Friday, July 20, 2012

Talking to Your Kids About the Aurora Tragedy

As a Colorado native who has been to that particular theater numerous times, words simply cannot express the sorrow felt for the families who endured this unspeakable crime. But no matter where you are in the nation, as a parent, children are going to watch the news or hear it from friends in school, so you may end up having to talk with them about what occurred. There is no rational way to explain such a senseless act. And in the lack of understanding, a parent's first instinct may be to blame it on a "monster" who did evil things. But this isn't usually the most comforting response -- it's neither true nor helpful information, and will tend to increase fears, not diminish them. Nor does it provide a productive outlet for these negative feelings. After all, evil is a term that disqualifies all else. The only thing to do against evil is to destroy it. Which means all our emotions will focus around destructive thought patterns. Instead, you should explain such maliciousness as being very much like a natural disaster. In the same way that a weather system draws upon a countless number of other variables to assemble the storm that spawns a tornado, people who flare up in destructive ways are the combination of an endless number of influencing factors -- their upbringing, biology, personal experiences, history, fears and desires, mental condition in a particular point in time, etc. -- all coming together to result in this terrible action. This explanation has several benefits. First, it helps diminish the anger or confusion they might feel. But it also allows us to focus our anxieties toward more productive responses. While we may never know what particular ingredients set this person off, we can take action in our life tomorrow to combat the elements that create and feed such malice. We can make sure we are doing our best to create an inclusive society that shows concern for everybody, so that no one feels like an outsider. We can do all we can to spread love toward others, because there is one thing for certain: this act was completely devoid of love. We can act compassionately, not just toward those we normally associate with, but with those who annoy or disturb us as well. We can understand that no baby is born into this world an evil being. We can understand that hurtful action such as this is brought about by different forces in an individual's life that create a storm in their mind which lets them consider such an atrocious act. Let's not waste as much of our own energy focused on hate -- which is precisely the type of emotion that allows soulless acts like this in the first place. Finally, point out how the majority of people are moved with compassion for this tragedy and are coming together and supporting one another. The world is still full of more love than hate, we just have to continue working to ensure everyone is touched with love, understanding, and compassion. It's the only thing that will prevent such flair-ups in the future.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Rats On Junk Food

If you have rats in your house, stop feeding them junk food. It's bad for their health, say scientists. And if you have children in your house, you might want to hear what a diet of too much junk food did to the rats, because there's reason to believe it could be doing the same to them.

The story starts when a pair of researchers got together to see what would happen if they fed rats a regular diet consisting of the same sort of crap we humans consume on a regular basis. What they found is that when rats are fed a diet consisting exclusively of junk food, it alters the brain's reward centers, inducing addictive behavior in rats that is similar to that caused by heroin. “This is the most complete evidence to date that suggests obesity and drug addiction have common neurobiological underpinnings,” reported study coauthor Paul Johnson.

The research was conducted by the Scripps Research Institute in Florida. Scientists separated rats into two groups. One was fed a standard low-calorie, highly nutritious chow. The other group got to gorge themselves on an endless supply of junk food: Ho Ho's, sausage, bacon, cheesecake, and pound cake. Predictably, the junk-food fed rats began to eat compulsively and became obese, taking in twice the calories of the rats in the control group. This revelation wasn't all that surprising, but the next one was notable - and worthy of concern.

They then tested both groups' sensitivity towards feel-good stimulation. After a mere five days on the junk food diet, rats in the test group showed “profound reductions” in sensitivity amongst their brain’s pleasure-reward circuitry. In other words, their pleasure circuitry had become habitualized to the joys of junk food, so that it required a bigger jolt of pleasure to obtain the same feelings of reward when it came to other pleasurable experiences in life. This reduction in sensitivity also meant that the obese rats had to eat more in order to get the same pleasure, just like a drug addict needs more and more of the drug to get the same fix as their body becomes habituated to its effects.

The good news is that this imbalance can be corrected, though not easily. In this study, deficits in the brain's reward circuitry lasted for weeks after the rats stopped eating the junk food. The other area of concern: this was only a rather limited time of exposure. Researchers are worried that when such diets persist not for weeks but for months and years, and especially when this occurs during the sensitive period of childhood, the changes in the brain might be permanent.

It's just another reason why early healthy eating habits are so important. Junk food in itself is not the enemy. It's when parents allow a lack of discretion, and junk food begins to comprise the bulk of a child's normal eating habits, where problems arise. A treat here and there will not ruin your child. In fact, denying children reasonable indulgences is not only mean, it can backfire; leading towards an overcorrection towards overindulgence in adulthood. But too much of a good thing just might habituate your child towards unhealthy habits, dulling their reward centers and setting them down the path towards obesity. Balance is the key.

Try to remember this the next time your child is scarfing down the sugar doughnuts you bought them at the convenience store, which will serve as a snack between the lunch at McDonald's and the take-out pizza planned for dinner. A little junk food here and there won't hurt them, but be sure not to make it a regular habit.

Bits of Wisdom:

The Modern Family
“The modern middle-class family still feels that its justification has to be derived from what it produces, but the only thing it produces now are children. Their perfection should justify the labors if not the very existence of the family. ...Perhaps we were all better off when children were seen as a gift of God, however they turned out, and not something, the high quality of which provides justification of our family.”
- Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, in his essay “Why Youth is in Revolt.”

The false diagnosis of children
“As a result of organizing a group of parents of late-talking children back in 1993, I encountered many stories of emotional devastation that these parents went through because their children were diagnosed as autistic--diagnoses which the passing years have shown to be false more often than not. ...Many of the treatments inflicted on children diagnosed as autistic would be called child abuse if they were not done as medical procedures, and they can set back or distort a child's development.”
- Thomas Sowell, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, speaking in the Maui News (11-19-07).

Ill-thought-out Crusades
“There are many ways of coping with tragedies. One of the less promising, and often dangerous, ways is to launch a crusade. Crusades may be emotionally satisfying, politically popular and welcomed by the media. But crusaders are not known for caution, for weighing evidence or for counting the costs, which may extend well beyond the cost in money. ...Most crusaders...seem unwilling to consider the possibility of errors, much less the consequences of those errors.”
- Thomas Sowell, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, speaking in the Maui News (11-19-07)

Fatherly Guilt
“Children's thirst for their fathers can never be slaked, no matter how bottomless and brimming the vessel. I have abandoned my children a thousand times; failed them, left their care and comfort to others, wandered in by telephone or e-mail from the void of a life on the road, issued arbitrary and contradictory commands from my mountaintop when all that was wanted was a place on my lap, absented myself from their bedtime routine on a night when they needed me more than usual, forestalled, deferred, or neglected their needs in the name of something I told myself merited the sacrifice.”
- Michael Chabon, reflecting on his own parenting after discovering a tendency to hastily judge others, in Details Magazine (Jan. 2009)

The Dangers of Psychotherapy
“What few patients seeking psychotherapy know is that talking can be dangerous, too - and therapists have not exactly rushed to tell them so. ...The failure to heed Hippocrates reflects the assumption that psychotherapy is, at worst, innocuous. That naive trust should have been blown out of the water when ‘recovered memory’ therapy actually created false memories, often of childhood sexual abuse, tearing families apart. But the ‘Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Therapy,’ the clinicians bible, devotes only 2 1/2 pages out of 821 to adverse effects, even though documented risks of therapies could fill a small book. ...What is remarkable about psychotherapies is that few patients have any idea that ‘just talking’ can be dangerous to their mental health.”
- Science writer Sharon Begley, in The Rocky Mountain News.