Teen Suicide: Can It Always Be Stopped?

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An American between 15 and 24 commits suicide every two hours.

teen1My last posting about the tragic and very public suicide of a sixteen-year-old boy on the grounds of my niece’s Charleston school, produced two anonymous comments (on the Psychology Today website):

CALL ME A PESSIMIST BUT—
I see first all those who failed Aaron, and a group being sad and responding after a tragedy, yes, but also acts that are self preserving of the remaining group, and few answers. Read more

Triumph of the (Teenage) Human Spirit

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Resilience is sometimes astounding, and we need to acknowledge it.

school-group-wearing-red-c-uA boy, in flames, is running, screaming, across the parking lot of his school on an otherwise ordinary morning. The image evokes Vietnam or Bosnia, but it is Charleston, South Carolina, Wednesday, December 8. The school happens to be the number-one ranked Academic Magnet High School in the United States, and it shares a campus with a highly regarded School of the Arts. The burning boy is running toward the magnet school’s front doors. Read more

The Pendulum Swings Back

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Americans love the center, and are also fond of gridlock.

/images1I recently ended a decade on the Board of Trustees of the Russell Sage Foundation, which funds research in various branches of social science and psychology that bear on issues like race, immigration, poverty, and inequality in all its forms. It was endowed in 1907 by Margaret Olivia Sage in memory of her husband Russell Sage, and she specified that she wanted her legacy to be used toward “the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States.” My farewell remarks were made at an annual dinner two days after the election, and it being a foundation with traditionally liberal concerns, many present were worried about the direction of the country. I said this:

A couple of years ago at this event I was seated next to Barbara Solow, a respected economic historian and at eighty-something a charming and lively dinner companion. We were in the depths of the economic crisis, two wars were not going well, and some people were saying they had never seen worse times. I asked Bobbi, a child of the Depression and a Radcliffe student during the war, how worried she was. Read more

Psychological States As Ancient Adaptations

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Depressed? Anxious? Happy? Resilient? Thank a hunter-gatherer in your past.

women-at-mongongo-groves-copy3I’ve considered here the high probability that obesity and diabetes are diseases of civilization and the possibility that ADHD may in part be as well. But what about other psychological symptoms and disorders? Randolph Nesse , a distinguished psychiatrist at the University of Michigan, has long been thinking about depression and anxiety in evolutionary perspective, and so have I and others.
Depression is a kind of withdrawal. Although it can be severe or long enough to hurt your reproductive options and even endanger your life, it is sometimes a symptom that gets you out of harm’s way. Read more

The Happiness Summit: Four Religious Leaders Talk

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Religious summit finds happiness in relationships and even in suffering.

dalai-lama-emoryLast month at Emory (my university), the Dalai Lama was the center of a conversation-a “summit,” according to the press-on happiness. Also included were a Presiding Episcopal Bishop, the Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, and a famed Islamic scholar. None of them said anything about mood, and several denied that happiness has much to do with pleasure. Read more

The Social Network, 10,000 BP

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Do 21st-century networks hark back to the distant past?

Picture a fire in an otherwise pitch-dark cave, or outside on a still plain on a moonless, starry night. Drop the temperature a bit, perhaps, and add the distant wail of a coyote or some wild dogs. Now add the most important ingredient: four or seven or ten people sitting around the fire talking, Read more

The Social Network, 10,000 BP

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Do 21st-century networks hark back to the distant past?

Picture a fire in an otherwise pitch-dark cave, or outside on a still plain on a moonless, starry night. Drop the temperature a bit, perhaps, and add the distant wail of a coyote or some wild dogs. Now add the most important ingredient: four or seven or ten people sitting around the fire talking, with babies or young children sleeping on some of their backs or laps. Extend the scene long into the night.

Thus the nub of the social network, circa 10,000 years ago, and for a couple of hundred thousand years before that. Hunter-gatherer bands consisted of a small number of people, 30 or so on average, mostly related through direct or indirect blood or marital ties. The number could fluctuate upward when a resource was limited-say, water in the dry season-or downward when prey animals were dispersing. The group could also split for social reasons-one way of resolving conflict-and reaggregate as before, or expand again with somewhat changed membership. The band might also move as a whole. But for a few weeks or months at least, these would be the people you saw and talked with every day.

Beyond these fluctuating, mobile bands would be a wider social world of perhaps 500 people you would likely know by name and sight. You would be related to some of them, more distantly on average than to those in your band, and you would think of some of them as people who could help you in bad times, perhaps connect you up with a mate or be there for your children, and even perhaps one day find yourself around the fire with in the same band, talking.

What does this pattern have in common with twenty-first century social networks based on media like Facebook and Twitter? A lot, in my view.

I first heard about Facebook when only college kid had access; I thought, great, they deserve their own social world. But when it opened up to all kinds of people of all ages, although I certainly saw the dangers, I also saw the opportunity. I saw it again in the film, The Social Network , the other evening. The film doesn’t strike me as the masterwork it’s been touted as, but it’s very entertaining. I have no idea whether Zuckerberg, Facebook’s creator, is the autism-spectrum solipcist he’s portrayed as in the movie. I doubt it. But that’s not the idea that matters.

It’s the idea of a private social network of your own choosing, connected to endless other similar networks, and it’s no wonder it spread like wildfire. There was and is a human hunger for contact, and this seemed to be a new kind of contact. The pictures, the personal news, the sharing of griefs and celebrations, the expression of feelings have of course been done for generations, but not instantaneously at a distance.

You now got to choose your own hunter-gatherer band, and your own network of "friends" beyond it. With the advent of multiple levels of privacy, intimacy can be nested in concentric circles just as it was for scores of thousands of years on the African plains. It’s just that it no longer depends on geography, and you have a lot more choice. Whether you are gay, vegan, a kick-boxer, a Baptist-turned-Buddhist, or all those things, you can find and build a network of people like yourself.

But of course, the "friends" of choice often include family, and that part of the network resembles the one from 10,000 years ago. So, for example, I’m friended by all my kids, my stepdaughter, a number of their friends, my wife, our neices and nephews, present and former students, and many of our contemporaries. I don’t spend much time on Facebook myself, but that’s partly because my wife-a smart psychologist and a very loving person-uses her insomnia to follow all those people.

The upshot is she has known immediately when some of them needed help, when some of them started new relationships or saw old ones foundering, when this one had a cold or that one was drinking too much, and it didn’t matter whether they were under our roof or thousands of miles away. Carefully, to be sure, she and I have sometimes responded to what we have learned in this way, sometimes we have only watched and waited.

But the point is we have known so much more than we could have known a decade ago, and we’ve known it in real time. We’re not snooping, because we’ve been admitted or even invited, and we can participate in new ways. With Twitter and its melding with Facebook, the day-to-day becomes moment-to-moment. The exchange becomes more and more a conversation, and the pictures make it almost seem face-to-face.

Are there dangers? To be sure. Impostors are everywhere, and some are dangerous. Another (in my view better) film, Catfish , depicts the emotional consequences of one very sad hoax, and it can get much worse than that. Pimps and other predators are out there finding children. Some people delude themselves that they are "friends" with thousands.

But all advances have a cost. We have entered a new age of social networks that in some ways takes us back to our original adaptation, the day by day and night by night interactions with those we care about, and who care about us, and the opportunity to share their lives.


Note: By invitation, I’ve started a blog on the
Psychology Today website, and my latest post can be read there or here, although different comments may be  posted there.

Is ADHD a Disease of Civilization?

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Many kids we diagnose would be fine hunter-gatherers.

childgroup-c02reducedDuring my two years of research on children among the Kalahari San, or Bushmen, I watched kids scramble over huge termite hills, chase each other around the scrub brush in the savanna, practice dance steps, stop to dig up a tasty tuber, pick some berries, or throw a rock at a hapless bird or turtle which they could then cook and eat. I often wondered how many of them Read more

Wife-Wooing*

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It’s easier when you remember that it’s about love.

contemplator-couple-1b1A posting by Psychology Today blogger Anita Kelly produced a lively discussion (including some prudish comments on masturbation). The basic idea was that your wife is tired and resents you because she does much more of the chores and child care than you. But there also seemed to be an honest recognition of a fact that’s been proven as well as any fact about sex differences: average women desire sex less than average men. (See “Sex Differences in…Sex “). But Dr. Kelly seems to want all the compromises from him: Read more

Epidemic Obesity: Adaptation Gone Wild

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Obesity is unnatural, but it’s natural to try for it.

titian_venus_mirrorThis morning I sat on a panel for medical students; the subject was obesity. Nationally, as anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock knows, the picture is not pretty-in fact it’s pretty ugly. By the standard definition, obesity means a Body Mass Index (BMI; weight in kilos over height in meters squared) above 30, and in about 15 years starting in 1990 we went from 22 percent to 33 percent obese.

Now, I don’t care what you call it or Read more