August 15th, 2012
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Two Girls, One Mind

In something of a follow-up to Monday’s post regarding linguistic conceptualization of the self, I turn to a 2011 feature from New York Times Magazine about conjoined twins Krista and Tatiana Hogan. Susan Dominus writes on the unique connection they share and the complicated nature of self as illuminated by two young girls whose minds are joined by a bridge that is effectively unknown to science.

Twins joined at the head — the medical term is craniopagus — are one in 2.5 million, of which only a fraction survive. The way the girls’ brains formed beneath the surface of their fused skulls, however, makes them beyond rare: their neural anatomy is unique, at least in the annals of recorded scientific literature. Their brain images reveal what looks like an attenuated line stretching between the two organs, a piece of anatomy their neurosurgeon, Douglas Cochrane of British Columbia Children’s Hospital, has called a thalamic bridge, because he believes it links the thalamus of one girl to the thalamus of her sister. The thalamus is a kind of switchboard, a two-lobed organ that filters most sensory input and has long been thought to be essential in the neural loops that create consciousness. Because the thalamus functions as a relay station, the girls’ doctors believe it is entirely possible that the sensory input that one girl receives could somehow cross that bridge into the brain of the other. One girl drinks, another girl feels it.

Read the full article here.

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June 14th, 2012
chasewhiteside

How ‘Liberal’ Media Outlets Cripple Modern Liberalism 

Steve Almond, for the New York Times Magazine:

This, to be blunt, is the tragic flaw of the modern liberal. We choose to see ourselves as innocent victims of an escalating right-wing fanaticism. But too often we serve as willing accomplices to this escalation and to the resulting degradation of our civic discourse. We do this, without even meaning to, by consuming conservative folly as mass entertainment….

The real problem is that liberals, both on an institutional and a personal level, have chosen to treat for-profit propaganda as news. In so doing, we have helped redefine liberalism as an essentially reactionary movement. Rather than initiating discussion, or advocating for more humane policy, we react to the most vile and nihilistic voices on the right….

Media outlets like MSNBC and The Huffington Post often justify their coverage of these voices by claiming to serve as watchdogs. It would be more accurate to think of them as de facto loudspeakers for conservative agitprop. The demagogues of the world, after all, derive power solely from their ability to provoke reaction. Those liberals (like me) who take the bait, are to blame for their outsize influence….

Taken as a whole, the arrangement is entirely cynical. This slavish coverage of conservative scoundrels does nothing to illuminate policy or challenge our assumptions. On the contrary, its central goal mirrors that of the pundits it reviles: to boost ratings by reinforcing easy prejudices. These ratings come courtesy of dolts like me: liberals who choose, every day, to click on their links and to watch their shows….

Rather than taking up the banner and the burden of the causes I believe in, or questioning my own consumptive habits, I’ve come to rely on private moments of indignation for moral vindication. I fume at the iniquity of Pundit A and laugh at the hypocrisy of Candidate B and feel absolved — without ever having left my couch. It’s a closed system of scorn and self-congratulation….

But what’s really happening when I scoff at Sarah Palin’s latest tweet amounts to a mimetic indulgence: I’m bleeding the world of nuance, surrendering to the seduction of binary thinking.

This pattern of defensive grievance, writ large, has derailed the liberal agenda and crippled the nation’s moral progress.

Read the full article here.

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May 15th, 2012
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Child, Psychopath

Writing for The New York Times Magazine, Jennifer Kahn looks at a new road in child psychology, one that hopes to identify early signs of psychopathy in children. How do we discern whether unruly behavior is a sign of an innate disorder or simply the rash actions of a child? Can an early diagnosis of psychopathy actually lead to beneficial treatment, or is it simply a scarlet letter?

Currently, there is no standard test for psychopathy in children, but a growing number ofpsychologists believe that psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition — one that can be identified in children as young as 5. Crucial to this diagnosis are callous-unemotional traits, which most researchers now believe distinguish “fledgling psychopaths” from children with ordinary conduct disorder, who are also impulsive and hard to control and exhibit hostile or violent behavior. According to some studies, roughly one-third of children with severe behavioral problems — like the aggressive disobedience that Michael displays — also test above normal on callous-unemotional traits. (Narcissism and impulsivity, which are part of the adult diagnostic criteria, are difficult to apply to children, who are narcissistic and impulsive by nature.)

In some children, C.U. traits manifest in obvious ways. Paul Frick, a psychologist at the University of New Orleans who has studied risk factors for psychopathy in children for two decades, described one boy who used a knife to cut off the tail of the family cat bit by bit, over a period of weeks. The boy was proud of the serial amputations, which his parents initially failed to notice. “When we talked about it, he was very straightforward,” Frick recalls. “He said: ‘I want to be a scientist, and I was experimenting. I wanted to see how the cat would react.’ ”

In another famous case, a 9-year-old boy named Jeffrey Bailey pushed a toddler into the deep end of a motel swimming pool in Florida. As the boy struggled and sank to the bottom, Bailey pulled up a chair to watch. Questioned by the police afterward, Bailey explained that he was curious to see someone drown. When he was taken into custody, he seemed untroubled by the prospect of jail but was pleased to be the center of attention.

In many children, though, the signs are subtler. Callous-unemotional children tend to be highly manipulative, Frick notes. They also lie frequently — not just to avoid punishment, as all children will, but for any reason, or none. “Most kids, if you catch them stealing a cookie from the jar before dinner, they’ll look guilty,” Frick says. “They want the cookie, but they also feel bad. Even kids with severe A.D.H.D.: they may have poor impulse control, but they still feel bad when they realize that their mom is mad at them.” Callous-unemotional children are unrepentant. “They don’t care if someone is mad at them,” Frick says. “They don’t care if they hurt someone’s feelings.” Like adult psychopaths, they can seem to lack humanity. “If they can get what they want without being cruel, that’s often easier,” Frick observes. “But at the end of the day, they’ll do whatever works best.”

Read the full article here.

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April 26th, 2012
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Can Psychedelic Drugs Help You Face Death?

Lauren Slater for the NY Times Magazine:

Sakuda learned of a study being conducted by Charles Grob, a psychiatrist and researcher at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center who was administering psilocybin — an active component of magic mushrooms — to end-stage cancer patients to see if it could reduce their fear of death… When the research was completed in 2008… the results showed that administering psilocybin to terminally ill subjects could be done safely while reducing the subjects’ anxiety and depression about their impending deaths.

Grob’s interest in the power of psychedelics to mitigate mortality’s sting is not just the obsession of one lone researcher. Dr. John Halpern, head of the Laboratory for Integrative Psychiatry at McLean Hospital in Belmont Mass., a psychiatric training hospital for Harvard Medical School, used MDMA — also known as ecstasy — in an effort to ease end-of-life anxieties in two patients with Stage 4 cancer… “This research is in its very early stages,” Grob told me earlier this month, “but we’re getting consistently good results.”

Despite the promise of these investigations, Grob and other end-of-life researchers are careful about the image they cultivate, distancing themselves as much as possible from the 1960s, when psychedelics were embraced by many and used in a host of controversial studies, most famously the psilocybin project run by Timothy Leary. Grob described the rampant drug use that characterized the ’60s as “out of control” and said of his and others’ current research, “We are trying to stay under the radar. We want to be anti-Leary.” Halpern agreed. “We are serious sober scientists,” he told me.

Read the full article here.

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April 9th, 2012
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Camila Vallejo and Occupied Chile

Francisco Goldman writes for The New York Times Magazine about the powerful student movement in Chile and its charismatic front-woman.

In what became known as the Chilean Winter, students at university campuses and high schools across the country organized strikes, boycotted classes and occupied buildings. The protests were the largest since the last days of the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who in a 1973 military coup overthrew Latin America’s first democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende. The students’ grievances echoed, somewhat, those of their counterparts across the Mideast or in Zuccotti Park. Chile might have the highest per capita income in the region, but in terms of distribution of wealth, it ranks as one of the most unequal countries in the world. A university education in Chile is proportionally the world’s most expensive: $3,400 a year in a country where the average annual salary is about $8,500.

Sebastián Piñerarsquo;s right-wing government was plunged into perpetual crisis. The Harvard-educated Piñera, founder of Chile’s major credit card, Bancard, and Chile’s first president since Pinochet to come from the right, promised to govern Chile and its economy in a new way — as a businessman whose billions didn’t come from mining or manufacturing but from investments. The student movement exposed the Piñera Way as business as usual — if public education was virtually abolished under Pinochet in the ’80s, his successors had done nothing to bring it back.

Just 40 percent of Chilean children receive a free secondary-school education, in underfinanced public schools; the rest attend partly subsidized charter or private schools. To finance their university educations, most students take out bank loans, which saddle them and their families with years of debt. Piñera defended Chile’s educational system by calling education “a consumer good.” Vallejo countered, saying that education was a fundamental right and that “for more than 30 years,” entrepreneurs had “speculated and grown wealthy off the dreams and expectations of thousands of young people and Chilean families.” By September, Piñera’s popularity ratings, so robust after the rescue of the Chilean miners in October 2010, had sunk to 22 percent, the lowest of any Chilean president in modern history, while the student movement’s national approval rating stood at 72 percent.

Read the full article here.

April 5th, 2012
chasewhiteside

Our Addiction to Stupid Games

Why do millions of people spend hours each week playing purposeless and endless games like Angry Birds? Sam Anderson chronicles our long obsession with stupid games, from Tetris to smart phones, for the NY Times Magazine:

There are people who see the proliferation of stupid games as a good thing. In fact, they believe that games may be the answer to all of humanity’s problems. In her book “Reality Is Broken,” Jane McGonigal argues that play is possibly the best, healthiest, most productive activity a human can undertake — a gateway to our ideal psychological state. Games aren’t an escape from reality, McGonigal contends, they are an optimal form of engaging it. In fact, if we could just find a way to impose game mechanics on top of everyday life, humans would be infinitely better off. We might even use these approaches to help solve real-world problems like obesity, education and government abuse. Some proponents point to successful examples of games applied to everyday life: Weight Watchers and frequent-flier miles, for example.

Corporations, of course, have been using similar strategies for decades, hooking consumers on products by giving them constant small victories for spending money (think of the old Monopoly game promotion at McDonald’s). The buzzword for this is “gamification” and the ubiquity of computers and smartphones has only supercharged these tendencies. Gartner, a technology research firm, predicted last year that, in the near future, “a gamified service for consumer-goods marketing and customer retention will become as important as Facebook, eBay or Amazon.” Companies have already used online games to sneakily advertise sugary cereals directly to children.

Although there is a certain utopian appeal to McGonigal’s “games for change” model, I worry about the dystopic potential of gamification. Instead of just bombarding us with jingles, corporations will be able to inject their messages directly into our minds with ads disguised as games. Gamification seeks to turn the world into one giant chore chart covered with achievement stickers — the kind of thing parents design for their children — though it raises the potentially terrifying question of who the parents are. This, I fear, is the dystopian future of stupid games: amoral corporations hiring teams of behavioral psychologists to laser-target our addiction cycles for profit.

Read the full article here.
(And play the addictive built-in game that allows you to destroy the New York Times website!)

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January 17th, 2012
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Google’s History of Censorship

While Google is coming out against the proposed PIPA and SOPA legislation that would effectively allow the U.S. government and private U.S. companies to effectively censor foreign content deemed to violate domestic U.S. laws, it wasn’t that long ago that Google, seeking to expand its presence in China, the world’s fastest growing online market, had its own role in censoring the web. From Clive Thompson, for the New York Times Magazine:

Yet Google’s conduct in China has in recent months seemed considerably less than idealistic. In January, a few months after Lee opened the Beijing office, the company announced it would be introducing a new version of its search engine for the Chinese market. To obey China’s censorship laws, Google’s representatives explained, the company had agreed to purge its search results of any Web sites disapproved of by the Chinese government, including Web sites promoting Falun Gong, a government-banned spiritual movement; sites promoting free speech in China; or any mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. If you search for “Tibet” or “Falun Gong” most anywhere in the world on google.com, you’ll find thousands of blog entries, news items and chat rooms on Chinese repression. Do the same search inside China on google.cn, and most, if not all, of these links will be gone. Google will have erased them completely.

Read the full article here.

December 2nd, 2011
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Read This, Not That: Building A Better Mitt Romney-Bott

A revealing behind-the-scenes look at how Mitt Romney’s cadre of advisers are repackaging him for this election. From Robert Draper, for the NY Times Magazine :

Those who at close range watched Romney’s failure to close the deal in 2008 did not witness a rejection per se. Instead, it appeared that Republican voters could not quite envision this decent, clever and socially uneasy fellow governing their country — as opposed to, say, managing their stock portfolios. Stories of Romney’s wooden people skills are legion. “The Mormon’s never going to win the who-do-you-want-to-have-a-beer-with contest,” concedes one adviser, while another acknowledges, “He’s never had the experience of sitting in a bar, and like, talking.”

Read the full article here.

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