science


I get half of my political news and analysis from a great podcast called Left Right & Center. (The other half is from Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square.) LR&C is an ongoing conversation between three guys from different political perspectives on what’s happened this week, and has been very valuable for the development of my own political thinking.

The other day, I was listening to another great podcast, This Week in Microbiology, and it hit me that these two shows have the exact same format. TWiM is also an ongoing conversation between three guys about the news of the week. The superficial difference is that TWiM is about bacteria and LR&C is about US politics.

The more abstract difference between these two podcasts, though, is that Left, Right & Center is an excercise in outcome-irrelevant learning, while This Week in Microbiology is an exercise in outcome-relevant learning. That is to say, the empirical events of the week change the opinions of the TWiM guys but almost never change the opinions of the LR&C guys. This is a huge difference. On TWiM, when there is a disagreement, they look up what is known about the issue and almost immediately come to an agreement based on facts: either one person is right and the other wrong, or else we really don’t yet know the answer to that question.

On LR&C, when there is disagreement (which there is on every topic), each fact that comes into the conversation is either disputed or used to proove each person’s own point. In politics, the facts are basically irrelevant. Makes me wonder why it remains so interesting.

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I was at a party last year with a woman who had recently lived in England. Her funniest story was about flossing. She mentioned the use of dental floss to her friends there and found a widespread belief that flossing was bad for you. The punchline was something like, “It makes your gums bleed. It’s bad for you!”

I imagine I was more amused by that story than others at the party, because I pay special attention to what dentists say about dental hygiene. I know, for example, that plaque causes inflammation in your gums, which makes them more likely to bleed. This inflammation also makes your gums more porous, so that bacteria leak into your bloodstream, causing more inflammation throughout your cardiovascular system, resulting in a significantly shorter lifespan. I also know that your body treats plaque as its own tissue, building capillaries inside the plaque, to feed it. This is why plaque can bleed when hygienists scrape it out.

[Shudder]

I do what my dentist tells me. Exactly. I am a highly compliant patient.

So far it’s paid off. I’ve had very few cavities and hygienists often fawn over my teeth, both very nice. At the end of a visit I always say, “I want to keep these teeth for 60-70 more years. Am I on track to do that? Is there anything I could be doing better?” The answer has always been “Yes, you are on track to keep your teeth,” and usually, “No, just keep doing what you are doing.”

Every five or six years, though, I get a new set of instructions about how best to brush my teeth. I can remember several off the top of my head: horizontal strokes including the gums, circles including the gums, vertical sweeps including the gums. The last time I got a new set of instructions was in 2011. “Brush along the gum line with a 45 degree angle toward the gums with very small horizontal strokes, using no pressure at all and the softest brush you can find. Move to a new spot every minute or so. Do not brush your gums.”

I was surprised at these changes and a little annoyed. The last time I’d heard horizontal strokes was the 1980s. I’d assumed the move away from that had been an improvement. And don’t brush the gums? I’d never heard that from anyone. I complained that dentistry kept changing things up and that these changes didn’t make sense to me, if the other changes had been real improvements.

My hygienist sympathized and said, “Well, we used to think that brushing the gums toughened them up and kept them from receding. Recently we started noticing that patients who brushed their gums were causing them to recede, so we’ve changed our minds.”

That’s when it hit me. Dentists are performing a very poorly organized and poorly controlled longitudinal experiment on us, without getting our consent, and presenting themselves as having knowledge and authority that they clearly do not yet have. The good dental hygiene of the future could have almost nothing in common with what we have today. We may abandon brushing altogether, in favor of regulation of oral pH and microflora, or who knows what.

To be fair, dentists have an extremely difficult task in this experiment. The number of people who actually follow their recommendations is very small, and even that select group probably fluctuate in their compliance a good deal. And if they told us they were experimenting on us, we’d likely be even less compliant. Plus, they have to put their hands and faces in our stinky mouths all day.

This winter, I worked several weeks with a woman who, during that time, had to get a whole bunch of fillings on the surfaces between her teeth because of flossing. As far as I could tell, this woman (who is an urban legend to you, by definition, but to me is a real person with first and last name, phone number, husband, and child) is one of my high-compliance compatriots. She flossed every day and it wore the enamel off the inner surfaces of her teeth, “because my teeth are close together.” She was pretty upset about it, and I would be too. She was just doing as she was told by the experts. Perhaps she would have been better off in England, where flossing is bad for you.

Still, dentists’ advice is the best we have. Until otherwise notified, I’m sticking with my highly endorsed protocol: brushing as described above twice per day, plus hydrofloss in the morning and dental floss in the evening. I just keep in mind that protocol will inevitably change, and that I may be doing some harm in the meantime.

I’ve just begun reading Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. I bought the book while I was in grad school, knowing it would be years before I could get to it, but so excited by the title! Consciousness and how it relates to the body and emotions is one of my favorite topics of inquiry. Plus, Damasio is a scientist with a (rare) good reputation as a writer.

In the introduction he describes six facts that a good theory of consciousness will have to take into account. Here are my paraphrases:

1) There will be an “anatomy of consciousness”: Elements of consciousness appear to be associated with activity in certain parts of the brain.

This may be scary to those who believe that consciousness is magical, or that its magic would be somehow diminished if it relied on the brain’s circuitry. I too used to be uneasy about that idea. After diving into brain studies a bit, though, I feel both excited and humbled by it. It’s just neat that our brains apparently produce all the subtleties of our experience. Also, it’s a good reminder that our experiences of feeling, thinking, knowing, and of awareness itself is created by our brains, and is not a direct line on reality.

2) Consciousness is more than wakefulness or attentiveness. Humans can be awake and attentive without being conscious.

Damasio describes patients who are clearly awake and attentive, but not conscious, and promises to devote two chapters to the significance of this phenomenon.

3) You cannot have consciousness without emotion.

I am excited about this point because I’ve thought it both crucial and little recognized since reading The Mind’s I many years ago. It had an essay which convinced me that real artificial intelligence would not be possible without emotion. Without emotion all you have is processing power. And in human intelligence at least, emotion brings in the body. Emotions are not just mental phenomenon. I can’t wait to see how Damasio deals with this.

4) There is a distinction between “core consciousness,” producing a sense of moment-to-moment “core self,” and “extended consciousness,” producing a story-making “autobiographical self.”

This distinction could bring clarity to the debates about consciousness in infants and non-human animals. Core consciousness may be the kind that everyone has, and extended consciousness the kind that we develop as our experience becomes more and more intertwined with language and concepts.

Core consciousness sounds to me like the experience that meditators work to remain in. We live most of our lives in the useful but problematic realm of extended consciousness, judging experiences as good or bad, right or wrong, safe or unsafe, and other ways they relate to the story we have of ourselves. Once we are living this way it is difficult to escape. Meditators find that maintaining awareness of core consciousness can be a welcome rest from all that. This practice may help the autobiographical self have an easier time as well.

5) Consciousness cannot be wholly described by other mental activities. Things like language and memory are necessary but not sufficient for full consciousness.

You can’t leave consciousness out of the discussion. It is more than its parts. I like this because I think a lot of scientists are squeamish of even using the word “consciousness.” It makes you sound like a hippy. Prepare to hear a lot of scientists trying to talk about consciousness without sounding like a hippy.

6) Consciousness also cannot be described wholly by describing how the brain creates our experiences out of sensory and mental data.

I read some famous scientist saying that if he were to be at the beginning of his career, he would be looking into creation of qualia, the “particles” of experience, that this was the next holy grail of psychology. That’s a good one, for sure, but I think an explanation of consciousness is a better holy grail than an explanation of qualia.

As a family therapist, when I am presented with a child exhibiting symptoms of ADHD, I am trained to look at the child’s environment and history, especially their family relationships. How is it that these behaviors might be a response to the stresses that the child is experiencing? The point is that I do not just assume that the child has been genetically programmed to disrupt their classroom. I came across this study last year, though, that was a good reminder that “environment and history” are bigger than what happens in-between family members.

It found that children with higher levels of polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs) in their blood were more likely to have been diagnosed with ADHD. PFCs are long-lasting industrial substances that we accidentally eat and breath into our bodies from various coatings, foams, emulsifiers, and cleaning and personal products. Almost all of us have detectable levels of them in our bloodstreams. They are known to be toxic in other animals to the liver, immune and reproductive systems, and fetal development. It is also starting to look like they are neurotoxins as well.

The study was of correlations, so whether the PFCs caused the children to get ADHD diagnoses remains to be seen. ADHD may turn out to be a PFC-toxity-induced syndrome. Or it could be that PFC levels in mothers correlates with that of children, and that it is in-utero PFC levels that are critical. Or perhaps having an ADHD diagnosis causes children to eat and/or breath more coatings, foams, and emulsifiers. Or who knows what else?

Until the scientists know for sure, here are some ways to limit your PFC exposure, from Environmental Working Group:

Forgo the optional stain treatment on new carpets and furniture.
Find products that haven’t been pre-treated, and if the couch you own is treated, get a cover for it.
Choose clothing that doesn’t carry Teflon® or ScotchgardTM tags.
This includes fabric labeled stain- or water-repellent. When possible, opt for untreated cotton and wool.
Avoid non-stick pans and kitchen utensils.
Opt for stainless steel or cast iron instead.
Cut back on greasy packaged and fast foods.
These foods often come in treated wrappers.
Use real plates instead of paper.

Pop popcorn the old-fashioned way on the stovetop.
Microwaveable popcorn bags are often coated with PFCs on the inside.
Choose personal care products without “PTFE” or “perfluoro” in the ingredients.
Use EWG’s Skin Deep at cosmeticsdatabase.com to find safer choices.

Not Back to School Camp comes right before my birthday, so I often use our closing intention circles to make public goals for my personal new year. In 2010, I announced that I would sit and meditate for 30 minutes each day, every day, all year. I chose this goal for two reasons, one completely practical, and one speculative.

The practical reason was diligent self-care during my last year of grad school. I knew I would be working long hours, and wanted to remain as clear-headed and stress-free as possible, so that I could learn, write, and support my clients at the best of my ability. There is a sizable body of evidence that a regular mindfulness meditation practice could help. I also imagined that succeeding at this goal would help make this kind of self-care a permanent part of my lifestyle.

The more speculative reason came from reading meditation advocates like Ken Wilber, who claim that a mindfulness practice can be an engine of personal development. They conceptualize growing up as a process of continually refining one’s sense of self, becoming less egocentric and more compassionate. While practicing a mindfulness meditation you are learning to make objects of observation out of the contents of your consciousness that you normally inhabit with your identity. The sensations, emotions, and thoughts that you are become objects that you notice, distinct from your self. You can move, for example, from being anger about a certain injustice to having and observing that anger. This increase in perspective should be extremely helpful for family therapists like me–we need to be able to see all sides of the story: How does each person’s perspective on this problem make sense?

The only way I can present the results of my year-long experience in a clear-cut fashion is by the numbers, and in that way I failed in my goal. I meditated 30 minutes on 254 out of 365 days in that year. That’s 111 days of not meditating. Most of those days were during the summer that Reanna moved in with me. I found it hard to prioritize alone-time after two years of a long distance relationship.

The other way I failed by the numbers was that I did not sit for 125 of those 254 days. When I said I would sit and meditate every day, I meant it. Pretty soon, though, I had a day when I was so tired that I really, really did not want to sit up. I decided that on the rare days like these, I would lay down and do a relaxation-meditation called yoga nidra that my friend Guyatri Janine had recorded. It turned out that days like that were not rare at all. (When I did sit, by the way,  I sat Vipassana as taught by S. N. Goenka from my birthday in September to the new year (42 days), and then zazen (79 days) as taught by my friend Debra Seido).

The third failure is that I have not continued meditating after my year was over–less than 30 times in the last four months. It’s easy to imagine this says something about the results I experienced from meditating. I apparently did not value what I got from meditating enough to continue prioritizing it when I had my fiance’s attention available, starting last summer, and even less after my official commitment to meditating was up in September.

But what I got from my meditation practice is by far the most difficult thing to be clear about. I can say that without exception I felt better afterwards than I did before I sat down to meditate. Sometimes it also seemed like I was “getting better” at meditating, that I was indeed training my mind at this very difficult task. I can’t say, though, how much it lowered my stress or changed my ego-centrism or compassion levels. I have no control group to compare myself to. I can say that I was fairly stressed out in grad school and that I did a good job with it–the writing, the learning, and serving my clients. I think I can also say that I am more compassionate than I was before that year, but more I’m inclined to credit the connections I made with my clients than my meditation practice.

The problem with evaluating this kind of program is more than just not having a personal control group. It’s also that the program advocated by Wilber and meditation teachers is very long term. “Don’t just sit a year and expect to know what’s going on,” I imagine them saying. “Try 20 years. That’s more like it.”

The skeptic in me replies, “That’s a very convenient way to make testing all this out extremely expensive.” The researcher in me says, “Well, let’s get to it! This could be important. Who’s going to design a huge longitudinal experiment, fund it, and run it? You can still get it done before I die!” The idealist in me says, “20 years, huh? I am strongly considering it.”

How do you make your hamster depressed? Leave the TV on at night.

I didn’t even know that hamsters got depressed, but apparently they do, according to an article by PsychCentral. One of the ways you can tell is that they start drinking less sugar water. “Scientists assume this occurs because they’re not getting as much pleasure from normally enjoyable activities.” If that is true, then the hamsters are experiencing anhedonia, which is one of the diagnostic criteria for depression.

The article was about an experiment in which scientists tested the effects of leaving a light on that was about as bright as a TV (5 lux) at night for some hamsters and turning the lights off for other hamsters. Not only did the TV-hamsters get depressed, but when the scientists cut up their brains, they found they had atrophied.

Does this apply to humans? Let’s check it out with sample size one: I prefer total darkness at night, too. The lights from neighbors’ houses shining into my room irritate me. Unfortunately, irritable mood is not one of the diagnostic criteria for depression unless you are a child or adolescent. Adults have to feel moods like “sad” or “empty” to qualify for a depressed mood in the DSM. Plus, my desire for sugar water increases when I’m depressed.

It looks like we’ll have to wait for some human trials of this experiment. Without the cutting-up-their-brains part.

In some ways it is nice that psychology research is fed to us in the discrete package that is the journal article: Each package can be edited into some version of readability and peer-reviewed for credibility.

That the process stops there, however, is an anachronism. It used to be that publishing the actual data interpreted in the article would have taken up too much space in paper journals, but on the internet it would be easy to do, and far more useful than just the analysis.

Imagine being able to go back in and re-run the statistics for an experiment, or try out other analyses–especially while analyses that throw away information like that old standby, the median-split ANOVA, are still accepted by journals. Imagine how much more powerful meta-analyses could be if it was standard practice to publish the data. Every research project would be a potential collaboration.

In fact, like scanning the Library of Congress, we could retrospectively publish all the data from every published article in the archives! What a resource that would be.

It might not work so well for qualitative research, the data of which are interviews with individuals whose confidentiality has to be protected. For quantitative research, though, it would be easy to protect anonymity. I see no downside except, I suppose, for researchers who are fudging their numbers.

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