All posts filed under: Science

What is Mindfulness? Nobody Really Knows, and That’s a Problem

You’ve probably heard of mindfulness. These days, it’s everywhere, like many ideas and practices drawn from Buddhist texts that have become part of mainstream Western culture. But a review published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science shows the hype is ahead of the evidence. Some reviews of studies on mindfulness suggest it may help with psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, and stress. But it’s not clear what type of mindfulness or meditation we need and for what specific problem. The study, involving a large group of researchers, clinicians and meditators, found a clear-cut definition of mindfulness doesn’t exist. This has potentially serious implications. If vastly different treatments and practices are considered the same, then research evidence for one may be wrongly taken as support for another. At the same time, if we move the goalposts too far or in the wrong direction, we might lose the potential benefits of mindfulness altogether. So, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness receives a bewildering assortment of definitions. Psychologists measure the concept in differing combinations of acceptance, attentiveness, awareness, …

Is There a Biological Case for Criminal Justice Reform?

Tell a woman the story of Christ’s crucifixion, and if she doesn’t cry, she’s a witch. In the 1500s, women who failed this test were burned alive. The test—clearly and painfully faulty—was not publicly questioned until Dutch physician Johann Weyer wrote “De Praestigiis Daemonum” (or “On the Tricks of Demons”) in 1564. Weyer correctly argued that many older women couldn’t cry due to atrophy of their lachrymal glands. Prosecutors were presented with a dilemma: reform the witch trial system or potentially kill innocent women. A paltry sum of sanity was brought to the system, and hundreds of potential deaths were prevented. Stanford University neurobiology professor Robert Sapolsky believes that today’s U.S. criminal justice system has similar biological blind spots. Just as witch prosecutors didn’t know about the lachrymal glands’ connection to tears, we don’t fully understand an untold number of connections between DNA, the brain, hormones, and other dynamic aspects of the human body. In Sapolsky’s latest book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, he argues that our justice system falls …

Is It Ever Better Not to Know?

“What wretched doings come from the ardor of fame; the love of truth alone would never make one man attack another bitterly” –Charles Darwin, 1848 (in a letter to his friend, Joseph Hooker) “An awful privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity will live.” –William K. Clifford in The Ethics of Belief  Is it sometimes better not to know certain things? Yes, that seems obvious. Very few people would tell a religious parent on their death bed that they have decided to reject the faith their mother or father valued so deeply. We all have illusions we’d prefer to cling to, and sometimes we respect other people’s beliefs, even when we think they’re misguided, because they bring comfort or meaning to that person. Still, we want to argue that over the long run it is better for humanity to know as much as we can about every possible question that might be asked. We think that the intrinsic beauty and instrumental benefits of the accumulated knowledge that …

Not Everything Is An Interaction

Albert Einstein was a brilliant man. Whether his famous equation of E=mc2 means much to you or not, I think we can all concur on the intellectual prowess—and stunning hair—of Einstein. But where did his brilliance come from? Environment? Perhaps his parents fed him lots of fish (it’s supposed to be brain food, after all). Genetics? Surely Albert hit some sort of genetic lottery—oh that we should all be so lucky. Or does the answer reside in some combination of the two? How very enlightened: both genes and environment interact and intertwine to yield everything from the genius of Einstein to the comedic talent of Lewis Black. Surely, you cannot tease their impact apart; DNA and experience are hopelessly interlocked. Except, they’re not. Believing that they are is wrong; it’s a misleading mental shortcut that has largely sown confusion in the public about human development, and thus it needs to be retired. Despite strong genetic influences on IQ (and there are strong genetic influences on IQ), we can’t calculate the proportion of credit for Einstein’s intellect that …

Galapagos Giant Tortoises Make a Comeback, Thanks to Innovative Conservation Strategies

The Galapagos Islands are world-famous as a laboratory of biological evolution. Some 30 percent of the plants, 80 percent of the land birds and 97 percent of the reptiles on this remote archipelago are found nowhere else on Earth. Perhaps the most striking example is the islands’ iconic giant tortoises, which often live to ages over 100 years in the wild. Multiple species of these mega-herbivores have evolved in response to conditions on the island or volcano where each lives, generating wide variation in shell shape and size. Over the past 200 years, hunting and invasive species reduced giant tortoise populations by an estimated 90 percent, destroying several species and pushing others to the brink of extinction, although a few populations on remote volcanoes remained abundant. Now however, the tortoise dynasty is on the road to recovery, thanks to work by the Galapagos National Park Directorate, with critical support from nonprofits like the Galapagos Conservancy and advice from an international team of conservation scientists. Together we are advancing a broad multiyear program called the Giant …

Interview with Debra W. Soh, Sex Neuroscientist

Meet Debra W. Soh, a sex researcher and neuroscientist in Toronto, Canada. I learned about Debra through reading her LA Times op-ed on the futility of gender neutral parenting. I got in touch with Debra because I wanted to learn more about her field of sex neuroscience, her own research and her thoughts on studying sex differences in the brain. Because the study of sex and sex differences is often fraught with political roadblocks, I also wanted to get a picture of how a neuroscientist-sex researcher approaches some of these contentious issues. Hi Debra, thanks for chatting to Quillette. Can you briefly tell us who you are — where you studied, who was your supervisor and what made you interested in neuroscience, in particular sex neuroscience? I am a sex researcher at York University in Toronto and I write about the science of sex for several media outlets, including Playboy. For my PhD, which I just defended, I worked with Dr. Keith Schneider, who has pioneered new methods in high-resolution fMRI and is the Director of …

Saints & Sinners: A Dialogue on the Hardest Topic in Science

 “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” – Escalus; in ‘Measure for Measure’ by William Shakespeare There is arguably no topic more incendiary (about which scholars say less, ironically) than race differences in general, and in particular, race differences in behavior and achievement. There are certain subjects that are so politically charged and fraught with consequences that any scientific research on the topic is instantly applauded or demonized (depending on your viewpoints), no matter the findings. The subject of race differences, broadly defined, falls squarely in this category. For the purposes of this discussion, and because we are behavioral scientists, we focus on the issue of race differences in behavior. In our experience, the perception seems to be that two camps exist for the study of race differences in behavior. In the first camp, race is seen as a social construction, one that, if it is consequential, is so because of the way people react to individuals on the basis of race. Any race or ethnicity differences that emerge — for behavior, intelligence, …

Not My Rights Movement

Currently, LGBTIQCAPGNGFNBA is believed to be the world’s longest acronym used to describe human sexual orientations and gender identities. Chances are it’s already been surpassed by an even longer acronym with the self-discovery of yet another person, or group of persons, with a unique gender fixation. It’s probably pointless to try to memorize what all the letters stand for, because theoretically there’s no limit to the proliferation of sexual identities. But some of them come with unique pronouns, and you had better learn those. Otherwise you might run afoul of new federal and provincial human rights and hate crimes laws. How on earth did we get here? Well, in the beginning there was G. And it was good. I’m not talking about God but about Gays. Back in the early 1980s, I joined the fight for gay rights and marched in the Toronto Gay Pride parade. Before G, there was actually H, for Homophile, as in the Queen’s (University) Homophile Association, which I discovered in 1978. I have to admit I welcomed the change from …

Elite Opinion vs the Wisdom of Crowds: The Intelligentsia’s Tendency to Get Things Wrong

The intelligentsia have a reputation for being out of touch and it’s easy to see why, given their stereotypical tendency to live in sheltered, affluent neighbourhoods. Therefore it should be no surprise if we turn on the TV news and see prominent, well-paid economists displaying a more relaxed attitude to uncontrolled, mass migration than those of us who live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods where the most dysfunctional migrants usually end up being accommodated. Likewise, it is only natural to expect heavily-guarded high court judges to have a more lenient attitude towards criminals than those of us who live in rougher, less protected localities. But the detachment of the urban elite is more than just a matter of living somewhere posh — it is also a matter of culture, as noted by George Orwell in 1941: ‘This is the really important fact about the English intelligentsia — their severance from the common culture of the country’. The cultural detachment of the metropolitan elite from the people was recently highlighted in the run up to the Brexit referendum, as a …

Risky Business: Public Health and the Culture of Crisis

I. Panic and payment: Funding Primary Prevention Public health work has become, by nature, reactive. From Ebola to Zika, human health has been sucked into the vortex of the 12-hour news cycle, the details of death by hemorrhagic fever as salacious and gripping as the latest celebrity divorce or gruesome murder. Yet, the real work of public health work is perhaps more sedate and complex than prime-time ratings during an outbreak would suggest. The goal of public health is ostensibly primary prevention: this means a focus on anticipating, (rather than treating), disease, disorder, and injury. In fact, venerable institutions like the American Public Health Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization at the United Nations exhort public health professionals to not simply eliminate disease or injury, but to actively create the conditions of living that promote a holistic and optimal atmosphere of human well-being, allowing individuals and communities to thrive. All very well-intentioned, if not somewhat oversimplified in the face of public horror as we knock about on the …