Archive For The “Soul Stories” Category

Langston Hughes’ hidden influence on MLK

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Martin Luther King Jr.‘s dream – which alternated between shattered and hopeful – can be traced back to Hughes’ poetry.
AP Photo

Jason Miller, North Carolina State University

For years, Martin Luther King Jr. and poet Langston Hughes maintained a friendship, exchanging letters and favors and even traveling to Nigeria together in 1960.

In 1956, King recited Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” from the pulpit to honor his wife Coretta, who was celebrating her first Mother’s Day. That same year, Hughes wrote a poem about Dr. King and the bus boycott titled “Brotherly Love.” At the time, Hughes was much more famous than King, who was honored to have become a subject for the poet.

But during the most turbulent years of the civil rights movement, Dr. King never publicly uttered the poet’s name. Nor did the reverend overtly invoke the poet’s words.

You would think that King would be eager to do so; Hughes was one of the Harlem Renaissance’s leading poets, a master with words whose verses inspired millions of readers across the globe.

However, Hughes was also suspected of being a communist sympathizer. In March of 1953, he was even called to testify before Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare.

Meanwhile, King’s opponents were starting to make similar charges of communism against him and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, accusing the group of being a communist front. The red-baiting ended up serving as some of the most effective attacks against King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

It forced King to distance his organization from men with similar reputations – Bayard Rustin, Jack O’Dell and even his closest adviser, Stanley Levison.

It also meant he needed to sever any overt ties to Hughes.

But my research has found traces of Hughes’ poetry in King’s speeches and sermons. While King might not have been able to invoke Hughes’ name, he was nonetheless able to ensure that Hughes’ words would be broadcast to millions of Americans.

Beating back the red-baiters

In the 1930s, Hughes earned a subversive reputation by writing several radical poems. In them, he criticized capitalism, called for worker’s to rise up in revolution and claimed racism was virtually absent in communist countries such as the U.S.S.R.

By 1940, he had attracted the attention of the FBI. Agents would sneak into his readings, and J. Edgar Hoover derided Hughes’ poem “Goodbye Christ” in circulars he sent out in 1947.

Red-baiting also fractured black political and social organizations. For example, Bayard Rustin was forced to resign from the SCLC after African-American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell threatened to expose Rustin’s homosexuality and his past association with the Communist Party USA.

Langston Hughes.
Library of Congress

As the leading figure in the civil rights movement, King had to toe a delicate line. Because he needed to retain popular support – as well as be able to work with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations – there could be no question about where he stood on the issue of communism.

So King needed to be shrewd about invoking Hughes’ poetry. Nonetheless, I’ve identified traces of no fewer than seven of Langston Hughes’ poems in King’s speeches and sermons.

In 1959, the play “A Raisin in the Sun” premiered to rave reviews and huge audiences. Its title was inspired by Hughes’ poem “Harlem.”

“What happens to a dream deferred?” Hughes writes. “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? … Or does it explode?”

Just three weeks after the premiere of “A Raisin in the Sun,” King delivered one of his most personal sermons, giving it a title – “Shattered Dreams” – that echoed Hughes’ imagery.

“Is there any one of us,” King booms in the sermon, “who has not faced the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?”

He’d more directly evoke Hughes in a later speech, in which he would say, “I am personally the victim of deferred dreams.”

Hughes’ words would also become a rallying cry during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

During the grind of the year-long boycott, King spurred activists on by pulling from “Mother to Son.”

“Life for none of us has been a crystal stair,” King proclaimed at the Holt Street Baptist Church, “but we must keep moving.” (“Well, son, I’ll tell you / Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” Hughes wrote. “But all the time / I’se been a-climbin’ on.”)

Did Hughes inspire the dream?

King’s best-known speech is “I Have a Dream,” which he delivered during the 1963 March on Washington.

Nine months before the famous march, King gave the earliest known delivery of the “I Have a Dream” speech in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. (We can also now finally hear this connection after the reel-to-reel tape of King’s First Dream was recently discovered.)

But the roots of “I Have a Dream” go back even further. On Aug. 11, 1956, King delivered a speech titled “The Birth of a New Age.” Many King scholars consider this address – which talked about King’s vision for a new world – the thematic precursor to his “I Have a Dream” speech.

In this speech, I recognized what others had missed: King had subtly ended his speech by rewriting Langston Hughes’ “I Dream a World.”

    A world I dream where black or white,
    Whatever race you be, 
    Will share the bounties of the earth
    And every man is free.

It is impossible not to notice the parallels in what would become “I Have a Dream”: I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.

The ConversationKing spoke truth to power, and part of that strategy involved riffing or sampling Hughes’ words. By channeling Hughes’ voice, he was able to elevate the subversive words of a poet that the powerful thought they had silenced.

Jason Miller, Professor of English, North Carolina State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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When the Media Cover Mass Shootings, Would Depicting the Carnage Make a Difference?

 

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Some argue that news coverage of shootings is too sanitized.
puriri/Shutterstock.com

Nicole Smith Dahmen, University of Oregon

Since 20 children were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, we’ve seen public calls for the release of crime scene photos – the idea being that the visceral horror evoked by images of young, brutalized bodies could spur some sort of action to combat the country’s gun violence epidemic.

The day after the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting, a Slate article echoed the demand for crime scene photos to be released, arguing that if Americans could actually see the bloodshed, we might finally say, “Enough is enough.”

As a scholar who specializes in photojournalism ethics, I’ve thought extensively about how journalism can responsibly cover gun violence, balancing the moral imperatives of seeking truth while minimizing harm. I’ve also studied how images can galvanize viewers.

Fundamental questions remain: What is the line between informing audiences and exploiting victims and their families? Should the media find a balance between shocking and shielding audiences? And when it comes to mass shootings – and gun violence more broadly – if outlets did include more bloody images, would it even make a difference?

The limitations of a photo

On the same day of the Parkland shooting, my research on news images of mass shootings was published. Given the intense yet fleeting nature of media coverage, I wanted to examine how news outlets cover these crimes, specifically through the lens of visual reporting.

The study analyzed nearly 5,000 newspaper photos from three school shootings: Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and Umpqua Community College. Of those images, only 5 percent could be characterized as graphic in nature.

Most depicted the shock and grief of survivors, family and friends. These elements certainly make up an important part of the story. Nonetheless, they create a narrative where, as the Slate article put it, “mass shootings are bloodless.”

Does that matter?

Research has shown that when audiences feel emotionally connected with news events, they’re more likely to change their views or take action. Photographs of violence and bloodshed can certainly serve as a conduit for this emotional connection. Their realism resonates, and they’re able to create a visceral effect that can arouse a range of emotions: sorrow, disgust, shock, anger.

But the power of images is limited. After particularly shocking images appear, what we tend to see are short bursts of activism. For example, in 2015, following the publication of the harrowing image of a drowned Syrian boy lying facedown in the sand, donations to the Red Cross briefly spiked. But within a week, they returned to their typical levels.

The ethics of violent imagery

If a graphic image can inspire some action – even it’s minimal and fleeting – do media outlets have an obligation to run more photos of mass shooting victims?

Perhaps. But other concerns need to be weighed.

For one, there are the victims’ families. Widely disseminated images of their massacred loved ones could no doubt add to their already unthinkable grief.

Moreover, we exist in a media landscape that overwhelms us with images. Individual photographs become harder to remember, to the point that even graphic ones of bloodshed could fade into ubiquity.

Another concern is the presentation of these images. As media consumers, so much of what we see comes from manipulated, sensationalized and trivialized social media feeds. As a colleague and I wrote last year, social media “begs us to become voyeurs” as opposed to informed news consumers. In a digital environment, these images could also be easily appropriated for any number purposes – from pornography to hoaxes – and spread across social media, to the point that their authenticity will be lost.

There’s another unintended consequence: Grisly images could inspire another mass shooting. Research indicates that news coverage of mass shootings – and in particular the attention given to body counts and the perpetrators themselves – can have a contagious effect on would-be mass killers.

Journalism has a responsibility to inform audiences, and sometimes a graphic image does that in a way that words can’t.

However this doesn’t mean that any and all gruesome images should be published. There are professional guidelines for deciding whether to publish these types of images – mainly, to consider the journalistic purpose of publishing them and the “overriding and justifiable need to see” them.

The extent to which graphic images should be present in our news media is an ongoing debate. And it’s one that must continue.

A new image emerges

Following mass shootings, there’s a predictable pattern of news media coverage. There are the breaking news reports filled with speculation. Then details of the perpetrator emerge. Reporters and pundits question whether or not it was an act of terrorism. Elected officials respond with “thoughts and prayers,” and debates about mental health and gun control rage. Finally, there’s coverage of the vigils and funerals.

But this time, there’s something new: images of resistance.

Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are stepping up and demanding action from the country’s elected leaders.

In an impassioned speech, senior Emma Gonzalez chastised lawmakers, stating, “We are up here standing together because if all our government and president can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see.”

This, in the end, may prove to be more effective than any images of bloodshed or grief. Fanning across the news outlets and social media networks, these images of resistance seem to be spurring action, with school walkouts and nationwide protests against gun violence in the works.

Illustrations of protest, courage and resilience – from high school students, no less – might have the power to sink in.

The ConversationPerhaps it will be these images – not those of bloodied victims – that will stir people from complacency and move them to action.

Nicole Smith Dahmen, Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Nikola Tesla: The Extraordinary Life of a Modern Prometheus

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The inventor at rest, with a Tesla coil (thanks to a double exposure).
Dickenson V. Alley, Wellcome Collection, CC BY

Author: Richard Gunderman, Indiana University

Match the following figures – Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, Alfred Nobel and Nikola Tesla – with these biographical facts:

  • Spoke eight languages
  • Produced the first motor that ran on AC current
  • Developed the underlying technology for wireless communication over long distances
  • Held approximately 300 patents
  • Claimed to have developed a “superweapon” that would end all war

The match for each, of course, is Tesla. Surprised? Most people have heard his name, but few know much about his place in modern science and technology.

The 75th anniversary of Tesla’s death on Jan. 7 provides a timely opportunity to review the life of a man who came from nowhere yet became world famous; claimed to be devoted solely to discovery but relished the role of a showman; attracted the attention of many women but never married; and generated ideas that transformed daily life and created multiple fortunes but died nearly penniless.

Early years

Tesla was born in Serbia on a summer night in 1856, during what he claimed was a lightning storm – which led the midwife to say, “He will be a child of the storm,” and his mother to counter prophetically, “No, of the light.” As a student, Tesla displayed such remarkable abilities to calculate mathematical problems that teachers accused him of cheating. During his teen years, he fell seriously ill, recovering once his father abandoned his demand that Nikola become a priest and agreed he could attend engineering school instead.

Nikola Tesla, electrical entrepreneur, circa 1893.
Napoleon Sarony

Although an outstanding student, Tesla eventually withdrew from polytechnic school and ended up working for the Continental Edison Company, where he focused on electrical lighting and motors. Wishing to meet Edison himself, Tesla immigrated to the U.S. in 1884, and he later claimed he was offered the sum of US$50,000 if he could solve a series of engineering problems Edison’s company faced. Having achieved the feat, Tesla said he was then told that the offer had just been a joke, and he left the company after six months.

Tesla then developed a relationship with two businessmen that led to the founding of Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing. He filed a number of electrical patents, which he assigned to the company. When his partners decided that they wanted to focus strictly on supplying electricity, they took the company’s intellectual property and founded another firm, leaving Tesla with nothing.

Tesla reported that he then worked as a ditch digger for $2 a day, tortured by the sense that his great talent and education were going to waste.

Success as an inventor

In 1887, Tesla met two investors who agreed to back the formation of the Tesla Electric Company. He set up a laboratory in Manhattan, where he developed the alternating current induction motor, which solved a number of technical problems that had bedeviled other designs. When Tesla demonstrated his device at an engineering meeting, the Westinghouse Company made arrangements to license the technology, providing an upfront payment and royalties on each horsepower generated.

The so-called “War of the Currents” was raging in the late 1880s. Thomas Edison promoted direct current, asserting that it was safer than AC. George Westinghouse backed AC, since it could transmit power over long distances. Because the two were undercutting each other’s prices, Westinghouse lacked capital. He explained the difficulty and asked Tesla to sell his patents to him for a single lump sum, to which Tesla agreed, forgoing what would have been a vast fortune had he held on to them.

AC electric lights lit up the night at the Chicago World’s Fair.

With the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 looming in Chicago, Westinghouse asked Tesla to help supply power; they’d have a huge platform for demonstrating the merits of AC. Tesla helped the fair illuminate more light bulbs than could be found in the entire city of Chicago, and wowed audiences with a variety of wonders, including an electric light that required no wires. Later Tesla also helped Westinghouse win a contract to generate electrical power at Niagara Falls, helping to build the first large-scale AC power plant in the world.

Challenges along the way

Tesla encountered many obstacles. In 1895, his Manhattan laboratory was devastated by a fire, which destroyed his notes and prototypes. At Madison Square Garden in 1898, he demonstrated wireless control of a boat, a stunt that many branded a hoax. Soon after he turned his attention to the wireless transmission of electric power. He believed that his system could not only distribute electricity around the globe but also provide for worldwide wireless communication.

Seeking to test his ideas, Tesla built a laboratory in Colorado Springs. There he once drew so much power that he caused a regional power outage. He also detected signals that he claimed emanated from an extraterrestrial source. In 1901 Tesla persuaded J.P. Morgan to invest in the construction of a tower on Long Island that he believed would vindicate his plan to electrify the world. Yet Tesla’s dream did not materialize, and Morgan soon withdrew funding.

In 1909, Marconi received the Nobel Prize for the development of radio. In 1915, Tesla unsuccessfully sued Marconi, claiming infringement on his patents. That same year, it was rumored that Edison and Tesla would share the Nobel Prize, but it didn’t happen. Unsubstantiated speculation suggested their mutual animosity was the cause. However, Tesla did receive numerous honors and awards over his life, including, ironically, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers Edison Medal.

A singular man

Tesla was a remarkable person. He said that he had a photographic memory, which helped him memorize whole books and speak eight languages. He also claimed that many of his best ideas came to him in a flash, and that he saw detailed pictures of many of his inventions in his mind before he ever set about constructing prototypes. As a result, he didn’t initially prepare drawings and plans for many of his devices.

The 6-foot-2-inch Tesla cut a dashing figure and was popular with women, though he never married, claiming that his celibacy played an important role in his creativity. Perhaps because of his nearly fatal illness as a teenager, he feared germs and practiced very strict hygiene, likely a barrier to the development of interpersonal relationships. He also exhibited unusual phobias, such as an aversion to pearls, which led him to refuse to speak to any woman wearing them.

Mark Twain holding Tesla’s experimental vacuum lamp, 1894.

Tesla held that his greatest ideas came to him in solitude. Yet he was no hermit, socializing with many of the most famous people of his day at elegant dinner parties he hosted. Mark Twain frequented his laboratory and promoted some of his inventions. Tesla enjoyed a reputation as not only a great engineer and inventor but also a philosopher, poet and connoisseur. On his 75th birthday he received a congratulatory letter from Einstein and was featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Tesla’s last years

A renaissance man of sorts, on the occasion of his 75th birthday.
Time

In the popular imagination, Tesla played the part of a mad scientist. He claimed that he had developed a motor that ran on cosmic rays; that he was working on a new non-Einsteinian physics that would supply a new form of energy; that he had discovered a new technique for photographing thoughts; and that he had developed a new ray, alternately labeled the death ray and the peace ray, with vastly greater military potential than Nobel’s munitions.

His money long gone, Tesla spent his later years moving from place to place, leaving behind unpaid bills. Eventually, he settled in at a New York hotel, where his rent was paid by Westinghouse. Always living alone, he frequented the local park, where he was regularly seen feeding and tending to the pigeons, with which he claimed to share a special affinity. On the morning of Jan. 7, 1943, he was found dead in his room by a hotel maid at age 86.

The ConversationToday the name Tesla is still very much in circulation. The airport in Belgrade bears his name, as does the world’s best-known electric car, and the magnetic field strength of MRI scanners is measured in Teslas. Tesla was a real-life Prometheus: the mythical Greek titan who raided heaven to bring fire to mankind, yet in punishment was chained to a rock where each day an eagle ate his liver. Tesla scaled great heights to bring lightning down to earth, yet his rare cast of mind and uncommon habits eventually led to his downfall, leaving him nearly penniless and alone.

Richard Gunderman, Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, Indiana University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Tis the Season… for Giving! 

Help Jade Tailor of the Syfy Channel’s series, The Magicians, bring holiday cheer to those in the community!

From Jade:

In honor of the holidays, I decided to do a Christmas single in hopes that it would inspire you to give this holiday season. All of the proceeds will be going to Haven Hills, a DV shelter for women, men, and children. 

During the holidays we often forget that there are many that are less fortunate, that may not have a place to sleep or warm meal to eat, let alone receive gifts, nor will they spend holidays with their families or loved ones. What if this year we make it about giving rather than receiving gifts this year? We get so caught up in spending time and money on elaborate gifts that we forget about the millions upon millions of people that will be without, that can’t even afford a  warm meal for their children, let alone presents for them. Whether it’s a warm meal, a warm coat, a friendly hello, letting someone know you care, I guarantee you make that person’s life that much brighter. 

My holiday wish… the greatest gift you could give me… is to give a gift to those in need. So please take a moment to take a listen, donate, or share and help me spread some holiday cheer! 

GIVE HERE: https://www.gofundme.com/tistheseasonforgiving

 The gift is in the giving. Happy Holidays!

Jade

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From Robots to Board Games, It’s Easy to Do Science This Christmas

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Beebots are robots that kids can easily program, with direct feedback seen in where the robot goes.
arselectronica/flickr , CC BY-NC-ND

Author(s): George Aranda, Deakin University and Wendy Jobling, Deakin University

We all want to spoil the children in our lives at Christmas time. Some of us like to sneak in a bit of learning too.

From an educational perspective, toys are an excellent way to engage all ages in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Here we’ve put together some tips for those of you looking for yuletide shopping inspiration beyond just the typical array of toys marked “science and technology” on the shelf.


Read more: Why we’re building a climate change game for 12-year-olds


But first, a quick wrap of key terms.

Science is about exploring the nature of things, and involves skills such as predicting (hypothesising), observing, collecting data, fair testing, explaining and communicating.

Technology is a process that builds over time, and involves meeting a need or solving a problem. It includes both design technologies and digital technologies.

Engineering, very simply put, involves how systems can be put together to produce the desired outcome. For young children this is almost the same as technological skills.

Mathematics should go beyond just measuring and counting, and incorporate problem-solving skills such as those involved in coding.

Under the STEM umbrella, it’s also important to consider what are termed “21st-century skills”, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, innovation, communication and collaboration.

I want a robot

Many of us have access to smart phones and portable computing, and apps – including those that feature augmented reality such as Pokémon GO – are incredibly popular and accessible.

But moving beyond just regular use of digital technology, coding and robotic products are available that teach children how coding works, where it can be applied, and what its limitations are. These include programmable toys that can be operated by simply pressing buttons or sequencing physical tokens to produce movement.

You have to tell Spheros where you want it to go.

Devices such as Beebots and Cubettos allow children to use their imaginations to create scenarios – for example, tunnels, roads or bridges – that their robot can negotiate. Kids learn planning, algorithmic thinking, and mathematical reasoning.

More sophisticated robots such as Spheros or Edisons connect toys to tablets or computers. Children must negotiate the constraints and opportunities of the real world – for example, slopes, different surfaces, and wind – and test their code under different situations. These toys encourage children to think creatively when coming up with their solutions.

In the future we will see more toys building in augmented reality, with many companies now investing in the interactivity between physical and virtual worlds. The goal is to build products that allow children to use physical objects and real-world locations (via GPS) in conjunction with computational devices, not only on their own, but also in competitive and collaborative environments.

Kids are capable of applying computational thinking to solve problems.

Old-fashioned fun

Even with the rise of digital technology, board and card games and building toys are still very popular. Chosen carefully, these too allow players to learn about important aspects of science.

Popular collaborative board games such as Pandemic are praised for their accurate depiction of how health workers respond to disease outbreaks. Children see the real impact of disease, how it can spread across the world, and the role of science in bringing outbreaks to a resolution. Children also learn collaborative problem-solving skills, computational thinking, and the benefits of planning and sequencing.

Science literacy can also improve by playing board games. Card games like Organ Attack! give children the opportunity to learn about real diseases and the organs that they affect – for example, hepatosplenomegaly, a disease that affects the spleen and the liver. Amusing drawings – the game is based on the comic series The Awkward Yeti – depict the organs in an engaging and entertaining way, which adds to children’s understanding of their own body parts.

The object of Organ Attack is to remove your opponents’ organs before they remove yours.
Organ Attack

Construction sets are also useful for developing a range of STEM skills.

At a basic level, simple wooden blocks have been shown to bring many benefits to children’s development, including spatial reasoning and language.


Read more: Blocks are still the best present you can buy children for Christmas


More complex building sets can involve digital aspects such as designing, making and programming robotic toys.

Consider toys that give children the scope to go beyond simply putting the pieces together according to the instructions, but also encourage them to use their imaginations to turn the pieces into something unexpected.

Tips to get it right

It is worth noting that when children engage with toys and games with a STEM focus, they will not necessarily be aware of the knowledge and skills involved. Parents can support their children’s scientific thinking, elaborate on scientific information, and help them structure meaning from their observations, using the following tips:

  • question children about their ideas
  • gently highlight inconsistencies in their thinking that contradict the evidence in front of them
  • support them in not focusing on only one piece of evidence, at the cost of other relevant information.

It can be difficult to get the balance right between digital technologies that involve individual use (and can isolate children) and those that focus on collaboration and conversation. To address this concern,

  • look at how you may tap into the skills and knowledge that are learned
  • focus on apps that encourage multiple players, turn taking and collaboration.

The ConversationToys and games that involve friends and family members are more than just fun: they can foster new skills, challenge children to work in a team and encourage thinking and idea development.

George Aranda, Lecturer in Science Education, Deakin University and Wendy Jobling, Lecturer, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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For Baby’s Brain to Benefit, Read the Right Books at the Right Time

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How can you maximize reading’s rewards for baby?
aijiro/Shutterstock.com

Author: Lisa S. Scott, University of Florida

Parents often receive books at pediatric checkups via programs like Reach Out and Read and hear from a variety of health professionals and educators that reading to their kids is critical for supporting development.

The pro-reading message is getting through to parents, who recognize that it’s an important habit. A summary report by Child Trends, for instance, suggests 55 percent of three- to five-year-old children were read to every day in 2007. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 83 percent of three- to five-year-old children were read to three or more times per week by a family member in 2012.

What this ever-present advice to read with infants doesn’t necessarily make clear, though, is that what’s on the pages may be just as important as the book-reading experience itself. Are all books created equal when it comes to early shared-book reading? Does it matter what you pick to read? And are the best books for babies different than the best books for toddlers?

In order to guide parents on how to create a high-quality book-reading experience for their infants, my psychology research lab has conducted a series of baby learning studies. One of our goals is to better understand the extent to which shared book reading is important for brain and behavioral development.

Even the littlest listeners can enjoy having a book read to them.
Maggie Villiger, CC BY-ND

What’s on baby’s bookshelf

Researchers see clear benefits of shared book reading for child development. Shared book reading with young children is good for language and cognitive development, increasing vocabulary and pre-reading skills and honing conceptual development.

Shared book reading also likely enhances the quality of the parent-infant relationship by encouraging reciprocal interactions – the back-and-forth dance between parents and infants. Certainly not least of all, it gives infants and parents a consistent daily time to cuddle.

Recent research has found that both the quality and quantity of shared book reading in infancy predicted later childhood vocabulary, reading skills and name writing ability. In other words, the more books parents read, and the more time they’d spent reading, the greater the developmental benefits in their 4-year-old children.

This important finding is one of the first to measure the benefit of shared book reading starting early in infancy. But there’s still more to figure out about whether some books might naturally lead to higher-quality interactions and increased learning.

EEG caps let researchers record infant volunteers’ brain activity.
Matthew Lester, CC BY-ND

Babies and books in the lab

In our investigations, my colleagues and I followed infants across the second six months of life. We’ve found that when parents showed babies books with faces or objects that were individually named, they learn more, generalize what they learn to new situations and show more specialized brain responses. This is in contrast to books with no labels or books with the same generic label under each image in the book. Early learning in infancy was also associated with benefits four years later in childhood.

Our most recent addition to this series of studies was funded by the National Science Foundation and just published in the journal Child Development. Here’s what we did.

First, we brought six-month-old infants into our lab, where we could see how much attention they paid to story characters they’d never seen before. We used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure their brain responses. Infants wear a cap-like net of 128 sensors that let us record the electricity naturally emitted from the scalp as the brain works. We measured these neural responses while infants looked at and paid attention to pictures on a computer screen. These brain measurements can tell us about what infants know and whether they can tell the difference between the characters we show them.

We also tracked the infants’ gaze using eye-tracking technology to see what parts of the characters they focused on and how long they paid attention.

Eye-tracking setups let researchers monitor what infants are paying attention to.
Matthew Lester, CC BY-ND

The data we collected at this first visit to our lab served as a baseline. We wanted to compare their initial measurements with future measurements we’d take, after we sent them home with storybooks featuring these same characters.

Example of pages from a named character book researchers showed to baby volunteers.
Lisa Scott

We divided up our volunteers into three groups. One group of parents read their infants storybooks that contained six individually named characters that they’d never seen before. Another group were given the same storybooks but instead of individually naming the characters, a generic and made-up label was used to refer to all the characters (such as “Hitchel”). Finally, we had a third comparison group of infants whose parents didn’t read them anything special for the study.

After three months passed, the families returned to our lab so we could again measure the infants’ attention to our storybook characters. It turned out that only those who received books with individually labeled characters showed enhanced attention compared to their earlier visit. And the brain activity of babies who learned individual labels also showed that they could distinguish between different individual characters. We didn’t see these effects for infants in the comparison group or for infants who received books with generic labels.

These findings suggest that very young infants are able to use labels to learn about the world around them and that shared book reading is an effective tool for supporting development in the first year of life.

Best book choices vary as kids grow.
Penn State, CC BY-NC-ND

Tailoring book picks for maximum effect

So what do our results from the lab mean for parents who want to maximize the benefits of storytime?

Not all books are created equal. The books that parents should read to six- and nine-month-olds will likely be different than those they read to two-year-olds, which will likely be different than those appropriate for four-year-olds who are getting ready to read on their own. In other words, to reap the benefits of shared book reading during infancy, we need to be reading our little ones the right books at the right time.

For infants, finding books that name different characters may lead to higher-quality shared book reading experiences and result in the learning and brain development benefits we find in our studies. All infants are unique, so parents should try to find books that interest their baby.

My own daughter loved the “Pat the Bunny” books, as well as stories about animals, like “Dear Zoo.” If names weren’t in the book, we simply made them up.

The ConversationIt’s possible that books that include named characters simply increase the amount of parent talking. We know that talking to babies is important for their development. So parents of infants: Add shared book reading to your daily routines and name the characters in the books you read. Talk to your babies early and often to guide them through their amazing new world – and let storytime help.

Lisa S. Scott, Associate Professor in Psychology, University of Florida

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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What Ancient Cultures Teach Us About Grief, Mourning and Continuity of Life

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Day of the dead at a Mexican cemetery.
© Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Author(s): Daniel Wojcik, University of Oregon and Robert Dobler, Indiana University

At this time of the year, Mexican and Mexican-American communities observe “Día de los Muertos” (the Day of the Dead), a three-day celebration that welcomes the dead temporarily back into families.

Altar to the dead in Yucatán, Mexico.
Daniel Wojcik, CC BY

Festivities begin on the evening of Oct. 31 and culminate on Nov. 2. Spirits of the departed are believed to be able to reenter the world of the living for a few brief moments during these days. Altars are created in homes, where photographs and other personal items evocative of the dead are placed. Offerings to the deceased include flowers, incense, images of saints, crucifixes and favorite foods. Family members gather in cemeteries to dine not just among the dead but with them. Similar traditions exist in different cultures with different origins.

As scholars of death and mourning rituals, we believe that Día de los Muertos traditions are most likely connected to feasts observed by the ancient Aztecs. Today, they honor the memory of the dead and celebrate the continuity of generations through loving reunion with those who came before.

As Western societies, particularly the United States, move away from the direct experience of a mourner, the rites and customs of other cultures offer valuable lessons.

Loss of rituals

Funerals were handled in the home well into the 20th century in the U.S. and throughout Europe. Sometimes, stylized and elaborate public deathbed rituals were organized by the dying person in advance of the death event itself. As French historian Philippe Ariès writes, throughout much of the Western world, such death rituals declined during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The modern funeral industry.
Coffin image via www.shutterstock.com

What emerged instead was a greater fear of death and the dead body. Medical advances extended control over death as the funeral industry took over management of the dead. Increasingly, death became hidden from public view. No longer familiar, death became threatening and horrific.

Today, as various scholars and morticians have observed, many in American culture lack the explicit mourning rituals that help people deal with loss.

Traditions in ancient cultures

In contrast, the mourning traditions of earlier cultures prescribed precise patterns of behavior that facilitated the public expression of grief and provided support for the bereaved. In addition, they emphasized continued maintenance of personal bonds with the dead.

As Ariès explains, during the Middle Ages in Europe, the death event was a public ritual. It involved specific preparations, the presence of family, friends and neighbors, as well as music, food, drinks and games. The social aspect of these customs kept death public and “tame” through the enactment of familiar ceremonies that comforted mourners.

Grief was expressed in an open and unrestrained way that was cathartic and communally shared, very much in contrast with the modern emphasis on controlling one’s emotions and keeping grief private.

In various cultures the outpouring of emotion was not only required but performed ceremonially, in the form of ritualized weeping accompanied by wailing and shrieking. For example, traditions of the “death wail,” which allowed people to cry their grief aloud, have been documented among the ancient Celts. They exist today among various indigenous peoples of Africa, South America, Asia and Australia.

Song for the dead sung by two women from the Manobo-Dulangan tribe in Mindanao, Philippines.

In a similar way, the traditional Irish and Scottish practices of “keening,” or loudly wailing for the dead, were vocal expressions of mourning. These emotional forms of sorrow were a powerful way to give voice to the impact of individual loss on the wider community. Mourning was shared and public.

In fact, since antiquity and throughout parts of Europe until recently, professional female mourners were often hired to perform highly emotive laments at funerals.

Such customs functioned within a larger mourning tradition to separate the deceased from the world of the living and symbolize the transition to the afterlife.

Rituals of celebration

Mourning rituals also celebrated the dead through carnival-like revelry. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the deceased were honored with lavish feasts and funeral games.

Such practices continue today in many cultures. In Ethiopia, members of the Dorze ethnic community sing and dance before, during and after funerary rites in communal ceremonies meant to defeat death and avenge the deceased.

In not too distant Tanzania, the burial traditions of the Nyakyusa people initially focus on wailing but then include feasts. They also require that participants dance and flirt at the funeral, confronting death with an affirmation of life.

Similar assertions of life in the midst of death are expressed in the example of the traditional Irish “merry wake,” a mixture of mourning and celebration that honors the deceased. The African-American “jazz funeral” processions in New Orleans also combine sadness and festivity, as the solemn parade for the deceased transforms into dance, music and a party-like atmosphere.

These lively funerals are expressions of sorrow and laughter, communal catharsis and commemoration that honor the life of the departed.

A way to deal with grief

Grief and celebration seem like strange bedfellows at first glance, but both are emotions that overflow. The ritual practices that surround death and mourning as rites of passage help individuals and their communities make sense of loss through a renewed focus on continuity.

By doing things in a culturally defined way – by performing the same acts as ancestors have done – ritual participants engage in venerated traditions to connect with something enduring and eternal. Rituals make boundaries between life and death, the sacred and the profane, memory and experience, permeable. The dead seem less far away and less forgotten. Death itself becomes more natural and familiar.

The ConversationFunerary festivities such as Day of the Dead create space for this type of contemplation. As we reminisce over our own losses, that is something we could consider.

Daniel Wojcik, Professor, English and Folklore Studies, University of Oregon, University of Oregon and Robert Dobler, Lecturer of Folklore, Indiana University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Why Sex Gets Better in Older Age

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A new study debunks this long told myth.

Author(s): Miri Forbes, University of Minnesota; Nicholas Eaton, Stony Brook University (The State University of New York), and Robert Krueger, University of Minnesota

Photo Credits: “Older couple” via Shutterstock.

Aging is generally associated with improvements in our quality of life: We become more proficient in our work, learn how to manage our finances better and our bonds with loved ones deepen. With time and practice, most of the core domains of our lives improve as we develop skills and strategies to manage our lives with more mastery. An exception to this pattern is the quality of our sex lives, which has consistently been reported to deteriorate with age.

While this fits with the messages we receive from popular culture, which tell us that sex is a young person’s domain, it is somewhat at odds with the fact that older adults continue to explore and enjoy sexuality well into old age. The majority of men and women over 60 in the U.S. are sexually active, most at least two to three times per month (more often than many younger adults). They also rate sex as an important part of life.

So, if there is no epidemic of age-related frigidity, why would sexual quality of life take a nosedive in later life? A common answer to this question cites declining physical health and sexual functioning with age. Another answer might be: The quality of our sex lives doesn’t decline with age.

Studying sex and aging

There is a key element missing from nearly all studies of sex and aging: studying change over time. If we ask a group of people how satisfied they are with their sex life, and the younger people are more satisfied than the older people, does that mean that aging is responsible for this difference? What if instead the apparent age difference is because people born in the 1930s have different attitudes toward sex than people who grew up after the sexual revolution of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s?

To get to the bottom of how aging affects sexual quality of life, we analyzed patterns in longitudinal data collected from over 6,000 individuals followed over a period of 18 years, spanning ages 20-93. In 1995, 2004 and 2013, the representative sample of English-speaking Americans completed extensive self-administered survey questionnaires in private and returned them by mail.

A key question for our study was: How would you rate the sexual aspects of your life these days, from the worst possible situation (0) to the best possible situation (10)?

The basic trends in the data suggested that – without taking any other factors into account – sexual quality of life declines with age. But as people in the study aged, they placed more emphasis on the quality – not quantity – of sexual encounters. For example, frequency of sex became less important with age, and the amount of thought and effort invested in sex became more important.

These changing priorities were key predictors of sexual quality of life for older adults, and appeared to buffer its decline. When we matched older and younger adults on key characteristics of their sex lives – along with sociodemographic characteristics, and mental and physical health – older adults actually had better sexual quality of life.

For example, if we compared a 40-year-old man and a 50-year-old man with the same levels of perceived control over their sex life, who invest the same amount of thought and effort in their sex life, have sex with the same frequency and had the same number of sexual partners in the past year, we would expect the 50-year-old to report better sexual quality of life.

This is consistent with the improvement we see in other life domains with age, and highlights the benefits of life experience for sexuality as people learn more about their sexual preferences and their partners’ likes and dislikes. The positive relationship between sexual quality of life and aging was strongest in the context of good-quality romantic relationships, where sexual exploration and a focus on partners’ pleasure is more likely to take place.

Life experience related to a better sex life

Together these findings suggest that as we age, our sexual priorities change and we develop knowledge, skills and preferences that protect against aging-related declines in sexual quality of life. Since wisdom is “the quality of having experience, knowledge and good judgment,” our study suggests that life experience is fostering sexual wisdom.

This is great news, as a satisfying sex life has been found to be important for health and well-being, regardless of age. For older adults in particular, being sexually active predicts a longer and healthier life.

The ConversationWe now know that age-related declines in sexual quality of life are largely related to modifiable factors, so we can target sexual skills, beliefs and attitudes in clinical interventions. Given that our life expectancy continues to grow, this research highlights the opportunity to facilitate positive sexual experiences across the lifespan.

Miri Forbes, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Psychiatry and Psychology, University of Minnesota; Nicholas Eaton, Assistant Professor, Clinical Psychology, Stony Brook University (The State University of New York), and Robert Krueger, Professor of Psychology, University of Minnesota

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Challenging the Status Quo in Mathematics: Teaching for Understanding

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How can we change math instruction to meet the needs of today’s kids?
World Bank Photo Collection / flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Author: Christopher Rakes, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Despite decades of reform efforts, mathematics teaching in the U.S. has changed little in the last century. As a result, it seems, American students have been left behind, now ranking 40th in the world in math literacy.

Several state and national reform efforts have tried to improve things. The most recent Common Core standards had a great deal of promise with their focus on how to teach mathematics, but after several years, changes in teaching practices have been minimal.

As an education researcher, I’ve observed teachers trying to implement reforms – often with limited success. They sometimes make changes that are more cosmetic than substantive (e.g., more student discussion and group activity), while failing to get at the heart of the matter: What does it truly mean to teach and learn mathematics?

Traditional mathematics teaching

Traditional middle or high school mathematics teaching in the U.S. typically follows this pattern: The teacher demonstrates a set of procedures that can be used to solve a particular kind of problem. A similar problem is then introduced for the class to solve together. Then, the students get a number of exercises to practice on their own.

The basics of math instruction have changed little since George Eaton taught at Phillips Academy (1880-1930).
Phillips Academy Archives and Special Collections / flickr

For example, when students learn about the area of shapes, they’re given a set of formulas. They put numbers into the correct formula and compute a solution. More complex questions might give the students the area and have them work backwards to find a missing dimension. Students will often learn a different set of formulas each day: perhaps squares and rectangles one day, triangles the next.

Students in these kinds of lessons are learning to follow a rote process to arrive at a solution. This kind of instruction is so common that it’s seldom even questioned. After all, within a particular lesson, it makes the math seem easier, and students who are successful at getting the right answers find this kind of teaching to be very satisfying.

But it turns out that teaching mathematics this way can actually hinder learning. Children can become dependent on tricks and rules that don’t hold true in all situations, making it harder to adapt their knowledge to new situations.

For example, in traditional teaching, children learn that they should distribute a number by multiplying across parentheses and will practice doing so with numerous examples. When they begin learning how to solve equations, they often have trouble realizing that it’s not always needed. To illustrate, take the equation 3(x + 5) = 30. Children are likely to multiply the 3 across the parentheses to make 3x + 15 = 30. They might just as easily have divided both sides by 3 to make x + 5 = 10, but a child who learned the distribution method might have great difficulty recognizing the alternate method – or even that both procedures are equally correct.

Students who learn by rote drilling often have trouble realizing that there are equally valid alternative methods for solving a problem.
Kaitlyn Chantry

More than a right answer

A key missing ingredient in these traditional lessons is conceptual understanding.

Concepts are ideas, meaning and relationships. It’s not just about knowing the procedure (like how to compute the area of a triangle) but also the significance behind the procedure (like what area means). How concepts and procedures are related is important as well, such as how the area of a triangle can be considered half the area of a rectangle and how that relationship can be seen in their area formulas.

Teaching for conceptual understanding has several benefits. Less information has to be memorized, and students can translate their knowledge to new situations more easily. For example, understanding what area means and how areas of different shapes are related can help students understand the concept of volume better. And learning the relationship between area and volume can help students understand how to interpret what the volume means once it’s been calculated.

In short, building relationships between how to solve a problem and why it’s solved that way helps students use what they already know to solve new problems that they face. Students with a truly conceptual understanding can see how methods emerged from multiple interconnected ideas; their relationship to the solution goes deeper than rote drilling.

Teaching this way is a critical first step if students are to begin recognizing mathematics as meaningful. Conceptual understanding is a key ingredient to helping people think mathematically and use mathematics outside of a classroom.

Procedural learning promotes memorization instead of critical thinking and problem solving.
m.jrn/shutterstock.com

The will to change

Conceptual understanding in mathematics has been recognized as important for over a century and widely discussed for decades. So why has it not been incorporated into the curriculum, and why does traditional teaching abound?

Learning conceptually can take longer and be more difficult than just presenting formulas. Teaching this way may require additional time commitments both in and outside the classroom. Students may have never been asked to think this way before.

There are systemic obstacles to face as well. A new teacher may face pressure from fellow teachers who teach in traditional ways. The culture of overtesting in the last two decades means that students face more pressure than ever to get right answers on tests.

The results of these tests are also being tied to teacher evaluation systems. Many teachers feel pressure to teach to the test, drilling students so that they can regurgitate information accurately.

If we really want to improve America’s mathematics education, we need to rethink both our education system and our teaching methods, and perhaps to consider how other countries approach mathematics instruction. Research has provided evidence that teaching conceptually has benefits not offered by traditional teaching. And students who learn conceptually typically do as well or better on achievement tests.

Renowned education expert Pasi Sahlberg is a former mathematics and physics teacher from Finland. He sums it up well:

The ConversationWe prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test.

Christopher Rakes, Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Working Memory: How You Keep Things ‘In Mind’ Over the Short Term

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It’s a crucial cog in your ability to perform a variety of mental tasks.

Photo courtesy of Lightspring via Shutterstock.com.

Author: Alex Burmester, New York University

When you need to remember a phone number, a shopping list or a set of instructions, you rely on what psychologists and neuroscientists refer to as working memory. It’s the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind, over brief intervals. It’s for things that are important to you in the present moment, but not 20 years from now.

Researchers believe working memory is central to the functioning of the mind. It correlates with many more general abilities and outcomes – things like intelligence and scholastic attainment – and is linked to basic sensory processes.

Given its central role in our mental life and the fact that we are conscious of at least some of its contents, working memory may become important in our quest to understand consciousness itself. Psychologists and neuroscientists focus on different aspects as they investigate working memory: Psychologists try to map out the functions of the system, while neuroscientists focus more on its neural underpinnings. Here’s a snapshot of where the research stands currently.

How much working memory do we have?

Capacity is limited – we can keep only a certain amount of information “in mind” at any one time. But researchers debate the nature of this limit.

Many suggest that working memory can store a limited number of “items” or “chunks” of information. These could be digits, letters, words or other units. Research has shown that the number of bits that can be held in memory can depend on the type of item – flavors of ice cream on offer versus digits of pi.

An alternative theory suggests working memory acts as a continuous resource that’s shared across all remembered information. Depending on your goals, different parts of the remembered information can receive different amounts of resource. Neuroscientists have suggested this resource could be neural activity, with different parts of the remembered information having varying amounts of activity devoted to them, depending on current priorities.

A different theoretical approach instead argues that the capacity limit arises because different items will interfere with each other in memory.

And of course, memories decay over time, though rehearsing the information that’s in working memory seems to mitigate that process. What researchers call maintenance rehearsal involves repeating the information mentally without regard to its meaning – for example, going through a grocery list and remembering the items just as words without regard to the meal they will become.

In contrast, elaborative rehearsal involves giving the information meaning and associating it with other information. For instance, mnemonics facilitate elaborative rehearsal by associating the first letter of each of a list of items with some other information that is already stored in memory. It seems only elaborative rehearsal can help consolidate the information from working memory into a more lasting form – called long-term memory.

In the visual domain, rehearsal may involve eye movements, with visual information being tied to spatial location. In other words, people may look at the location of the remembered information after it has gone in order to remind them of where it was.

Lots of things we need to remember over the short term can soon be forgotten with no ill effect.
Suzanne Tucker via Shutterstock.com

Working memory versus long-term memory

Long-term memory is characterized by a much larger storage capacity. The information it holds is also more durable and stable. Long-term memories can contain information about episodes in a person’s life, semantics or knowledge as well as more implicit types of information such as how to use objects or move the body in certain ways (motor skills).

Researchers have long regarded working memory as a gateway into long-term storage. Rehearse information in working memory enough and the memory can become more permanent.

Neuroscience makes a clear distinction between the two. It holds that working memory is related to temporary activation of neurons in the brain. In contrast, long-term memory is thought to be related to physical changes to neurons and their connections. This can explain the short-term nature of working memory as well as its greater susceptibility to interruptions or physical shocks.

How does working memory change over a lifetime?

Performance on tests of working memory improves throughout childhood. Its capacity is a major driving force of cognitive development. Performance on assessment tests increase steadily throughout infancy, childhood and the teenage years. Performance then reaches a peak in young adulthood. On the flip side, working memory is one of the cognitive abilities most sensitive to aging, and performance on these tests declines in old age.

The rise and fall of working memory capacity over a lifespan is thought to be related to the normal development and degradation of the prefrontal cortex in the brain, an area responsible for higher cognitive functions.

What was I going to write on my list again?

We know that damage to the prefrontal cortex causes working memory deficits (along with many other changes). And recordings of neuronal activity in the prefrontal cortex show that this area is active during the “delay period” between when a stimulus is presented to an observer and when he must make a response – that is, the time during which he’s trying to remember the information.

Several mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and depression, are associated with decreased functioning of prefrontal cortex, which can be revealed via neuroimaging. For the same reason, these illnesses are also associated with decreased working memory ability. Interestingly, for schizophrenic patients, this deficit appears more marked in visual rather than verbal working memory tasks. In childhood, working memory deficits are linked to difficulties in attention, reading and language.

Working memory and other cognitive functions

The prefrontal cortex is associated with a wide array of other important functions, including personality, planning and decision-making. Any decrease in the functioning of this area is likely to affect many different aspects of cognition, emotion and behavior.

Critically, many of these prefrontal functions are thought to be intimately linked to, and perhaps dependent on, working memory. For instance, planning and decision-making require us to already have “in mind” the relevant information to formulate a course of action.

A theory of cognitive architecture, called Global Workspace Theory, relies on working memory. It suggests that information held temporarily “in mind” is part of a “global workspace” in the mind which connects to many other cognitive processes and also determines what we are conscious of in any given moment. Given that this theory suggests working memory determines what we are conscious of, understanding more about it may become an important part of solving the mystery of consciousness.

Improving your working memory

There is some evidence that it’s possible to train your working memory using interactive tasks, such as simple games for children that involve memory ability. It has been suggested that this training can help improve scores on other types of tasks, such as those involving vocabulary and mathematics. There is also some evidence that training to beef up working memory can improve performance for children with specific conditions, such as ADHD. However, research reviews often conclude that benefits are short-lived and specific to the trained task.

The ConversationFurthermore, the enhancements found in some of these studies could be due to learning how to more efficiently use one’s working memory resources, as opposed to increasing its capacity. The hope for this kind of training is that we can find relatively simple tasks which will both improve performance not just on the task itself but also transfer to a range of other applications.

Alex Burmester, Research Associate in Perception and Memory, New York University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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