Archive for the Science Category

At Arm’s Length

Posted in America, Clips, Culture, Science, Uncategorized on March 22, 2017 by frankbures

Cutler2016123 copyFrom The Rotarian:

Some years ago, my wife and I went to the south of Thailand to teach English at an elementary school. It was a poor school in a small town. The principal did his best to accommodate us, building a room for us to live in at the school. It had a bathroom and a shower and many, many photos of the school’s owner. By local standards it was luxurious.

By our standards, however, it was missing one main thing: privacy. A buffer zone between ourselves and everyone else. The room was situated right next to the principal’s office, and our shared wall stopped about a foot short of the ceiling. Our bed sat against one side of this wall. On the other side was the principal’s desk. It felt, in a way, as though we were in bed with him.

This was not the first time I had noticed cultural differences regarding personal space. mar17-coverWhen I lived in East Africa, I saw how my need for space seemed strange and possibly hostile in a very people-oriented culture. But Americans have long been notorious for the vast expanses of personal space we need. An article titled “Understanding American Culture” on the International Student Guide to the USA website advises: “Americans tend to require more personal space than in other cultures. If you try to get too close to an American during your conversation, he or she will feel that you are ‘in their face’ and will try to back away. Try to avoid physical contact while you are speaking, since this may lead to discomfort.”

Read the rest here.

Is Our Depression Culture-Bound?

Posted in America, Clips, Culture, Science on January 22, 2017 by frankbures

cover_2From Poets & Writers Magazine:

Growing up, I only knew that my grandma had been “sick.” Later I heard more, and learned that she had taken her own life. But it wasn’t until I started researching a book about culture-bound syndromes that I uncovered the fuller version: Late one night, in 1968, my grandma woke up, opened a bottle of barbiturates, swallowed them all, then climbed back into bed. The next morning my grandfather found her body next to his. She was fifty-six years old. They had been married since she was sixteen and he was nineteen.

At the time the doctors said she had a nervous breakdown, or sometimes that she was depressed. But that meant something different to the doctors than it meant to her family. And as I researched my book, it started to become clear that even today it probably means something different to everyone around the world.

Rates of depression vary widely. In Korea or Japan you have a one in fifty chance of having experienced major depression over the past twelve months, while in Brazil your chance is one in ten. Symptoms vary too. According to Handbook of Depression, a textbook on mood disorders, Koreans and Korean Americans experience manifestations that others would never consider related to depression: constipation, abdominal cramps, heartburn, stiff joints, sore muscles, and increased heart rate. In cultures where excitement and happiness are considered normal, people with major depression show low energy and blunted emotional response. In cultures where emotional control is considered the norm, the opposite is true: Intensified emotional responses are a common symptom of depression. The British psychiatrist Christopher Dowrick, author of Beyond Depression: A New Approach to Understanding and Management, has suggested that depression itself should be considered a culture-bound syndrome.

Read the rest here.

Read more about Culture-Bound Syndromes in The Geography of Madness

Running Circles Around Us

Posted in Africa, Clips, Culture, Running, Science on August 29, 2016 by frankbures

Crawley1From Scientific American

When the starting gun fires at the Olympic track in Rio de Janeiro, there is little doubt who will be in the lead. In the Men’s 1,500 Meters Asbel Kiprop will be up front. In the women’s 5,000 meters Almaz Ayana will run away, and she may also take the 10,000 Meters. In the marathon Helah Kiprop will push the women whereas Eliud Kipchoge will be the one to watch among the men. In the Men’s 800 Meters, David Rudisha will likely hold his title and maybe break his own world record.

In other words most of these races will be dominated by runners from, or with roots in, east Africa—namely Kenya and Ethiopia, with a few Eritreans and maybe a Ugandan also standing out. Mo Farah, currently at the top of the ranking for 10,000 meters, was born in Somalia and raised in the U.K., and now trains in the U.S. Bernard Lagat, who just won the U.S. 5,000-meter Olympic qualifier (at age 41) is Kenyan-American.

East African runners have dominated for the two decades since Kenyans started winning in the mid-1990s, followed by Ethiopians shortly thereafter. This has lead to great soul searching on the part of former distance powers like the U.S. and U.K. Yet reasons for that Crawley3dominance remain hotly debated, and science has had little definitive to say about it.

The reigning theory in the West is that runners from east Africa have some evolutionary advantage over runners from other backgrounds.

Read the rest here.

Beyond the Machine Age

Posted in America, Clips, Culture, Geography of Madness, Science on August 10, 2016 by frankbures

From Undark:

It used to be that when I looked in the mirror, I saw many things: a body; a collection of cells; a fantastic kind of machinery. I didn’t see these things because they were a reflection of reality, or because the body and brain are, in fact, machines. I saw them because I was born in America, and that is my culture.

In our country, we have what’s known as a mechanistic understanding of our bodies. We imagine ourselves to be machines made of meat and bone. We see the doctor as a mechanic whose job is to find the broken parts and fix them. For at least a century this has been our primary metaphor for talking about sickness and health, about how our bodies work and break down. In its popular 1960s television special, National Geographic flatly described the human body as “The Incredible Machine.”

The body is incredible, but my view of it as a machine — the validity of that metaphor — started to break down in the process of researching my book, “The Geography of Madness,” about the so-called “cultural syndromes.”

“Of course, one cannot think without metaphors,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 1989 essay, “AIDS and its Metaphors,” “But that does not mean there aren’t some metaphors we might well abstain from or try to retire.”

Read the rest here.

newbod

Travel and Insanity

Posted in Culture, Geography of Madness, Science, Travel on July 14, 2016 by frankbures

the-rotarian-column-travelFrom the of The Rotarian

In the 1970s and ’80s, an Italian psychiatrist named Graziella Magherini began to make note of tourists who came to Florence and, while viewing great works of art, experienced a mental breakdown. Often, they had to be put on a stretcher and taken to a psychiatric hospital. Magherini looked at 106 such cases and labeled the condition “Stendhal syndrome,” after the French novelist who described having such an experience in a Florence basilica. Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky may have had a similar affliction.

According to Magherini, such a breakdown is caused by the power of art over people who are psychologically vulnerable or by “coming into contact with great works of art without the mediation of a professional guide,” as one paper on the syndrome described it. That may be the case. But such experiences are not unique to Italy, regardless of the power of its art. Rather, I suspect there was a greater power at work, one the victims brought with them: the power of their own expectations.

A similar condition has affected some Japanese tourists in Paris. Researchers observed that in Japan, “Paris has, and holds, a quasi-magical power of attraction because the city is considered a symbol of European culture.” Besides the normal stresses of travel and the vast cultural differences, the authors noted that “disappointment linked to contact with the everyday reality [of Paris] is a factor of incomprehension and anxiety, but also of disenchantment and depression.” This was dubbed “Paris syndrome” by the media.

Read the rest here.

The End of the World as We Know It

Posted in America, Art, Books, Clips, Culture, Science, Uncategorized on February 24, 2016 by frankbures

imagesConsensus is growing that we have entered a new geological era called the Anthropocene. As it does, so does anxiety about our fate as a species. This was the subject of a recent piece I did for Aeon on our love of apocalyptic fiction, film and stories. We fear the end might be near, but we also fear we are part of something from which we have no way to extricate ourselves. If you feel this too, read on.

One day in the early 1980s, I was flipping through the TV channels, when I stopped at a news report. The announcer was grey-haired. His tone was urgent. His pronouncement was dire: between the war in the Middle East, famine in Africa, AIDS in the cities, and communists in Afghanistan, it was clear that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were upon us. The end had come.

We were Methodists and I’d never heard this sort of prediction. But to my grade-school mind, the evidence seemed ironclad, the case closed. I looked out the window and could hear the drumming Hugh-Howey-WOOL-COVERof hoof beats.

Life went on, however, and those particular horsemen went out to pasture. In time, others broke loose, only to slow their stride as well. Sometimes, the end seemed near. Others it would recede. But over the years, I began to see it wasn’t the end that was close. It was our dread of it. The apocalypse wasn’t coming: it was always with us. It arrived in a stampede of our fears, be they nuclear or biological, religious or technological.

Read the rest here.

Live Well, Die Fast

Posted in America, Books, Culture, Geography of Madness, Science on January 22, 2016 by frankbures

1215_CoverThe business of longevity is massive in America—land of perpetual youth. One of its most ardent boosters is Dan Buettner, who has created a minor industry around the so-called “Blue Zones,” where people are reported to live extra-long lives. Most of his advice qualifies as common sense: Eat plants, exercise, be part of a community. I don’t have any problem with most of this. In fact, I do most of it.

What I do have a problem with is the way the Blue Zones capitalizes our refusal to accept death as part of life. And even if we allow that some Blue Zones exist (though many have been debunked), the idea that you should try to replicate those in your own life strikes me as naive and sad and beside the point. The science of longevity is extremely complex. How long you live depends not only on what you eat, but on what you believe—something I write about in my new book, the Geography of Madness. For example, one study found that those with a more positive view of aging live an average of 7.5 years longer than those with a negative one. If that’s true, it means the very people most desperate to stave off the end (the natural market for the Blue Zones) would be the least likely to benefit from such advice.

In any case, if you care, you can read my short critique here.