Author Krista Tibbs

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Book Videos: Uncertainty Principles and The Neurology of Angels

In Being Human, Original Fiction, Politics & Government, Science, Spirit on November 21, 2014 at 11:28 pm

Crazy cat ladies and mad cows

In Commentary, Light Menu, Science on September 17, 2012 at 1:51 pm
Over the summer, I celebrated my birthday with a single cupcake and a can of tuna for my two cats. Shortly thereafter I read an article about how crazy cat ladies have a higher risk of suicide. After wondering if my tax dollars paid for that study, I became slightly alarmed. Does a person know when she is on her way to being crazy cat lady? Or is it one of those things that only your friends can see and you wouldn’t believe them if they told you? I spent several panicked minutes gauging every interaction with Spunk and Teddy against the crazy-o-meter, but then I came to my senses.

I have cats because they are amusing and furry. This doesn’t make me insane; in fact it could be the most normal thing about me.

The suicide article about cat owners was not an issue of mental and emotional health; it was about a particular parasite, T. gondii, that somehow changes a person’s brain and drives her to strange behavior. I find that creepy and gross, for sure, the same as I did when I read Deadly Feasts, a book about prions that lie dormant in your brain for decades until they turn your gray matter to mush and spring you with full on mad cow disease. The truth is, there may be any number of no-see-ums inside you that have been there since the turn of the century, eating away at your brain without your knowledge (no pun intended). There’s not much that can be done about it. Mad cows, crazy cats — when it’s your time to lose your mind, I guess it’s your time.

But when it comes to common health issues that we can control, like moderate depression and immune dysfunction, pets beat pills in every head-on study I’ve read (there aren’t many). In fact, if you own a cat, you may be 30% less likely to have a heart attack than petless people. Seems like a decent trade-off to me.

So, does anyone need a starter kit?

Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes, Statistics, and Stereotypes

In Commentary, Integrity & Freedom, Science on March 17, 2012 at 11:51 pm
I ran across this video today about a teacher in the 1960s who separated her third grade class into blue-eyed students and brown-eyed students and told them that one group was better than the other just because of these characteristics. It was uncomfortable to see how the kids treated each other differently and how it measurably affected their academic performance — in just one day. Equally disturbing was the reaction of adults who underwent the same exercise twenty years later. Although the impetus for the blue-eyed/brown-eyed experiment was the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it has relevance today for many issues from physical discrimination and achievement gaps to religious affiliations and political parties.

When academic programs are targeted to students with a certain color of skin or when the First Lady puts the spotlight on childhood obesity and uses it as a warning against eating fast food, it says to other kids that it’s okay to separate people and make judgments about their behavior and capabilities based on what they look like. In other words, it’s okay to assume all black kids need remedial preschool and it’s okay to call out the fat kids when it’s for their own good. These two things have bothered me for a long time, but I had never put them together this way before.

Maybe right now you’re defending the obesity crusade because of its intention or thinking that statistics show obesity is on the rise among children and that it’s a health problem. Okay, but statistics also show a rise in asthma and allergies among children, yet few people would suggest shaming asthmatics into breathing fresher air. I think solving a problem requires being honest about what is driving the selection of the problem to solve. Part of the overwhelming campaign against childhood obesity is driven by the pure discomfort at seeing fat kids. You want them to be healthy, but you also want to look away. If it were only a health issue, then a more comprehensive view of the data would show that kids are less healthy than they used to be in many ways, so the solution is for all kids to learn about living a healthy life, not just so they won’t get too fat or too thin or always have a snotty nose, but so they’ll feel good inside even if they don’t look like anything is “wrong” with them at all. Overall health and internal well-being aren’t measured by body fat calipers and a weight scale.

Statistics also show significant academic achievement gaps between racial groups and socioeconomic groups, which highlights an important problem that wasn’t acknowledged before it was measured. However, there is a high risk of exacerbating the problem if you treat individuals like the groups into which they fall. I believe this is one of several reasons why academic achievement gaps are widening. For example, Asian American kids typically do better on academic achievement tests than other racial or ethnic subgroups. A lot of people react to that with a nod, thinking yes, that makes sense. Ask yourself why. Then consider that for the same reasons, teachers might expect more, consciously or subconsciously, from the Asian kids in their class. If people assume you’re smart and competent, don’t you tend to want to prove them right, and mightn’t you learn faster as a result?

If that makes sense, then mightn’t it work the opposite way for Latino or African American students, who for years have been shown to perform lower on achievement tests than Asian students, on average? This is the danger of statistics; correlation does not mean causation. Just because a child has the same skin color as a lot of kids who are struggling academically, it doesn’t mean she will have trouble, too. But the reality is that she might be still be treated from the beginning as though she needs a boost just in case, so she might get simpler questions in class or more partial credit or more praise for easier tasks compared to her peers, not only depriving her of the challenges that will actually help her learn, but also creating in her an identity of someone who is not supposed to be good at school or meet high standards or solve hard problems. This is the soft bigotry of low expectations.

The video shows in gut-wrenching clarity how being the object of negative or positive discrimination can change even adults’ behavior and perceptions. To me, the frustration that was produced in just this short experiment goes beyond physical stereotyping to group stereotyping, especially religious or political. Organized religions and political parties are designed to provide a platform with which people can affiliate themselves, but just like statistics, what is true on average in a group is not necessarily true for an individual. So when you are viewed through the lens of your affiliation, and people treat you like the worst qualities of your group, and you can’t even explain your differing views because everything you say is interpreted against you, that’s a recipe for anger.

The video also highlights how easily people in authority can influence kids and adults to accept distinctions that originally seemed unfair. So I think it is particularly heinous when people in a position of influence use division by broad characterization (or mischaracterization) to further their own ends — even when, or maybe especially when, those ends are seemingly altruistic.

It’s a long video, but I hope you’ll watch it. (Thanks to Kelly Bliss for bringing this up.)

In Support of Rare Disease Day

In Announcements, Commentary, Science on February 28, 2012 at 12:23 pm
February 29th is the fifth annual Rare Disease Day around the world. So today I’m passing along answers to frequently asked questions and other things you might not know.

Why is Rare Disease Day So Important?

Why Does Research Take So Long?

What Might Surprise You?
The Effect of the Process
The Power of Patients
Pictures and Stories of Hope and Inspiration

If you’d like to help, just watch something, like something, click a button — just be a voice.


Sad Things I Wish I Never Knew

In Commentary, Health Care, Science on February 18, 2012 at 4:48 pm

I encountered a concept today that I can’t get out of my mind — children’s hospice. I know that hospice exists; I’ve seen someone go. I know that children get sick; I wrote a book about it. Yet, in my mind, those two saddest thoughts never met until today, when I ran across a website for Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice.

I stared at the name for well over a minute, thinking about a place filled with no hope and the heaviest sorrow a human can know. But then I read some of the stories of people who had gone there. Yes, there was terrible sadness, but there was also a lot of love, and even laughter.

Still, my heart was lighter before I knew.

I know that everyone will die someday; I’ve been to a dozen funerals. But it’s always a shock to learn about yet another disease that has no cure, an illness that healthy living can’t fix, something born in the genes. But I watch the videos to respect the people living through Stargardt disease, Alternating Hemiplegia of Childhood, or one of the thousands of other rare diseases affecting millions of people. And when I watch, I learn something about resiliency and hope.

Still, my heart was lighter before I knew.

Sometimes it is overwhelming to think that every moment of every day, families are struggling, loved ones are dying — it’s just too much to feel. But I’m glad I still can feel. I can’t imagine growing up with the Internet, where every day children stumble upon concepts they can never unthink. In one day, a teenager could encounter children’s hospice, the heaviness in this blog post, and a video about Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy that weakens a person’s muscles relentlessly until they die. I’ve encountered such things gradually and so have been able to feel, adapt, and move forward. But how does the mind protect itself from an onslaught without experience to process it? Desensitization, I think. Either you become immune or succumb to a depression too big to see beyond.

I know that as overwhelmed as I feel today, next week will bring perspective. I’ve learned this over time. I’ve also learned that even though part of me wishes I never knew about the sad things in the world, knowing is a part of living. At first you cry, which is okay because you care, but then you get to know the people behind the sadness, and you often learn something amazing — like Duchenne’s doesn’t affect the muscles in a smile.

The Beauty of Bridges

In Commentary, Science, Spirit on January 5, 2012 at 3:50 am

I don’t love heights, but I love bridges. To me, the middle of a bridge is the most beautiful spot in the world, literally and figuratively. Because bridges aren’t just for getting from one place to the next; they provide a vantage point to see both where you were and where you are going — if you take the time to pause during the transition.

A lot of the most interesting things in physics and in life happen in transitions. The Great Smoky Mountains are named so due to the ever-present mist, which is water suspended in the transition between a liquid and a gas. Who says physics isn’t beautiful? Anyone who’s felt the moment when a friendship turns into More also knows the beauty of a transition.

There is danger in getting stuck on a bridge, especially when on one side there is relief from what you left behind and on the other side is the hopeful vision of what lies ahead. That point in the middle is pure freedom. Moving forward can be hard, because it means crossing over into reality, which rarely lives up to its possibilities.

Of course, not all transitions are great or interesting or even wanted. But that’s when a bridge is also a friend. It’s going to take you from what you lost to whatever comes next, but it will also provide a safe place to rest in between.

Click below to see pictures of breathtaking bridges across the world:
http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2010/03/the-worlds-most-beautiful-bridges/

Update 28 Jan 2012:
Call me oblivious, but it didn’t occur to me while I was writing this post that the banner on my blog contains a bridge, as does the cover of my book. I am also partial to the semi-colon and have been since high school, much to one teacher’s chagrin. I bring it up, because today I heard a semi-colon described as a bridge between two thoughts. So I guess it’s true; I really do love bridges!
 

Cyber Disinhibition

In Commentary, Integrity & Freedom, Science on January 9, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Today is the last day of my first year of blogging! Of course, when I included kittens in the title of the first post, I didn’t foresee that by the end of the year the kittens would actually be writing the posts.

The reason Spunk and Teddy have taken over recently is that months ago, a stranger left a drive-by comment that was judgmental and personal, and it has bothered me ever since. As my mother so wisely, if not sympathetically, said: If you’re going to put your thoughts out to the world, you have to be prepared for any response. So I guess all this time I have been trying to figure out if I am – or even want to be – sufficiently insensitive.

It wasn’t until someone else left a hateful post yesterday under Spunk’s Christmas pictures that I realized it may not be my problem. Call me judgmental, too, but surely there is something wrong with people who feel the need to treat the world like their own personal litterbox and leave droppings of meanness wherever they go.  I mean, what’s to hate about a kitten at Christmas?

Imagine my excitement when I found out it is a neuroscience issue! The technical term is cyber disinhibition, which is basically when people say things online that they would never say in person. The neuropsychological explanation is summarized in this great post by Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence.

The impact of cyber disinhibition is illustrated in a poem written by James W.  Foley, something I copied into my journal 20 years ago, before I ever heard of the Internet. Below is an excerpt; the full poem can be found at http://www.ripplemaker.com/pebbles.htm

Drop a pebble in the water:
just a splash, and it is gone;
But there’s half-a-hundred ripples
Circling on and on and on,

Drop an unkind word, or careless:
in a minute it is gone; 
But there’s half-a-hundred ripples   
circling on and on and on.     
They keep spreading, spreading, spreading       
from the center as they go,         
And there is no way to stop them,            
once you’ve started them to flow.              

Drop an unkind word, or careless:
in a minute you forget;
But there’s little waves a-flowing,
and there’s ripples circling yet,
And perhaps in some sad heart
a mighty wave of tears you’ve stirred,
And disturbed a life twas happy
ere you dropped that unkind word.

 

So, I’ve decided that from this point forward, disagreement and a good debate are welcome as always, but I will delete nasty pointless commentary, because it’s a waste of emotion and there is no need for that kind of thing to be out in the world.  And I will also try to remember:

  Drop a word of cheer and kindness:
just a flash and it is gone;
But there’s half-a-hundred ripples
circling on and on and on…

Olfactory Hallucinations

In Commentary, Science on October 10, 2009 at 3:18 am

I have been smelling a litterbox in my apartment all week — but I don’t have a cat. According to a brief search of the Internet, the word for what I’m experiencing is phantosmia, which is exactly what it sounds like – phantom smells, also known as olfactory hallucination. This can be a real chronic disorder where people have full-blown olfactory delusions, and there are a variety of related disorders, including parosmia, anosmia and hyposmiadysgeusia, and  cacosmia .

I would think having such a disorder would be disruptive to the extent that it could change the way you perceive life, because smell is that underrated but everpresent sense that can enhance or ruin any experience. Just imagine a romantic date at an outdoor restaurant: a lovely June breeze is making the candle on the table flicker while you gaze into each other’s eyes, and wafting on the air encircling the two of you are the summer fragrances from the lilacs to the rose bushes to the steaming garbage bin overflowing with half-eaten and rapidly decomposing shrimp, boiled broccoli, and curdling cream sauce.

Smell what I mean?

I have often thought that the next great invention will be a camera for smells, with a cartridge you can bring home and plug into a USB port to run along with the pictures. A way to truly relive the experience. But then I think, selective memory can be a wonderful thing. I wouldn’t bring home a jar of blackflies to go with a slide show of summer in Maine, so why retain a souvenir of that carcass odor in Grand Central Station? It was a lot funnier once we got away.

I ran across an article that suggested a smell disorder can cause depression and obesity, because it messes with your brain signals. It makes sense, because olfactory symptoms can also be important indications of a brain tumor, epilepsy, diabetes, or Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

My issues this week are nothing as serious as all that, thankfully. I’m quite sure they are due to the power of suggestion; my niece helped me set up my apartment for a couple of kittens we picked out last weekend. Even though another family adopted those particular kittens before I got back to the shelter to fill out the paperwork, the clean boxes and new bag of litter (or “glitter” as my niece would say) have been sitting in the hallway. It hasn’t deterred me from adopting, though; if I’m going to smell it anyway, I might as well have the furry little guys curled up on my bed to make it worthwhile.

Personalized Health vs. Mandatory Preventive Insurance

In Commentary, Integrity & Freedom, Science on October 8, 2009 at 2:26 am

Every day, science is moving us closer to personalized health based on our own genetic makeup. The government is actually part of this progress – http://www.hhs.gov/myhealthcare/ – which is why I’m a little stymied by the concept in the health care bill of having a Health Choices Commissioner in Washington, DC deciding on a one-size-fits-all insurance coverage for preventive medicine. I’m not talking about catastrophic coverage; I’m talking about the preventive components defined as essential basic insurance, which currently includes at minimum the items in the Task Force for Clinical Preventive Services grade A/B  – e.g., HIV screening, tobacco prevention counseling, and aspirin – as well as vaccines, maternity care, well baby and child care, oral health, vision, and hearing services.

Every law-abiding U.S. citizen will be required to purchase this level of insurance, which necessarily takes away choice in a very simple way. Consider the two scenarios below:

Scenario 1

 Lila works at the computer 8 hours every day at her primary job and another 3-4 hours every night for her second job. So her risk for repetitive strain or related injury is nearly 100%. She had numbness in her hands and a physical therapist recommended her to get regular massages to reduce the strain in her neck and back, on top of the stretches and exercises for her arms and wrists.

She suffers from anxiety and depression, or what she views as just plain stress, which contributes to her weight and her blood pressure, which are of course contributing factors to other potential health issues. Exercise and meditation keep the symptoms at bay enough so she can avoid prescription medications and their known and unknown side effects. But it’s a vicious circle that makes it difficult to keep up a regimen without an external commitment.    

Finally, based on information that she has read in reputable medical journals, she believes that pesticides and preservatives may increase her risk for health issues suffered by others in her family. So when she has extra money, she chooses to shop organic.  

Lila is otherwise healthy. Due to a bad experience in the past, she hasn’t been to the dentist in 15 years, choosing instead to take meticulous care of her teeth, such that she doesn’t have a single cavity. She has no intention of ever getting a cervical exam; she has accepted the possible consequences. For minor maladies, she prefers home remedies to going to a doctor.  

So with her limited budget, she has chosen catastrophic insurance with a high deductible,  to cover any huge unforeseen circumstances. This has the lowest premium so her health budget can include periodic massages, organic food, dance lessons, and books on holistic medicine.

If the current health bill passes, she will surely pay a higher premium because her required coverage would include universal preventive care such as dental visits, gynecological exams,  and other screenings that she will never undergo. Instead, she will have to forego some of her personalized health choices.   

 

Scenario 2:

Bill has recently discovered that he has the gene for ALS. There is no treatment for ALS.  Although it is not certain he will develop the disease, he has already started to experience the same early symptoms that he saw his father and brother go through.  He would rather die of a heart attack or a car accident or a hundred other common maladies, so he has decided that he will exercise what little control he has and never go to the doctor or the emergency room again. He has filled out the paperwork and his wife has agreed. Yet to be a law-abiding citizen, he will still have to pay for the government-mandated health insurance instead of putting his money toward long-term disability insurance or a daily living fund for his wife after he becomes disabled.

His wife is barren, so fortunately they don’t have to worry about their children inheriting the gene. But she will still have to pay for insurance that covers maternity care, well baby, and child care rather than grief counseling.

 

Both of the scenarios above are real people. I’m sure you know others. In fact we could come up with a real-life scenario every day for the rest of the year in which mandatory preventive insurance will directly trade off one individual’s personalized health choices in favor of someone else’s general preventive care. Whether intentional or unintentional, the consequences are the same, and deeper than the surface of the bill.   Again, this isn’t about the part that keeps people from going broke if they get sick; this is about the scope that extends beyond catastrophic care and pushes the boundaries of freedom.

Measuring Aura

In Commentary, Science on July 22, 2009 at 6:02 pm

If you saw a course on “aura”, would you assume it was taught by Sheila the Psychic or Beverly the PhD? If someone said there was an “electric” feel in the crowd at an event or that two people had “chemistry”, would you say those characterizations were literary analogy or biologically based?

I have always had an interest in the concept of auras, but I can’t see them. More than once I’ve signed up for a class that I never went to, some of the reasons for which included the caped/fringed/bangled person that I imagined might teach such a class. At the same time, I know that the human brain works by electrical and chemical messaging, so it seems logical that a person would have an electrical or chemical “aura”.

The obvious conclusion that can be reached from this is that subconsiously I think that if I can’t see it, it must be hooey. It’s disappointing to realize this, because it bothers me to no end when my ideas are dismissed because the people in the decision-making role can’t see my vision. Of course, it’s logical for people to mistrust a vision unless there is a wealth of evidence demonstrating your former successes in making the vision reality. So, it’s all about communicating, starting from where a person is in their own vision and bridging him or her to you with evidence. People have a tendency to see just what they want to see, so it takes a lot of effort. And in the case of making a scientist believe in auras, it takes a lot of data.

So I was excited to run across this article, which is a scientific perspective on auras and measuring human energy. http://www.trans4mind.com/psychotechnics/energyfield.html

This is on my mind, because it’s shaping up to play a big role in the writing project I’m working on. So, I’m curious about your thoughts on how close you are to believing that human energy can be measured and applied for such things as very early diagnosis of disease or other practical uses.

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