Faulty Wiring

by Marie Snyder

We’re hard-wired for immediate survival, so we need reminders to help us persevere long-term.

For decades I taught a course, the Challenge of Change in Society, which used the lens of social sciences to try to understand world issues and explore how we ended up with our current challenges and how to enact change. I taught about how media provokes consumerism and how to counter that, and why to counter that, in our daily lives for the sake of the planet, the people, and our own well being. I often stepped outside of the social sciences to draw on thousands of years of philosophies and religions that have understood that happiness isn’t the result of an accumulation of things.

I practice what I preach for the most part. Curiously, though, by about mid-July each year, I’d forget everything I had been teaching and end up on a shopping spree until I’d come to my senses. Ten years ago I wrote about how much I need government policies to restrain my habits – that we all do – or else we’ll literally shop ’til we drop, as a species, which is happening before our eyes.

Barring that reality, and knowing this would be an ongoing, lifelong issue, I got a tattoo on my Visa-paying forearm to remind myself that my actions affect the entire world. I borrowed Matisse’s Dance and have the characters circling a re-forming pangea. We need to come together on this, collectively, to reduce ongoing suffering. Read more »

The Moral Logic of Nationalism

by Jalees Rehman

Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally in 2017, Anthony Crider, via Wikimedia Commons

Why do people endorse political violence such as military attacks even if such violence is detrimental to their own self-interests? The US-led war against Iraq was supported by more than 70% of Americans within days of the invasion in March 2003, and even though the support dwindled over the course of subsequent months and years as it became obvious that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and had not posed a major threat to the US. One could surmise that the US public had simply been misled by its government about Iraq’s weapons program and the support was thus based on a rational self-interest calculation. The fear of being eviscerated by the supposed Iraqi WMDs convinced US citizens do approve of the war. The Iraq war came at a tremendous cost: It is estimated that at least two hundred thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed, with even more deaths attributed to the subsequent humanitarian and political crises precipitated by the war. The war also resulted in the deaths of several thousand American soldiers and a far greater number of American soldiers were wounded. From an economic perspective, it is estimated that at least one trillion dollars has been added to the national debt because of the war. This war was clearly against the self-interest of the American people, especially once it became obvious that Iraq did not possess WMDs. It is therefore all the more surprising that 40% of American adults continue to believe the military invasion of Iraq was the correct decision.  Is this large segment of American society acting irrationally?

The psychologist Jeremy Ginges at the New School for Social Research in New York has been researching the reasoning behind political violence for more than a decade and recently summarized his work in the paper The Moral Logic of Political Violence. He has carried out psychological experiments enrolling Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlers as well as participants from countries across the world such as Nigeria and the United States, with remarkably similar results. Read more »

Does Reading Hateful Comments Increase Prejudice and Hatred?

by Jalees Rehman

How should social media platforms address hate speech and abusive comments while also maintaining a commitment to freedom of expression? The platform Twitter, for example, evaluates whether posts by individual users constitute abusive behavior, which it defines as “an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice”. Twitter’s rationale is that promoting dialogue and freedom of expression requires that all of its users need to feel safe in order to express their opinions, and that abusive posts by some users may undermine the safety of others. If users engage in abusive behavior, they may be asked to remove offensive posts, and if there is a pattern of recurring abusive posts, the offenders may be temporarily or permanently suspended. This rationale sounds quite straightforward, especially when a user specifically threatens or incites violence against other individuals. However, if the offenders post hateful comments denigrating members of a gender, race, sexual orientation or religion without specifically threatening individuals, then it becomes challenging to demonstrate that the victims of such hate speech are less safe. What is the impact of hate speech? Researchers have begun to address this important question and their results highlight the dangers of unfettered hate speech.

Dr. Wiktor Soral from the University of Warsaw in Poland and his colleagues recently conducted multiple studies to investigate the impact of hate speech on shaping prejudice and published their findings in the paper Exposure to hate speech increases prejudice through desensitization. In the first study, the researchers examined the views of adult Poles (computer assisted face-to-face interviews of 1,007 participants, mean age 46 years) in regards to prejudice against Muslims and members of the LGBT community because both of these groups are frequently targeted by hate speech in Poland. Participants were first given a list of anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT hate speech examples such as “I am sorry, but gay people make me feel disgusted” or “Muslims are stinky cowards, they can only murder women, children and innocent people.” The researchers were asked to rate these statements on a scale of 1 to 7, from “Not at all offensive” (1) or “Strongly offensive” (7). The researchers then asked the participants how often they heard anti-LGBT and anti-Muslim hate speech. Lastly, the researchers then assessed the prejudice level of the participants by asking them to rate whether they would (or would not) accept a member of the Muslim or LGBT communities as a co-worker, a neighbor, or as part of their family. Read more »

The Body Complex

by Tara* Kaushal

Psychology-of-Food-Sahil-Mane-PhotographySome thoughts on diet and exercise, food and drink, and health. Conceptual image by Sahil Mane Photography.

I've been on one diet or the other since I was in my teens. Most have been the very definition of crash (cigarettes and Diet Coke for a week, anyone?) and, later, I've tried more wholesome, longer-term lifestyle ones (that I would soon abandon and revert to my yoyo crash-trash diet cycle). First, it was only for aesthetic reasons, to lose weight; the lifestyle diets, Eat More Weigh Less and the like, started when I started to encompass health and fitness as a goal for my body (duh)!

Diet vs. Exercise: A Gendered Choice?

While all of us recognise that the key to a healthy body is a combination of good-for-you food and exercise (and not smoking, limited drinking, etc, and the absence of genetic and birth defects) most people fall in to one or the other category—some preferring exercise, unable to control their need to eat, drink and be merry; others preferring to diet or at least practice diet control, unable or unwilling to exercise. There are the some that do both, as we all should, and those, of course, that do neither.

I've realised that the choice, whether to diet or exercise, both or neither, is quite personality driven. Dieting is passive, to not eat; exercise is active, to get off your butt… And, in light of this fact, I hate to admit that my observation, that more women choose to diet, more men choose to exercise, falls in to gender stereotypes. Though there are exceptions all around, and my casual survey, of friends and boyfriends, and numbers from my local gym, has a small sample size, one could analyse my observation to bits. Is it because women are more driven by aesthetics, we are judged on them from an early age; and power, muscle, sports are traditionally male? Then there are the questions of time, priorities and lifestyle factors, and socioeconomic and cultural positioning. (More about the question of genderism in sports.) Also, men or women, individuals negotiate a complex social, familial, ethical, religious, consumerist, emotional, psychological and gendered relationship with food and drink.

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Three Seconds: Poems, Cubes and the Brain

by Jalees Rehman

Stopwatch.06.jpg4c4d5258-02ae-4e67-bb40-71ea134b660dLargerA child drops a chocolate chip cookie on the floor, immediately picks it up, looks quizzically at a parental eye-witness and proceeds to munch on it after receiving an approving nod. This is one of the versions of the “three second rule”, which suggests that food can be safely consumed if it has had less than three seconds contact with the floor. There is really no scientific basis for this legend, because noxious chemicals or microbial flora do not bide their time, counting “One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand,…” before they latch on to a chocolate chip cookie. Food will likely accumulate more bacteria, the longer it is in contact with the floor, but I am not aware of any rigorous scientific study that has measured the impact of food-floor intercourse on a second-to-second basis and identified three seconds as a critical temporal threshold. Basketball connoisseurs occasionally argue about a very different version of the “three second rule”, and the Urban Dictionary provides us with yet another set of definitions for the “three second rule”, such as the time after which one loses a vacated seat in a public setting. I was not aware of any of these “three second rule” versions until I moved to the USA, but I had come across the elusive “three seconds” time interval in a rather different context when I worked at the Institute of Medical Psychology in Munich: Stimuli or signals that occur within an interval of up to three seconds are processed and integrated by our brain into a “subjective present”.

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There Was No Couch: On Mental Illness and Creativity

by Jalees Rehman

Siemens_konvulsator_III_(ECT_machine)The psychiatrist held the door open for me and my first thought as I entered the room wasWhere is the couch?”. Instead of the expected leather couch, I saw a patient lying down on a flat operation table surrounded by monitors, devices, electrodes, and a team of physicians and nurses. The psychiatrist had asked me if I wanted to join him during an “ECT” for a patient with severe depression. It was the first day of my psychiatry rotation at the VA (Veterans Affairs Medical Center) in San Diego, and as a German medical student I was not yet used to the acronymophilia of American physicians. I nodded without admitting that I had no clue what “ECT” stood for, hoping that it would become apparent once I sat down with the psychiatrist and the depressed patient.

I had big expectations for this clinical rotation. German medical schools allow students to perform their clinical rotations during their final year at academic medical centers overseas, and I had been fortunate enough to arrange for a psychiatry rotation in San Diego. The University of California (UCSD) and the VA in San Diego were known for their excellent psychiatry program and there was the added bonus of living in San Diego. Prior to this rotation in 1995, most of my exposure to psychiatry had taken the form of medical school lectures, theoretical textbook knowledge and rather limited exposure to actual psychiatric patients. This may have been part of the reason why I had a rather naïve and romanticized view of psychiatry. I thought that the mental anguish of psychiatric patients would foster their creativity and that they were somehow plunging from one existentialist crisis into another. I was hoping to engage in some witty repartee with the creative patients and that I would learn from their philosophical insights about the actual meaning of life. I imagined that interactions with psychiatric patients would be similar to those that I had seen in Woody Allen’s movies: a neurotic, but intelligent artist or author would be sitting on a leather couch and sharing his dreams and anxieties with his psychiatrist.

I quietly stood in a corner of the ECT room, eavesdropping on the conversations between the psychiatrist, the patient and the other physicians in the room. I gradually began to understand that that “ECT” stood for “Electroconvulsive Therapy”. The patient had severe depression and had failed to respond to multiple antidepressant medications. He would now receive ECT, what was commonly known as electroshock therapy, a measure that was reserved for only very severe cases of refractory mental illness. After the patient was sedated, the psychiatrist initiated the electrical charge that induced a small seizure in the patient. I watched the arms and legs of the patients jerk and shake. Instead of participating in a Woody-Allen-style discussion with a patient, I had ended up in a scene reminiscent of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”, a silent witness to a method that I thought was both antiquated and barbaric. The ECT procedure did not take very long, and we left the room to let the sedation wear off and give the patient some time to rest and recover. As I walked away from the room, I realized that my ridiculously glamorized image of mental illness was already beginning to fall apart on the first day of my rotation.

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