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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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Our Genes May Know More Than Our Minds

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 29, 2015

Human happiness influences human gene expression, researchers have found, and different kinds of happiness have surprisingly different effects on our physical health.

Researchers at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the University of North Carolina note that philosophers since antiquity have distinguished between hedonic wellbeing-the kind of happiness that comes from satisfaction from pleasurable experiences-and eudaimonic wellbeing-the kind that comes from striving toward meaning and noble purpose beyond self gratification. It turns out the molecular mechanics of good health tend to favor people who find happiness striving for higher goals.

Steven Cole, PhD, a professor of medicine, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UCLA and a member of the Cousins Center, and colleagues including Barbara Frederickson, director of the Positive Emotions and Psychology Lab at the University of North Carolina, have spent a decade studying how stress, fear, loneliness and other miseries impact the human genome. In his paper "Social Regulation of Human Gene Expression: Mechanisms and Implications for Public Health," Cole reported that people who experienced long term loneliness had a gene expression profile showing high inflammation and lower immune function. Inflammation related illnesses include heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases and some types of cancer.

The stress-related gene expression profile characterized by high inflammation and low immunity is known as CTRA, for "conserved transcriptional response to adversity." Cole and colleagues wanted to find whether happiness is just the opposite of misery, or whether it would activate a different kind of gene expression. They took blood samples from 80 healthy adults assessed as having either hedonic or eudaimonic happiness, and used the CTRA gene expression profile to examine potential biological differences. Both groups had high levels of positive emotion. Those in the eudaimonic wellbeing group had favorable gene expression profiles, with low inflammation and functioning immunity, while those in the hedonic wellbeing group showed the opposite gene expression profiles. The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"What this study shows is that doing good and feeling good have very different effects on the human genome, even though they generate similar levels of positive emotion," Cole, the lead author, said in a UCLA release. "Apparently the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are our conscious minds." The UCLA release says this research, showing specific signals and pathways associated with a positive state of mind and gene expression, is the first of its kind.

In his paper on social regulation of genes, Cole wrote that the human genome is influenced by social environment, and that the "regulatory architecture" of the genome lies outside the cell "in the constraints and affordances present in the social ecology."

Increasing knowledge and technological advances that allow researchers to examine the way genes and environment interact on a molecular level can have profound impact in public health, he suggests. "Social regulation of gene expression implies many aspects of individual health actually constitute a form of public health in the sense that they emerge as properties of an interconnected system of human beings," the paper says.

In an interview, Frederickson suggested our bodies may respond better to happiness related to human connectedness and purpose than to hedonic wellbeing, which she called the emotional equivalent of empty calories.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  health  research 

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Risk, Randomness and Cancer

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 8, 2015

The risk of developing many kinds of cancer may rely on random luck.

Cristian Tomasetti, PhD, and Bert Vogelstein, MD, cancer scientists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, report in a Science magazine article that many cancers are caused by random mutations that happen when healthy stem cells divide. Cancers are known to result from life styles, inherited proclivities, and environmental exposures, as well as causes that can't be identified. A New York Times story by Denise Grady reports that the authors found chance was a bigger factor than they'd expected. "It was about double what I would have thought," Dr. Tomasetti, a biostatistician and professor told the Times. Basically, the risk of cancer is highly correlated with the number of stem cell divisions over time.

A Johns Hopkins press release explains that Tomasetti and Vogelstein charted the number of stem cell divisions likely to occur in 31 tissue types during an average life span, and compared these rates with the lifetime risk of cancer in the same tissues among adult Americans. Adult stem cells are a specialized population of cells in each organ or tissue that divide or self-renew indefinitely to generate replacement parts as other cells wear out.

The researchers report, for example, that the large intestines have more stem cells than small intestines, and those cells divide 73 times a year, compared with cells in the small intestines that divide 24 times a year. The lifetime risk of cancer in the large intestine is 4.8 percent, which is 24 times higher than the risk of a small intestine cancer. Their calculations show that about two thirds of the variation in cancer risk was explained by the number of stem cell divisions, and about one third is explained by heredity and environment.

They compare cancer with a car accident. The longer the trip, the higher the risk of accident. They say the mechanical condition of the car is a metaphor for inherited genetic factors and road conditions are like environmental factors. We may not know which of these three conditions contributed most to a particular wreck, but well maintained roads and vehicles can reduce overall risks. Knowledge that some factors are beyond our control may reduce stigma and comfort some cancer patients who blame themselves for their illness. Findings also suggest more cancers will appear simply because aging increases the number of stem cell divisions, the authors say in the release, so research on early detection, treatment and the biology of the disease is more important than ever.

Breast and prostate cancers were not included in the study because researchers lacked data on breast and prostate stem cell division rates. Lung cancer cases were divided between smokers and non-smokers, leading some readers to note that smoking also contributes to many other cancers. The American Lung Association reports that smoking causes nearly 90 percent of all lung cancer cases.

In a lengthy blog post on the article, oncologist David Gorski, MD, cites research suggesting one third to one half of all cancers are "potentially preventable," meaning they come from environmental factors that could be altered, such as smoking, alcohol use and weight control. He has some quibbles with the article, and wishes the discussion of it had been more nuanced. Bob O'Hara and GirrlScientist writing in The Guardian complain that too many news stories about the research confuse the variation in cancer risk with absolute risk of cancer, thereby blurring what constitutes bad luck.

Sometimes luck is randomly good. In the press release, Dr. Vogelstein observes cancer free longevity in people exposed to tobacco smoke and other carcinogens, often attributed to good genes, is likely to be good luck.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  disease  health  luck  research 

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The Long Journey of a Noble Bird

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 25, 2014
Updated: Monday, January 5, 2015
Myth and legend surround the history of the turkey and extraordinary international travels precede its prominent place in American supermarkets. Benjamin Franklin called it a "bird of courage," more suitable than the bald eagle to be the emblem of America. And today a roasted turkey is a popular holiday treat.

Charles Dickens may have provided the first literary celebration of the Christmas turkey dinner. In A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, a transformed Ebenezer Scrooge presents his underpaid, overworked employee Bob Cratchit with a fat prize turkey to replace a less expensive thin goose that would have barely nourished the seven members of the impoverished Cratchit family. In England, turkey was already recognized as tasty fare. In America, many still viewed Christmas festivities as unseemly and holiday feasts were frowned upon. While celebration was becoming more common in the middle of the nineteenth century, Christmas wasn't declared a U.S. federal holiday until 1885.

The turkey familiar to us today is extinct in the wild. Its ancestry has been traced to Mexico, where the Aztecs domesticated a wild game bird they called the huexoloti. They regarded the bird as a god, and held festivals in its honor. North American natives also considered the turkey a powerful spiritual symbol, and prized its feathers for warmth and guidance into the next life. "The Flight of the Turkey," a story in the Economist, and a "Short History of the Turkey" by Andrew G. Gardner say that when Hernando Cortes, the Spanish conquistador, came to Mexico in 1519 he found the court of Moctezuma had a ravenous appetite for huexoloti's feathers and meat. Moctezuma gave Cortes about 1,500 turkeys, and gold, right before Cortes's armies razed his capital. Historians think Columbus took turkeys back to Spain after his fourth transatlantic visit in 1502, because in 1511 Spain's King Ferdinand demanded that all Spanish ships returning from the New World must bring back turkeys to be bred. Afterwards, turkeys spread rapidly to France, Italy, England and Scandinavia, and back to America.

The Economist traces the circuitous linguistic path of the creature's name. Initially, the Spanish thought the birds from Mexico were peacocks. Spanish ships were often manned by Arabs from the Ottoman Empire, and Europeans thought of their fowl as Turkey birds even though many were a different bird that came from Africa. The Economist says even Shakespeare was mixed up about turkeys. The bard describes a "swelling turkey cock" in mocking reference a character in Henry V. Historically, The Economist says, the available bird would have been an African guinea hen. In Turkey, turkeys from Spain were called hindi, on supposition they came from India. The French named turkey the dinde for the same reason. The Economist notes Linnaeus was also confused when he classified the bird in 1759: he called it Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo, which translates from Latin as guinea-foul-chicken peacock chicken-peacock-all wrong.

In centuries past, the elite prized exotic creatures and novel foods. Today, elites prize the authentic and home grown. Because commercial domestic turkeys have been bred for large white meat breasts, they can't mate and their eggs have to be artificially inseminated. Heritage turkeys, that can cost more than $200, are an effort to restore earlier bird variants. Linguistically, too, the turkey has evolved. In 1970s slang, a theatrical bomb or an inept individual was called a turkey, presumably because poultry farmers have reported that turkeys do dumb things. Earlier, "talking turkey" meant straight talk, no gobbledy-gook. And the tough talk idea is a likely root of "cold turkey," the phrase often used to describe immediate unassisted cessation of drug use. The turkey has also contributed to a popular American icon: Big Bird's feathers are white turkey feathers painted yellow. So enjoy this noble creature if it graces your table!

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture 

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Wisdom: An Emergent Property Rooted in Biology

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 27, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Economists and psychologists studying human contentment have found a recurrent pattern in countries across the world. People report that life satisfaction declines in the first couple of decades of adulthood, hits bottom around age 50, then rises with age, often above the levels people felt in their 20s. The pattern, which emerges with regularity in large data sets, is called the U-curve of happiness.

Jonathan Rauch, in a provocative article in The Atlantic, describes recent research, interviews the social scientists who conducted it, and presents an intriguing possibility: there may be some underlying pattern of life satisfaction that is independent of economic status, work and career achievement and personal relationships. He says David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick found the U-curve in 55 of 80 countries where people were asked about their general life satisfaction. The nadir was, on average, age 46. Other researchers who conducted surveys in 80 countries found a similar curve and the average age of rock bottom dissatisfaction was 50. Examining statistics from 27 European countries, Blanchflower and Oswald found that antidepressant use peaks in the late 40s, and that being middle aged nearly doubles the likelihood that a person will take antidepressants.

Oswald and four other scientists, including two primatologists, even found a U-curve over time in the state of mind of chimpanzees and orangutans. Zoo keepers, animal researchers and caretakers were surveyed about the well-being of more than 500 captive primates in five countries and reported that well-being was at its lowest in ages that would be comparable to ages 45 to 50 in people. So biology may play some part in middle age doldrums.

The good news is the upswing on the U-curve when studies show people tend to become more optimistic as they age. Rauch points to research by Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and others who say "the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade." Carstensen told Rauch that as people age, their time horizons get shorter, they focus more on the present, and their goals tend to be more concerned with meaning and savoring the moment. They pay less attention to regrets and unmet desires.

Rauch also interviewed Dilip V. Jeste, a psychiatrist with multiple titles at University of California at San Diego, who has studied the aging brain to find clues for how people age successfully even with the onset of chronic health conditions that might be expected to make them depressed. Jeste explains that as a native of India he grew up in a culture steeped in respect for wisdom, and concepts about wisdom, he says, are remarkably constant across time and geography. The traits of the wise, Rauch summarizes, include empathy, compassion, good social reasoning, tolerance of diverse views, and comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. Jeste sees wisdom as an emergent property of many other functions, with its roots in biology and evolution. Wisdom gives societal function to people who are no longer fertile. He's also looking for clues in neuroscience. While the science of wisdom is in its infancy, Jeste suspects age may change the human brain in ways that make wisdom easier.

So if you're experiencing mid-life distress, take heart in the likelihood that the future will get better.

As Andrew Oswald observes in a New York Times story, "It's a very encouraging fact that we can expect to be happier in our early 80s than we were in our 20s. And it's not being driven predominantly by things that happen in life. It's something very deep and quite human that seems to be driving this." Read Rauch's piece here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  neuroscience 

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Environments and Mindsets for Complex Change

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 30, 2014

Balinese farmers have grown rice in paddies irrigated through an intricate network of canals and aqueducts built around hundreds of tiered water temples for more than a thousand years. Priests in the temples and hundreds of grower collectives known as subaks evolved a well orchestrated collaboration to control pests and make sure water was fairly distributed.

In the 1980s, international development organizations introduced chemical fertilizers and re-engineered growing and harvest patterns with the goal of growing more rice. The water temples and subaks were disregarded. Several years into the program, rice yield had plunged and rats and other pests were proliferating. In his extraordinary book Aid on the Edge of Chaos, Ben Ramalingam tells the story of the subaks in Bali and the dynamic self-organization that had allowed growers to cooperate in management of complex issues related to soil quality, pest control, crop yields, and rainfall and to make continual adjustments as local conditions required. The subaks also performed social, legal and spiritual functions.


Researchers from the Santa Fe Institute found that the farmers cooperated on the basis of their own dominant needs. Those upstream were most worried about pests, and those down stream worried about water shortages. Ramalingam explains the researchers used ecological simulation models to show how humans were reshaping the ecosystem, and how cooperative behavior emerged over time. With the water temples as the nodes, he writes, the subak networks were "a particular form of social organization shaped by a process of cooperative agents co-evolving in a changing environment." By 2012, he says, the government of Bali had arranged that the subaks would be preserved in perpetuity as a vital part of the country's unique cultural, social and economic farming system.

Ramalingam believes an understanding of complexity science and complex adaptive systems can help cultivate new mindsets that will enable policy makers and program designers to increase effectiveness as they try to improve health and economic conditions, reverse adverse impacts of climate change, and build peace in war ravaged areas. He provides lucid examples and commentary on the work of many complexity scholars, including John Holland, Stuart Kauffman, Jane Jacobs, Herbert Simon, Joshua Epstein, a scholar of agent based modeling, and Warren Weaver, a mathematician who wrote an influential paper on "Science and Complexity" in 1948. He quotes Friedrich Hayek's 1974 Nobel acceptance speech in which the economist said we can't acquire enough knowledge to master complex events, so we need to use the knowledge we can get to "cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment" for growth the way a gardener does for plants.

Ramalingam cites several innovative development and humanitarian efforts that draw upon the concepts of complexity: they include dealing with epidemic outbreaks in Asia, water sharing in Bhutan, subsistence farming and urban change in East Africa, disaster responses in Southern Africa, and industrial production globally. This informative book is filled with memorable stories, well-turned phrases, extensive research, and a wide-ranging exploration of the insights of complexity science. While the focus is aid, the usefulness extends to just about any field.

In a section on positive deviance, Ramalingam describes the work of Monique Sternin and the late Jerry Sternin in reducing childhood malnutrition in Vietnam. The Sternins pioneered the use of positive deviance (PD) in social and behavioral change. They helped parents living in impoverished villages discover that some of their neighbors had healthier kids despite having no additional resources. The parents of the healthier children were gathering shrimps, crabs and greens that were free but generally considered unsuitable for children, and they had different mealtime practices. Ramalingam also notes the successful use of PD in reducing MRSA rates and in improving business operations. Plexus Institute led an initiative in which several hospitals using PD processes dramatically reduced the incidence of healthcare associated infections. In an interview with Ramalingam, Monique Sternin noted Plexus Institute's role in developing the science and theory behind PD and scaling up the work.

image from wikipedia

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  ecology  environment  organizations 

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From the Front Lines: Kissing the Banana Trunk

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 16, 2014
In parts of Sierra Leone and much of West Africa, people have traditionally kept the bodies of loved ones in their homes for several days after death as mourners wash, caress, dress them and pray over them. Because the corpses of Ebola victims are highly contagious, the tradition has been a key vector in spread of the disease. Burial teams from the Red Cross and other organizations have been attacked trying to interfere with care of the dead. Some families have even hidden corpses to make sure proper rituals can be performed.

In a Psychology Today post, Steven Hayes, PhD, Foundation Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Nevada, writes that behavioral science is as important as medical science in discovering alternative rituals that honor both culture and safety.

Four years ago Beate Ebert, a German psychologist and others formed Commit and Act, a nonprofit in Sierra Leone devoted to bringing psychotherapy to people traumatized by a decade of civil war and violence. Hannah Bockarie, a social worker fluent in Krio, the local language, led workshops, evaluated through a partnering agreement with the University of Glasgow, to train indigenous counselors and health care workers. When Ebola hit, the organization was in a unique position to help. Hayes explains that Commit and Act, already known in the community, was able to educate people about Ebola and the practices needed to halt its spread. Bockarie also led local groups through therapeutic sessions that helped them come up with alternative burial customs that honored their values while allowing health care workers to safely dispose of bodies.

"A beautiful example one group came up with was substituting the corpse with a banana trunk," Hayes writes. "The body of the infected and now diseased person is burned. Relatives keep a banana trunk at home, and perform all the customary rituals on it, including kissing the banana trunk before burial. In the end the banana trunk is buried."

Hayes says he is awed and inspired by "a pathway forward" that could not have come from the outside, and that could not have been produced by military intervention nor dictated by foreign aid workers.

He explains that the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson's Evolution Institute combined with Commit and Act to use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) along with principles from the late economist Elinor Olstrom, who won a Nobel Prize in 2009 for works showing the skill of indigenous people in protecting common resources.

People who face a problem are the best poised to find ways to solve it. That's a key insight of Adaptive Positive Deviance. After the disclosure of the Ebola infection of a second nurse who worked at the Dallas hospital where a man died of the disease, health officials have aimed to promote caution without feeding panic. The second nurse flew on a commercial airline before she had symptoms and the CDC has asked all 132 passengers on her flight to self-monitor and call a CDC hotline. Some politicians propose a ban on travel to the U.S. from Western African countries. In Texas, a community college announced it was rejecting students from any country with confirmed cases of Ebola.

Officials don't know exactly how the two Texas nurses were infected, though multiple news reports have suggested infection control protocols in place at the hospital were insufficient for Ebola. National Nurses United, a nurses' union, said nurses at the hospital complained of confusion, frequently changing policies and protocols, inadequate protection from contamination and spotty training. Indeed the CDC has now recommended extra levels of protection for healthcare workers caring for Ebola patients, as well as detailed guidelines for the potentially hazardous process of removing contaminated protective gear. CDC Director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden has said the most important protection is for a site manager to oversee workers as they put on each piece of personal protective gear, and as they remove and properly dispose of each one. One hopes front line workers will be engaged in finding the best ways to adhere to new protocols.

When Plexus Institute led a multi-year initiative to stop MRSA infections, the protocols in use at the time differed from what is being recommended now for Ebola. But MRSA infection rates dropped dramatically when front line healthcare workers collaborated to developed methods that would achieve the most consistent adherence to the known protocols. The late Jasper Palmer, a patient transport worker at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, devised a way to remove protective gear safely while also reducing the volume of contaminated trash. It became known as The Palmer Method. Watch here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  healthcare  MRSA 

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Hundred Dollar Bills: A Boon to Bad Behavior?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 4, 2014

Richard Stratton, executive, author and former drug smuggler, enjoyed counting piles of hundred dollar bills. He says it was a "pleasant, relaxing experience." Harvard Economist Kenneth Rogoff thinks hundred dollar bills are nothing but trouble.


Both expressed their individual expertise in an NPR interview with Melissa Block and Chris Arnold. Stratton, a novelist, friend of the writer Normal Mailer, and later TV executive and magazine editor, once served eight years in prison for drug smuggling. He told NPR the drug business involved generating and smuggling huge sums of money as well as narcotics. Rogoff thinks $100 bills are all too often used to finance illegal activities, and that's a good reason to get rid of them. Rogoff notes these big bills allow a person to carry $1 million in a briefcase. And why would anyone not engaged in nefarious enterprises want to do that?

Rogoff goes even further. Writing in the Financial Times, he proposes getting rid of paper money entirely and replacing it with electronic money. Among other things, he argues, as electronic payments, even for small amounts, become increasingly prevalent, the need for paper currency declines. There would be complications, of course, and international cooperation among governments would be needed. But Rogoff suggests getting rid of large denomination bills would be a good start.

Rogoff and others have said 75 percent to 80 percent of all U.S. currency world-wide is in $100 bills. And many experts think easy flow of huge amounts of anonymous cash facilitates tax evasion as well as illegal trafficking in drugs, weapons and human beings.

The Financial Times notes that when someone with Rogoff's heavyweight credentials questions the future of physical money in a conservative, influential publication like the Financial Times, "The world should sit up and listen."

The change from physical to virtual money would be momentous. Would underground and unofficial currencies flourish? Would crooks find ways to exploit the transition? Stratton, who no longer holds $100 bills, told NPR he thinks criminals would adapt.

Ruth Judson, an economist at the Fed, told NPR she's not convinced there's a need to get rid of the Benjamin Franklin bill because there's really no way to know how much cash in circulation is being used for good or evil. Some historically huge $100 bill transactions have been conducted by government. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. government sent $12 billion in shrink wrapped hundred dollar bills to Iraq to pay Iraqi ministries and U.S. contractors. Planes delivered literally tons of cash from New York to Bagdad for disbursement by the U.S. led Coalition Provisional Authority. Congressional investigators later found control of the cash was lacking, and accounts vary on how much remains unaccounted for.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture 

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Surprising Return on Enrichment for Babies

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 21, 2014

Policy makers concerned with income inequality need to focus more attention on improving the early environment of disadvantaged babies and toddlers, recent economic analysis suggests. Being born into poverty doesn't have to mean a lifetime of deprivation, researchers say, and the earlier the helpful intervention, the higher society's return on the investment.

High quality early childhood programs have been shown in numerous studies to have substantial benefits in reducing crime, raising earnings, and improving educational outcomes, Frances Campbell, Gabriella Conti, James Heckman and colleagues wrote recently in Science magazine, and now research shows that life's earliest experiences strongly effect adult health.

Heckman and Conti are among the top economists who have done extensive studies on human development. They have found that wealthy children and those from deprived environments have disparities in cognitive performance even before they start kindergarten, and the gap doesn't close with time. Research by Heckman and Flavio Cunha at the University of Pennsylvania shows that the divergence between rich and poor kids in math ability is about the same at age 12 as it was at age six.

Eduardo Porter writes in The New York Times that the achievement gap between rich and poor American students is one of the widest among the 65 countries that take part in the Program for International Student Assessment run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Porter suggests the acrimonious debate over how to improve American education misses the most important time-the years from infancy though pre-school. Heckman, Conti and others report that interventions from infancy through age five pay extremely high returns. Good early programs improve cognitive skills and foster softer skills such as sociability, motivation, perseverance and self-regulation. Heckman and colleagues say those are the traits that enable kids to use their cognitive skills for future learning and adult success.

Two well documented programs are illustrative. The Perry Preschool Project offered intensive social and cognitive skills building for disadvantaged three and four year olds from 1962 to 1967 in Ypslanti, Michigan. A study found Perry graduates at age 40 were more likely than those in a control group to have finished high school, to hold jobs, and have higher earnings.

The Abecedarian Project in North Carolina started in 1972 with 111 infants who were followed from birth through their mid 30s. The children were randomly assigned with half in an intervention group and half in a control group. Children in the treatment group received regular pediatric care, good nutrition, and stimulation in language, cognition, and emotional self-regulation from infancy through age five. Parents also were trained. In the second phase, through age eight, the focus was on math and reading. The group that received the special early care did better educationally, and by age 30, members of this group were four times more likely than those in the control group to have graduated from college, be employed and have health insurance.

The health findings were a surprise. Men in the treatment group had less hypertension and none had metabolic syndrome, the cluster of conditions that raise the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. One in four of the control group had metabolic syndrome. Women in the treatment group were less likely to be obese, less likely to drink before age 17, and they had healthier habits.

What about the small size of these samples? Heckman says the dramatic disparities between these treatment and control groups actually strengthen results because such differences are unusual in small sample experiments.

In a New York Times article, Heckman wrote that "the economic rate of return from Perry is in the range of 6 percent to 10 percent per year per dollar invested, based on greater productivity, and savings in expenditures on remediation, criminal justice and social dependency. This compares favorably to the estimated 6.9 percent annual rate of return of the U.S. stock market from the end of World War II to the 2008 meltdown." The Abecedarian Project lasted five years and cost $67,000 in 2002 dollars, he said, and produced substantial adult health benefits and cost savings. In Heckman's view: "Early childhood interventions are an unexplored and promising new avenue of health policy."

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  health 

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For Children Born Poor, Poverty’s Shadow Lingers

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 7, 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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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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