Later On

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

Archive for the ‘Mental Health’ Category

Old Rockin’ Chair’s Got Me … and it does a world of good.

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A reader reminded me (thanks, Joanne!) that rocking chairs have significant health benefits. And those are not all — there are more. And specifically for elderly women. (Some overlap will be seen. You can find more with a search.)

Moreover, rocking chairs can be not only comfortable and healthful but also beautiful (example at right from Brian Boggs Handmade Furniture, profiled in Craftsmanship magazine).

At one time, every front porch — remember those — had at least one rocking chair, and the front porch at the general store would have a line of them. There’s no doubt that they are relaxing — a grateful pause in the hurly-burly of daily life — and they they actually carry serious health benefits when used consistently over time is a big bonus. (I found it reassuring that inthe first article linked above it was stated that dementia patients improved by having less agitation and greater calmness after using a rocking chair for six weeks. That time span — not an instant change, but a gradual change, at the speed of growth — makes intuitive sense, whereas a claim of instant improvement would arouse suspicion as being contrary to the nature of rocking-chair time.)

At any rate, the season of gifts is not far off, and it occurs to me that a good rocking chair would be an excellent gift to oneself or even to another. 

Written by Leisureguy

17 September 2021 at 12:36 pm

A Boy Went to a COVID-Swamped ER. He Waited for Hours. Then His Appendix Burst.

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Those who refuse to get the COVID vaccine and refuse to wear masks are putting not just themselves at risk but others as well. Refusing to heed public health measures is an aggressive act against society that is also a danger to self.

Jenny Deam reports in ProPublica:

What first struck Nathaniel Osborn when he and his wife took their son, Seth, to the emergency room this summer was how packed the waiting room was for a Wednesday at 1 p.m.

The Florida hospital’s emergency room was so crowded there weren’t enough chairs for the family to all sit as they waited. And waited.

Hours passed and 12-year-old Seth’s condition worsened, his body quivering from the pain shooting across his lower belly. Osborn said his wife asked why it was taking so long to be seen. A nurse rolled her eyes and muttered, “COVID.”

Seth was finally diagnosed with appendicitis more than six hours after arriving at Cleveland Clinic Martin Health North Hospital in late July. Around midnight, he was taken by ambulance to a sister hospital about a half-hour away that was better equipped to perform pediatric emergency surgery, his father said.

But by the time the doctor operated in the early morning hours, Seth’s appendix had burst — a potentially fatal complication.

As the nation’s hospitals fill and emergency rooms overflow with critically ill COVID-19 patients, it is the non-COVID-19 patients, like Seth, who have become collateral damage. They, too, need emergency care, but the sheer number of COVID-19 cases is crowding them out. Treatment has often been delayed as ERs scramble to find a bed that may be hundreds of miles away.

Some health officials now worry about looming ethical decisions. Last week, Idaho activated a “crisis standard of care,” which one official described as a “last resort.” It allows overwhelmed hospitals to ration care, including “in rare cases, ventilator (breathing machines) or intensive care unit (ICU) beds may need to be used for those who are most likely to survive, while patients who are not likely to survive may not be able to receive one,” the state’s website said.

The federal government’s latest data shows Alabama is at 100% of its intensive care unit capacity, with Texas, Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas at more than 90% ICU capacity. Florida is just under 90%.

It’s the COVID-19 cases that are dominating. In Georgia, 62% of the ICU beds are now filled with just COVID-19 patients. In Texas, the percentage is nearly half.

To have so many ICU beds pressed into service for a single diagnosis is “unheard of,” said Dr. Hasan Kakli, an emergency room physician at Bellville Medical Center in Bellville, Texas, about an hour from Houston. “It’s approaching apocalyptic.”

In Texas, state data released Monday showed there were only 319 adult and 104 pediatric staffed ICU beds available across a state of 29 million people.

Hospitals need to hold some ICU beds for other patients, such as those recovering from major surgery or other critical conditions such as stroke, trauma or heart failure.

“This is not just a COVID issue,” said Dr. Normaliz Rodriguez, pediatric emergency physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. “This is an everyone issue.”

While the latest hospital crisis echoes previous pandemic spikes, there are troubling differences this time around.

Before, localized COVID-19 hot spots led to bed shortages, but there were usually hospitals in the region not as affected that could accept a transfer.

Now, as the highly contagious delta variant envelops swaths of low-vaccination states all at once, it becomes harder to find nearby hospitals that are not slammed.

“Wait times can now be measured in days,” said Darrell Pile, CEO of the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council, which helps coordinate patient transfers across a 25-county region.

Recently, Dr. Cedric Dark, a Houston emergency physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said he saw a critically ill COVID-19 patient waiting in the emergency room for an ICU bed to open. The doctor worked eight hours, went home and came in the next day. The patient was still waiting. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and no paywall.

And from another report:

Enyart is at least the fifth conservative radio talk-show host to have died of covid-19 in the last six weeks after speaking out against vaccination and masking. The others are Marc Bernier, 65, a longtime host in Florida; Phil Valentine, 61, a popular host in Tennessee; Jimmy DeYoung, 81, a nationally syndicated Christian preacher also based in Tennessee; and Dick Farrel, 65, who had worked for stations in Miami and Palm Beach, Fla., as well as for the conservative Newsmax TV channel.

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 1:27 pm

Why Silicon Valley’s Optimization Mindset Sets Us Up for Failure

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Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, and Jeremy M. Weinstein wrote the book System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Rebootand TIME has a column adapted from Chapter 1 of the book.

About the authors:

Reich directs Stanford University’s Center for Ethics in Society and is associate director of its new Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. Sahami is a computer science professor at Stanford and helped redesign the undergraduate computer science curriculum. Weinstein launched President Obama’s Open Government Partnership and returned to Stanford in 2015 as a professor of political science, where he now leads Stanford Impact Labs.

The column begins:

n 2013 a Silicon Valley software engineer decided that food is an inconvenience—a pain point in a busy life. Buying food, preparing it, and cleaning up afterwards struck him as an inefficient way to feed himself. And so was born the idea of Soylent, Rob Rhinehart’s meal replacement powder, described on its website as an International Complete Nutrition Platform. Soylent is the logical result of an engineer’s approach to the “problem” of feeding oneself with food: there must be a more optimal solution.

It’s not hard to sense the trouble with this crushingly instrumental approach to nutrition.

Soylent may optimize meeting one’s daily nutritional needs with minimal cost and time investment. But for most people, food is not just a delivery mechanism for one’s nutritional requirements. It brings gustatory pleasure. It provides for social connection. It sustains and transmits cultural identity. A world in which Soylent spells the end of food also spells the degradation of these values.

Maybe you don’t care about Soylent; it’s just another product in the marketplace that no one is required to buy. If tech workers want to economize on time spent grocery shopping or a busy person faces the choice between grabbing an unhealthy meal at a fast-food joint or bringing along some Soylent, why should anyone complain? In fact, it’s a welcome alternative for some people.

But the story of Soylent is powerful because it reveals the optimization mindset of the technologist. And problems arise when this mindset begins to dominate—when the technologies begin to scale and become universal and unavoidable.

That mindset is inculcated early in the training of technologists. When developing an algorithm, computer science courses often define the goal as providing an optimal solution to a computationally-specified problem. And when you look at the world through this mindset, it’s not just computational inefficiencies that annoy. Eventually, it becomes a defining orientation to life as well. As one of our colleagues at Stanford tells students, everything in life is an optimization problem.

The desire to optimize can favor some values over others. And the choice of which values to favor, and which to sacrifice, are made by the optimizers who then impose those values on the rest of us when their creations reach great scale. For example, consider that Facebook’s decisions about how content gets moderated or who loses their accounts are the rules of expression for more than three billion people on the platform; Google’s choices about what web pages to index determine what information most users of the internet get in response to searches. The small and anomalous group of human beings at these companies create, tweak, and optimize technology based on their notions of how it ought to be better. Their vision and their values about technology are . . .

Continue reading.

The concluding paragraphs:

Several years ago, one of us received an invitation to a small dinner. Founders, venture capitalists, researchers at a secretive tech lab, and two professors assembled in the private dining room of a four-star hotel in Silicon Valley. The host—one of the most prominent names in technology—thanked everyone for coming and reminded us of the topic we’d been invited to discuss: “What if a new state were created to maximize science and tech progress powered by commercial models—what would that run like? Utopia? Dystopia?”

The conversation progressed, with enthusiasm around the table for the establishment of a small nation-state dedicated to optimizing the progress of science and technology. Rob raised his hand to speak. “I’m just wondering, would this state be a democracy? What’s the governance structure here?” The response was quick: “Democracy? No. To optimize for science, we need a beneficent technocrat in charge. Democracy is too slow, and it holds science back.”

Written by Leisureguy

11 September 2021 at 6:17 pm

Ilan Stavans on Don Quixote

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Bronze statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, at the Plaza de España in Madrid, Spain. 2010. Photo by רנדום.

I am a big fan of the book Don Quixote, and I am just one fan among millions of others. (Indeed, it is probably time to read the book again.) In Octavian, Ilan Stevens writes about the book:

More than 400 years ago, an aging and obscure Spaniard named Miguel de Cervantes published a novel that would change the course of literature (and come to be regarded as perhaps the greatest of all novels by numerous critics): The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, more commonly known as Don Quixote. Rich, strange, nearly infinite in its influence, the book offers us a profound understanding both of humans and of the stories they tell. This brilliant essay by Ilan Stavans  critic, essayist, translator, Octavian board member, and publisher of Restless Books imagines the Quixote as a nation unto itself, one whose ambassadors have spread its magic through space and time. 

It has been described as the most influential novel in the history of the form. It is also among the bulkiest, longer even than David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It is the steadiest of bestsellers, only outshined by the Bible (speaking of which, the 19th-century French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve once called it “the secular Bible of humanity”). It has been translated into English a total of twenty times, more than any other novel. The first appeared in 1613, while its author Miguel de Cervantes was still alive.

Don Quixote of La Mancha, in other words, is a book one should love without restraint. It is moody and unpredictable. It is formally idiosyncratic. It moves easily between the highest and lowest of tonal registers. It possesses an uncanny ability to weed out unwelcome readers. Its 381,104 words, 8,207 periods, 40,617 commas, 690 exclamation points, 960 question marks, and 2,046 semi-colons draw those readers it does welcome into a labyrinth not only of signs but of images and emotions. To find one’s way through this requires intellectual stamina, psychological alertness, and — paradoxically — a willing credulity. After all, the book is a collection of bizarre episodes, some comic, some pathetic, some utterly disengaged from the rest, all connected by the thread of its two wandering protagonists, a slim, laid-back hidalgo who does nothing but spend his idle hours reading tales of adventure, and his squire, Sancho Panza, an almost illiterate field laborer and family man who believes he’s a practical fellow when he isn’t. It’s hard to know which of the two is more cuckoo: the foolish señor who is convinced he can change the world by becoming a superhero, or the silly employee who wastes his time following him.

This already complex structure exists, as well, in four dimensions — it changes with time. Come to the book when you are young and you will discover in it the endless ebullience of youth; read it again in your fifties (about the age of its protagonist, Don Quixote de la Mancha, also known as the Knight of the Mournful Countenance) and you will see a subtle and empathetic portrayal of a man in the grip of a midlife crisis. Return again in your old age, and find the Quixote transformed into a book on how to deal with the end that awaits us all, a well-tempered look into the face of death.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Cervantes completing the novel’s manuscript. If the definition of a classic is a book that passes the test of time, this one has succeeded with flying colors. But I want to propose a different definition: a classic is a book capable of building a nation around itself. This one has. The world may be divided by flags, currencies, borders, and governments, but the realest nations congregate around mythologies. Unquestionably there is a Quixote nation, made up of the millions of readers who have fallen under its spell. It includes an assortment of admirable names: Lord Byron, Gustave Flaubert, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges, Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí, Miguel de Unamuno, and Pablo Picasso (whose 1955 ink study, also undertaken as an anniversary commemoration, of the knight and his squire still amazes the eye today). George Washington, who helped build his own republic of the imagination, read the book and loved it. But more admirable than these are the countless readers of the book whose names are lost to history — the true creators of a homeland for the knight and his servant.

The Quixote’s birth was far from certain. Prior to starting work on what would become his magnum opus, Cervantes was a soldier (he fought in the Battle of Lepanto against the Turks, a heroic yet humbling experience: he was injured and lost much of the use of his left arm), a captive at war, and a lousy tax collector who ended up in jail for mishandling funds. He was also a rather limited author, a poet and playwright (he also wrote novellas), whom, I suspect, posterity would ignore if, about a decade before his death in 1616 at 69, he hadn’t stumbled on the idea of exploring the limits of parody. Still, he was penniless in the end, never suspecting for a minute the global impact his work would have. Indeed, I often imagine the surprise on his face (none of the portraits available were done while he was alive) had he realized the whole period he belonged to would be called “the age of Cervantes.” Not the age of Lope de Vega, the most successful and prolific of all playwrights who were his contemporaries? Not Quevedo or Góngora, two astonishing sonnetists?

The majority of readers, at least American readers, first learn of Don Quixote through Man of La Mancha, a syrupy and formulaic Broadway musical that in most ways could not be more distant from the antinomian spirit of the book. The one consolation to be drawn from this fact is that, for all its flaws, Man of La Mancha does manage to communicate an essential truth about the novel — the essential truth, in fact: both are driven by the restless and infinite imagination of Don Quixote, who dreams, in the words of the song, the impossible dream. (One is tempted to quote Picasso here: “Everything you can imagine is real.”) Indeed, no book addresses with a more penetrating eye the freedom dreams grant us. (Sorry, Freud!) Consider the arch-famous episode of the windmills, which should be seen as a clash between a decrepit feudalist and the most innovative energy technology of the time. Don Quixote is convinced these magisterial structures are giants whose intent is to conquer the earth, whereas Sancho knows (and so does the narrator) that they are far more mundane than that. Or the puppet theater performing a tale of adventure and submission which the knight confuses with real events, jumping on the stage and destroying the marionettes. Or the group of prisoners in transit whom Don Quixote liberates because he believes them to be innocent. Or the Cave of Montesinos, a dark and frightening place where Don Quixote has a mystical experience. The list of such incidents is long.

True, Cervantes wasn’t a good stylist. There are bumpy parts in Don Quixote, in which the author seems asleep at the wheel. He is sometimes repetitive. He forgets crucial details, such as the name of Sancho’s wife, calling her variously Juana and Teresa. But novels, especially lasting ones, don’t need to be perfect. What they need to be, of course, is . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

And read — or listen to — Don Quixote. The Edith Grossman translation is serviceable.

Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2021 at 10:36 am

John Mulaney tells Seth Meyers about his eventful year

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I found this absorbing.

Written by Leisureguy

8 September 2021 at 4:36 pm

It’s possible to help more positive images pop into your mind

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Simon Blackwell, a post-doctoral researcher in the Mental Health Research and Treatment Center at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, writes in Psyche:

Sometimes, the most interesting research findings are the ones you were not looking for. This happened to me in late 2007 when I was interviewing a participant about her experience of a study she had just completed that involved imagining positive scenarios every day at home for one week. The focus of the interview was about how helpful she’d found the sessions, what she thought of their length and frequency and so on. It wasn’t until my standard final question, ‘Is there anything else you’d like to mention?’, that the participant gave a reply – ‘Well, there was this one thing…’ – that completely changed my perspective on the depression intervention we were developing, and that continues to have a significant influence on my research to this day.

The woman, a graduate student in her 20s who was experiencing an episode of major depression, described to me how, during the study, certain mental images had begun popping into her mind spontaneously as she had been going about her day-to-day life. For most people, spontaneous mental imagery of various kinds is a common experience. Many of these images are associated with a phenomenon termed ‘mental time travel’, in which we relive events from the past or ‘pre-live’ possible events in the future. For example, hearing a particular song might trigger a memory from your childhood or youth, which could range from a still ‘picture’ in your mind’s eye, to a more complex immersive scene including sights, sounds, smells and the emotions you experienced at the time. Or, on a long Friday at work, you might find your mind wandering off and repeatedly playing out whatever it is you plan to do to unwind at the end of the day. My research participant’s description suggested that, inadvertently, our intervention seemed to have influenced these processes.

This was a particularly intriguing possibility for various reasons. Spontaneous mental imagery of future events is thought to serve important functions in daily life, for example in the context of planning, decision-making and guiding our ongoing behaviour. Via such imagery flashing into your mind, even if just briefly, you can experience a brief ‘pre-experiencing’ of an event, a taste of how it might be and how you might feel – for example, how enjoyable it could be. This can not only lift your mood in the moment, but lead to changes in your behaviour – you might take steps to make it more likely that the pictured event will indeed occur. In fact, some research has found that generating positive mental imagery of events or activities can lead to increased engagement in goal-directed behaviour, including increased engagement in exercise or completion of tasks that people had been putting off.

It’s worth noting that there is huge variation between people, both in the frequency with which they experience spontaneous imagery in daily life, and the quality of the imagery experienced. For example, research has found that people who are more optimistic tend to experience more positive and vivid future-oriented thoughts in daily life – they can easily see a positive future in their mind’s eye. Conversely, research indicates the opposite pattern for people who are depressed or have chronic low mood: they experience spontaneous positive future-oriented imagery less often, and it tends to be less vivid; in extreme cases, they might be completely unable to imagine anything positive happening in their future, even if they try.

It is easy to see how these differences in the experience of spontaneous mental imagery could have an impact in daily life. Imagery-rich mental time travel appears to be a ‘default’ activity that the mind turns to when it is otherwise unoccupied, meaning that such spontaneous imagery can be thought of as providing a kind of ‘background music’ to your life; the extent to which this imagery is relatively positive or negative could therefore have a broad impact on your mood and general outlook over the course of a day. The frequency and characteristics of spontaneous imagery might be even more consequential than the mental imagery we generate on purpose. Data from observational studies, in which participants kept a diary of spontaneous thoughts in daily life, suggest that spontaneously occurring future-oriented thoughts have a greater impact on emotion and behaviour than deliberate thoughts.

Returning to the participant who had such an impact on my work, the depression intervention she’d completed included a series of training sessions, during which she and the other participants listened to audio descriptions of mostly everyday situations structured such that the outcome was uncertain (ie, things might go well or badly), but in fact they always resolved positively. As they listened to the recordings, the participants had to imagine themselves in the scenarios as they unfolded. Our rationale for the study was that, via repeated practice imagining positive outcomes for initially ambiguous situations in the training, participants would start automatically imagining positive outcomes for the similarly ambiguous situations they encountered in their daily life, counteracting the negative thinking styles that characterise depression.

For example, a scenario might begin: . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

8 September 2021 at 2:12 pm


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Written by Leisureguy

7 September 2021 at 11:34 am

Disinformation’s death toll

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Written by Leisureguy

7 September 2021 at 11:21 am

Could Small Still Be Beautiful?

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Bryce T. Bauer has an interesting article in Craftsmanship magazine. The article’s blurb:

In the mid-1970s, an economist named E.F. Schumacher argued that our push for endless growth was doomed to fail. His book, “Small Is Beautiful,” soon became a classic, inspiring a generation of idealists. While largely forgotten since then, Schumacher’s ideas might speak to the working class’s troubles today more than ever.

The article begins:

1. “Economics as a Form of Brain Damage”
2. The Schumacher Center For a New Economics
3. The New Economics of Land Ownership
4. The New Economics of Business Financing
5. The New Economics of Currency
6. The New Economics of Entrepreneurship
7. Challenges to the New Economy

Four decades ago, just as some of the forces that have caused today’s problems with globalization and inequality began to take hold, a British economist by the name of E.F. Schumacher took America by storm with a set of contrary ideas about how an economy should work.

Schumacher aimed squarely at supporting everyday people and the communities where they lived. For a brief period in the mid-1970s, his name enjoyed headline status — and his book, “Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered,” joined a pantheon of powerful, call-to-action works of the time. Schumacher’s book was taken so seriously that, a few years after its publication, it was listed alongside such enduring critiques as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Paul R. Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb.”

While “Small Is Beautiful” hasn’t endured with quite the same power those works have enjoyed, its ideas have still seeped into the thinking of some of the nation’s latter-day acolytes of social and environmental sustainability, including Wendell Berry, Jane Jacobs, and Bill McKibben. Schumacher’s work also inspired a small think-tank focused on turning the small towns and bucolic countryside of the Massachusetts Berkshires into a laboratory for further exploration of his theories.

Given how rarely Schumacher’s once-popular ideas are discussed today, one can’t help but wonder—were his perceptions all wrong? Or, as the director of the institute focused on sustaining his ideas, and as Schumacher himself also said, was their time yet to come? If the latter, might that time be now? Every day, it seems, more and more experts join the argument that the accelerating dominance of global companies — in a world struggling with income inequality, resource depletion, and the growing ravages of climate change — has put us on an unsustainable path. If that bleak outlook is correct, maybe it’s time to give Schumacher’s ideas a second look.


When “Small Is Beautiful” came out, in 1973, Schumacher had already worked for several decades as an economist. In the years after its publication, he toured the United States speaking to crowds across the country and meeting with political leaders, including an address before 50 members of Congress and a meeting with President Jimmy Carter. At the time, America was being wrenched by many of the ills he said modern economics would cause. The 1970s was a decade marked by oil and gas shocks, labor unrest and stagflation, a growing concern over the environment, and the discord of the Vietnam War. Schumacher was attuned to what it all portended. (In fact, the first use of the term “global warming” occurred just two years after Schumacher’s book was published.) Schumacher wrote “we do well to ask why it is that all these terms — pollution, environment, ecology, etc. — have so suddenly come into prominence…is this a sudden fad, a silly fashion, or perhaps a sudden failure of nerve?”

Born in Bonn, Germany, Schumacher had fled Nazi Germany to England in 1937. During the Second World War, when Great Britain began interning Germans, including Jewish refugees, Schumacher and his family moved to the countryside, where he worked on a farm until his writing caught the notice of John Maynard Keynes, the British economist who launched the 20th century’s activist alternative to unfettered, free-market economics.

The core of Schumacher’s argument lay in his book’s subtitle: “Economics as if People Mattered.” For far too long, economists had approached the problem of development in a way that focused too much on goods over people, emphasizing the elimination of labor instead of job creation. He accused these experts of treating consumption as the end itself, always to be maximized.

In Schumacher’s view, the economy would not benefit from the standard methods of stimulation; if anything, it should be de-intensified. If this could be managed, Schumacher believed, it would allow time “for any piece of work — enough to make a really good job of it, to enjoy oneself, to produce real equality, even to make things beautiful.”

The opportunity to work this way — which is central to any artisan or tradesman, and to his or her ability to produce top-notch, innovative work — clearly has only declined further in the years since Schumacher made this observation. And if anything, his critique might be even more timely today. In a new book, “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” veteran New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue that the growing scarcity of jobs that offer such visceral satisfactions is part of what’s plunged America’s working class into unprecedented levels of despair, drug addiction, and suicide 

To be truly helpful, Schumacher argued, development funds in poor areas should be spent on “intermediate technology” — that is, technology that’s cheap, resilient, and simple enough to be used by workers in areas that lack access to education, ready capital, and sophisticated infrastructure. Technology that’s too expensive, and too complex to be readily used in developing economies, he said, destroys “the possibilities of self-reliance.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

6 September 2021 at 5:34 pm

The power of no: how to build strong, healthy boundaries

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Eleanor Morgan writes in the Guardian:

No. A tiny, yet mighty word. To hear it can make us feel childlike; sheepish or in trouble. How does it make you feel to say “no”? Strong? Nervous? Guilty? Do you say it often enough?

In July, when the gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from most of her Olympics appearances, citing emotional exhaustion that was affecting her ability to perform, her “no” was a thunderbolt. Reactions were largely supportive, but opinions were divided along political lines in the US. White, male sports pundits (and, predictable as the arrow of time, Piers Morgan) used the word “selfish”. It was a similar story when the tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open in May, speaking of “long bouts of depression” and “huge waves of anxiety” before her pre- and post-match press conferences.

For both women, after a lifetime of intensive training, in the world’s gaze, the stakes of saying no were huge. But the message was clear: they were removing themselves from systems that might not protect them. A superstar athlete such as Biles pulling away from the most venerated sporting event in the world to prioritise her state of mind felt culturally seismic, yet remarkably simple. Why, if feeling completely overwhelmed, shouldn’t she put others’ expectations second? Why shouldn’t anyone?

“The Olympic games are emotionally exhausting,” says Steve Magness, an Olympic athletics coach and performance scientist. “You spend years building towards a moment and have external pressure coming at you which manifests into unbelievable internal pressure. I don’t think the everyday person understands that.” Magness has spent a decade researching toughness, namely, our “deep misunderstanding” of what it really means. “The easy decision for Biles was to push onwards no matter what. You can always defend ‘trying’. The hard decision was to say no.”

For Magness, the root of strength is being clear what you are capable of. “Toughness is about having self-awareness to figure out where you are, and whether the path forward is the right one to take. Think of the mountain climber, striving for their goal, almost at the peak of the mountain. They still have to maintain clarity about what they’re capable of, as the difficulty isn’t reaching the top of the mountain, it’s coming back down. In that example, toughness is turning around – even if the goal is right there.”

Yet the word is potent for non-athletes, too. As psychological themes become more ingrained in our daily lexicon, “boundaries” has become a buzzy word. But in our interpersonal relationships, defining personal limits can be problematic. “We live in a society that does not glorify choosing yourself. It is not honoured,” says relationship therapist Nedra Tawwab, author of the recently published book Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself. “We are constantly living in others’ headspace and not our own heart space. We’re thinking about what they might say or do; whether they’ll be angry, or whether setting a boundary will even end the relationship.” It is normal to care, “but when your life is impacted by not having healthy boundaries for yourself, we need to pay attention”, says Tawwab.

“As a black woman, Biles has continued to endure so much without taking care of her needs,” says Tawwab, “But there are so many consequences of that ‘strong black woman’ narrative. We need to be more selfish and speak up for our needs. In order for us to be well, we need to change the idea that speaking up makes us angry or unresilient. I am happy to see people coming out and saying: ‘This is how I really feel and I can’t take any more,’ because hopefully it inspires other women to do the same. ”

When there are hierarchies of power – such as in the workplace – saying no can feel particularly difficult. But as the borders between work and the rest of our lives have become increasingly blurred, thanks to more people home-working, it is even more vital. “Research tells us that people who proactively state their boundaries, such as leaving or stopping work on time, taking leave or prioritising non-work-related activities, are much better at managing their mental health,” says Dr Jo Yarker, an occupational psychologist, researcher and senior lecturer at Birkbeck University, London.

Yarker and Tawwab both suggest . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

3 September 2021 at 6:50 pm

They saw a YouTube video. Then they got Tourette’s

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Grace Browne writes in Wired:

Kirsten Müller-Vahl had a major mystery on her hands. It was June 2019 and Müller-Vahl, a psychiatrist at Hannover Medical School in Germany and head of its Tourette’s outpatient department, was being inundated by patients with tics unlike anything she had seen before. 

Not only were the tics complex in nature, involving several muscle groups, even more bizarrely the symptoms of each patient bore a striking resemblance to one another. “The symptoms were identical. Not only similar, but identical,” she says. Although all had been formally diagnosed with Tourette’s by other physicians, Müller-Vahl, who has been working with patients with Tourette’s syndrome for 25 years, was certain it was something else entirely. Then a student came forward who knew where she had seen those tics before. 

All the patients were displaying the same tic-like behaviours as the star of a popular YouTube channel. Gewitter im Kopf (meaning ‘thunderstorm in the head’) documents the life of Jan Zimmermann, a 23-year-old from Germany with Tourette’s. The channel’s raison d’etre is to speak openly and humorously about Zimmerman’s disorder, and it has proven to be a hit amassing more than two million subscribers in two years.  

Some of Zimmerman’s tics are specific. He can be often be seen saying the phrases “Fliegende Haie” (flying sharks), “Heil Hitler”, “Du bist häßlich” (you are ugly) and “pommes” (chips). Other tics include smashing eggs, and throwing pens at school. 

The patients that visited Müller-Vahl’s clinic were pretty much mimicking Zimmerman’s tics. Many also were referring to their condition as Gisela, the YouTuber’s nickname for his condition. In total, about fifty patients presented with symptoms that were similar to those of Zimmerman’s to her clinic. Many patients readily admitted to having watched his videos. Zimmerman did not respond to a request for comment. 

Although the spectrum of the symptoms of Tourette’s is wide, similar symptoms tend to crop up over and over, Müller-Vahl says. Classic tics are usually simple, short, abrupt; mainly located in the eyes or in the face or the head, such as blinking, jerking and shrugging. The syndrome typically manifests at around six years old, and much more often in boys – an average of three to four boys to one girl. What springs to mind when you picture Tourette’s – an uncontrollable urge to utter obscenities in public – is actually rare, she says. 


But if it wasn’t Tourette’s, what was it? According to Müller-Vahl, these patients were actually suffering from something called functional movement disorder, or FMD. This might present like Tourette’s, but where the latter has a neurological basis (although the root cause is not yet known, it is thought to be related to abnormalities in brain regions such as the basal ganglia), the cause of FMD is psychological. In FMD, the hardware is intact, but the software isn’t working properly, whereas with Tourette’s, the software is working just fine, but it’s the hardware that isn’t. People with FMD physically have the ability to control their bodies, but they’ve lost hold of the reins, resulting in involuntary, abnormal behaviours. 

For some patients, all their symptoms disappeared when Müller-Vahl explained that what they had wasn’t Tourette’s. For others, a course of psychotherapy improved their symptoms significantly. Still, the sheer number of patients with the exact same symptoms puzzled Müller-Vahl and her colleagues. 

Mass sociogenic illness – also known as mass psychogenic illness or historically called mass hysteria – spreads like a social virus. But instead of a perceptible viral particle, the pathogen and method of contagion is invisible. Symptoms spread by unconscious social mimicry to vulnerable people, thought to be triggered by emotional distress. (It isn’t included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, although it does bear a keen resemblance to conversion disorder, which entails the “conversion” of emotional distress into physical symptoms.) Historically, mass sociogenic illness affects women more than men. The reason why is unknown, but one hypothesis is that females generally tend to have higher levels of anxiety and depression, which could make them more susceptible to the illness.

Outbreaks of mass sociogenic illness are dotted throughout history. Perhaps the most famous began in October 2011, in Le Roy, a tiny town in upstate New York, when . . .

Continue reading. There’s quite a bit more — and the prognosis that we’ll continue to see such outbreaks.

Written by Leisureguy

3 September 2021 at 10:57 am

The mind does not exist

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Joe Gough,  a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Sussex in the UK, writes in Aeon:

Someone’s probably told you before that something you thought, felt or feared was ‘all in your mind’. I’m here to tell you something else: there’s no such thing as the mind and nothing is mental. I call this the ‘no mind thesis’. The no-mind thesis is entirely compatible with the idea that people are conscious, and that they think, feel, believe, desire and so on. What it’s not compatible with is the notion that being conscious, thinking, feeling, believing, desiring and so on are mental, part of the mind, or done by the mind.

The no-mind thesis doesn’t mean that people are ‘merely bodies’. Instead, it means that, when faced with a whole person, we shouldn’t think that they can be divided into a ‘mind’ and a ‘body’, or that their properties can be neatly carved up between the ‘mental’ and the ‘non-mental’. It’s notable that Homeric Greek lacks terms that can be consistently translated as ‘mind’ and ‘body’. In Homer, we find a view of people as a coherent collection of communicating parts – ‘the spirit inside my breast drives me’; ‘my legs and arms are willing’. A similar view of human beings, as a big bundle of overlapping, intelligent systems in near-constant communication, is increasingly defended in cognitive science and biology.

The terms mind and mental are used in so many ways and have such a chequered history that they carry more baggage than meaning. Ideas of the mind and the mental are simultaneously ambiguous and misleading, especially in various important areas of science and medicine. When people talk of ‘the mind’ and ‘the mental’, the no-mind thesis doesn’t deny that they’re talking about something – on the contrary, they’re often talking about too many things at once. Sometimes, when speaking of ‘the mind’, people really mean agency; other times, cognition; still others, consciousness; some uses of ‘mental’ really mean psychiatric; others psychological; others still immaterial; and yet others, something else.

This conceptual blurriness is fatal to the usefulness of the idea of ‘the mind’. To be fair, many concepts build bridges: they exhibit a specific, generally harmless kind of ambiguity called polysemy, with slightly different meanings in different contexts. The flexibility and elasticity of polysemy binds disparate areas of research and practice together, priming people to recognise their similarities and interrelatedness. For example, if a computer scientist talks about ‘computation’, they normally mean something slightly different than an engineer, a cognitive scientist or someone chatting with a friend means. The overarching concept of computation links all these conversations together, helping us to spot the commonalities between them.

The problem is that making links like this isn’t always a good idea. Sometimes it spurs creative interactions between different areas of expertise, and offers helpful analogies that would otherwise be hard to spot. But other instances of polysemy lead to harmful conflations and damaging analogies. They make people talk past each other, or become invested in defending or attacking certain concepts rather than identifying their shared goals. This can cement misunderstandings and stigma.

You’ve got to give it to mind and mental: they’re among the most polysemous concepts going around. Lawyers talk of ‘mental’ capacity, psychiatrists talk of ‘mental illness’, cognitive scientists claim to study ‘the mind’, as do psychologists, and as do some philosophers; many people talk of a ‘mind-body problem’, and many people wonder whether it’s OK to eat animals depending on whether they ‘have a mind’. These are only a few of many more examples. In each case, mind and mental mean something different: sometimes subtly different, sometimes not-so-subtly.

In such high-stakes domains, it’s vital to be clear. Many people are all too ready to believe that the problems of the ‘mentally ill’ are ‘all in their mind’. I’ve never heard anyone doubt that a heart problem can lead to problems outside the heart, but I’ve regularly had to explain to friends and family that ‘mental’ illnesses can have physiological effects outside ‘the mind’. Why do people so often find one more mysterious and apparently surprising than the other? It’s because many of the bridges built by mind and mental are bridges that it’s time to burn, once and for all.

The psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and ‘antipsychiatrist’ Thomas Szasz argued that there was no such thing as mental illness. He believed that mental illnesses were ‘problems of living’, things that made it hard to live well because they were bound up with personal conflicts, bad habits and moral faults. Therefore, mental illness was the sufferer’s own personal responsibility. As a consequence, Szasz claimed that psychiatry should be abolished as a medical discipline, since it had nothing to treat. If a person’s symptoms had a physiological basis, then they were physical disorders of the brain rather than ‘mental’ ones. And if the symptoms had no physiological basis, Szasz claimed, then they didn’t amount to a true ‘illness’.

This argument relied heavily on the idea that mental illnesses are categorically distinct from ‘physiological’ ones. It’s an instance of how the dualistic connotations of mind, associated with certain metaphysical theories of the mental, can be imported inappropriately into psychiatry. Yet many mental illnesses have physiological causes and effects, and even those with no clear physiological cause often warrant medical intervention, because the people suffering from such conditions still deserve medical help.

In contrast with Szasz, I believe that mental illnesses are mental only in that they are psychiatric. Ordinary understandings of the mind, and what is and isn’t part of it, have nothing to do with it. Perception is generally considered to be mental, a part of the mind – yet, while medicine considers deafness and blindness to be disorders of perception, it doesn’t class them as mental illnesses. Why? The answer is obvious: because psychiatrists generally aren’t the best doctors to treat deafness and blindness (if they need treatment, which many Deaf people in particular would reject).

When people talk about ‘the mind’ and ‘the mental’ in psychiatry, my first thought is always ‘What exactly do they mean?’ – which precise meaning of mind and mental are they drawing on, which other area are they trying to appeal to, which bridge are they trying to get me to cross? A ‘mental’ illness is just an illness that psychiatry is equipped to deal with. That’s determined as much by practical considerations about the skills psychiatrists have to offer, as it is by theoretical or philosophical factors. But this pragmatic approach hides itself behind appeals to ‘mental illness’. In many contexts, the term mental tends to bring along inappropriate and stigmatising connotations – showing that the wrong bridges have been built. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the article:

There are also ways of mapping immunity in cognitive terms. In the 1960s and ’70s, the work of the US psychologist Robert Ader uncovered a surprising feature of the immune system. He trained rats to avoid a harmless sweetener by administering it alongside a sickness-inducing chemical called cyclophosphamide. When testing that the training had worked, by administering just the sweetener, the rats began to die. The more sweetener, the faster they died. This was a mystery. It turned out that cyclophosphamide is an ‘immunosuppressant’, a chemical that turns off the immune system. The immune system had ‘learned’ to turn off in response to the sweetener alone, and this left the rats vulnerable to normally harmless pathogens in their environment, which killed them. In other words, Ader discovered that the immune system is amenable to classic Pavlovian conditioning.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2021 at 6:29 pm

Why would anyone listen to those who know what they’re talking about when others are so fascinating?

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And click to tweet to read the thread.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2021 at 3:25 pm

Two letters from Louise Bogan to Theodore Roethke

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Shaun Usher has a newsletter and website, Letters of Note, in which he provides some context and then presents notable letters. In a recent newsletter, he writes:

Born in Maine in 1897, Louise Bogan was 48 when she became the fist woman to be appointed Poet Laureate in the U.S. These letters of advice were written ten years earlier to Theodore Roethke, a friend and fellow poet who had lost his way and turned to drink, and who, in 1954, would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Should you love these letters even half as much as I do, I strongly recommend getting hold of the criminally under-appreciated book, What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan. It’s up there with the best.

Following that, the newsletter has two letters from Louise Bogan: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Leisureguy

29 August 2021 at 4:30 am

Downsides of having wealth

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Carolyn Gregoire has an interesting article in Greater Good Magazine. It begins:

The term “affluenza”—a portmanteau of affluence and influenza, defined as a “painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste, resulting from the dogged pursuit of more”—is often dismissed as a silly buzzword created to express our cultural disdain for consumerism. Though often used in jest, the term may contain more truth than many of us would like to think.

Whether affluenza is real or imagined, money really does change everything, as the song goes—and those of high social class do tend to see themselves much differently than others. Wealth (and the pursuit of it) has been linked with immoral behavior—and not just in movies like The Wolf of Wall Street.

sychologists who study the impact of wealth and inequality on human behavior have found that money can powerfully influence our thoughts and actions in ways that we’re often not aware of, no matter our economic circumstances. Although wealth is certainly subjective, most of the current research measures wealth on scales of income, job status, or socioeconomic circumstances, like educational attainment and intergenerational wealth.

Here are seven things you should know about the psychology of money and wealth.

More money, less empathy?

Several studies have shown that wealth may be at odds with empathy and compassion. Research published in the journal Psychological Science found that people of lower economic status were better at reading others’ facial expressions—an important marker of empathy—than wealthier people.

“A lot of what we see is a baseline orientation for the lower class to be more empathetic and the upper class to be less [so],” study co-author Michael Kraus told Time. “Lower-class environments are much different from upper-class environments. Lower-class individuals have to respond chronically to a number of vulnerabilities and social threats. You really need to depend on others so they will tell you if a social threat or opportunity is coming, and that makes you more perceptive of emotions.”

While a lack of resources fosters greater emotional intelligence, having more resources can cause bad behavior in its own right [cf. the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharmacy, who gained great wealth by actively promoting use of the opioids they made and sold — and who are determined to hang on to that money. – LG]. UC Berkeley research found that even fake money could make people behave with less regard for others. Researchers observed that when two students played Monopoly, one having been given a great deal more Monopoly money than the other, the wealthier player expressed initial discomfort, but then went on to act aggressively, taking up more space and moving his pieces more loudly, and even taunting the player with less money.

Wealth can cloud moral judgment.

It is no surprise in this post-2008 world to learn that wealth may cause a sense of moral entitlement. A UC Berkeley study found that in San Francisco—where the law requires that cars stop at crosswalks for pedestrians to pass—drivers of luxury cars were four times less likely than those in less expensive vehicles to stop and allow pedestrians the right of way. They were also more likely to cut off other drivers.

Another study suggested that merely thinking about money could lead to unethical behavior. Researchers from Harvard and the University of Utah found that study participants were more likely to lie or behave immorally after being exposed to money-related words.

“Even if we are well-intentioned, even if we think we know right from wrong, there may be factors influencing our decisions and behaviors that we’re not aware of,” University of Utah associate management professor Kristin Smith-Crowe, one of the study’s co-authors, told MarketWatch.

Wealth has been linked with addiction

While money itself doesn’t cause addiction or substance abuse, wealth has been linked with a higher susceptibility to addiction problems. A number of . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

People believe they possess wealth, but it’s more as though wealth possesses them. They must care for their wealth, protect it, and in general act as its servants, doing its bidding.

Written by Leisureguy

24 August 2021 at 12:54 pm

Art from a mind at sea

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Intersection (2010) by Louise Weinberg.

Michael Stanley, a clinical fellow in neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, has an interesting article (with more of Weinberg’s artwork) in Aeon. He writes:

‘It’s a very strange scene,’ Louise said, staring at the photograph, during one of our more recent sessions.

‘Can you make out what’s going on?’ I asked her.

She squinted and searched the picture. ‘There’s a little man over on the left side. He’s looking at a window in the middle of the room.’

‘Do you notice anything unusual about this photograph?’

‘I’m not sure, Dr Stanley. There must be or you wouldn’t ask it like that.’

‘What do you see, David?’ I asked her husband.

‘There’s a Volkswagen Beetle hanging off the ceiling, and a little boy is looking through the windshield. It’s an upside-down room.’

‘I guess so,’ Louise said. Her voice was flat and her face wooden with disappointment.

After retiring from her job as a social worker, for the past two decades Louise had pursued a second career as an artist and art teacher. During this time, she had also suffered from atypical Parkinsonism, a syndrome of the central nervous system that manifests as rigidity, slowed movements and problems walking. I was introduced to Louise in 2020. I’m training to be a neurologist, and her primary movement disorder specialist sent her to me, knowing my interest in art and the brain. The hope was that I could better characterise how Louise’s condition was affecting her sense of the aesthetic.

Parkinsonism didn’t just affect Louise’s movements. In the past few years, she had suffered from dementia, a progressive deterioration in cognition that affects thought, mood and behaviour. While Louise’s language and to some extent memory remain strong, in the past few years her chief struggle has been a decline in her visual and spatial abilities, and executive functions such as self-control and problem-solving. She could still identify basic shapes, silhouettes of animals, and obscure road-signs that I had shown her, and had even discerned a version of the Mona Lisa with an inverted face. However, a few hatches over a word rendered it unintelligible. A drawing of a hand with a superimposed spiral became a snail. Her vision could no longer pierce through a mess of extraneous details to the orderly form beneath.

I grew curious about the relationship between her steadily advancing cognitive deficits, and her creative will that never seemed to wane. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that good art is a form of ‘dancing in chains’ – that restrictions and limitations (often self- or societally imposed) lead to workarounds and developments that spur creativity. In watching how Louise’s art and brain changed over time, I hope to show the role each played upon the other.

The story of Louise’s art began more than 20 years ago, while she was in her mid-40s. She bought a book at a rummage sale in Boston, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (1979) by Betty Edwards. Though Louise had never picked up a paintbrush, ‘lightning struck’, as she put it, and she knew she was going to be an artist.

An early exercise challenged the student to copy Picasso’s portrait of Igor Stravinsky, but upside down. Counterintuitively, the inversion made it easier to draw. To draw a well-known figure from a little-seen perspective drives the attentional systems of the right brain to focus on the forms and outlines that make up the figure – rather than the figure itself, who it is, and its details, which are a preoccupation of the left hemisphere. It’s a version of the art-school adage to draw what you see, not what you know you should see. Even so, the two are hard to separate, since the brain’s ‘top down’ expectations influence what stimuli arrive ‘bottom up’ from our environment.

Louise attempted the exercise and, to her surprise, it looked like Stravinsky. Her pleasure in copying the portrait lay not just in the creation itself, but in the act of creation. Most of us experience the joy of art only in appreciating it; our minds put together the scene before us, link it to our past, and focus it with our mood in that moment. Two people might cry at a Rothko, one from pleasure and one from confusion. Louise found joy in setting that process into motion as an artist, producing something that marshalled the viewer’s visual stimuli such that she and others would react to it. She was going to be a creator, not just an observer.

Soon, Louise’s urge for expression drove her to abstract painting. Oils appealed both for their aesthetic and their textural feel. She used bold colours on large canvases, trying to explore relationships of space where viewers could begin to project a sense of figure (a street corner, a table), and yet… was it really a street corner? More than beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The artist tells us where to look and controls what we’re looking at, but what we see is a perceptual process that happens in our brains and not on the canvas.

Eventually, Louise enrolled at an arts institute in New England. Initially,  . . .

Continue reading. It’s an interesting article.

Written by Leisureguy

13 August 2021 at 1:08 pm

How gut microbes could drive brain disorders

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The more we learn about the gut microbiome, the more important it seems. I am happy that my own (whole-food plant-based) diet nourishes a good gut microbiome, and I do try to pick foods (e.g., allliums, asparagus) that support good gut microbes. Cassandra Willyard writes in Nature:

In 2006, soon after she launched her own laboratory, neuroscientist Jane Foster discovered something she felt sure would set her field abuzz. She and her team were working with two groups of mice: one with a healthy selection of microorganisms in their guts, and one that lacked a microbiome. They noticed that the mice without gut bacteria seemed less anxious than their healthy equivalents. When placed in a maze with some open paths and some walled-in ones, they preferred the exposed paths. The bacteria in the gut seemed to be influencing their brain and behaviour.

Foster, at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, wrote up the study and submitted it for publication. It was rejected. She rewrote it and sent it out again. Rejected. “People didn’t buy it. They thought it was an artefact,” she says. Finally, after three years and seven submissions, she got an acceptance letter1.

John Cryan, a neuroscientist at University College Cork in Ireland, joined the field about the same time as Foster did, and knows exactly how she felt. When he began talking about the connections between bacteria living in the gut and the brain, “I felt very evangelical”, he says. He recalls one Alzheimer’s disease conference at which he presented in 2014. “I’ve never given a talk in a room where there was less interest.”

Today, however, the gut–brain axis is a feature at major neuroscience meetings, and Cryan says he is no longer “this crazy guy from Ireland”. Thousands of publications over the past decade have revealed that the trillions of bacteria in the gut could have profound effects on the brain, and might be tied to a whole host of disorders. Funders such as the US National Institutes of Health are investing millions of dollars in exploring the connection.

But along with that explosion of interest has come hype. Some gut–brain researchers claim or imply causal relationships when many studies show only correlations, and shaky ones at that, says Maureen O’Malley, a philosopher at the University of Sydney in Australia who studies the field of microbiome research. “Have you found an actual cause, or have you found just another effect?”

In recent years, however, the field has made significant strides, O’Malley says. Rather than talking about the microbiome as a whole, some research teams have begun drilling down to identify specific microbes, mapping out the complex and sometimes surprising pathways that connect them to the brain. “That is what allows causal attributions to be made,” she says. Studies in mice — and preliminary work in humans — suggest that microbes can trigger or alter the course of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, autism spectrum disorder and more (see ‘Possible pathways to the brain’). Therapies aimed at tweaking the microbiome could help to prevent or treat these diseases, an idea that some researchers and companies are already testing in human clinical trials.

Credit: Nik Spencer/Nature

It is early days, but the prospect of new therapies for some of these intractable brain diseases is exciting, says Sarkis Mazmanian, a microbiologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena — particularly given how much easier it is to manipulate the gut than the brain. Getting therapies into the brain has been a long-standing challenge, he says, “but you can sure as hell change the microbiome”.

Tangle transmission

In 1817, the English surgeon James Parkinson described some of the first cases of the “shaking palsy” that would come to be known as Parkinson’s disease. One individual had developed numbness and prickling sensations in both arms. Parkinson noticed that the man’s abdomen seemed to contain “considerable accumulation”. He dosed the man with a laxative, and ten days later his bowels were empty and his symptoms were gone.

Parkinson might have been on to something. Some people who develop the disease experience constipation long before they develop mobility problems. And many researchers have embraced the idea that the disease begins in the gut, at least in some cases.

To understand the idea, it’s useful to know a little about the disease. The hallmark symptoms of Parkinson’s — tremors, stiffness and slowness of movement — appear as the neurons responsible for coordinating motion begin to die. Why these neurons die isn’t fully understood, but a protein known as α-synuclein seems to have a key role. In people with Parkinson’s disease, the protein misfolds. The first misfolded protein causes more to misfold, until harmful clumps known as Lewy bodies begin to form in the brain.

What triggers this cascade? In 2015, Robert Friedland, a neurologist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, proposed a new theory. He had read that . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

13 August 2021 at 10:36 am

Humanity’s response to warnings: see “Cassandra”

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The previous post quotes from a report of how a scholar’s warnings about the bad side-effects of the internet and AI were simply ignored. Related to that is this post from Kevin Drum:

The warning:

Global warming is dangerously close to spiralling out of control, a U.N. climate panel said in a landmark report Monday….U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres described the report as a “code red for humanity”. “The alarm bells are deafening,” he said in a statement. “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”

The reality:

Greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. energy industry are on track to surge the most in more than three decades as utilities increasingly turn to coal to power the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Carbon emissions will swell 7% this year to 4.89 billion metric tons, according to government data released Tuesday, the biggest increase since at least 1990.

Welcome to the world of h. sapiens.

Written by Leisureguy

12 August 2021 at 5:52 pm

The effort to overthrow US democracy

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Heather Cox Richardson from last night:

Four years ago today, racists, antisemites, white nationalists, Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis, and other alt-right groups met in Charlottesville, Virginia, to “Unite the Right.” The man who organized the rally, Jason Kessler, claimed he wanted to bring people together to protest the removal of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a local park. But the rioters turned immediately to chants that had been used by the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s: “you will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” and “blood and soil.” They gave Nazi salutes and carried Nazi insignia, and many brought battle gear and went looking for fights. By the end of August 12, they had killed counterprotester Heather Heyer and had injured 19 others. After the governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency, the rioters went home.

The Unite the Right rally drew a clear political line in America. Then-president Donald Trump refused to condemn the rioters, telling a reporter that there were “very fine people, on both sides.”

In contrast, former vice president Joe Biden watched the events at Charlottesville and concluded that the soul of the nation was at stake. He decided to run for president and to defeat the man he believed threatened our democracy. Biden was especially concerned with Trump’s praise for the “very fine people” aligned with the rioters. “With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it,” Biden said, “and in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”

Four years later, it is much easier to see the larger context of the Charlottesville riot. The political threat of those gangs who tried to unite in Charlottesville in 2017 recalls how fascism came to America in the 1930s: not as an elite ideology, but as a unification of street brawlers to undermine the nation’s democratic government.

In 2018, historian Joseph Fronczak explored the arrival of fascism in the U.S. In an article in the leading journal of the historical profession, the Journal of American History, Fronczak explained how men interested in overturning Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency in 1934 admired and then imitated the violent right-wing gangs that helped overturn European governments and install right-wing dictators.

The United States had always had radical street mobs, from anti-Catholic gangs in the 1830s to Ku Klux Klan chapters in the 1860s to anti-union thugs in the 1880s. In the 1930s, though, those eager to get rid of FDR brought those street fighters together as a political force to overthrow the federal government.

While they failed to do so in an attempted 1934 coup, Fronczak explains, street fighters learned about the contours of fascism once their power as a violent street force was established. He argues that in the U.S., fascism grew out of political violence, not the other way around. Mobs whose members dressed in similar shirts, waved similar flags, and made similar salutes pieced together racist, antisemitic, and nationalistic ideas and became the popular arm of right-wing leaders. In America, the hallmark of budding fascism was populist street violence, rather than an elite philosophy of government.

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville had the hallmarks of such a populist movement. Leaders brought together different gangs, dressed similarly and carrying the emblem of tiki torches, to organize and attack the government. Rather than rejecting the rioters, then-President Trump encouraged them.

From that point on, Trump seemed eager to ride a wave of violent populism into authoritarianism. He stoked populist anger over state shutdowns during coronavirus, telling supporters to “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” His encouragement fed the attacks on the Michigan state house in 2020. And then, after he repeatedly told his supporters the 2020 presidential election had been stolen, violent gangs attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, in an attempt to overturn the government and install him as president for another term.

While that attempted coup was unsuccessful, the empowerment of violent gangs as central political actors is stronger than ever. Since January 6, angry mobs have driven election officials out of office in fear for their safety. In increasingly angry protests, they have threatened school board members over transgender rights and over teaching Critical Race Theory, a legal theory from the 1970s that is not, in fact, in the general K–12 curriculum.

Now, as the coronavirus rages again, they are showing exactly how this process works as they threaten local officials who are following the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to require masks. Although a Morning Consult poll shows that 69% of Americans want a return to mask mandates, vocal mobs who oppose masking are dominating public spaces and forcing officials to give in to their demands.

In Franklin, Tennessee, yesterday, antimask mobs threatened doctors and nurses asking the local school board to reinstate a mask mandate in the schools. “We will find you,” they shouted at a man leaving the meeting. “We know who you are.”

Her column includes notes and comments, and those are worth reading. For example:

Elizabeth B. Scupham          1 hr ago

I read from Jeff Sharlet yesterday: ” A little while ago I drove slowly across the country visiting rightwing churches & individuals. What I found confirms a change I’ve been observing for the last 5 yrs: It’s really, truly, not issue-driven. What the Rightwing base wants, fundamentally, is a fight. Which, of course, is a core principle of fascism, albeit in its rapidly mutating, inchoate American form: A longing for redemption through violence, identity through the destruction of your foes.

The January 6 beating and attempted murder of Officer Michael Fanone makes that clear. As Officer Fanone has noted, he was down on the ground, incapacitated–and yet the mob kept beating him and calling for his death. He was, he notes, not an “impediment” to their stated goal of gaining entry to the Capitol to “stop the steal”; and yet instead of pursuing that goal, they kept beating him. Some of this is mob frenzy; but I’ve encountered the same sensibility among people sitting calmly in church lobbies: A desire to destroy one’s enemies as an end in itself.

So Trying to finesse policy differences or even “cultural” differences (read: white supremacy self-aware or not) isn’t noble, or pragmatic; it *misses the point.* The point, of much of the Right now, is conflict for its own sake, a belief that fighting will make them whole, or “great” again.”

And as a reminder of the particular Americans who want violence in their politics:

Written by Leisureguy

12 August 2021 at 7:30 am

What We Are Not Teaching Boys About Being Human

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Ruth Whippman is author of America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, which Amazon describes thus:

Are you happy? Right now? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could you be happier if you tried harder?

After she packed up her British worldview (that most things were basically rubbish) and moved to America, journalist and documentary filmmaker Ruth Whippman found herself increasingly perplexed by the American obsession with one topic above all others: happiness. The subject came up everywhere: at the playground swings, at the meat counter in the supermarket, and even – legs in stirrups – at the gynecologist.

The omnipresence of these happiness conversations (trading tips, humble-bragging successes, offering unsolicited advice) wouldn’t let her go, and so Ruth did some digging. What she found was a paradox: despite the fact that Americans spend more time and money in search of happiness than any other nation on earth, research shows that the United States is one of the least contented, most anxious countries in the developed world. Stoked by a multi-billion dollar “happiness industrial complex” intent on selling the promise of bliss, America appeared to be driving itself crazy in pursuit of contentment.

So Ruth set out on to get to the bottom of this contradiction, embarking on an uproarious pilgrimage to investigate how this national obsession infiltrates all areas of life, from religion to parenting, the workplace to academia. She attends a controversial self-help course that promises total transformation, where she learns all her problems are all her own fault; visits a “happiness city” in the Nevada desert and explores why it has one of the highest suicide rates in America; delves into the darker truths behind the influential academic “positive psychology movement”; and ventures to Utah to spend time with the Mormons, officially America’s happiest people.

What she finds, ultimately, and presents in America the Anxious, is a rigorously researched yet universal answer.

She is writing a book about raising boys, and her column today in the NY Times doubtless comes from that book:

A while back, at the bookstore with my three sons, I started flicking through a kids’ magazine that had the kind of hyper-pink sparkly cover that screams: “Boys! Even glancing in this direction will threaten your masculinity!”

In between the friendship-bracelet tutorials and the “What Type of Hamster Are You, Really?” quizzes, the magazine featured a story about a ’tween girl who had been invited to two birthday parties scheduled for the same time. Not wanting to disappoint either friend, she came up with an elaborate scheme to shuttle, unnoticed, between the parties, joining in the games at one before racing off to arrive just in time for the same games at the other, then repeating the sprint for cake at each house and so on. This was a tale of high-stakes emotional labor and I related to it strongly — if not the actual scenario itself, then at least the nerve-frazzling, people-pleasing compulsions driving it.

This birthday party stressfest is a pretty standard-issue story for female childhood. The girls in my sons’ classes will likely have read or watched hundreds like it — stories framed around people, their friendships, relationships and emotions, their internal dramas and the competing emotional needs of others. These were my stories as a young girl, too — the movies and TV shows I watched, the books and comics I read, the narratives I internalized about what was important.

But reading the magazine now, as the mother of three boys, this type of people-driven story felt oddly alien. I realized that, despite my liberal vanities about raising my sons in a relatively gender-neutral way, they had most likely never read a story like this, let alone experienced a similar situation in real life. It turns out that there is a bizarre absence of fully realized human beings in my sons’ fictional worlds.

As male toddlers, they were quickly funneled into a vehicle-only narrative reality. Apparently, preschool masculinity norms stipulate that human dilemmas may be explored through the emotional lives of only bulldozers, fire trucks, busy backhoes and the occasional stegosaurus.

As they aged out of the digger demographic, they transitioned seamlessly into one dominated by battles, fighting, heroes, villains and a whole lot of “saving the day.” Now, they are 10, 7 and 3, and virtually every story they read, TV show they watch or video game they play is essentially a story with two men (or male-identifying nonhuman creatures) pitted against each other in some form of combat, which inevitably ends with one crowned a hero and the other brutally defeated. This narrative world contains almost zero emotional complexity — no interiority, no negotiating or nurturing or friendship dilemmas or internal conflict. None of the mess of being a real human in constant relationship with other humans.

An exception to the “no real humans” rule: The small subgenre of realistic fiction aimed at elementary and middle schoolboys is actually wildly popular. Jeff Kinney’s beloved “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, for example, has sold more than 250 million copies while the middle school graphic novel series “Big Nate” has sold over 20 million. My sons and their friends gobble up these books, hungry for something that reflects their own lives. They gain a lot from them too — a jumping off point to think about their own real-world challenges and relationships, and a way to open up discussions about the emotional dilemmas they face.

But the main characters in this genre tend to be slightly depressing antiheroes, middle school nihilists who are almost defiantly mediocre. Their driving narrative motivation is often a kind of contempt — for school, teachers, annoying siblings and nagging parents. This background sense of grievance can sometimes be casually misogynistic, in the “stupid, dumb girls” vein. Although later examples of these books have dialed this back, if we follow these characters’ trajectory of resentment and self-loathing to its most extreme conclusion, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine one of them in 10 years’ time, trolling feminists online from his parents’ basement.

The lack of positive people-focused stories for boys has consequences both for them and girls. In the narratives they consume, as well as the broader cultural landscape in which they operate, girls get a huge head start on relational skills, in the day-to-day thorniness and complexity of emotional life. Story by story, girls are getting the message that other people’s feelings are their concern and their responsibility. Boys are learning that these things have nothing to do with them.

We have barely even registered this lack of an emotional and relational education as a worrying loss for boys. We tend to dismiss and trivialize teenage girls’ preoccupation with the intricacies of relationships as “girl-drama.” But as Niobe Way, a professor of psychology at New York University and the author of “Deep Secrets, Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection” says, “When we devalue things associated with femininity — such as emotions and relationships — boys miss out.”

The imbalance doesn’t just put exhausting pressure on girls and women to bear the social and emotional load of life — to remember the birthdays and wipe the tears and understand that Grandma’s increasingly aggressive eyebrow twitch means that she needs to be separated from Aunt Susan — it harms boys and men, too. They are missing out on internalizing concepts and learning skills crucial to a connected, moral, psychologically healthy life.

Probably because of this difference in socialization, boys score lower than girls of the same age on virtually all measures of empathy and social skills, a gap that grows throughout childhood and adolescence. This has implications across the board. Among first graders, social emotional ability, including the skills to form and maintain friendships, is a greater predictor of academic success than either family background or cognitive skills. Boys are now lagging behind girls academically at every grade level through college, so providing them with a more nuanced and people-focused emotional world — in what they read and watch, and in the conversations we have with them — might go some way toward closing that gap.

The impact on boys’ mental health is also likely to be significant. From a young age, girls’ friendships tend to be more intimate, deeper and more emotionally focused, providing a support structure that is often sorely lacking for boys. According to the American Psychological Association, this lack of support, and the masculinity norms that underpin it, can contribute to a range of serious mental health problems. Adolescent boys are also at almost twice the risk for death by suicide than girls — so this is an urgent problem.

We talk about toxic masculinity as an extreme scenario — the #metoo monster, the school shooter — but it is more like a spectrum. We have normalized a kind of workaday sub-toxic masculinity, which is as much about what we don’t expose boys to as what we do.

The stories we tell become our emotional blueprints, what we come to expect of ourselves and others and how we engage with our lives. And in the vast majority of situations we are likely to encounter in the course of a lifetime, there is no hero or villain, no death and no glory, but rather just a bunch of needy humans kvetching over who said what. Understanding how . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2021 at 7:50 pm

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