Archive for October, 2015

The Relaxation Response Update

October 31, 2015

There was an earlier (2009) healthy memory blog post titled “The Relaxation Response.  The first book on the relaxation response was published in 1975.  A  25th anniversary of the publication of the first book was published with the same title by Herbert Benson, M.D. with Mirian K. Zipper.  Back in 1975 it was revolutionary to believe that the mind played a role in practical medicine.  The book was an instant hit and started inroads into the role of the mind in practical medicine.  By 2015 mindfulness loomed large.

I believe that the relaxation response is the easiest of all meditation techniques.  It is based on Transcendental Meditation, although the secret meditation word provided to TM initiates is not provided.  Everyone can provide their own word or object.

The relaxation response can be invoked with any of a number of techniques:  yoga or qiqong, walking or swimming, even knitting or rowing.  Prayer and religious meditative practices also work.  Although meditation and mindfulness are usually thought of in the context of Buddhism and Hinduism, it has also been central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The book provides many examples of how meditation was used to known practitioners throughout these religions.

According to Dr. Benson, “Here is a list of conditions that, to the extent caused or affected by mind/body connections  (such as stress and the fight-or-flight response), can be significantly improved or even cured when self-care techniques are employed:
angina pectoris
cardiac arryhythmias
allergic skin reactions
bronchial asthma
herpes simplex (cold sores)
diabetes mellitus
duodenal ulcers
nausea and vomiting during pregnancy
all forms of pain—backaches, headaches, abdominal pain, muscle pain, joint aches, postoperative pain, neck, arm, and leg pain
postoperative swelling
premenstrual syndrome
rheumatoid arthritis,
side effects of cancer
side effects of aids
Being a physician, Dr. Benson is careful to caution against self-treatment, advising that self-treatment be undertaken under the care of a physician.  Should your physician find these techniques objectionable, I would advise finding another physician who has successfully made way into the 21st Century.

Techniques for inducing the relaxation response were provided in the original healthy memory post.  Here is a set of updated instructions:
Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer that is firmly rooted in your belief system.
Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
Close your eyes.
Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, head, and neck.
Breather slowly and naturally, and as you do, say your focus word, sound, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.
Assume a passive attitude.  don’t worry about how well you’re doing.  When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, “Oh well,” and gently return to your repetition.
Continue for ten to twenty minutes.
Do not stand immediately.  Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return.  Then open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising.
Practice the technique once or twice daily.  Good times to do so are before breakfast and after dinner.
He advises against doing meditation right after eating.  Apparently digestive processes interfere with meditative processes.

This list can be regarded as the ideal.  Dr. Benson notes that the Relaxation Response can also be elicited while exercising.  He writes that if you are jogging or walking to pay attention to the cadence of our feet on the ground—“left, right, left right”—and when other thoughts come into our minds, say “Oh, well,” and return to “left, right, left right.  Swimmers can pay attention to the tempo of their strokes, cyclists to the whir of the wheels,  dancers to the best of the music, others to the rhythm of their breathing.

In a subsequent post I’ll provide my own personal observations on meditating.

A New School of Thoughtfulness

October 29, 2015

The title of this blog post is the title of an article in the Local Living section of the October 8, 2015 Washington Post.  It was an article about teaching thoughtfulness in the public schools. The subtitle to this article is “These educators teach kids to take their breath and practice mindfulness,” and the article is by Rachel Pomerance.  I so wish that this had been taught in the public schools when I attended them.  I would have been a better student and  better human being.  I have only been working on thoughtfulness these past several years after I started the healthy memory blog.

Research has convincingly linked mindfulness to improved focus, mood, and behavior.  The movement has ballooned and has spread from health-care institutions to Fortune 500 companies, the military and athletics.  Now it is increasingly being used at schools and with children.  It is here that mindfulness has its major impact.  Students are learning skills that will benefit them their entire lives provided they keep working at them.  And these skill will have strong benefits on learning.

Mindfulness provides a mental reset button, freeing one from a crush of distraction, swell of anger, or parade of fears and regrets that can dominate thoughts and derail behavior.  Thoughtfulness exercises  include counting breaths, focus on one of the five senses, anchors to turn to when one’s thoughts wander.

The article notes that the idea of getting squirmy kids to sit still or angst-ridden teens to meditate might seem far fetched.   But it finds that kids often do take to it, readily turning  to the practice as a way to self-soothe, and they take these techniques home with them.

One fourth grade student said, “When I’m made and get into a fight with my brother or anyone in the family, I go up to my room, and I start breathing and doing mindfulness. It calms me down a little so things get back to normal.”

A classmate says that when she has trouble sleeping, she’ll count her breaths and listen to the ticking of her watch to relax.

Another student said, “I thought it was totally weird at first., then I realized that it totally helped…with everything in my life.”

Yet another student was playing volleyball and getting angry at her losing team.  She said that she was about to yell at them them for not doing the right thing, but then she recalibrated, did not yell, and made positive suggestions.

It appears that mindfulness is being learned by the parents from their children, which they are finding is improving them as parents.

Mindfulness is not some magic switch that can be turned on.  It needs to be practiced and worked at.  Sometimes we fail, but it is important that we also forgive ourselves and work to improve in the future.

Healthy Memory, Healthy Mind, and a Sense of Coherence

October 25, 2015

The research of Dr. Martin Seligman has  documented the benefits of optimism on health.  Unfortunately, I am a congenital pessimist, but I am using mindfulness to change.  Fortunately, Dr. Seligman has started a positive psychology movement.  I have often wondered how can people in extremely adverse circumstances maintain a positive outlook.  How do they cope?

Dr. Aaron Antonovsky has researched people who have survived extreme, almost unthinkable stress, such as prisoners in Nazi extermination camps.  I’ve thought that if I ever found myself in a similar circumstance I would thrown myself on an electrified fence (which is what Stalin’s son did when he was captured by Nazis).

Dr. Antonovsky also wondered what allowed some people to resist these very high levels of stress even as their resources for coping with stress and tension are constantly being disrupted during their imprisonment in these concentration camps.  He found that these people have an inherent sense of coherence about the world and themselves.  It is characterized by three components: comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness.  People with a high sense of coherence have a strong feeling of confidence that they can make sense of their internal and external experience, and that they have the resources available to meet and manage the demands they encounter.  These demands are challenges  in which they can find meaning and to which they can commit themselves.

These attitudes are summarized in a famous statement of Victor Frankl; a survivor of Auschwitz (and a neurologist and psychologist):  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, to choose one’s own way.”  This is a statement worthy of committing to memory.

Keys to a Healthy Memory: Growth Mindsets and Mindfulness

October 22, 2015

The advice from the beginning of this blog has been to continually grow your mind as long as you live.  Even if the term growth mindset was not used, growth mindsets were what was implied.  What also became clear in Carol Dweck’s, Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success was that growth mindsets are key to effective interpersonal relationships, parenting, coaching, and business, virtually in every aspect of living.

MIndfulness provide a means of effectively dealing with life, better health, better interpersonal relations, and effective focus and control of attention.  Attention is key to learning, so it is also key to an effective growth mindset.  There have been many healthy memory posts on Mindfulness and you can anticipate many more in the future.

Similarly, you can anticipate many more posts on growth mindsets, but bear in mind that many previous posts have provided techniques and information for effective growth mindsets.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

October 18, 2015

The title of this post is the same as the title of a book by psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.  The book was cited in the previous healthy memory post, “The Importance of a Growth Mindset.”  This book was a best seller in hardcopy and is now a best selling paperback book (as well as a kindle version).  It is good news that so many people have read this book and are reading this book, but having read it myself I think that everyone should read it.  This is especially true for students, parents, educators, and coaches.  I regret not having read the book earlier.  I agreed with the title, but I thought I knew enough about this topic and would get to it later.  I was wrong.  Dr. Dweck has taken this concept, explained its ramifications, and thoroughly developed its applications.

She contrast two types of mindsets:  fixed mind sets, where abilities are basically fixed.  And growth mindsets, in which knowledge and abilities are grown.  Understand that these are attitudes.  It’s a question of which mindset you choose for yourself and others.

The developer of the first IQ Test, Alfred Binet, did not believe that intelligence was a fixed ability.  He developed the test to identify students who required special attention.  Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children.  The legendary golfer Ben Hogan was completely uncoordinated and graceless as a child.  The great actress Geraldine Page was advised to give acting up for lack of any talent.  Dr. Dweck cites many other compelling examples.

Here is an example of the fundamental difference between the two mindsets.  People with a fixed mindset who fail a test will likely conclude that they failed because they lacked intelligence.  However, a person with a growth mindset will conclude that they didn’t not study enough and they work to understand what and how they failed and how they improved.  So it is obvious that having a fixed mindset is a severe handicap one places on oneself.  Success is unlikely.  However, those with a growth mindset are much more likely to succeed.

It is not only one’s own mindset that is important.  It is also the mindset one imposes on others.  If your child or student fails, do you conclude that they are stupid?  Or do you conclude that the potential is there, but it needs to be grown and developed?

I was, and remain, impressed by how thoroughly Dr. Dweck developed these ideas.

Chapter 1 develops the concept of mindsets.

Chapter 2 takes us inside mindsets asking whether is success about learning—or proving you’re smart.  Mindset changes the meanings of failure and effort.

Chapter 3 elucidates the truth about ability and accomplishment.  This includes the relationship between mindset and school.  It raises serious question about the notion that artistic ability is a gift.  It alerts us to the danger of praise and positive labels as well as explaining negative labels and how they work.

Chapter 4 is titled Sports:  The mindset of a champion.  It discusses the idea of the natural “character.”  It asked what is success and what is failure and explains how to take charge of success.  It asks the question, “What Does It Mean to Be a Star? and write about hearing the mindsets.

Chapter 5 is titled Business:  Mindset and Leadership and has subsections titled
Enron and the Talent Mindset
Organizations That Grow
A Study of Group Processes
Groupthink versus We Think
The Praised Generation Hits the Workforce
Are Negotiators Born or Made?
Corporate Training:  Are Managers Born or Made?
Are Leaders Born or Made?

Chapter 6 is titled Relationships:  Mindsets in Love (or Not) with subsections titled
Relationships are Different
Mindsets Falling in Love
The Partner as Enemy
Competition:  Who’s the Greatest?
Developing in Relationships
Bullies and Victims:  Revenge Revisited

Chapter 7 is titled Parents, Teachers, and Coaches:  Where Do Mindsets Come From”
Parents (and Teachers):  Messages About Success and Failure
Teachers (and Parents):  What Makes a Great Teacher or (Parent?
Coaches:  Winning Through Mindset
Our Legacy

Chapter 8.  Changing Mindsets has the following subsections:
The Nature of Change
The Mindset Lecture
A Mindset Workshop
More About Change
Taking the First Set
People Who don’t Want to Change
Changing Your Child’s Mindset
Mindset and Willpower
Maintaining Change
The Road Ahead

Subsequent healthy memory blog posts will address some of these topics more deeply.

I am curious about the relationship between a growth mindset and Alzheimer’s and dementia.  I would make a substantial wager that a growth mindset effectively wards off Alzheimer’s and dementia.  With respect to the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles that constitute the definitive diagnosis, there is the question of people whose autopsies were wracked with plaque and tangles, but who never showed any of the behavioral or cognitive disorders of Alzheimer’s.  I would make an even larger wager that these people had growth mindsets.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Finally, Hope on the Prediction Front

October 15, 2015

A previous healthy memory blog post, “Would You Rather Be Popular or Accurate,” summarized Philip Tetlock’s book, Expert Political Judgment.  Tetlock summarized several decades of research on experts’ political predictions.  He found that their predictions were virtually indistinguishable from chance, in other words these experts were not experts.  However, he was able to classify these experts into two categories, which he labeled hedgehogs and foxes.  Hedgehogs were characterized by big ideas.  In other words, they were ideologues.  However, the judgments of foxes were more nuanced with qualifications and conditions.  Even though the judgments of foxes were poor, they were still better than the judgments of hedgehogs.  What it is disturbing is that the hedgehogs get more air and print time, so we are wasting our time listening to these experts.  Nevertheless, these experts make a good living at being wrong.

Tetlock summarized his new research in Superforcasting:  The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner.  This research involved the recruitment of literally thousands of volunteers.  These  volunteers were given tasks such as predicting if and when, North Korea would conduct a nuclear test, if and when peace would break out in Iraq, if and when Iran would agree to a nuclear ban, etc.  The volunteers would research these topics and revise their predictions whenever they thought that new information warranted a revision.  The volunteers reported their predictions using subjective ratings.  Remember that these were volunteers working without pay.  Anyone could volunteer.  I believe that token gift certificates were presented.

This research was sponsored by the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Agency (IARPA).  I imagine that some readers are asking two questions.  One question might be why did IARPA not use expert intelligence experts?  The second question might be, why conduct all this research, why not simply ask the experts how they do their analysis?

With respect to the first question I would remind readers of the previous study, where presumable experts were not found to be experts.  There also  is no means of identifying the experts.  Most reports do not include subjective numerical estimates that are amenable to statistics.  Nor is their a system that tracks the accuracy of these reports.  Moreover, given Tetlock’s previous research where hedgehogs receive the attention and foxes are ignored, it might be that the wrong analysts are being promoted and receiving attention.  The foxes might be laboring ignored in obscurity.

With regard to the second question, the answer is that you could not rely on what they tell you.  The vast majority of cognitive processing occurs below our level of awareness, and research has shown that at times what people report is why they did something is not consistent with the empirical evidence (see the healthy memory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves”).  To a certain extent it is as useful as asking someone how they ride a bicycle.

It was only a very small percentage of this group who could be classified as “superforecasters.”    Moreover, identifying this group presented statistical challenges.  The question was whether these high performers more knowledgeable or lucky.   After all, lottery winners are lucky individuals who are rewarded for doing something stupid.

What was characteristic of these superforecastors?  Well, first of all I believe that all participants could be regarded as having growth mindsets (see the immediately preceding post).    The supercasters tended to use relatively precise subjective estimates, which the frequently revised.  Moreover, these revisions were done in the spirit of Bayesian analysis (see the healthy memory blog post, “Organizing Information for the Hardest Decisions”), even if they didn’t explicitly use Bayes Theorem.   There are many more results and conclusions, but too many to summarize.  If interested, I recommend reading the book.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Importance of a Growth Mindset

October 13, 2015

According to the psychologist Carol Dweck in Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success, there are two types of mindsets:  fixed and growth.  People with a fixed mindset believe that we are who we are, and abilities can only be revealed, not created and developed.  They say things like “I’m bad in math” and see that as a fixed feature like being female or left-handed (and as we know, even these features can be changed).  The problem with this mindset is that it has serious consequences because a person who thinks they are poor at math will remain poor at math and won’t try hard to improve; they believe this would be pointless.  Whatever potential these people have will not be realized if they think that these skills are immutable.

However, people with growth mindsets believe that skills can be developed if they are worked at.  The growth mindset is the true mindset, that allow for personal development.  Fixed mindsets are erroneous mindsets that preclude further development.

Dweck has conducted experiments that illustrate and provide insight into this difference.  In one experiment she gave relatively easy experiments to fifth graders, which they enjoyed. Then she gave the children harder puzzles. Some children suddenly lost interest and declined an offer to take the puzzles home.  Other children loved the harder puzzles more than the easy ones and wanted to know how they could get more of these puzzles.  Dweck noted that the difference between the two groups was not “puzzle-solving talent.”  Among the equally adept children, some were turned off by the tougher challenge while others were intrigued.  They key factor was mindset.

In another experiment Dweck found that even when the fixed-minded try, they don’t get as much from the experience as those who believe they can grow.  She scanned the brains of volunteers as they answered hard questions, then were told whether  their answers were right or wrong and given information that could help them improve.  The scans showed that volunteers with a fixed mindset were fully engaged when they were told whether their answers were right or wrong, but that’s all they apparently cared about.  Information that could help them improve their answers didn’t engage them.  Even when they’d  gotten an answer wrong, they were not interested in what the right answer was.  Only people with a growth mindset paid close attention  to information that could stretch their knowledge.  For them, learning was a top priority.

Having a growth mindset is important for building and maintaining a healthy memory.  Having a growth mindset is even more important as we grow older.  See the healthy memory blog posts (yes, there are two of them) “You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks.  Having a growth mindset will build a cognitive reserve and assist in warding off dementia.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Future of Technology and the Future of Terrorism

October 10, 2015

These topics are addressed in The New Digital Age:  Transforming Nations, Businesses, and Our Lives, a book by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen.  Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., is the executive chairman of Google.  He has a long history in the technology field.  Jared Cohen is the founder and director of Google Ideas.  He is a Rhodes Scholar and the author of two books, Children of Jihad and One Hundred Days of Silence.  From 2006 to 2010 he served as a member of the secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff and as a close advisor to both Condolezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.  He is now an adjunct senior fellow and the Council of Foreign Relations.  So it is clear that these gentlemen are experts in the areas of which they write.  Moreover, they are widely traveled, having been to both war torn Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, in Afghanistan they learned of an entire village that revolted against the Taliban when the extremist group tried to seize their phones.  In Kenya, they visited Maasi nomads in Loodariak who live without electricity or running water, but carry, along with their swords, mobile devices that they use to pay for items at the market.  In North Korea, citizens risk imprisonment in the gulags and in some cases death, which can also be applied to three generations of relatives, in order to obtain smuggled phones and tablets and make extremely risking trips to the Chinese border just to capture a signal.

There is simply too much material here to even attempt to summarize.   Descriptions by the experts on the development of technology can certainly be regarded as authoritative.  There are chapters on Our Future Selves, The Future of Identity, Citizenship, and Reporting, the Future of States, the Future of Revolution, the Future of Terrorism, the future of Conflict, Combat, and Intervention.  If one is prone to worrying, you might want to reconsider reading this book, for there is much to worry about, many nightmare scenarios.  Nevertheless , the discussion of cyberwarfare are detailed and informative.

Central to the discussion of terrorism is the question of what makes a person a terrorist? How can terrorism be fought?  General Stanley McChrystal draws on his experience from commanding troops against terrorist offers these suggestions.  “What defeats terrorism is really two things.  It’s the rule of law and then it’s opportunity for people.”  Young people need to be provide with context-rich alternatives and distractions that keep they from pursuing extremism.  Outsiders do not need to provide content, they just need to create the space.”

I think highly of the general’s ideas and recommendations.  However, I don’t think they provide a complete solution.  The terrorists who flew planes into the Trade Towers and the Pentagon were well educated and well off.  They had opportunity and context-rich alternatives.  These people need to be addressed at another level with helpful narratives to replace their distorted versions of reality.

The authors do identify the Achilles Heel of Terrorism, and that is technology itself.  To remain hidden, Osama bin Laden had to remain off-line to avoid capture.  But when he was captured his flash drives and hard drives contained a trove of information to fight the terrorists.

The authors remain optimistic.  They are especially optimistic about the future of reconstruction.  So once disasters or attacks strike, if communications technology is set up enough has bee learned about receiving from these disasters that recovery, if done right, can be done with increasing efficiency.

The authors note that there are physical and virtual civilizations.  Thy note that their case for optimism lies not in sci-fi gadgets or holograms, but in the check that technology and connectivity bring against the abuse, suffering, and distraction in our lives.

I hope the authors are correct, and they certainly know more than I do.  But there remains the potential of technology to be used by totalitarian regimes to control and abuse their populations.  RFID chips could be implanted in people so that their locations would always be known, and other technology could provide information on their activities.  So, I hope the authors are correct and that technology will be used for good rather than evil.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

We Can’t Rely On Science Alone to Make Us Better People

October 8, 2015

The title from another article in the September 26, 2015 New Scientist was chosen as the title to this blog post.  The conclusion to this article can be found in its first two sentences.  “Our sense of right and wrong is often inadequate for modern challenges.  But the combination of rationality and humanity can lead us to more effective morality.”

The immediately preceding healthy memory blog post made the point that computer technology could be used to compensate for the narrow focus of empathy.  Of course, this technology we be drawing upon both science and mathematics.

I was encouraged to learn of an organization whose aim is to optimize the good we can do by quantifying the outcomes of our actions.  The name of this organization is the Center for Effective Altruism in Oxford, UK,
Rather than continuing this post it might be better for you to go to this website and explore the activities.

The Shortcomings of Empathy

October 7, 2015

Previous blogs have included many good comments on empathy.  Perhaps one of the primary ones, is that humans excel a empathy and computers are short on empathy.  Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University says that people who think that empathic concern is an unalloyed force for good are wrong.  The problem is that empathy is a spotlight and is very narrow.  It illuminates the suffering of a single person rather than the fate of millions.  It is more concerned with the here and now than with the future.  Bloom goes on to say, “It’s because of empathy that we care more about, say, the plight of a little girl trapped in a well than we do about potentially billions of people suffering or dying from climate change.”   According to the article, Morality 2.0 by Dan Jones in the September 26, 2015 New Scientist,  empathy’s shortcomings are compounded by the fact that we end up pointing its beam on cause that come into our field of view.  These are typically the most newsworthy moral issues rather than those where we can do the most good.

There is also a general belief that our brains are wired to be empathic.  This accounts for our success as a species.  But, again, the problem is the narrowness of our empathy beam.  Conflict among groups, be they tribes, nations, religions, or even professional organizations is the rule rather then the exception.  Our record is one of the abuse and even the enslavement of others who we believe “do not belong.”

The New Scientist article discusses a variety of means of prodding humans to make more meaningful moral choices.  It concludes with the following statement:  “Moral issues are complicated and hard, and they involve serious trade-offs and deliberation.  it would be be better if people thought more about them.”

It strikes me that non-empathic computer technology might be of considerable assistance. The problem of addressing the wide variety of moral needs in an efficient manner is an enormous computational task. one that is certainly beyond an individual human’s intellect, and is perhaps beyond the capacity of the collective intellect of humanity.  Humans could program their empathic concerns into computers.  Computers could then  compute enormous cost/benefit analysis.  Humans could then discuss and debate how resources could best be used to address these human and planetary needs.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Storytelling and Neural Coupling

October 5, 2015

This post is based on a section by the same name in Humans are Underrated:  What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will  by Geoff Colvin.  When we hear a story in one particular form the speaker’s and the listener’s brains align.  We not only experience the story but we also are having the same experience.  The same parts of the brain are being energized in teller and listener, that is, there is neural coupling.  The brains of the storyteller and hearer light up not just in areas controlling speech and language, but also  in areas known to be involved in processing social information crucial for successful communication, include the capacity to discern the beliefs, desires and goals of others, which is empathy.  This phenomenon becomes even stronger when a storyteller is speaking  to several listeners, when similar brain activity is induced across different individuals.

The best stories can be identified by the presence of the chemical oxytocin.  This chemical has a range of intensely emotional effects.  It makes us more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate.  Some have called it the “love hormone,” others the “bonding hormone.”  It is called the “moral molecule” because it makes us more sensitive to social cues around us.  It often makes more inclined to gel others, particularly if the other person seems to need our help.  Therefore it is the neurochemical responsible for empathy.  Our pituitary gland  releases oxytocin when a good story is heard.  It is interesting to note that Descartes thought the the pituitary gland housed the soul.

People were shown a short film of  a true story of a two-year-old with brain cancer, whom we’ll call Ben, and his father, whom we’ll call John Doe.  John Doe’s father’s life is pretty ordinary until he learns that Ben has cancer.  Ben does not know that he has brain cancer.    The father is conflicted because he knows that Ben will die within months, but his sadness merely deprives Ben of Joy he could otherwise have.  Ben’s father finally finds the courage within himself to be joyful around Ben, genuinely grateful for the gift of the child’s brief life.  The conflict is resolved and Ben’s father is changed.

This film has been shown to hundreds of people.  The oxytocin levels in their bloom were measured both before and after viewing the film.  The film make the oxytocin levels rise.  The research subjects are paid for their time and for being stuck twice with needles to draw blood, yet they were very willing to give some or all of their money to a childhood cancer charity, depending on how much oxytocin their pituitary glands had released.

Another film was shown to a different audience depicting Ben and his father visiting a zoo.  Ben has no hair and his father refers to him as “miracle boy.”  It is clear that we are watching a father and son, and that the son has cancer.  The film has a narrative of them doing a variety of things at the zoo, but there is no story.  The brain chemistry of the viewers did not vary and they did not become notably generous to the charity.  This film had no impact.

Why DARPA is Studying Stories

October 3, 2015

Why DARPA is studying stories is the title of another section in Humans are Underrated:  What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will  by Geoff Colvin.  DARPA stands for the Defense Advanced Projects Agency.  At time this has been called ARPA, by simply dropping the D.  But regardless of the acronym, it has been sponsoring  advanced research.  The internet was developed from research sponsored by DARPA, as was GPS.

The U.S. Defense establishment is convinced that stories are at the foundation of today’s security environment that it has established a program called Narrative Networks DARPA.  The program asks “Why are some narrative themes successful at building support for terrorism?”  The Narrative Networks program aims to understand how these stories contribute to radicalization, violent social mobilization, insurgency, and terrorism among populations.

Given that we can now destroy civilization several times over with Nuclear Weapons, it appears that we can already achieved the maximum in kinetic effects.  But now our security is jeopardized by narratives.  We need to know how to counter and neutralize these narratives.

A tremendous resource we had to conduct research on this problem has been overlooked, and that is the large population of terrorists imprisoned in Guantanamo.  This might be an overstatement as we cannot confidently say that everyone imprisoned is a terrorist as many have been languishing in prison without being tried.  Some might even die having been falsely charged.

This population should have been used to develop and test different narratives with respect to their effectiveness.  If it appeared that certain narratives had been effective for certain inmates, then the ultimate test would have been done by releasing them.  True this is risky, but what right do we have to keep people imprisoned indefinitely without trial?  If we saw that certain narratives were effective, then perhaps a more general effective campaign could be developed.  This would be an effective war on terrorism, which is what we want to develop.  The term “War on Terror” is nonsensical.  Terror is a tactic of warfare.  It is analogous to saying war on tactical dogfights, or war on amphibious warfare.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Building Empathy by Reading Fiction

October 1, 2015

Empathy is an important skill, which we should all strive to continue to develop.  Colvin notes in his Humans are Underrated:  What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will that reading fiction provides an enjoyable means of building empathy.  However, this benefit should only derive from reading certain types of fiction.  For example reading Tom Clancy novels would probably not be beneficial.  As clever, interesting, and thrilling as they are, the characters tend to be superficial.  What is needed is fiction that has interesting characters that requires you to understand them, empathize with them, and understand why they interact with the other characters the way that they do.  Most good literature contains such characters.  And Shakespeare was not only a genius at using the English language, his characters are complex and interesting.  Much of human nature captured in his plays is still relevant today.

I would think that writing this type of literature also would be beneficial.  An interesting exercise would be to try to write some fiction regarding people you know.  This might be helpful in understanding them better and being more able to empathize with them.  Of course, you should be quite guarded regarding whom you might show your writing to.  People might be offended or even start to believe that you are lying to them.

If you read the healthy memory blog post  “Experimental Evaluation:  A Key Theme in REDIRECT,” you’ll see how writing can be therapeutic.  “Redirecting Personal Narratives” shows the general benefit about writing about yourself.  So a variety of types of writing, not necessarily certain types of fiction, can be beneficial.

I would also think that watching certain movies can facilitate the development of empathy.  I am not writing about action films or films loaded with special effects.  Rather these would be films with interesting characters for whom you would develop empathy.

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