Psychologists Investigate Cognitive Failings

"Failings?" Failings?!

I can really only think of one response to this title to an otherwise interesting article: Psychologists Investigate Cognitive Failings Of Eating Disorder Sufferers.


Is low blood sugar a 'failing?' Coma? Heart attack? This is appalling use of words - though as a writer I know that headlines are written by editors and the writer may never see the title until it goes to press (or bytes). This sort of, well, failing as a journalistic device perpetuates not just the idea that eating disorders are a problem but that they are an error. A mistake. A lack of something to one's character.

I find eating disorder patients to be undergoing a massive brain experience largely out of their control - not a failing at all. All efforts at insight or recovery under these circumstances are heroic and require extraordinary bravery. The "failing" goes on with the rest of us when we misunderstand, underestimate, and fail to act.

Failing, indeed.


  1. It may be a journalistic mistake, it may just be a scientist's lack of experience of his work being read by "amateurs" in the sense of people who actually love the people whose brains he is studying. It would seem that the good doctor usually studies and describes brains in terms of their function rather than relating to the qualities of the individuals whose heads the brains are located in.

  2. Also, a failure can mean many things. You may have taken this slightly out of context. For example there are respiratory failures or cardiac failures. It is well known that there are cognitive deficets in people with severe AN and these could also be termed cognitive failings just because the performance falls below the norm.

    A failing is not necessarily a judgemental or emotionally charged word.

  3. I think you might be reacting somewhat defensively to one reporter's poor choice of words for his/her headline. As is often the case with second-hand reports on scientific research, it is very easy to take the bits of information described in this article out of context.

    If you follow the trail to the source of the article, you will find that the researcher's aims in the study were to demonstrate exactly what you are so passionately arguing... "abnormal eating behavior is indeed due in part to disordered cognition." (See Cognition happens in the brain. It is by its nature a neurological process, hence the article's publication in the Journal of Neuropsychology. Cognition = Thought

    The word "failings" is riddled with negative connotations. However, I think the author was merely trying to convey the researcher's message (that individuals with EDs suffer from severe cognitive impairments as a result of their low BMIS) using less jargon. In reality, the findings are not at all surprising. Of course eating disorders individuals suffer "cognitive failings" when they are at extremely low weights! We all know that in the height of our eating disorders our decision-making skills are reduced, we have trouble concentrating, and cognitive tasks that should be easy become nearly impossible. This shouldn't be headline news.

    I think it's important to take these reports with a grain of salt. It's a tough job to dumb down the language of scientific articles to an extent that your average reader will both understand and be interested in the research described. Maybe it was a bad choice of words, but give the journalist a break. They didn't actually report anything that was blatantly false or inaccurate.

  4. I think you are overreacting a bit. All this article says is that people with active EDs have some problems with information processing...that malnourished brains don't work well. I actually don't think you would argue with that. It is also pointing out that identifying a specific cognitive processing deficit (perhaps a better term) is key to fixing a disorder. No-one treats dyslexia merely through newspapers. One has to address the root of the processing problem that makes it hard to read- just as one has to address the root of the processing problem that makes it hard to understand how grotesque one looks at a BMI of's the same with anorexia.

  5. I have to say I agree with the above, I do think it is just a Engish v American word usage issue.
    Lost in translation?

  6. Overreact? Me? :)

    (That was probably my first emoticon ever - but it seemed appropriate)

    Maybe this is a UK/US language thing, but "failing" is more in the order of "fighting words" where I come from. But I'm really not as upset as all that. I wanted to spotlight that story and was queasy about the "failing" title so I played it up.

    Plus, I've been getting quiet a spanking lately from some sufferers who found my "ED is a brain disease" belief system to be demeaning and my tendency to externalize ED as condescending.

    I absolutely believe the cognitive effects of malnourishment are at play with EDs and believe pre-morbid brain issues predispose people to those cognitive effects!

  7. Hi Laura! I had the pleasure of meeting you at the 2008 EDC Lobby Day, and you inspired me to start my own blog about my work for ANAD. Of course, I am including FEAST materials in the packets I send to schools. Thank you for all your good work! Your book helped my mom save my life.

  8. I definitely think that's the wrong word choice. Thanks for posting though. I always think it's interesting to read different articles.

  9. I don't get what the big deal is. People use the words heart failure, renal failure, etc all the time. What's wrong with saying cognitive failure? When your brain is fried then your cognitive will abilities fail.

  10. It's interesting how sensitive people are about these sorts of phrases re: "personal" seeming illnesses.

    I work in hem/onc, and people *do* talk about how bodies are failing. And unrelated, but part of semantic fog land, people also say "my tumor" a fair amount. I've seen that argument posited a time or two-- that people with eating disorders refer to their disease in a possessive way.

    Somehow it makes me feel *better* to know that there are cognitive failings that have made me susceptible. It makes therapy make sense for me-- there are specific deficits I'm correcting so that I can function at a normal level in a normal way.

    It's always easier for me to see the recovery process as something of a rebuilding. If there are patterns of deficits in patients, well... it's somehow comforting too. There's a path to follow, there are things to fix.

  11. Tame - Hello, again! And thank you for the links to your blog, I'll go subscribe.

    And thank you to everyone for the reality check on terminology!

  12. Hey Laura -
    I am groking your experience with feedback from the ED suffers. I've gotten some of that from my own.

    FWIW, I recently read two neat posts at Shakesville, that opened my eyes as to how our relentless efforts to "cure" D might feel completely ailienating to D. And NOT for ED reasons.

    Reading these made me think very hard about what it is we're really trying to do. I want to make sure I'm doing things FOR D, not TO her, if you get my drift.

  13. Hi Laura,
    Interesting article.

    I do think that most Ed sufferers would not mind the word "failing". When the body is subjected to Ed many systems in the body do start failing. Of course the jury is still out as to the exact cause.

    I also think all ED sufferers are very happy about externalising the ED from themselves, as people. Their true personality or self is not ED. Ed is an illness that one can recover from.

    Treating someone suffering with an ED as not having any right to share information about their experience and knowledge of ed, or have a legitimate right to their feelings just because they are unwell would be condescending.

  14. Yes, low blood sugar, comas, and heart attacks are failings. What else would they be, near successes?


Post a Comment

Popular Posts