Parental Verbal Abuse and Why I'm Not ROFL

Have you heard about NCBI ROFL? It's a previously-independent blog that has been incorporated into "Discoblog," one of the blogs at Discover Magazine. What they do is find amusing or funny abstracts by searching Pubmed (which is run by the NCBI - National Center for Biomedical Information) and just post the abstracts. No commentary, no interpretation, just the text of the abstract. A lot of times I actually find the abstracts that they choose to post amusing. It is amusing that someone has decided to use superglue to remove objects that are stuck in peoples' ears, or that wooden kitchen spoons are useful for controlling intra-abdominal hemorrhages. Attempting to use human earwax to keep bugs away is hilarious, and that it might actually work is awesome.

I'm not amused by every choice they make, of course, and that's to be expected. Sometimes I'm a little confused as to why they find a particular paper ROFL-worthy. What is funny about the effects of alcohol consumption on the auditory system? Or the play preferences of juvenile rhesus macaques? But, you know, whatever.

But then yesterday, I saw this headline in Google Reader: NCBI ROFL: Belligerent berating builds bigger baby brains! The gist of the paper, as described by the guys at NCBI ROFL is "Exposure to parental verbal abuse is associated with increased gray matter volume in superior temporal gyrus." They placed it opposite a cartoon image of Homer Simpson strangling Bart.

And, well, this bothers me.

There is nothing funny or amusing about parental verbal abuse, and that it would be presented with this sort of levity is disturbing. I asked, in the comments, why this was included. I really wanted to approach this in a way that gave them the benefit of the doubt:

I generally love NCBI ROFL and its often a great source of papers that can be blogged. But, it is not clear to me what is ROFL about this. In your FAQ, you state that you post abstracts of "real scientific articles with funny subjects." I fail to see what is funny about parental verbal abuse.

Their response actually makes me even more disturbed:

In addition to funny articles, we often feature research that that is strange and/or ridiculous. We thought this abstract fell in that category (who would think to look for a correlation between getting yelled at as a child and brain size?). Obviously there is nothing funny about child abuse, and we are sorry our readers thought we were suggesting otherwise.

This response communicates a pretty big scientific FAIL to me. What about finding correlates between parental verbal abuse and brain development is "strange and/or ridiculous"? Understanding the complex relationships between genes, experience, brain structure, brain function, and behavior is, well, the whole point of neuroscience. Asking empirical questions about the above in a developmental framework is, well, the definition of developmental psychology. They ask: "who would think to look for a correlation between getting yelled at as a child and brain size?" The answer, of course, is "neuroscientists," or "developmental psychologists," or "biological psychiatrists," or just about any other combination of these and other terms.

But more to the point, they seem to fundamentally misunderstand (or ignore) the seriousness of the issue: "getting yelled at as a child" is qualitatively different from parental verbal abuse. Everyone gets yelled at by their parents, at some point. Maybe its because they "accidentally" kicked their younger brothers in the shins, or accidentally set their mothers' coffee cups on fire in the microwave. But parental verbal abuse isn't your run-of-the-mill parental discipline. Did the folks behind NCBI ROFL actually read the article they featured? They needn't have read past the second paragraph of the introduction (reproduced below, with some acronyms expanded by me):

Parental verbal abuse is a specific form of emotional abuse that some studies suggest may be associated with particularly severe psychiatric consequences (Johnson et al., 2001, Ney, 1987 and Ney et al., 1994). However, unlike other forms of abuse, such as childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse and witnessing domestic violence, Parental verbal abuse is not considered a traumatic event by DSM-IV A1 and A2 criteria, and is often given little credence by mandated reporters (Manning & Cheers, 1995, and Saulsbury & Campbell, 1985). We, however, have shown that exposure to parental verbal abuse was associated in early adulthood with elevated symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger-hostility, dissociation, and 'limbic irritability' (Teicher et al., 2006a). Effect sizes for exposure to parental verbal abuse were equivalent to those for witnessing domestic violence and non-familial childhood sexual abuse, and exceeded those for parental physical abuse (Teicher et al., 2006a). Delineating the association between exposure to parental verbal abuse and alterations in brain structure may help to increase awareness regarding the importance of this common but insidious form of childhood abuse.

Strange and/or ridiculous indeed. Is anybody ROFL-ing?


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I also put that one into the "not funny" category when it popped up in google reader, but I dismissed it and moved on.

Hopefully by bringing extra attention to that not-so-funny article, any future "strange and/or ridiculous" articles will get a second look before hitting NCBI ROFL.

Thanks for highlighting this research, didn't find it strange or ridiculous, but it does help in our understanding of early childhood abuse, brain development and adult mental illness. As I teach my students, all childhood abuse causes brain damage, and when you view it in these terms, subsequent adult behaviour becomes more understandable.

you are missing the point.

it's funny that money is being spent on these types of research projects...get it?

By druggedmonkey (not verified) on 06 Aug 2010 #permalink