ABNORMAL EYE MOVEMENTS
Thank you for the fascinating article “Shifting Focus,” by Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik. As a schizophrenic, I imagine that many patients have abnormal microsaccades, meaning that when they follow a target or scan a display their eye movements are accentuated. Perhaps these eye movements explain the phenomenon of the schizophrenic’s “mad look.”
MARTINEZ-CONDE AND MACKNIK REPLY: No previous research has examined the connection between microsaccades and schizophrenia—or any other psychiatric illness. But there has been extensive work showing that people with schizophrenia do indeed have abnormal saccades, the fast eye movements that direct our gaze from object to object as we explore a visual scene. According to neurologists R. John Leigh and David Zee, authors of the comprehensive The Neurology of Eye Movements (Oxford University Press, 1999), schizophrenics show consistent abnormalities in the voluntary control of saccades, particularly in tasks requiring imagination, memory or prediction.
Research suggests that saccades and microsaccades are controlled by the same brain areas, so it seems likely to us that microsaccades also will be found to be abnormal in schizophrenia. Only directed research will provide a definitive answer to this fascinating question.
“In the Minds of Others,” by Keith Oatley, was an excellent summation of the impact of stories on social skills. This concept has been particularly applicable to the summer camp I run, which allows campers to engage in an interactive storyline with outcomes that change depending on their decisions. We have noticed a high degree of altruistic acts among our kids while they interact with other characters—perhaps because fiction can increase a person’s level of empathy, as the article describes.
Human beings have been learning from stories since the brain could grasp fictional concepts. Oral traditions may have evolved into predominately audiovisual or text format, but we still connect on a deeper level with the person who can weave a well-worded story. (Politicians have known this for quite some time.) Shouldn’t the educational system embrace this concept? If our summer camp can teach chemistry, history, foreign languages, and more using interactive fiction, I think schools can use stories to better reach their students and engage them in learning.
Director, Wizards & Warriors Camp
MANY FACES OF GRIEF
I am a great fan of Scientific American Mind, but as someone who has worked with the bereaved for more than 20 years, I was dismayed by your article “Grief without Tears,” by Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld [Facts and Fictions]. The authors extrapolate from a particular subset of bereaved people—elderly widows and widowers—to the general population. To equate the predictable loss of a spouse in old age with, for example, the untimely loss of a parent in childhood is cavalier at best, dangerously irresponsible at worst.
One child in five is likely to develop a psychiatric disorder following a parental death. Parental bereavement in childhood has been robustly linked to impaired academic performance, higher rates of teenage pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse, as well as a range of mental health disorders as adults. Most children and teenagers will experience anxiety, depression and social withdrawal in the first two years after a major loss. Even when distress is not permanent, it is still real and painful and bewildering for the child.