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The Complexity Matters blog features the Thursday Complexity Post as well as other complexity inspired news items.

 

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For Children Born Poor, Poverty’s Shadow Lingers

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 07, 2014

After following nearly 800 Baltimore school children for almost three decades, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found most of the children grew up to have about the same socio-economic status as their parents. Those born poor stayed poor. Those born to more economically successful families fared better.

Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander PhD, and fellow researchers, the late Doris Entwisle, PhD, and Linda Olson MA, tracked 790 Baltimore children from the time they entered first grade through their late 20s. They repeatedly interviewed the students, their parents and their teachers through their school careers, and continued conversations with the maturing students as they entered the work force and started families. Their research is presented in their book, The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and Transition to Adulthood.

The findings are described on the Johns Hopkins website. Only 33 children born to impoverished families earned high incomes as young adults, whereas 70 would have been expected to have high incomes if the family of origin did not impact the children's prospect for upward mobility, the researchers reported. Only 19 of those born to well off families dropped into the low income bracket as adults.

Only four percent of those from low income backgrounds had a college degree by age 28, a figure Alexander found shocking. By contrast, 45 percent of children born to higher income families had college degrees. And race played a significant role in adult outcomes. While 45 percent of white men from low income families had landed one of the shrinking number of industrial jobs in the area, only 15 percent of black man from low income families had such jobs. White men self-reported having the highest rates of drinking, smoking and drug use, though black men had slightly higher arrest rates and white men were more likely to be employed despite their records and substance use. Alexander said white men were more likely to have social networks that helped them find jobs.

In an interview with NPR, Alexander said we expect that if we "Play by the rules, work hard, apply yourself and do well in school ...that will open doors for you." But the Baltimore study suggests that what makes the difference between success and failure is money and family. Still, a few defy the odds against them. NPR interviewed one young woman in the study whose harrowing childhood included drug addicted parents and neighborhood chaos. "I remember being so immune to death, so immune to shootings and killings. I just remember wanting them to rush, like get the body out of the way so we can get back to playing hopscotch or dodgeball," she said. But she managed to get a well-paying job and give her two children more stability and motherly support. She says she has a strong relationship and plans to be married.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  education  research 

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The Smell of Fear and Inherited Trauma

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 31, 2014
Updated: Friday, August 01, 2014

Babies can learn very early in life to fear something that frightened their mothers even before they were born. Scientists have known for some time that trauma can ripple through generations. New research on fear transmission may help explain how that happens.

A team of researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School taught a group of female rats to fear the smell of peppermint by repeatedly accompanying the smell with mild but unpleasant electric shocks. That was before they were pregnant. After the rats became pregnant and gave birth, the team exposed them to the peppermint smell again, without the shocks, to induce the fear response again.

A story on the university website by Kara Gavin explains that the babies of fearful mother rats, and a comparable group of rat pups whose mothers had no fear of peppermint, were exposed to the smell under many conditions with and without their mothers. When babies were separated from their mothers and exposed to the minty smell along with air piped to them from a nearby container occupied by their frightened mothers, they quickly learned to fear the smell. The trigger for learning apparently was the scent the mothers give off when they are fearful.

"Our research demonstrates that infants can learn from maternal expression of fear very early in life," said Jacek Debiec, MD, PhD, the psychiatrist and neuroscientist who led the research. "Before they can even make their own experiences, they basically acquire their mothers' experiences. Most important, these maternally transmitted memories are long-lived, where other types of infant learning, if not repeated, rapidly perish."

In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Debiec and colleague Regina Marie Sullivan PhD, describe how brain imaging, studies of the genetic activity of individual brain cells, and monitoring blood levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, were used to examine the working of fear in the brain. They found a brain structure called the lateral amygdale was the key location for learning fears, and when they gave baby rats something that blocked activity in that region, they did not learn their mothers' fear. That could help explain why some offspring of traumatized mothers don't inherit fears. The authors hope the work will aid understanding of post-traumatic stress and other mental ills in humans.

Debiec, recalls working with adult children of Holocaust survivors who had nightmares and flashbacks related to experiences they had not endured themselves. Rachel Yehuda, a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, has studied descendants of Holocaust survivors and the children of women who were pregnant and in or near the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001. She found evidence of intergenerational trauma transmission that could not have occurred through storytelling. She was not involved in Debiec's work, but she told Arielle Duhaime-Ross of Verge magazine that the study is valuable because it provides molecular analysis that would not be possible in living human brains. She said understanding the brain changes that occur with intergenerational transmission could help people understand the long-term impact of parental experiences. "Your fears are not only a response to your personal experiences," Yehuda told Verge, "but those that your parents had as well."

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  research  resilience 

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Surprising Links between Friendships and Genes

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 24, 2014

We tend to choose friends who share our interests and outlooks, but our selections may have less conscious and more ancient roots. Recent research suggests friends share genetic similarities and that resulting social networks play an important role in human evolution.

In their paper "Friendship and Natural Selection," published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Nicholas Christakis, a physician and social scientist at Yale, and James Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at the University of California at San Diego, write that the number of genetic markers shared by two friends is about what they would have if they were fourth cousins.

That amounts to about one percent of a human's genetic markers. That doesn't sound like much, but Fowler explains in a Washington Post story that has huge implications for human evolution. Researchers found the genes that friends have in common seem to be evolving faster than other genes, so our social environments and social networks could be a key evolutionary force.

There's no gene for friendship, and no way to predict friendship among people because of a particular genetic trait. But the genetic data of two people provides clues to whether they will become friends. The researchers developed a genetic "friendship score" that suggests the likelihood of friendship. Individuals don't consciously recognize these similarities, but they are statistically measurable in huge data sets.

Friends are likely to share genes associated with the sense of smell. Being drawn to the same scent could attract us to certain environments, the authors suggest: people who like the smell of coffee might be drawn to coffee shops where they meet others who like the smell. The authors think our sense of smell may be one of the mechanisms humans use to identify genetically similar friends, though they emphasize more research is needed to discover how that happens.

Christakis and Fowler examined genetic information and details of social relationships documented among nearly 2,000 people who participated in the Framingham Heart Study that began in 1948. They and colleagues analyzed nearly 1.5 million markers of gene variations, and compared the data for pairs of unrelated friends and pairs of unrelated strangers. Because nearly all the people in the study had similar European origins, the findings weren't explainable by the tendency to gravitate to others of similar background.

Interestingly, friends are less likely to share genes associated with immunity to specific diseases, the authors note, and that that could be an evolutionary advantage. We're somewhat less susceptible to the things that sicken our friends.

In their book Connected, Christakis and Fowler write that social networks are in our genes. After studying friendship networks among 1,110 twins drawn from national health data of 90,115 adolescents, they discovered that social network structure was influenced by genes: kids located at the center of their networks had a different genetic makeup than those located at the periphery, and those whose friends were closely connected had different genetic make than those with friends in divergent groups.

In the new paper they discuss the role of genes in a broader social environment where we interact and collaborate with friends and strangers. "Our results support the idea that humans might be seen as metagenomic not just with respect to the microbes within them, but with respect to the humans around them. It may be useful to view a person's genetic landscape as a summation of the genes within the individual and within the people surrounding the individual, just as in certain other organisms."

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  relationships  research 

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Do Mobile Devices Derail Human Empathy?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 17, 2014

Networked technologies allow us to be "in a persistent state of absent presence" that can erode empathy and connection, according to Virginia Tech researchers.

In fact, researchers found just having a mobile device within easy reach-even if you're not holding it or using it-can lessen the quality of a face to face conversation, reduce empathy among friends, and deflect our attention from what is happening right before our eyes.

"Mobile phones hold symbolic meaning in advanced technological societies," a research team led by Shalini Misra of Virginia Tech wrote in an article in the journal Environment and Behavior. "In their presence people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication and direct their thoughts to other people and words."

In the study, 200 participants were divided into pairs and asked to chat for 10 minutes on either a meaningful topic or a trivial one. Nearby researchers recorded their nonverbal behavior and the presence or use of any mobile device at any time during the conversation. Afterwards, participants were asked about their feelings of personal connectedness and empathy with their conversational partners. When a mobile device was visible, participants rated the encounter less fulfilling and less empathetic. That finding held for trivial and substantial topics, and the negative relationship between the presence of devices and empathy was even more pronounced when the conversation was between people who knew each other. Apparently the mere presence of a mobile device can derail the natural empathy between friends.

Earlier research by Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of the University in Essex in the UK produced similar findings. Pairs of strangers conversed while seated facing each other. A nearby table, out of their direct line of vision, held a book and one other item. When the other item was a cell phone, participants reported lower connectedness and a lower quality encounter than when the other item was a notebook.

Research by Sara Konrath and colleagues, reported in Scientific American and at the University of Michigan website, indicates college students of today are less empathetic than they were 30 years, ago, and that empathy has declined the most in the last decade. Konrath conducted meta-analysis combining the results of 72 different studies of American college students between 1979 and 2009. While reasons are uncertain, researchers note the trend has accompanied the rise of social media and mobile communications.

But scientists say those results aren't necessarily discouraging. They show our brains are plastic and subject to experiential influence. And as Konrath writes in a Psychology Today blog, mobile communications can make people feel closer to distant loved ones, and that they have tremendous still fully untapped potential to help people manage physical and mental illnesses. She notes that paradoxically the same technology associated with our being stressed and distracted can be used for people to provide electronic encouragement, kindness and support to each other.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  connection  culture  engagement  relationships 

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Our Hands May Say More Than We Know

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 10, 2014

Forget Descartes' mind-body duality. A more recent perspective known as embodied cognition is based on growing recognition that thinking isn't confined to our brain cells. Our understanding of the world is profoundly influenced by our bodies and our experiences in physical reality. Research shows even the way we use our hands offers clues to how we think, what we know, and when we're ready to learn.

Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, studied hand gestures used by adults and children and discovered that when gestures accompany language, they can provide visual and intuitive evidence of important meanings not explicitly put into words. She reports an experiment in which young children were asked whether two identical rows of checkers had the same number of pieces. The experimenter then spread out the second row and asked again whether the number was the same. One child said the number was different because the checkers were moved, and made a spreading gesture with her hands. The answer is wrong but the gesture matched the speech. Another child gave the same answer, but pointed at the first checker in each row, and continued moving his finger between the rows. In that case, the child's gesture conveyed different information from what he said, so speech and gesture were mismatched.

Interestingly, kids who mismatched benefited more from instruction, and learned faster than kids who matched. Further, when experimenters taught a strategy for solving a math problem correctly, with matching and mismatching gestures, kids taught with the mismatching gestures were more successful. Why? Goldin-Meadow wrote in Current Directions in Psychological Science that a conversation in gesture seemed to be taking place along side a conversation in speech, perhaps adding information, perhaps lightening the cognitive load, and perhaps aiding memory. Gestures let speakers convey thoughts they may not have words for, and mismatches may signal readiness to change a thought or learn new information.

Researchers from Michigan State showed 184 elementary school children a video about mathematical equivalence (an equation: 7+2+9=7+__________.) Half of the kids saw the teacher sweep her left hand beneath the left side of the equation as she spoke about that side, and her right hand under the right side when she spoke of the "other" side. The rest of the kids just heard her talk. When the children were given a different problem based on the same principle, those who saw the hand gestures were more successful.

Annie Murphy Paul, in the Business Insider Brilliant Blog, notes that the act of gesturing "seems to accelerate learning, bring nascent knowledge into consciousness" and aid understanding of new concepts. She cites Goldin-Meadow's work and a 2007 study by Susan Wagner Cook of the University of Iowa, in which third graders who gestured as they learned algebra were three times more likely to remember what they learned than classmates who did not gesture. In another study, Cook found that college students who gestured as they retold short stories remembered the story details better.

Embodied cognition is a relatively young concept. A Scientific American story by Samuel McNemey explains its roots in early twentieth century philosophy and its later development by George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  education  research 

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It’s Not Unusual

Posted By Jeff Cohn, Wednesday, July 09, 2014
Updated: Friday, September 19, 2014

Jasper Palmer died last week. He was a patient transporter at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia for more than 20 years. Jasper and I became connected closely in 2005 when Einstein became a participant in the Positive Deviance/MRSA project, facilitated by Plexus Institute. The role of the patient transporter is to do just that: transport patients throughout the medical complex to wherever they need to go. When that patient is identified as harboring the "superbug" MRSA, preventing the bacteria from spreading during that transport is quite a challenge, one that even experts from the CDC hadn’t figured out. We recognized that working with the transporters and asking them how to transport MRSA-positive patients could uncover solutions and barriers of which we weren’t aware.

Jasper emerged as a leader when he pointed out a significant barrier to safe contact with these patients. MRSA-positive patients are placed in "contact isolation,” meaning that staff entering their rooms are required to put on gowns and gloves prior to entry. Jasper noted that trash cans were often overflowing with gowns that had been worn and disposed. This left the next person entering with a dilemma - does one do the right thing by wearing a gown, only to have no reasonable place to dispose it? Or does one avoid the disposal problem, take a risk, and perform the patient task without a gown? Not only did Jasper identify the challenge, he developed a solution that worked for him that could work for others. See him demonstrate his simple solution in the video.


Given a forum to share his concerns and solution, Jasper took it upon himself to help others learn this approach. He would stop physicians facing the disposal dilemma and tell them, "I think I have a method that could help.” He worked with his transport colleagues to develop safer methods of transporting patients, even those connected to ventilators and monitors. Not everyone adopted the Palmer Method. However, it garnered attention to the challenge and ultimately investments were made in different disposal apparatus that could accommodate the large volume of gowns being disposed much more effectively than the small, rigid trash cans in place before.

We wound up referring to Jasper as an "unusual suspect.” By this we meant he wasn't a typical infection prevention expert (i.e., physician, nurse, pharmacist). We learned that we needed to look beyond the usual suspect to those unusual ones, from which diverse perspectives and new innovations would emerge. Instead of asking, "whom do we need to involve?” we asked, "who doesn’t need to be involved?” and then tried to engage everyone else.

Upon learning of Jasper's death, I began to think about the concept of unusual suspects. On reflection, it strikes me as, while well intentioned, a bit demeaning and indicative of our fixation with hierarchy and position. Jasper had served his country in the military, was a family man, had worked at Einstein for many years, had lots of friends, and cared about patients. Why wouldn’t we think someone like him could be beneficial to our improvement efforts? Using this lens, who would qualify as someone unlikely to be a source of new behaviors and ideas, an unusual suspect? Someone wedded to the status quo? No, there are likely many benefits of the current state that deserve preservation. A skeptic? No, their contrary position can help expose blind spots. Maybe a good example is a content expert who is unwilling/unable to see any other perspectives. In the case of our MRSA work, those would typically be clinicians and the same people we initially thought would be our key contacts.

Jasper, I think you've taught us all a critical lesson. Anyone- no, everyone who cares about a challenge, who wants to be involved in any way, and who is willing to share collaboratively can be a useful contributor. In fact, we depend on the diverse perspectives of many to discover and create the solutions for our big challenges. Thank you, Jasper, for helping us to appreciate the wisdom that lies within our networks. Your legacy will live on through the work we and others you've touched carry forward.

Tags:  catching butterflies  cohn  healthcare  positive deviance  relationships 

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Disruptive Innovation Debate

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 03, 2014
Updated: Friday, July 04, 2014
Clayton Christensen, the business scholar who developed the concept of disruptive innovation, and historian Jill Lepore are Harvard faculty colleagues. The two professors don't agree on much, and Lepore's sharply written assault on Christensen's theory has ignited an uproar in academic and business circles.

In his 1997 book the Innovator's Dilemma, Christensen lays out his theory of disruptive innovation, which holds that products or services that begin simply and inexpensively at the bottom of market, often using new technology, can eventually displace those of established companies that seem to be doing all the right things to maintain their success.

The Thinkers50, a biennial ranking of the world's most influential management theorists, last year for the second time named Christensen the top "thought leader" in the world, and disruptive innovation has been one of the most widely celebrated ideas in modern business.

According to Lepore, the theory's celebration is one of its problems: she thinks it has escaped critical examination and been carelessly applied to explain too much. In her New Yorker article "The Disruption Machine," Lepore analyzes how we understand innovation and disruption. Every age has its theory of history, she writes. The eighteenth century had the idea of progress, the nineteenth had evolution, and the twentieth had growth and innovation. "Our era has disruption," she writes, "which despite its futurism is atavistic. It's a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation and shaky evidence." 

Innovation used to have negative connotations, she says, but the idea was redeemed by its use to describe bringing new products to market. Still, she writes, "The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspiration of enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the 20th century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt and you will be saved."

In his book, Christensen supports his theory with industrial case histories. Mainframe computer manufacturers were disrupted when they missed the market for personal computers. Mini steel mills disrupted the operations of big steel companies, and a healthy department store industry—the number of stores in U.S. plunged from 316 to fewer than 10—was disrupted by growth of discount stores. Lepore asserts that Christensen handpicked his examples, and she introduces evidence to challenge or complicate his much of his analysis. She notes, for instance, that companies and divisions that dominated the disc drive industry in the 1980s dominate today, despite facing disruption Christensen describes from makers of smaller hard drives .She also points out a high failure rate among would-be disruptive start ups.

In an interview with Drake Bennett at Bloomberg Business Week, Christensen agrees with Lepore that the word disruption has become a cliché. But agreement ends there. He calls her story "a criminal act of dishonesty." Slate's technology writer Will Oremus says that’s overstating his case, which is what he accuses Lepore of doing. Oremus concludes that Lepore's cherry picked examples don't overthrow Christensen's theory any more than Christensen's cherry-picked examples definitely prove it. In a piece in Forbes, Clark Gilbert, chief executive of the Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media, vigorously defends Christensen’s theory and the scholarship behind it, as does business consultant John Hegel in his blog.

Salon's Andrew Leonard, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, and New York Magazine's Kevin Roose, sympathize with Lepore's views with some caveats. Richard Feloni at Business Insider reviewed reactions, including tweets from Steven Sinofsky, the former president of Microsoft's Windows division, who suggests that both professors are right. He says disruptive innovation has plenty of exceptions but it's still a useful theory.

What do disruptive innovation theory and its critique look like through a complexity lens? If you have thoughts on that, we’d love to hear from you.

 

Thank you Peter Jones, David Hurst and John Kenagy for your thoughts on disruption and innovation!

Peter Jones, PhD, of OCAD University in Toronto, addresses the issues raised by Jill Lepore and Clayton Christensen in his blog post Reproduction of Disruption, How Innovation Regimes Reproduce Culture.

Reproduction of Disruption  

Business consultant and author David K. Hurst, BA, MBA  has written two parts of a three part post interpreting disruption from an ecological perspective. He comments, "With the continual emergence of antibiotic-resistant bugs threatening to disrupt healthcare, it seems to me that the ecological/complex systems view is essential."

Disrupting Disruption Theory [Part I]: Storm in a Modernist Teacup

Disrupting Disruption Theory [Part II]: Ecological Transformation


See commentary of John Kenagy, MD, MBA, ScD, FACS  "Fireworks: The Disruption of Disruptive Innovation" at his m2s2 e club site.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  disruptive  innovation  news 

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Family Photos Hold Clues to Medical Diagnoses

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 26, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Family pictures may record more than milestone events and the little incidents we love to remember. New technology may help doctors identify rare genetic conditions by analyzing ordinary digital photos of faces. Facial recognition software may even be useful in identifying presently unknown rare disorders with symptoms that baffle families and doctors.

A New Scientist story by Andy Coghlan explains that while genetic tests exist for common conditions, such as Down's syndrome, genetic tests for many more unusual conditions aren't available because the gene variants that cause them haven't been discovered. A story in The Independent by Charlie Cooper explains that 30 to 40 percent of genetic disorders involve some kind of change to the face or skull. Software developed at Oxford University by medical researchers collaborating with the university's Department of Engineering Science was initially "trained" by analyzing thousands of photos of people diagnosed with eight genetic disorders. Coughlin's story explains that the computer "learned" to identify each condition from a pattern of 36 features in each face.

Christoffer Nellaker, who designed the software with Oxford colleague Andrew Zisserman, believes it can help family doctors and general pediatricians make preliminary diagnoses of health conditions that may have puzzled them. In the future, Nellaker told The Independent, a doctor anywhere in the world should be able to take an ordinary smartphone picture of a patient, run a computer analysis, and find out which genetic disorder a patient is likely to have. The technology isn't meant to replace traditional diagnoses, but to aid it by giving doctors information not otherwise available to them.

Alastair Kent, director of the Genetic Alliance UK, a charitable organization dedicated to helping people with genetic disorders, told New Scientist that because few physicians are skilled in the diagnostic use of facial analysis, families often wait years to learn the cause of their children's problems. Many of the combinations of facial characteristics that have diagnostic significance would be undetectable to a layman.

The Oxford database now has nearly 3,000 photos, and the software can recognize 90 disorders. As the database grows, the software will enable researchers to study groups of patients with undiagnosed problems who share similar facial features and skull structures. That could allow researchers to identify presently unknown disorders and the explore the gene variants that cause them, which could potentially improvement treatment.

Some visual characteristics associated with genetic disorders are well documented. Scientists studying Abraham Lincoln's height, long arms, and big hands and feet believe he had Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that also impacts the connective tissue and heart. NBA prospect Isaiah Austin's dreams of a basketball career were dashed by a diagnosis of Marfan syndrome. Williams syndrome and DiGeorge syndrome, both genetic disorders that impact learning and behavior, have been associated with certain combinations of facial characteristics.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  health  research 

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"It's Got a Backbeat You Can't Lose It!"

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 19, 2014

Some music carries you melodically into dreams and reveries, and some conveys sadness, joy or a sense of peace. Then there's music that bounces along with skips and hops and you just have to dance, snap your fingers or tap your feet. Certain kinds of rhythm induce an almost irresistible urge to move.

 

 

A few years ago, Maria Witek, a neuroscientist at Aarhus University in Denmark, who studies emotion and loves music, created an online survey to try and figure out what music impels people to start swaying and dancing. She pursued the subject and described her findings to Michaeleen Doucleff in an NPR interview.

 

Album cover Pharrell Williams' song "Happy," which was just chosen as the new advertising theme song for the New Jersey Lottery, and The Meters "Hand Clapping Song" are examples of what her research shows. So is Chuck Berry's"Rock and Roll Music," especially the version he performs with Tina Turner. Try and sit still when you hear these!

 

Witek says when the rhythmic structure has gaps, or spaces in the underlying beat of the music, we are provided with "an opportunity to physically inhabit those gaps and fill those gaps with our own bodies." In a recent paper, she suggests that has to do with the way we hear music and the way the brain processes it by anticipating its structural patterns. In her survey, Witek asked respondents to listen to drumming pieces that ranged from simple rhythms with regular beats to very complex patterns with many gaps where beats might have been expected. She found people all over the world agreed on which patterns made them want to dance. They were the ones in between the very simple and the highly complex. People wanted to physically engage with the rhythm when there was enough regularity to perceive the beat and enough complexity to make it interesting without being totally unpredictable. They danced to the music that was layered with predictable beats and syncopated ones, she said. The layering can be provided by numerous musical combinations of claps, drums, other instruments, voice, and lyrics.

 

In a New York Times essay on rhythm, Nicholas Wade says Darwin thought that before our human ancestors developed speech, they discovered that musical notes and rhythm could charm potential mates. He says Darwin thought that music's origins in courtship explain why it can arouse strong passions. Wade notes that in his 1997 book How the Mind Works, Harvard scholar Steven Pinker called music "auditory cheesecake"-a happy accident we enjoy though it has no survival value. But Darwin theorized, according to Wade, that anything that enhanced courtship promoted survival by helping to perpetuate parental genes in a new generation. Read Wade's essay here. Thanks to Bruce Waltuck for the NPR story.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  music 

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Giving Kids Faith in a Future

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 12, 2014

Teenagers who think they will die young are more likely to do dangerous things such as using drugs, fighting, and having unsafe sex and self-destructive things such as dropping out of school.

Teachers, counselors and other youth workers have often heard teens-especially boys from impoverished neighborhoods-say they don't expect to live beyond 25 or 30, but the impact of that perception has only recently been studied. And the research is cause for both alarm, because the feeling is so prevalent, and hope, because envisioning a future life can inspire more beneficial choices.

University of Minnesota researcher Iris Borowsky, MD, PhD, and colleagues found that one in seven adolescents interviewed believed they would die before age 35, and that this belief strongly predicted future risky behavior. Kids who envisioned a long life were more likely to graduate from high school and stay out of trouble. Boroswky and colleagues analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a sample of more than 20,000 kids in grades seven through 12. A fatalistic belief in early death was most common among minority kids from poor families: 29 percent of adolescent American Indians, 26 percent of teen African Americans, and 21 percent of teen Hispanics reported they expected to die young, compared with 10 percent of their Caucasian peers.

Alex R. Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, studied 1,354 youth offenders charged with serious crimes from Maricopa County, Arizona, and Philadelphia over a seven year period. In the beginning, Piquero asked all the subjects how many years they thought they would live. His team found those who expected to die young were more likely to commit more crimes, and more serious crimes, and go to prison. Those who anticipated long lives were less likely to re-offend. Piquero's study "Take my License and All that Jive, I can't see ...35" appeared in the journal Justice Quarterly. The Minnesota study of general population youngsters found no relationship between actual early death and expectation of dying young. But by the end of Piquero's study, 45 youngsters had died of non-natural causes-violence, suicide or other tragedies.

Eduardo Porter, writing in the New York Times, describes a school program designed to give kids a vision of living many future years. Tim Jackson works at Harper High School, in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago's South Side. As a counselor for the Becoming a Man program, he tries to train boys to have a "visionary goal" worth saving themselves for. It's a daunting task, given the neighborhood's gangs, joblessness and violence. In 2013 alone 29 current and recent students were shot. In one recent weekend in Chicago three young men were fatally shot, and at least 25 people-many of them teens-suffered gunshot wounds.

But danger is just one reason youth are fatalistic. Porter writes that today's rich-poor income gap is bigger than it was at its peak in the Roaring Twenties, raising suspicion that economic opportunity is available only to the lucky or unusually talented. A National Bureau of Economic Research paper shows young men of low socioeconomic status are most likely to drop out of school when the incomes of families at the bottom tenth of the income distribution are furthest from the incomes of families in the middle. Studies have also shown that teenaged girls are most likely to become pregnant when the gap between the bottom and the middle is biggest. Porter says that creates a condition researchers call economic despair, which means opportunity isn't just out of reach, it's unimaginable. Porter tells how Jackson opened a recent a session with his students with a story. He was stopped at a traffic light when a car occupied by three angry drunk men rear ended his car. Should he confront them? He didn't. He walked across the street and called police. His students figured out how he made that decision: he thought about his stake in the future.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  education  resilience 

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