Thursday, March 31, 2011

Monks study science, and campus life


Even amid the diverse crowd on the Emory campus, six new students stand out. They are Tibetan monks from India, sent by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to learn science and teach it to other monastics as part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative.

While learning biology, chemistry and physics, the young monks are adjusting to a culture of pizza, laptops and Facebook. "It seems like here, time is moving very fast," says Kunjo Baiji, one of the student monks. "In India, time is slowed down and there is enough time. But here, everybody looks very busy."

As part of Tibet Week at Emory, Buddhist studies faculty and students will take on science faculty and students in a debate on evolution, karma, reincarnation and ethics. The debate begins at 7:30 this evening in the Carlos Museum Reception Hall.

Related:
Monks + scientists = a new body of thought
The compassionate mind

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Blurring the lines between life forms


Composite creatures, such as the mythical centaur, have long lived in the human imagination. Our growing power to directly design life forms should give us pause, says bio-ethicist Paul Root Wolpe. Once we perfect the technologies in animals and start using them in humans, what will be the ethical guidelines?

You may have already heard of the liger, the lion-tiger hybrid that is the largest cat in the world. Now meet the beefalo (buffalo-cattle), the geep (goat-sheep) and the camma (camel-llama).

A growing number of such hybrid animals exist due to selective breeding combined with genetic manipulation. “For the first time in our history, we’re able to directly design organisms,” says Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics in a TED conversation (see video below). “We’re able to manipulate life with unprecedented power.”

Bioengineers have removed the bio-luminescent gene from jellyfish and used it to make kittens, pigs and puppies that glow in the dark. Some states already allow sales of genetically altered Zebra fish, a black-and-white aquarium favorite that now comes in glowing yellow, red and green.

Wolpe wonders, “Do we get to go to ‘Pets-R-Us’ someday and say, ‘I’d like to have a dog. I’d like it to have the head of a dachshund, the body of a retriever, maybe some pink fur, and let’s make it glow in the dark.’”

It’s past time for us to confront tough questions about bio-engineering, Wolpe says. How are we going to define animal species in this new era of directed evolution?

He points out that most of the food we buy in the supermarket today already has a genetically modified component to it. “So even as we have worried about it, we’ve allowed it to go on in this country without regulation, or even any identification on the package.”

Cloning and computers are further pushing the envelope of transgenic animals. Labs have created organic robots, including Goliath beetles implanted with computer chips that allow engineers to use a joystick to control their flight. This technology is not limited to insects. One lab has created a robo-rat with electrodes wired into its brain and a tiny camera mounted on its head.

“This is not science fiction, it’s happening now,” Wolpe says. “Once we perfect these technologies in animals and start using them in human beings, what are the ethical guidelines we’ll use? Is it okay to manipulate and create whatever creatures we want?”

Related:
Synthetic cell: A step closer to 'recipe for life'
Students tackle tough bioethics questions

Monday, March 28, 2011

Misreading faces tied to child social anxiety

"If you misread facial expressions, you're in social trouble, no matter what other social skills you have," says Emory psychologist Steve Nowicki. 

By Carol Clark

Children suffering from extreme social anxiety are trapped in a nightmare of misinterpreted facial expressions: They confuse angry faces with sad ones, a new study shows.

“If you misread facial expressions, you’re in social trouble, no matter what other social skills you have,” says Emory psychologist Steve Nowicki, a clinical researcher who developed the tests used in the study. “It can make life very difficult, because other people’s faces are like a prism through which we look at the world.”

It’s easy to assume that a socially anxious child would be especially sensitive to anger. “It turns out that they never learn to pick up on anger and often make the error of seeing it as sadness,” Nowicki says. “It sets up a very problematic interaction.”

Some socially anxious children long to interact with others, he says, and may try to comfort someone they think is sad, but who is actually angry. “They want to help, because they’re good kids,” Nowicki says. “I’ve seen these kids trying to make a friend, and keep trying, but they keep getting rebuffed and are never aware of the reason why.”

The study was co-authored by Amy Walker, a former undergraduate student at Emory, now at Yeshiva University, and will be published in the Journal of Genetic Psychology.

It is unclear whether misreading the facial expression is linked to the cause of the anxiety, or merely contributing to it.

By identifying the patterns of errors in nonverbal communication, Nowicki hopes to create better diagnostic tools and interventions for children with behavioral disorders.

For more than two decades, in association with Emory psychologist Marshall Duke, Nowicki has produced a groundbreaking body of work on how non-verbal communication impacts a child’s development. They have found that in a range of children with behavioral disorders, including high-functioning autism, direct teaching can improve their non-verbal communication.

“When I first started this work, people asked me, why are you doing this? Everybody can recognize emotions in faces,” Nowicki recalls. Nonverbal communication was not taken that seriously, and relegated to popular magazine articles like, “Seven ways to improve your body language.”

In his clinical practice, however, Nowicki noticed that some children who had trouble socializing appeared to misinterpret nonverbal clues. He sought ways to measure the deficits and remediate them.

“My heart went out to these kids,” he says. “I had the idea that nonverbal communication could be taught. It’s a skill, not something mysterious.”

Nowicki and Duke termed the coin “dyssemia,” meaning the inability to process signs. They also developed the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy (DANVA) to assess subtle cues to emotional expressions, including visual signals and tone and cadence of voice. DANVA is now widely used by researchers in studies of everything from emotionally disturbed children to the relationships between doctors and their patients.

Related:
The top 10 facts about non-verbal communication
Does lack of fear drive psychopaths?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Top 10 facts about non-verbal communication


Non-verbal communication has a huge impact on a child's social well-being, yet development of this skill is often overlooked, says Emory psychologist Steve Nowicki. Photo credits, above and below: iStockphoto.com.

By Carol Clark

What you don’t say during a face-to-face encounter can deliver a stronger message than words.

“Non-verbal communication is at least as important, if not more important, than the verbal part of relationships,” says Emory psychologist Steve Nowicki, a leading expert in the nuances of body language. “When you break a non-verbal rule of language, it almost always has a negative emotional impact.”

And yet, the elaborate codes of facial expressions, postures and gestures that form the basis of non-verbal communication are learned informally and indirectly, primarily from our parents, he says.

He cites his own experience of having a reserved, Polish father and a boisterous Italian mother. “At times, the only sign that my father was upset was the way he would raise one eyebrow by a certain degree,” Nowicki recalls. “My mother, on the other hand, never met an emotion that she didn’t express immediately and vividly.”

Between the pair of them, Nowicki learned to interpret and use the gamut of non-verbal signals. “But imagine what a boy who was raised by two parents like my mother would be like when he got to school,” Nowicki says. If a teacher delivered a command in a soft, even tone characteristic of preschool instructors, the child would be likely to miss the teacher’s message entirely and perhaps get labeled as “oppositional.”

For more than two decades, in association with Emory psychologist Marshall Duke, Nowicki has produced a groundbreaking body of work in how non-verbal communication impacts a child’s development. They developed the Diagnostic Analysis of Non-verbal Accuracy (DANVA) a set of tests to access subtle cues to emotional expressions, including visual signals and tone and cadence of voice. The test is in use by researchers around the world.

“Research has shown that most people overestimate their non-verbal communication skills,” Nowicki says.

In the following Q&A, he answers 10 questions based on research by himself and others.

Is non-verbal communication skill associated with personal and social adjustment?

Yes, DANVA errors in children can help predict future personal and social difficulties, including anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, lower self-esteem and being the victim of bullies.

Can the ability to read non-verbal emotions be improved?

Yes, direct teaching of children, including those with high-functioning autism, can lead to significant improvement in their DANVA scores.

Are there any drawbacks to being extremely good at reading others?

Yes. You have to be careful if you are especially adept at sensing the non-verbal signals of others, because you may pick up emotional signals that they are unaware of sending and would rather hide. For instance, when you tell someone that they look a little tired and sad, they might take offense, even if it’s true.

Is non-verbal communication skill tied to cognitive ability?

No, except when the IQ is below 70. For those with average IQs and above, there does not appear to be a correlation between non-verbal communication skills and intelligence.

Is the ability to interpret non-verbal cues correlated to the ability to express them?

No, not much. Even if you’re good at reading people’s non-verbal cues, it doesn’t mean that you’re not sending out faulty messages yourself. They appear to be two different skills.

Is non-verbal communication interpreted the same way across cultures?

No, culture has a significant impact. Studies have shown, for instance, that African-Americans can read white faces as well as they can read African-American faces. White people, however, do not read African-American faces as well, and when they misinterpret their facial expressions, they tend to read them as angry. You can imagine the potential kinds of problems this might cause.

Do children acquire the ability to read the emotions of facial expressions in a particular order?

Yes, studies show that children tend to learn to read a happy expression first, followed by sad, angry and then fearful expressions.

Does older age affect non-verbal communication skill?

Yes. As we become elderly, our ability to read emotions can erode, and it seems we lose skill in emotions in the opposite order that we acquired them as children. Happy is the last one to go.

Between the ages of 45 and 55, we begin to lose the ability to pick up emotions in voices, and by ages 55 to 65 loss in the ability to read faces follows. However, what remains the same at any age is that better skill compared to peers is correlated with better personal and social adjustment.

What is the effect of a neutral expression?

There is no such thing as a neutral face, because a neutral face is usually interpreted negatively.

About one-third of people have an off-putting “resting face” and they don’t realize it. Their faces, when they are thinking about nothing in particular and feeling no emotion, are actually communicating something negative. As we age, this tendency grows. It is estimated that more than half of people above the age of 65 have a negative resting face.

Do nonverbal communication skills correlate to attitudes toward robots?

Yes. Believe it or not, a study showed that people who are not good at reading the emotional cues in human body postures tend to dislike robots.

Related:
Misreading faces tied to child social anxiety
Does lack of fear drive psychopaths?
How we learn language
Gestures may point to speech origins

Monday, March 21, 2011

Africa and the dawn of collective unconscious

View of Africa from space by NASA.

What do ancient African deities and modern psychoanalysis have in common? In a recent talk at the Carlos Museum, Emory psychologist Marshall Duke cited revelations by Jung when he traveled to Africa in 1928. Emory’s ThoughtWork provides this summary of Duke’s comments:

"Freud and Jung were very close to one another. It’s said that when they first met each other they spoke without stopping for twelve or thirteen hours. They respected one another for a period of time, but interestingly, they broke with one another based upon Freud’s rejection of religion and Jung’s belief that religion was inherently important in human behavior. They drifted apart because each one believed the other would never change. And they were right ...

"Jung differed from Freud in terms of his belief in what he called the collective unconscious. Jung felt there was something more than the personal experiences of an individual’s life that were stored in the unconscious mind. Jung in fact believed that there were memories and images and roles that were passed along from generation to generation to all people, that everyone shared certain capacities and beliefs.

Image, left, from the Carlos exhibit "Divine Intervention: African Art and Religion."

"When Jung was very young, he believed, as many kids do, that mysterious things happened in his life. He believed that his mother, after falling asleep, moved through the house as a spirit, and was a bit frightened by this. In order to deal with it, it’s reported that he took a ruler from his pencil case and carved a small mannequin, a small figure, out of the ruler and he put it in his pencil case and kept it under his bed. Over time, he gathered small stones and painted them particular colors in different configurations and put them into his box as a way of protecting himself. He just sort of came up with this.

"In 1928, he traveled to Africa and visited Kenya. He came upon people who had small mannequins and little stones and all sorts of things like this. Reportedly, he said to himself, 'My God, how did I know about this without ever learning about it?' This is where his concept of the collective unconscious supposedly began."

Related:
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Test your behavioral IQ

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sorting truth from false memories


While president, Ronald Reagan famously told a story about how he had been at a German concentration camp shortly after the Nazi defeat in World War II, and had helped to make films of the liberation of that camp. He told this story in depth, and more than once. The truth was, however, that although Reagan made training films for the armed forces, he spent the entire war in the United States.

So was Reagan telling a bold-faced lie? Was it an early sign of dementia? Or was he simply telling the truth as he remembered it?

Author Salman Rushdie recalled his own experience of reinventing his past during a recent public conversation at Emory, where he is a writer-in-residence.

“Ever since I was writing ‘Midnight’s Children,’ I’ve gotten very interested in the divergence between memory and the record,” Rushdie said.

As he was writing the novel, which drew from biographical details of his childhood in Bombay, he thought of the panicked atmosphere created by a border dispute between India and China. Rushdie vividly recalled hearing his parents discuss their fears of a Chinese empire replacing the British one as Chinese troops advanced over the Himalayas.

When Rushdie told his mother about it, she replied, “Don’t be stupid, you weren’t here. You were in boarding school in England.”

He checked the dates and realized that his mother was right. “All of this was a memory that I had constructed out of what people had told me,” Rushdie said. “My memory had just put me into the scene, even though the facts insisted that I was actually in England. Even today, knowing that I wasn’t there, my memory tells me that I was. I became very interested in that, in the way that memory rebuilds our lives for us in such a way that even when we are shown categorically that the memory is false, we actually believe the memory more than we believe the facts.”

Related:
Digitizing the mind of Salman Rushdie

Monday, March 14, 2011

Academia's female brain drain

By Marlene Goldman, for the Center for Women at Emory

Today, neuroscience is a profession with a steep drop-off in female representation between graduate student and faculty member. Women increasingly are going into the neurosciences, and more than 75 percent of the neuroscience graduate students at Emory are women. Yet less than 25 percent of the faculty is female. That disparity is echoed nationwide.

Meera Modi, a neurosciences graduate student at Emory, wants to help women advance. She and fellow graduate students Rebecca Roffman and Vasiliki Michopoulos launched Emory Women in Neuroscience (E-WIN), a network for PhD students, postdoc candidates and faculty members. When some 40 graduate students showed up for the first meeting last year, it became clear that they weren’t alone in their struggle to survive in a male-dominated field.

Photo: iStockphoto.com.

“Academia as a whole, particularly the sciences, consists of a rigid scheme of events necessary to move up the career ladder,” Modi says. “Getting academic positions and grants to fund research is highly competitive, a process that’s not very forgiving to those who want to take alternate routes or take time off to start a family or take care of aging parents. Female PhDs aspiring to an academic career in the neurosciences often drop out, sometimes because existing policies don’t support the demands women often face.”

Modi says E-WIN hopes eventually to create a program of faculty mentors for graduate students, but there are not enough women faculty at Emory to match with almost 100 female graduate students and postdocs.

E-WIN recently sponsored the event “Families and Academia” and is planning several mini-symposiums, one of which will focus on types of academic jobs that are available. Another symposium will address bargaining for salaries and how to make your voice heard in a male-dominated department.

Read the whole article.

Related:
A feminist lens on science

And here's an excerpt from a New York Times article "Gains, and Drawbacks, for Female Professors," explaining how MIT's model for gender equality has backfired in some ways:

"Now women say they are uneasy with the frequent invitations to appear on campus panels to discuss their work-life balance. In interviews for the study, they expressed frustration that parenthood remained a women’s issue, rather than a family one.

"As Professor Sive said, 'Men are not expected to discuss how much sleep they get or what they give their kids for breakfast.'

"Administrators say some men use family leave to do outside work, instead of to be their children’s primary care giver — creating more professional inequity."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Chemistry of print bathing: A Harlot's Progress


“It’s scary to put a valuable work of art into a bath of water,” says Eveleigh Wagner, an Emory senior majoring in art history, who recently completed a restoration internship at the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

Wagner worked with Courtney Von Stein, a senior majoring in art history and chemistry, to remove stains and discolorations from a series of 18th-century prints called “A Harlot’s Progress.” Their work in the art conservation lab was part of a Carlos Museum program to give students hands-on experience at the junction of science and art.

“I couldn’t believe we were allowed to handle these old documents, while being surrounded by Egyptian sculpture,” says Wagner, who plans to go to medical school.

Renee Stein, conservator at the Carlos, provided technical guidance for the students, along with Elizabeth Schulte, a contract paper conservator for the museum. Chemistry lecturer Tracy Morkin asked the students to develop an acid-based chemistry lesson around their restoration project, and create a multi-media demonstration that Morkin can use in her classroom (see above).
In this detail from one of the engravings, innocent country girl Molly arrives in London where she is immediately procured by a madame. The madame shows signs of syphilis in the lesions on her face, a fate that will befall Molly in the final scenes of the series of prints. (Source: Wikipedia Commons.)

“A Harlot’s Progress” began as a series of six paintings by British artist William Hogarth, featuring “Molly,” a young woman who comes to London from the country to better her lot in life, but falls into prostitution. The morality tale of the paintings proved popular, and Hogarth turned them into limited edition prints. (The original paintings were destroyed in a fire in 1755.)

The set of prints owned by the Carlos had once been bound in a book, and had small rips and acid-based stains. Wagner and Von Stein researched the properties of the paper and ink, before working up a solution to clean the discolorations. “Every step of the process had a chemical component to it,” Wagner says.

They used the print bathing procedure to illustrate fundamental chemistry concepts such as pH, diffusion and Le Chatelier’s Principle.

The restored prints will soon be on display at the museum.

Related:
Morals without God?
Brain responds to art for art's sake

Monday, March 7, 2011

Sparking a love of chemistry in teens

“Somebody once asked me why I became a chemist. It’s because I get paid to blow things up,” said Doug Mulford, an Emory chemistry lecturer, as he set a flame to a hydrogen balloon. The explosion greeted more than 200 DeKalb County high school students who visited Emory recently to celebrate the International Year of Chemistry.

The teens were split into groups labeled “hydrogen,” “bromine” and “cobalt,” and treated to demonstrations by Emory chemistry students of how to make fake snow, turn a bouncy ball into glass and use a banana as a hammer.

“A lot of people tend to think that chemistry has nothing to do with their everyday lives, which is really interesting, because essentially you are a really big beaker of chemicals,” Mulford said.

The event was hosted by the Center for Chemical Evolution, a research and educational outreach program based at Emory and Georgia Tech, funded by the NSF and NASA.

“I love chemistry, and I think that it gets a really bad reputation,” said Meisa Salaita, education coordinator for the center. “To expose students to how fun chemistry can be is really important and sort of my life’s mission.”

Andre Smith, a junior at Redan High School, said he especially liked joining a theatrical performance of how molecules form more complex structures. “It’s fun how you can just put two things together and something amazing comes out.”

Related:
Teaching evolution enters new era
Cultivating brains for science

Friday, March 4, 2011

Escaping mental prisons


A handful of U.S. prisons have opened their doors to an ancient form of meditation from India known as Vipassana, which means “to see things as they really are.”

Some of the prisoners who practice the technique for 10 to 13 hours a day “finally come to terms with some of the things that they have done,” says Ron Cavanaugh, director of treatment for the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Meditating prisoners at the Donaldson Correction Facility in Bessemer, Alabama, have become more social, says Kathryn Allen, the prison psychologist. “They’re more honest, more open, more genuine, and they want to serve others,” she says, by volunteering in the prison hospice and teaching fellow inmates who are illiterate how to read and write.

Cavanaugh and Allen recently visited Emory, where several research projects are underway on the physical and mental effects of meditation, to discuss the prison programs with Emory faculty and students. Their visited was hosted by Emory religion professor Tara Doyle, who specializes in socially engaged Buddhism, and Elizabeth Bounds, professor of Christian ethics at the Candler School of Theology.

Inmate meditation at a prison near Seattle "really changed the whole facility," says Ben Turner of the Vipassana Prison Trust. “Even officers who were earlier skeptical became really supportive because they saw such behavior changes in the inmates that it made it a more pleasant place for them to work.”

The Vipassana meditation technique is based on the teachings of the Buddha, but is purely secular and designed to relieve suffering through self-awareness, Turner says.

Related:
Meditation is path to peace for inmates
The compassionate mind
Elementary thoughts on love and kindness

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cultivating brains for science



By Carol Clark

When Jordan Rose began carrying buckets of brains to public school classrooms in metro Atlanta, he knew he had found his calling.

“I was having a great time, doing something that I was passionate about,” he recalls of introducing middle and high school students to a retinue of craniums, including those of rats, a manatee, rhesus macaques and a human.

It was 2000 and Rose had just graduated from Emory with a degree in neuroscience and behavioral biology. In an interlude before medical school, he joined Emory’s Center for Science Education (CSE) as outreach coordinator of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, a consortium of eight Atlanta universities. His job was to provide hands-on science to public school students in grades K-12, and to motivate them to pursue science careers.

Middle school kids who gloved up to touch a human brain for the first time were especially thrilled, Rose says. “They would put a finger into a ventricle and start firing off comments and questions: ‘I didn’t know the brain was hollow. What do all these wrinkles mean? Is it true you only use 10 percent of your brain?’”

After learning about the parts of the brain and their functions, students were told to draw an imaginary animal. Then they were asked to shape the animal’s brain in clay, based on the animal’s behaviors and interactions with its environment. “One kid said his animal had ESP,” Rose recalls. “He created a new part of the brain that stuck up from the middle.”

Around this time, Rose received acceptance letters from two medical schools. He turned them down. That fateful decision led him to his current role as assistant director of the CSE.

“I thought about what my job would be like as a physician, spending time in hospitals, and I realized that wasn’t for me,” Rose says. He leans back in his chair in his CSE office, located in an older home on the edge of campus. “I saw a niche that I could fill, where I could apply my passion for teaching, and for science.”

A loud snore comes from somewhere beneath his desk. Humphrey – the pug dog that accompanies Rose to work – groans, rolls over, and resumes snoring. Rose breaks into a wide grin: Smiling is clearly his natural state.

Soon after the Long Island native enrolled at Emory he joined a juggling troop: Emory’s Amazing Throwing-Up Society. The now defunct EAT-US (spelled in Greek letters and pronounced ehy-HA-toos) often performed to raise money for charity.
Rose, right, juggling for charity as an undergraduate, with a fellow member of Emory's Amazing Throwing-Up Society.

“I learned to juggle four balls, rings, clubs and flaming torches,” Rose says, recalling that he once set his pants on fire.

In biology lab he met his future wife, fellow student Laura Smith. “We fell in love over a fetal pig,” Rose says. “It might have been the intoxicating aroma of formaldehyde.” (Laura Rose now works for the CDC and the couple has a five-month-old son, Ryan.)

Pat Marsteller, director of the CSE and Rose’s senior advisor, recruited him to join the center, which is dedicated to transforming science education on the Emory campus and beyond. The idea is for students of all ages to actually investigate questions, by collecting information in a scientific manner and analyzing it themselves.

Rose currently heads up the CSE program called PRISM (Problems and Research to Integrate Science and Mathematics). Emory graduate students work with area K-12 teachers to develop problem-based learning for science classes. The result is lesson plans with gripping names, like “Dial M for Molecule,” “Adding Fuel to the Fire,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Sealed with a Kiss” and “Got Gas?”
Murder or a grisly accident? Psychology grad student Sabrina Sidaras (on floor) helps high school students learn to think like scientists, as part of the PRISM program.

“We want graduate students to influence a new generation of students, by gaining more confidence and skills to explain their research to non-scientists,” Rose says. “And we want Atlanta school kids to understand how science works.”

PRISM is also a boon to Atlanta teachers, giving them the time and resources to do their jobs better. “Teachers often aren’t treated like professionals,” Rose says. “They get no love, and that’s what we try to give them.”

While working, Rose pursued a master’s at the Rollins School of Public Health, graduating in 2006. For his thesis, he evaluated the science literacy of Emory freshmen. The students fared better than U.S. adults overall, but he found that they needed improvement in understanding how scientists use theories, laws and hypotheses. Science faculty told Rose that they want students to learn to interpret evidence in ways that helps them make better choices in life, a goal that defines the CSE’s mission.

“We don’t expect everyone to become a scientist,” Rose says, “but we think it’s important for future teachers, lawyers – and everyone who votes – to know how to interpret science.”

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