Wednesday Round Up #26

A World Without Ice and Daniel Bird Tobin – Climate Data Meets Art

This episode of Warm Regards, the second of two that explore climate data as art, looks at more immersive and embodied experiences of climate data. First, an exploration of the multimedia installation World Without Ice, from producer Justin Schell, and then a conversation between Jacquelyn and Daniel Bird Tobin, who evocatively utilizes theater to help people imagine sea level rise in their own immediate communities.

It’s only fake-believe: how to deal with a conspiracy theorist

3. Coincidence or covert operations?
In September this year, the former Republican congressional candidate DeAnna Lorraine had a frightening epiphany. “I find it very interesting how the show The Masked Singer hit America in January 2019, a little bit over a year before they started forcing us all into masks. It’s almost like they were beginning to condition the public that masks were ‘normal’ and ‘cool’,” she wrote on Twitter. “The media is demonic.”

Most people had the good sense to dismiss Lorraine’s theory, but this tendency to claim some kind of causal connection from a random coincidence has given birth to many other unfounded ideas. “Conspiracy theorists tend to take a grain of truth, then cast another narrative around it,” says Van der Linden.

‘Sistine Chapel of the ancients’ rock art discovered in remote Amazon forest

Speculating on whether the paintings had a sacred or other purpose, he said: “It’s interesting to see that many of these large animals appear surrounded by small men with their arms raised, almost worshipping these animals.”

Observing that the imagery includes trees and hallucinogenic plants, he added: “For Amazonian people, non-humans like animals and plants have souls, and they communicate and engage with people in cooperative or hostile ways through the rituals and shamanic practices that we see depicted in the rock art.”

Al-Shamahi added: “One of the most fascinating things was seeing ice age megafauna because that’s a marker of time. I don’t think people realise that the Amazon has shifted in the way it looks. It hasn’t always been this rainforest. When you look at a horse or mastodon in these paintings, of course they weren’t going to live in a forest. They’re too big. Not only are they giving clues about when they were painted by some of the earliest people – that in itself is just mind-boggling – but they are also giving clues about what this very spot might have looked like: more savannah-like.”

Children of Quarantine What does a year of isolation and anxiety do to a developing brain?

Fisher describes the parent-child dynamic in terms of “serve and return.” He isn’t talking about tennis; serve and return is psychologyspeak for the essential signals that travel continuously between young kids and their parents or the people who care for them. A baby fusses or wails or droolingly smiles; the caregiver notices and responds with a diaper change, a warmed bottle, a sloppy raspberry kiss. This constant exchange and recognition is the bedrock of the evolutionary business we now call “parenting.” Fisher focuses his research on kids 5 and under, and though serve and return refers to that cohort, parental balance and reassurance are protective at every age.

What Fisher worries about now is how many young children — what portion of America’s 20 million kids under 5 — are serving into a void. He starts with the premise that parents love their kids and want to care for them, that even overwhelmed humans know in their cells how to nurture. But after 37 weeks of pandemic, too many American parents are too tapped out. Decades of research has definitively shown that the presence of a responsive caregiver, especially during early childhood, when the brain is extremely plastic, is the crucial ingredient in healthy development. This stable adult attention is exponentially more meaningful when children are growing up in persistent adversity: environments of neglect, abuse, deprivation, or poverty that medical and psychological professionals call “toxic stress.”

But when kids ask and they receive no answer, or when the answer they do receive is inconsistent, unpredictable, or cruel, the long-term consequences on development are dire. They include cognitive delays; learning problems; impulsivity or aggression on the one hand and numbness or lack of affect on the other; addiction and alcohol abuse; and social difficulties, including with romantic partners and authority figures. Children who grow up in environments of toxic stress, without the buffering presence of a responsive adult, struggle as they get older — not just with more psychiatric disorders but with higher rates of asthma, diabetes, teen pregnancy, and lower educational outcomes. Toxic stress was already endemic before this pandemic. Too many families were struggling to keep it together. And now there are too many more.

The 250,000 dead — that’s just the beginning, with each one of these deaths afflicting children and grandchildren in varying degrees, always with grief, perhaps also with the loss of an indispensable caregiver or a beloved friend. More than 18,000 people between the ages of 25 and 54 have died of the virus, many of them parents with children at home. But the suffering isn’t limited to the dying or those who mourn them. The experience of those who’ve stayed healthy, inhabiting the same crowded spaces as their kids, has been grueling. Burnout is rampant everywhere, even among the well-to-do. Parents are keeping it together while children dangle off their laps on Zoom, juggling meetings to help with science assignments while everyone squabbles over unending household chores. These are the lucky ones. Eleven million people are unemployed, city eviction moratoriums are coming to an end, and federal aid is petering out with no infusion of money in sight. In July, a Brookings Institution analysis showed that 16 percent of American families were experiencing child food insecurity (up from 3 percent two years ago), which means that 14 million kids sometimes don’t have enough to eat.

“There are huge inequalities in parents’ ability to create a predictable environment, and those disparities are widening,” said Katie McLaughlin, a psychologist at Harvard who is studying the effects of the pandemic on teens. “That doesn’t take away from the fact that we are all experiencing this. We no longer have the ability to predict what the next month is going to look like. How are we going to organize our lives? It’s a risk factor that really cuts across the board.”

Here’s how I finally got myself to start exercising

To establish an exercise routine, I needed to let myself be bad at it. I needed to stop trying to be an actual athlete.

I started exercising again by running for only one minute at a time — yes, that’s right, 60 seconds. Every morning after I brushed my teeth, I changed out of my pajamas and walked out the door, with my only goal to run for one full minute.

These days, I usually run for 15 or 20 minutes at a stretch. But on the days that I’m totally lacking in motivation or time, I still do that one minute. And this minimal effort always turns out to be way better than nothing.

Maybe you relate. Maybe you’ve also failed in one of your attempts to change yourself for the better. Perhaps you want to use less plastic, meditate more or be a better antiracist. Maybe you want to write a book or eat more leafy greens.

I have great news for you: You can do and be those things, starting right now!

The sole requirement is that you stop trying to be so good. You’ll need to abandon your grand plans, at least temporarily. You must allow yourself to do something so minuscule that it’s only slightly better than doing nothing at all.

Wednesday Round Up #25

Human-Animal Interactions – The Badger Version

The biology of dads

The finding was fascinating in light of seminal research in birds, which had established that testosterone facilitated aggressive competition for mates and territory, while interfering with parenting. For example, when researchers gave monogamous, parental male birds extra testosterone, they became polygynous and non-parental.

This is an interesting change, but how strong is the evidence that a decrease in testosterone helps to shuttle energy from mating to parenting in species other than birds, including humans and other primates? Pretty significant, it turns out.

Marmoset monkeys are one of a minority of primate species in which adult males care for their offspring. Adult marmosets carry their twin infants on their back, a significant energetic burden. They also groom their infants and might share food with them. When the primate researcher Toni Ziegler and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison presented adult male marmosets with the scent of an ovulating female, testosterone levels skyrocketed, as if preparing the males for mating. However, this response was blunted in fathers compared with non-fathers, as if to discourage them from redirecting their attention from parenting. On the other hand, when Ziegler and colleagues presented adult males with the scent of an infant, testosterone levels decreased in fathers, as if preparing them to focus their energy on caregiving. By contrast, the infant scent had no effect on testosterone in non-fathers.

Such findings led to the idea that testosterone might redirect energy from parenting to mating in humans too. Important proof came in 2011, when the biological anthropologist Lee Gettler, then at Northwestern University, and colleagues measured testosterone levels twice in the same young Filipino men over a span of 4.5 years. Those who became fathers during that interval experienced a significantly larger decline in testosterone than men who didn’t become fathers, conclusively establishing that the transition to fatherhood decreases testosterone.

Conspiracy theories, explained

Conspiracy theorists have what Radford describes as “self-reinforcing belief systems,” which is also part of why the theories spread so quickly — particularly the political ones. Often, an emotional byproduct of a conspiracy theory is to make the audience feel as though they’ve arrived at a profound new realization about the world on their own. “They think they’re thinking more critically, when in fact they’re thinking less critically,” van der Linden said.

“The conspiracy theory provides an access point to people,” Radford told me. “They think they’re given the key, right? So they’ll say, ‘Well, if you’re woke, and you’re taking the red pill, or blue pill, or whatever the hell pill it is, then you know; you understand what’s going on.’” People who have bought in often believe they can see patterns, codes, and symbols that the rest of us can’t.”

The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done

[Allen] proposed a theory about how our minds work: when we try to keep track of obligations in our heads, we create “open loops” that make us anxious. That anxiety, in turn, reduces our ability to think effectively. If we could avoid worrying about what we were supposed to be doing, we could focus more fully on what we were actually doing, achieving what Allen called a “mind like water”…

The knowledge sector’s insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a so-called “tragedy of the commons” scenario, in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves insure a negative group outcome. An office worker’s life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner.

But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable. There’s little that any one individual can do to fix the problem. A worker might send fewer e-mail requests to others, and become more structured about her work, but she’ll still receive requests from everyone else; meanwhile, if she decides to decrease the amount of time that she spends engaging with this harried digital din, she slows down other people’s work, creating frustration.

In this context, the shortcomings of personal-productivity systems like G.T.D. become clear. They don’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level… There are ways to fix the destructive effects of overload culture, but such solutions would have to begin with a reëvaluation of Peter Drucker’s insistence on knowledge-worker autonomy. Productivity, we must recognize, can never be entirely personal. It must be connected to a system that we can study, analyze, and improve.

People’s words and actions can actually shape your brain — a neuroscientist explains how

Continue reading “Wednesday Round Up #25”

Wednesday Round Up #24

Photo: Most detailed model of a human cell to date, obtained using x-ray, NMR and cryoelectron microscopy datasets. For more photos and info, see here.

The Denialist Playbook

I was shocked when I first learned about chiropractors’ opposition to the polio vaccine. The vaccine is widely viewed as one of medicine’s greatest success stories: Why would anyone have opposed it? My shock turned into excitement, however, when I began to recognize the chiropractors’ pattern of arguments was uncannily similar to those I was familiar with from creationists who deny evolutionary science. And once I perceived those parallels, my excitement became an epiphany when I realized that the same general pattern of arguments—a denialist playbook—has been deployed to reject other scientific consensuses from the health effects of tobacco to the existence and causes of climate change. The same playbook is now being used to deny facts concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.

In brief, the six principal plays in the denialist playbook are:

1. Doubt the Science
2. Question Scientists’ Motives and Integrity
3. Magnify Disagreements among Scientists and Cite Gadflies as Authorities
4. Exaggerate Potential Harm
5. Appeal to Personal Freedom
6. Reject Whatever Would Repudiate A Key Philosophy

The purpose of the denialism playbook is to advance rhetorical arguments that give the appearance of legitimate debate when there is none. My purpose here is to penetrate that rhetorical fog, and to show that these are the predictable tactics of those clinging to an untenable position. If we hope to find any cure for (or vaccine against) science denialism, scientists, journalists and the public need to be able recognize, understand and anticipate these plays.

Otegha Uwagba: ‘I’ve spent my entire life treading around white people’s feelings’

Despite the title, the book is not really for white people. What Uwagba hopes to achieve through the chronology of emotion, anger and disappointment in white allies since the death of Floyd, is a sort of shared black commiseration, a communing via the upheavals since the summer of Black Lives Matter. “I know it’s got their name on it,” she says, “and in that sense it’s addressed to them, but what I thought about a lot was how to write a work about race and racism and whiteness that isn’t just for the consumption of white people. It’s really, really important to me that this was an essay that black people can read and take something from, because with a lot of these anti-racist books and handbooks that are being published – I don’t get anything from them.”

Donald Trump has lost the election – yet Trumpland is here to stay

“I don’t think I’m ever going to earn as much as my parents,” she said. “I don’t think my husband and I will ever have the same life as they did.”

We were in Pennsylvania, often painted as a land of blue-collar aristocracy and true-blue Democrats. But the political economy that had underpinned those ballot-box majorities was as rusted as an abandoned factory. Instead, Maura saw a political system that had failed her and her generation, in which every new day was worse than yesterday. And while the Stouts were leftwing, they had little in common with the party they supported. In their eyes, their home had been gutted of manufacturing and bilked by foreign trade deals, and appeared nowhere on the Clinton/Obama ideological map…

Trumpland is not the same as the old Republican heartlands, even if they overlap. What the dealmaker saw more clearly than the Bushes, the Romneys and the McCains was that there was a new electoral coalition to be forged out of downwardly mobile white voters. “The people that have been ignored, neglected and abandoned,” he called them in Ohio in 2016. “I am your voice.”

The Xenobot Future Is Coming—Start Planning Now

Crispr routinely makes headlines. To the degree that people are even aware that life can be edited, it’s this technique they tend to reference. But Crispr, while powerful, is problematic: Scientists can’t directly see the changes they’re making to a molecule. What if I told you that soon we’ll have not only read and edit access to genetic material, but write access too? Meaning that, in the not-too-distant future, we will program living, biological structures as though they are tiny computers.

A new field of science called “synthetic biology” aims to do just this by digitizing genetic manipulation. Sequences are loaded into software tools—like a word processor, but for DNA code—and are eventually printed using something akin to a 3D printer. Rather than editing genetic material in or out of DNA, synthetic biology gives scientists the ability to write entirely new organisms that have never existed. Imagine a synthetic biology app store, where you could download and add new capabilities into any cell, microbe, plant, or animal.

If that sounds implausible, consider this: Last year, UK researchers synthesized the world’s first living organism—E. coli—that contained DNA created by humans rather than nature. Earlier this year, a group of researchers started with a cluster of stem cells from an African clawed frog as a base, and then used a supercomputer, a virtual environment, and evolutionary algorithms to create 100 generations of prototypes to build. The result: a tiny blob of programmable tissue called a xenobot. These living robots can undulate, swim, and walk. They work collaboratively and can even self-heal. They’re tiny enough to be injected into human bodies, travel around, and—maybe someday—deliver targeted medicines.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: the woman who revolutionised feminism – and landed at the heart of the culture wars
Good profile of the lawyer and legal and social theorist behind intersectionality

For Crenshaw, who is now one of the most influential black feminist legal theorists in the US, Hill’s case cemented her idea of “intersectionality”, set out in a paper two years before the hearing. The idea suggests that different forms of discrimination – such as sexism and racism – can overlap and compound each other in just this way. At the time of Hill’s case, Crenshaw was writing another paper, Mapping the Margins, on the erasure of black women’s history of being sexually harassed and abused. The Hill case showed the result of the fact that sexual harassment had largely only been discussed in relation to white women.

“So many people were corralled by the idea that sexual harassment isn’t a black woman’s issue,” she says. “So many people didn’t understand that slavery was about institutionalised sexual harassment and abuse. There were 700,000 slaves in 1790; by the eve of the civil war, there were nearly 4 million. How did that happen? It’s right in front of us and there are no words for it.”

Her paper set out how feminism had failed to “analyse that race was playing a role in making some women vulnerable to heightened patterns of sexual abuse.

And it was also the case that anti-racism wasn’t very good at dealing with that issue either.”

Overtaxed Working Memory Knocks the Brain Out of Sync

The explanation for why working memory starts to falter at such a seemingly low threshold has been elusive. Scientists can see that any attempt to exceed that limit causes the information to degrade: Neuronal representations get “thinner,” brain rhythms change and memories break down. This seems to occur with an even smaller number of items in patients who have been diagnosed with neurological disorders, such as schizophrenia.

The mechanism causing these failures, however, has remained unknown until recently.

In a paper published in Cerebral Cortex in March 2018, three scientists found that a significant weakening in “feedback” signals between different parts of the brain is responsible for the breakdown. The work not only provides insights into memory function and dysfunction, but also offers further evidence for a burgeoning theory of how the brain processes information.

Motivation Is Overrated

But what if motivation wasn’t always the key to sticking with your New Year’s resolutions or habit change in general? What if the opposite was true? What if the best thing you can do to feel good and accomplish your goals is ignore your motivation altogether?

Conventional wisdom holds that motivation leads to action: The better you feel and the more energized you are, the more likely you are to take your desired step. Though this can certainly be true, what about when motivation dwindles or when you simply aren’t feeling motivated at all? In those instances, the best thing you can do to change your mental state is to change your physical state. In the words of ultra-endurance athlete and self-improvement guru Rich Roll, “Mood follows action.”

“If I’m down or in a rut, I force myself to move my body, even if only a little bit,” says Roll. “This helps shift my perspective and reset my operating system—and more often than not, the sun starts shining again”…

Consider, for example, a period during which you find yourself in a rut. Your thoughts and feelings are pummeling you with some flavor of “you suck, you’re going to fail, it’s cold outside, stay in bed.” It’s really hard to talk or think your way out of that jam. But if you force yourself to ignore your thoughts and feelings and simply take action, you give yourself the best chance of changing your thoughts and feelings. This is one reason exercise has been proven so effective at diminishing or even reversing mild depression.

Why We Sigh

In 2016, Pagliardini and her colleagues were able to understand how sighs are generated in even more detail. In rats, they found a small cluster of neurons in an area of the brainstem called the pre-Bötzinger complex that generates normal breathing as well as sighing and gasping. Specific molecules called neuropeptides activated those brain cells and generated a sigh. “If you add these peptides into this specific part of the brain, you increase the sighs, and if you block the receptors that detect these neuropeptides, you sigh less,” Pagliardini said.

“Sighing appears to be regulated by the fewest number of neurons we have seen linked to a fundamental human behaviour,” Pagliardini’s co-author, Jack Feldman from the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a press release at the time.

The Professor and the Politician
For Max Weber, only the most heroic figures could generate meaning in the world. Does his theory hold up today?
Continue reading “Wednesday Round Up #24”

Wednesday Round Up #23

Rigorous Study Backs A Psychedelic Treatment For Major Depression

The study of cancer patients “led us to consider whether or not this treatment might be effective for people in the general depression community,” Davis says.

In the new study, patients received two doses of psilocybin on different days and also received about 11 hours of psychotherapy. The drug was administered in a supervised yet homey setting designed to put participants at ease, Davis says.

“They have a blindfold on, they have headphones on, listening to music,” he says. “And we really encourage them to go inward and to kind of experience whatever is going to come up with the psilocybin.”

Half the participants began treatment immediately. The rest were put on a waitlist so they could serve as a comparison group until their own treatment began eight weeks later.

“There was a significant reduction in depression in the immediate-treatment group compared to those in the waitlist,” Davis says. And patients responded much faster than with typical antidepressants.


“The world’s most-loved social storytelling platform”

How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math

Japan has become seen as a much-admired and emulated exemplar of these active, “understanding-centered” teaching methods. But what’s often missing from the discussion is the rest of the story: Japan is also home of the Kumon method of teaching mathematics, which emphasizes memorization, repetition, and rote learning hand-in-hand with developing the child’s mastery over the material. This intense afterschool program, and others like it, is embraced by millions of parents in Japan and around the world who supplement their child’s participatory education with plenty of practice, repetition, and yes, intelligently designed rote learning, to allow them to gain hard-won fluency with the material…

The problem with focusing relentlessly on understanding is that math and science students can often grasp essentials of an important idea, but this understanding can quickly slip away without consolidation through practice and repetition. Worse, students often believe they understand something when, in fact, they don’t…

This approach—which focused on fluency instead of simple understanding—put me at the top of the class. And I didn’t realize it then, but this approach to learning language had given me an intuitive understanding of a fundamental core of learning and the development of expertise—chunking.

How Political Opinions Change

Simply tuning Republicans into MSNBC, or Democrats into Fox News, might only amplify conflict. What can we do to make people open their minds?

The trick, as strange as it may sound, is to make people believe the opposite opinion was their own to begin with.

The experiment relies on a phenomenon known as choice blindness. Choice blindness was discovered in 2005 by a team of Swedish researchers. They presented participants with two photos of faces and asked participants to choose the photo they thought was more attractive, and then handed participants that photo. Using a clever trick inspired by stage magic, when participants received the photo it had been switched to the person not chosen by the participant—the less attractive photo. Remarkably, most participants accepted this card as their own choice and then proceeded to give arguments for why they had chosen that face in the first place. This revealed a striking mismatch between our choices and our ability to rationalize outcomes. This same finding has since been replicated in various domains including taste for jam, financial decisions, and eye-witness testimony.

AI pioneer Geoff Hinton: “Deep learning is going to be able to do everything”

You think deep learning will be enough to replicate all of human intelligence. What makes you so sure?

I do believe deep learning is going to be able to do everything, but I do think there’s going to have to be quite a few conceptual breakthroughs. For example, in 2017 Ashish Vaswani et al. introduced transformers, which derive really good vectors representing word meanings. It was a conceptual breakthrough. It’s now used in almost all the very best natural-language processing. We’re going to need a bunch more breakthroughs like that.

And if we have those breakthroughs, will we be able to approximate all human intelligence through deep learning?

Yes. Particularly breakthroughs to do with how you get big vectors of neural activity to implement things like reason. But we also need a massive increase in scale. The human brain has about 100 trillion parameters, or synapses. What we now call a really big model, like GPT-3, has 175 billion. It’s a thousand times smaller than the brain. GPT-3 can now generate pretty plausible-looking text, and it’s still tiny compared to the brain.

Study provides first evidence of a relationship between a bird’s gut and its brain

Findings showed Helicobacter, responsible for many intestinal diseases including ulcers, and Gallibacterium, with many hemolytic species found in birds including poultry, were generally more abundant in birds that performed poorly.

“While we did not identify beneficial taxa responsible for differences among performance categories, we suggest Helicobacter and Gallibacterium may signal microbiome imbalance or maladaptation in poor-performance birds,” said Rindy C. Anderson, Ph.D., senior author, an assistant professor of biological sciences in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, and a member of FAU’s Brain Institute. “This finding raises the question: ‘Do specific taxa influence cognitive performance? Or, is a songbird’s gut microbiome simply indicative of host quality and thus correlated with cognitive ability?’ Research could address these questions by describing the functionality of the core microbiome members for more bird species and testing how specific pre- and probiotic treatments affect cognitive ability.”

Wednesday Round Up #22

A room, a bar and a classroom: how the coronavirus is spread through the air

The risk of contagion is highest in indoor spaces but can be reduced by applying all available measures to combat infection via aerosols. Here is an overview of the likelihood of infection in three everyday scenarios, based on the safety measures used and the length of exposure

Co-editors’ introduction: Reimagining damaged-centered research as community wealth-centered research

In 2009, Eve Tuck wrote an open letter pleading with researchers to “suspend” this damage-centered research – “research that intends to document peoples’ pain and brokenness” (page 409) without robust reference to markers of strength and resilience. She cautioned scholars about doing “research that operates, even benevolently, from a theory of change that establishes harm or injury in order to achieve reparation” (page 413).

Because of the potentially destructive nature of damage narratives, the strengths and resilience of communities of color is emphasized by a new generation of educational researchers. These scholars do not place blame for the educational struggles of marginalized youth on the shoulders of the youth themselves or on their families or their communities. Rather, they look at what is germane to success in schooling, namely the curricula and pedagogies that draw out the strengths within families and facilitate the development of strong and resilient students who are capable of developing deep knowledge, critical thinking, and meaningful investment in their own personal and collective academic achievement.

Process Maps: Many Voices Help Make Change

Process maps can grow to include a large amount of detail, sometimes incorporating multiple user points of view and steps at the periphery of the main process. The level of detail in your map should serve your unique goals for creating one in the first place. In the example of LACP, outlining every step a student takes as part of the program was crucial to increasing the chances that the team could identify as many opportunities for program improvement as possible.
Show it to program participants and get their feedback

Gather some of your participants and show them what you created. Consider organizing a few focus groups where you bring printed versions of your process map and walk participants through it. Ask them to annotate the printed copies along the way, share where the process looked different in their personal experience with your program, and highlight steps that represented special challenges to them.

MDRC helped LACCD colleges with this step by running student focus groups as independent researchers. These focus groups resulted in rich and new information for staff members, and clear ideas from students themselves on what the process map had gotten right and wrong, highlighted in the marked-up version shown in Figure 3:

Brain’s immune cells put the brakes on neurons

Inhibition is crucial for keeping neuronal activity in the optimal range for encoding information, minimizing the brain’s energy use and computing useful neuronal outputs. It has conventionally been thought that inhibition is mediated by a neuronal subtype called interneurons that release neurotransmitter molecules (such as the amino acid GABA) to make the membrane potential of the downstream neuron more negative — although neurotransmitter release from non-neuronal cells called astrocytes can also contribute1. Writing in Nature, Badimon et al.2 extend this repertoire of inhibitory influences to include microglia, the resident immune cells of the brain.

The Need to Touch

Lately, though, touch has been going through a ‘prohibition era’: it’s been a rough time for this most important of the senses. The 2020 pandemic served to make touch the ultimate taboo, next to coughing and sneezing in public. While people suffering from COVID-19 can lose the sense of smell and taste, touch is the sense that has been diminished for almost all of us, test-positive or not, symptomatic or not, hospitalised or not. Touch is the sense that has paid the highest price.

But if physical distance is what protects us, it’s also what stands in the way of care and nurturance. Looking after another human being almost inevitably involves touching them – from the very basic needs of bathing, dressing, lifting, assisting and medical treatment (usually referred to as instrumental touch), to the more affective tactile exchanges that aim to communicate, provide comfort and offer support (defined as expressive touch). Research in osteopathy and manual therapy, where practitioners have been working closely with neuroscientists on affective touch, suggests that the beneficial effect of massage therapy goes well beyond the actual manoeuvre performed by the therapist. Rather, there is something special simply in the act of resting one’s hands on the skin of the client. There is no care, there is no cure, without touch.

The Ongoing-Lived-Experience of Trauma

During the research I conducted in the context of TCTSY (iii) , a special form of trauma sensitive yoga in Berlin, people experienced moments of connection to, and awareness and feeling of, themselves and their bodies, and the present moment became more and more central as a moment of relief and healing. This revealed much about the lives of persons who live on after edge-of-existence experiences. One of my collaborators sums up her daily experiences:

“The general trembling, dissociation, constant attentiveness, insomnia, the tendency to traumatic reexperience, depression, self-destructiveness … the burden” (Atara Interview 1). (iv)

First of all, a life shaped by such states was for none of my research partners traceable back to the one and only traumatic event. They might refer to several nameable events or conditions. Some of the events were not nameable, some remembered, many not remembered, some were locatable in time, others not locatable. It often appeared to me as a complex web of (familiar, social, political) conditions with some more central, dense woven areas, which are remembered as traumatic events or as an increase of suffering taking different forms. This web is in process, connections are spun, others cut, new parts are formed.

How Living With Baboons Prepared Me for Living Through High School

My parents’ research focused on the evolution of communication and social relationships, and how human brains had evolved to process complicated thoughts through primates’ abilities to process and keep track of a huge amount of information about who they and their family were and where they stood in relation to others in their troop.

Sweat dripped down my back, and I hiked my backpack higher on my shoulders, taking a welcome break before starting another focal. Mom and Dad had given me a list of about 15 females they needed data about, which was again pretty typical for the day, but very different than how I imagined my friends in Philadelphia were spending their summers. Most 14-year-olds were lifeguarding or being counselors at summer camp, not wandering bleeding through a game reserve in Africa following baboons and keeping an eye out for lions. But it was familiar territory for me: I’d been doing this since I was 8 years old, and I knew the landscape, the baboons and the dangers like the back of my hand. Not even our research assistant, Mokupi, spotted lions as fast as I did, and I was completely comfortable in the bush.

Our camp was four hours by boat from the nearest settlement, and there was no one around except for our family and Mokupi.

Against humanity

Rebels understood their experiences in the lum and as members of the LRA differently. Yes, they killed with machetes and beat people to death with logs – but they did not always have access or recourse to apparently more ‘humane’ technologies of killing, like the guns or drones employed by state armies. Yes, they might have been kidnapped and forced to fight against their will – but they sometimes found the spiritual and political dimensions of the rebel cause sympathetic. Many regretted being forcibly taken out of the lum and returned home to towns and villages across northern Uganda, where they encountered alcoholism, unemployment and infidelity. Yes, they had been living in the wilderness, sometimes for decades, and had begun to see themselves as gorillas engaged in ‘gorilla warfare’. Yet identifying as animals was not a fall from grace, but rather a kind of ascension to a higher status of power and ferocity.

Most found the process of reintegration puzzling. They had experienced the army as a time of living a meaningful and active life amid close friendships and family. They regarded each other as brothers and sisters in the lum, united in a spirit of togetherness and mutual support as though they were blood family. Some said that their relationships in the lum were stronger and more supportive than those they had with civilians after leaving the army. Why did civilians treat them like violent, dirty beasts who needed to be taught how to be human?

Wednesday Round Up #21

How the Awful Stuff Won

The distinction between the religious fanatics and the click-chasers collapses still further as Phelps-Roper explains that, because Westboro’s fanatical conception of predestination held that God alone had the power to grant someone faith, the church refused to preach in a way that might persuade anyone to join it. “In light of this,” she writes, “our goal was not to convert, but rather to preach to as many people as possible, using all the means that God had put at our disposal.” Effectively, this is the same message that Marantz got from Emerson Spartz, the twenty-seven-year-old publisher of shareable and disposable mini-content across dozens of sites with names like Memestache and OMGFacts: “The ultimate barometer of quality is: if it gets shared, it’s quality.”

Race Conscious Medicine: A Reality Check – From race-based to race-conscious medicine: how anti-racist uprisings call us to act. A Perspective in The Lancet, from Jessica P Cerdeña, Marie V Plaisime, and Jennifer Tsai.

The primacy of behavioral research for understanding the brain

Understanding the brain requires us to answer both what the brain does, and how it does it. Using
a series of examples, I make the case that behavior is often more useful than neuroscientific measurements for answering the first question. Moreover, I show that even for “how” questions that pertain to neural mechanism, a well-crafted behavioral paradigm can offer deeper insight and stronger constraints on computational and mechanistic models than do many highly challenging (and very expensive) neural studies. I conclude that behavioral, rather than neuroscientific research, is essential for understanding the brain, contrary to the opinion of prominent funding bodies and scientific journals, who erroneously place neural data on a pedestal and consider behavior to be subsidiary.

A richer view of aura

Auras are widely viewed as a hallmark of migraine, but they remain an enigmatic phenomenon. Research has focused on suppressing the debilitating pain of migraine headaches. How the short-term neurological features of auras relate to headaches and other aspects of migraine remains uncertain. Some researchers think that auras cause headaches; others posit that they are just another aspect of a multifaceted syndrome.

A major challenge of pinning down auras is their inconsistency. They regularly affect only around 20–40% of people with migraine, and for many of them, not every headache has an accompanying aura. Also, many people experience auras without getting headaches. This pattern, in addition to the fact that auras are subjective experiences that occur sporadically and unpredictably, have made them frustratingly difficult to study — investigating auras often requires invention.

Charles saw in P.V.’s record-keeping an opportunity to delve into the precise nature of one person’s experience, and to gain clues to the wider nature of auras. Charles and his colleagues systematically analysed P.V.’s illustrations1 and learnt, among other things, how his auras varied from episode to episode; how intervals of normal vision could occur in the middle of an aura; and how auras sometimes began, only to quickly abort. All of this now needs to be fitted into a theory of what exactly happens in the brain during an aura.

Why we need to get better at critiquing psychiatric diagnosis

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