anxiety, and epilepsy. A human double-blind, placebo-controlled study supports skullcap’s application against anxiety, and a mood elevating effect has also been noted. Herbalist’s view both St. John’s wort and American skullcap as ‘nervine tonics’, meaning that they act upon the nervous system medicinally and are also considered to have a long-term renewing effect. While, this claim is yet to be verified by scientific studies, it certainly warrants further investigation.

Ashwagandha, the root of which is a popular home remedy in India, is a plant native to India that is mentioned in the traditional Ayurvedic medical text, the Charaka Samhita, approximately 2000 years ago. Here it is recommended as a tonic for emancipation, reproductive ability, and longevity. In Ayurveda, it is classified as a ‘rasayana herb’, a class of plant that are considered to restore and support long-term health and that overlaps to some degree with the Western definition of a ‘tonic herb’. Two double-blind, placebo-controlled human studies support ashwagandha’s role in the reduction of anxiety. It’s wide-ranging medicinal properties are supported by two additional well-controlled, human clinical studies on osteoarthritis and subclinical hypothyroidism. The emerging picture is that ashwagandha possesses a wide range of medicinal properties that will likely be better understood in the future. Ashwagandha has been well-tolerated across clinical trials, with a side effect profile similar to placebo.


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Image via kerdkanno/Pixabay.

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Criminal Brain: Fact or Fiction?

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When we are confronted with the acts of excessive and unprovoked violence, we can’t help but wonder what is wrong with individuals committing such crimes. Think of serial killers: what motivates them? Both researchers and society, in general, have wanted to know how to explain the extreme brutality observed in some people. In most cases, they have no mental disorders that could explain their behavior. Even without going to the extremes, most of us did at some point in life come across people whose level of aggressiveness seemed beyond any reasonable explanation. Think of a hooligan looking for any excuse to pick a fight and beat someone up. Or a young boy torturing a defenseless animal with a smile on his face. Multiple theories were invented to this end, ranging from religious explanations (satanic possession) to scientific and psychological theories that involve a variety of mental disorders or problems with brain development.

The idea that excessive aggressiveness and criminal tendency might be heritable traits gained popularity with the publication of Dr. Cesare Lombroso’s book “Criminal Man” in 1878. In the book, Lombroso introduced the concept of the “born criminal”. He also developed the field of criminal anthropology that studied specific anatomical differences between normal and criminal individuals. Lombroso’s theory contributed to the science of eugenics that played a crucial role in the Nazi ideology of selective breeding of a superior race and the policy of exterminating the Untermenschen.

Although Lombroso was eventually proven wrong, the concept that criminal behavior might be linked with genes survived. Evidence that criminal and violent behaviors run in some families was a particularly strong argument to investigate the issue further. These investigations produced rather interesting discoveries.

The question to what degree the predisposition for crime might be genetically determined was first answered by a twin study performed in Denmark. Twins are ideal subjects for genetic research: identical twins have exactly the same sets of genes, while non-identical twins are as similar to each other as usual brothers and sisters. However, both identical and non-identical twins, if brought up together, can be considered as having the same upbringing. The study compared the rate of crime offenses among the identical twins with this rate in non-identical twins. It turned out that a Danish man with an identical twin who has a criminal record is 50% more likely to be an offender himself, as compared with the average Danish man. In non-identical twins, the chances of both of them having the criminal records are 15-30% higher than the average for the population. The findings definitely point to a degree of genetic predisposition. In addition, another study performed in Sweden has shown that when the identical twins were brought up separately, the chances of developing a criminal career were higher among children from parents with criminal records, even when the children were brought up in law-abiding adopted families.

Twin studies can detect correlations but certainly can’t help in finding out which genes are behind these correlations. The study performed in the Netherlands provided important information on the possible identity of such genes. Researchers have studied genetic defects in one particular family with 14 males spanning 4 generations that displayed an unusually high level of aggression and criminal offenses. The subjects in question had very low IQ (around 85) and were prone to impulsive behavior and physical and sexual violence. The researchers found a specific hereditary defect in the family: the gene for monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) was mutated. Mutation prevented the enzyme from working properly. This is important as this enzyme is responsible for breaking down neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline. A lack of MAOA activity leads to the rising of neurotransmitter levels in the brain and they, in turn, cause the over-excitation of neurons. The gene for MAOA is located on the X chromosome, and this explains why high levels of aggression were observed only in males. Meanwhile, females have a second X chromosome with the non-mutated functional version of the gene.

An important question, which sparked fierce ethical debate, is to what extent criminal behavior might indeed be genetically programmed. This is a classic discussion of nature vs nurture. To what extent do our genes make us who we are? We easily accept the fact that some people are born smarter or physically stronger than the rest of us. We know that genes are involved in making these individuals who they are. Genes responsible for stronger muscles or better brain connections allow these people to excel where others may struggle. Nonetheless, the idea that some of us are born with a predisposition for a higher level of aggression or reduced empathy appears very unpalatable to many people. However, this idea makes perfect biological sense. We evolved as hunter-gatherers, and at this stage of our evolutionary history, aggressiveness was crucially important for survival. Genetically, we didn’t change since the Stone Age. And this aggressiveness still plays an important role in our society, from competition in the workplace to multiple armed conflicts around the world. Aggression levels, like many other human behavioral traits, can be genetically determined to a degree. This means that there is variability: in some people, the level of aggressiveness is very low, while in others it can be quite high.

Aggressiveness still doesn’t equal crime: although violent crime requires a perpetrator to be aggressive, the two things are not the same. Social factors still play a key role when it comes to the expression of aggressive behavior. It works the same way with other genetic attributes. A born athlete will never reach his Olympic dream and could turn into a couch potato if they don’t train. Most scientists, even the very successful ones, are not born geniuses: they simply worked and studied hard. Similarly, people with a predisposition for higher levels of aggression are at higher risk of becoming criminals when they are exposed to the social factors that lead them in that direction.


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