existentialist friday epilogue

I wrote my last post in a fog – a mixture of anxiety, sadness, nihilism and hope. Super dramatic for a Friday night, I know! And reading it today, I’m a little surprised by how intense those feelings were, and how clearly that intensity comes through.

Maybe I should be embarrassed – it was a very vulnerable piece of writing that might be better suited to a private journal. But even after reading it today, and considering that, I decided to hit publish because I do not believe I’m alone in those feelings or thought processes, and I think there are few things more important in this world right now than community with others in our feelings and thought processes.

Not necessarily validation, or reassurance, but community.

That’s what those people in those Christchurch mosques were engaging in last week when they were murdered. It’s what I did at my own church yesterday, feeling sad and uncertain and comforted by the knowledge that I was sitting among a lot of other people feeling the same things. We sang and meditated together, called out the elephants in the room (racism, hatred, violence, intolerance, ambiguity) and continued our ongoing conversation about how to live with and wrangle them. Lately I’ve come to view this as the most beautiful and important thing about being human – existing in community with one another. It sounds pretty and easy but it is one of the most complicated and difficult things I’ve ever done. I am grateful that I woke up today and get to keep doing it.

It’s also amazing to me how clear these ideas are after a couple of days of letting them simmer inside me. I avoided social media as much as possible this weekend. I exercised while listening to an audiobook, watched people of all ages fly kites in perfect weather, watched my husband make sourdough bread for the first time and beam with pride, ate delicious crab cakes and pizza, toasted to friends’ birthdays, read, sat in community with my friends at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship, drank a lot of water, took a bath, and let my brain breathe a little.

On the other side of all of that, I feel like things might be OK. I wonder what I can do to bring this feeling with me into every day, not just Mondays after a social media detox, while also respecting and cultivating the community that exists right there on social media too. They are different kinds of communities, but they overlap in so many ways. This is more true for me now that I live outside the New York City bubble than ever before, so maybe that’s why it might seem like I’m grasping for something others have known all along. But again, something tells me these things I’m wrestling with are more common than we like to admit.

Do you have your tech accountability buddy yet? Maybe you can admit it to each other?

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Power drills vs. dental drills

At the beginning of this year I went to the dentist for the first time in… a while, and learned I had five cavities. Five! I brush my teeth – I even floss! – but somehow three of my old fillings had failed me and two new ones were needed. This wouldn’t have been that big of a deal except… and now you’re really going to judge me… I am afraid of Novocaine.

Now, let me say as clearly as I can: this is a 95% irrational fear. Novocaine is extremely safe and I trust my dentist to use it properly, and I am even fairly certain if I used it nothing bad would happen. But because I have an anxiety brain, this was my thought process upon learning I needed five fillings:

Shit, that’s going to be expensive and take a while. Also, crap, they’ll give me Novocaine, and that has the potential to cause heart palpitations, and I’ll probably already be having them because I’ll be nervous, and that could create a dangerous situation, oh shit shit how do I get around this?

Again, Novocaine is extremely safe. Irregular heart beat is a very rare potential side effect associated with many medications – it’s part of the generic list of allergic reactions a step above itchiness and swelling. But since I’ve dealt (rather poorly, I’ll admit) with heart palpitations caused by stress and anxiety for years, I am hyper-vigilant about avoiding situations that might cause them. So, how did I get around it? I opted out. I said no to the Novocaine and sucked it up. And yeah, it hurt. I spaced the procedure out into three visits to spread out both the cost and the pain. In the end, each procedure took less time than it would have with numbing, and I was able to eat and drink right afterward. Most of all, I survived (which of course I would have regardless). The dentists and hygienists kept calling me a badass and saying how well I handled the pain, but I wasn’t proud; I was honestly a little embarrassed, and exhausted, and sore.

As I waited in the chair for each procedure to start, I stared at a flat screen monitor. The first time it scrolled through pictures of cute kids and puppies (including a truly awesome slideshow of dogs that look like other things); on my second visit it was a silent presentation about my dentist’s trip to Haiti, complete with facts about the country; and on the third and final visit I was treated to calming videos of waves crashing on sand.

During each procedure, there was a moment or two when I thought I couldn’t handle any more – when the drill would hit a specific spot on the tooth that was just too close to a nerve. During those times, I had the old calming television standby to distract me from another monitor on the ceiling: HGTV. (I have seen this in at least one other dental office and several specialists’ offices – there’s just something about Chip and Joanna…) And I have to tell you, these things worked. In the moments I would have gritted my teeth at the pain (which was obviously impossible) I instead focused all of my energy and attention on the wall demo or sconce selection happening on the ceiling screen. And it worked, in the sense that avoiding a full-on panic attack or biting off my dentist’s fingers = “working.” Which… I’ll take it!

It’s not shiplap that helps with pain and anxiety in the dental chair – it’s that shift in energy and attention. And it still works on me even though I know this. And I actually found myself thinking, as I left the dental office for the last time (for a while, at least…I hope…) that I really wish more medical offices had this kind of programming. Not just HGTV, but slideshows and silent videos made with the explicit goal of helping patients calm down. Not just cheesy quotes about serenity, but soothing images that are scientifically correlated with lower blood pressure and cortisol. Imagine if more clinicians acknowledged that we might be anxious, and rather than ignoring that or explaining it away, just empathized with it and tried to set a calmer tone. This sort of thing is relatively common in dentistry and in pediatrics; imagine if our anxiety and potential medical trauma was taken more seriously even in cardiology, physical therapy, dermatology, and other offices! I think it’s something to work toward.

 

Empathy is both given & made

When the subject of empathy comes up, there’s often a debate about whether we’re born with it, or whether it’s something we learn. As with most things, the answer is probably not at either end of the spectrum  – it’s most likely in the middle.

In the past few months, I’ve been researching and writing about both ends.

For Woolly, I wrote about the empathy movement in podcasting, where a growing collection of shows aims to get people to listen to (and have) tough conversations. I wrote about my personal retreat into podcasts (and away from cable news and social media) after the 2016 presidential election, and how some of them – especially With Friends Like These – helped me find empathy where I didn’t expect it.

Then I wrote for Vitals, Lifehacker’s health vertical, about the newest development in the search for an empathy gene. Researchers have figured out that at least some of individuals’ differences in empathy can be explained by DNA, so we might inherit our empathy levels, and disorders characterized by low empathy, like schizophrenia, might have a genetic cause. But they’re still trying to find out how. This latest study didn’t come up with any major revelations, but it’s a step forward, and it also validated a lot of previous findings.

That’s all for now. Apologies for being so absent these past few months. I moved from New York back to North Carolina and have been settling in. Now that things are starting to feel normal, I’ll be back to blogging more regularly!

Empathy, virtual reality, and anniversary anxiety

I’ve been working on a lot of things lately, and I’m sorry to say that this blog has not been one of them… but it will be again soon, worry not! In the meantime, here’s a look at two stories I recently published:

Can Virtual Reality Change Minds on Social Issues? at Narratively, about how nonprofits and other organizations are using virtual reality to trigger empathy and, ideally, action. There’s still some debate about whether this actually works at scale, but it can’t be denied that people are making some amazing, moving things with VR. Give the story a read, and check out the awesome gif at the top of the page!

A couple of days before the anniversary of the presidential election, I got the opportunity to write about why anniversaries like this are hard for people, psychologically. It turned into a really interesting piece that I think is relevant to the kind of behavioral science stuff I’m thinking about all the time: Why The Election Anniversary Is Hitting You So Hard at Lifehacker

More to come soon!

When the robots do it better…

Ellie
US soldiers and veterans revealed significantly more post-traumatic stress symptoms to a virtual interviewer than through a standard or anonymous Post-Deployment Health Assessment survey. CREDIT: USC Institute for Creative Technologies

It’s clear that PTSD is a major problem among American war veterans. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, symptoms of PTSD affect almost 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, up to 10 percent of Gulf War veterans, and 11 percent of veterans who served in Afghanistan. But, as with many mental health issues, those numbers might be off because there is still a stigma attached. Veterans Affairs can’t count — or help — the soldiers who don’t feel comfortable coming forward. But what if instead of talking to people who might affect their careers, they could talk to robots?

Not, like, Bender robots, but artificial intelligence presented as kind strangers on a computer screen. In a recent study that used this technology, the AI made a big difference. Researchers at the University of Southern California found that service members who volunteered to try this out were more open about their symptoms with the “virtual human” they spoke to than they were when filling out a military required survey. Gale Lucas, who led the research, thinks this is likely because when PTSD symptoms are conveyed via the military survey (or directly to a military psychiatrist) they must be reported, which can affect service members’ career prospects. Speaking to the AI, known as “Ellie,” felt more anonymous.

“These kinds of technologies could provide soldiers a safe way to get feedback about their risks for post-traumatic stress disorder,” Lucas said in a statement. “By receiving anonymous feedback from a virtual human interviewer that they are at risk for PTSD, they could be encouraged to seek help without having their symptoms flagged on their military record.”

So, can AI provide potential life-saving empathy that real humans can’t?

Well, there’s (at least one) catch. Ellie makes soldiers feel comfortable, safe, and understood, but she is currently operated by researchers. If and when she becomes integrated into the military health system, she might lose her real magic: anonymity.

Joseph Hayes, a psychiatrist at University College London, told Newsweek

“For an intervention to be possible ultimately, the disclosure would have to be shared with the same commanding officers who have traditionally received the results of the service members PDHA, and entered into their military health record. Once this is made explicit, would disclosure reduce to levels seen previously? If so, it is a culture change (reducing public stigma–within the military and more broadly) which is truly going to impact on disclosure and provision of appropriate treatment.”

Lucas thinks her team can get around this by only requiring Ellie to alert humans if a service member threatens to hurt him- or herself or someone else, and leaving it up to the individual whether they want to follow up their session with the AI with a session with a real doctor.

The jury’s out on the ethics and implementation, but this is one more step toward empathetic AI, which is… well, both exciting and terrifying!

To learn more about this technology, check out the USC Institute for Creative Technologies website.

 

Back To School, With Empathy

Summer is somehow over!

For a lot of you, that probably means your kids are going back to school. I know that a few are even starting college! There’s a lot to think about during this time, but if your kids are anything like me when I was starting school, one of my biggest concerns was making friends. I don’t remember putting that much thought into making those friends. I tried to be friends with my roommates, of course, and I naturally became friends with some people in my classes and members of the groups I joined. But, if a new Stanford study is right, I might have unconsciously been making decisions about my different friend groups based on two main things: fun, and empathy.

Keeping in mind that stress levels can be high in college – especially at the beginning – the Stanford researchers put about 200 freshmen through some tests. Among other things, they answered questions about their social networks within the dorms they’d just moved into. Specifically, the researchers asked who in their dorm made them feel most positive, and who they might turn to when going through something difficult. They found that students were more picky about which friends became part of their “trust networks,” seeking out people with more empathic traits for those coveted friend spots, as opposed to their broader “fun and excitement” networks. When it was time to party, the students cared more about their friends’ happiness level than their empathy.

“What we find here is not only that people’s networks of fun-based friendships are denser than their more trust- and stress-based networks,” said professor Matthew Jackson, “but also that more central people in a network have personalities that match the purpose of that network in intuitive ways. ”

Now that I think about it, I can see that this was absolutely true for me while in college, especially as a freshman. I actually had a more explicit split between these groups than many probably do – my “fun” friends were my dorm-mates and classmates, while my empathic group (which included my then-boyfriend/now-husband) was about an hour away at another school.

You and your kids may not find this to be true, and even if it is, it might not seem intentional. Either way, it might be worth thinking about. “The study offers an opportunity for college students to examine their own relationships, especially against the landscape of social media where they can have seemingly countless ‘friends’ across the country and the world,” professor Sylvia Morelli recently told Phys.org. “Our work suggests that people will turn to only a small handful of these friends when things get stressful, and that they will trust their friends who show empathy and concern.”

 

(This post also appeared in my monthly On Empathy newsletter. If you want to subscribe to that, you can do so here.)

Are we doing empathy wrong?

We tend to think of empathy as something we’re born with.

The truth is that the science on empathy is still relatively young. And while there is a general consensus that most of us are born with the ability to empathize, if we don’t start learning how to do it from a young age, we can run into problems. And it’s not as simple as learning to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. According to several recent pieces of research, there’s a “wrong” way to do empathy… or at least a way that can make things more difficult for ourselves and others.

recent study from the University of Pennsylvania (in collaboration with SUNY Buffalo and Brown University) suggests that rather than actually imagining yourself in someone else’s position, it’s healthier for all parties to simply “reflect on the nature” of their suffering.

The study had 200 college-aged subjects read a story about a person who had money troubles after being in a car accident and was also struggling to care for a younger sibling after losing their mother. One group was asked to focus on how they would feel in that situation, while a second was asked to consider the perspective of the person who wrote the story but be as detached as possible.

The researchers found that the second group experienced the least stress. We’ve talked about this in this newsletter before – empathy can raise cortisol levels and blood pressure, which over the long term can be problematic. But when it comes to connecting with people on an everyday level, what’s wrong with feeling a little stress?

Well, maybe nothing, unless you’re a caregiver or a medical professional. In this study, the researchers’ takeaway was that doctors and nurses might want to put a little more distance between themselves and their patients.

“When we consider the situation with a little more distance, you’re feeling concern, compassion and a desire to help, but you don’t feel exactly what that other person is feeling,” one of the researchers told the Philly Voice. “Empathy is very important, and for a lot of caregivers probably is the reason they chose their field. We don’t have to teach our medical professionals to suppress that emotional response; we just have to try to help them have the right kind of response, thinking of others as opposed to thinking how they would feel in the same situation.”

The bigger takeaway for all of us, I think, is that at this point there are a couple of pretty well-established routes to empathy: direct perspective-taking, which can cause distress, and more distant compassion, which affects us less. But this raises the question: isn’t the point of empathy to be affected by what affects others? Will we be less likely to spring to action in response to someone else’s pain if we only employ the latter kind of empathy?

Personally, I struggle to avoid imagining myself in others’ shoes. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by seeing or reading an account of something harrowing that I have a physical reaction (I’m probably a researcher’s dream!) So studies like this make me wonder about what might be going on with my own body, if it’s possible to change how I empathize…and if I’d actually want to!