Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for January 2nd, 2011

Reading novels to learn empathy

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Interesting article by Jamil Zaki in Scientific American:

Humans are unlikely to win the animal kingdom’s prize for fastest, strongest or largest, but we are world champions at understanding one another. This interpersonal prowess is fueled, at least in part, by empathy: our tendency to care about and share other people’s emotional experiences. Empathy is a cornerstone of human behavior and has long been considered innate. A forthcoming study, however, challenges this assumption by demonstrating that empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years.

The research, led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published online in August in Personality and Social Psychology Review, found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.

An individual’s empathy can be assessed in many ways, but one of the most popular is simply asking people what they think of themselves. The Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a well-known questionnaire, taps empathy by asking whether responders agree to statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.” People vary a great deal in how empathic they consider themselves. Moreover, research confirms that the people who say they are empathic actually demonstrate empathy in discernible ways, ranging from mimicking others’ postures to helping people in need (for example, offering to take notes for a sick fellow student).

Since the creation of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index in 1979, tens of thousands of students have filled out this questionnaire while participating in studies examining everything from neural responses to others’ pain to levels of social conservatism. Konrath and her colleagues took advantage of this wealth of data by collating self-reported empathy scores of nearly 14,000 students. She then used a technique known as cross-temporal meta-analysis to measure whether scores have changed over the years. The results were startling: almost 75 percent of students today rate themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago.

What’s to Blame?
This information seems to conflict with studies suggesting that empathy is a trait people are born with. For example, in a 2007 study Yale University developmental psychologists found that six-month-old infants demonstrate an affinity for empathic behavior, preferring simple dolls they have seen helping others over visually similar bullies. And investigators at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have shown that even when given no incentive, toddlers help experimenters and share rewards with others. Empathic behavior is not confined to humans or even to primates. In a recent study mice reacted more strongly to painful stimuli when they saw another mouse suffering, suggesting that they “share” the pain of their cage mates.

But the new finding that empathy is on the decline indicates that even when a trait is hardwired, social context can exert a profound effect, changing even our most basic emotional responses. Precisely what is sapping young people of their natural impulse to feel for others . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

2 January 2011 at 4:09 pm

Wonder what the GOP response will be?

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Probably     ::: sound of crickets :::   

But they really should stand up and speak out, considering their earlier statements. Steve Benen:

 For about the first two months after President Obama was inaugurated, the economic crisis was extremely severe. Growth was in a tailspin; the country was hemorrhaging jobs; and Wall Street indexes were dropping sharply.

On that last point, Republicans thought they’d found a compelling talking point. By the spring of 2009, a variety of conservatives said declines in major indexes were necessarily evidence that the White House’s economic policies were a mess, if not an outright failure, and that the president didn’t know what he was doing.

The Wall Street Journal ran an entire editorial on this in early March. The drop in the Dow, the WSJinsisted, was a direct result of investors evaluating “Mr. Obama’s agenda and his approach to governance.” Karl Rove and Lou Dobbs made the same case. So did Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Fred Barnes. John Boehner also pushed the line. It was one of Mitt Romney’s favorite talking points for a while, too.

That was nearly two years ago, and wouldn’t you know it, they’re not saying that anymore. Oliver Willis flagged this chart, showing S&P 500 growth over the first two years of every president since Eisenhower. You’ll notice that column all the way over to the right shows a sharp increase under the current president. [click chart to enlarge – LG]

Now, it’s worth emphasizing that a chart like this one comes with all kinds of caveats. The first and most obvious is that the value of a stock market index is hardly the best metric for measuring the strength of the economy. Indeed, it isn’t even close. The second is that it’s easier to generate major gains like these when one starts from a very low point — and after eight years of disastrous Republican policies, Bush bequeathed an economy in shambles.

That said, there are some relevant angles to results like these, too. For example, it’s hard not to notice that the right seems awfully selective about when Wall Street indexes count — when the markets are down, Obama deserves the blame; when the markets are up; Obama doesn’t deserve the credit. It’s funny how that works. It’s also tough for unhinged conservatives to continue to insist that the White House is comprised of radical socialists, intent on destroying private enterprise, when major indexes have soared under Obama’s watch.

But perhaps most important of all is that a chart like this makes it especially difficult to take Wall Street’s whining about the president seriously.

Written by Leisureguy

2 January 2011 at 1:20 pm

Not your granddad’s flashlight

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Flashlights have come a very long way, and it is not unusual now to have a flashlight that provides hundreds of lumens. Take a look at I got a Preon 2 penlight for Xmas and it’s great. If you have aged parents, a highly quality, high-output, tiny flashlight would probably be welcomed by them: old eyes need lots more photons than younger eyes.

Written by Leisureguy

2 January 2011 at 1:14 pm

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Statements vs. Actions: Military response to soldier suicides

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From a story in the NY Times by James Risen:

. . . Officially, the Army says only that Sergeant Senft, 27, a crew chief on a Black Hawk helicopter in the 101st Airborne Division’s aviation brigade, was killed as a result of “injuries sustained in a noncombat related incident” at Kandahar Air Base on Nov. 15. No specific cause of death has been announced. Army officials say three separate inquiries into the death are under way.

But his father, also named David Senft, an electrician from Grass Valley, Calif., who had worked in Afghanistan for a military contractor, is convinced that his son committed suicide, as are many of his friends and family members and the soldiers who served with him.

The evidence appears overwhelming. An investigator for the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division, which has been looking into the death, has told Sergeant Senft’s father by e-mail that his son was found dead with a single bullet hole in his head, a stolen M-4 automatic weapon in his hands and his body slumped over in the S.U.V., which was parked outside the air base’s ammunition supply point. By his side was his cellphone, displaying a text message with no time or date stamp, saying only, “I don’t know what to say, I’m sorry.” (Mr. Senft shared the e-mails from the C.I.D. investigator with The New York Times.)

With Sergeant Senft, the warning signs were blaring.

The Army declared him fit for duty and ordered him to Afghanistan after he had twice attempted suicide at Fort Campbell, Ky., and after he had been sent to a mental institution near the base, the home of the 101st. After his arrival at Kandahar early in 2010 he was so troubled that the Army took away his weapon and forced him into counseling on the air base, according to the e-mails from the Army investigator. But he was assigned a roommate who was fully armed. C.I.D. investigators have identified the M-4 with which Sergeant Senft was killed as belonging to his roommate.

“I question why, if he was suicidal and they had to take away his gun, why was he allowed to stay in Afghanistan?” asked Sergeant Senft’s father. “Why did they allow him to deploy in the first place, and why did they leave him there?”

Defense Department officials have frequently spoken about how suicide prevention has become a top priority, and in interviews, officials noted that the National Institute of Mental Health was now leading a major study of Army suicides.

Ever since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, suicides among American troops have been soaring, as military personnel become mentally exhausted and traumatized from repeated deployments to combat zones. . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

2 January 2011 at 1:08 pm

Obesity is more widespread (no pun) than we thought: animals, too

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An abstract from the Proceedings of the Royal Society:

A dramatic rise in obesity has occurred among humans within the last several decades. Little is known about whether similar increases in obesity have occurred in animals inhabiting human-influenced environments. We examined samples collectively consisting of over 20 000 animals from 24 populations (12 divided separately into males and females) of animals representing eight species living with or around humans in industrialized societies. In all populations, the estimated coefficient for the trend of body weight over time was positive (i.e. increasing). The probability of all trends being in the same direction by chance is 1.2 × 10−7. Surprisingly, we find that over the past several decades, average mid-life body weights have risen among primates and rodents living in research colonies, as well as among feral rodents and domestic dogs and cats. The consistency of these findings among animals living in varying environments, suggests the intriguing possibility that the aetiology of increasing body weight may involve several as-of-yet unidentified and/or poorly understood factors (e.g. viral pathogens, epigenetic factors). This finding may eventually enhance the discovery and fuller elucidation of other factors that have contributed to the recent rise in obesity rates.

For more info:

Full Text (Free)

Full Text (PDF) (Free)

Data Supplement

Written by Leisureguy

2 January 2011 at 1:05 pm

Posted in Daily life, Medical, Science

This year, change your mind

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Last year I had a definite program of transformation. As is usual in such things, I fell far short of achieving everything I planned, but I did achieve a lot and in the process learned many unexpected things. Perhaps this year I’ll take another run at Spanish. In the meantime, I found the NY Times column by Dr. Oliver Sacks to be of interest. The column concludes:

. . . To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? The experiences of many people suggest that it can.

One patient I knew became totally paralyzed overnight from a spinal cord infection. At first she fell into deep despair, because she couldn’t enjoy even little pleasures, like the daily crossword she had loved.

After a few weeks, though, she asked for the newspaper, so that at least she could look at the puzzle, get its configuration, run her eyes along the clues. When she did this, something extraordinary happened. As she looked at the clues, the answers seemed to write themselves in their spaces. Her visual memory strengthened over the next few weeks, until she found that she was able to hold the entire crossword and its clues in her mind after a single, intense inspection — and then solve it mentally. She had had no idea, she later told me, that such powers were available to her.

This growth can even happen within a matter of days. Researchers at Harvard found, for example, that blindfolding sighted adults for as few as five days could produce a shift in the way their brains functioned: their subjects became markedly better at complex tactile tasks like learning Braille.

Neuroplasticity — the brain’s capacity to create new pathways — is a crucial part of recovery for anyone who loses a sense or a cognitive or motor ability. But it can also be part of everyday life for all of us. While it is often true that learning is easier in childhood, neuroscientists now know that the brain does not stop growing, even in our later years. Every time we practice an old skill or learn a new one, existing neural connections are strengthened and, over time, neurons create more connections to other neurons. Even new nerve cells can be generated.

I have had many reports from ordinary people who take up a new sport or a musical instrument in their 50s or 60s, and not only become quite proficient, but derive great joy from doing so. Eliza Bussey, a journalist in her mid-50s who now studies harp at the Peabody conservatory in Baltimore, could not read a note of music a few years ago. In a letter to me, she wrote about what it was like learning to play Handel’s “Passacaille”: “I have felt, for example, my brain and fingers trying to connect, to form new synapses. … I know that my brain has dramatically changed.” Ms. Bussey is no doubt right: her brain has changed.

Music is an especially powerful shaping force, for listening to and especially playing it engages many different areas of the brain, all of which must work in tandem: from reading musical notation and coordinating fine muscle movements in the hands, to evaluating and expressing rhythm and pitch, to associating music with memories and emotion.

Whether it is by learning a new language, traveling to a new place, developing a passion for beekeeping or simply thinking about an old problem in a new way, all of us can find ways to stimulate our brains to grow, in the coming year and those to follow. Just as physical activity is essential to maintaining a healthy body, challenging one’s brain, keeping it active, engaged, flexible and playful, is not only fun. It is essential to cognitive fitness.

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

2 January 2011 at 1:01 pm

Review of two books on Leo Strauss

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I know that some of my readers will find this review by Damon Linker in The New Republic to be of interest:

Of the many émigré scholars to leave a mark on American intellectual life in the latter half of the twentieth century, none has sparked greater controversy than Leo Strauss. In the years since his death, in 1973, he has repeatedly been accused of exercising a sinister influence on the country. At first he faced the general charge of having used a series of academic appointments at such institutions as the New School for Social Research and the University of Chicago to spread elitist and anti-democratic ideas throughout the nation. By the mid-1990s, journalists had determined that this author of dense commentaries on Aristophanes, Xenophon, Plato, Judah Halevi, Machiavelli, and Spinoza should be considered the "intellectual godfather to the Contract with America." Then, in the most recent and most concentrated journalistic treatment of his writings and influence, Strauss was described as the philosophical founder of neoconservatism and the primary inspiration behind the Bush administration’s goal of democratizing the Middle East through military force. Combine these ostensibly serious allegations with the risible charge that Strauss, a Jewish refugee from Nazism, was "a Jewish Nazi" (this repulsive charge was made by Shadia Drury)–or that he proposed that the state should "fry" criminals "before they break the law" (this was Brent Staples’s contribution to the discussion)–and one begins to appreciate just how much animosity has come to surround this seemingly unassuming professor of political philosophy.

Strauss has never lacked for defenders. Indeed, one of the many controversies surrounding his legacy involves his remarkable success in founding a self-perpetuating school of intensely loyal followers who proudly describe themselves as "Straussians." During every flare-up of popular hostility to Strauss, his students (and students of students, and students of students of students) can be counted on to compose dutifully indignant articles and letters in defense of their teacher. Most of these essays profess astonishment that such a modest scholar could inspire so much hatred and misunderstanding. As his daughter, the classicist Jenny Strauss Clay of the University of Virginia, put it in The New York Times a few years ago, Strauss was merely a bookish academic whose truest passion was "to spend his life raising rabbits…and reading Plato." Such testimony makes for touching reading, but it is of little use in helping readers to form a more balanced view of the man and his place in intellectual history.

Steven B. Smith’s book is a response to Strauss’s critics, and it far surpasses previous efforts in clarity, rigor, and judiciousness. Smith is not an acolyte propagating the true faith; he is an admirer who wishes to persuade his readers of Strauss’s intellectual importance. This balance between sympathy and critical distance, lamentably rare in studies of Strauss, contributes to making this book our best introduction to the complex and challenging ideas of this divisive figure.

Where most commentators–Straussian and anti-Straussian alike–have emphasized the conservative political implications of Strauss’s thought, Smith maintains that his subject was primarily an apolitical thinker–"a philosopher" who "had no politics in the sense in which that term is generally meant." In Smith’s view, Strauss focused on political questions in his writing and teaching not because he wished to pursue an ideological agenda, but because he believed that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

2 January 2011 at 12:53 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Politics

New (to me) features

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I have been using Instapaper for quite a while, mostly (I admit) as a write-only memory: click the little “Read It Later” button on the Bookmark bar (you drag the button from the Instapaper site to the Bookmark bar), which adds the current Web page to my Read-It-Later list. Only I seldom go read the things later: the reason I didn’t feel like reading them in the first place was so much text on the screen—what I want to do is either print it out or save it and transfer it later to my Kindle.

Only now Instapaper will do all that for me. If you go to the “Account” section of your Instapaper account, you’ll find that you can have articles automatically sent to your Kindle, or sent to you in printable form.

Check it out.

Written by Leisureguy

2 January 2011 at 12:43 pm

Hopscotch: Good movie

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Excellent spy movie. And available on Watch Instantly. A classic.

Also now on Watch Instantly: Season 4 of The IT Crowd.

Written by Leisureguy

2 January 2011 at 12:38 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

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