Archive for October, 2009
Technology Review provides an illustrated “time travel through the brain“:
Over the 100-year history of modern neuroscience, the way we think about the brain has evolved with the sophistication of the techniques available to study it. Improvements in microscope design and manufacture, together with the development of cell-staining techniques, afforded neuroscientists their first glimpse at the specialized cells that make up the nervous system. Microscopes with more magnifying power enabled them to probe nerve cells in greater detail, revealing distinct compartments. Newer techniques expose the connections between nerve cells, revealing the complex organization of the brain.
More images and history of neuroscience here.
William Kamkwamba, from Malawi, is a born inventor. When he was 14, he built an electricity-producing windmill from spare parts and scrap, working from rough plans he found in a library book called Using Energy and modifying them to fit his needs. The windmill he built powers four lights and two radios in his family home.
Jon Stewart recently interviewed William, who has since become known as (and written a book titled) The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Be sure to watch the interview here, as it is one of the more amazing examples of creativity, imagination, resourcefulness, and resilience.
Below is the second of two presentations featuring William at a TED conference.
“Disorientation begets creative thinking.”
As reported in the NYT article, “How nonsense sharpens the intellect,” college students who read an absurd short story by Frank Kafka prior to their participation in a pattern recognition and recall test engaged in significantly more implicit learning (“knowledge gained without awareness”) than a peer group who read a coherent short story.
This is one area of psychology where the theory of mind is racing to catch-up with research:
In a series of new papers, Dr. Proulx and Steven J. Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, argue that these findings are variations on the same process: maintaining meaning, or coherence. The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns.
When those patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.
“There’s more research to be done on the theory,” said Michael Inzlicht, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, because it may be that nervousness, not a search for meaning, leads to heightened vigilance. But he added that the new theory was “plausible, and it certainly affirms my own meaning system; I think they’re onto something.”
Jonah Lehrer has another fantastic post on “Nature and compassion“:
Even a glimpse of greenery can make us behave in kinder, gentler ways.
[A recent] study consisted of several experiments with 370 different subjects. In each experiment, people were exposed to either natural settings (pristine lakes, wooded forests, remote deserts) or man-made environments (cityscapes, skyscrapers and highways). They were then tested for a variety of “prosocial” behaviors, such as compassion and generosity. For instance, two of the experiments used a simple trust task, in which a person is given a $5 prize and told that they could share their prize with an anonymous stranger, who would then be given an additional $5. (There was no guarantee that the second person would return any of the winnings.)
The scientists found that subjects exposed to nature were significantly more likely to open their wallets. Furthermore, increased exposure to nature led to an increased willingness to share with strangers.
Jonah’s explanations and interpretations of this study are here.
From The Guardian’s “Will California become America’s first failed state?“:
The percentage of 19-year-olds at college in the state dropped from 43% to 30% between 1996 and 2004, one of the highest falls ever recorded for any developed world economy. California’s schools are ranked 47th out of 50 in the nation.
Related read: Bob Herbert’s NYT op-ed, “Cracks in the future.”
From TED: “Sir Ken Robinson makes an entertaining and profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.”
The talk gets especially interesting around the 8:30 mark when Sir Robinson observes the ways in which school (and society) champion the disembodied mind and “educates people out of their curiosity.” His call-to-action for a new human ecology — rooted in the reimagination of intelligence as diverse, dynamic, and distinct — is an absolute “must watch.”
More about Sir Ken Robinson can be found here.
The ball used contains a beeping device that is loud enough to aid in sightless location. The six players on the field are helped by a sighted pitcher, who announces “pitch” or “ball” as they toss to a sighted catcher. Batters are allowed four strikes and one pass, but the fourth swing must be a clear, defined miss. The game has six innings, the standard three outs per inning, and two bases, not three.
Baseball’s traditional tile-like bases are replaced with padded cylinders that stand four feet tall and give off a distinct buzz once activated. The batter doesn’t know which base will be activated, but must run to whichever sounds, tackling the base before defense has a chance to field the ball. If the runner makes it in time, a run is scored. Two sighted “spotters” also play the field and call out which direction the ball has headed using a system based on numbers assigned to each outfielder. Spotters can only announce one number, and the outfielders must communicate with each other to locate the ball. Cheering is discouraged because it interferes with play.
Randy Cohen, the NYT’s ethicist, without hesitation or equivocation, says, “Do not donate to Harvard.”
To do so is to offer more pie to a portly fellow while the gaunt and hungry press their faces to the window (at some sort of metaphoric college cafeteria, anyway). Even after last year’s losses, Harvard’s endowment exceeds $26 billion, the largest of any American university,greater than the G.D.P. of Estonia. By contrast, among historically black colleges and universities, Howard has the largest endowment, about $420 million, a mere 1.6 percent the size of Harvard’s. (Donors gave Harvard more than $600 million just this fiscal year.) The best-endowed community college,Valencia, in Orlando, Fla., has around $67 million, or 0.26 percent of Harvard’s wealth. This is not to deny that Harvard does fine work or could find ways to spend the money but to assert that other schools have a greater need and a greater moral claim to your benevolence.
More on this topic can be found here.
Former players of the National Football League who are in their 30s and 40s are nearly 20 times as likely to suffer from memory-related diseases, including Alzhemeir’s, when compared to the national population.
This is one of the frightening findings of a report from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. More than 1,600 former professional players participated in the health survey. Even though the report was commissioned by the NFL, the league is questioning its reliability. The NFL hopes to publish the results from its own “rigorous study of 120 retired [football] players” within a few years.
In the meantime, Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of the department of neurosurgery at the West Virginia University School of Medicine and a former physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers notes that he found similar links between football participation and dementia/cognitive decline four years ago.
“They always say, ‘We’re going to do our own studies.’ And now they have.”
Sean Morey, an Arizona Cardinals player who has been vocal in supporting research in this area, said: “This is about more than us — it’s about the high school kid in 2011 who might not die on the field because he ignored the risks of concussions.”
The NYT article on this issue can be found here.
A NYT video on “high school football’s hidden danger” for youth participants can be found here. Parents and players may want to pay attention to the fact that 50% of high school football players have suffered a concussion, and 35% have had more than one.
**Related: How to blow through $20M.
Somewhat related to my previous post, at least in terms of examining the power of social influence, a 30-year follow-up study of 14,000 people born in Stockholm, Sweden has found that “children who are popular and exert power among their school classmates enjoy better health as adults” (source).
Ylva Almquist authored the research report for the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, titled “Peer status in school and adult disease risk: A 30-year follow-up study of disease specific morbidity in a Stockholm cohort.” From the extended abstract:
Background: Children have a social status position of their own, apart from that of the family, that may have an impact on short-term and long-term health. The aim of the present study was to analyse the associations between childhood social status in school, i.e. peer status, and disease-specific morbidity in adulthood.
Methods: Data was derived from a longitudinal study using a 1953 cohort born in Stockholm, Sweden: The Stockholm Birth Cohort Study (1953-2003). Peer status was sociometrically assessed in 6th grade (1966). Hazard ratios for adult disease-specific morbidity based on information on in-patient care (1973-2003) were calculated by peer status category for men and women separately, using Cox regression.
Results: The results indicate that the lower the childhood peer status, the higher the overall adult disease risk. There were however differences in the degree and magnitude to which disease-specific in-patient care varied with peer status. Some of the steepest gradients were found for mental and behavioural disorders (e.g. alcohol abuse and drug dependence), external causes (e.g. suicide) and various lifestyle-related diseases (e.g. ischaemic heart disease and diabetes). The results were not explained by childhood social class.
Conclusion: The present study underscores the importance of recognizing children’s social position, apart from that of their family, for later health. Not only psychologically related diseasesbut also those related to behavioural risk factors demonstrate some of the largest relative differences by peer status, suggesting that health-related behaviour may be one important mechanism in the association between peer status and morbidity.
Medical News Today has a fantastic article summarizing Almquist’s research:
Researchers reviewed more than 14,000 children who were born in Sweden in 1953 and who were part of the Stockholm Birth Cohort Study. This monitors the long term health of children born between 1953 and 2003.
When the children reached sixth grade in 1966 and were 12 to 13 years old, the degree of popularity, power, and status enjoyed by each child was evaluated. It was assessed by asking them who they most preferred to work with at school.
The answers were then ranked into five status bands:
• marginalized (no nominations)
• peripheral (one nomination)
• accepted (two to three nominations)
• popular (four to six nominations)
• favorite (seven or more nominations)
Using national hospital discharge records, this information was then matched to data on subsequent hospital admissions for the period between 1973 and 2003.
Investigation revealed that children who were the least popular at school had the highest overall risk of serious health illness as an adult. The pattern was obvious for both men and women. But there were differences in the types of health illness they developed.
Children who were the least accepted and dominant at school were more than four times as likely to require hospital treatment for hormonal, nutritional, and metabolic diseases as their most popular and powerful classmates.
In addition, they were more than twice as likely to develop mental illness and behavioral problems, including suicide attempts and self harm.
They were more than five times as likely to be admitted for unintentional poisoning, while those classified as “peripheral” were more than seven times as likely to require hospital care for this same event.
They were also considerably more likely to develop drug and alcohol addiction problems and nine times more likely to develop ischaemic heart disease.
Childhood social class was not considered in the account of the findings.
The authors suggest that “peer status in childhood is linked to adult health through behavioral and psychological factors that influence the development of disorders and diseases in which these factors feature.”