Scientific Testimony against the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act

My name is Matthew Facciani and I am a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience. I oppose bill H3114 because its legislative intent rests upon a psychologically flawed interpretation of scientific data. 

I am testifying in my capacity as a neuroscientist, psychology instructor, and science educator. Recognizing good science from bad science is part of my job and I hope to explain the flawed scientific reasoning behind this bill. The main support for this bill stems from research that fetuses can react to stimuli at around 20 weeks of development. However, the scientific consensus is that such reactions to stimuli are reflexive, not a response to pain.

In other words, just because fetuses react with reflexes we associate with pain does not mean they feel pain. As Dr. Anand noted in his report in support of a similar bill, the International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience..." The current scientific evidence supports the conclusion that fetuses can have unpleasant sensory experiences. It does not, however, support the psychological claim that these experiences are emotional. In other words, fetuses do not feel pain.

Dr. Mark Rosen, pain researcher and anesthesiologist, concludes that such reactions are analogous to the reflex from a leg when tapped by a doctor’s rubber mallet. Also, any release of stress hormones during a reflex would not necessarily indicate the experience of pain, since elevations of stress hormones also occur in the bodies of brain-dead patients during organ harvesting. These findings do not reflect feeling pain; they only reflect a sufficiently intact nervous system.

Dr. Rosen also states how the pain signal must be able to travel from receptors located all over the body, to the spinal cord, up through the brain’s thalamus and finally into the cerebral cortex to be felt. He then notes how fetuses do not have nerve fibers which extend from the thalamus and have penetrated the cortex until the third trimester which is supported in a 2010 review paper of fetal development. 

An extensive review paper on fetal pain was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Lee and colleagues in 2005. It remains the best available systematic multidisciplinary review on the subject of fetal pain. These researchers concluded that "Evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester." They also note how pain is an emotional and psychological experience which requires conscious recognition of a noxious stimulus. So it is highly unlikely any pain can be felt by a fetus 24 weeks or earlier in pregnancy.

Furthermore, a study by Dr. Fabrizi and colleagues in 2011 revealed that the necessary neural circuits to differentiate pain from sensation are not developed in infants until 35 weeks of age. The younger infant's neural signal indicated general tactile sensation, while the older infant's neural signal indicated actual processing of pain from the sensation.

Even if fetuses could feel pain before 24 weeks, the placenta produces biochemicals which have a sedating and even an anesthetizing effect on the fetus according to a study by Dr. Mellor and colleagues in 2005. Thus, claims of fetuses feeling pain at or before 20 weeks represent the views of a minority of researchers with no psychological scientific training, and do not have widespread acceptance in the scientific community.

Finally, a 2013 study published in the Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health journal found that around one percent of abortions occur at 20 weeks or later. According to this same study, the women who had these rare abortions often had difficulty finding a provider and raising funds for the procedure and travel costs, were young and seeking work, or were dealing with an abusive partner. Thus, by banning abortions at 20 weeks, South Carolina would be harming some of its most vulnerable citizens.

In conclusion, bill H3114 is not defended by research widely supported by the scientific community as there is not substantial evidence that fetuses feel pain. The Fabrizi study provides evidence that sensation does not equal pain and the vast majority of the scientific community agrees that if a fetus could ever feel pain, it would only be possible at 24 weeks at the absolute earliest. Furthermore, the bill is foundationally flawed: It rests on the opinions of researchers who do not understand the psychological distinctions necessary to adequately address this topic. 

Thank you very much.

*This testimony was read by Matthew Facciani during the South Carolina House General Laws Subcommittee meeting on Thursday, January 22, 2015. 

 

Sorry Morgan Freeman, You're Wrong. We Do Use All of Our Brains.

It was painful to hear Morgan Freeman's awesome voice perpetuate a commonly held science myth in the trailer for the new movie "Lucy." The premise of this film is that a young woman uses "more than 10%" of her brain and obtains superpowers. A quick Google search reveals multiple articles dispelling the myth that we only use 10% of our brains as seen here, here, here, here, and many others. Yet, despite all these attempts to educate the general public that we do in fact use all our brains, a recent poll by The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research found 65 percent of Americans still believe that people only use 10 percent of their brains! 

Like I mentioned above, there are already many articles existing which dispel this myth, but I will quickly summarize some main points.  If we did only use a small fraction of our brains, most brain injuries would not be a big deal instead of being rather traumatic. I worked in a hospital for an internship where I assessed brain injury patients and the doctor I worked for never said  "well good thing this guy got hit in the part of the brain he doesn't use!"

Now as neuroscientist who does neuroimaging research I have scanned well over 100 brains and have spent countless hours analyzing brain data despite being young in my career. In fact, much of my previous research was looking at whole brain activity during neuroimaging scans. Unsurprisingly, whole brain analysis entails analyzing activity for the entire brain! Additionally, from an evolutionary point of view, it would make zero sense to have an organ (our brain) use such a great deal of resources, but only use a small fraction of its capabilities. 

I understand that science fiction movies should not be cited as scientific fact and we are usually asked to suspend some disbelief while watching them. I am fine with this; however, I find it rather obnoxious that a major film would totally ignore the wealth of neuroscience research that disproves its premise. I understand why they would use such a premise as it does sound sexy and the majority of Americans do believe in this myth as I noted above. What mostly bothers me is that such a premise CAN be sexy in 2014. I understand how believing that we only use 10% of our brains sounds nice because of all the potential that stems from such a claim. However, it is still patently false and I'd like to see the day where that is common knowledge. We may not know if an alien race would have superpowers on our planet like Superman, but we should at least know that we use all of our brains. 

Scientific testimony against South Carolina House Bill 4223

My name is Matthew Facciani and I am a PhD candidate in experimental psychology with a focus on cognitive neuroscience. I oppose bill H4223 for two reasons. The first of which is moral: I think that women are more than capable to make decisions regarding their body without the state's interference. However, I oppose this bill primarily because its legislative intent rests upon a psychologically flawed interpretation of scientific data. 

 

I am testifying in my capacity as a psychologist and neuroscientist. The goal of psychology is to explicitly isolate psychological states. Isolating underlying psychological states allows us to distinguish between what happens to an individual, and how the individual feels about it. It is important to see how a psychological scientist's training differs from training undergone by medical doctors. Medical training can enable a doctor to identify sources of suffering whereas scientific training can enable a psychologist to identify the psychological states of the person suffering. This also means that psychologists fundamentally distinguish a psychological state from its biological markers. In other words, we do not equate what we measure with how we measure it.

 

This is why I oppose this bill. Just because fetuses react with reflexes we associate with pain does not mean they feel pain. As Dr. Anand noted in his report in support of a similar bill, the International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience..." The current scientific evidence supports the conclusion that fetuses can have unpleasant sensory experiences. It does not, however, support the psychological claim that these experiences are emotional. In other words, fetuses do not feel pain.

 

Support for this bill stems from a minority of researchers which suggest that fetuses can feel pain at or even before 20 weeks. They support this position by noting that some fetuses around 20 weeks react to stimuli which can lead to a release of stress hormones. 

 

However, the majority of scientists agree that such reactions to stimuli are reflexive, not a response to pain. Dr. Mark Rosen, pain researcher and anesthesiologist, concludes that such reactions are analogous to the reflex from a leg when tapped by a doctor’s rubber mallet. Furthermore, the release of stress hormones does not necessarily indicate the experience of pain, since elevations of stress hormones also occur in the bodies of brain-dead patients during organ harvesting. These findings do not reflect feeling pain; they only reflect a sufficiently intact nervous system.

 

Dr. Rosen also states how the pain signal must be able to travel from receptors located all over the body, to the spinal cord, up through the brain’s thalamus and finally into the cerebral cortex to be felt. He then notes how fetuses do not have nerve fibers which extend from the thalamus and have penetrated the cortex until the third trimester which is supported in a 2010 review paper of fetal development. 

 

An extensive review paper on fetal pain was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Lee and colleagues in 2005. It remains the best available systematic multidisciplinary review on the subject of fetal pain. These researchers concluded that "Evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester." They also note how pain is an emotional and psychological experience which requires conscious recognition of a noxious stimulus. So it is highly unlikely any pain can be felt by a fetus 24 weeks or earlier in pregnancy. Furthermore, a study by Dr. Fabrizi and colleagues in 2011 revealed that the necessary neural circuits to differentiate pain from sensation are not developed in infants until 35 weeks of age. The younger infant's neural signal indicated general tactile sensation, while the older infant's neural signal indicated actual processing of pain from the sensation.

 

 

Even if fetuses could feel pain before 24 weeks, the placenta produces biochemicals which have a sedating and even an anesthetizing effect on the fetus according to a study by Dr. Mellor and colleagues in 2005. Thus, claims of fetuses feeling pain at or before 20 weeks represent the views of a minority of researchers with no psychological scientific training, and do not have widespread acceptance in the scientific community.

 

In conclusion, bill H4223 is not defended by research widely supported by the scientific community as there is not substantial evidence that fetuses feel pain. The Fabrizi study provides evidence that sensation does not equal pain and the vast majority of the scientific community agrees that even if a fetus can feel pain, it would only be possible at 24 weeks at the absolute earliest. Furthermore, the bill is foundationally flawed: It rests on the opinions of researchers who do not understand the psychological distinctions necessary to adequately address this topic. 

 

Thank you very much.

Pseudoscience and Psychopathy

I wrote a guest post for the Skeptical Raptor blog about my thoughts on neuroscientist James Fallon's psychopathy story. Here is an excerpt:

"My intention is not to claim that Dr. Fallon is lying and purposefully simplifying science to make a profit. I would need much more evidence for that. However, I am arguing that the news articles covering his story do not provide enough details to support his claims. I find it rather troubling that no one is even addressing this so I wanted to blog about it. It is also troubling that Dr. Fallon has not been more explicit about the limitations of his findings as he should surely be aware of them as an accomplished neuroscientist. America often ranks pretty poorly in scientific literacy and this is an example of the result. People should at least have a working understanding of the scientific methodand not blindly believe an authority figure with an interesting story."

How a Neuroscientist deals with Negative Emotions

A common misconception of the general public is that both men and scientists are relatively emotionless. This of course is a stereotype and I could discuss the social and psychological reasons of why men and those in science may appear to be or do not openly express emotion, but that is for another blog post. The aim of this post is to discuss how I, both a man and a scientist, deal with negative emotions. Personally, it does take a lot to truly bother me as I usually have a rather cheerful outlook on life. However, when someone who I was close to does something hurtful towards me, I can experience strong negative emotions. This isn’t an attempt to explain all negative emotions, but rather a piece discussing how I dealt with some negative emotions as both a neuroscientist and a human being. 

     Negative emotions can be very strong, pervasive, and linger for some time. Our brain evolved emotions so that we could quickly flee from predators to avoid being eaten. Now we no longer have to worry about the problem of being eaten as much, yet our brains will dwell on other less life threatening problems such as those regarding social relationships. It is quite common to experience negative emotions caused by other people and they can be some of the strongest and most painful feelings we have. Our brain is programmed to think about our self and our self in relation to others in its default mode which has its own neural network coined the ’default mode network.’ Thus, when someone hurts us, it is automatically powerful, pervasive, and lasts a long time in our consciousness. 

     When I first found out about the actions of a person who hurt me, I felt the basic fight or flight response. I was in no physical danger, yet my heart rate increased, I started sweating, and my mind raced. The genes of my ancestors prepared me to run away or fight to the death from experiencing this emotion. The cause of this was not a tiger chasing me, but a text message from a cell phone which referenced another person. Just reading words on a screen was enough to elicit this primal response. Retrospectively, it was truly fascinating to ponder how powerful social connections are to us. 

     Once the initial flight or fight response faded, my mind still raced, but I could start to process things easier. Rapidly I would replay the actions of this person and wonder why this person would cause me this amount of pain. I would ask questions that I knew would never have answers, yet I initially obsessed over them. I kept playing out in my mind different scenarios of how to act, how I could have changed to situation, how I wish I could have made it different some way. This is my brains response to a problematic social situation since I cannot physically run away. I cannot physically fight my thoughts like I could a predator, but I can fight them with analytic thoughts aimed to resolve the problem at hand. 

     Days and weeks go by. I'm still distraught over how this person treated me, but the initial flight or fight response is long gone. It's a dull pain and always in the back of my mind. Every time my mind wanders, it leads me back to the situation of the pain this person caused me. Again, the default mode network is prone to thinking about these kinds of things and when we add in some powerful negative emotions, it is difficult if not impossible to stop thinking about. To me, this easily answers the free will debate. If we truly had free will over our minds, I would easily be able to stop thinking about the negative situation that occurred. However, our brains are wired to prevent future danger so I have no control over the neurons which make me go through this negative event again and again. 

     I know it is unhealthy for me to keep thinking of it from my knowledge of neuroscience. I know that each time I replay the situation in my mind it only strengthens the neural connectionswhich create the neural representation for it which makes it more difficult to forget and move past it. I know a constant high level of stress releases hormones called glucocorticoids which have been shown to kill neurons in the hippocampus (the part of the brain involved with memory).  I know that sadness and anxiety can negatively affect how I make various decisions. Despite this knowledge, I cannot stop thinking about it. I am trapped within my own mind. 

     I cannot control the actions of the person who hurt me, but I can control how I react to them. Experiencing negative emotions is beyond my control now, but I can take certain actions to alleviate them.  Processing out the emotions by talking things over with my friends can be incredibly helpful. Having a social support group is vital for combating a negative experience. Talking with friends allowed me to climb down the ladder of complex, abstract, and negative emotions to analyze them on a simpler and more basic level.  Through personal introspection as well as talking with others, I can identify what exactly I am feeling and why. I combat the specific negative emotions one by one and I slowly start to feel them weaken their hold on me.  Coping mechanisms and distractions also help as well. For me those were long distance running, playing piano, and doing homework so my I tried to use negative emotions to fuel healthier activities. 

     Once I know what exactly is bothering me on the most basic level, I can then try to make sense of it and learn from it. I am always a huge proponent of being open minded, but this can be difficult when negative emotions are involved. However, if someone hurts you, regardless of the scenario, it does help to try and see their point of view. As I became more grounded with my emotions, I could understand more where this person was coming from due to their own dynamics. It doesn’t matter that I don’t agree with their actions or that no one else thought what they did was a decent thing to do. I still attempted to see their perspective despite how much I disagreed with it and that seriously helped. As tough as it might be to see another person’s side if they do something hurtful you disagree with, it helps to see why they might have done it. 

     Bad things are going to happen in life and people will hurt you. You can't control that. You will feel negative emotions and you cannot control those either. However, you can control how you react to the negative situations and how you deal with your own negative emotions. It's okay to feel hurt when something bad happens. We know our brains are wired to think about it, so repressing or ignoring the situation will not help. The best thing to do is to process through the emotions by talking it out with friends and being introspective on why you are feeling the way you do on a deeper level. Make a concerted effort to try to understand your negative emotions by breaking down each thought and why it bothers you so much. By processing through your negative emotions, you learn why you feel certain things and how to combat them. Also, try to see the other person’s point of view and why they might have done something even if you do not agree with it. By trying to understand another person's point of view instead of labeling them a bad person, you increase your empathy and understanding. Furthermore, it’s important to always consider for every negative situation where someone causes you pain, there are so many more instances of great and wonderful people who truly care about you.

     I probably won't encounter another person like this again, but if I do I will know how to handle them better for next time. Though it would be narrow minded to think the only positive of that experience was how to handle a particular person and situation. This experience was invaluable for helping me become more grounded with my emotions, helping me understand why certain things might bother me and how to combat them, and how to gain a greater understanding for different perspectives. I always try to learn from every life experience and this one is no different. Optimism can be very useful for some of the most seemingly pessimistic situations. I know I will still feel negative emotions strongly, but I am now much better equipped to handle them. A person is not weak for feeling emotions and they are a perfectly normal part of the human experience. The key is to handle one’s emotions in a healthy way and not displace their negative emotions by engaging in unhealthy behavior. The situation I referenced in this post was quite a difficult experience for me, but I persevered. I aimed to not let this situation keep me down from the beginning and use it as an experience for learning and growth. Despite the negative things which occur and torture our mind, we can use what we know about the brain to not only rise above negative emotions, but use them as a tool for immense personal growth. 

Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes: A Psychological Perspective

"Only a Sith deals in absolutes"


Despite its fictional nature, the above Star Wars quote provides valuable advice. The Sith in Star Wars are generally the bad guys and dealing in absolutes is not a good thing to do. Many people in our universe do tend to deal in an absolute type of thinking. In the minds of many, people are either with them or against them. Someone is a good person or a bad person. However, this kind of thinking can often be problematic. By dealing in absolutes, you can alienate people who may agree with you 99% of the time. This is seen in friendships, business, and different movements. Someone may want to work with someone regarding 99% of a friendship or relationship or business partnership, but one little snag comes up and a person is painted as a bad person or not ‘with’ them. Everyone messes up, but jumping to the conclusion that a person is bad based off one or two mishaps is not only simple minded, it is also maladaptive. Like I said before, you are alienating people you may otherwise have wonderful and meaningful relationships. 

I believe people engage in this kind of behavior for a variety of reasons. Let us first assume that a person thinking this way does not have any sort of psychological illnesses such as borderline personality disorder which may increase absolute type thinking. One reason I think people deal in absolutes is that it simply takes less cognitive effort to place a person in one category or another and not on a spectrum. Our brains have developed to look for patterns and classify things so it is easy to place a person in one category or another and not critically evaluate their behavior.  I also believe that the fundamental attribution error plays a large role in this kind of thinking. The fundamental attribution error is a famous cognitive bias in psychological literature and is an error many people routinely make. It can be described as when people overestimate one’s personality as the cause of another person’s behavior and underestimate the effect of the environment and extenuating circumstances in their behavior. Thus, when dealing with absolutes, it is easier to think that one’s personality is flawed and the environment and other contributing factors have little to do with one’s behavior (again, less cognitive effort). 

Another reason people may engage in absolute kind of thinking is to prevent type 1 errors. Type 1 errors are when we believe there is an effect when there really is not one (i.e. a particular medicine helped cure someone when it actually had nothing to do with it. Thus, by thinking a person is good when they are really not would be a false positive (type 1 error). It can be problematic to give someone another chance when they may hurt us again so it may best to assume that they are always bad. By dealing in absolutes it is difficult to achieve a type 1 error as you label a person as absolutely bad. By doing this, you remove any chance of them providing conflicting evidence of them being good which would result in a type 1 error. 

Again, our brains are built to look for patterns and minimize cognitive effort which makes us more likely to engage in such kinds of thinking. The important thing to realize is that we have self-awareness and can be aware of our thoughts. We can know when we are engaging in such kinds of maladaptive thinking. When someone does something bad, negative emotions can fuel this kind of thinking, but we can combat it by trying to take a step back and ask ourselves questions such as “Is this an isolated incident or is there a pattern of bad behavior here?” “What sort of environmental components could have contributed to this behavior?” “Should I be more flexible in how I view this person? 

Yes, sometimes it is beneficial to just be done with a certain person if they keep causing you stress, however; sometimes it is worth giving that person one or several more chances. Not only do your perceptions of someone may not represent the whole person accurately, but people do change. People can be normally good, but can make mistakes and learn from them. People can engage in poor behavior when put in a difficult environment. People are complex and they are hard to predict. By dealing in absolutes, you may push someone away undeservingly before you think they will hurt you, but lose an important relationship in your life. 

I would like more people to take a few moments to reflect on their thoughts before they deal in an absolute. It might very well be the right call sometimes, but other times it can be a poor decision as they just threw away a great friendship, relationship, or business partner all because they gave into their cognitive biases. It is easier to deal in absolutes because of less cognitive effort, avoiding type 1 errors, and our proneness to the fundamental attribution error, but it doesn’t mean we have to think this way. We can be aware of our thinking patterns and carefully make decisions which can be best for us in the long term, not what feels good now. With awareness and a concerted effort we can avoid making choices that might ultimately be maladaptive. Our brain may be wired to process our environment a certain way, but that doesn’t mean we are required deal in absolutes.