Sunday, November 15, 2009

Another piece of the puzzle: mindfulness

Okay, hopefully you had time to read the David Foster Wallace commencement linked from my last post. Now, read this:

Psychology Today: The neuroscience of mindfulness

If you're an overachiever, see if you notice the link between DFW's speech and this article. I promise, it's not unimportant.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

David Foster Wallace

Read this. Seriously, it's amazing. It's a commencement address given by a brilliant author, and the topic couldn't be more apropos to this blog.

Transcription of the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address - May 21, 2005

I'm going to paste a section of it in my next post, with some highlights. In conjunction with some research and some of my own handiwork, I think you might find what's coming interesting.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Social Anxiety Disorder in a milder form

"Social Anxiety Disorder" is a descriptive enough name that I don't have to list its symptoms in detail. Basically, people with this disorder experience a high level of anxiety in social situations in which most other people feel much more comfortable.

Try to imagine what this must feel like. It's possible that some of these feelings are already familiar to you to a lesser degree. Maybe going to a party where you don't know anybody makes you anxious.

Overcoming these feelings serves the obvious purpose of eased social interaction for our own sake, but there's another set of scenarios where the skills of being comfortable in unfamiliar social settings is very valuable. Let's consider the case of Kitty Genovese. You may have heard of her famous case.

In 1964, she was stabbed to death, in a series of attacks that spanned over roughly half an hour, where the perpetrator returned several times to make sure she was dead. His confidence to return seemed to come from the fact that nobody seemed to have reported the attack, despite screams and cries.

Naturally, there was a big furor over this: dozens of citizens had seen or heard bits of the attack, but nobody took decisive action to stop it. It turns out the media significantly exaggerated the facts, and in fact several people did call police or try to scare off the perp. The majority of others reported that they took the screams as coming from just another late night reveler in NYC, or else probably didn't see enough of what was going on to have sufficient reason to react.

The events surrounding her case were studied by social psychologists, who developed the study of "bystander intervention." As described in the wikipedia article on her case, some of the conclusions about why onlookers often fail to act suggest traits of human nature that are reminiscent of those we described above:
The reasons include the fact that onlookers see that others are not helping either, that onlookers believe others will know better how to help, and that onlookers feel uncertain about helping while others are watching.
Think about the last two in particular. Have you ever been in a social setting where you just assume that others know better how to behave "correctly?" How about the feeling of not wanting to look like that meddlesome guy or gal, offering help when others can "obviously" tell that no help is actually needed?

It seems to me that some of the key characteristics of a person who might be described as "the life of the party" coincide with those who are willing to step up and take responsibility when nobody else around is.

So, the next time you're at a party and feeling a little uncomfortable or awkward, and you need a little courage to break the ice, try to remember this. Others may witness your courage to be a little forward, and in their eyes perhaps you'll be the one who's "in the know" about how to act. Who knows, maybe that'll bring you one step closer to being a hero someday.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


This is a fun one I've been meaning to blog about for a while. Its connection with empathy will become clearer later when I'm less lazy. For now, consider this part I in a series of posts which are meant to be striking reminders of why not to judge others too harshly. Weird things are afoot in the human brain, our own included. Today we'll talk about

Anosognosia: a condition in which a person who suffers from a disability seems unaware of or denies the existence of his or her disability.

Patients with anosognosia are often otherwise rational, intelligent people. Consider the case of patients who suffer single-hemisphere strokes, causing partial paralysis--without knowledge of it:
One of the best-known victims of the condition was Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, who suffered a right-hemisphere stroke in 1974 that paralyzed his left side and eventually forced his retirement. He initially dismissed the paralysis as a myth, and weeks later he was still inviting reporters to go on hiking expeditions with him. When one visitor asked about his left leg, he claimed that he had recently been kicking 40-yard field goals with it in the exercise room and soon planned to try out for the Washington Redskins.

Mrs. M.'s form of anosognosia is even more extreme: she not only flatly denies she is paralyzed, she refuses to admit that the limp limb on the left has anything at all to do with her. One such anosognosiac became so incensed that somebody else's leg was cluttering up his hospital bed that he heaved the thing out and was subsequently amazed to find himself on the floor. Another claimed that the arm on the left belonged to his daughter, who was trying to seduce him.


Neuroscientist Edoardo Bisiach at the University of Milan in Italy reported one 74-year-old stroke patient who repeatedly claimed that his left hand belonged to the doctor examining him. The doctor finally grasped the paralyzed hand between his own two and held it up to the patient's face.

"Whose hands are these?" he asked.

"Your hands," the patient replied.

"How many of them?"


"Ever seen a man with three hands?" the doctor asked.

"A hand is the extremity of an arm," said the patient. "Since you have three arms, it follows that you must have three hands."

This would all be humorous but for the pause it should give us:
"Looking at patients like Mrs. M. can be spooky at first," says Ramachandran, a neuroscientist and physician at the University of California at San Diego, and the Salk Institute nearby. "But then you realize you're really looking at yourself, in amplified form."
It makes one wonder to what extent we all confabulate in our seemingly honest, rational lives.