anxiety

Why we laugh

From Gene Weingarten’s “The Peekaboo Paradox: The strange secrets of humor, fear and a guy who makes big money making little people laugh” (The Washington Post: 22 January 2006):

Even before they respond to a tickle, most babies will laugh at peekaboo. It’s their first “joke.” They are reacting to a sequence of events that begins with the presence of a familiar, comforting face. Then, suddenly, the face disappears, and you can read in the baby’s expression momentary puzzlement and alarm. When the face suddenly reappears, everything is orderly in the baby’s world again. Anxiety is banished, and the baby reacts with her very first laugh.

At its heart, laughter is a tool to triumph over fear. As we grow older, our senses of humor become more demanding and refined, but that basic, hard-wired reflex remains. We need it, because life is scary. Nature is heartless, people can be cruel, and death and suffering are inevitable and arbitrary. We learn to tame our terror by laughing at the absurdity of it all.

This point has been made by experts ranging from Richard Pryor to doctoral candidates writing tedious theses on the ontol-ogical basis of humor. Any joke, any amusing observation, can be deconstructed to fit. The seemingly benign Henny Youngman one-liner, “Take my wife . . . please!” relies in its heart on an understanding that love can become a straitjacket. By laughing at that recognition, you are rising above it, and blunting its power to disturb.

After the peekaboo age, but before the age of such sophisticated understanding, dwells the preschooler. His sense of humor is more than infantile but less than truly perceptive. He comprehends irony but not sarcasm. He lacks knowledge but not feeling. The central fact of his world — and the central terror to be overcome — is his own powerlessness.

How the fundamentalist thinks

From ScienceDaily’s “Brain Differences Found Between Believers In God And Non-believers” (5 March 2009):

In two studies led by Assistant Psychology Professor Michael Inzlicht, participants performed a Stroop task – a well-known test of cognitive control – while hooked up to electrodes that measured their brain activity.

Compared to non-believers, the religious participants showed significantly less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain that helps modify behavior by signaling when attention and control are needed, usually as a result of some anxiety-producing event like making a mistake. The stronger their religious zeal and the more they believed in God, the less their ACC fired in response to their own errors, and the fewer errors they made.

“You could think of this part of the brain like a cortical alarm bell that rings when an individual has just made a mistake or experiences uncertainty,” says lead author Inzlicht, who teaches and conducts research at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “We found that religious people or even people who simply believe in the existence of God show significantly less brain activity in relation to their own errors. They’re much less anxious and feel less stressed when they have made an error.”

“Obviously, anxiety can be negative because if you have too much, you’re paralyzed with fear,” [Inzlicht] says. “However, it also serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we’re making mistakes. If you don’t experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behaviour so you don’t make the same mistakes again and again?”

Social networking and “friendship”

From danah boyd’s “Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites” (First Monday: December 2006)

John’s reference to “gateway Friends” concerns a specific technological affordance unique to Friendster. Because the company felt it would make the site more intimate, Friendster limits users from surfing to Profiles beyond four degrees (Friends of Friends of Friends of Friends). When people login, they can see how many Profiles are “in their network” where the network is defined by the four degrees. For users seeking to meet new people, growing this number matters. For those who wanted it to be intimate, keeping the number smaller was more important. In either case, the number of people in one’s network was perceived as directly related to the number of friends one had.

“I am happy with the number of friends I have. I can access over 26,000 profiles, which is enough for me!” — Abby

The number of Friends one has definitely affects the size of one’s network but connecting to Collectors plays a much more significant role. Because these “gateway friends” (a.k.a. social network hubs) have lots of Friends who are not connected to each other, they expand the network pretty rapidly. Thus, connecting to Collectors or connecting to people who connect to Collectors opens you up to a large network rather quickly.

While Collectors could be anyone interested in amassing many Friends, fake Profiles were developed to aid in this process. These Fakesters included characters, celebrities, objects, icons, institutions, and ideas. For example, Homer Simpson had a Profile alongside Jesus and Brown University. By connecting people with shared interests or affiliations, Fakesters supported networking between like-minded individuals. Because play and connecting were primary incentives for many Fakesters, they welcomed any and all Friends. Likewise, people who wanted access to more people connected to Fakesters. Fakesters helped centralize the network and two Fakesters — Burning Man and Ali G — reached mass popularity with over 10,000 Friends each before the Web site’s creators put an end to their collecting and deleted both accounts. This began the deletion of all Fakesters in what was eventually termed the Fakester Genocide [8].

While Friendster was irritated by fake Profiles, MySpace embraced this practice. One of MySpace’s early strategies was to provide a place for everyone who was rejected from Friendster or who didn’t want to be on a dating site [9]. Bands who had been kicked off of Friendster were some of the earliest MySpace users. Over time, movie stars, politicians, porn divas, comedians, and other celebrities joined the fray. Often, the person behind these Profiles was not the celebrity but a manager. Corporations began creating Profiles for their products and brands. While Friendster eventually began allowing such fake Profiles for a fee, MySpace never charged people for their commercial uses.

Investigating Friendship in LiveJournal, Kate Raynes-Goldie and Fono (2005) found that there was tremendous inconsistency in why people Friended others. They primarily found that Friendship stood for: content, offline facilitator, online community, trust, courtesy, declaration, or nothing. When I asked participants about their practices on Friendster and MySpace, I found very similar incentives. The most common reasons for Friendship that I heard from users [11] were:

1. Actual friends
2. Acquaintances, family members, colleagues
3. It would be socially inappropriate to say no because you know them
4. Having lots of Friends makes you look popular
5. It’s a way of indicating that you are a fan (of that person, band, product, etc.)
6. Your list of Friends reveals who you are
7. Their Profile is cool so being Friends makes you look cool
8. Collecting Friends lets you see more people (Friendster)
9. It’s the only way to see a private Profile (MySpace)
10. Being Friends lets you see someone’s bulletins and their Friends-only blog posts (MySpace)
11. You want them to see your bulletins, private Profile, private blog (MySpace)
12. You can use your Friends list to find someone later
13. It’s easier to say yes than no

These incentives account for a variety of different connections. While the first three reasons all concern people that you know, the rest can explain why people connect to a lot of people that they do not know. Most reveal how technical affordances affect people’s incentives to connect.

Raynes-Goldie and Fono (2005) also found that there is a great deal of social anxiety and drama provoked by Friending in LiveJournal (LJ). In LJ, Friendship does not require reciprocity. Anyone can list anyone else as a Friend; this articulation is public but there is no notification. The value of Friendship on LJ is deeply connected to the privacy settings and subscription processes. The norm on LJ is to read others’ entries through a “Friends page.” This page is an aggregation of all of an individual’s Friends’ posts. When someone posts an LJ entry, they have a choice as to whether the post should be public, private, Friends-only, or available to subgroups of Friends. In this way, it is necessary to be someone’s Friend to have access to Friends-only posts. To locate how the multiple and conflicting views of Friendship cause tremendous conflict and misunderstanding on LJ, Raynes-Goldie and Fono speak of “hyperfriending.” This process is quite similar to what takes place on other social network sites, but there are some differences. Because Friends-only posts are commonplace, not being someone’s Friend is a huge limitation to information access. Furthermore, because reciprocity is not structurally required, there’s a much greater social weight to recognizing someone’s Friendship and reciprocating intentionally. On MySpace and Friendster, there is little to lose by being loose with Friendship and more to gain; the perception is that there is much more to lose on LJ.

While users can scroll through their list of Friends, not all Friends are displayed on the participant’s Profile. Most social network sites display Friends in the order in which their account was created or their last login date. By implementing a “Top 8” feature, MySpace changed the social dynamics around the ordering of Friends. Initially, “Top 8” allowed users to select eight Friends to display on their Profile. More recently, that feature was changed to “Top Friends” as users have more options in how many people they could list [12]. Many users will only list people that they know and celebrities that they admire in their Top Friends, often as a way to both demarcate their identity and signal meaningful relationships with others.

There are many advantages to the Top Friends feature. It allows people to show connections that really say something about who they are. It also serves as a bookmark to the people that matter. By choosing to list the people who one visits the most frequently, simply going to one’s Profile provides a set of valuable links.

“As a kid, you used your birthday party guest list as leverage on the playground. ‘If you let me play I’ll invite you to my birthday party.’ Then, as you grew up and got your own phone, it was all about someone being on your speed dial. Well today it’s the MySpace Top 8. It’s the new dangling carrot for gaining superficial acceptance. Taking someone off your Top 8 is your new passive aggressive power play when someone pisses you off.” — Nadine

There are a handful of social norms that pervade Top 8 culture. Often, the person in the upper left (“1st” position) is a significant other, dear friend, or close family member. Reciprocity is another salient component of Top Friends dynamics. If Susan lists Mary on her Top 8, she expects Mary to reciprocate. To acknowledge this, Mary adds a Comment to Susan’s page saying, “Thanx for puttin me on ur Top 8! I put you on mine 2.” By publicly acknowledging this addition, Mary is making certain Susan’s viewers recognize Mary’s status on Susan’s list. Of course, just being in someone’s list is not always enough. As Samantha explains, “Friends get into fights because they’re not 1st on someone’s Top 8, or somebody else is before them.” While some people are ecstatic to be added, there are many more that are frustrated because they are removed or simply not listed.

The Top Friends feature requires participants to actively signal their relationship with others. Such a system makes it difficult to be vague about who matters the most, although some tried by explaining on their bulletins what theme they are using to choose their Top 8 this week: “my Sagittarius friends,” “my basketball team,” and “people whose initials are BR.” Still others relied on fake Profiles for their Top 8.

The networked nature of impressions does not only affect the viewer — this is how newcomers decided what to present in the first place. When people first joined Friendster, they took cues from the people who invited them. Three specific subcultures dominated the early adopters — bloggers, attendees of the Burning Man [14] festival, and gay men mostly living in New York. If the invitee was a Burner, their Profile would probably be filled with references to the event with images full of half-naked, costumed people running around the desert. As such, newcomers would get the impression that it was a site for Burners and they would create a Profile that displayed that facet of their identity. In decided who to invite, newcomers would perpetuate the framing by only inviting people who are part of the Burning Man subculture.

Interestingly, because of this process, Burners believed that the site was for Burners, gay men thought it was a gay dating site, and bloggers were ecstatic to have a geek socializing tool. The reason each group got this impression had to do with the way in which context was created on these systems. Rather than having the context dictated by the environment itself, context emerged through Friends networks. As a result, being socialized into Friendster meant connected to Friends that reinforced the contextual information of early adopters.

The growth of MySpace followed a similar curve. One of the key early adopter groups were hipsters living in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. They were passionate about indie rock music and many were musicians, promoters, club goers, etc. As MySpace took hold, long before any press was covering the site, MySpace took off amongst 20/30-something urban socializers, musicians, and teenagers. The latter group may not appear obvious, but teenagers are some of the most active music consumers — they follow music culture avidly, even when they are unable to see the bands play live due to age restrictions. As the site grew, the teenagers and 20/30-somethings pretty much left each other alone, although bands bridged these groups. It was not until the site was sold to News Corp. for US$580 million in the summer of 2005 that the press began covering the phenomenon. The massive press helped it grow larger, penetrating those three demographics more deeply but also attracting new populations, namely adults who are interested in teenagers (parents, teachers, pedophiles, marketers).

When context is defined by whom one Friends, and addressing multiple audiences simultaneously complicates all relationships, people must make hard choices. Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) highlights this problem in reference to television. In the early 1960s, Stokely Carmichael regularly addressed segregated black and white audiences about the values of Black Power. Depending on his audience, he used very different rhetorical styles. As his popularity grew, he began to attract media attention and was invited to speak on TV and radio. Unfortunately, this was more of a curse than a blessing because the audiences he would reach through these mediums included both black and white communities. With no way to reconcile the two different rhetorical styles, he had to choose. In choosing to maintain his roots in front of white listeners, Carmichael permanently alienated white society from the messages of Black Power.

Notes

10. Friendster originally limited users to 150 Friends. It is no accident that they chose 150, as this is the “Dunbar number.” In his research on gossip and grooming, Robin Dunbar argues that there is a cognitive limit to the number of relations that one can maintain. People can only keep gossip with 150 people at any given time (Dunbar, 1998). By capping Friends at 150, Friendster either misunderstood Dunbar or did not realize that their users were actually connecting to friends from the past with whom they are not currently engaging.

12. Eight was the maximum number of Friends that the system initially let people have. Some users figured out how to hack the system to display more Friends; there are entire bulletin boards dedicated to teaching others how to hack this. Consistently, upping the limit was the number one request that the company received. In the spring of 2006, MySpace launched an ad campaign for X-Men. In return for Friending X-Men, users were given the option to have 12, 16, 20, or 24 Friends in their Top Friends section. Millions of users did exactly that. In late June, this feature was introduced to everyone, regardless of Friending X-Men. While eight is no longer the limit, people move between calling it Top 8 or Top Friends. I will use both terms interchangeably, even when the number of Friends might be greater than eight.

50% of people infected with personality-changing brain parasites from cats

From Carl Zimmer’s “The Return of the Puppet Masters” (Corante: 17 January 2006):

I was investigating the remarkable ability parasites have to manipulate the behavior of their hosts. The lancet fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum, for example, forces its ant host to clamp itself to the tip of grass blades, where a grazing mammal might eat it. It’s in the fluke’s interest to get eaten, because only by getting into the gut of a sheep or some other grazer can it complete its life cycle. Another fluke, Euhaplorchis californiensis, causes infected fish to shimmy and jump, greatly increasing the chance that wading birds will grab them.

Those parasites were weird enough, but then I got to know Toxoplasma gondii. This single-celled parasite lives in the guts of cats, sheddding eggs that can be picked up by rats and other animals that can just so happen be eaten by cats. Toxoplasma forms cysts throughout its intermediate host’s body, including the brain. And yet a Toxoplasma-ridden rat is perfectly healthy. That makes good sense for the parasite, since a cat would not be particularly interested in eating a dead rat. But scientists at Oxford discovered that the parasite changes the rats in one subtle but vital way.

The scientists studied the rats in a six-foot by six-foot outdoor enclosure. They used bricks to turn it into a maze of paths and cells. In each corner of the enclosure they put a nest box along with a bowl of food and water. On each the nests they added a few drops of a particular odor. On one they added the scent of fresh straw bedding, on another the bedding from a rat’s nests, on another the scent of rabbit urine, on another, the urine of a cat. When they set healthy rats loose in the enclosure, the animals rooted around curiously and investigated the nests. But when they came across the cat odor, they shied away and never returned to that corner. This was no surprise: the odor of a cat triggers a sudden shift in the chemistry of rat brains that brings on intense anxiety. (When researchers test anti-anxiety drugs on rats, they use a whiff of cat urine to make them panic.) The anxiety attack made the healthy rats shy away from the odor and in general makes them leery of investigating new things. Better to lie low and stay alive.

Then the researchers put Toxoplasma-carrying rats in the enclosure. Rats carrying the parasite are for the most part indistinguishable from healthy ones. They can compete for mates just as well and have no trouble feeding themselves. The only difference, the researchers found, is that they are more likely to get themselves killed. The scent of a cat in the enclosure didn’t make them anxious, and they went about their business as if nothing was bothering them. They would explore around the odor at least as often as they did anywhere else in the enclosure. In some cases, they even took a special interest in the spot and came back to it over and over again.

The scientists speculated that Toxoplasma was secreted some substance that was altering the patterns of brain activity in the rats. This manipulation likely evolved through natural selection, since parasites that were more likely to end up in cats would leave more offpsring.

The Oxford scientists knew that humans can be hosts to Toxoplasma, too. People can become infected by its eggs by handling soil or kitty litter. For most people, the infection causes no harm. Only if a person’s immune system is weak does Toxoplasma grow uncontrollably. That’s why pregnant women are advised not to handle kitty litter, and why toxoplasmosis is a serious risk for people with AIDS. Otherwise, the parasite lives quietly in people’s bodies (and brains). It’s estimated that about half of all people on Earth are infected with Toxoplasma.

Parasitologist Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague administered psychological questionnaires to people infected with Toxoplasma and controls. Those infected, he found, show a small, but statistically significant, tendency to be more self-reproaching and insecure. Paradoxically, infected women, on average, tend to be more outgoing and warmhearted than controls, while infected men tend to be more jealous and suspicious.

… [E. Fuller Torrey of the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland] and his colleagues had noticed some intriguing links between Toxoplasma and schizophrenia. Infection with the parasite has been associated with damage to a certain class of neurons (astrocytes). So has schizophrenia. Pregnant women with high levels of Toxoplasma antibodies in their blood were more likely to give birth to children who would later develop schizophrenia. Torrey lays out more links in this 2003 paper. While none is a smoking gun, they are certainly food for thought. It’s conceivable that exposure to Toxoplasma causes subtle changes in most people’s personality, but in a small minority, it has more devastating effects.

Douglas Adams on information overload

From Douglas Adam’s “Is there an Artificial God?“:

Let me back up for a minute and talk about the way we communicate. Traditionally, we have a bunch of different ways in which we communicate with each other. One way is one-to-one; we talk to each other, have a conversation. Another is one-to-many, which I’m doing at the moment, or someone could stand up and sing a song, or announce we’ve got to go to war. Then we have many-to-one communication; we have a pretty patchy, clunky, not-really-working version we call democracy, but in a more primitive state I would stand up and say, ‘OK, we’re going to go to war’ and some may shout back ‘No we’re not!’ – and then we have many-to-many communication in the argument that breaks out afterwards!

In this century (and the previous century) we modelled one-to-one communications in the telephone, which I assume we are all familiar with. We have one-to-many communication—boy do we have an awful lot of that; broadcasting, publishing, journalism, etc.—we get information poured at us from all over the place and it’s completely indiscriminate as to where it might land. It’s curious, but we don’t have to go very far back in our history until we find that all the information that reached us was relevant to us and therefore anything that happened, any news, whether it was about something that’s actually happened to us, in the next house, or in the next village, within the boundary or within our horizon, it happened in our world and if we reacted to it the world reacted back. It was all relevant to us, so for example, if somebody had a terrible accident we could crowd round and really help. Nowadays, because of the plethora of one-to-many communication we have, if a plane crashes in India we may get terribly anxious about it but our anxiety doesn’t have any impact. We’re not very well able to distinguish between a terrible emergency that’s happened to somebody a world away and something that’s happened to someone round the corner. We can’t really distinguish between them any more, which is why we get terribly upset by something that has happened to somebody in a soap opera that comes out of Hollywood and maybe less concerned when it’s happened to our sister. We’ve all become twisted and disconnected and it’s not surprising that we feel very stressed and alienated in the world because the world impacts on us but we don’t impact the world. Then there’s many-to-one; we have that, but not very well yet and there’s not much of it about. Essentially, our democratic systems are a model of that and though they’re not very good, they will improve dramatically.

But the fourth, the many-to-many, we didn’t have at all before the coming of the Internet, which, of course, runs on fibre-optics. It’s communication between us …