Tag Archives: psychology

The Finno-Ugrian Suicide Hypothesis


The Finno-Ugrian peoples of Eurasia

What is the Finno-Ugrian Suicide Hypothesis?

Multiple lines of evidence indicate specific genetic contributions to suicidal behavior. In particular, geographic studies support the Finno-Ugrian Suicide Hypothesis, i.e., genetic differences between populations may partially account for geographic patterns of suicide prevalence. Specifically, within Europe the high suicide-rate nations constitute a contiguous J-shaped belt. The present research replicated and extended 2003 findings of Voracek, Fisher, and Marusic with new data. Across 37 European nations, an interaction term of squared latitude multiplied with longitude (quantifying the J-shaped belt) accounted for 32% of the cross-national variance in total suicide rates alone, while latitude accounted merely for 18% of variance over and above those. Refined analysis included regional data from countries critical for testing the hypothesis (89 regions of Belarus, western Russia, and the Ukraine) and yielded an even more clear-cut pattern (56% and 3.5%, respectively). These results are consistent with the Finno-Ugrian Suicide Hypothesis. Study limitations and directions for further research are discussed.

Some of you may be wondering who the mysterious Finno-Ugrians even are. They are simply a diverse ethno-linguistic group that is native to eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia. The most well known are the Finns and Hungarians. In the map above, you can see their lesser known linguistic cousins scattered across much of Russia and northern Scandinavia.

The thing that is most remarkable about these peoples, besides the genetic isolation of some of the northern groups, is that they are among the few native Europeans whose mother tongue is not an Indo-European language. Almost everyone else with a long history in Europe is a speaker of an Indo-European language, like Italian, Russian, German, Greek, Spanish, and even English(some genes are said to be associated with the early spread of Indo-European languages, but that is beyond the scope of this post). No, it’s not because they are an extreme ethno-linguistic minority that Finno-Ugrians have a higher suicide rate.

The Finno-Ugrian Suicide Hypothesis suggests that genes that are unique to or occur more frequently among Finno-Ugrians predisposes them to suicide. For a long time, many researchers just assumed that the extreme northern environment many Finno-Ugrians live in, and social factors were the primary cause of their higher than average suicide rate. However, when researchers controlled for the environmental and social factors(comparing them to non-Finno-Ugrians living in the same environment), it became apparent that something genetic was making a significant contribution to their higher suicide rate. Of course, this is something that shows up in aggregate, and doesn’t render environmental or social factors meaningless for individuals.

While these genes tend to be mostly unique to speakers of Finno-Ugrian languages, some Russians and other Indo-Europeans in eastern Europe carry these genes. Russians also have a high suicide rate. This may be due to the Russians slowly assimilating many Finno-Ugrians over the centuries into the larger Russian ethnic group, as Russia expanded across northern Eurasia and Russified many different native ethnic groups. In other words, this means there are people who are Finno-Ugrian by blood who speak Russian or other non-Finno-Ugrian languages as their first and only language.

In part, I am fascinated by this because Linus Torvalds, the influential software engineer who created the kernel of the Linux/Android operating system I use is Finnish, besides, of course, my interest in genes and mental health. And Finland has also produced some amazing runners. They haven’t been able to find any Finno-Ugrian running genes though.

Why Finno-Ugrians have these “suicide” genes is a mystery(it is possible they have some advantage), but please don’t panic if you are Finno-Ugrian or know someone who is. Of course, we can’t change our genes(not yet), but hopefully, science will find better ways of treating mental disorders that lead many to suicide.

Music therapy and schizophrenia

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” – Walter Pater

Can you imagine life without music? There’s scarcely anything in this world that can improve our mood as much as beautiful, uplifting music. Of course, depressing music can do the opposite. But can music be used as a form of medicine to help treat mental disorders like schizophrenia? Before we explore this complex, fascinating issue, let’s make sure we all know what schizophrenia is. According to the Mayo Clinic:

Schizophrenia is a group of severe brain disorders in which people interpret reality abnormally. Schizophrenia may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking and behavior.

Contrary to some popular belief, schizophrenia isn’t split personality or multiple personality. The word “schizophrenia” does mean “split mind,” but it refers to a disruption of the usual balance of emotions and thinking.

Schizophrenia is a chronic condition, requiring lifelong treatment.

Can music therapy help treat this disorder? According to the University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway, in Music therapy for people with schizophrenia and schizophrenia-like disorders:


Music therapy as an addition to standard care helps people with schizophrenia to improve their global state, mental state (including negative symptoms) and social functioning if a sufficient number of music therapy sessions are provided by qualified music therapists. Further research should especially address the long-term effects of music therapy, dose-response relationships, as well as the relevance of outcomes measures in relation to music therapy.

It looks like there may be some promise here. I know nothing about music therapy, but if it truly does work, I wonder if music therapist/composers will write music unique to each patient depending on what the patient responds to? Or is this what they already do?

Related articles:

The Vegan Brain is Different After All!

Food or friend? Source: Public domain

Food or friend? Source: Public domain

I just found a very interesting new study which suggests that vegan and vegetarian brains do in fact work differently from the brains of omnivores when we observe the mouth gestures of closely related animals. According to San Raffaele University, Milan, Italy in, The “vegetarian brain”: chatting with monkeys and pigs?:

An array of brain regions in the fronto-parietal and temporal lobes cooperates to process observation and execution of actions performed by other individuals. Using functional MRI, we hypothesized that vegetarians and vegans might show brain responses to mouth actions performed by humans, monkeys, and pigs different from omnivores. We scanned 20 omnivores, 19 vegetarians, and 21 vegans while watching a series of silent videos, which presented a single mouth action performed by a human, a monkey, and a pig. Compared to omnivores, vegetarians and vegans have increased functional connectivity between regions of the fronto-parietal and temporal lobes versus the cerebellum during observation of mouth actions performed by humans and, to the same degree, animals. Vegans also had increased connectivity with the supplementary motor area. During human mouth actions, increased amygdala activity in vegetarians and vegans was found. More critically, vegetarians recruited the right middle frontal gyrus and insula, which are involved in social mirroring, whereas vegans activated the left inferior frontal gyrus and middle temporal gyrus, which are part of the mirror neuron system. Monkey mouth actions triggered language network activity in both groups, which might be due to the attempt to decode monkey mouth gesture, with an additional recruitment of associative temporo-occipital areas in vegans, whereas pig mouth actions activated empathy-related regions, including the anterior cingulum. These results support the role of the action observation-execution matching system in social cognition, which enables us to interact not only with our conspecifics but also with species in phylogenetic proximity to humans.

So next time you have trouble understanding the eating habits of omnivores, it could be due to our brains being wired differently. It seems we are more likely to feel empathy when seeing certain animals, and this may be hard-wired into our brains more so than in omnivores. Interestingly enough, vegan and vegetarian amygdalas(the emotional center of the brain) were more active than omnivore amygdalas when watching human mouth actions too. This means that our amydalas are more reactive in general, not just when it comes to empathizing with animals.

As an aside, it would be great if we could do brain scans of politicians, to see if their brains are very different from the brains of non-politicians. I have my suspicions. Most days, they seem like an entirely differently life-form!

Hello, I hate you

Joggling is like an express ticket to winning many admirers. Wherever you go, people will be impressed and will often compliment you and stare in amazement.

Unfortunately, not everyone reacts positively to joggling. Some people may even become extremely jealous or hateful toward you, especially if you happen to be a faster runner. And I don’t mean the people who say “you’re making me look bad”, I mean people who angrily denigrate you, or get this threatening look in their eyes.

People who don’t have the stomach for dealing with people like this find this makes it very difficult for them to joggle in areas with a lot of people. They are physically capable, but they are the shy, sensitive type and don’t like being the focus of hostile attention.

So how does one deal with this hostility? It’s important to realize that you are not responsible for some stranger on the street’s emotions. Unless you’re bumping into people or you hit someone with a ball, you’re not doing anything potentially harmful to anyone. Besides this, there are a lot of people out there who get angry over nothing. I even think some people may be addicted to their anger, and need to find something to get angry about. Some of these people may be suffering from some kind of mental disorder. Something is eating them up inside, and they direct it outward and personify it upon seeing you, as if you are somehow a “threat” to them.

It just seems so ridiculous. Really. Should you stop doing something you love just because some people may bristle with rage toward you? The best way to deal with jealous-types is to simply ignore them. It’s not important what other people think. And this isn’t just about joggling, this applies to just about anything.

Exercise and schizophrenia

Let’s have some fun today. Come with me deep into the human brain and have a look at what exercise can do for those suffering from schizophrenia. We’ve already explored how it may be beneficial for those with OCD(obsessive compulsive disorder), but I think it would be more interesting to see what exercise can do for those with a more “serious” mental condition.

Here is a list of the common symptoms of schizophrenia:

1) Characteristic symptoms: Two or more of the following, each present for much of the time during a one-month period (or less, if symptoms remitted with treatment).
Disorganized speech, which is a manifestation of formal thought disorder
Grossly disorganized behavior (e.g. dressing inappropriately, crying frequently) or catatonic behavior
Negative symptoms: Blunted affect (lack or decline in emotional response), alogia (lack or decline in speech), or avolition (lack or decline in motivation)
If the delusions are judged to be bizarre, or hallucinations consist of hearing one voice participating in a running commentary of the patient’s actions or of hearing two or more voices conversing with each other, only that symptom is required above. The speech disorganization criterion is only met if it is severe enough to substantially impair communication.
2) Social or occupational dysfunction: For a significant portion of the time since the onset of the disturbance, one or more major areas of functioning such as work, interpersonal relations, or self-care, are markedly below the level achieved prior to the onset.
3) Significant duration: Continuous signs of the disturbance persist for at least six months. This six-month period must include at least one month of symptoms (or less, if symptoms remitted with treatment).


Based on some of these symptoms, it looks like it may be difficult to motivate some people with schizophrenia to adopt a regular exercise regimen. There is a vast spectrum of severity of symptoms of this condition, with evidence that schizophrenia is correlated with some brain abnormalities(though this is not used to diagnose it).

According to the Department of Psychiatry, The Saarland University Hospital, Homburg, Germany:

Hippocampal volume is lower than expected in patients with schizophrenia; however, whether this represents a fixed deficit is uncertain. Exercise is a stimulus to hippocampal plasticity.

The results and conclusion of their research:


Following exercise training, relative hippocampal volume increased significantly in patients (12%) and healthy subjects (16%), with no change in the nonexercise group of patients (-1%). Changes in hippocampal volume in the exercise group were correlated with improvements in aerobic fitness measured by change in maximum oxygen consumption (r = 0.71; P = .003). In the schizophrenia exercise group (but not the controls), change in hippocampal volume was associated with a 35% increase in the N-acetylaspartate to creatine ratio in the hippocampus. Finally, improvement in test scores for short-term memory in the combined exercise and nonexercise schizophrenia group was correlated with change in hippocampal volume (r = 0.51; P < .05).

These results indicate that in both healthy subjects and patients with schizophrenia hippocampal volume is plastic in response to aerobic exercise.

While this study looked at the brain plasticity of schizophrenics, it didn’t monitor any improvements in living with their condition. Luckily, other researchers have explored if exercise can improve the lives of schizophrenics.

After examining many studies in the scientific literature, theĀ Schizophrenia Bulletin reports that:

Although studies included in this review are small and used various measures of physical and mental health, results indicated that regular exercise programs are possible in this population and that they can have healthful effects on both the physical and mental health and well being of individuals with schizophrenia. Larger randomized studies are required before any definitive conclusions can be drawn.

Although it can’t “cure” schizophrenia, it looks like exercise should be included in the treatment of schizophrenia and other mental conditions whenever possible. I don’t think there is anything that provides nearly as many benefits to health as exercise. Healthy body, healthy mind.

Fulfillment or happiness?


Just some food for thought for today.

Is fulfillment the same thing to you as happiness? If not, why? Do you ever feel fulfilled but not happy, or happy but not fulfilled?

What is more important to you, happiness, or fulfillment?

Are you a sensitive person?

Are you a sensitive person? Then you are not alone. Many people are sensitive, and I don’t mean in an emotional sense(although they sometimes go together), or sensitive to chemicals, I mean when it comes to outside stimuli.

For a lot of people, noise is the bane of their existence It is almost like torture to them, or at least very distracting. Others don’t like to be touched. Numerous people have a very sensitive sense of smell, to the point that they can’t stand perfume. People who have very sensitive taste-buds tend to avoid spicy, bitter or sour foods. At least a few have sensitive eyes, and avoid sunlight unless they wear very dark sunglasses. It’s rare, but some people may be universally sensitive to the point they wish they could live in a protective bubble.

In the very least, very sensitive people do need a lot more time to be alone and unwind. While it’s not the same thing as pain sensitivity, the two are probably linked.

But what does this even mean? This is an under-explored area of psychology, in part because it isn’t necessarily a condition or something that can be diagnosed. But it is one of those things that you know if you have it or not, especially when you realize most people don’t react the way you do to certain things. It may or may not be linked with certain disorders, but it is not, in and of itself, a disorder.

Due to noise sensitivity, I for one find it impossible to go to nightclubs. The music is way too loud to the point that I can’t function in such an environment. I similarly can’t go to most sporting events or concerts. I sleep with ear-muffs. I don’t necessarily see this as a limitation since I don’t care for these kinds of things anyway.

Being sensitive to noise may help me appreciate music and may have even helped me develop the rhythm necessary for joggling long distances. It may even be useful for creativity. It’s not well understood what ultimately causes some people to be more sensitive than others, but it is definitely at least partly genetic in origin. Some “normal” people may not understand that not everyone is wired the same way, and can’t understand why us sensitives don’t enjoy the same things they enjoy.

If you are extremely sensitive and wish you weren’t, there isn’t a whole lot to help you unless your sensitivity is linked with some kind of anxiety or medical disorder, or you alter your life to avoid certain triggers. Unfortunately, there isn’t a “switch” that we can turn down to make us less sensitive, except perhaps through drugs which I do not recommend.

If you are sensitive, how do you deal with it? What are its main drawbacks for you? And what are its advantages, if any?


IMG_0822Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which the senses become blended, from the Greek “syn”, meaning “together”, and “aisthesis”, meaning “sensation”. By calling it a “condition”, I don’t mean to imply it is a bad thing. In fact, it can be enthralling to some individuals, and if they are artists can help them be more creative.

In most people, the senses are separate and distinct. They hear, see, smell, taste, and feel. In a person with synesthesia, 2 or more senses can become blended, resulting in associating certain musical tones with certain colors, or associating certain smells with particular colors, or “tasting” music. There are various other interesting ways in which the senses are blended.

Here is some more background on synesthesia from Hubbard EM:

Synesthesia is an experience in which stimulation in one sensory or cognitive stream leads to associated experiences in a second, unstimulated stream. Although synesthesia is often referred to as a “neurological condition,” it is not listed in the DSM IV or the ICD classifications, as it generally does not interfere with normal daily functioning. However, its high prevalence rate (one in 23) means that synesthesia may be reported by patients who present with other psychiatric symptoms. In this review, I focus on recent research examining the neural basis of the two most intensively studied forms of synesthesia, grapheme –> color synesthesia and tone –> color synesthesia. These data suggest that these forms of synesthesia are elicited through anomalous activation of color-selective areas, perhaps in concert with hyperbinding mediated by the parietal cortex. I then turn to questions for future research and the implications of these models for other forms of synesthesia.

Since this is a very subjective experience, it is difficult to study. There is no way to officially “diagnose” it, and it’s not very common. I don’t believe I have it, but sometimes I think I experience very brief flashes of it or something similar. It’s certainly possible that synesthesia is a continuum phenomenon, meaning it may not be a simple matter of you have it or you don’t(similar to many mental illnesses, though again, synesthesia isn’t an illness). If this is the case, it means most people would fall somewhere in the continuum, with extreme synesthesia on one end and complete absence of it on the other.

It sounds like it can be a wonderful experience for some people, with many artists claiming to have it. But is it possible to become a synesthete(a person with synesthesia) with training? I don’t know for sure, but it looks like the answer is no.

This doesn’t mean we can’t improve our artistic abilities or our senses; synesthesia isn’t the same thing as artistic talent or artistic appreciation, but perhaps we can learn something from the experiences of synesthetes. Juggling makes me more appreciative of intricate movement and dance, but it doesn’t necessarily bring me closer to synesthesia.

Still, I strive to make my juggling both more artful(by singing, humming, using different color balls, or dancing while doing it) and more athletic. The synergism between the two makes the experience far more uplifting than if I was aiming at either one of the two alone. It’s fun trying to make music with the balls, sort of like I’m a wild symphony orchestra conductor, but using balls and my arms instead of a baton. Art and fitness always together, not alone.

Above all, there is so much beauty out there to appreciate, and beauty within us that needs to be expressed. Try releasing more of it next time you exercise and you may find yourself getting better results.

Joggling through the snow and the mind


Snow is endlessly tricky for joggling. Every few feet its texture changes. It occasionally conceals ice or puddles underneath. How many times my feet have gotten wet and cold as a result!

How the snow cloaks the earth, how it masterfully conceals. You try to master it, yet in the end it always wins, balls get dropped, feet get wet, or a body part is injured. As tricky as a snowy forest is, it still pales in comparison to the cloaks all humans wear. As tricky as joggling in the snow is, figuring out humans is far more challenging. Snowy terrain is easy. Navigating the icy terrain of the human mind is something else entirely.

What is real and what is illusion? Our senses aren’t always reliable. We are so easy to fool, and we fool ourselves better than anyone else can. Who can we trust, when we sometimes can’t even trust ourselves?

Wait, so that is a small tree ahead and not a person? I thought that was a shrub in the distance, and not a dog. How was I to know this snow concealed a small pond? If only it were always so easy.


Juggling and flow

For many jugglers, juggling is like meditation, requiring deep focus and the ability to block out distractions. “Flow”, a concept developed by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is like a meditative state many people attain when they are doing something they find challenging yet enjoyable. Jugglers likely achieve this state of mind, but so do a lot of other people doing work or hobbies they enjoy. Some of the greatest experiences we have in our lives may happen to us while in the Flow state.

You can read more about this here – Juggling and Flow

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” is also a worthwhile read, even if his findings aren’t necessarily scientifically testable.

Basically, it should be easier to stay fit or lose weight if the exercise you regularly engage in puts you into a “Flow” state of mind.