Internship Intensity

It’s internship application time, and school psych graduate students all over the country are busy juggling letters of interest, researching districts, online applications, paper applications (!), out of state applications, local interviews, and out of state interviews…while also working at practicum sites, carrying a full course load, and in some cases holding down a second job or raising a family. Oh, and battling the occasional ice storm. Like I said: busy.

So is it any wonder that when we’re finally able to go to sleep, our dreams look a little like this video? I can’t say it’s restful sleep, but at this point I think we’ll all take whatever sleep we can get.

Oh, The Humanities!

hamlet-2

New research shows that reading difficult prose and poetry “lights up” the brain more than reading dumbed-down versions of the same text. Specifically, researchers gave subjects passages by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and T. S. Eliot (among others). The readers’ brains were then monitored as they read, and the results seem to be two-fold.

First, there was more electrical activity in the brain while subjects read the difficult (original) passages. Second, when subjects read poetry, regions in the brain associated with memory and self-reflection became active.

“The [original] version caused a greater degree of brain activity, lighting up not only the left part of the brain concerned with language, but also the right hemisphere that relates to autobiographical memory and emotion.”

The study’s authors suggest that this pattern of brain activity indicates a deeper engagement with the text that leads to meaningful self reflection. Philip Davis, an English professor who was part of the research team, said this:

“Poetry is not just a matter of style. It is a matter of deep versions of experience that add the emotional and biographical to the cognitive[…]This is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images.”

As a longtime Shakespeare disciple, I’m excited to see scientific confirmation of what his fans have known for centuries: Shakespeare really does put the ‘human’ in ‘humanities.’

Interestingly, this comes at a time when recent Common Core guidelines are being interpreted as calling for fiction and poetry to be gradually tapered from classroom instruction in order to make room for “harder” reading, such as technical manuals and non-fiction writing. Others say teachers are misinterpreting the guidelines and that Shakespeare still should be taught.

States are just beginning the long journey to the Common Core, so time will tell what it will ultimately look like. Let’s just hope that by the time it’s all sorted out, when we ask a student what he’s reading, rather than answering “Words, words, words,” he’ll say “How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”

Link to another news story about the study, with a slightly different angle.
Link to Science Daily report on the study.
Link to LA Times editorial about the implications of Common Core.

Weekly Roundup 1-13-13

School: Seattle high school teachers refuse to give a mandated standardized test known as the MAP (Measure of Academy Progress). In a long and detailed letter, the teachers list a number of reasons why they are protesting the test. Some of the reasons are that it takes away from instruction time, is used inappropriately to evaluate teachers, tests content not aligned with Common Core standards, and results in computer labs being dominated for weeks by test takers, thus rendering them unavailable to other students.

Psychology: A Nobel prize-winning physics professor says that arguing with others is the best way to learn. Carl Weiman says that having students debate physics concepts with one another leads to more effective learning than a simple lecture format.

Scholarship: A new study shows that social disapproval is more effective than monetary fines in changing peoples’ behavior. Through a controlled experiment, researchers showed that over the long term people are much more likely to contribute to – and cooperate with – group efforts and less likely to “freeload” when social norms are clearly delineated.

JSTOR Opens Some Archives to the Public

Screen shot 2013-01-12 at 11.54.30 AMA couple of days ago, the online library JSTOR announced that they are opening part of their archives and making them available for free. Over 1,200 journals will now be available to anyone who signs up for a JSTOR account. Usually, unless you are affiliated with a university library, most JSTOR content is not freely available to the public. Most public libraries can’t afford to pay for a JSTOR account, so their archives have been notoriously unavailable to lay people. While this is a nice gesture, the access is still somewhat limited: once you sign up for an account, you can read “up to three articles for free every two weeks.”

Many people feel that all publicly funded research should be freely available to…the public. Critics argue that commercial entities have made huge profits on the results of research funded by taxpayers. The United Kingdom seems to be a pioneer in making taxpayer-funded research freely available, thanks in large part to the work of Dame Janet Fitch. In July of last year, the British government accepted her recommendations.

The U.S. is still arguing with itself about how to approach the issue, and many people are not optimistic about a resolution. But, as professor Michael B. Eisen wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece last year, “Rather than rolling back public access, Congress should move to enshrine a simple principle in United States law: if taxpayers paid for it, they own it.”

*****

Aaron SwartzIn related news, Reddit co-founder and online activist Aaron Swartz died yesterday, the result of suicide. He had battled depression for years and wrote publicly and eloquently about it on his blog. But he was also facing trial after being accused of illegally downloading millions of articles from  MIT and JSTOR archives. The case was controversial, with some claiming Swartz broke no laws. I guess we’ll never know what the legal outcome would have been, but it’s a sad coincidence that his death came just days after JSTOR made their announcement.

A Tale of Two News Stories

Picture 23

If you were in a hurry and only had time to read the first half of the #5 most e-mailed article on the New York Times website today, titled “Study Questions Effectiveness of Therapy for Suicidal Teenagers,” you probably would have come away pondering the following important points:

  1. “55 percent of suicidal teenagers had received some therapy before they thought about suicide, planned it or tried to kill themselves, contradicting the widely held belief that suicide is due in part to a lack of access to treatment.”
  2. “…[T]he new study is the first to suggest, in a large nationwide sample, that access to treatment does not make a big difference.”
  3. “The study suggests that effective treatment for severely suicidal teenagers must address not just mood disorders, but also behavior problems that can lead to impulsive acts, experts said.”

Picture 24

But, if you read the first half of a Reuters article posted on the NBC News website titled, “1 in 25 U.S. teens attempts suicide, national study finds,” you probably would have come away pondering these important points:

  1. “About one in 25 U.S. teens has attempted suicide, according to a new national study, and one in eight has thought about it.”
  2. “Just over 12 percent of the youth had thought about suicide, and four percent each had made a suicide plan or attempted suicide.”
  3. “…[A]lmost all teens who thought about or attempted suicide had a mental disorder, including depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or problems with drug or alcohol abuse.”

The difference? The first story initially focuses on the fact that more than half of teens who attempt suicide had already received mental health treatment; the second story places its initial focus on facts and figures and diagnoses. Interestingly, if you continued to read both articles they wind up mirroring one another: The NY Times article ends with a discussion of the facts and figures and diagnoses, while the NBC News article ends with a discussion of the previous treatment issue.

In a continuation of the overall mirroring between articles, both include daunting quotes from mental health professionals:

NY Times: “I think one of the take-aways here is that treatment for depression may be necessary but not sufficient to prevent kids from attempting suicide,” said Dr. David Brent, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the study. “We simply do not have empirically validated treatments for recurrent suicidal behavior.”

NBC News: “We know that a lot of the kids who are at risk and thinking about suicide are getting (treatment),” [researcher Matthew Nock] told Reuters Health. However, “We don’t know how to stop them – we don’t have any evidence-based treatments for suicidal behavior.”

So what is the take away from this little exercise? Both articles were written about the same research study. Yet a causal reader would have come away with different impressions depending on which article they read. An important reminder to cast a net far and wide when analyzing data, and always consult the original source when possible.

Speaking of the original source, there was an interesting finding not mentioned in either article. The study found that more than 80% of suicidal adolescents “receive some form of mental health treatment.” The 55% figure quoted in both news stories above applies only to therapy that had begun before the “onset of suicidal behaviors,” yet failed to prevent them.

Link to original JAMA article.

Local Notable


In local news, an Illinois teacher at Waukeegan High School was named the 2012 National History Teacher of the Year. The award was given by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York. From the Gilder Lehrman website:

“The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History presented the 2012 National History Teacher of the Year Award to Josh Bill, a teacher at Waukegan High School in Waukegan, Illinois, on December 4, 2012. The award, including a $10,000 prize, was presented by Caroline Kennedy at the Frederick Douglass Academy, a public Gilder Lehrman flagship school in New York City. Bill was nominated for the award by his colleague Ali Schultz, an English teacher at Waukegan High School.”

And click here for the press release from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE).

Congratulations to Joshua Bill for this prestigious award!

It Takes an Idealist to be a Realist

“If we take man as he is, we make him worse. But if we take man as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”  -Viktor Frankl

600_9okzgtdvnj7kvmukstwhp1aiawldnsrn

It’s a new year, which means for the next few weeks we can expect to be bombarded with articles and blog posts and facebook links about starting over, renewal, changing habits, becoming a better person, etc., etc. etc. (quick tip: research shows that if you plan to change a habit – e.g. achieve automaticity vs. relying on willpower alone when engaging your new behavior – you must stick to the new behavior for at least 66 days. Just something to keep in mind).

The common thread among all of these bits of inspiration is, of course, the natural desire to be better than we are. In 1972 the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl gave a talk in which he addressed the dichotomy between who we are and who we hope to become. His lesson (via Goethe) was that you have to be an idealist in order to be a realist. If we simply take a man as he is, in reality he will fall short of that. But if we view a man as the best possible version of himself, then he just might possibly become the version of himself of which he is capable. If that’s not a good metaphor for the essence of a New Year’s resolution, I don’t know what is.

Happy New Year, everybody!