10/30/14

Words, Your Brain and Sex


Naked readingOne of the reasons I’m a dedicated librocubularist* can be found in a story on IFL Science that is headlined, “Learning New Words Activates The Same Brain Regions As Sex And Drugs.” It opens:

While it doesn’t get much better than sex and drugs for many out there, new research has found that simply learning a new word can spark up the same reward circuits in the brain that are activated during pleasurable activities such as these. No wonder there are so many bookworms and scrabble addicts out there.

So nothing like a good, brisk read through the Compact English to get in the mood, eh? Get all purfled from the effort of learning new words. While you groak your snoutfair mate and suggest she festinate her reading while she tells you to be testudineous while she deliciates her words…

The actual article this story draws from doesn’t exactly say that learning new words is the same as sex or drugs. What it says is that learning them lights up the regions of the brain that kicks into play when it wants to reward you. At least it works on people who were being studied under MRIs, not necessary those in libraries or bookstores. Don’t go ecstasiated over it, yet.

It does the same thing for gambling, although I have to admit for this unrepentant mumpsimus, my own reward-centre connection for learning kicks a much more powerful punch than that for gambling. It’s a burden I bajulate well, though.

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10/15/14

“A” Personalities: A Theory


GoodreadsWhen someone tells me he is an “A-type” personality, I cannot help but think of the title of Aaron James’ bestselling book: Assholes *A Theory (Anchor Books, New York, 2014). After all, what else would the “A” stand for when someone boasts to the audience he is an alpha male as if the rest of the room was full of less-worthy betas?

Self aggrandizement is not limited, of course, to assholes, but they certainly occupy centre stage (at least in their own mind). Not always the best place to be, considering that, medically speaking, A-types are more prone to heart disease than B-types.

As Wikipedia tells us, Type A personalities are,

“…ambitious, rigidly organized, highly status-conscious, sensitive, impatient, take on more than they can handle, want other people to get to the point, anxious, proactive, and concerned with time management… often high-achieving “workaholics” who multi-task, push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence.
…Type A behavior is expressed in three major symptoms: (1) free-floating hostility, which can be triggered by even minor incidents; (2) time urgency and impatience, which causes irritation and exasperation usually described as being “short-fused”; and (3) a competitive drive, which causes stress and an achievement-driven mentality.

Not entirely flattering a description, is it? Rigid, status-conscious, ambivalent, impatient, short-fused, irritable, hostile, competitive… not the sort of person you want at a council table where cooperation, consensus and respect make for good governance. A-types at the table generally are seen by others as assholes. Hence the mnemonic association with the book. One wonders why anyone would boast of this.

Aaron James writes of a dichotomy between cooperative people and these A-types:

Even the “bright-line” rules of cooperation will have exceptions and cooperative people often put a certain amount of work into discerning both the spirit of the law and what is finally acceptable in a particular case. They thus seek clarification, check assumptions, ask permission or at least take a measure of care in good faith. The asshole, by contrast sees little need for the work of mutual restraint aimed at benefit for all involved. According to his generalized sense of entitlement, it is only natural that the various advantages of social life should flow his way.

(For the sake of politeness and civility, I am inclined to find another name for assholes. I cannot merely call them jerks, because James differentiates between assholes and mere jerks. Twits, idiots, dweebs, boors, shmucks, cads, jackanapes… these names fail to capture the essence of those truly despicable people whom James describes. I think I will have to simply refer to them as “a*holes” so as not to entirely dilute the impact.)

A-type, A*holes, pretty much the same thing, at least as far as I can fathom. Of course, I’m not a psychologist and I’m sure there are subtle shades of difference I fail to discern.

B-type personalities, on the other hand, Wikipedia says, work well together:

…generally live at a lower stress level and typically work steadily, enjoying achievement but not becoming stressed when they do not achieve. They may be creative and enjoy exploring ideas and concepts. They are often reflective…

Sounds like someone much easier to get along with in a group dynamic like the council table: unstressed, creative, exploratory, reflective. People who will contribute rather than control, will think rather than merely act. People you can work with and respect. people who use “we”  when describing accomplishments and work as a team. People unlikely to be described in James’ book.

A-types, however, will find themselves in it.

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09/26/14

The Utility Animal


In the July/August edition of Pets Magazine (the Cat Care issue) there are two articles that caused me concern. One is “The Loyalty and Bravery of a Cat” (p.28), the other is “Quick-Thinking Cat Saves the Day.” (p.26). The latter is a pet profile from the Purina Hall of Fame that honours pets for “extraordinary actions.” The former is about a YouTube video showing a family cat attacking a dog that had itself attacked the family’s four-year-old son.

The acts themselves and the cats involved are extraordinary and deserving of praise as individual animals. But the idea that cats in general need to be propped up as utility animals, that in order to have intrinsic value they need to perform some service for humans, bothers me deeply.

It also annoys me that cat lovers feel the need to be defensive about cats and find ways to make them seem more like dogs. They are separate species with very different social (pack) cultures and cannot be expected to behave like one another.

All animals evolved to fulfill their own purpose. Some have become domesticated through their interactions with humans; a few are even companion animals we call pets. Dogs and cats top that small list. And a small percentage of those perform acts that are of use or beneficial to humans.

Valuing an animal on the basis of its utility is to devalue the life of that animal. Animals do not exist to serve human needs. Yes, they can be trained to perform tasks, but that isn’t their purpose.

Cats have value simply by being cats. All life has its own inherent value and we cannot measure that value against its usefulness to our lives. Not should not – cannot. There is no appropriate measuring stick.

Any attempt only promotes subjective value judgments over other species. It’s akin to measuring the distance to a neighbouring planet by the number of bicycle lengths between us. Irrelevant.

Value your pet, value all life, for what it is. Not what use, not what advantage and not what profit you can gain from it. And I am happy to share my home with my pets for the sake of their companionship alone.

08/23/14

Tricks of the mind


Reading

Reading involves bit of trickery. Mental trickery. It engages the imagination and fools us into thinking we are there within the book: nestled beside the author, or better yet, beside the characters. Immersed in the created world, floating through it like a ghost in a haunted house movie, or perhaps in the imagined flesh, interacting on the mental stage.

We ask ourselves how we would play the scene, how we would decide, take action, engage the other characters. How would we behave at the dinner table with Becky and Rawdon? Would we defend Nancy from the rages of Bill Sykes? Would we warn Caesar on the steps of the forum? How would we greet Paul Atreides in a dusty sietch? Would we hide or expose Jean Valjean?

Our minds put us there, let us explore and build the what-if world of our own thoughts. Every paragraph opens another possibility, and our minds add it to the infinite number of scenarios we play out in them.

We imagine the walls, the furniture, the coolness of the water, the scent of spice on the breeze, the rustle of the leaves as we snake along the forest trail. Our brains get into high gear, populating the microcosm and making it real. We feel the stiffness of the starched collar, the smoothness of the velvet, the coolness of the rain as it soaks our clothes, the heat of the sun on the beach. We see the wallpaper as the sun moves across it, taste the soup served at the table, smell the lavender as we walk in the fields.

Imagination is such a powerful force that it can affect us like the real thing. We get a jolt from the coffee the hero drinks, we get aroused by the imagined sexual touch of the heroine. Our own hearts beat faster as the protagonist runs away in fear from the killer, our hair prickles when she enters the darkened room to confront the danger.

As A Scribbler’s Dreams says:

The curse of a voracious reader is having an amazing imagination. Having an amazing imagination that you feed by reading more and more books and picturing each world vividly. From the power vibrating in the Elder Wand to the smoke curling from Smaug’s nostrils, you, the reader, can picture each world and be sucked in – the only problem is that you can’t physically go there and talk to Liz Bennet or Peter Pevensie or Percy Jackson, no matter how hard you wish.

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06/13/14

When good people do bad things in groups


Mob MentalityThe headline is taken from a piece on Science Daily on a study about how groups change personal behaviour and morality. The study is reported on the MIT website. I’ve seen that change myself, many times over the years, and most recently locally. The study adds intelligence on the neurology of how such group activity changed people.

The report itself is called “Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm,” which of course would have most people’s eyes glazing over. But the authors of the report start by asking a salient question:

Why do interactions become more hostile when social relations shift from “me versus you” to “us versus them”? 

Why, indeed? Why do people who seem rational and even friendly individually become angry bullies in a group?The authors themselves offer a hypothesis:

One possibility is that acting with a group can reduce spontaneous self-referential processing in the moral domain and, in turn, facilitate competitor harm. We tested this hypothesis in an fMRI experiment in which (i) participants performed a competitive task once alone and once with a group; (ii) spontaneous self-referential processing during competition was indexed unobtrusively by activation in an independently localized region of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) associated with self-reference; and (iii) we assessed participants’ willingness to harm competitors versus teammates. As predicted, participants who showed reduced mPFC activation in response to descriptions of their own moral behaviors while competing in a group were more willing to harm competitors. These results suggest that intergroup competition (above and beyond inter-personal competition) can reduce self-referential processing of moral information, enabling harmful behaviors towards members of a competitive group.

That’s fairly technical and likely not eyebrow-raising for us non-techies. Is this relevant to you and me, to our neighbours and friends and our daily lives? Yes, and very much so.

It means that our personal moral compass may not work, may be disabled when we interact in groups that identify an us-them dichotomy, or see outsiders as competitors. It explains why groups can become uncivil, nasty, aggressive, even violent although their individual members may not be.

It also suggests that to break away from group dominance, one needs to become introspective about our own values and ethics, and one must work hard to recover that moral compass.

We only need read the stories of the brave but estranged family members the late Fred Phelps, leader of the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church, who broke away from his control. Twenty-three-year-old Zach Phelps-Roper broke from the church recently, and spoke to the Topeka Capital-Journal about his decision:

Empathy and unconditional love, he said, are the keys to solving the world’s problems — a lesson he has learned contrasting his time inside the WBC compound and the past nearly 11 weeks outside it.
“I feel like I have unconditional love for every person around the world,” Phelps-Roper said Friday. “The Westboro Baptist Church sees things differently than I do now.”
The church he grew up in was too busy pointing out problems to look for solutions, he said. He has been able to spend the past two months investigating the second part of that equation.
His conclusion: “Most problems come from a lack of understanding of how we affect other people and things around us. I feel like I have found the holy grail, the overarching solution to solving all of our society’s problems, and I want to learn more. I want to do more.”

What is interesting to me is that Zach, although he broke from the abusive church and its leader, and rediscovered his own moral compass, he also retains considerable religious faith – even a fundamentalist view I would have expected him to abandon. So one can break free of a group’s dominance yet retain shared core beliefs., just behave differently – more normally, more civilly.

That was eye-opening. It certainly isn’t the experience of all Westboro members who have freed themselves of its grip (read this piece about another family member’s struggle; Libby Phelps-Alvarez), although most have said in the interviews I’ve read they are kinder, gentler, more empathetic and humane since leaving the church. I expect most people who break free of any group’s control feel that way.

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03/4/14

Litter, litter, everywhere


LitterPop cans. Coffee cups. Candy bar wrappers. Fast food wrappers. Cigarette packages. Cigarette butts. Dog feces. Bags of dog feces. Flyers. Cellophane package wrap. Water bottles. Juice bottles. Chip bags. Beer cans and bottles. Disposable lighters and pens. Cardboard beer boxes. Discarded newspapers and junk mail. Plastic grocery bags.

I just don’t get littering. I’ve never gotten littering.

These are just some of the items I’ve seen stuck into snow banks and hedges in my neighbourhood, or dropped on the road the past few weeks. There’s always litter, it seems, always someone carelessly and thoughtlessly dropping garbage on the sidewalk, the boulevard or street. The snow has covered up the older stuff. Come spring it will come out again. The streams and creeks will thaw and deliver a new load of garbage into our harbour.

Why do people litter? Why would anyone pollute their own home? Dump their trash on streets and sidewalks they have to walk themselves? Why would anyone get a dog and let it crap on someone else’s lawn and not pick up after it? Or more confusingly, pick up then leave the bag of feces on the lawn for the homeowner to deal with. Or someone else to walk on.

What sort of animal fouls its own nest? What sort of person would foul a beautiful town like Collingwood? Surely we all want this to be the best, the prettiest, the cleanest and most livable town in Canada. Litter won’t let that happen.

Why would anyone – even a smoker – consider it acceptable to dump the contents of a car ashtray on the public street? After all, the public space is their space too: it belongs to us all. Would you do this in your living room? In your bed? yet I’ve often seen people do this downtown and in parking lots.

I’ve seen people buy oil and windshield washer fluid at Canadian Tire, fill their car in the parking lot, then drive away leaving the empty bottles on the asphalt. I’ve seen people walk into local pizza joints, buy a slice, eat it and drop the cardboard tray on the sidewalk only feet from the place they bought it.

I’m baffled. And I’m not the only one. Anneli Rufus wrote in Psychology Today:

I believe that the proliferation of discarded packaging peppering urban and suburban America — strewn over sidewalks, streets, gutters and gardens rather than being dropped into recycling bins and trash cans — tells us something. I just can’t figure out what.

Every day we each step over and around a slurry of discarded cups, cans, straws, snack wrappers, cigarette packets, and more – all dropped by others. Most of us pay no mind. Litter isn’t pretty, but it won’t bite. So over it we step, averting our eyes.

But hey: Each of these items got where it is because someone was holding it in his or her hands and then let go…

Public areas are ringed with recycling bins and other trash receptacles. Litterers are nearly always within sight of at least one receptacle when they choose, instead, to litter. And it is a choice. Something is in your hand; then it isn’t. It ceases to be in your hand. How? Reaching the nearest trash receptacle would mean only grasping the item a few seconds longer, two or three minutes at most. But somehow, for countless someones, that wait isn’t worth it.

I understand somewhat that not all children have been taught not to litter, and that a child’s sense of social responsibility is often under-developed. Some of the garbage I see is from elementary students walking to school. Candy wrappers, chocolate milk containers, that sort of thing. I’ve seen them drop it, even while parents escort them home. Sometimes the parents even stop and pick it up.

But coffee cups and cigarette butts – these are adults. I’ve seen adults at sports fields and events cheering their kids on in some game, then leaving coffee cups, discarded food wrappers and condiment bags on the ground at their feet when they leave. Usually there is a waste bin a few feet away. No wonder their kids litter; no wonder they don’t develop a healthy sense of social responsibility: they learn the lesson from mom and dad.

Toronto StarI’m sure every reader here has seen images of Canada Post superbox installations awash in the discarded junk mail people simply drop on the ground rather than take home and dispose of responsibly. A Google search will produce hundreds of such images, if not. Disgusting, I suspect you will say when you see them.*

These are adults, not children doing this. Adults are supposed to know better. We’re supposed to be the role models for children: responsible, aware, conscientious, ethical. Stewards of the environment. Not lazy litterers.

And I’m sure everyone of them who did it knows full well that littering is irresponsible and anti-social behaviour. So why do it?

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