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spiders

Little Miss Muffet suffered from arachnophobia.

We all have fears. But if you have a disproportionate fear of something that does not pose a real danger,  that is a phobia. Phobias are an intense, persistent and lasting fear that you associate with a specific thing.

I did some experiments for college psychology classes related to phobias. I was in a group for arachnophobia, the fairly common fear of spiders. We were told that past experiences often have a profound influence on our reactions to things in our environment. I couldn’t recall any traumatic events occurring with spiders, but not all types of phobias necessarily develop due to psychological trauma.

The conditioning our group went through started with looking at photographs of spiders. Some people were freaked out by the photos. We moved to spider videos and then to spiders in tanks. I was fine until we got to putting our arm into a tank and allowing spiders to crawl on me.

 

People suffering from phobias get physiological symptoms including tachycardia (rapid heart rate) dizziness, gastric and urinary disorders, nausea, diarrhea, choking, redness, excessive sweating, trembling and exhaustion.

There are different categories of phobias. Situational phobias are fears caused by a specific situation, such as public transport, tunnels, bridges, elevators, flying, driving, or closed areas (claustrophobia) or  open spaces (agoraphobia).

There are many kinds of animal phobias: fear of birds and even a fear of just pigeons, insects, dogs, cats, mice etc.

Besides my fear of spiders (which isn’t bad enough to really interfere with my life) I also have one of the more common phobias – acrophobia or fear of heights. That fear hits me on a tall ladder, cliff edge and many amusement park rides.

I have read that glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is the most common phobia. The word glossophobia derives from the Greek glōssa, meaning tongue, and phobos, fear or dread. Some people have this specific phobia, while others may also have broader social phobia or social anxiety disorder.

Other common ones are fear of  the dark (scotophobia), phobia of water (hydrophobia), blood phobia (hemophobia), and needle (as in injections) phobia.

There are also some rarer but real phobias.

How about reacting to hearing good news with fear? Those individuals are suffering from euphobia have opposite reactions to good news.

Yellow is a nice color most of associate with warmth, summer, sunlight and positive emotions. But there are people who fear yellow. That is xanthophobia.

Eosophobia can be a disabling phobia because fearing daylight, these people prefer sleeping during the day and become more active throughout the night. Get ready for vampire jokes, but it can seriously affect someone’s work and social life.

Whatever the opposite of turophobia is, I have it. Turophobia is an irrational fear of cheese. Like any true phobia, this can manifest as a fear of seeing, smelling, touching and certainly of eating cheeses.

it is more likely that the thought of cheese causes you nausea. Only the idea of eating cheese will probably make you feel disgusted due to its texture and taste.

Imagine how tough it is to live with ablutophobia which is when the thought of bathing, showering, cleaning or washing can cause shortness of breath or accelerated heartbeat. Many children show this fear at an early age, but become conditioned to these activities. Some never do.

On the other extreme are individuals with mysophobia who have such a fear of getting in contact with contaminated things that have a constant need to clean their environment, such as their working area or any object they touch.

There are conditioning treatments that can be effective for some people with phobias. It is a very gentle exposure to what we fear. You have probably heard about people who have a fear of flying (aviophobia) who watch airplanes, sit in grounded ones and build up to actually going up in the air for a flight.

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We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. For years, you have heard that we all need to multitask and you may have convinced yourself that you can do it it pretty well.

It’s not so bad to listen to music while you work – a distraction, but minimal. But add in checking your email and messages, watching a video on Facebook and all suffer.

The push to multitask is being reversed. We all know now that anything else you do while driving hurts your focus on driving and can be deadly. Listening to the radio, singing along or talking to a passenger may be tolerable distractions, but texting, looking at a screen for your audio settings, looking at the sites as they are passing, reading signs, studying the GPS map, drinking or eating, and fumbling in your pocket or pocketbook for your ringing phone are all very dangerous.

More and more research shows this to be true: We all like to think that we can multi-task and do all the tasks well, but we can’t. And when it comes to paying attention, who is better, men or women? Turns out, neither.

Here is a simple attention test. Watch this short video of two basketball teams, one wearing black and the other in white, passing basketballs between them and count the number of passes made by the white team.

Recent neuroscience research tells us that rather than doing tasks simultaneously well, what we might be good at is just being able to switch tasks quickly. But that stop/start process in the brain wastes time and degrades our focus on both tasks.

When you watched the video, how may passes did you see? Actually, the researchers didn’t care much about that part of this experiment known as the “gorilla test.” Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons created the video to see how many people saw a woman wearing a gorilla suit walk onto the scene, thump her chest several times and then walk off. She is there in the middle of the video for about 9 seconds but only 50% of viewers spot the gorilla.

Why? Because when you are told to concentrate on one thing, your mind tends not to see other things. You were counting passes from one team and paid less attention to other things.

The video is not proof of our inability to multitask, but the psychologists call this effect “inattentional blindness.”

Daniel Simons says:
“Indeed, most of us are unaware of the limits of our attention—and therein lies the real danger. For instance, we may talk on the phone and drive because we are mistakenly convinced that we would notice a sudden event, such as a car stopping short in front of us.
Inattentional blindness does have an upside. Our ability to ignore distractions around us allows us to retain our focus. Just don’t expect your partner to be charitably disposed when your focus on the television renders her or him invisible.”

This shift in our attitudes toward multitasking probably tracks with an increased interest in many forms of mindfulness training, and an increase in the number of people identified as having attention deficit disorders. We know our attention is lousy. We are easily distracted. And most of us want to do something about the problem.

 

I haven’t heard the term  “existential crisis” used lately. I don’t think that is because they don’t occur any more. I suspect they occur more today than they did in earlier times.

An existential crisis is defined as a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life.

Despite having no proof to point to, I believe this questioning is as old as mankind.

Existentialism was a term that come into being in the late 19th- and 20th-century via a group of diverse European philosophers. It may seem odd that this “crisis” is attached to philosophical thinking whose predominant value is commonly acknowledged to be freedom.

Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher, though he did not use the term existentialism. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it “authentically.”

I came to know the term in my teen years through literature. Reading books by Jean-Paul Sartre (such as Nausea) and works by Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Eliot and Herman Hesse, and then reading about them, existentialism kept being referenced.

I started to see it in many things I was reading. That “crazy cliff” that Holden Caulfield wanted to save people from falling off by being a “catcher in the rye” seemed existential to me. I started to see my own life that way. I can’t imagine getting through your teen years without an existential crisis.

Existentialism came into popular use after World War II in philosophy but also in theology, drama, art, literature, and psychology.

I’m sure that when I learned about an existential crisis I thought I was going through one. Mental health hypochondria is pretty common.

An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life. Does life have any meaning, purpose, or value? It is commonly wrapped up in anxiety and depression.

I have a vivid memory of seeing the film The Graduate for the first time and then again in college and when Ben was floating in his parents’ pool and feeling of a lack of purpose in life, I was floating right there with him.

But a true existential crisis is big. Questioning Life means questioning relationships, decisions, and your motivations. It is an illness. A serious one.

Currently I hear the term being used on more temporary states of mind. I did some searching online and found it in an article about spending too much time on social media. It was referenced in an article about suddenly not wanting to spend time with people and wanting to be alone. I found in searching this blog that I have used “existential” in several posts.

If an existential crisis is really a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life, it doesn’t seem like ending a relationship qualifies. Or does it?

An article that I read but won’t link to suggested that some warning signs of the crisis include drinking lots of coffee and using alcohol and cigarettes as a crutch and solution instead of coffee.

Very few of us have not felt a lack of motivation, unable to be productive to the point of depression. Mental fatigue can transform into physical fatigue, which drags you down further.

Is that an existential crisis?

Or is when it when you start to think about death, talk about death and live in the shadow of death?

When I went through a bad depression (which I and my therapist never called an existential crisis) one of the signs was that I began to cry easily for not very “valid” reasons. Movies, abandoned dogs on the drive to work, leaves falling from trees, a sad-looking woman drinking coffee at a nearby table, seeing homeless people or just sitting in the car at a red light would start me off.

Obviously, someone in a real crisis needs professional help and the support of those around them. I found that one treatment known as existential-humanistic focuses on your personalized concerns for your future. It is an approach that asks about the meaning of life.

I have probably written more about solitude than loneliness and I now view solitude – that choice to be alone – as a gift.

We all have our “dark nights of the soul” but when the night carries in the daylight and for more days and nights, I think it is a crisis.

I titled this piece “Just Another Existential Crisis” not because I trivialize the term, but ironically because I think we too often toss off depressions of other people and ourselves too lightly.

When I taught Romeo and Juliet to middle school students I became very sensitive to teen suicide. Of course, I didn’t want the play to be seen as saying that suicide was a solution, but in my research I found that it is very dangerous to not take seriously teen crises. As an adult, it is easy to dismiss the end of a seventh grader’s romantic relationship that lasted only two weeks as not being anything serious. That is a mistake. It is the same mistake that the Capulets and Montagues made. Call it existential or not, a crisis is real.

Holden Caulfield may have remembered the Robert Burns poem incorrectly, but his wish to save others in the midst of his own crisis was correct.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,'” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
– from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye

The massive Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is rapidly retreating. In this photo a developing forest can be seen above the glacier illustrating how the Mendenhall landscape is being dramatically altered by climate change. Photo courtesy of The National Science Foundation. Durelle Scott.

The Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is rapidly retreating and the landscape is being dramatically altered by climate change. Photo: National Science Foundation -Durelle Scott via Flickr

The election is over. Lots of talk about immigration and personal digs about the candidates. Not much talk about climate change other than saying superficially that we need to stop it or that it’s a Chinese hoax.

Part of the problem is that it is at least partially a social science issue. Of course, there is a lot of scientific research, but research on why people believe that research or reject it is a whole other area of research. That is because climate change is not only a scientific issue but one that is political, social and cultural.

Why did “global warming” fall out of favor and get replaced by “climate change” if the main problem is that the Earth’s atmosphere land and water is warming due to manmade changes?  That’s all political, social and cultural.

How many times have you heard someone say (jokingly or seriously) on a very cold or snowy day “So much for global warming!” That is because we are hardwired to focus on the short-term. That is the position of George Marshall, Director of Projects at Climate Outreach and author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.  “We tend to discount […] things happening in the future the further away they are,” says Marshall.

George Marshall founded the Climate Outreach and Information Network and has worked for twenty-five years in the environmental movement. I heard him on an episode of NPR’s podcast Hidden BrainOn that episode, “Losing Alaska”, they visited the shrinking Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska to consider why it is so hard for people to come to terms with explore why it’s so difficult for us to wrap our heads around climate change.

I agree with Marshall’s take on why some people ignore our changing environment and the explanation for it. It’s not the science. It’s more about confirmation bias, present-time focus, social conformity, group think, procrastination and valuing the messenger over the message. It’s rational versus emotional brains.

 

car

Would you bully this nice little driverless car?

The news has been filled with bullying and cyberbullying stories for several decades. This election season has certainly brought up many examples too. But would anyone bully a car?

We have all heard of –  and probably experienced – “road rage.” That rage is directed at other drivers. What is the other car is driverless? No road rage, right?

Every car company is testing self-driving cars. They are working to make those driverless vehicles obey the rules of the road and avoid accidents. Sounds good.

But Swedish automaker Volvo has expressed concern that human drivers will try to bully driverless cars on the road. Your rage is with the car’s “brain” (AI) that actually goes 25 mph in a 25 mph zone. They are programmed to err on the side of caution. They follow rules. They don’t give or get road rage.

Volvo plans to use unmarked cars in upcoming London tests so that they don’t stand out from the crowd. Their concern is that more aggressive human drivers might find it tempting to bully driverless cars that behave mildly.

There has already been surveys to see how human drivers might behave toward self-driving cars in a survey of 12,000 respondents in 11 European countries. Knowing that an autonomous vehicle is going to stop if you cut it off may lead to aggressive drivers taking advantage and deliberately doing it.

Something lost in a driverless car (although it probably will still have a human passenger) is that wordless communication between drivers and pedestrians – that hand wave to go ahead and cross the street or pull out before me. Semcon, a technology company, came up with the idea of  giving self-driving cars a front-end display that allows them to “smile” at pedestrians as a way of saying “Go ahead. I’ll wait.”

Trusting that driverless cars will do the right thing is key to their acceptance, but it could also lead to problems on a hybrid roadway of driverless and human-driven vehicles.

I’ll trust the driverless car when all the other cars are also driverless. Let the robots take over the roads.

“A safe traffic environment is dependent on interactions between people. Today, eight out of ten people seek eye contact with the driver before they cross a busy road (Semcon/Inizio). But what happens when there is no longer a driver behind the wheel? We decided to find out how people react to self-driving cars.”
Sisyphus - Maybe too much grit?

Sisyphus – Maybe too much grit?

There have been several recent books about, and an increase in the use of the word “grit.” The biggest of those books is probably Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, a bestseller by psychologist Angela Duckworth. She doesn’t see the secret to achievement as talent, but as a blend of passion and persistence towards long-term goals that she calls “grit.”

Grit is a term in psychology that describes a positive, but non-cognitive trait. It is an individual’s passion for a goal and the motivation that allows you to achieve the objective.

Perseverance in overcoming of obstacles and challenges is certainly a good thing when one is faced with a gritty path ahead.

Let’s look at the grit thesaurus entry: perseverance, hardiness, resilience, ambition and conscientiousness.

Some searching turned up that the usage may be on the upswing lately, but the idea of  some individual differences rather than God-given ability goes back to 1907 and William James. (Although I also found that virtues were admired by Aristotle.)

Duckworth looks at leaders in history, researchers and scientists who also propose the idea of grit leading towards high achievement.

I guess what is new is the idea of  passion or zeal and that persistence.

I often hear educators bemoan the lack of what I suppose is “grit” among students. Those with grit don’t require immediate positive feedback. Today’s students are often described as demanding immediate feedback.

Delayed gratification, or deferred gratification, is that ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward and wait for a later reward. Of course, that means resisting a smaller but more immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later.

People with true grit keep going despite failure and adversity and maintain their passion and commitment. Very admirable, this “staying the course.”

I’m sorry that another association that immediately comes to mind when I hear “grit” is gritting or clenching teeth. That action is something I think of happening when faced with an unpleasant or painful duty.

I found Duckworth’s book a tough read. I admit to skimming, but her four key psychological assets of grit are interest, practice, purpose, and hope.

I sought out the book after hearing an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain. That reminded me of that idea about the “10,000 hour rule.” That’s supposedly the average number of hours it takes an expert to become an expert. Research by K. Anders Ericsson found that experts do an intensive kind of practice called “deliberate practice.”

I’m glad that gritty people also have hope. Besides that passion and perseverance, they are optimistic. They believe in their ability to improve and affect change.

I am glad that Duckworth and others believe that intelligence isn’t fixed but can change over time. There’s hope for those not-gritty students.

It sounds great. But all is not perfect in the land of grit. Grit can also cause someone to stick to goals, ideas, or relationships that should be abandoned. People also need to know when to quit.

I can identify with Angela Duckworth who might be a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania now, but was a middle school math teacher. As a former middle school English teacher who also went “up” to higher education, I also was surprised in those first years that my “smartest” students didn’t always get the “A” while others that clearly were struggling did get A’s.

“The thing that was revelatory to me was not that effort matters—everybody knows that effort matters,” Angela told the show host, “What was revelatory to me was how much it matters.”

In a piece by Jeff Selingo in the Washington Post, he asked “Is ‘grit’ overrated in explaining student success?” It talks about a project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to figure out what individual attributes lead to success. rather than just grit, they are finding that pathways to success are much more individualized.

How can we teach kids grit? Can we teach it? Paul Tough’s book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why is an example of trying to apply the theories. (Read an excerpt)

Maybe Tough is right that rather than trying to teach skills like grit, we should focus on creating the kinds of environments, both at home and at school, in which those qualities are most likely to flourish.

 

 

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Every end is also a beginning. First snow of the season.  Not enough to start the snowblower, but enough to start a fire. If you have to make shavings to start the fire, you may as well whittle something useful, then have a sip and do some #readingbravely in the snow. I’m the first human here.  Today. Sunset before a snowstorm.

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