Sunday, November 18, 2018

Is It Good to Forget?

Forgetfulness is a blessing. So say two Swedish researchers, Hilde and Ylva Ostby. They want people to understand that momentary bouts of forgetfulness are normal. The human brain cannot function effectively if it remembers everything that has ever happened.

And yet, the psycho world has long since pretended that recalling forgotten traumas is therapeutic. In fact, Freud recommended in his first work that hysterics become hysterical because they have forgotten childhood sexual traumas. He argued that remembering them would heal the wounds. It did not work, but people do still believe it.

The Ostby sisters direct their arguments against those who imagine that the failure to remember a name, the failure to recall a specific detail years after the a sign of pending dementia. The Times of London reports:

When a name, face, appointment or memory escapes us, it causes embarrassment, frustration, even fear. Particularly in middle age and beyond, we worry that it’s the first sign of mental decline. But according to a new book, the good news is that these lapses are completely normal. In fact, they are often a sign that our brain is in perfect working order, says the clinical neuropsychologist Ylva Østby, who with her sister, the novelist Hilde Østby, has written Adventures in Memory — the Science and Secrets of Remembering and Forgetting. It’s not just good to forget, it’s essential.

Modern life and mobile phones mean that we are exposed to a barrage of information throughout the day. Not only is it normal for our brain to discard most of it, it’s also desirable. If it didn’t, our system would be overloaded. “A lot of forgetting occurs very soon after an experience,” says Ylva. “This is a good thing, because we don’t need to hang on to all that information. The brain is tidying up and working functionally.”

The researchers suggest that it’s normal to forget the names of people we have just met. One suspects that it depends on how important the person is. If the person is a business associate or a neighbor, we are likely to recall the name.

You’re introduced to someone and a second later, you’ve forgotten their name. It’s mortifying, and makes you feel stupid, but it shouldn’t. Your brain has merely focused on the more vital aspects of this social interaction. “It’s so common,” Ylva says. “We meet someone for the first time and forget their name shortly afterwards. But we’re actually using our working memory, which only has space for a limited amount of information.”

Our working memory keeps hold of information for only a few seconds, or for as long as we keep thinking of it. “When we meet another person, we’re filling up our working memory with a lot of other information,” Ylva says. “How we might appear to them, what we’re going to say next, who this person is in terms of personality, which is more important than a name, which is a random label. That’s what the brain clings to.” She adds: “It should be OK to ask their name again. It shows you take an interest.”

Without having further knowledge, I would suggest that it’s more important to remember a person’s name than to have a sense of his personality. People are more impressed when you remember their name than when you recall that they have a bubbly personality. I would also add that we have less interest in knowing a personality than we do in knowing their character. Knowing whether they are trustworthy is more important than knowing whether they are gregarious.

As for improving our memory, the researchers suggest that we should worry less and sleep more.

To help this process, there are certain things to avoid. “Worrying is one of the enemies of memory. We fill up our working memory with stressful thoughts,” Ylva says. Poor sleep especially has a negative effect. “A lot of memory consolidation goes on while we sleep. Memories are being laid down, rearranged and put into the right place. Lack of sleep can cause memory problems; you might remember events from the day, but the memories are not properly consolidated.”

We are inclined to remember what matters… and that might mean traumatic experiences. It does make sense that we recall threats and dangers, the better to recognize the early warning signs. Note again, that the Freudian theory whereby we repress traumas by forgetting them seems to run directly counter to the new notion:

If it saddens you that much of early parenthood is a blur except for moments such as a terrifying visit to A&E, your memory is doing its job. “Your brain doesn’t care whether you remember your child’s first steps,” says Ylva. “That’s not the important stuff — it doesn’t always have the same priorities as we as nostalgic people. Its priority is to learn the socially important information about their childhood. Who they are, their likes and dislikes.”

We do not, they continue, remember the specifics of each day’s ride to work. We do generalize the experience and create in our minds something like a stereotypical trip. As noted in a previous post, the human mind does not engage in inefficiencies like judging each individual as a unique individual:

Mundane activities are merged by the brain to save storage space. We don’t remember every individual journey to work because that would be pointless, but we know what it’s typically like — thanks to cumulative memory.

The next point is vitally important. The mind is not geared to recall the past. It functions best when it plans for the future. This also suggests, to me at least, that we do well to recall past successes too. Remembering when things went right will help us to make plans that are more likely to succeed.

You will note that psycho professionals want us to recall bad past experiences and to become mired in our childhood, the better to explain today’s derelictions. They do not seem to realize that recalling only traumas produces depression, a sense that failure is inevitable:

Memory is not a commemorative faculty. Its essential role is to guide us and help us to plan. For this, it works with our imagination. Ylva says, “By using pieces of information from the past, we can construct vivid simulations of the future. This and this happened then, so we can expect similar.” It gives us a way of exploring the emotional outcome of decisions we make. “If I say that to him, how will he respond? How will I feel?”

Simulating future outcomes sounds like policy analysis. We use past experience to guide us toward better decisions about what we should or should not do in the future. This does require some imagination… imagining and evaluating the potential responses to this or that action. It is also true that we make use of our knowledge of the experiences of other people. We study history and we study other cases. We should not give the impression... however inadvertent... that we rely only on memories of our own experiences.

Here's One for the Closeted Sadists

I must have higher standards than the New York Times, but I will refrain from regaling you with graphic descriptions of the horrors that male prisoners visit on female prison guards. The Times has no such compunctions and no such standards of journalistic propriety.

One suspects that the Times was going for the porn effect. One also suspects that Times editors imagined that the world would be outraged at the bad treatment male prisoners in federal prisons visit on female guards. And that this would ramp up their lust for social justice.

And yet, the overwhelming reaction to the flashy expose was noted by several commentators on the Times site. Whoever had the idea to assign female prison guards to male prisons? Can you get any more stupid? (OK, don't answer that?) Does the ideologically driven left really believe that gender is just another social construction, and thus, that gender does not matter? Did they believe that it makes no difference to inmates-- the worst of the worst, the most brutal, degenerate, immoral beasts-- that their female prison guards are not wearing enticing dresses?

It is the height of human ignorance and human arrogance to pretend that male prisoners would naturally show proper deference and respect to female guards. Or perhaps the brilliant bureaucrats who conjured up this policy were closet sadists who liked to hear stories of women being harassed and raped. Or perhaps Times readers needed to get in touch with their inner sadists. Does the Times suspect that such stories will appeal to their readers?

One hopes that the Times is not promoting the story as further evidence of toxic masculinity. One also hopes that they do not believe that these men just need more sensitivity training.

Anyway, in the absence of detail, here is a quick plot summary. Read the rest at your peril:

For women who work in federal prisons, where they are vastly outnumbered by male colleagues and male inmates, concealing every trace of their femininity is both necessary and, ultimately, futile. “They never even see what you are wearing,” said Octavia Brown, a supervisor in Victorville, Calif., of the inmates she oversees. “They see straight through it.”

Some inmates do not stop at stares. They also grope, threaten and expose themselves. But what is worse, according to testimony, court documents, and interviews with female prison workers, male colleagues can and do encourage such behavior, undermining the authority of female officers and jeopardizing their safety. Other male employees join in the harassment themselves.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Global Big Chill

Two days ago snow fell in New York City. Mid-November snow is rare indeed. So rare that the city was unprepared. Politicians were running around covering their butts… trying to explain why a mere 6 inches of snow had nearly brought transportation to a halt.

On a good day public transportation in New York is dysfunctional, a national embarrassment. Perhaps Amazon will come along to fix it, but that is probably a bit optimistic. Led by Comrade Bill de Blasio, city government is fundamentally incompetent.

And yet, hovering over the snowfall was a colossal irony. Climate change activists had been warning us, in typically Chicken Little fashion, that the earth was heating up, that it could only get warmer, that the oceans would rise to engulf all beach real estate, and the the polar bear population would be decimated. Not only that, but they were also telling us that we were at fault, that the climate and the goddess of Nature were punishing us for our excessive expulsion of greenhouse gases… or some such thing.

Settled science, then intoned, as though anyone who did not accept their dogmatic opinion about our own responsibility for the state of the climate should be expelled from polite society… and even jailed. Climate change denial was denounced as roughly akin to Holocaust denial. It was a guilt trip in steroids.

As it happens, the epicenter of climate change activism, California is burning up… as we speak. Villages and towns and cities are being erased by a fire the likes of which we have not seen since the Santa Rosa fires of last year. How does it happen that the most environmentally conscious state in the nation, a state that wants to lead the international fight against the climate, now sits under a cloud of toxic fumes. When San Francisco air is more polluted than the air in major cities in India and China, you know that something is wrong.

What, I do not venture to guess. It could all have been a mere accident, forest fire meets drought conditions. It could have had something to do with the failure of state authorities to manage their forests, especially the underbrush. It could have had something to do with water management.

One man’s pristine purity of nature is another man’s kindling. There will certainly be a lot of blame to be spread around. And yet, as stewards of the environment, California’s “woke” leaders, beginning with Governor moonbeam himself, have obviously not been doing a very good job.

I will assume, without possessing any more information than you have, that they are not working hard to fix the problem and even to prevent it from ever happening again. I suspect that they are sitting around trying to blame it all on Donald Trump.

As though the fires had not sufficiently thrown the general hysteria about global warming into question, along comes a NASA scientist with word that… would you believe it… sunspots have a direct and decided influence on our climate. And that activity on the sun is going to make the world much, much colder. Yikes. Worse yet, it is difficult to blame them on Donald Trump.

We read this on the Metro site (via Maggie’s Farm):

Humanity is facing a long, cold winter which could see temperatures across the planet plunge to depressing lows.

That’s the warning from a Nasa scientist who fears sunspot activity on the surface of our star has dropped so low that it could herald the arrival of a uniquely grim mini Ice Age.

‘We see a cooling trend,’ Martin Mlynczak of Nasa’s Langley Research Center told Space Weather. ‘High above Earth’s surface, near the edge of space, our atmosphere is losing heat energy.

‘If current trends continue, it could soon set a Space Age record for cold.’

Sunspot activity follows a cycle which is believed to last 11 years as the number of patches peaks and drops.

There have been very few spots on the sun for most of this year, meaning that it could be about to get very cold, very quickly. ‘It could happen in a matter of months,’ Mlynczak added.

You would think that this recognition of the influence of the sun on climate would cause our climate scientists to question their idea that human beings are at fault. Not so fast. The scientists are happy to inform you that the new ice age, which will apparently override the effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, will give us time to get our houses in order, to reduce carbon emissions and to save the planet.

Or else, to become more like California.

The Declining American Military Advantage

No one likes bad news. So, very few news outlets have been reporting this bad news. Last Tuesday the National Defense Strategy Commission reported that America’s military superiority has seriously eroded. If you still think that America is the world’s greatest military hegemon, unchallanged in the air, on the ground and at sea… think again.

The commission was chaired by Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense in the Bush years, and retired Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations in the Bush and Obama administrations. It concluded:

The security and well-being of the United States are at greater risk today than at any time in decades. America’s military superiority… has eroded to a dangerous degree. Rivals and adversaries are challenging the United States on many fronts and in many domains. America’s ability to defend its allies, its partners, and its own vital interests is increasingly in doubt. If the nation does not act promptly to remedy these circumstances, the consequences will be grave.

And also:

The US military could suffer unacceptably high causalities and the loss of major capital assets in its next conflict. It might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia. The United States is particularly at risk of being overwhelmed should its military be forced to fight on two or more fronts simultaneously.

How did we get to this point. Edelman distributes blame equally to Republicans and Democrats. Apparently, it goes back to the Budget Control Act of 2011:

Edelman also said, "At home, the United States has significantly weakened its own defense due to political dysfunction and decisions made by both Republicans as well as Democrats."

"This has played out in the effects of the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 and years of failing to enact timely appropriations. Defense spending was cut substantially under the BCA, with pronounced detrimental effects on the size, modernization, and readiness of the military.”

Since President Trump insisted on increasing defense spending, we can conclude that one cause of the problem was that the Obama administration, on whose watch America’s military advantage slipped, showed no concern about the problem. While the Congressional sequester is responsible for much of the problem, President Obama did nothing to counter it. He simply did not care.

Now, however, thanks to the Obama deficits-- you recall that Obama doubled the national debt in his eight years-- the nation cannot really afford to spend what it needs to spend to rehabilitate the military and to make it great again.

Friday, November 16, 2018

How to Damage Your Marriage

Normally, Carolyn Hax offers solid advice in her Washington Post column. Today is not one of those days. Upon receiving a letter from a woman who has been cursed with the task of caring for two toddlers, Hax offers to explain how she should force her husband to do more to care for the toddlers.

The letter writer and her husband have two older boys, ages 11 and 14. She does not tell us the gender of the two toddlers, aged 3 and 1. She is seriously torqued at her husband because he is going back on his word. You see, when the couple was trying to decide whether to have more children, husband agreed to get more involved with caring for the new babies.

He has not lived up to the terms of his agreement. Literally. Instead, horror of horrors he has become more active in the lives of his older boys. Apparently, the put-upon Mom took one-too-many Women’s studies classes and believes, as an article of faith, that men and women are the same, and thus, that it does not matter who plays mother to babies and toddlers.

The unfortunate part is that Hax does not know any better either. To her great discredit.

Here is the text of the letter:

So about four years ago, my husband and I decided to have another set of babies. Our older two were 9 and 7 at the time, and my husband and I were very young when we had them — 23 and 20 — so we thought we'd have another go at babydom. This was after many lengthy conversations about how my husband was going to have to be a lot more helpful this time.

When my older boys were little, I was responsible for 99.99 percent of child-related tasks, which as you know takes a huge toll. I was naive and chalked it up to the fact that he and I were both so young at the time that we didn't know what we were doing, had no friends who were in the same place in life, etc.
He said, yes, things would be different this time. He would help at bedtime, bath time, mealtime, diaper changing time.

Well. Guess who didn't rise to the occasion? Our Littles are now 1 and 3. I am back to doing 99.99 percent of the child-related tasks, but with a catch. My husband is a fantastic older-kid dad. He takes the Bigs fishing, hiking, boating and to all of their sporting events.

So I'm thinking only another two years until I'm back on Easy Street! Problem is, Easy Street is ANOTHER TWO YEARS AWAY!!!!! And I'm so tired. I stay at home and these Littles are killing me. I resent the fact that my husband isn't more help even though I probably should have seen this coming.

How do I get through the next two years?

— These Littles Are Killing Me

Hax recommends that the woman stand her ground. That she never, never back down. That she lean in, assert herself, and insist that her husband keep her word.

If the young mother or any other mother takes the advice, she will be undermining her marriage. It is bad, even dangerous advice. Ignore it.

Fair enough, Hax has a point, dull as it is. The husband did agree to help with baby care. 

Unfortunately, given the biology of the gestation process a pregnant woman’s brain rewires itself to make it more able to care for babies, infants and toddlers. The rewiring involves circuits that allow for greater empathy, thus for more aptitude at reading non-verbal cues. A father’s brain undergoes no such rewiring.

A woman who does not understand this and who resorts to constant complaining has overdosed on feminist ideology.

For reasons that escape me, Hax believes that it would be a good thing for this mother to reverse roles with her husband. While he is chasing after toddlers she will be going with her older sons to their sporting events, as well as to fishing, hiking and whatever. Do you really believe that boys in that age group want to go fishing with their mother? And do you not understand that relegating their father to diaper duty will look to them as a humiliation.

If so, there is no way the husband can accept these conditions.

Anyway, Hax counsels confrontation. She rejects discussion. She wants this women to force herself on her husband. She has not the least glimmer of awareness that this is a dangerous tactic… one that will make the father look weak and to lose face in front of his boys.

Hax writes:

There’s no magic here. You just switch. “I’ll take the Bigs to their sporting events today; you stay with the Littles.”

Not just once, but alternating. Every other time.

If your husband balks: “Remember your promise going into this, and why you made it.”

If that’s not enough: “I’m as responsible as you are for letting it get to this point. For things to be ‘different this time,’ as we agreed they’d be, I needed to be different, too, and I wasn’t. I was too quick to step in.

“But now it’s time to fix that. I’m burned out, you and the Littles need to bond, and I need to spend catch-up time with the Bigs.”

Take the issue to a marriage counselor or parenting class if you must.

But do not back down. You are good at wrangling Littles and he is not, but not because he’s incapable and (by your account) not because he’s a disengaged or negligent father. Unlike you, he simply had you to default to, never got the experience you did, and so never built the confidence, either — and people who aren’t confident tend to drift into spectating hard work as the confident people take over. It’s an old story.

Would it have been preferable for him to have sought that experience and confidence on his own initiative? Obviously. But these are the personnel and circumstances you’ve got, and apparently they indicate the best way for him to step in and get this experience is for you to say, “Your turn,” and then step out of the way.

And what will Hax advise when he simply walks out, either on the chores that she thinks he must perform or on the marriage altogether?

It's genuinely awful advice, from someone who normally offers very good advice. A sad day, indeed.

Generation Sexless

Long time readers of this blog will not be surprised. They will not be shocked. As to the question of how much sex young people are having, I have already posted on the topic, at least twice, with posts entitled: Who Killed Sex? With apologies to all for recycling a post title, thefirst dates from 2011. The second dates to May of this year.

Still and all, Kate Julian has written a good article about the simple fact that young people are not having very much sex. The article recently appeared in The Atlantic. It is comprehensive and well researched. Thus, I am happy to recommend it to your attention.

What caused the American libido to run dry? Was it porn? Was it early sex education? Was it Puritanical repression? Was it feminism? Was it the sexual revolution? Or was it the loss of a sense of modesty, a sense of shame. Letting it all hang out… so to speak… being open and honest about sexuality seems to have killed sexual desire.

Who knew?

This elevates the importance of the sexual revolution, a Vietnam Era countercultural act, designed to liberate sexuality from the bonds of civilized morality. It came down to us from Freud and Wilhelm Reich, from Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse. We needed to liberate sex because it would cure what ailed us. And besides, it would help us to overthrow the patriarchy. Orgasms uber alles.

Better yet, feminism declared war on feminine modesty and sexual propriety. Women were said to want sex as much as men. Women were encouraged to engage in sexual acts when they did not really want to. Women were encouraged to hookup and to sext… because it was a sign of having been liberated from the constraints that had oppressed women for millennia.

Fair enough. But, we are within our rights to ask how that is working out. Are women’s sex lives better or worse? Or are they barely existent?

Anyway, Julian analyzes the state of American sexuality. And she begins by noting that young Americans are having less sex than they used to have:

And yet none of the many experts I interviewed for this piece seriously challenged the idea that the average young adult circa 2018 is having less sex than his or her counterparts of decades past. Nor did anyone doubt that this reality is out of step with public perception—most of us still think that other people are having a lot more sex than they actually are.

Among the reasons, deferred marriage. Strangely enough, considering how repressive marriage was supposed to be, married couples seem clearly to have more sex than their single counterparts. Thus, if marriage is deferred or postponed people will be having less sex. Julian quotes sexpert Helen Fisher:

Fisher, like many other experts, attributes the sex decline to a decline in couplehood among young people. For a quarter century, fewer people have been marrying, and those who do have been marrying later. At first, many observers figured that the decline in marriage was explained by an increase in unmarried cohabitation—yet the share of people living together hasn’t risen enough to offset the decline in marriage: About 60 percent of adults under age 35 now live without a spouse or a partner. One in three adults in this age range live with their parents, making that the most common living arrangement for the cohort. People who live with a romantic partner tend to have sex more than those who don’t—and living with your parents is obviously bad for your sex life. But this doesn’t explain why young people are partnering up less to begin with.

As for the explanation of these phenomena, Julian hears a number of theories, some of which I have not evoked. Thus, the value of examining them:

I heard many other theories about what I have come to think of as the sex recession. I was told it might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido.

Surely, these all play a part. Clinical depression, for example, diminishes libido. It is well known. And yet, anti-depressants also diminish sexual lust. As for the environmental estrogens, introduced into the water supply by birth control pills… I will leave that to others.

Then again, Julian posits, it might be a good sign. People are having less sex because they have turned off to promiscuity. Apparently, they have also turned off to committed relationships, but her point is worth noting:

Some experts I spoke with offered more hopeful explanations for the decline in sex. For example, rates of childhood sexual abuse have decreased in recent decades, and abuse can lead to both precocious and promiscuous sexual behavior. And some people today may feel less pressured into sex they don’t want to have, thanks to changing gender mores and growing awareness of diverse sexual orientations, including asexuality. Maybe more people are prioritizing school or work over love and sex, at least for a time, or maybe they’re simply being extra deliberate in choosing a life partner—and if so, good for them.

Of course, having less sex with other people has not prevented people from having sex with themselves, that is, solo, or better, as Woody Allen said, sex with someone you love, yourself:

From 1992 to 2014, the share of American men who reported masturbating in a given week doubled, to 54 percent, and the share of women more than tripled, to 26 percent. Easy access to porn is part of the story, of course; in 2014, 43 percent of men said they’d watched porn in the past week. The vibrator figures in, too—a major study 10 years ago found that just over half of adult women had used one, and by all indications it has only grown in popularity.

This may or may not relate to the fact that men and women are having fewer romantic relationships. This should not come as too much of a surprise. At the risk of offending half the universe, the reason must lie in the fact that young women have chosen to postpone marriage. Thus, they reject entangling alliances in favor of career advancement. They pay a price in the lack of sexual contact:

In 1995, the large longitudinal study known as “Add Health” found that 66 percent of 17-year-old men and 74 percent of 17-year-old women had experienced “a special romantic relationship” in the past 18 months. In 2014, when the Pew Research Center asked 17-year-olds whether they had “ever dated, hooked up with or otherwise had a romantic relationship with another person”—seemingly a broader category than the earlier one—only 46 percent said yes.

Thus, fewer relationships has meant less sex:

Over the course of numerous conversations, [ psychology professor Alexandra] Solomon has come to various conclusions about hookup culture, or what might more accurately be described as lack-of-relationship culture. For one thing, she believes it is both a cause and an effect of social stunting. Or, as one of her students put it to her: “We hook up because we have no social skills. We have no social skills because we hook up.” For another, insofar as her students find themselves choosing between casual sex and no sex, they are doing so because an obvious third option—relationship sex—strikes many of them as not only unattainable but potentially irresponsible.
Nonetheless, she believes that many students have absorbed the idea that love is secondary to academic and professional success—or, at any rate, is best delayed until those other things have been secured. “Over and over,” she has written, “my undergraduates tell me they try hard not to fall in love during college, imagining that would mess up their plans.”

Given how driven women are, and given how many men seem like slugs, it is not surprising that young people of different sexes do not become romantically involved. On the other hand, it is not obvious that they know how to develop and to sustain a relationship. Without building bonds of trust, sex often becomes nasty, brutish and mean-- to misquote and misapply Thomas Hobbes.

As for the use of dating apps, apparently there’s more smoke than fire. The activity of playing with the apps seems to far exceed the number of real sexual encounters:

At least among people who don’t use dating apps, the perception exists that they facilitate casual sex with unprecedented efficiency. In reality, unless you are exceptionally good-looking, the thing online dating may be best at is sucking up large amounts of time. As of 2014, when Tinder last released such data, the average user logged in 11 times a day. Men spent 7.2 minutes per session and women spent 8.5 minutes, for a total of about an hour and a half a day. Yet they didn’t get much in return. Today, the company says it logs 1.6 billion swipes a day, and just 26 million matches. And, if Simon’s experience is any indication, the overwhelming majority of matches don’t lead to so much as a two-way text exchange, much less a date, much less sex.

And, obviously enough, #MeToo has made women a threat. Thus, men are far more circumspect about approaching women in public:

No one approaches anyone in public anymore,” said a teacher in Northern Virginia. “The dating landscape has changed. People are less likely to ask you out in real life now, or even talk to begin with,” said a 28-year-old woman in Los Angeles who volunteered that she had been single for three years….
This shift seems to be accelerating amid the national reckoning with sexual assault and harassment, and a concomitant shifting of boundaries. According to a November 2017 Economist/YouGov poll, 17 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 now believe that a man inviting a woman out for a drink “always” or “usually” constitutes sexual harassment. (Among older groups, much smaller percentages believe this.)...

Laurie Mintz, who teaches a popular undergraduate class on the psychology of sexuality at the University of Florida, told me that the #MeToo movement has made her students much more aware of issues surrounding consent. She has heard from many young men who are productively reexamining their past actions and working diligently to learn from the experiences of friends and partners. But others have described less healthy reactions, like avoiding romantic overtures for fear that they might be unwelcome. In my own conversations, men and women alike spoke of a new tentativeness and hesitancy. One woman who described herself as a passionate feminist said she felt empathy for the pressure that heterosexual dating puts on men. “I think I owe it to them, in this current cultural moment particularly, to try to treat them like they’re human beings taking a risk talking to a stranger,” she wrote me. “There are a lot of lonely, confused people out there, who have no idea what to do or how to date.”

So, #MeToo has made men feel guilty. And guilt does not enhance sexual desire. Of course, if it’s just about sex, men and even women can solve the problem by hiring someone on the open market.

And then there is porn. And especially the expectation that sexual behavior should imitate what men see on porn sights. This is not only appalling; it is dangerous. Many of the activities are downright dangerous:

One especially springlike morning in May, as Debby Herbenick and I walked her baby through a park in Bloomington, Indiana, she shared a bit of advice she sometimes offers students at Indiana University, where she is a leading sex researcher. “If you’re with somebody for the first time,” she said evenly, “don’t choke them, don’t ejaculate on their face, don’t try to have anal sex with them. These are all things that are just unlikely to go over well.”

No kidding. Worse yet, young women feel compelled to do what porn stars do. They find the experience painful and degrading… and thus get turned off to sex:

Back in 1992, the big University of Chicago survey reported that 20 percent of women in their late 20s had tried anal sex; in 2012, the NSSHB found a rate twice that. She also told me about new data suggesting that, compared with previous generations, young people today are more likely to engage in sexual behaviors prevalent in porn, like the ones she warns her students against springing on a partner. All of this might be scaring some people off, she thought, and contributing to the sex decline….

Some of Herbenick’s most sobering research concerns the prevalence of painful sex. In 2012, 30 percent of women said they’d experienced pain the last time they’d had vaginal intercourse; during anal intercourse, 72 percent had. Whether or not these rates represent an increase (we have no basis for comparison), they are troublingly high….

Outside of porn, some people do enjoy what’s known as erotic asphyxiation—they say restricting oxygen to the brain can make for more intense orgasms—but it is dangerous and ranks high on the list of things you shouldn’t do to someone unless asked to. Tess, a 31-year-old woman in San Francisco, mentioned that her past few sexual experiences had been with slightly younger men. “I’ve noticed that they tend to go for choking without prior discussion,” she said. Anna, the woman who described how dating apps could avert awkwardness, told me she’d been choked so many times that at first, she figured it was normal. “A lot of people don’t realize you have to ask,” she said.

If this is what sex is about, you can understand why so many women are turned off by it. And, of course, hookups are no better:

Learning sex in the context of one-off hookups isn’t helping either. Research suggests that, for most people, casual sex tends to be less physically pleasurable than sex with a regular partner.

Who knew?

Thursday, November 15, 2018

What Is the Placebo Effect?

Is it all in your mind? Or, is it all in your brain? Does the placebo effect show that the mind controls the body, that the mind can heal? Or does it reduce to a biochemical process-- provoked by a caring and attentive physician?

It’s an interesting question, one that Gary Greenberg addressed at length in a New York Times article. (via Maggie’s Farm)

In large part, it’s all in the context. A placebo works best when it is administered by a professional in a medical context:

Give people a sugar pill ... and those patients — especially if they have one of the chronic, stress-related conditions that register the strongest placebo effects and if the treatment is delivered by someone in whom they have confidence — will improve. Tell someone a normal milkshake is a diet beverage, and his gut will respond as if the drink were low fat. Take athletes to the top of the Alps, put them on exercise machines and hook them to an oxygen tank, and they will perform better than when they are breathing room air — even if room air is all that’s in the tank. Wake a patient from surgery and tell him you’ve done an arthroscopic repair, and his knee gets better even if all you did was knock him out and put a couple of incisions in his skin. Give a drug a fancy name, and it works better than if you don’t.

It works even if the patient knows that she is taking a sugar pill. What matters is that she is told, by a medical authority, that the pill will cure her illness:

You don’t even have to deceive the patients. You can hand a patient with irritable bowel syndrome a sugar pill, identify it as such and tell her that sugar pills are known to be effective when used as placebos, and she will get better, especially if you take the time to deliver that message with warmth and close attention. Depression, back pain, chemotherapy-related malaise, migraine, post-traumatic stress disorder: The list of conditions that respond to placebos — as well as they do to drugs, with some patients — is long and growing.

Is it about the mind taking control of the body? Some hold to this belief:

But most of these have traditionally been psychological in nature, focusing on mechanisms like expectancy — the set of beliefs that a person brings into treatment — and the kind of conditioning that Ivan Pavlov first described more than a century ago. These theories, which posit that the mind acts upon the body to bring about physical responses, tend to strike doctors and researchers steeped in the scientific tradition as insufficiently scientific to lend credibility to the placebo effect. “What makes our research believable to doctors?” asks Ted Kaptchuk, head of Harvard Medical School’s Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter. “It’s the molecules. They love that stuff.” As of now, there are no molecules for conditioning or expectancy — or, indeed, for Kaptchuk’s own pet theory, which holds that the placebo effect is a result of the complex conscious and nonconscious processes embedded in the practitioner-patient relationship — and without them, placebo researchers are hard-pressed to gain purchase in mainstream medicine.

If it’s not the molecules, it’s the relationship. Of course, defining the nature of the relationship is more difficult than you might expect. Is it about caring and empathy? Or is it about ritual and drama?

Kaptchuk, who before joining Harvard had been an acupuncturist in private practice, wasn’t particularly disturbed by the finding that his own profession worked even when needles were not actually inserted; he’d never thought that placebo treatments were fake medicine. He was more interested in how the strength of the treatment varied with the quality and quantity of interaction between the healer and the patient — the drama, in other words. Hall reached out to him shortly after she read the paper.

To be clearer than Greenberg is, the interaction between healer and patient is not a drama. It is not taking place on a stage in front of an audience. It is a ritualized exchange that also affirms the patient as a member of society. True, enough, it’s an act of caring, but it is much more than that.

Naturally, researchers compare it to primitive rituals… which is not news. Claude Levi-Strauss did the same decades ago in his book, Structural Anthropology. He argued that recounting a myth that explained labor pains in terms of a struggle between spirits made more sense to a pregnant woman than would a scientific explanation. And thus, that it was as effective as medicine.

Greenberg continues:

that the placebo effect is a biological response to an act of caring; that somehow the encounter itself calls forth healing and that the more intense and focused it is, the more healing it evokes. He elaborated on this idea in a comparative study of conventional medicine, acupuncture and Navajo “chantway rituals,” in which healers lead storytelling ceremonies for the sick. He argued that all three approaches unfold in a space set aside for the purpose and proceed as if according to a script, with prescribed roles for every participant. Each modality, in other words, is its own kind of ritual, and Kaptchuk suggested that the ritual itself is part of what makes the procedure effective, as if the combined experiences of the healer and the patient, reinforced by the special-but-familiar surroundings, evoke a healing response that operates independently of the treatment’s specifics. “Rituals trigger specific neurobiological pathways that specifically modulate bodily sensations, symptoms and emotions,” he wrote. “It seems that if the mind can be persuaded, the body can sometimes act accordingly.” He ended that paper with a call for further scientific study of the nexus between ritual and healing.

Dare we mention it, but if a woman is giving birth she would do better to be in a modern hospital than in a primitive village where no medical care is available. If in the latter, she is doing the best under less than optimal circumstances. The issue is not so much the drama as the exchange itself, and especially the rituals that affirm her as a member of a community. Being connected is therapeutic. Feeling isolated and detached is not.

Now, however, physicians have discovered that the placebo effect produces an enzyme that correlated with a placebo response:

… a colleague presented evidence that an enzyme called COMT affected people’s response to pain and painkillers. Levels of that enzyme, Hall already knew, were also correlated with Parkinson’s disease, depression and schizophrenia, and in clinical trials people with those conditions had shown a strong placebo response. When they heard that COMT was also correlated with pain response — another area with significant placebo effects — Hall recalls, “Ted and I looked at each other and were like: ‘That’s it! That’s it!’ ”

Can you produce the same response by isolating and injecting the enzyme. Researchers are skeptical, rightly so. What if there is more to the biochemistry of human connection than an enzyme?

Some thoughts well worth pondering.