Wednesday Round Up #54

Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History, via the Association of American Colleges & Universities

We, the undersigned associations and organizations, state our firm opposition to a spate of legislative proposals being introduced across the country that target academic lessons, presentations, and discussions of racism and related issues in American history in schools, colleges and universities. These efforts have taken varied shape in at least 20 states, but often the legislation aims to prohibit or impede the teaching and education of students concerning what are termed “divisive concepts.”

These divisive concepts as defined in numerous bills are a litany of vague and indefinite buzzwords and phrases including, for example, “that any individual should feel or be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological or emotional distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.” These legislative efforts are deeply troubling for numerous reasons.

First, these bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn. The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States.

The Writer’s Diet Test, a Helen Sword initiative – she has aimed to improve academic writing in recent years, including the well-received Stylish Academic Writing.

Is your writing flabby or fit? Enter a text sample of at least 100 words, then click “take the test” to see your diagnosis. (Don’t like the diet and fitness theme? Click the Settings wheel to change it). To shape up your sentences and sharpen your style, start your customized writing workout here.

The Truth About Eating Disorder Recovery
A professional runner opens up about her eating disorder and seeking treatment

Do Psychedelics Just Provide Comforting Delusions?

In a new book being released this August, Australian philosopher Chris Letheby tackles the comforting-delusion quandary. In The Philosophy of Psychedelics, he asks whether we should care if psychedelics provide a comforting delusion if that leads to less suffering. Perhaps more importantly, Letheby questions whether or not it really is the mystical experiences causing the dramatic outcomes seen in people who undergo this therapy. They may not be the whole story.

Motherboard talked to Letheby about mysticism, the importance of truth and knowledge, and why the field of psychedelics, in particular, needs philosophy to help guide it.

Learning How Not to Know: Pragmatism, (In)expertise, and the Training of American Helping Professionals

Motivational interviewing (MI) is an American behavioral health intervention that has spread dramatically across professional fields, including counseling psychology, corrections, dentistry, nursing, nutrition, primary-care medicine, safe-water interventions, and social work. This article explores how the central methodological principles of American pragmatism—if understood and learned as MI—take root among a group of contemporary American helping professionals.

More specifically, the article shows how professional training in MI inculcates: (1) a steadfast focus on the immediate consequences of one’s acts rather than floating or abstract conceptions of the true, the good, or the right; and (2) an investment in a highly reflexive mode of knowledge acquisition, which relinquishes the certainty of positivist explanations and embraces doubt. Indeed, learning how not to know is part and parcel of becoming an American pragmatist, and this article details the labor, costs, and rewards of adopting a pragmatic, or (in)expert, sensibility…

Taking the U-Haven training as its central ethnographic ground, this article explores how the central methodological principles of American Pragmatism—if understood and learned as MI—take root among a group of contemporary American helping professionals.4 More specifically, I will show how MI training inculcates: (1) a steadfast focus on the immediate consequences of one’s acts rather than floating or abstract conceptions of the true, the good, or the right, and (2) an investment in a highly reflexive mode of knowledge acquisition, which relinquishes the certainty of positivist explanations and embraces doubt. By way of these pragmatic principles—which proponents of MI take to be simultaneously ethical and technical—MI offers an alternative to both a deductive logic, which finds the roots of problems and (therefore) cues for solutions in the interiors of suffering people, and the focus on measurable “clinical outcomes,” so firmly embedded in the contemporary culture of social and health service provision.

Should Darwin Be Cancelled? | Robert Wright & Agustín Fuentes | The Wright Show
Agustín Fuentes on what he was and wasn’t saying in his controversial Science piece on Darwin

Social Approaches to Delusions (5): Turning Away from the Social Turn

I want to be very clear, I acknowledge that humans are exquisitely social, and that we have specialized mechanisms for social cognition and interaction. We are influenced by the elegant work of Cecilia Heyes, who argues that much of what we call social cognition across species is actually driven by domain-general precision-weighted inference mechanisms [Heyes and Pearce 2015]. Put simply, we learn about other people as if they were cues with a mean expected value, and a reliability [Heyes et al. 2020] (this could be a mechanism through which we give testimony about others testimony).

Evidence for this type of view is extensive. Some of the most compelling comes from developmental work in humans. Human infants’ domain-general associative learning abilities portend their social cognition and behavior later in life [Reeb-Sutherland et al. 2012]. I would like to suggest that much of social cognition involves ill-posed and recursive inference problems. These are hard problems. They tax the inference machinery extensively. Any insults to that inference machinery will impair social inference (as well as inferences more broadly). This would be consistent with our observations relating paranoia in patients, on the continuum, and perhaps even in rodents, to non-social precision-weighted updating [Reed et al. 2020]. We still need to get from our non-social deficit to an extremely social belief.

Briefly, after Sullivan and colleagues, I think that having an enemy or persecutor can actually be reassuring. Perceiving that enemy as a source of misfortune increases the sense that the world is predictable and controllable, that risks are not randomly distributed [Sullivan et al. 2010] – blaming enemies might mollify the uncertainty that characterizes high paranoia, delusions, and psychosis more broadly. In settings where a sense of control is reduced, people will compensate by attributing exaggerated influence to an enemy, even when the enemy’s influence is not obviously linked to those hazards.

A Culture–Behavior–Brain Loop Model of Human Development

Increasing evidence suggests that cultural influences on brain activity are associated with multiple cognitive and affective processes. These findings prompt an integrative framework to account for dynamic interactions between culture, behavior, and the brain. We put forward a culture–behavior–brain (CBB) loop model of human development that proposes that culture shapes the brain by contextualizing behavior, and the brain fits and modifies culture via behavioral influences. Genes provide a fundamental basis for, and interact with, the CBB loop at both individual and population levels. The CBB loop model advances our understanding of the dynamic relationships between culture, behavior, and the brain, which are crucial for human phylogeny and ontogeny. Future brain changes due to cultural influences are discussed based on the CBB loop model.

Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Theory Revision: Moving Culture From the Macro Into the Micro

Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory of human development is one of the most widely known theoretical frameworks in human development. In spite of its popularity, the notion of culture within the macrosystem, as a separate entity of everyday practices and therefore microsystems, is problematic. Using the theoretical and empirical work of Rogoff and Weisner, and influenced as they are by Vygotsky’s sociocultural perspective, we reconceptualize Bronfenbrenner’s model by placing culture as an intricate part of proximal development processes.

In our model, culture has the role of defining and organizing microsystems and therefore becomes part of the central processes of human development. Culture is an ever changing system composed of the daily practices of social communities (families, schools, neighborhoods, etc.) and the interpretation of those practices through language and communication. It also comprises tools and signs that are part of the historical legacy of those communities, and thus diversity is an integral part of the child’s microsystems, leading to culturally defined acceptable developmental processes and outcomes.

The ’20-5-3′ Rule Prescribes How Much Time to Spend Outside

When I returned from the wild, my Zen-like buzz hung around for months. To understand what was happening, I met with Rachel Hopman, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Northeastern University. She told me about the nature pyramid. Think of it like the food pyramid, except that instead of recommending you eat this many servings of vegetables and this many of meat, it recommends the amount of time you should spend in nature to reduce stress and be healthier. Learn and live by the 20-5-3 rule.

20 Minutes. That’s the amount of time you should spend outside in nature, like a neighborhood park, three times a week. Hopman led a new study that concluded that something as painless as a 20-minute stroll through a city botanical garden can boost cognition and memory as well as improve feelings of well-being. “But,” she said, “we found that people who used their cell phone on the walk saw none of those benefits.”

A deep look at a speck of human brain reveals never-before-seen quirks

One such curiosity concerns synapses, connection spots where signals move between nerve cells. Usually, most message-sending axons touch a message-receiving dendrite just once. In the new dataset, about 90 percent of the connections were these one-hit contacts. Some pairs of cells have slightly more contacts. But every so often, researchers spotted cells that connect multiple times, including one pair that were linked by a whopping 19 synapses.

Multiple connections have been spotted in mouse brains, though not quite as abundantly as in this human sample. And fly brains can also have many connections between cells, though they’re more dispersed than the newly described human connections, says neuroscientist Pat Rivlin of Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Va. There, Rivlin works on the FlyEM Project, which aims to create detailed maps of the fruit fly nervous system.

The large dataset on the human brain provides a breakdown of just how common these types of connections are, says Reid. And that raises the question of what these extraordinarily strong synapses might be doing in the brain.

Sex in Sport: Men Don’t Always Have the Advantage

As a biological anthropologist, I find the “men are better athletes” stereotype—which turns up in so many places, in so many ways—particularly frustrating.

Athletic performance differences can be caused by all manner of things across four broad categories: anatomical (physical features such as height), physiological (functional factors like the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to muscles), psychological, and socioeconomic (such as access to equipment and training knowledge). A number of myths and misconceptions exist within each of these categories that tend to ascribe overwhelming advantages to men.

I am here to dispel those myths and misconceptions.

Dump the “dimorphism”: Comprehensive synthesis of human brain studies reveals few male-female differences beyond size

With the explosion of neuroimaging, differences between male and female brains have been exhaustively analyzed. Here we synthesize three decades of human MRI and postmortem data, emphasizing meta-analyses and other large studies, which collectively reveal few reliable sex/gender differences and a history of unreplicated claims.

Males’ brains are larger than females’ from birth, stabilizing around 11 % in adults. This size difference accounts for other reproducible findings: higher white/gray matter ratio, intra- versus interhemispheric connectivity, and regional cortical and subcortical volumes in males.

But when structural and lateralization differences are present independent of size, sex/gender explains only about 1% of total variance. Connectome differences and multivariate sex/gender prediction are largely based on brain size, and perform poorly across diverse populations.

Task-based fMRI has especially failed to find reproducible activation differences between men and women in verbal, spatial or emotion processing due to high rates of false discovery. Overall, male/female brain differences appear trivial and population-specific. The human brain is not “sexually dimorphic.”

Challenging the binary: Gender/sex and the bio-logics of normalcy

Background: We are witnessing renewed debates regarding definitions and boundaries of human gender/sex, where lines of genetics, gonadal hormones, and secondary sex characteristics are drawn to defend strict binary categorizations, with attendant implications for the acceptability and limits of gender identity and diversity.

Aims: Many argue for the need to recognize the entanglement of gender/sex in humans and the myriad ways that gender experience becomes biology; translating this theory into practice in human biology research is essential. Biological anthropology is well poised to contribute to these societal conversations and debates. To do this effectively, a reconsideration of our own conceptions of gender/sex, gender identity, and sexuality is necessary.

Methods: In this article, we discuss biological variation associated with gender/sex and propose ways forward to ensure we are engaging with gender/sex diversity. We base our analysis in the concept of “biological normalcy,” which allows consideration of the relationships between statistical distributions and normative views. We address the problematic reliance on binary categories, the utilization of group means to represent typical biologies, and document ways in which binary norms reinforce stigma and inequality regarding gender/sex, gender identity, and sexuality.

Discussion and Conclusions: We conclude with guidelines and methodological suggestions for how to engage gender/sex and gender identity in research. Our goal is to contribute a framework that all human biologists can use, not just those who work with gender or sexually diverse populations. We hope that in bringing this perspective to bear in human biology, which novel ideas and applications will emerge from within our own discipline.

Heart Rate Variability in Psychology: A Review of HRV Indices and an Analysis Tutorial

The use of heart rate variability (HRV) in research has been greatly popularized over the past decades due to the ease and affordability of HRV collection, coupled with its clinical relevance and significant relationships with psychophysiological constructs and psychopathological disorders. Despite the wide use of electrocardiograms (ECG) in research and advancements in sensor technology, the analytical approach and steps applied to obtain HRV measures can be seen as complex. Thus, this poses a challenge to users who may not have the adequate background knowledge to obtain the HRV indices reliably.

To maximize the impact of HRV-related research and its reproducibility, parallel advances in users’ understanding of the indices and the standardization of analysis pipelines in its utility will be crucial. This paper addresses this gap and aims to provide an overview of the most up-to-date and commonly used HRV indices, as well as common research areas in which these indices have proven to be very useful, particularly in psychology. In addition, we also provide a step-by-step guide on how to perform HRV analysis using an integrative neurophysiological toolkit, NeuroKit2.

Clicking: How Our Brains Are in Sync

That library includes two fast-paced BBC television series, Sherlock and Merlin. In one study published last year, Hasson and his colleagues had participants lie in an fMRI scanner while watching part of an episode of one of the two shows, which were chosen because they were engaging and had twisting plots likely to be easily remembered. Later, one person was recorded recounting the episode while being scanned again, this time in the dark. Then, people who hadn’t seen the shows listened to that recording. These participants were scanned as they mentally constructed the show from what they heard.

On the face of it, watching a video clip, recalling it later, and imagining it from someone else’s description are very different cognitive processes. But Hasson found that the brain patterns across those processes were similar in certain higher-order areas. That trend was scene-specific, so that (spoiler alert!) when Sherlock gets into a cab driven by the man he has realized is responsible for several murders disguised as suicides, there were shared patterns of brain activation in study participants regardless of whether they were watching, remembering, or imagining that scene.

The experiment also revealed something about memory. The more similar the patterns in the brain of the person who originally viewed the episode and the person who mentally constructed it when listening to the description, the better the transfer of memories from the speaker to the listener, as measured by a separate comprehension test. The findings suggest that the same areas used to recall and reconstruct a memory are involved in the construction of someone else’s memory in our imagination. “Perhaps the key function of memory is not to represent the past, but to be used as a tool to share our knowledge with others and predict the future,” Hasson says. He expects the results would be even more pronounced in real-time or face-to-face conversations.

Culture and posttraumatic stress

It is unclear whether posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a universal response to violence found everywhere or if it is culturally specific to certain parts of the world. Zefferman and Mathew interviewed warriors among the Turkana, a population of subsistence pastoralists living in Kenya. Compared with a sample of American military servicemembers who had been treated for PTSD, Turkana were equally likely to experience reactive symptoms such as hypervigilance, which may be more sensitive to experiences of danger, but they were less likely to experience depressive symptoms such as detachment and loss of interest, which may be related to feelings of moral violation. These findings suggest that symptoms of PTSD directly tied to dangers of combat may be universal, whereas the symptoms tied to the morality of combat may be more culturally variable.

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