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How a mother’s voice shapes her baby’s developing brain

Author: Kate Fehlhaber

Perma-link for article: http://www.banjaraacademy.org/how-a-mothers-voice-shapes-her-babys-developing-brain

How a mother’s voice shapes her baby’s developing brain

It is no surprise that a child prefers its mother’s voice to those of strangers. Beginning in the womb, a foetus’s developing auditory pathways sense the sounds and vibrations of its mother. Soon after birth, a child can identify its mother’s voice and will work to hear her voice better over unfamiliar female voices. A 2014 study of preterm infants showed that playing a recording of the mother’s voice when babies sucked on a pacifier was enough to improve development of oral feeding skills and shorten their hospital stay. A mother’s voice can soothe a child in stressful situations, reducing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and increasing levels of oxytocin, the social bonding hormone. Scientists have even traced the power of a mother’s voice to infants’ brains: a mother’s voice activates the anterior prefrontal cortex and the left posterior temporal region more strongly than an unfamiliar voice, priming the infant for the specialised task of speech processing.

While it makes intuitive sense that a mother’s voice has special power over infants and toddlers, what happens as children grow up? Daniel Abrams, a neurobiologist at Stanford University School of Medicine, and his team of researchers set out to answer this question using functional MRI (fMRI), a neuroimaging technique that measures brain activity by detecting metabolic changes in blood flow. The researchers examined 24 children between the ages of seven and 12, who had normal IQs, had no development disorders, and were raised by their biological mothers. While in the MRI machine, these children listened to recordings of nonsense words spoken by their mothers or by other women. The researchers specifically chose nonsense words so as not to trigger brain circuits related to semantics. Regardless, the children were able to accurately identify their mother’s voice more than 97 per cent of the time in less than one second.

But what actually happened when these older children heard their mother’s voice? The team hypothesised that listening to her voice would produce more activity in the so-called ‘voice-selective’ brain regions, involved in recognising voice and processing speech, compared with when they heard unfamiliar female voices. But what the scientists found was even more remarkable. A mother’s voice activated a wide range of brain structures including the amygdala, which regulates emotion, the nucleus accumbens and medial prefrontal cortex, which are part of a major reward circuit, and the fusiform face area, which processes visual face information. This pattern of brain activity can be likened to a neural fingerprint, where a mother’s voice triggers specific activity in her child’s brain.

The investigation didn’t stop there. The team found that the more neural connection between these ‘voice-selective’ brain regions and those related to mood, reward and face processing, the more social communication abilities a child had. In other words, the neural fingerprint of a mother’s voice within a child’s brain can predict that child’s ability to communicate in the social realm.

If that neural fingerprint is thought of as a biomarker in a child’s brain, then how different does it look in children with disorders in social function, such as autism? And how does the neural fingerprint change in adolescence and into adulthood?

The answers to these questions remain unknown, but it is now scientifically proven that most of us carry a mother’s voice in the neural patterns of our brain: bedtime stories, dinnertime conversation and the chatter we heard before birth identify us, uniquely, as surely as the fingerprint, enabling emotional development and social communication in childhood and, probably, through life.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


 

 

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Why every child in need
deserves an urgent response

Author: S Matthew Liao

Perma-link for article: http://www.banjaraacademy.org/why-every-child-in-need-deserves-an-urgent-response

Why every child in need deserves an urgent response

‘What would you do if you saw a six-year-old alone in a public place?’ So begins a short video from UNICEF, which has received more than 2 million views on YouTube. In the video, Anano, a six-year-old child actor, is dressed in different ways and placed in different scenarios. When Anano is well-dressed, we see people actively trying to help her. But when Anano’s appearance is altered to make her look homeless, we see people shunning her and sometimes even telling her to go away.

Why do people treat Anano so differently depending on how she is dressed?

One, not very flattering, explanation is that people have ingrained biases and prefer to help the privileged rather than the disadvantaged. After all, the dishevelled Anano resembles a child from a culture of travellers, which could have triggered many prejudices. Still, we can imagine a different child from a different cultural background placed in similar circumstances. It would not be surprising to find that people’s reactions remain similar. Indeed, the people in the video appear to be no different from you and me. Would we have reacted in similar ways if we had been in a similar situation?

I would like to propose a different way of looking at Anano’s case, one that highlights a basic problem in how we respond to other people. There is an important distinction between urgency and need. A situation is urgent if it requires immediate attention and action. For instance, a person drowning is an urgent situation, since that person will die if no one comes to his or her aid. A need, in particular a fundamental need, is something that is essential or very important for someone to, for example, pursue a good life. Receiving basic education would qualify as a fundamental need for a child, since without basic education it would be nearly impossible for a child to acquire the knowledge necessary to be an adequately functioning individual in society.

What Anano’s video might reveal is that, when people see the well-dressed child alone in a public place, they are treating the situation as urgent. Indeed, it is unusual: maybe the girl is lost. And she might face even greater danger if she were to meet the wrong kind of people. Given the perception that this could be an urgent situation, people are motivated to help.

In contrast, when people see a homeless-looking Anano, they don’t appear to regard it as an urgent situation. Sadly, the sight of homeless children is all too common. It is not difficult to imagine people thinking that this girl has probably been on the street for some time. Maybe her parents have even sent her out to solicit money. Given this perception, while people might be uncertain about who bears the responsibility for meeting the needs of a homeless child (is it the parents? the government?), one can see how they might think that they don’t have a responsibility to help her.

This distinction between urgency and need provides us with a different and plausible explanation for the behaviour of the people in the video, but it doesn’t justify it. The mistake that the bystanders make, and that you and I are just as likely to make, lies in thinking that they don’t have responsibility towards the kind of homeless children portrayed by Anano, just because the situation is not urgent. In fact, all of us have the responsibility to see to it that every human being’s fundamental needs are met.

Of course, some people believe that, as long as we don’t harm others, we’re not obliged to help anyone beyond immediate family and friends. But if this view were true, we wouldn’t be obliged to help strangers even in an urgent situation. Suppose you are a hermit, miles away from civilisation, and you find a newborn on your doorstep. The baby will die of starvation unless she is given some food, and you are the only person who can help her. But, on the view discussed, you wouldn’t have any obligation to help the baby, and you’d be permitted to let her die, since she is not your baby and you didn’t cause her to be in this predicament. Such a view seems callous and misguided.

Other people might think that we are obliged to only help people in urgent situations. But consider this case. Suppose an 80-year-old man would die in two days unless he is helped, while a 20-year-old woman would die in a year unless she is helped. When resources are not limited, we should of course try to help both of them. But suppose that resources are limited and we can save only one or the other. In such a case, even though the man’s situation is more urgent, it seems that we should help the woman. Among other things, the woman would stand to benefit much more if she were helped. The fact that we sometimes have greater responsibility towards people in need than towards people in urgent situations suggests that it is not true that we should help only people in urgent situations.

UNICEF estimates that, if we do not act, by 2030, more than 165 million children worldwide will live in extreme poverty, or on less than $1.90 a day; almost 70 million children under the age of five will die of largely preventable causes; more than 60 million children aged six to 11 will be out of school; and 750 million women will have been married as children. That is a huge number of people in need, even though their need might not be perceived as urgent.

We should try to change our attitude towards the homeless Ananos of this world, and be much more sympathetic and willing to help them. Anano’s video teaches us that, while we might well be primed to respond appropriately to urgent situations, we could and should do a much better job of responding to other people’s needs.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


 

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Five-month-old babies know what’s funny

Author: Gina Mireault

Perma-link for article: http://www.banjaraacademy.org/five-month-old-babies-know-whats-funny

Five-month-old babies know what’s funny

Before they speak or crawl or walk or achieve many of the other amazing developmental milestones in the first year of life, babies laugh. This simple act makes its debut around the fourth month of life, ushering in a host of social and cognitive opportunities for the infant. Yet despite the universality of this humble response and its remarkable early appearance, infant laughter has not been taken seriously. At least, not until recently. In the past decade, researchers have started to examine what infant laughter can reveal about the youngest minds, whether infants truly understand funniness, and if so, how.

Prompted by observations of infant laughter made by none other than Charles Darwin himself, modern psychologists have begun to ask whether infant laughter has a purpose or can reveal something about infants’ understanding of the world. Darwin speculated that laughter, like other universal emotional expressions, serves an important communicative function, which explains why nature preserved and prioritised it. Two key pieces of evidence support Darwin’s hunch. First, according to the psychologist Jaak Panksepp of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, laughter is not uniquely human. Its acoustic, rhythmic, and facial precursors appear in other mammals, particularly in juveniles while they are at play, pointing to the role of evolution in human laughter.

Second, the pleasure of laughter is neurologically based. It activates the dopamine (‘reward’) centre of the brain. Laughing – in many ways – has the same effect on social partners as playing. While the pleasure of playing is a way for juveniles to bond with each other, the pleasure of laughing is a way for adults to do so, as across mammalian species, adults rarely ‘play’. Shared laughter is as effective as playing in finding others to be a source of joy and satisfaction. Thus laughter biologically reinforces sociability, ensuring the togetherness needed for survival.

However, laughter is not only key to survival. It also is key to understanding others, including what it reveals about infants. For example, infants can employ fake laughter (and fake crying!) beginning at about six months of age, and do so when being excluded or ignored, or when trying to engage a social partner. These little fake-outs show that infants are capable of simple acts of deception much earlier than scholars previously thought, but which parents knew revealed infants’ cleverness. Similarly, the psychologist Vasu Reddy of the University of Portsmouth has found that, by eight months, infants can use a specific type of humour: teasing. For example, the baby might willingly hand over the car keys she’s been allowed to play with, but whip her hand back quickly, just before allowing her dad to take possession, all the while looking at him with a cheeky grin. Reddy calls this type of teasing ‘provocative non-compliance’. She has found that eight- to 12-month-olds use other types of teasing as well, including provocative disruption, as in toppling over a tower someone else has carefully built.

Teasing is the infant’s attempt to playfully provoke another person into interacting. It shows that infants understand something about others’ minds and intentions. In this example, the infant understands that she can make her father think that she will relinquish the car keys. The ability to trick others in this way suggests that infants are maturing toward a Theory of Mind, the understanding that others have minds that are separate from one’s own and that can be fooled. Psychologists have generally thought children don’t reach this milestone until about four and a half years of age. Infants’ ability to humorously tease reveals they are progressing toward a Theory of Mind much earlier than previously thought.

Additional evidence for this early Theory of Mind comes from studies showing that infants are quite capable of intentionally making others laugh, also by about the age of eight months. Infants do so by making silly faces and sounds, by performing absurd acts such as exposing hidden body parts or waving their stinky feet in the air, and by initiating games such as peekaboo that have previously invoked laughter. Knowing what another will find funny implies that infants understand something about another person, and use that understanding to their joyful advantage. This attempt to make others laugh is not seen among children and adults with autism, one feature of which is an impaired understanding of others’ social and emotional behaviours. Individuals with autism do laugh, but tend to do so in isolation or in response to stimuli that don’t elicit laughter in people without autism. They might mimic laughter, but not share it. In a sense, their laughter is non-social.

Perhaps because infants are so young, we have been reluctant to credit them with understanding ‘funniness’. Their laughs are more often attributed to ‘gas’ (a myth long ago dispelled) or imitation, or having been reinforced for laughing in response to certain events – like Mom singing in an ‘opera voice’. As it turns out, getting the joke doesn’t require advanced cognitive skills. And much of what it does require is within the infant’s grasp.

Although infants do imitate smiling, starting in the first few months of life, and prefer to look at smiles compared with negative emotional expressions, and although they might be reinforced for laughing at particular events, these are not sufficient explanations for infant laughter and humour. If they were, then imitation and reinforcement would need to account for most infant laughter, and this is simply not the case in life or in the research lab. In addition, it would suggest that infants are not capable of understanding new humorous events unless someone were available to interpret for them and/or to reinforce their laughter. Instead, research has shown that, within the first six months of life, infants can interpret a new event as funny all by themselves.

So how do they do it? Like children and adults, infants appear to rely on two key features to detect funniness. First, humour nearly always requires a social component. Using naturalistic observations, the psychologists Robert Kraut and Robert Johnston at Cornell, and later the neuroscientist Robert Provine at the University of Maryland, discovered that smiling is more strongly associated with the presence of other people, and only erratically associated with feelings of happiness. That is, smiling is more likely to be socially rather than emotionally motivated. Thus, the presence of a social partner is one key component of finding something funny. Recall that the point of laughter is to be shared.

But humour has a cognitive element too: that of incongruity. Humorous events are absurd iterations of ordinary experiences that violate our expectations. When a banana is used as a phone, when a large burly man speaks in a Mini Mouse voice, when 20 clowns emerge from a tiny car, we are presented with something bizarre and irrational, and are left to make sense of it. Infants, too, engage in this process.

We showed six-month-olds ordinary events (a researcher pretending to drink from a red plastic cup) and absurd iterations of those events (the researcher pretending to wear the red cup as a hat). In one condition, we instructed parents to remain emotionally neutral during the absurd event. Not only did infants find the absurd version of the event funny, they found it funny even when their parents remained neutral. That is, infants did not rely on their parents’ interpretation of the event as ‘funny’ to find it humorous themselves. When repeated with five-month-olds, we got the same results. Even with only a month of laughter experience under their belts, five-monthers independently interpreted the funniness of an event.

However, detecting incongruity isn’t the end of the story. Magical events are similarly incongruous, but adults, children and even infants do not laugh at them. Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard and Renée Baillargeon of the University of Illinois have observed that when natural laws are violated – a ball disappears into thin air or an object passes through a solid barrier – infants behave exactly as adults and children do: they don’t laugh, they stare. Why? Humour researchers theorise that although magic and humour both involve incongruity, only humour involves its resolution. In jokes, the resolution comes in the form of a punchline. It’s the ‘Ah-ha!’ moment when one gets the joke. It’s not known if infants are able to resolve incongruity, but that they laugh at humour and stare at magic suggests that they can. Perhaps they can simply distinguish that humorous events are possible and magical events are not, and this is enough to make the former funny. It’s up to researchers to solve this next piece of the puzzle. Until then, infants will have the last laugh.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


 

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Why the most successful students have no passion for school

Author: Jihyun Lee

Perma-link for article: http://www.banjaraacademy.org/why-the-most-successful-students-have-no-passion-for-school

Why the most successful students have no passion for school

In order to be successful, many people believe, one must be passionate. Passion makes challenges enjoyable. It bestows the stamina necessary to excel. However, there are telling counterexamples where passion doesn’t seem to be a necessary ingredient for success. One such case is academic success. You might think that successful students should be passionate about their schooling, and that this passion for school would account, at least partly, for why some students succeed and why some don’t. But this isn’t right. My research has found that there is in fact no relationship between how well students do academically and what their attitude toward schooling actually is. A student doesn’t need to be passionate about school to be academically successful.

My research findings derive from the analysis of a large-scale international database called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) makes the dataset available every three years. It’s a treasure trove that gives researches like myself an unparalleled view into what students across the world think about their education. In the most recent 2015 PISA assessment, 72 countries and economies contributed. Reading, mathematics and science tests, along with a questionnaire about attitudes, beliefs, learning habits and the like, are administered to nationally representative samples of 15-years-olds around the world. In previous surveys, four simple options were used to measure students’ attitude toward school:

(a) school has done little to prepare me for adult life when I leave school

(b) school has been a waste of time

(c) school helped give me confidence to make decisions

(d) school has taught me things that could be useful in a job

As it turned out, simple and direct correlations between students’ academic achievement and their attitudes toward school were near zero. This was far from an anomaly. The near-zero result was replicated in the PISA 2003, 2009, and 2012. There were no differences with respect to students’ socio-economic backgrounds. Gender did not affect the finding, and it holds for both developing and developed countries. Only about 2 per cent of the PISA mathematics performance was explained by students’ attitudes toward school in 62 countries. This means that in most countries, academically able students do not hold their schooling in high regard. Similarly, academically less able students do not necessarily have low opinions about their schooling. There’s simply no connection. This raises the intriguing question of motivation. If there is no real relationship between academic achievement and attitude, then what motivates bright students to achieve academic success? It certainly isn’t from an abundant passion for school.

The answer is that it comes from within. Other PISA-based research has suggested that what sets academically able and less able students apart is self-belief about their own strengths and weaknesses. Individual psychological variables such as self-efficacy, anxiety and enjoyment of learning in itself explain between 15 per cent and 25 per cent of the variation in students’ academic achievement. Collectively, research shows that students’ self-belief in their own problem-solving abilities is far more important than their perception of school itself.

This is a problem. Students’ attitude to school should matter for a number of reasons. If students find it difficult to see the direct benefits of their schooling, if they think that their school has failed to meet their expectations, and if they perceive that their academic skills are learned outside of school, it is possible that this will affect their views of formal institutions later in life. And indeed, many people have a pessimistic view of the role that formal institutions play – a view that very well could have stemmed from school experiences during formative years. Formal institutions shape the lives of a citizenry. They need to be upheld, bettered and strengthened – not discarded out of hand. So students should be taught to invest themselves in formal institutions, rather than to tear them down or fail to take part in them.

What can be done? Adults responsible for making decisions about schooling need to be more cognisant about the long-term influences that the school experience can exert on students’ attitudes and beliefs. A stronger emphasis must also be given to the inclusion of hands-on group activities that emulate what they may do in life once they graduate. Whether students are able to see the link between their present and future may have critical consequences for society.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


 

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How we learn to read another’s mind
by looking into their eyes

Author: Tobias Grossmann

Perma-link for article: http://www.banjaraacademy.org/how-we-learn-to-read-anothers-mind-by-looking-into-their-eyes

How we learn to read another’s mind by looking into their eyes

Eyes play a prominent role in our daily social encounters and are sometimes metaphorically referred to as windows to our souls. There now is compelling evidence to support the notion that much information about another person’s mind can be gleaned from his or her eyes. In one proof of concept, the Reading the Mind in the Eye Test (RMET), developed by Simon Baron-Cohen and his group at Cambridge University in the UK, has documented our ability to identify inner states from the eyes and the region surrounding the eyes. The extent of information that eyes communicate about other minds might be somewhat limited, yet evidence argues against the longheld view of philosophers in the skeptical tradition that the contents of other minds cannot be directly observed. Instead, human eyes form a bridge between self and other by providing direct access to another person’s inner state.

The phenomenon is unique to humans alone. Indeed, after comparison with nearly half of all primate species, the human eye has been shown to be morphologically and responsively unique. Humans not only show the greatest horizontal elongation of the eye outline and the largest amount of exposed tissue (called sclera) around the eyeball, but are also the only species with sclera that is white. When compared with our closest living primate relatives, chimpanzees, we humans focus more steadily on the eye region when scanning faces. By 14 months of age, the human gaze follows eyes almost exclusively whereas other great apes rely more on head direction.

The sensitivity to eyes emerges early in human development. From birth, newborn infants show a preference for faces, despite their poor visual acuity. Human infants prefer to look at faces that have eyes open versus eyes closed. Newborns exhibit a preference for faces only with naturally appearing eyes, including black iris and white sclera, versus control faces with white iris and black sclera. And infants appear to glean emotional information about other minds by gazing at eyes, literally recruiting brain regions that, in adults, are involved in understanding another person’s mental state. Strikingly, by seven months of age, infants detect emotional cues and distinguish between direct and averted gaze solely on the basis of the eye whites.

The attachment neurohormone oxytocin modulates our response to eye cues. When the hormone is administered through nasal passages during studies, subjects viewing faces show increased fixation on eyes. Oxytocin also significantly enhances the recognition of emotional and mental states from eye cues.

Reduced sensitivity to eyes and eye cues has been described as one of the earliest identifiable warning signs in the development of autism spectrum disorder. Recent studies show that, along the autism spectrum, orientation to eyes is initially present in young infants but later declines between two and six months of age. Characteristic differences in the brain responses to eye-gaze cues recorded at age six to 10 months predicted autism diagnosed at 36 months. Furthermore, older children with autism display enhanced brain responses to eye cues after intranasal oxytocin administration. The connection between oxytocin and mind-reading is nuanced indeed: research shows that genetic variations affecting oxytocin release and breastfeeding experience impact infants’ emotional response to eyes as early as seven months of age.

All in all, the ability to read other minds develops early in human infancy, and is deeply influenced by cues from the eyes. The phenomenon requires no explicit, conceptual grasp of other minds, but rather relies on direct experience of others’ emotional and mental states.

Of course, humans read others through a variety of modes – the sense of touch, for instance, or vocal cues. But eye cues have always been invaluable during close-range interactions lacking physical contact. Early in our evolution, eye cues were vital for cooperative hunting and foraging, truly essential for groups hoping to avoid predators and catch prey. Today such cues help us negotiate the world writ large, whether passing through crowds or functioning on the job. Communicating through eyes is an aid to cooperation, helping us identify and coordinate with the best partners by gaining access to their minds. Eyes as windows into other minds can be considered a hallmark feature of human social functioning with deep biological roots.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


 

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The brain-heart dialogue shows
how racism hijacks perception

Author: Manos Tsakiris

Perma-link for article: http://www.banjaraacademy.org/the-brain-heart-dialogue-shows-how-racism-hijacks-perception

The brain-heart dialogue shows how racism hijacks perception

If you’re black in the United States, you’re more than twice as likely as a white person to be unarmed if you’re killed in an encounter with the police. Why? Some kind of racial profiling is at work, but the precise psychological mechanism is poorly understood. Investigations into police shootings show that the officers often perceive cellphones and other non-threatening objects as weapons in the hands of a person of colour. So do police officers misinterpret what they see, or are they actually seeing a gun where there is none?

The classic psychological account would ascribe these mistakes to a failure of executive control, provoked by some external stimulus. That is, the problem comes from the brain’s inability to resolve the conflict between an automatically activated stereotype, and a consciously held egalitarian belief. Seeing a black face might automatically activate the stereotype that black men are more dangerous, leading to activity in brain areas implicated in fear responses. But this automatic response, which could trigger a fight-or-flight reaction, should be suppressed when the fear is irrational. Yet the tensions between automatic and control processes are not always readily resolved, and result in errors.

New strands of work in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy of mind challenge this brain-centric orthodoxy. Researchers of ‘embodied cognition’ focus instead on the brain’s interdependence on physiological processes that allow an organism to sustain itself. From this point of view, the mind must be understood as embedded in a body, and the body as embedded in a physical, social and cultural environment. Reality is not simply out there for the taking, but is summoned via the constant fluctuations of our own organic matter. As the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote in Phenomenology of Perception (1945): ‘The body is our general medium for having a world.’

Among neuroscientists, it’s increasingly popular to think of the brain not as a passive organ that receives and reacts to stimuli, but as more of an inference machine: something that actively strives to predict what’s out there and what’s going to happen, maximising the chances of staying alive. But the body isn’t simply controlled top-down. Rather, its signals are constantly combining with the brain’s inferences to generate our perception of the world. Imagine you hear a door slamming: you’re more likely to picture an intruder if you’re watching a scary movie than if you’re listening to soothing music. You make that prediction (otherwise quite unlikely) because it accounts for your fast heart-rate and the sound of the door.

We still know very little about exactly how these processes might relate to the phenomenon of racism, but now we have some idea of where to look. If the predictive story of behaviour is correct, perception (including that of the police) suddenly seems a lot closer to belief, and is a lot more embodied, than we used to think. Recent studies highlight the influences of visceral signals across many domains, from emotional processing and decision-making to self-awareness. For example, scary stimuli are judged to be more fearful when presented during heartbeats, rather than between heartbeats.

At my lab at Royal Holloway, University of London, we decided to test whether the cardiac cycle made a difference to the expression of racial prejudice. The heart is constantly informing the brain about the body’s overall level of ‘arousal’, the extent to which it is attuned to what is happening around it. On a heartbeat, sensors known as ‘arterial baroreceptors’ pick up pressure changes in the heart wall, and fire off a message to the brain; between heartbeats, they are quiescent. Such visceral information is initially encoded in the brainstem, before reaching the parts implicated in emotional and motivational behaviour. The brain, in turn, responds by trying to help the organism stabilise itself. If it receives signals of a raised heart-rate, the brain will generate predictions about the potential causes, and consider what the organism should do to bring itself down from this heightened state. This ongoing heart-brain dialogue, then, forms the basis of how the brain represents the body to itself, and creates awareness of the external environment.

In our experiment, we used what’s known as the ‘first-person shooter’s task’, which simulates the snap judgments police officers make. Participants see a white or black man holding a gun or phone, and have to decide whether to shoot depending on the perceived level of threat. In prior studies, participants were significantly more likely to shoot an unarmed black individual than a white one.

But we timed the stimuli to occur either between or on a heartbeat. Remarkably, the majority of misidentifications occurred when black individuals appeared at the same time as a heartbeat. Here, the number of false positives in which phones were perceived as weapons rose by 10 per cent compared with the average. In a different version of the test, we used what’s known as the ‘weapons identification task’, where participants see a white or black face, followed by an image of a gun or tool, and must classify the object as quickly as possible. When the innocuous items were presented following a black face, and on a heartbeat, errors rose by 20 per cent.

Yet in both instances, when the judgment happened between heartbeats, we observed no differences in people’s accuracy, irrespective of whether they were responding to white or black faces. It seems that the combination of the firing of signals from the heart to the brain, along with the presentation of a stereotypical threat, increased the chances that even something benign will be perceived as dangerous.

It’s surprising to think of racial bias as not just a state or habit of mind, nor even a widespread cultural norm, but as a process that’s also part of the ebbs and flows of the body’s physiology. The heart-brain dialogue plays a crucial role in regulating blood pressure and heart rate, as well as motivating and supporting adaptive behaviour in response to external events. So, in fight-or-flight responses, changes in cardiovascular function prepare the organism for subsequent action. But while the brain might be predictive, those predictions can be inaccurate. What our findings illustrate is the extent to which racial and possibly other stereotypes are hijacking bodily mechanisms that have evolved to deal with actual threats.

The psychologist Lisa Barrett Feldman at Northeastern University in Boston coined the term ‘affective realism’ to describe how the brain perceives the world through the body. On the one hand, this is a reason for optimism: if we can better understand the neurological mechanisms behind racial bias, then perhaps we’ll be in a better position to correct it. But there is a grim side to the analysis, too. The structures of oppression that shape who we are also shape our bodies, and perhaps our most fundamental perceptions. Maybe we do not ‘misread’ the phone as a gun; we might we actually see a gun, rather than a phone. Racism might not be something that societies can simply overcome with fresh narratives and progressive political messages. It might require a more radical form of physiological retraining, to bring our embodied realities into line with our stated beliefs.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


 

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If money can make you happy,
does debt make you sad?

Author: Cassondra Batz

Perma-link for article: http://www.banjaraacademy.org/if-money-can-make-you-happy-does-debt-make-you-sad

If money can make you happy, does debt make you sad?

Humans have long debated the adage ‘Money can’t buy you happiness.’ Popular opinion suggests that, indeed, it cannot, but more recently researchers have challenged this notion. Based on extensive studies, investigators found that money, or income, can contribute to your happiness. In our capitalist society, income leads to increases in happiness to the extent that funds are required to attain the things that lead to happiness. By meeting needs for shelter or food, allowing the purchase of a home or groceries, or opening the window to experiences such as adventure or travel, money can increase our sense of satisfaction with life.

But what about the relationship between debt and wellbeing? Does money, even when borrowed, make us happier – or does the state of owing money add to our dissatisfaction and stress? The ‘IOU’ is an ever-present and, at times, necessary evil that allows for a degree on the wall, a roof overhead, or a shiny car in the garage. Yet at what cost?

For my colleagues and I, the emotional impact of borrowing certainly merited study, given that 80 per cent of US households, and 70 per cent of college graduates, are currently in debt. A review of prior studies showed that stress from debt was two-pronged: it appeared to spill over and add to the psychological burden of life, but it was also a real drain on the actual resources required to pay off the debt.

To drill down deeper, our team analysed a large sample of college students and the impact of their student loans on subjective wellbeing. Much of what we found seemed self-evident: if a debt felt manageable, it was less damaging to an individual’s sense of wellbeing than if the debt felt overwhelming. A person’s sense of wellbeing varied with the source of the borrowed funds. Money borrowed from people or places charging less interest or offering more flexibility – subsidised student loans, for instance – results in less stress than money borrowed from financial institutions with exorbitant interest rates and no forgiveness policies. The emotional toll taken by debt varied with the degree to which an individual had other financial resources. A person whose debt was matched by investments or property had a security blanket to help them through. Especially important was the raison d’être for the loan. Debt undertaken for necessities, such as a home to live in, was less detrimental to one’s wellbeing; debt undertaken for an irresponsible splurge on unnecessary home renovations was more stressful.

So, is education debt less upsetting because it leads to levels of attainment necessary for many careers? Only to a certain degree. Unsurprisingly, our analyses showed that student loans lead to greater financial worry, which has a detrimental effect on life satisfaction. But the more that education led to real income, the less anxiety the borrower felt. We found that as students continued to pay out their debt over the course of up to eight years, happiness was reliably boosted by income and diminished by debt, until the two balanced out.

Is there any benefit to such studies, which seem to bear out the obvious? We think so.

When considering the issue of whether debt or income have stronger effects on the sense of wellbeing, it is helpful to understand whether income is merely the opposite of debt. After all, if debt and income are two poles of a unidimensional continuum, then comparing their relative strengths will not be substantively meaningful. But our team found an interesting juxtaposition between debt and income, and a far more nuanced relationship between the two: debt levels can accrue regardless of income levels. In fact, individuals who have higher levels of income also have access to higher credit and can incur higher debt. On the other hand, individuals who are financially competent will likely have higher levels of income and lower levels of debt – and this leads to an inverse relation between the two and the sense of wellbeing they provoke.

What appears simple, therefore, is somewhat complex. Our findings emphasise that students shouldn’t worry only about their credit scores when accruing large amounts of debt; erosion of the sense wellbeing and inner emotional life must be weighed as well. Students should understand, moreover, that not all debt has an equal impact. If you choose to carry some debt, a few considerations are key: only borrow what you can manage. Think hard about why you are borrowing the money and where it is coming from. And borrow only if you can back up the debt with income or other assets. If you consider these factors, then debt need not wipe that smile off your face.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


 

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What know-it-alls don’t know, or the illusion of competence

Author: Kate Fehlhaber

Perma-link for article: http://www.banjaraacademy.org/what-know-it-alls-dont-know-or-the-illusion-of-competence

What know-it-alls don’t know, or the illusion of competence

One day in 1995, a large, heavy middle-aged man robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. He didn’t wear a mask or any sort of disguise. And he smiled at surveillance cameras before walking out of each bank. Later that night, police arrested a surprised McArthur Wheeler. When they showed him the surveillance tapes, Wheeler stared in disbelief. ‘But I wore the juice,’ he mumbled. Apparently, Wheeler thought that rubbing lemon juice on his skin would render him invisible to videotape cameras. After all, lemon juice is used as invisible ink so, as long as he didn’t come near a heat source, he should have been completely invisible.

Police concluded that Wheeler was not crazy or on drugs – just incredibly mistaken.

The saga caught the eye of the psychologist David Dunning at Cornell University, who enlisted his graduate student, Justin Kruger, to see what was going on. They reasoned that, while almost everyone holds favourable views of their abilities in various social and intellectual domains, some people mistakenly assess their abilities as being much higher than they actually are. This ‘illusion of confidence’ is now called the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’, and describes the cognitive bias to inflate self-assessment.

To investigate this phenomenon in the lab, Dunning and Kruger designed some clever experiments. In one study, they asked undergraduate students a series of questions about grammar, logic and jokes, and then asked each student to estimate his or her score overall, as well as their relative rank compared to the other students. Interestingly, students who scored the lowest in these cognitive tasks always overestimated how well they did – by a lot. Students who scored in the bottom quartile estimated that they had performed better than two-thirds of the other students!

This ‘illusion of confidence’ extends beyond the classroom and permeates everyday life. In a follow-up study, Dunning and Kruger left the lab and went to a gun range, where they quizzed gun hobbyists about gun safety. Similar to their previous findings, those who answered the fewest questions correctly wildly overestimated their knowledge about firearms. Outside of factual knowledge, though, the Dunning-Kruger effect can also be observed in people’s self-assessment of a myriad of other personal abilities. If you watch any talent show on television today, you will see the shock on the faces of contestants who don’t make it past auditions and are rejected by the judges. While it is almost comical to us, these people are genuinely unaware of how much they have been misled by their illusory superiority.

Sure, it’s typical for people to overestimate their abilities. One study found that 80 per cent of drivers rate themselves as above average – a statistical impossibility. And similar trends have been found when people rate their relative popularity and cognitive abilities. The problem is that when people are incompetent, not only do they reach wrong conclusions and make unfortunate choices but, also, they are robbed of the ability to realise their mistakes. In a semester-long study of college students, good students could better predict their performance on future exams given feedback about their scores and relative percentile. However, the poorest performers showed no recognition, despite clear and repeated feedback that they were doing badly. Instead of being confused, perplexed or thoughtful about their erroneous ways, incompetent people insist that their ways are correct. As Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man (1871): ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.’

Interestingly, really smart people also fail to accurately self-assess their abilities. As much as D- and F-grade students overestimate their abilities, A-grade students underestimate theirs. In their classic study, Dunning and Kruger found that high-performing students, whose cognitive scores were in the top quartile, underestimated their relative competence. These students presumed that if these cognitive tasks were easy for them, then they must be just as easy or even easier for everyone else. This so-called ‘imposter syndrome’ can be likened to the inverse of the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby high achievers fail to recognise their talents and think that others are equally competent. The difference is that competent people can and do adjust their self-assessment given appropriate feedback, while incompetent individuals cannot.

And therein lies the key to not ending up like the witless bank robber. Sometimes we try things that lead to favourable outcomes, but other times – like the lemon juice idea – our approaches are imperfect, irrational, inept or just plain stupid. The trick is to not be fooled by illusions of superiority and to learn to accurately reevaluate our competence. After all, as Confucius reportedly said, real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

 

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Cognitive Dissonance Helps Old Dogs With Their New Tricks

Author: Suzanne Cope

Perma-link for article: http://www.banjaraacademy.org/cognitive-dissonance-helps-old-dogs-with-their-new-tricks

Cognitive Dissonance Helps Old Dogs With Their New Tricks

How do we get others to change their minds? That is the question many of us are asking in this polarising social and political climate, where the gulf between some people’s beliefs appears almost insurmountable. But there is a way, based in the academic field of adult learning, that has helped people confront their own biases and find a new perspective.

The key to success is confronting cognitive dissonance, the state of mental discomfort one feels when holding two or more conflicting beliefs or worldviews at the same time. Coming to terms with cognitive dissonance facilitates what the adult learning theorist Jack Mezirow called transformational learning – identifying and addressing our biases through action, becoming a bit more tolerant along the way.

The ability to learn in adulthood is supported by the recent finding that the adult brain is much more plastic than we once believed. ‘Although the brain was once seen as a rather static organ, it is now clear that the organisation of brain circuitry is constantly changing as a function of experience,’ wrote the neuroscientists Bryan Kolb, Robbin Gibb and Terry E Robinson in their seminal paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science in 2003. This initial discovery and many subsequent studies have been upending the long-held adage that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. In essence, we have a much greater ability to learn in adulthood than we once thought, from learning new skills or knowledge, to the capacity to change one’s social or political worldview.

Likewise, cognitive dissonance has been widely used as a learning tool for adults, particularly as an aid to help students thinking more critically about their larger place in the world. Rachel Panton, an adult learning expert/practitioner and writing coach, sees cognitive dissonance at work when she teaches food memoir to emerging adults at the University of Miami. To help introduce cognitive dissonance around assumptions about their own culture, she has students investigate the socio-economic, political and historical contexts of the food they consider ‘American’, such as hot dogs and apple pie. She sees her white American students initially resisting their ties to ethnic foods, but ultimately, through research and discussion that provokes cognitive dissonance, many of them come to realise that their diets can be seen to be as foreign as the food associated with Americans of colour, including Chinese food and soul food. ‘So when we start to investigate the context of the foods that they eat and how much of it is foreign to their international student peers, or even other ethnic groups within the US, they begin to realise their own identities as European Americans instead of just “normal American diets”,’ Panton explained.

But we also see transformation through cognitive dissonance in everyday life. In February 2017, STAT reported on the Iraqi-born cardiologist Chalak Berzingi and his clinic in a small, overwhelmingly conservative town in West Virginia. The journalist Max Blau describes the positive relationship between Berzingi and Eugene Smith, 57, unemployed due to ill-health, and a self-described Trump supporter. ‘I feel for people like him … That makes me feel bad his family can’t come over here,’ Smith said. ‘I know they’re not all terrorists … I don’t know how we can weed out the bad from the good. That’s our problem.’

These statements show cognitive dissonance at work. Smith is thinking still of ‘other’ Muslims as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but, through his interactions with Berzingi, he is presented with evidence for creating a new worldview of Muslims as much more similar to himself.

Cognitive dissonance is also at play in works of social commentary across genres, such as the short film Let Me In (2016) featuring Alicia Keys. Here, the singer and her two small children are forced to flee their suburban home in Los Angeles because of fierce fighting across the coifed flower beds and winding streets of their otherwise average US neighbourhood. She and her children leave with little more than the clothes on their backs, and make their way toward the Mexican border.

This fictitious upending of refugee tropes, while obvious, is also arresting. We all recognise the upper-middle-class neighbourhood her character flees from, even if we don’t live there; and we can all imagine firefights in our front yard. Through the juxtaposition, assumptions about refugees are challenged and we are confronted with two conflicting worldviews overlaid: one includes our Western knowledge of middle-class family life; the other consists of our beliefs about refugees.

By conflating US suburbia and Syrian strife, Keys hopes that her audience will better understand the plight of refugees running from violence. Ultimately, she appeals to our pathos to create even more cognitive dissonance – we cannot help but empathise with the plight of her family, and thus we are challenged to rethink our feelings about other refugees too.

So how might we evoke cognitive dissonance to help change others’ minds? As in the examples above, we can connect narrow worldviews to the wider, conflicted world. Showing the humanity and even similarity of groups who are marginalised, for example, can counteract one’s established worldviews. Clashing views of reality might help anyone see the world through new eyes.

The technique even works when we use it on ourselves. First, we must identify our biases in the face of instinctual anger, revulsion or fear. If we can assess where this feeling comes from, and what it is founded upon, then we can train ourselves to respond differently the next time around.

‘We learned from the rapidly changing views on gay marriage that direct personal contact with gay family or friends had the greatest impact on challenging views,’ said Judith Beth Cohen, an adult learning expert at Lesley University in Massachusetts. ‘In this case, cognitive dissonance came from the human contact, which made an abstraction come alive. Given that most new media feeds people what they want to hear, we need ways to get beyond our bubbles and encounter the “other”, not just virtually but in the flesh.’Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

 

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Lifestyle Changes, Not A Magic Pill, Can Reverse Alzheimer’s

Author: Clayton Dalton

Perma-link for article: http://www.banjaraacademy.org/lifestyle-changes-not-a-magic-pill-can-reverse-alzheimers

Lifestyle Changes, Not A Magic Pill, Can Reverse Alzheimer’s

Last summer, a research group from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) quietly published the results of a new approach in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. What they found was striking. Although the size of the study was small, every participant demonstrated such marked improvement that almost all were found to be in the normal range on testing for memory and cognition by the study’s end. Functionally, this amounts to a cure.

These are important findings, not only because Alzheimer’s disease is projected to become ever more common as the population ages, but because current treatment options offer minimal improvement at best. Last July, a large clinical trial found little benefit in patients receiving a major new drug called LMTX. And after that, another hopeful drug designed to target amyloid protein, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, failed its first large clinical trial as well. Just two months ago, Merck announced the results of its trial of a drug called verubecestat, which is designed to inhibit formation of amyloid protein. It was found to be no better than placebo.

The results from UCLA aren’t due to an incredible new drug or medical breakthrough, though. Rather, the researchers used a protocol consisting of a variety of different lifestyle modifications to optimise metabolic parameters – such as inflammation and insulin resistance – that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Participants were counselled to change their diet (a lot of veggies), exercise, develop techniques for stress management, and improve their sleep, among other interventions. The most common ‘side effect’ was weight loss.

The study is notable not only for its remarkable outcomes, but also for the alternative paradigm it represents in the treatment of a complex, chronic disease. We’ve spent billions of dollars in an effort to understand the molecular basis of Alzheimer’s in the hope that it will lead to a cure, or at least to more effective therapies. And although we have greatly enlarged our knowledge of the disease, it has not yielded many successful treatments.

The situation is analogous in kind, if not quite degree, to the many other chronic diseases with which we now struggle, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. While we do have efficacious medications for these conditions, none work perfectly, and all have negative effects. Our understanding of the cellular processes at the root of these diseases is sophisticated, but technical mastery – the grail of a cure – has remained elusive.

Acknowledging these difficulties, the researchers at UCLA opted for a different approach. Beginning from the premise that Alzheimer’s disease is a particular manifestation of a highly complex system in disarray, they sought to optimise the system by changing the inputs. Put another way, the scientists chose to set aside the molecular box which has proven so vexing, and to focus instead on the context of the box itself. Although we cannot say precisely how the intervention worked, on a cellular level, the important thing is that it did work.

The method isn’t entirely novel. Researchers have already shown that multi-faceted, comprehensive lifestyle interventions can significantly improve outcomes in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension. But it’s difficult for these approaches to gain traction for two reasons. First, these protocols are more challenging than simply taking a pill at bedtime. Patients need ongoing education, counselling and support to effect meaningful change. And second, the pharmaceutical mode of treatment is deeply embedded within our current medical system. Insurance companies are set up to pay for medication, not lifestyle change; and physicians are taught pharmacology, not nutrition.

Despite these difficulties, it’s time to start taking these approaches much more seriously. The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease is expected to triple over the next three decades, to nearly 14 million in the United States alone. Diabetes and other chronic diseases are expected to follow a similar trajectory. Trying to confront this epidemic with medication alone will raise a new host of problems, from prohibitive cost to adverse effects, without addressing any underlying cause. We know that comprehensive lifestyle modification can work for many chronic diseases, in some cases as well as medication. It deserves more than passing mention at the end of an annual check-up – it’s time to make it a cornerstone in the treatment not only of Alzheimer’s disease, but of all chronic disease.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


 

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To Be Happier, Focus On What’s Within Your Control

Author: Massimo Pigliucci

Perma-link for article: http://www.banjaraacademy.org/to-be-happier-focus-on-whats-within-your-control

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
To be happier focus on what's within our control

This is the Serenity Prayer, originally written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr around 1934, and commonly used by Alcoholics Anonymous and similar organisations. It is not just a key step toward recovery from addiction, it is a recipe for a happy life, meaning a life of serenity arrived at by consciously taking what life throws at us with equanimity.

The sentiment behind the prayer is very old, found in 8th-century Buddhist manuscripts, as well as in 11th-century Jewish philosophy. The oldest version I can think of, however, goes back to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Active in the 2nd century in Rome and then Nicopolis, in western Greece, Epictetus argued that:

We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible. The former include our judgment, our impulse, our desire, aversion and our mental faculties in general; the latter include the body, material possessions, our reputation, status – in a word, anything not in our power to control. … [I]f you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not, you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticise anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly. You won’t have a single rival, no one to hurt you, because you will be proof against harm of any kind.

I call this Epictetus’ promise: if you truly understand the difference between what is and what is not under your control, and act accordingly, you will become psychologically invincible, impervious to the ups and downs of fortune.

Of course, this is far easier said than done. It requires a lot of mindful practice. But I can assure you from personal experience that it works. For instance, last year I was in Rome, working, as it happened, on a book on Stoicism. One late afternoon I headed to the subway stop near the Colosseum. As soon as I entered the crowded subway car, I felt an unusually strong resistance to moving forward. A young fellow right in front of me was blocking my way, and I couldn’t understand why. Then the realisation hit, a second too late. While my attention was focused on him, his confederate had slipped his hand in my left front pocket, seized my wallet, and was now stepping outside of the car, immediately followed by his accomplice. The doors closed, the train moved on, and I found myself with no cash, no driver’s licence, and a couple of credit cards to cancel and replace.

Before I started practising Stoicism, this would have been a pretty bad experience, and I would not have reacted well. I would have been upset, irritated and angry. This foul mood would have spilled over the rest of the evening. Moreover, the shock of the episode, as relatively mild as the attack had been, would have probably lasted for days, with a destructive alternation of anger and regret.

But I had been practicing Stoicism for a couple of years. So my first thought was of Epictetus’ promise. I couldn’t control the thieves in Rome, and I couldn’t go back and change what had happened. I could, however, accept what had happened and file it away for future reference, focusing instead on having a nice time during the rest of my stay. After all, nothing tragic had happened. I thought about this. And it worked. I joined my evening company, related what happened, and proceeded to enjoy the movie, the dinner, and the conversation. My brother was amazed that I took things with such equanimity and that I was so calm about it. But that’s precisely the power of internalising the Stoic dichotomy of control.

And its efficacy is not limited to minor life inconveniences, as in the episode just described. James Stockdale, a fighter-jet pilot during the Vietnam War, was shot down and spent seven and a half years in Hoa Lo prison, where he was tortured and often put in isolation. He credits Epictetus for surviving the ordeal by immediately applying the dichotomy of control to his extreme situation as a captive, which not only saved his life, but also allowed him to coordinate the resistance from inside the prison, in his position as senior ranking officer.

Most of us don’t find ourselves in Stockdale’s predicament, but once you begin paying attention, the dichotomy of control has countless applications to everyday life, and all of them have to do with one crucial move: shifting your goals from external outcomes to internal achievements.

For example, let’s say that you are preparing your résumé for a possible job promotion. If your goal is to get the promotion, you are setting yourself up for a possible disappointment. There is no guarantee that you will get it, because the outcome is not (entirely) under your control. Sure, you can influence it, but it also depends on a number of variables that are independent of your efforts, including possible competition from other employees, or perhaps the fact that your boss, for whatever unfathomable reason, really doesn’t like you.

That’s why your goal should be internal: if you adopt the Stoic way, you would conscientiously put together the best résumé that you can, and then mentally prepare to accept whatever outcome with equanimity, knowing that sometimes the universe will favour you, and other times it will not. What do you gain by being anxious over something you don’t control? Or angry at a result that was not your doing? You are simply adding a self-inflicted injury to the situation, compromising your happiness and serenity.

This is no counsel for passive acceptance of whatever happens. After all, I just said that your goal should be to put together the best résumé possible! But it is the mark of a wise person to realise that things don’t always go the way we wish. If they don’t, the best counsel is to pick up the pieces, and move on.

Do you want to win that tennis match? It is outside of your control. But to play the best game you can is under your control. Do you want your partner to love you? It is outside of your control. But there are plenty of ways you can choose to show your love to your partner – and that is under your control. Do you want a particular political party to win the election? It is outside of your control (unless you’re Vladimir Putin!) But you can choose to engage in political activism, and you can vote. These aspects of your life are under your control. If you succeed in shifting your goals internally, you will never blame or criticise anyone, and you won’t have a single rival, because what other people do is largely beyond your control and therefore not something to get worked up about. The result will be an attitude of equanimity toward life’s ups and downs, leading to a more serene life.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


 

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There Is More To Life Than Just Physical Security

Author: Dr. Ali Khwaja

Perma-link for article: http://www.banjaraacademy.org/as-we-grow-older-by-counsellor-author-life-coach-dr-ali-khwaja

There Is More To Life Than Just Physical Security

As I grow older, I realize that I have so much to learn from younger and younger people. It is nice to be old, with all your happy and sad memories, the nostalgia and particularly the beautiful relationships you have built and you cherish – even if sometimes the people are no more. But if we get stuck in the past, and keep talking about “In my good old days….” we are denying ourselves the opportunity to participate in the most exciting and challenging things that are happening now, which we couldn’t even have dreamt of some decades ago.

I will not forget the hundred year old man who, when people asked what the advantages of being a centurion are, he replied: “No peer pressure.” I agree with him. If I spend time with people of my age or older, I find very few of them willing to adapt and adjust to the new world and enjoy what it has to offer. Living in the past is not going to bring back the past, but will deprive you of living in the present, and planning for the future.

That is another topic of interest. Many elderly people do not want to plan for the future (except bolstering their investments or health insurance) just because their age has crossed certain numbers. But there is more to life than just physical security. Here I would like to quote the story of another centurion who was very positive and enthusiastic, and when asked the secret of his motivation, he replied: “every morning I drag myself out of bed with all my bones aching, go outside and fetch the newspaper. I open the Obituary Column to see whether my photo is there. If it is not there then I know I have one more day on this earth and I might as well enjoy it!”

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Are We All Selfish People?

Author: Dr. Ali Khwaja

Perma-link for article: http://www.banjaraacademy.org/are-we-basically-selfish-and-greedy-by-counsellor-author-life-coach-dr-ali-khwaja

Are We All Selfish People?

Every year as I welcome the new students into our counseling course, I am amazed that so many of them come into this simple, experiential and unorthodox course with such high qualifications and credentials. Some have given up high-paid and high-status jobs, others have put aside prestigious achievements, comforts, their status, and have agreed to become students – to learn about life, about themselves, about others, and how to reach out to people.

When intellectuals say that humans are basically selfish and greedy, that they only look for their own benefit, I want to tell them about our students – and also those who have been giving selfless voluntary service for years after they qualify in our counseling course. These are the people who keep reinforcing my faith in humanity, and I feel so privileged that I am able to have such amazing people around me. That is what keeps motivating me to continue with my humble mission.

I am sure you too will find some selfless people around you – it is up to you to spend time with them, nurture your relationship with them, and find an oasis in the self-centered world.

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In Memoriam - Vasundhara Ghorpade

A Tribute By Dr. Ali Khwaja

Perma-link for article: http://www.banjaraacademy.org/in-memoriam-vasundhara-ghorpade-a-tribute-by-counsellor-author-life-coach-dr-ali-khwaja

Vasundhara Ghorpade

Let's not mourn her death, let us celebrate her life! Vasu, as we all called her, was a beautiful person inside and out. Daughter of the Maharaja of Baroda and Maharani of Sandur, wife of a minister, a person with stunning beauty even in her seventies, she was modest to the core. She did the Diploma in Counselling Skills (DCS) and then DLS courses with Banjara Academy, was quietly involved, bewitched people with her dazzling smile, reached out whenever required, and did whatever she did so modestly, no one would ever be able to guess who and what she is.

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FREE Online Psychological Counselling by Banjara Academy for anyone, anywhere in the world FREE online counselling for the depressed

  • Are you stressed about your child?
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  • Do you feel overwhelmed by anxiety and fear?

Just mail your counsellor now, sharing your problems, your worries, your anxieties, your fears. Your counsellor will reply to you, and be there for you until you need her to help you cope and get going.

Leading Banjara Academy's online email counselling team of volunteer-counsellors, I realize it is not an easy task reaching out to a person one has never met, never seen, without the added advantage of gestures, eye contact, a gentle reassuring touch, tone of voice and yet providing empathy, positive strokes, making the person feel heard and understood.

With the aid of only written words, it is quite a task building trust, making people open up and share and helping them cope and feel better. So when in many instances they write back saying thank you and that they feel so much better, the feeling one gets is priceless and incomparable - knowing one has done something right, something good!

Hats off to all the volunteeer-counsellors of Banjara Academy who have been carrying on this work silently, anonymously for the last couple of years. Truly commendable! - Ali Khwaja

 

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