Wednesday, July 31, 2013

This is your Brain on FoxNews

'Poached Scrambled eggs in the pot' photo (c) 2006, Seth Anderson - license: you grew up in the 90’s, you likely remember the commercials warning of illegal drugs turning your brain to mush if you used them.  Well, turns out drugs aren’t the only things that can turn our brains to mush. Recently there was a story on NPR regarding the power of personally held stereotypes to shape our perception of life. In particularly, the research was emphasizing the problems racial stereotypes cause in real life. While obvious hate-filled racism is less mainstream thankfully—though certainly exists below the surface—it is this stereotypical racism that plays out in much subtler, yet equally dangerous ways.  And perhaps this racism is even more dangerous than the obvious hatred of the Klu Klux Klan or white supremacists groups. This racism is often oblivious even to the person who holds the racist biased.  One can therefore proudly proclaim to be free of bias and prejudice while almost unconsciously holding to prejudicial stereotypes.

One example of this is from the documentary film Freakanomics, where Morgan Spurlock describes sending out identical resumes to job seekers, the only difference being that one copy would have a name that sounded “white,” and the other “black.”  Spurlock found that the “white” sounding name received call-backs far more often.   I’m sure we can all think of less troublesome racial stereotypes, like white men can’t jump, or blacks have natural rhythm.  I’m sure many of us can also think of much more troubling stereotypes.

Stereotypes are helpful in some ways. I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but I imagine a scientist would say that the brain developed the ability to stereotype so as to know when to flee from potential danger.  Seconds probably meant the difference between life and death, so every second could be the difference between life and death.  It’s not necessarily that stereotypes are always bad, or always wrong.  Financial experts stereotype by warning us that letters from foreign nationals telling us we’ve won a lottery are always a scam.  My mother stereotyped in advising me “that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”  Yet, stereotypes often have a dark, sinister side that we don’t always notice firsthand.  Stereotypes such as “welfare recipients are lazy,” “rich people are all selfish and greedy,” and as recent events remind us, “black males in hoodies are dangerous.” Yes, guilty verdict or not, Trayvon Martin would still be alive today if he had not been negatively racially stereotyped. 

The real problem with stereotypes is that they simple reinforce our previously held beliefs, to the point where they become self-fulfilling.  If I think black males in hoodies are troublemakers, I’m going to track down and harass a teenager armed with a bag of skittles—even when the police tell me not to—because  he’s “suspicious,” “up to no good, ” and an “asshole.” This is a key element of Systems Theory, a framework for understanding human behavior, which points out that human beings tend to notice things that reinforce one’s current beliefs. We all like to think we’re keen observers, but in reality we only see what we already think exists. 

Author Jesse Rice shares a story of a social experiment done by the BBC TV series Horizon. Six people agreed to subject themselves to 48 hours of sensory deprivation , placed in pitch black rooms, clothed in thick clothes and gloves, and adorned with frosted goggles and white-noise playing earphones.  Having their mental functions tested prior to beginning the experiment, the isolation soon gave way to serious cognitive impairment with participants imagining sights, sounds, and senses that were not real. The observation was made that cut off from connection, humans’ ability to make sense of the world and deal with reality quickly breaks down.

'Fox News GOP Merger - Faux News' photo (c) 2007, New England Secession - license: what’s the point? Our brain needs to be constantly presented with new ideas and information in order to not fall into locked-in stereotypes.  “Just as neural pathways form in our brain as a result of stimulation, there is now research to show that the opposite may also be true. If the brain does not get the stimulation it needs, it begins to turn to mush.”  Is it then any surprise that the avid Fox News watcher thinks that President Obama is some socialist intent on handing out their money to entitlement moochers via government programs? No, their brain has essentially turned to “mush.”  Having subjected itself to the same stimuli (AKA GOP Propaganda)over and over again, with the tendency to only see self-fulfilling examples, their brain essentially loses the ability to reason, relying only on preconceived stereotypes, oblivious to logic.

It is ESSENTIAL then to constantly be seeking out and encountering new mental stimuli.  To purposefully expose oneself to ideas and influences that fly in that face of one’s currently held beliefs. One of the researchers from the NPR story told of the powerful effect an image had on herself, challenging her own preconceived ideas, that of a female construction worker breast-feeding her child on her lunch break.  Constantly challenging our brain is like lifting weights for our muscles. If we don’t want our brains to turn into a stereotypical mush, unable to think beyond our own ideas or opinions—we’ve got to be always open to new ideas and opinions. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

What would you take if you had 5 minutes to grab & go?

'fire 5' photo (c) 2006, Loco Steve - license:

Due to the lack of moisture and hot summer temperatures, Colorado once again is in the midst of a tough forest fire season. The Black Forest Fire this past June was particularly damaging, causing an estimated $85 Billion in damages, nearing the $110 Billion in damages from the Waldo Canyon fire of 2012.  Both fires were particularly costly because they burned in residential areas, consuming scores of structures and property.  While I have written in the past about forest fires and public policy, I wish to explore another perspective.

Shortly after the Black Forest Fire, Colorado Public Radio interviewed a resident who had recently been allowed to return to his property.  He was fortunate in that his home had been spared, despite the destruction of other homes nearby.  Recounting how he had only a few minute’s notice to evacuate, the interviewer then asked the man what he had taken.  He shared that he had taken some family keepsakes and photo albums.  The interviewer then asked another intriguing question, that being what item or items the man had not taken that he would have on second thought.  While he mentioned an antique restoration project in his garage, I myself pondered what items I would choose if in a similar predicament.

Having given it some thought, there are certainly a few things I would grab such as photo albums, my wife’s scrapbooks, and my journal. I’m not sure there are many other “must haves.” Though CPR doesn’t have the lists yet accessible of what others would grab, I imagine their lists would be similar to mine; Family keepsakes, pictures, treasured notes, etc.  It’s funny in a way to think about all the things we would not be first to grab, the things that are worth the most monetarily. Things like flat screen TV’s, computers, appliances, and so on. Sure, someone might grab their laptop or tablet, but that surround sound stereo is most likely staying put.

I’m reminded of the rom-com Leap Year, in which Amy Adams’s character is challenged by a rival love interest to measure the strength and depth of her current relationship based on what he would grab in the event of a fire. Sure enough, back home and recently engaged, she pulls the fire alarm and watches in stunned silence as her fiancĂ© rushes around grabbing technology.  Realizing the relationship has no depth or value she leaves him and goes off to the other guy.
'Gold-Treasure' photo (c) 2008, Mark Herpel - license:

What also comes to mind is the admonition in Matthew 6:19-20. Here, Jesus is recorded advising his followers to not invest in things that can be stolen or destroyed, but rather that which is everlasting.  Isn’t that just the opposite of what we do though? We buy into the consumerist mindset of having the latest tech  gear, the trendiest fashions,  and the most elegant furnishings. We work long hours, sacrificing time with friends or family so we can make money to buy all those “treasures;” otherwise known as all the things we will leave behind in a fire and will subsequently get burned up or otherwise destroyed. 

The past few years at Christmas I’ve tried to back away from asking for gifts—stuff that’s just going to go bad or get destroyed. In fact, I’ve began asking for things that won’t just end up in a landfill one day.  I’d rather have gifts like a memorable dinner, an unexpected surprise, or a special act. These are things which won’t go bad and things which I can always take with me.  And of course, relationships are what these gifts are all about.

So let’s spend less time and money investing in things that will go bad, get destroyed, or end up in a landfill. Rather let’s spend what time and resources we have on each other, on our relationships—building on the one’s we currently have and engaging in making new ones.—for it’s our relationships and our memories that will always be with us.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Why student loan forgiveness must happen!

'cooperunion_dec08_DSC_0195' photo (c) 2012, Michael Fleshman - license:
Outstanding student loan debt in America is roughly $1 Trillion, surpassing auto loans and credit cards as the biggest source of consumer debt besides mortgage loans.  Each year 60% of college student borrow money to help pay for college.  Adding in past borrowers, the number reaches approximately 37 million nationwide. Of those 37 million, the under 30 age demographic has the most borrowers at 14 million. The average student loan balance for all age groups is $24,301 with an average monthly payment on student loan debt is about $290. That’s a lot of money!

The average income for college graduates is $37,000 to $62,000, depending on degree field. If a graduate with student loans is making $50k a year, about $10,000 of that will go to taxes (be they federal, state, FICA, etc.)  Of that remaining $40,000, about $300 monthly will go to student loan repayment. That’s nearly 10% of one’s monthly income! How’d you feel about losing out on 10% of your income EVERY month for at least ten years.  That’s about $35,000 over the life of the loan repayment. It’s quite a hefty sum.

As student loan debt creeps its way into the political conversation more, those who have never had to take out student loans are often the most outspoken.  Either their parents were well off enough to pay for their schooling out of pocket, or they followed the advice of Mr. Mitt Romney and “borrowed money from (their) parents.”  In some cases there seems to be a sense of superiority, that they are better because they didn’t have to borrow money for school for whatever reason(s). 

Anyone who was able to work their way through college or get a scholarship should be grateful, not vengeful to the others who did not. In reality, only about 10% of college students get scholarships, and most jobs aren’t going to cover every expense either. Further, if  parents footed the bill, that says nothing of one’s own abilities, only theirs.  As author Randall Robinson wrote, true to American capitalism, you simply got to start from where your parents left off.

'Stats about student debt' photo (c) 2011, Jagz Mario - license: with student loan debt being roughly $1 Trillion, this is an issue that isn’t going away. It’s inevitable that student loan debt will soon become the punching bag of conservatives.   The mythical ideology of “personal responsibility” stands in stark contrast to student loan debt. Student loans are all about depending on the government and not being “self-sufficient,” both of which the Right detest.  They will cry, “why bail out irresponsible students who didn’t take enough responsibility to pay for their own education?” Or, the familiar, “why should ‘makers’ subsidize the ‘takers’?” Trust me, it’s going to happen. And unless something drastic happens, the cycle will only continue, for instead of saving money for their kids’ college education, debtors will still be trying to pay off their own.

Here’s the reality. America has been cutting higher-ed funding and raising tuition for years just to keep taxes on the rich low. While the Right blames government for rising tuition rates, they ignore the cuts they themselves impose to state education budgets.  Public policy has created the student debt situation we have today. Don’t tell me now that debt forgiveness is letting borrowers off easy.  If America had been doing the right thing, we wouldn’t have this situation to begin with.  For the future of American commerce we need an educated workforce, for the future of our democracy we need an educated electorate, and for the future of our society we need an educated populace.  Look, we could have avoided this problem in the past by doing the right thing, but the problem can still be fixed. It’s as simple as student loan forgiveness. Let’s do this!