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When Children Say They’re Trans

By Jesse Singal, The Atlantic, July/August 2018

Gender identity and sexual orientation

image from Between the (Gender) Lines: the Science of Transgender Identity, Science In The News, Harvard U.

Claire is a 14-year-old girl with short auburn hair and a broad smile. She lives outside Philadelphia with her mother and father, both professional scientists. Claire can come across as an introvert, but she quickly opens up, and what seemed like shyness reveals itself to be quiet self-assuredness. Like many kids her age, she is a bit overscheduled. During the course of the evening I spent with Claire and her mother, Heather—these aren’t their real names—theater, guitar, and track tryouts all came up. We also discussed the fact that, until recently, she wasn’t certain she was a girl.

Sixth grade had been difficult for her. She’d struggled to make friends and experienced both anxiety and depression. “I didn’t have any self-confidence at all,” she told me. “I thought there was something wrong with me.” Claire, who was 12 at the time, also felt uncomfortable in her body in a way she couldn’t quite describe. She acknowledged that part of it had to do with puberty, but she felt it was more than the usual preteen woes. “At first, I started eating less,” she said, “but that didn’t really help.”

Around this time, Claire started watching YouTube videos made by transgender young people. She was particularly fascinated by MilesChronicles, the channel of Miles McKenna, a charismatic 22-year-old. His 1 million subscribers have followed along as he came out as a trans boy, went on testosterone, got a double mastectomy, and transformed into a happy, healthy young man. Claire had discovered the videos by accident, or rather by algorithm: They’d showed up in her “recommended” stream. They gave a name to Claire’s discomfort. She began to wonder whether she was transgender, meaning her internal gender identity didn’t match the sex she had been assigned at birth. “Maybe the reason I’m uncomfortable with my body is I’m supposed to be a guy,” she thought at the time.

Claire found in MilesChronicles and similar YouTube videos a clear solution to her unhappiness. “I just wanted to stop feeling bad, so I was like, I should just transition,” she said. In Claire’s case, the first step would be gaining access to drugs that would halt puberty; next, she would start taking testosterone to develop male secondary sex characteristics. “I thought that that was what made you feel better,” she told me.

In Claire’s mind, the plan was concrete, though neither Heather nor her husband, Mike, knew about any of it. Claire initially kept her feelings from her parents, researching steps she could take toward transitioning that wouldn’t require medical interventions, or her parents’ approval. She looked into ways to make her voice sound deeper and into binders to hide her breasts. But one day in August 2016, Mike asked her why she’d seemed so sad lately. She explained to him that she thought she was a boy.

This began what Heather recalls as a complicated time in her and her husband’s relationship with their daughter. They told Claire that they loved and supported her; they thanked her for telling them what she was feeling. But they stopped short of encouraging her to transition. “We let her completely explore this on her own,” Heather told me.

To Claire’s parents, her anguish seemed to come out of nowhere. Her childhood had been free of gender dysphoria—the clinical term for experiencing a powerful sense of disconnection from your assigned sex. They were concerned that what their daughter had self-diagnosed as dysphoria was simply the travails of puberty.

As Claire passed into her teen years, she continued to struggle with mental-health problems. Her parents found her a therapist, and while that therapist worked on Claire’s depression and anxiety—she was waking up several times a night to make sure her alarm clock was set correctly—she didn’t feel qualified to help her patient with gender dysphoria. The therapist referred the family to some nearby gender-identity clinics that offered transition services for young people.

Claire’s parents were wary of starting that process. Heather, who has a doctorate in pharmacology, had begun researching youth gender dysphoria for herself. She hoped to better understand why Claire was feeling this way and what she and Mike could do to help. Heather concluded that Claire met the clinical criteria for gender dysphoria in the DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual. Among other indications, her daughter clearly didn’t feel like a girl, clearly wanted a boy’s body, and was deeply distressed by these feelings. But Heather questioned whether these criteria, or much of the information she found online, told the whole story. “Psychologists know that adolescence is fraught with uncertainty and identity searching, and this isn’t even acknowledged,” she told me.

Heather said most of the resources she found for parents of a gender-dysphoric child told her that if her daughter said she was trans, she was trans. If her daughter said she needed hormones, Heather’s responsibility was to help her get on hormones. The most important thing she could do was affirm her daughter, which Heather and Mike interpreted as meaning they should agree with her declarations that she was transgender. Even if they weren’t so certain.

As heather was searching for answers, Claire’s belief that she should transition was growing stronger. For months, she had been insistent that she wanted both testosterone and “top surgery”—a double mastectomy. She repeatedly asked her parents to find her doctors who could get her started on a path to physical transition. Heather and Mike bought time by telling her they were looking but hadn’t been able to find anyone yet. “We also took her kayaking, played more board games with her and watched more TV with her, and took other short family trips,” Heather recalled. “We also took away her ability to search online but gave her Instagram as a consolation.” They told her they realized that she was in pain, but they also felt, based on what they’d learned in their research, that it was possible her feelings about her gender would change over time. They asked her to start keeping a journal, hoping it would help her explore those feelings.

Claire humored her parents, even as her frustration with them mounted. Eventually, though, something shifted. In a journal entry Claire wrote last November, she traced her realization that she wasn’t a boy to one key moment. Looking in the mirror at a time when she was trying to present in a very male way—at “my baggy, uncomfortable clothes; my damaged, short hair; and my depressed-looking face”—she found that “it didn’t make me feel any better. I was still miserable, and I still hated myself.” From there, her distress gradually began to lift. “It was kind of sudden when I thought: You know, maybe this isn’t the right answer—maybe it’s something else,” Claire told me. “But it took a while to actually set in that yes, I was definitely a girl.”
Claire believes that her feeling that she was a boy stemmed from rigid views of gender roles that she had internalized. “I think I really had it set in stone what a guy was supposed to be like and what a girl was supposed to be like. I thought that if you didn’t follow the stereotypes of a girl, you were a guy, and if you didn’t follow the stereotypes of a guy, you were a girl.” She hadn’t seen herself in the other girls in her middle-school class, who were breaking into cliques and growing more gossipy. As she got a bit older, she found girls who shared her interests, and started to feel at home in her body.

Heather thinks that if she and Mike had heeded the information they found online, Claire would have started a physical transition and regretted it later. These days, Claire is a generally happy teenager whose mental-health issues have improved markedly. She still admires people, like Miles McKenna, who benefited from transitioning. But she’s come to realize that’s just not who she happens to be.

The number of self-identifying trans people in the United States is on the rise. In June 2016, the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that 1.4 million adults in the U.S. identify as transgender, a near-doubling of an estimate from about a decade earlier. As of 2017, according to the institute, about 150,000 teenagers ages 13 to 17 identified as trans. The number of young people seeking clinical services appears to be growing as well. A major clinic in the United Kingdom saw a more than 300 percent increase in new referrals over the past three years. In the U.S., where youth gender clinics are somewhat newer—40 or so are scattered across the country—solid numbers are harder to come by. Anecdotally, though, clinicians are reporting large upticks in new referrals, and waiting lists can stretch to five months or longer.

The current era of gender-identity awareness has undoubtedly made life easier for many young people who feel constricted by the sometimes-oppressive nature of gender expectations. A rich new language has taken root, granting kids who might have felt alone or excluded the words they need to describe their experiences. And the advent of the internet has allowed teenagers, even ones in parts of the country where acceptance of gender nonconformity continues to come far too slowly, to find others like them.

But when it comes to the question of physical interventions, this era has also brought fraught new challenges to many parents. Where is the line between not “feeling like” a girl because society makes it difficult to be a girl and needing hormones to alleviate dysphoria that otherwise won’t go away? How can parents tell? How can they help their children gain access to the support and medical help they might need, while also keeping in mind that adolescence is, by definition, a time of fevered identity exploration?

There is no shortage of information available for parents trying to navigate this difficult terrain. If you read the bible of medical and psychiatric care for transgender people — the Standards of Care issued by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (Wpath) — you’ll find an 11-page section called “Assessment and Treatment of Children and Adolescents With Gender Dysphoria.” It states that while some teenagers should go on hormones, that decision should be made with deliberation: “Before any physical interventions are considered for adolescents, extensive exploration of psychological, family, and social issues should be undertaken.” The American Psychological Association’s guidelines sound a similar note, explaining the benefits of hormones but also noting that “adolescents can become intensely focused on their immediate desires.” It goes on: “This intense focus on immediate needs may create challenges in assuring that adolescents are cognitively and emotionally able to make life-altering decisions.”

The leading professional organizations offer this guidance. But some clinicians are moving toward a faster process. And other resources, including those produced by major LGBTQ organizations, place the emphasis on acceptance rather than inquiry. The Human Rights Campaign’s “Transgender Children & Youth: Understanding the Basics” web page, for example, encourages parents to seek the guidance of a gender specialist. It also asserts that “being transgender is not a phase, and trying to dismiss it as such can be harmful during a time when your child most needs support and validation.” Similarly, parents who consult the pages tagged “transgender youth” on glaad’s site will find many articles about supporting young people who come out as trans but little about the complicated diagnostic and developmental questions faced by the parents of a gender-exploring child.

HRC, glaad, and like-minded advocacy groups emphasize the acceptance of trans kids for understandable reasons: For far too long, parents, as well as clinicians, denied the possibility that trans kids and teens even existed, let alone that they should be allowed to transition. Many such organizations are primarily concerned with raising awareness and correcting still-common misconceptions.

A similar motive seems to animate much of the media coverage of transgender young people. Two genres of coverage have emerged. Dating back at least to the 1993 murder of the Nebraska 21-year-old Brandon Teena, which inspired a documentary as well as the film Boys Don’t Cry, a steady stream of horror stories has centered on bullying, physical assault, and suicide—real risks that transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) young people still face.

More recently, a wave of success stories has appeared. In many of these accounts, kids are lost, confused, and frustrated right up until the moment they are allowed to grow their hair out and adopt a new name, at which point they finally become their true self. Take, for example, a Parents.com article in which a mother, writing pseudonymously, explains that she struggled with her child’s gender-identity issues for years, until finally turning to a therapist, who, after a 20-minute evaluation, pronounced the child trans. Suddenly, everything clicked into place. The mother writes: “I looked at the child sitting between my husband and me, the child who was smiling, who appeared so happy, who looked as if someone finally saw him or her the way she or he saw him or herself.” In a National Geographic special issue on gender, the writer Robin Marantz Henig recounts the story of a mother who let her 4-year-old, assigned male at birth, choose a girl’s name, start using female pronouns, and attend preschool as a girl. “Almost instantly the gloom lifted,” Henig writes.

Accounts of successful transitions can help families envision a happy outcome for a suffering child. And some young people clearly experience something like what these caterpillar-to-butterfly narratives depict. They have persistent, intense gender dysphoria from a very young age, and transitioning alleviates it. “Some kids don’t waver” in their gender identity, Nate Sharon, a psychiatrist who oversaw a gender clinic in New Mexico for two and a half years, and who is himself trans, told me when we spoke in 2016. “I’m seeing an 11-year-old who at age 2 went up to his mom and said, ‘When am I going to start growing my penis? Where’s my penis?’ At 2.”

But these stories tend to elide the complexities of being a TGNC young person, or the parent of one. Some families will find a series of forking paths, and won’t always know which direction is best. Like Claire’s parents, they may be convinced that their child is in pain, but also concerned that physical transition is not the solution, at least not for a young person still in the throes of adolescence.

We are still in the earliest stages of understanding how physical transitioning affects dysphoric young people. While the specifics depend on your child’s age, and can vary from case to case, the transition process for a persistently dysphoric child typically looks something like the following. First, allow your child to transition socially: to adopt the pronouns and style of dress of their authentic gender, and to change their name if they wish. As your child approaches adolescence, get them puberty-blocking drugs, because developing the secondary sex characteristics of their assigned sex could exacerbate their gender dysphoria. When they reach their teen years, help them gain access to the cross-sex hormones that will allow them to develop secondary sex characteristics in line with their gender identity. (Until recently, hormones were typically not prescribed until age 16; it’s now more common for 15- and 14-year-olds, and sometimes even younger kids, to begin hormone therapy.)

In the United States, avoiding puberty became an option only a little more than a decade ago, so researchers have just begun tracking the kids engaged in this process, and we don’t yet have comprehensive data about their long-term outcomes. Most of the data we do have involve kids who socially transitioned at an early age, but who hadn’t yet physically transitioned. The information comes from a University of Washington researcher named Kristina Olson. Olson is the founder of the TransYouth Project, which is following a cohort of about 300 children for 20 years—the longest such longitudinal study based in the U.S. The kids she is tracking appear to be doing well—they don’t seem all that different, in terms of their mental health and general happiness, from a control group of cisgender kids (that is, kids who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth).

At the prestigious Center of Expertise on Gender Dysphoria, at Vrije Universiteit University Medical Center, in Amsterdam—often referred to simply as “the Dutch clinic”—an older cohort of kids who went through the puberty-blockers-and-cross-sex-hormones protocol was also found to be doing well: “Gender dysphoria had resolved,” according to a study of the group published in 2014 in Pediatrics. “Psychological functioning had steadily improved, and well-being was comparable to same-age peers.”

These early results, while promising, can tell us only so much. Olson’s findings come from a group of trans kids whose parents are relatively wealthy and are active in trans-support communities; they volunteered their children for the study. There are limits to how much we can extrapolate from the Dutch study as well: That group went through a comprehensive diagnostic process prior to transitioning, which included continuous access to mental-health care at a top-tier gender clinic—a process unfortunately not available to every young person who transitions.

Among the issues yet to be addressed by long-term studies are the effects of medications on young people. As Thomas Steensma, a psychologist and researcher at the Dutch clinic and a co-author of that study, explained to me, data about the potential risks of putting young people on puberty blockers are scarce. He would like to see further research into the possible effects of blockers on bone and brain development. (The potential long-term risks of cross-sex hormones aren’t well known, but are likely modest, according to Joshua Safer, one of the authors of the Endocrine Society’s “Clinical Practice Guideline” for treatment of gender dysphoria.)

Meanwhile, fundamental questions about gender dysphoria remain unanswered. Researchers still don’t know what causes it—gender identity is generally viewed as a complicated weave of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. In some cases, gender dysphoria may interact with mental-health conditions such as depression and anxiety, but there’s little agreement about how or why. Trauma, particularly sexual trauma, can contribute to or exacerbate dysphoria in some patients, but again, no one yet knows exactly why.

To reiterate: For many of the young people in the early studies, transitioning—socially for children, physically for adolescents and young adults—appears to have greatly alleviated their dysphoria. But it’s not the answer for everyone. Some kids are dysphoric from a very young age, but in time become comfortable with their body. Some develop dysphoria around the same time they enter puberty, but their suffering is temporary. Others end up identifying as nonbinary—that is, neither male nor female.

Ignoring the diversity of these experiences and focusing only on those who were effectively “born in the wrong body” could cause harm. That is the argument of a small but vocal group of men and women who have transitioned, only to return to their assigned sex. Many of these so-called detransitioners argue that their dysphoria was caused not by a deep-seated mismatch between their gender identity and their body but rather by mental-health problems, trauma, societal misogyny, or some combination of these and other factors. They say they were nudged toward the physical interventions of hormones or surgery by peer pressure or by clinicians who overlooked other potential explanations for their distress.

Some of these interventions are irreversible. People respond differently to cross-sex hormones, but changes in vocal pitch, body hair, and other physical characteristics, such as the development of breast tissue, can become permanent. Kids who go on puberty blockers and then on cross-sex hormones may not be able to have biological children. Surgical interventions can sometimes be reversed with further surgeries, but often with disappointing results.

The concerns of the detransitioners are echoed by a number of clinicians who work in this field, most of whom are psychologists and psychiatrists. They very much support so-called affirming care, which entails accepting and exploring a child’s statements about their gender identity in a compassionate manner. But they worry that, in an otherwise laudable effort to get TGNC young people the care they need, some members of their field are ignoring the complexity, and fluidity, of gender-identity development in young people. These colleagues are approving teenagers for hormone therapy, or even top surgery, without fully examining their mental health or the social and family influences that could be shaping their nascent sense of their gender identity.

That’s too narrow a definition of affirming care, in the view of many leading clinicians. “Affirming care does not privilege any one outcome when it comes to gender identity, but instead aims to allow exploration of gender without judgment and with a clear understanding of the risks, benefits, and alternatives to any choice along the way,” Aron Janssen, the clinical director of the Gender and Sexuality Service at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital, in New York, told me. “Many people misinterpret affirming care as proceeding to social and medical transition in all cases without delay, but the reality is much more complex.”

…. Wpath and other organizations that provide guidance for transitioning young people call for thorough assessments of patients before they start taking blockers or hormones. This caution comes from the concerns inherent in working with young people. Adolescents change significantly and rapidly; they may view themselves and their place in the world differently at 15 than they did at 12.

“You’ve got the onset of puberty right around the age where they develop the concept of abstract thinking,” said Nate Sharon, the New Mexico psychiatrist. “So they may start to conceptualize gender concepts in a much richer, broader manner than previously—and then maybe puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones aren’t for them.” That was true for Claire: A shift in her understanding of the nature of gender led her to realize that transitioning was not the answer for her.

For younger children, gender identity is an even trickier concept. In one experiment, for example, many 3-to-5-year-olds thought that if a boy put on a dress, he became a girl. Gender clinicians sometimes encounter young children who believe they are, or want to be, another gender because of their dress or play preferences—I like rough-and-tumble play, so I must be a boy—but who don’t meet the criteria for gender dysphoria.

In the past, therapists and doctors interpreted the fluidity of gender identity among children as license to put gender-bending kids into the “right” box by encouraging—or forcing—them to play with the “right” toys and dress in the “right” clothes. Until about five years ago, according to one clinician’s estimate, social transition was often frowned upon. For decades, trans-ness was sometimes tolerated in adults as a last-ditch outcome, but in young people it was more often seen as something to be drummed out rather than explored or accepted. So-called reparative therapy has harmed and humiliated trans and gender-nonconforming children. In her book Gender Born, Gender Made, Diane Ehrensaft, the director of mental health at UC San Francisco’s Child and Adolescent Gender Center, writes that victims of these practices “become listless or agitated, long for their taken-away favorite toys and clothes, and even literally go into hiding in closets to continue playing with the verboten toys or wearing the forbidden clothes.” Such therapy is now viewed as unethical.


When max robinson was 17, getting a double mastectomy made perfect sense to her. In fact, it felt like her only option—like a miraculous, lifesaving procedure. Though she had a woman’s body, she was really a man. Surgery would finally offer her a chance to be herself.

I met Max, now 22, in an airy café in the quiet southern-Oregon town where she lives. She was wearing a T‑shirt with a flannel button-down over it. On her head, a gray winter cap; at her feet, a shaggy white service dog. By the time we met, we’d spoken on the phone and exchanged a number of emails, and she had told me her story—one that suggests the complexity of gender-identity development.

Max recalled that as early as age 5, she didn’t enjoy being treated like a girl. “I questioned my teachers about why I had to make an angel instead of a Santa for a Christmas craft, or why the girls’ bathroom pass had ribbons instead of soccer balls, when I played soccer and knew lots of other girls in our class who loved soccer,” she said.

She grew up a happy tomboy—until puberty. “People expect you to grow out of it” at that age, she explained, “and people start getting uncomfortable when you don’t.” Worse, “the way people treated me started getting increasingly sexualized.” She remembered one boy who, when she was 12, kept asking her to pick up his pencil so he could look down her shirt.

“I started dissociating from my body a lot more when I started going through puberty,” Max said. Her discomfort grew more internalized—less a frustration with how the world treated women and more a sense that the problem lay in her own body. She came to believe that being a woman was “something I had to control and fix.” She had tried various ways of making her discomfort abate—in seventh grade, she vacillated between “dressing like a 12-year-old boy” and wearing revealing, low-cut outfits, attempts to defy and accede to the demands the world was making of her body. But nothing could banish her feeling that womanhood wasn’t for her. She had more bad experiences with men, too: When she was 13, she had sex with an older man she was seeing; at the time, it felt consensual, but she has since realized that a 13-year-old can’t consent to sex with an 18-year-old. At 14, she witnessed a friend get molested by an adult man at a church slumber party. Around this time, Max was diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder.

In ninth grade, Max first encountered the concept of being transgender when she watched an episode of The Tyra Banks Show in which Buck Angel, a trans porn star, talked about his transition. It opened up a new world of online gender-identity exploration. She gradually decided that she needed to transition.

Max’s parents were skeptical at first but eventually came around, signing her up for sessions with a therapist who specialized in gender-identity issues. She recalled that the specialist was very open to putting her on a track toward transition, though he suggested that her discomfort could have other sources as well. Max, however, was certain that transitioning was the answer. She told me that she “refused to talk about anything other than transition.”

When Max was 16, her therapist wrote her a referral to see an endocrinologist who could help her begin the process of physical transition by prescribing male hormones. The endocrinologist was skeptical, Max said. “I think what she was seeing was a lesbian teenager,” not a trans one. At the time, though, Max interpreted the doctor’s reluctance as her “being ignorant, as her trying to hurt me.” Armed with the referral from her therapist, Max got the endocrinologist to prescribe the treatment she sought.

Max started taking testosterone. She experienced some side effects—hot flashes, memory issues—but the hormones also provided real relief. Her plan all along had been to get top surgery, too, and the initially promising effects of the hormones helped persuade her to continue on this path. When she was 17, Max, who was still dealing with major mental-health issues, was scheduled for surgery.

Because Max had parental approval, the surgeon she saw agreed to operate on her despite the fact that she was still a minor. (It’s become more common for surgeons to perform top surgeries on teenagers as young as 16 if they have parental approval. The medical norms are more conservative when it comes to bottom surgeries; Wpath says they should be performed only on adults who have been living in their gender role for at least one year.) Max went into the surgery optimistic. “I was convinced it would solve a lot of my problems,” she said, “and I hadn’t accurately named a lot of those problems yet.”

Max was initially happy with the results of her physical transformation. Before surgery, she wasn’t able to fully pass as male. After surgery, between her newly masculinized chest and the facial hair she was able to grow thanks to the hormones, she felt like she had left behind the sex she had been assigned at birth. “It felt like an accomplishment to be seen the way I wanted to be seen,” she told me.

But that feeling didn’t last. After her surgery, Max moved from her native California to Portland and threw herself into the trans scene there. It wasn’t a happy home. The clarity of identity she was seeking—and that she’d felt, temporarily, after starting hormones and undergoing surgery—never fully set in. Her discomfort didn’t go away.

Today, Max identifies as a woman. She believes that she misinterpreted her sexual orientation, as well as the effects of the misogyny and trauma she had experienced as a young person, as being about gender identity. Because of the hormone therapy, she still has facial hair and is frequently mistaken for male as a result, but she has learned to live with this: “My sense of self isn’t entirely dependent on how other people see me.”

Max is one of what appears to be a growing number of people who believe they were failed by the therapists and physicians they went to for help with their gender dysphoria. While their individual stories differ, they tend to touch on similar themes. Most began transitioning during adolescence or early adulthood. Many were on hormones for extended periods of time, causing permanent changes to their voice, appearance, or both. Some, like Max, also had surgery.

Many detransitioners feel that during the process leading up to their transition, well-meaning clinicians left unexplored their overlapping mental-health troubles or past traumas. Though Max’s therapist had tried to work on other issues with her, Max now believes she was encouraged to rush into physical transition by clinicians operating within a framework that saw it as the only way someone like her could experience relief. Despite the fact that she was a minor for much of the process, she says, her doctors more or less did as she told them.

Over the past couple of years, the detransitioner movement has become more visible. Last fall, Max told her story to The Economist’s magazine of culture and ideas, 1843. Detransitioners who previously blogged pseudonymously, largely on Tumblr, have begun writing under their real names, as well as speaking on camera in YouTube videos.

Cari Stella is the author of a blog called Guide on Raging Stars. Stella, now 24, socially transitioned at 15, started hormones at 17, got a double mastectomy at 20, and detransitioned at 22. “I’m a real-live 22-year-old woman with a scarred chest and a broken voice and a 5 o’clock shadow because I couldn’t face the idea of growing up to be a woman,” she said in a video posted in August 2016. “I was not a very emotionally stable teenager,” she told me when we spoke. Transitioning offered a “level of control over how I was being perceived.”

Carey Callahan is a 36-year-old woman living in Ohio who detransitioned after identifying as trans for four years and spending nine months on male hormones. She previously blogged under the pseudonym Maria Catt, but “came out” in a YouTube video in July 2016. She now serves as something of an older sister to a network of female, mostly younger detransitioners, about 70 of whom she has met in person; she told me she has corresponded online with an additional 300. (The detransitioners who have spoken out thus far are mostly people who were assigned female at birth. Traditionally, most new arrivals at youth gender clinics were assigned male; today, many clinics are reporting that new patients are mostly assigned female. There is no consensus explanation for the change.)

I met Carey in Columbus in March. She told me that her decision to detransition grew out of her experience working at a trans clinic in San Francisco in 2014 and 2015. “People had said often to me that when you transition, your gender dysphoria gets worse before it gets better,” she told me. “But I saw and knew so many people who were cutting themselves, starving themselves, never leaving their apartments. That made me doubt the narrative that if you make it all the way to medical transition, then it’s probably going to work out well for you.”

Carey said she met people who appeared to be grappling with severe trauma and mental illness, but were fixated on their next transition milestone, convinced thatwas the moment when they would get better. “I knew a lot of people committed to that narrative who didn’t seem to be doing well,” she recalled. Carey’s time at the clinic made her realize that testosterone hadn’t made her feel better in a sustained way either. She detransitioned, moved to Ohio, and is now calling for a more careful approach to treating gender dysphoria than what many detransitioners say they experienced themselves.

In part, that would mean clinicians adhering to guidelines like Wpath’s Standards of Care, which are nonbinding. “When I look at what the SOC describes, and then I look at my own experience and my friends’ experiences of pursuing hormones and surgery, there’s hardly any overlap between the directives of the SOC and the reality of care patients get,” Carey told me. “We didn’t discuss all the implications of medical intervention—psychological, social, physical, sexual, occupational, financial, and legal—which the SOC directs the mental-health professional to discuss. What the SOC describes and the care people get before getting cleared for hormones and surgery are miles apart.”


…. Within a subset of trans advocacy, however, desistance isn’t viewed as a phenomenon we’ve yet to fully understand and quantify but rather as a myth to be dispelled. Those who raise the subject of desistance are often believed to have nefarious motives—the liberal outlet ThinkProgress, for example, referred to desistance research as “the pernicious junk science stalking trans kids,” and a subgenre of articles and blog posts attempts to debunk “the desistance myth.” But the evidence that desistance occurs is overwhelming. The American Psychological Association, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Endocrine Society, and Wpath all recognize that desistance occurs. I didn’t speak with a single clinician who believes otherwise. “I’ve seen it clinically happen,” Nate Sharon said. “It’s not a myth.”

… Even some of the clinicians who have emphasized the need to be deferential to young people acknowledge the complexities at play here. A psychologist with decades of experience working with TGNC young people, Diane Ehrensaft is perhaps the most frequently quoted youth-gender clinician in the country. She is tireless in her advocacy for trans kids. “It’s the children who are now leading us,” she told The Washington Post recently. She sees this as a positive development: “If you listen to the children, you will discover their gender,” she wrote in one article. “It is not for us to tell, but for them to say.”

But when I spoke with Ehrensaft at her home in Oakland, she described many situations involving physical interventions in which her work was far more complicated than simply affirming a client’s self-diagnosis. “This is what I tell kids all the time, particularly teenagers,” she said. “Often they’re pushing for fast. I say, ‘Look, I’m old, you’re young. I go slow, you go fast. We’re going to have to work that out.’ ” Sometimes, she said, she suspects that a kid who wants hormones right now is simply reciting something he found on the internet. “It just feels wooden, is the only thing I can say,” she told me.

…Suicide is the dark undercurrent of many discussions among parents of TGNC young people. Suicide and suicidal ideation are tragically common in the transgender community. An analysis conducted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute, published in 2014, found that 41 percent of trans respondents had attempted suicide; 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population report having attempted suicide at least once. While the authors note that for methodological reasons 41 percent is likely an overestimate, it still points to a scarily high figure, and other research has consistently shown that trans people have elevated rates of suicidal ideation and suicide relative to cisgender people.

But the existence of a high suicide rate among trans people—a population facing high instances of homelessness, sexual assault, and discrimination—does not imply that it is common for young people to become suicidal if they aren’t granted immediate access to puberty blockers or hormones. Parents and clinicians do need to make fraught decisions fairly quickly in certain situations. When severely dysphoric kids are approaching puberty, for instance, blockers can be a crucial tool to buy time, and sometimes there’s a genuine rush to gain access to them, particularly in light of the waiting lists at many gender clinics. But the clinicians I interviewed said they rarely encounter situations in which immediate access to hormones is the difference between suicide and survival. Leibowitz noted that a relationship with a caring therapist may itself be an important prophylactic against suicidal ideation for TGNC youth: “Often for the first time having a medical or mental-health professional tell them that they are going to take them seriously and really listen to them and hear their story often helps them feel better than they’ve ever felt.”

When parents discuss the reasons they question their children’s desire to transition, whether in online forums or in response to a journalist’s questions, many mention “social contagion.” These parents are worried that their kids are influenced by the gender-identity exploration they’re seeing online and perhaps at school or in other social settings, rather than experiencing gender dysphoria.

Many trans advocates find the idea of social contagion silly or even offensive given the bullying, violence, and other abuse this population faces. They also point out that some parents simply might not want a trans kid—again, parental skepticism or rejection is a painfully common experience for trans young people. Michelle Forcier, a pediatrician who specializes in youth-gender issues in Rhode Island, said the trans adolescents she works with frequently tell her things like No one’s taking me seriously—my parents think this is a phase or a fad.

But some anecdotal evidence suggests that social forces can play a role in a young person’s gender questioning. “I’ve been seeing this more frequently,” Laura Edwards-Leeper wrote in an email. Her young clients talk openly about peer influence, saying things like Oh, Steve is really trans, but Rachel is just doing it for attention. Scott Padberg did exactly this when we met for lunch: He said there are kids in his school who claim to be trans but who he believes are not. “They all flaunt it around, like: ‘I’m trans, I’m trans, I’m trans,’ ” he said. “They post it on social media.”

I heard a similar story from a quirky 16-year-old theater kid who was going by the nickname Delta when we spoke. She lives outside Portland, Oregon, with her mother and father. A wave of gender-identity experimentation hit her social circle in 2013. Suddenly, it seemed, no one was cisgender anymore. Delta, who was 13 and homeschooled, soon announced to her parents that she was genderqueer, then nonbinary, and finally trans. Then she told them she wanted to go on testosterone. Her parents were skeptical, both because of the social influence they saw at work and because Delta had anxiety and depression, which they felt could be contributing to her distress. But when her mother, Jenny, sought out information, she found herself in online parenting groups where she was told that if she dragged her feet about Delta’s transition, she was potentially endangering her daughter. “Any questioning brought down the hammer on you,” she told me.

Delta’s parents took her to see Edwards-Leeper. The psychologist didn’t question her about being trans or close the door on her eventually starting hormones. Rather, she asked Delta a host of detailed questions about her life and mental health and family. Edwards-Leeper advised her to wait until she was a bit older to take steps toward a physical transition—as Delta recalled, she said something like “I acknowledge that you feel a certain way, but I think we should work on other stuff first, and then if you still feel this way later on in life, then I will help you with that.”

“Other stuff” mostly meant her problems with anxiety and depression. Edwards-Leeper told Jenny and Delta that while Delta met the clinical threshold for gender dysphoria, a deliberate approach made the most sense in light of her mental-health issues.

“At the time I was not happy that she told me that I should go and deal with mental stuff first,” Delta said, “but I’m glad that she said that, because too many people are so gung ho and just like, ‘You’re trans, just go ahead,’ even if they aren’t—and then they end up making mistakes that they can’t redo.” Delta’s gender dysphoria subsequently dissipated, though it’s unclear why. She started taking antidepressants in December, which seem to be working. I asked Delta whether she thought her mental-health problems and identity questioning were linked. “They definitely were,” she said. “Because once I actually started working on things, I got better and I didn’t want anything to do with gender labels—I was fine with just being me and not being a specific thing.”

How best to support tgnc kids is a whiplash-inducing subject. To understand even just the small set of stories I encountered in my reporting—stories involving relatively privileged white kids with caring, involved families, none of which is necessarily the case for all TGNC young people in the United States—requires keeping several seemingly conflicting claims in mind. Some teenagers, in the years ahead, are going to rush into physically transitioning and may regret it. Other teens will be prevented from accessing hormones and will suffer great anguish as a result. Along the way, a heartbreaking number of trans and gender-nonconforming teens will be bullied and ostracized and will even end their own lives.

Some LGBTQ advocates have called for gender dysphoria to be removed from the DSM-5, arguing that its inclusion pathologizes being trans. But gender dysphoria, as science currently understands it, is a painful condition that requires treatment to be alleviated. Given the diversity of outcomes among kids who experience dysphoria at one time or another, it’s hard to imagine a system without a standardized, comprehensive diagnostic protocol, one designed to maximize good outcomes.


This website is educational. Materials within it are being used in accord with the Fair Use doctrine, as defined by United States law.

§107. Limitations on Exclusive Rights: Fair Use. Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phone records or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use, the factors to be considered shall include: the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. (added pub. l 94-553, Title I, 101, Oct 19, 1976, 90 Stat 2546)



Articles by cognitive scientists Daniel Willingham

Articles by cognitive scientists Daniel Willingham

Cognitive Processes

Evaluation of Theories

The growing acceptance of autism in the workplace

from CBS News, Feb 11, 2018

We like to think that good work is always rewarded. But what if some people who could do good work can’t their foot in the door in the first place? That’s where recent hiring initiatives that look beyond unfair stereotypes come in, as Lee Cowan reports in our Cover Story:

Twenty-seven-year-old Christopher Pauley thought he had it all figured out when it came to looking for a job.

He had a detailed spreadsheet of each and every position he applied for — at least 600.

But despite his degree in computer science from California Polytechnic State University, he went two years with barely a nibble.

Did he get discouraged? “Oh my gosh, my morale really started to drop towards the end,” he said. “In fact, there were days where I would either hardly fill out any applications at all, or just simply not apply on anything.”

He knew he had the smarts for most jobs; he was a former Spelling Bee Champ, after all. But Pauley struggles with social and communications skills because he’s also autistic.

While precise numbers are hard to come by, by some estimates at least 80% of adults with autism are unemployed, even though their IQs are often well above average.

Sometimes their job skills can present themselves in unique ways. For Christopher, it’s video games. His ability to recognize patterns and his acute attention to detail — both hallmarks of autism — make his playing the video game Rock Band look pretty easy. And they are the same skills he was hoping would impress prospective employers in the computer programming world. But he always had to get past that interview, which was a challenge at best.

Cowan asked, “Was there, in any of those interviews, a time where you just wanted to tell somebody, ‘Look, I know my social skills maybe aren’t quite what you expect, but I know I can do this job, and I know I can do a really good job if you give me a chance’?”


“But you never said that to anybody?”

“Most of the time, no,” he replied.

“Because why?”

“I just wasn’t comfortable. It makes me come across as desperate.”

At Microsoft, however, there was no need to hide his autism; they were looking for it.

“It’s a talent pool that really hasn’t been tapped,” said Jenny Lay-Flurrie, the chief accessibility officer at tech giant Microsoft outside Seattle. “There really is, and was, a lot of data on the table that said to us that we were missing out. We were missing out on an opportunity to bring talent in with autism.”

Cowan said, “So in a way, it sounds like this was almost a business imperative.”

“Heck, yeah!” she laughed. “People with disabilities are a strength and a force of nature in this company, myself included.”

Lay-Flurrie, who is profoundly deaf, communicates by reading lips and working with an interpreter. She helped create a hiring program for Microsoft back in 2015 designed to better identify candidates with autistic talents.

Instead of the traditional job interview focusing so heavily on social skills, the company has replaced it with a vetting process that lasts for weeks, and team building exercises like one called the Marshmallow Challenge.

“Being able to watch a candidate in that environment as opposed to sitting across the table interviewing them makes all the difference in the world,” said Cowan.

“Every difference,” said Lay-Flurrie. “Every day, in any company, in any role, you’re going to be asked to work with someone else to figure out a problem or a challenge, or a project.”

“And yet in that scenario, they’re not as self-conscious that they’re being observed for a job — they’re just doing a task.”

“It’s marshmallows!”

After Christopher Pauley went through a similar, unconventional interview process back in 2016, Microsoft quickly hired him as a software engineer. His manager Brent Truell says he was immediately impressed by Christopher’s “out of the box” thinking.

“When we are faced with really complicated problems, the solutions to those aren’t always simple,” said Truell. “And Christopher always kind of brings new insights. And having that creative mind, he always brings something new to the team, which is really exciting.”

“Which is exactly why you hired him, right?


It’s an idea that’s catching on.

Last April, 50 big-name companies — including JP Morgan, Ford and Ernst & Young — came together for a summit on how to bring more autistic adults into the workforce.

It was hosted at the Silicon Valley campus of German software maker SAP, which was one of the first large companies to reach out to the autistic community.

It started its Autism at Work Program almost five years ago, and since then it’s hired 128 people on the spectrum, with the goal of hiring more than 600.

“I have been in this industry for close to 30 years, and I can tell you it’s probably the single most rewarding program that I have been involved with,” said Jose Velasco, who heads the program.

The biggest surprise for him, he says, has been the variety of candidates applying. “Very quickly we started getting resumes from people that had degrees in history, and literature in graphic design, attorneys … the whole gamut of jobs,” Velasco said.

“So really, you went into this thinking that people with autism would be good at certain jobs, and what you ended up discovering is they’re good at all jobs?” asked Cowan.

“They are good at just about every role.”

And they’re expected to perform in those roles, just like anyone else.

Mike Seborowski, for example, was hired three years ago and works in cybersecurity in SAP’s office outside of Philadelphia. When Cowan was visiting, Jose was helping Mike get ready for a long stint at the company world headquarters in Germany.  “If you would had told me six years ago that we would have an employee who was openly autistic in the company, going on a business trip to Germany for a month, I would have not believed you,” said Velasco.

Almost everyone has been a surprise, he says. He points to 26-year-old Gloria Mendoza.

She told Cowan, “You should see some of the videos I had when I was a child. I was not very socially skilled with the other kids. Not showing interest with other people, displaying some of the challenging behaviors that a child on the autism spectrum would have.”

Her parents, Rosaura and Enrique Mendoza, helped get Gloria years of speech and occupational therapies, as well as access to top doctors. “When she was very young, I used to worry so much because I never thought she will overcome all what she has done,” said Rosaura. “So, it was like a very dark cloud.”

Gloria made huge strides in her childhood, but her parents were still concerned about how autism might affect her future.

“We worry about her adult life — well, first of all, could she make it through high school?” said Enrique. “Then, once she does that, you know, can she make it through college? Can she be independent?”

She made it through both high school and college; in fact, she got two degrees from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania — one in music (she has a beautiful singing voice), and another in computer science. And yet, a year after graduating — and hundreds of resumes later — she still couldn’t find a job … until she applied to SAP.

“Probably the best part about working here is that I can use the skills which I have studied whilst being among people that understand who I am and how I’m different from everybody else,” she said.

SAP put Mendoza through five weeks of training, which included working on her social skills.

She’s now in something called Digital Business Services, where she deals directly with customers.

Cowan asked, “What’s the one dream you really want to come true?”

“Probably that I can be really up there in my department, earning a lot of money, and still keeping the friends that I have,” she replied.

Her new friends are mostly co-workers in the autism program, and they try to get together regularly. Cowan watched as Mendoza and her friends participated in Game Night.

“And that, CBS, is how you play Smash Brothers!” said Gloria.

She told Cowan, “I never really had that many friends when I was younger, and having this wide variety of friends that understands me really makes all the difference for me.”

How so? “‘Cause I can express myself in ways that people won’t look at me weird. And it turns out that a lot of people have common interests as I do.”

SAP boasts a retention rate of about 90% for their autistic employees. Part of that may be due to the fact they’re not just set adrift in the workplace all alone. Each participant in the program is assigned a mentor from within the company — like an on-site guardian angel.

Gabby Robertson-Cawley, who has a cousin on the spectrum, volunteered to work with Gloria. “I think it’s just the rewards of getting to be friends with these colleagues who have autism — it’s not something you get in your typical corporate day-to-day experience,” Robertson-Cawley said.

Microsoft also has mentors. Melanie Carmosino, who works with Christopher Pauley, has a personal connection as well; she has a son who’s autistic.

Cowan asked, “What have you taken away from this whole experience, personally?”

“Hope,” Carmosino replied. “I think that this program gives hope to the autism community. It gives hope to parents like me, and it gives hope to people like my son that a company can, and will, look past their differences and see their gifts and let them contribute to society just like everybody else.”

Christopher Pauley is now independent, living on his own in a high-rise apartment, something he’s always wanted.

Cowan said, “I don’t want to ask how much you’re making, but you’re doing pretty good, it sounds like, yeah?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Could you ever imagine you’d be making this much money?”

“No, I never did! Honestly I would have been perfectly happy with, like, half the money I’m making now.”

He bought a car and drives himself to work — and for the first time, he says, looks forward to arriving at a place where he’s accepted for who he is.

He knows there are still challenges ahead, but given a chance to prove his worth, says Christopher, has given him an optimism he never had.

Cowan asked, “If other kids, or young adults, or adults with autism are watching this, what’s your message to them?”

“Don’t give up, and make sure to always aim high,” he replied. “Don’t aim in the middle You know, shoot for the stars every time, ’cause you never know what might happen.”


See our article on issues relating to Asperger syndrome and Autism


New research Psychopaths Don’t Care If They Hurt You

Psychopaths Don’t Care If They Hurt You. This Is Why. New research shows why the psychopathic are so likely to harm others.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.  Jun 03, 2017

A key feature of psychopathy is insensitivity to causing harm in others. Researchers have long attempted to understand why people high in psychopathy have this emotional blind spot. A recent investigation by University of Padova (Italy) psychologist Carolina Pletti and colleagues (2017) tested a new model to provide insight into the reasons why those high in psychopathy fail to care about the suffering of their fellow humans.

According to Pletti and her team, it is well-established that people with high levels of psychopathy are less able to recognize distress cues, including facial and vocal expressions of fear and sadness by people in need of immediate help. The potential relationship between emotions and morality is, as Pletti et al. note, addressed in the Integrated Emotion System Model (IES). Most of us, according to the IES, learn early in life to prefer to avoid making other people sad or afraid. Those who are psychopathic, though, do not, and therefore are less likely to base moral decisions on their potential to cause suffering to others.

The reasoning behind the IES model involves simple reinforcement. We’ve learned over our lives that it’s bad to cause pain and suffering in others. Consider what happens when an ordinary toddler pushes a playmate, causing the playmate to burst into tears. Toddler #1 will feel sad at having hurt Toddler #2, and may even start crying, too.

Such encounters teach children to avoid causing negative emotions in other people. Individuals with psychopathy, though, don’t make this connection and go on to become adults who aren’t deterred from harming other people.

Neuroscientists trace this lack of empathy in part to a deficit in the amygdala, a part of the subcortex which processes emotional stimuli. The other deficit occurs in a part of the cerebral cortex involved in decision-making that would utilize this emotional information.

A classic dilemma used in studies of moral decision-making is the so-called “trolley” problem, in which individuals are given a scenario involving a runaway train that threatens to kill five people. In this hypothetical case, you’re told that if you send the train down another track, one person will die but you’ll save the original five in the train’s way.

Another variation of this dilemma is a bit more extreme, asking individuals whether they would push a man off an overpass in order to stop that runaway train. In this scenario, the man you push off will die, but he’ll save the five because his body on the track will stop the train.

Most people will find the choice less agonizing in the original, two-track version of the problem than in the overpass version, even though the actual problem is fundamentally the same in both scenarios. It seems worse, somehow, to actively cause the death of the man on the overpass, even though it would save the life of the five down below.

According to the IES model, the arousal of negative emotions associated with the overpass version of the problem leads most people to make the irrational decision of not saving him, but sacrificing the five. People high in psychopathy experience less of an emotional dilemma, and therefore make the more rational decision of sacrificing one for five regardless of what’s involved in doing so.

Fortunately, it’s not too often that we’re faced with such extreme choices. Pletti and her colleagues believe the trolley problem and its related footbridge variant are too extreme compared to the decisions most of us must make in the course of our everyday lives. Instead, we face situations involving other moral transgressions, such as lying.

The research team believed that they could gain greater insight into the role of emotions in moral decision-making in people high in psychopathy versus those who are not by comparing reactions to these lower-stakes moral dilemmas involving deception. One set of these everyday moral dilemmas involved causing harm to others through deception; the other set still involved lying, but were considered relatively harmless in their outcome.

Starting with a sample of 281 undergraduates, the University of Padova researchers first identified the highest and lowest in psychopathy using a standard measure that identifies those with the least emotional responsiveness to causing harm in others. The sacrificial dilemmas asked participants to imagine that they were firefighters or construction workers who had to decide whether to allow one person to die in order to save five others at risk. The everyday scenarios involving harm asked participants, for example, whether they would engage in deceptive behavior that would cost someone else money. A harmless deception-type of scenario asked them if they would fake illness to get out of going to a social event to which they’d already accepted an invitation.

As other researchers have noted, the high-psychopathic individuals were less distressed in the life-or-death sacrificial situations compared to low-psychopathic peers. The highly psychopathic also were equally likely to lie in the harmful versus harmless everyday situations, and were less emotionally distressed at the prospect of causing harm through their lies.

Interestingly, the highly psychopathic seemed able to judge whether it was morally right or wrong to deceive others, but this judgment didn’t deter them from making the harmful choice. As the authors concluded, “Psychopathic individuals are less inclined to refrain from pursuing a personal advantage involving harm to others because of their emotional hypoactivity” (p. 364).

To sum up, people high in psychopathy are able to distinguish between right and wrong, but don’t let this distinction affect their decision-making. They also will pursue choices that benefit them, even if they know they’re morally wrong, because they don’t have the same negative emotions associated with those choices that non-psychopathic individuals do. We can’t say that people high in psychopathy are unable to make moral choices, then, but it does appear justified to say that they will feel less anguish when they have to do so. The rest of us don’t want to cause harm to others and feel stressed when forced to do so, but those high in psychopathy seem to be able to make the “utilitarian,” logic-based choice without feeling particularly distraught.

If you’re in a relationship with someone you believe is high in psychopathy, this study shows the dangers you may run into if that individual would need to make a sacrifice on your behalf. All other things being equal, you’re far better off being in relationships with people who both know, and care about, what’s best for you.


Pletti, C., Lotto, L., Buodo, G., & Sarlo, M. (2017). It’s immoral, but I’d do it! Psychopathy traits affect decision‐making in sacrificial dilemmas and in everyday moral situations. British Journal of Psychology, 108(2), 351-368. doi:10.1111/bjop.12205

source https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201706/psychopaths-dont-care-if-they-hurt-you-is-why


This website is educational. Materials within it are being used in accord with the Fair Use doctrine, as defined by United States law.

§107. Limitations on Exclusive Rights: Fair Use. Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phone records or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use, the factors to be considered shall include: the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. (added pub. l 94-553, Title I, 101, Oct 19, 1976, 90 Stat 2546)


Neuroscientist argues that addiction is not a disease:

Addiction is not a disease: A neuroscientist argues that it’s time to change our minds on the roots of substance abuse

Drugs of abuse Wikimedia Natl Institute Drug Abuse

National Institute on Drug Abuse

I. Article

By Laura Miller, for Salon. 6/27/15

A psychologist and former addict insists that the illness model for addiction is wrong, and dangerously so.

The mystery of addiction — what it is, what causes it and how to end it — threads through most of our lives. Experts estimate that one in 10 Americans is dependent on alcohol and other drugs, and if we concede that behaviors like gambling, overeating and playing video games can be addictive in similar ways, it’s likely that everyone has a relative or friend who’s hooked on some form of fun to a destructive degree. But what exactly is wrong with them? For several decades now, it’s been a commonplace to say that addicts have a disease. However, the very same scientists who once seemed to back up that claim have begun tearing it down.

Once, addictions were viewed as failures of character and morals, and society responded to drunks and junkies with shaming, scolding and calls for more “will power.” This proved spectacularly ineffective, although, truth be told, most addicts do quit without any form of treatment. Nevertheless, many do not, and in the mid-20th century, the recovery movement, centered around the 12-Step method developed by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, became a godsend for those unable to quit drinking or drugging on their own. The approach spread to so-called “behavioral addictions,” like gambling or sex, activities that don’t even involve the ingestion of any kind of mind-altering substance.

Much of the potency of AA comes from its acknowledgement that willpower isn’t enough to beat this devil and that blame, rather than whipping the blamed person into shape, is counterproductive. The first Step requires admitting one’s helplessness in the face of addiction….

…. Another factor promoting the disease model is that it has ushered addiction under the aegis of the healthcare industry, whether in the form of an illness whose treatment can be charged to an insurance company or as the focus of profit-making rehab centers.

….The recovery movement and rehab industry (two separate things, although the latter often employs the techniques of the former) have always had their critics, but lately some of the most vocal have been the neuroscientists whose findings once lent them credibility.

One of those neuroscientists is Marc Lewis, a psychologist and former addict himself, also the author of a new book “The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease.”

Lewis’s argument is actually fairly simple: The disease theory, and the science sometimes used to support it, fail to take into account the plasticity of the human brain. Of course, “the brain changes with addiction,” he writes. “But the way it changes has to do with learning and development — not disease.” All significant and repeated experiences change the brain; adaptability and habit are the brain’s secret weapons. The changes wrought by addiction are not, however, permanent, and while they are dangerous, they’re not abnormal.

Through a combination of a difficult emotional history, bad luck and the ordinary operations of the brain itself, an addict is someone whose brain has been transformed, but also someone who can be pushed further along the road toward healthy development. (Lewis doesn’t like the term “recovery” because it implies a return to the addict’s state before the addiction took hold.)

“The Biology of Desire” is grouped around several case studies, each one illustrating a unique path to dependency. A striving Australian entrepreneur becomes caught up in the “clarity, power and potential” he feels after smoking meth, along with his ability to work long hours while on the drug. A social worker who behaves selflessly in her job and marriage constructs a defiant, selfish, secret life around stealing and swallowing prescription opiates. A shy Irishman who started drinking as a way to relax in social situations slowly comes to see social situations as an occasion to drink and then drinking as a reason to hole up in his apartment for days on end.

Each of these people, Lewis argues, had a particular “emotional wound” the substance helped them handle, but once they started using it, the habit itself eventually became self-perpetuating and in most cases ultimately served to deepen the wound.

Each case study focuses on a different part of the brain involved in addiction and illustrates how the function of each part — desire, emotion, impulse, automatic behavior — becomes shackled to a single goal: consuming the addictive substance. The brain is built to learn and change, Lewis points out, but it’s also built to form pathways for repetitive behavior, everything from brushing your teeth to stomping on the brake pedal, so that you don’t have to think about everything you do consciously. The brain is self-organizing. Those are all good properties, but addiction shanghais them for a bad cause.

As Lewis sees it, addiction really is habit; we just don’t appreciate how deeply habit can be engraved on the brain itself. “Repeated (motivating) experience” — i.e., the sensation of having one’s worries wafted away by the bliss of heroin — “produce brain changes that define future experiences… So getting drunk a lot will sculpt the synapses that determine future drinking patterns.”

More and more experiences and activities get looped into the addiction experience and trigger cravings and expectations like the bells that made Pavlov’s dogs salivate, from the walk home past a favorite bar to the rituals of shooting up. The world becomes a host of signs all pointing you in the same direction and activating powerful unconscious urges to follow them. At a certain point, the addictive behavior becomes compulsive, seemingly as irresistibly automatic as a reflex. You may not even want the drug anymore, but you’ve forgotten how to do anything else besides seek it out and take it.

Yet all of the addicts Lewis interviewed for “The Biology of Desire” are sober now, some through tried-and-true 12-Step programs, others through self-designed regimens, like the heroin addict who taught herself how to meditate in prison. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a psychologist would argue for some form of talk therapy addressing the underlying emotional motivations for turning to drugs. But Lewis is far from the only expert to voice this opinion, or to recommend cognitive behavioral therapy as a way to reshape the brain and redirect its systems into less self-destructive patterns.

Without a doubt, AA and similar programs have helped a lot of people. But they’ve also failed others. One size does not fit all, and there’s a growing body of evidence that empowering addicts, rather than insisting that they embrace their powerlessness and the impossibility of ever fully shedding their addiction, can be a road to health as well.

If addiction is a form of learning gone tragically wrong, it is also possible that it can be unlearned, that the brain’s native changeability can be set back on track. “Addicts aren’t diseased,” Lewis writes, “and they don’t need medical intervention in order to change their lives. What they need is sensitive, intelligent social scaffolding to hold the pieces of their imagined future in place — while they reach toward it.”

Article on Salon: Addiction is not a disease: A neuroscientist argues that it’s time to change our minds on the roots of substance abuse

Related topic

Prenatal Exposure to Cannabis Affects the Developing Brain


2. Why the Disease Definition of Addiction Does Far More Harm Than Good. Scientific American.

…Viewing addiction as pathology has other, more direct detriments. If you feel that your addiction results from an underlying pathology, as implied by the brain disease model, and if that pathology is chronic, as highlighted by both NIDA and the 12-step movement, then you are less likely to believe that you will ever be free of it or that recovery can result from your own efforts. This characterization of addiction flies in the face of research indicating that a great majority of those addicted to any substance or behavior do in fact recover, and most of those who recover do so without professional care.


3. Addiction and the Brain: Development, Not Disease. Mark Lewis.

I review the brain disease model of addiction promoted by medical, scientific, and clinical authorities in the US and elsewhere. I then show that the disease model is flawed because brain changes in addiction are similar to those generally observed when recurrent, highly motivated goal seeking results in the development of deep habits, Pavlovian learning, and prefrontal disengagement. This analysis relies on concepts of self-organization, neuroplasticity, personality development, and delay discounting. It also highlights neural and behavioral parallels between substance addictions, behavioral addictions, normative compulsive behaviors, and falling in love. I note that the short duration of addictive rewards leads to negative emotions that accelerate the learning cycle, but cortical reconfiguration in recovery should also inform our understanding of addiction. I end by showing that the ethos of the disease model makes it difficult to reconcile with a developmental-learning orientation.

Addiction and the Brain: Development, Not Disease. Neuroethics (journal)


4. The chronic disease concept of addiction: Helpful or harmful?
Thomas K. Wiens & Lawrence J. Walker. Addiction Research & Theory, Volume 23, 2015 – Issue 4

The chronic disease concept of addiction: Helpful or harmful?


Probability and predictors of remission from lifetime nicotine, alcohol, cannabis, or cocaine dependence: Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions

Addiction. 2011 Mar; 106(3): 657–669.


Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It: Why Is This Widely Denied? By Maia Szalavitz

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It: Why Is This Widely Denied?


Most of Us Still Don’t Get It: Addiction Is a Learning Disorder. By Maia Szalavitz

Addiction is not about our brains being “hijacked” by drugs or experiences—it’s about learned patterns of behavior. Our inability to understand this leads to no end of absurdities.

Most of Us Still Don’t Get It: Addiction Is a Learning Disorder

Is alcoholism a disease?


Alcoholism is not a disease, The Baldwin Research Institute

History and science have shown us that the existence of the “disease of alcoholism” is pure speculation. – Todd Gruber

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Psychopathy, sometimes considered synonymous with sociopathy, is a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, egotistical traits.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and International Classification of Diseases (ICD) introduced the diagnoses of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) and dissocial personality disorder respectively, stating that these diagnoses have been referred to as psychopathy or sociopathy.  (Antisocial personality disorder#Psychopathy)

Psychopathy has been proposed as a specifier under an alternative model for ASPD. In the DSM-5, under “Alternative DSM-5 Model for Personality Disorders”, ASPD with psychopathic features is described as characterized by “a lack of anxiety or fear and by a bold interpersonal style that may mask maladaptive behaviors (e.g., fraudulence).” Low levels of withdrawal and high levels of attention-seeking combined with low anxiety are associated with “social potency” and “stress immunity” in psychopathy.

Theodore Millon suggested 5 subtypes of ASPD.

Subtype Features
Nomadic antisocial (including schizoid and avoidant features) Drifters; roamers, vagrants; adventurer, itinerant vagabonds, tramps, wanderers; they typically easy to adapt in difficult situations, shrewd and impulsive. Mood centers in doom and invincibility.
Malevolent antisocial (including sadistic and paranoid features) Belligerent, mordant, rancorous, vicious, sadistic, malignant, brutal, resentful; anticipates betrayal and punishment; desires revenge; truculent, callous, fearless; guiltless; many dangerous criminal fits this criteria.
Covetous antisocial (including negativistic features) Rapacious, begrudging, discontentedly yearning; an angle was seen as assertively hostile as to dominate; was envious, seek more profit, and avariciously greedy; pleasures more in taking than in having.
Risk-taking antisocial(including histrionic features) Dauntless, venturesome, intrepid, bold, audacious, daring; reckless, foolhardy, heedless; unfazed by hazard; pursues perilous ventures.
Reputation-defending antisocial (including narcissisticfeatures) Needs to be thought of as infallible, unbreakable, indomitable, formidable, inviolable; intransigent when status is questioned; overreactive to slights.

The study of psychopathy is an active field of research.

Unfortunately the term is used by the general public, popular press, and in fictional portrayals in a variety of contradictory and non-scientific ways, and occasionally as an ad homenim remark.

Conduct disorder

A prolonged pattern of antisocial behavior in childhood and/or adolescence, and may be seen as a precursor to Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), also known as sociopathy. The DSM allows differentiating between childhood onset before age 10, and adolescent onset at age 10 and later. Childhood onset is argued to be more due to a personality disorder caused by neurological deficits interacting with an adverse environment. 

The DSM-5 includes a specifier for those with conduct disorder who also display a callous, unemotional interpersonal style across multiple settings and relationships. The specifier is based on research which suggests that those with conduct disorder who also meet criteria for the specifier tend to have a more severe form of the disorder with an earlier onset as well as a different response to treatment. – Wikipedia

Is Conduct disorder compulsory in Psychopathy?

Cherie Valeithian, I am a licensed psychologist

In a word, yes, at least when using The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental and Emotional Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, and currently in it’s 5th edition. The official name for psychopathy/sociopathy is Antisocial Personality Disorder, which is diagnosed only in individuals age 18 or older. One of the criteria required for that diagnosis is that the person met criteria for Conduct Disorder prior to the age of 18, whether or not the person was ever officially diagnosed as such….


Hare Psychopathy Checklist

The Hare PCL-R contains two parts, a semi-structured interview and a review of the subject’s file records and history. During the evaluation, the clinician scores 20 items that measure central elements of the psychopathic character. The items cover the nature of the subject’s interpersonal relationships; his or her affective or emotional involvement; responses to other people and to situations; evidence of social deviance; and lifestyle. The material thus covers two key aspects that help define the psychopath: selfish and unfeeling victimization of other people, and an unstable and antisocial lifestyle.

The twenty traits assessed by the PCL-R score are:

  • glib and superficial charm
  • grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
  • need for stimulation
  • pathological lying
  • cunning and manipulativeness
  • lack of remorse or guilt
  • shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
  • callousness and lack of empathy
  • parasitic lifestyle
  • poor behavioral controls
  • sexual promiscuity
  • early behavior problems
  • lack of realistic long-term goals
  • impulsivity
  • irresponsibility
  • failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • many short-term marital relationships
  • juvenile delinquency
  • revocation of conditional release
  • criminal versatility

The interview portion of the evaluation covers the subject’s background, including such items as work and educational history; marital and family status; and criminal background. Because psychopaths lie frequently and easily, the information they provide must be confirmed by a review of the documents in the subject’s case history.


When properly completed by a qualified professional, the PCL-R provides a total score that indicates how closely the test subject matches the “perfect” score that a classic or prototypical psychopath would rate. Each of the twenty items is given a score of 0, 1, or 2 based on how well it applies to the subject being tested.

A prototypical psychopath would receive a maximum score of 40.
One with absolutely no psychopathic traits would receive a score of zero.
A score of 30 or above qualifies a person for a diagnosis of psychopathy.
People with no criminal backgrounds normally score around 5.
Many non-psychopathic criminal offenders score around 22.

Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders: http://www.minddisorders.com/Flu-Inv/Hare-Psychopathy-Checklist.html


Psychiatry is a medical  field devoted to the diagnosis, study, and treatment of mental disorders. The following intro has been adapted from Wikipedia:


Psychiatric assessment of a person typically begins with a case history and mental status examination. Physical examinations and psychological tests may be conducted. On occasion, neuroimaging or other neurophysiological techniques are used.

Mental disorders are often diagnosed in accordance with criteria listed in diagnostic manuals such as the widely used

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA),

and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), edited and used by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Psychopharmacology became an integral part of psychiatry starting with Otto Loewi‘s discovery of the neuromodulatory properties of acetylcholine; thus identifying it as the first-known neurotransmitter.

Neuroimaging was first utilized as a tool for psychiatry in the 1980s.


The discovery of chlorpromazine‘s effectiveness in treating schizophrenia in 1952 revolutionized treatment of the disorder, as did lithium carbonate‘s ability to stabilize mood highs and lows in bipolar disorder in 1948.

Biopsychiatric research has shown reproducible abnormalities of brain structure and function, and a strong genetic component for a number of psychiatric disorders. It has elucidated some of the mechanisms of action of medications that are effective in treating some of these disorders.

Still, this research has not progressed to the stage that they can identify clear biomarkers of these disorders.

Research has shown that serious neurobiological disorders such as schizophrenia reveal reproducible abnormalities of brain structure (such as ventricular enlargement) and function. Compelling evidence exists that disorders including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and autism to name a few have a strong genetic component.

Still, brain science has not advanced to the point where scientists or clinicians can point to readily discernible pathologic lesions or genetic abnormalities that in and of themselves serve as reliable or predictive biomarkers of a given mental disorder or mental disorders as a group.

Ultimately, no gross anatomical lesion such as a tumor may ever be found; rather, mental disorders will likely be proven to represent disorders of intercellular communication; or of disrupted neural circuitry.

Research already has elucidated some of the mechanisms of action of medications that are effective for depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, attention deficit, and cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. These medications clearly exert influence on specific neurotransmitters, naturally occurring brain chemicals that effect, or regulate, communication between neurons in regions of the brain that control mood, complex reasoning, anxiety, and cognition.

In 1970, The Nobel Prize was awarded to Julius Axelrod, Ph.D., of the National Institute of Mental Health, for his discovery of how anti-depressant medications regulate the availability of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine in the synapses, or gaps, between nerve cells.

— American Psychiatric Association, Statement on Diagnosis and Treatment of Mental Disorders[2]

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Link between marijuana and pyschosis, and depression, hyperactivity, and inattention in children.

Mental health disorders

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