Mayan Apocalypse Myths are Scaring Children

Yesterday, NASA hosted one of their live Hangouts on Google+ to talk about the myths surrounding 2012 and the Mayan calendar. We’ve all heard the stories about the world supposedly ending at the end of this year, and luckily we are able to laugh them off as the silly stuff of pseudoscience.

But did you know that NASA scientist David Morrison receives letters from children all over the country who are so worried about the world ending in 2012 that they are having trouble eating and sleeping, and some teenagers have even confessed to feeling suicidal? This is not good, to say the least. The myths and fears being propagated about the Mayan calendar are seemingly fed by Internet rumors, New-Age-type beliefs, and Hollywood movies.

The complete Hangout is about 52 minutes long, but I definitely recommend it if you have time. Skip ahead to the 5:30 mark to hear Mr. Morrison talking about the disturbing letters he’s received from children and teachers across the country. Here’s the full video:

For a shorter, quick-and-to-the-point video explanation of why the world won’t end in three weeks, here is Don Yeomans from NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory breaking down the different aspects of the myth:

For further reference:

  • NASA’s FAQ page about why the world won’t end in 2012.
  • Don Yeoman’s 2012 hoax page.
  • Top six 2012 “end-of-the-world” myths debunked by National Geographic.
  • And, for a little perspective, a list of predicted apocalyptic events throughout history. I think we can all agree on the outcomes.

And finally, I’ll leave you with a famous quote from my all-time favorite astrophysicist:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” -Carl Sagan


Weekly Roundup 11-25-12

School: Two central themes of modern school psychology training are Evidence-Based Practice and Response to Intervention (RtI). Nationwide, school districts are struggling to varying degrees with the shift to a solid RtI model for school-based interventions. It is helpful to remember that in the not-too-distant past, the field of medicine also struggled with the shift from an intuition-based “trust us, we’re doctors” approach to the clinical trial, evidence-based medical model we take for granted today.

Psychology: A nice profile of the neurologist Oliver Sacks in New York magazine. Sacks, who is best known for his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, has written a new book titled Hallucinations. While he is “probably the most famous, and most beloved, brain doctor at work today,” many people may not know that Sacks has suffered from a near-crippling shyness most of his life.

Scholarship: A pair of social psychologists rethink classic experiments in the psychology of evil. A reanalysis of studies by Milgram and Zimbardo shows that people do not stumble into tyrannical behavior blindly. Rather, people are led to commit evil acts by the twin forces of 1) dynamic leadership, and 2) knowing the tyrannical behavior is wrong, but believing it is justified “by ends that they perceive to be noble.” In other words, tyranny is “the result of conviction and hard work.”

Reel Therapy: The Importance of Silence

A topic that often comes up in my psychotherapy classes is the importance of silence within the therapeutic session. Frequently, this discussion elicits the most comments from classmates, who talk about their discomfort with the idea of gaps in the dialog when interacting one-on-one with another person. It’s true that in an extroverted society such as ours, contemplative silence – especially when in the company of others – is not the norm. Also, beginning therapists often make the mistake of talking too much and trying to push their clients to talk, rather than allowing for a psychological space to open up into which the client may enter on their own.

I recently watched the film Drive and spotted a great example of the use of silence to create an opening for someone who wants to talk but is initially resistant. Throughout the film, Ryan Gosling’s character – simply called Driver in the credits – is what we would refer to as the strong, silent type. He doesn’t talk much, to anyone, and often you can see that his neutral presence creates a safe, comfortable space for those around him (at other times, though, his silence makes him a recipient of other characters’ projections, but that’s a topic for another post). This is most notable when he is with his love interest, Irene (played by Carey Mulligan), and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). The interactions between Driver and Irene are the exact opposite of what you might expect from a typical romance movie, in which the man and woman banter, joke and chitchat to the inevitable conclusion. Instead, here they are comfortable with long stretches of silence between them, punctuated by nothing more than a glance or a light touch.

In the scene that I selected, Driver is talking with Standard (Oscar Isaac). Standard is Irene’s husband and Benicio’s father, and was recently released from prison. In this scene, he has just been beaten up by a group of thugs who are trying to intimidate Standard into doing a robbery for them. This creates tension for Standard, as he wants to move beyond his criminal past for the sake of Irene and Benicio. Driver starts in the living room, sitting silently with Benicio, then goes to check on Standard and find out what happened. Things to look for:

  • Driver asks few questions verbally. He communicates a lot with a simple tilt of the head or questioning facial expression.
  • Look for Standard’s big sigh (of relief?) when he decides to open up and talk to Driver, after initially reacting to Driver’s opening question with resistance.
  • Note how much information Driver elicits from both Standard, and later Benicio, with only a few well-placed questions.

[FYI: I’ve edited out offensive language – those are the blank spots in the dialog. But Standard is a little bloodied from the altercation, so it might be a bit graphic for some viewers. Because of that, I would rate this clip PG-13.]

Remember, in most cases your clients want to talk to you. That’s why they are there. One of the biggest gifts you can give them is to create a safe, quiet space in which they are free to open up at their pace and in the manner they choose. Here’s a final thought, courtesy of the pyschoanalyst Glen Gabbard (via the blog In Therapy by Ryan Howes):

“If gentle inquiries about the origins of the silence fail to re-engage the patient, a therapist might wish to say, ‘Maybe you’d prefer to sit in silence together for a while.’ The therapist conveys not only acceptance of the silence but also a message that the patient is not alone during the silence.” (Long Term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, p. 101)

Weekly Roundup 11-18-12

School: A Chicago Tribune investigation into the “empty-desk epidemic” in Chicago public schools. The authors suggest that chronically failing to get children to school is a form of parental neglect, if not abuse.

Psychology: A psychologist shares her personal journey through extreme mental illness and how it helped her develop an effective treatment – dialectical behavior therapy, or D.B.T. – for clients with borderline personality disorder who are also “supersuicidal.”

Scholarship: A researcher proposes a theoretical model for those awkward social moments that make us cringe. Using a novel research situation involving strangers seated closely together – and cookies! –  Joshua Clegg explores those situations that “trigger social discomfort in all of us.” Erm…Awkward.

School Psychology Awareness Week 2012

Well, here we are smack dab in the middle of School Psychology Awareness Week and I’m finally getting around to posting about it! I guess that’s what happens when you’re extremely busy…being a school psychologist (in training). As the end of the semester nears, things are getting a little hectic, as you can imagine. But I didn’t want this week to go by without notice.

Because many people don’t quite know what it is we even do, I recommend What is a School Psychologist? for a good general overview of our roles and duties both in schools and in our communities (courtesy of the National Association of School Psychologists, or NASP).

And with that, I must leave you as I work to compile a list of community resources for families to share with my classmates tomorrow in a local resource swap exercise.

Happy School Psychology Awareness Week, everybody!

Weekly Roundup 11-11-12

School: November 12-19 is National School Psychology Awareness Week. This year’s theme is Know Your Strengths. Check the National Association of School Psychologist’s website for additional information, suggested activities, posters and more.

Psychology: What do other cultures tell us about how autism is diagnosed in the West? Behaviors that Western clinicians view as hallmark traits of autism – e.g. lack of eye contact – are sometimes just the norm in non-Western societies. Conversely, traits that are red flags in other cultures – e.g. lacking deference for one’s elders in many Asian cultures – would be considered perfectly normal in the West.

Scholarship: When it comes to temper tantrums, even 3-year-olds know when someone is faking it. Toddlers were slower to respond to an adult who got upset at nothing vs. an adult who got upset at something.

Can Our Relationships Survive Our Politics?

Image source: Gizmodo

Well, we made it through the election and are collectively left to pick up the pieces of a bitter fight to the finish. Approximately half of the country is elated and the other half is dejected. In other words, as we’ve been told for months now by an excitable media, we are a country divided. Was this the most contentious election in history? I don’t know. I think history shows that politics can be an ugly business. Often that seems to be true on the national stage, where parties and personalities clash. But what happens on a smaller scale when friends and family fight about politics? When political disagreements put a wedge between relationships that have thrived for years, even decades?

In October, The Public Insight Network (PIN) collaborated with the radio program This American Life (TAL) to gather stories about how political divisions are affecting the lives of everyday Americans. To hear all of the stories they’ve collected to date, you can visit the interactive Story Map of “families, friendships and communities strained by politics” on the PIN website. Click image below to be taken to the website:

Story Map

For a sampling of what you’ll find there, here are 10 short radio snippets in which ordinary Americans tell their stories of political divisions and relationship breakdowns:

For a more in-depth look at stories like these, I recommend the hour-long radio program broadcast November 1 on This American Life. Called Red State Blue State, it was billed as a pre-election show. But I think now that the dust has settled, it’s even more important to think about our ongoing relationships post-election and moving forward. Can we get past our differences and begin to heal the rifts of a contentious political season? I for one certainly hope so, if only for the sake of our own – and our country’s – emotional well-being.

Click image below to be taken to the TAL show’s page with embedded audio player:

Everyday Psychology: Emotional Intelligence

Recently Howard Gardner spoke at New Trier High School (link to the announcement and an audio file of the talk here). I couldn’t attend, but apparently 850 people showed up – wow! For those who are not familiar with the name, Gardner proposed the theory of multiple intelligences.

Thinking about emotional intelligence reminded me of something I read about last spring, which in turn reminded me that every now and then I see or read about something in the popular culture that I think is a great example of this or that psychological theory. In order to share those instances and discuss them further, I’m starting a new series called Everyday Psychology. The goal will be to help make seemingly academic psychological concepts and/or theories more accessible to the general public by sharing real-world examples.

To kick off the Everyday Psychology series, I’d like to introduce you to a man they are calling the Snackman; a true life subway hero.

The Concept: I read this article last spring, and it struck me as a perfect example of something psychologists refer to as emotional intelligence. There is controversy in the field about whether or not emotional intelligence (EI) is an actual intelligence, with measurable cognitive aspects such as those measured by the Wechsler Intelligence test battery (IQ test), or if it is more of a personal trait or ability. You can read more about that debate elsewhere, if you’re interested. I agree with David Wechsler that there are “non-intellective” factors which influence “intelligent behavior.” I also agree with Howard Gardner’s assertion that traditional methods for measuring intelligence do not “fully explain performance outcomes.” So I am proceeding from the assumption that there is such a thing as emotional intelligence, whether or not we resolve if and how those factors can be measured.

(video warning – language NSFW):

The Example: Charles Sonder was riding the subway in New York, eating a bag of Pringles, when he saw a man and a woman get into a physical altercation. Apparently the woman initiated the violence by hitting and kicking the man. Rather than start shouting at them to stop, or calling for help, or physically restraining the woman, Sonder simply edges his way over to the fighting couple and silently stands between them. The whole time, he’s eating his Pringles, projecting an aura of casual indifference. But his physical presence, acting as a human barrier between the man and woman, is enough to defuse the situation and shift the woman’s attention away from physically lashing out to merely hurling insults.


The Discussion: Sonder’s actions are a great example of EI. I think the casual snacking was a key component to the effectiveness of his intervention. He says he was just trying to get the couple to stop hitting each other, and that he didn’t stop eating the chips because he was hungry. Even though Sonder downplayed his actions, I think his instinct to keep eating the chips is a central part of the EI factor. He read the high emotions of the situation, and probably surmised that telling the couple to stop would not be effective and, in fact, might cause them to escalate. A direct challenge would likely have been viewed as threatening to either the man or the woman or both. By pretending to be involved in something else, to not really notice what was happening, Sonder became simply a neutral presence rather than a lightning rod. His neutrality is what allowed the explosive psychological energy to dissipate, as he became simply a nondescript physical buffer. If he had not been eating chips, I doubt this would have worked nearly as well.


The Four Branch model of EI has a category called Managing Emotions:

Managing emotions – the ability to regulate emotions in both ourselves and in others. Therefore, the emotionally intelligent person can harness emotions, even negative ones, and manage them to achieve intended goals.”

This is exactly what Sonder did, purely out of instinct and not thinking he was doing anything special. He was simply displaying an innate “adaptive behavior” by perceiving emotions, understanding emotions, and managing emotions in a social context. I suppose a parallel to a different type of intelligence would be a math genius who solves some complicated equation and humbly says, “I was just following it to its logical conclusion” while the rest of us look on, dumbfounded. Sonder probably did not even think of his actions as special, he just did what came naturally…to him.

Footnote: The article points out that once Sonder defused the situation, a female bystander came over – suddenly emboldened – and yelled at the man half of the couple to get off the train. But according to the witnesses on the train, it was the woman who started punching and hitting the man. Here’s a quote from the bystander who videotaped the whole thing: ‘Punching him in the face, kicking, cursing. Soon as she saw the dude, she started fighting him. Then he kicks back.’ So why would the “helpful” woman tell the man to get off the train? Surely it was the violent woman who should have been asked to leave. With the important caveat that we don’t know the background of these individuals, I can’t help but wonder if there is some level of gender bias there; the cultural assumption that a man can’t be a victim of domestic abuse. Just a thought.

Weekly Roundup 11-4-12

School: A former school bully reflects on her guilt and shame over what she did as a schoolgirl, especially to one girl in particular. In her words: “If I inflicted half as much physical assault in my adulthood as I did to [Gina] as a teen, I would be locked up for a very long time.”

Psychology: Parents worry about how natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy might affect children, but in general children are resilient. Where adults see damage and disruption, children will remember adventure and making the best of things.

Scholarship: New research shows that when people with math anxiety are presented with a math problem, their brains show activity in the same regions associated with physical pain.