Happy Halloween… Almost

With three days to go before Halloween, I am yet again reminded that things are not normal in 2020. The pandemic continues to exert its influence, with new cases and deaths on the rise. We will not have trick-or-treaters this year. Oh, how I’ll miss those precious young faces and adorable costumes!

I’ll confess that I’ve been so immersed in the American expression of Halloween that I’ve forgotten its ancient roots. It’s said that it dates back to the Celtic festival of Samhain which marked the end of the harvest and beginning of Winter. Folks believed this was a time when the barrier between this world and the next was so thin that spirits could enter our world and walk among us. Therefore, one needed to set places at the table or leave food and drink by the door to show them hospitality. A lit jack-o-lantern would ward off evil spirits. The smoke and flames of bonfires were also deemed protective and cleansing.

As Christianity spread throughout the region, Samhain gave way to All Hallow’s Eve, the start of a three-day period during which one honored the saints and martyrs and prayed for the recently departed souls who had yet to enter Heaven. All Hallow’s Eve was also thought to be the last day on which the dead might walk among us to gain recompense for wrongs committed against them during this life. These souls would don masks and other disguises to avoid being recognized while they attended to their business.

From at least the 16th Century onward, ordinary citizens took to mumming or guising by going house-to-house in costume in search of treats in exchange for a song or verse. Some offered to pray for the souls of the departed. Others personified the spirits of yore who needed to be appeased in order to grant health and well-being for the coming winter.

Not surprisingly, traditional Halloween lawn decorations and costumes emphasize the supernatural: headstones, coffins, skeletons, skulls, ghosts, goblins, witches, vampires, monsters, and devils. They conjure up images of the dead, evil spirits, and those equipped with the power to cast spells. They’re deeply rooted in our cultural consciousness whether we attribute power to them or not. (J.K. Rowling used these themes to good effect in the Harry Potter books!)

I loved going trick-or-treating as a kid. Back in those days, we never worried about some crazy person putting harmful contaminants in our candy. We go in packs from door-to-door and grab as much candy as we could muster and then gorge ourselves on the spoils. It was a night to which we all looked forward every year.

I’ve been to my share of grown-up Halloween parties and marvel at the creativity of my compatriots. Standouts over the years include a man riding as ostrich (where his skinny legs in tights were the ostrich legs) and a pair of crash dummies.

This year, we might go back to the Christian tradition of remembering the dead. We will special homage to my mother, who passed last February, and to Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who passed in September. We will also pray for the nearly quarter-million persons who have lost their lives to the coronavirus as well as the loved ones who they’ve left behind.

Angioplasty, Stents, and Statins

My husband and I attended a webinar entitled How Effective Are Statins and Stents last Wednesday, courtesy of Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org. Although neither of us has a heart condition to warrant treatment, Dr. Greger’s well-researched videos get my attention. Moreover, since heart disease is the number one killer in America, it never hurts to know something about it.

Statins purport to reduce the risk of myocardial infarction (MI, a.k.a. heart attack) and death among those with coronary heart disease by reducing low-density lipoprotein (LDL) carriers of cholesterol. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 27.8% of adults over 40 in the United States use statins.1 Not surprisingly, Pfizer’s Lipitor holds the record for the best-selling drug in the history of the pharmaceutical industry. Even with an expired patent, Lipitor still rakes in nearly $2 billion in annual revenue.2

Stents are tiny mesh tubes that surgeons use to prop open blocked arteries or ducts and restore the normal flow of fluids. Angioplasty provides a minimally invasive alternative to stents by using tiny inflatable balloons to compact spongy debris (plaque) in narrowed vessels. Hundreds of thousands of Americans avail themselves of these procedures annually, and they’re neither cheap nor risk-free. According to Dr. Greger, 1 in 150 cases result in death from the stents, 2% experience blood vessel damage, and 3% react negatively to the blood thinners that complement the procedure.

Dr. Greger addressed the surgical procedures first – i.e., angioplasty and stents. He began by noting the benefits of these treatments for patients in emergency situations. If a blocked artery threatens death or disability, then taking immediate remedial action makes sense. But what about elective procedures for those with stable coronary artery disease? Do they prevent heart attacks and/or prolong life?

Using double-blind, randomized control trials involving thousands of patients, medical researchers identified no material benefit in mortality or infarction rates using angioplasty or stents for non-emergency circumstances.3 It turns out that most heart attacks are caused by nonobstructive blockages. These small lesions span the entire vascular system and can “pop” at any time. Treatment for a small sample of trouble spots does not constitute a cure nor provide material long term protection.

Dr. Greger claims that cardiologists have known all about the trials that have cast doubt on the efficacy of angioplasty and stents for treatment of stable heart disease; 70% admit to performing the procedures because they profit from them. The overwhelming majority of patients continue to believe that they benefit from them, yet only 3% have been shown to have been given all of the facts before they agreed to move forward.

Statins offer the promise of reducing the risk of heart disease by lowering plaque-inducing LDL cholesterol. As noted above, they’re widely prescribed, and patients are told that they’ll reduce their relative risk of heart attack by 50%. In absolute numbers, a person on statins has a 2% chance of a heart attack versus a 3% chance without medication. For that 1% drop in risk there’s a compensatory increase in risk of contracting diabetes that persist years after discontinuing treatment.

Here’s the good news: Nothing comes close to reducing one’s risk of heart disease and diabetes than making healthy lifestyle choices. That means pursing a predominantly whole foods plant based diet, eliminating proceeded foods and sugar, losing excess body fat, exercising (aerobic, weight-bearing, stretching, quitting smoking, minimizing stress, and getting a good night’s sleep consistently.

Want to assess your risk of a coronary event? Check out bit.ly/ACCrisk, bit.ly/FRArisk, or bit.ly/REYrisk.

References:

  1. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamacardiology/fullarticle/2583425
  2. https://www.statista.com/statistics/254341/pfizers-worldwide-viagra-revenues-since-2003/
  3. The 2007 Clinical Outcomes Utilizing Revascularization and Aggressive Drug Evaluation (COURAGE) trial revealed that percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) did not reduce death, myocardial infarction, or other major cardiovascular events compared with optimal medical therapy alone. The 2017 Objective Randomized Blinded Investigation with optimal medical Therapy of Angioplasty (ORBITA) trial revealed that PCI did not relieve symptoms of coronary artery disease. Those who participated in “sham surgeries” experienced the same symptom relief as those who had PCI.

The Trouble with Beef

cattle

Climate change has emerged as a “hot topic” in recent Presidential elections. Green-leaning candidates leverage the increased frequency and severity of weather incidents as proof sources that our planet is becoming increasingly less healthy. Most promote “clean energy” and call for reduced emissions from motor vehicles. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), they should also promote increased consumption of plant-based foods to reduce our impact on the environment.

The NCBI sounded the environmental alarm bells on the global livestock industry years ago. Here are some troublesome facts as presented in a report entitled Reducing the Environmental Impact of Dietary Choice:

  • Our global community uses 30% of its land to raise livestock. Deforestation to support animal habitats reduces biodiversity (on which human life depends) and negatively impacts freshwater supplies by increasing runoff.
  • We use 70% of our global agricultural land produce livestock feed – typically corn, soybean meal, and grains. These crops consume millions of pounds of pesticide and billions of pounds of fertilizer.
  • It takes 11 times more fossil fuel and 100 times more water to produce protein from meat than an equivalent amount of vegetable-based protein.
  • Livestock accounts for 18% of total greenhouse emissions which include nitrous oxide, methane, carbon dioxide, and ammonia.
  • Livestock consume 8% of freshwater directly and thwart groundwater replenishment through soil compaction and degradation to the banks of waterways.
  • A vegan diet was determined to have the lowest environmental impact.

The Environmental Working Group’ report entitled Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health doubled down on the environmental perils of meat consumption:

  • Lamb, beef, and cheese production generates the highest emissions. (Since beef produces milk and cheese, we need to cut back on those products as well as steaks, ribs, ground beef, et al.)
  • Beef generates more than twice the emissions of pork, nearly four times that of chicken, and more than 13 times that of vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils, and tofu.
  • In the U.S. alone, livestock generated three times the amount of manure (waste) as humans. While in theory it could be used as fertilizer, in practice it tends to simply pile up and pollute.
  • As of 2009, confined feeding operations have been responsible for damaging water supplies associated with 34,000 miles of rivers and 216,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs. (No doubt today’s figures would be even more eye-popping!)
  • Slaughterhouses dump vast quantities of pollutants into our waterways which contaminate our drinking water, kill fish, and create “dead zones.”
  • Widespread use of antibiotics on livestock promotes the development of resistant strains that threaten human life. Antibiotics prove necessary to minimize disease in overcrowded spaces. (As a side benefit, they promote growth, thereby improving profit margins.)
  • If everyone in the United States ate no cheese or meat once a week over the course of a year, it would have the equivalent impact of taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

Even though these findings call for us to reduce meat eating drastically, our dietary patterns are moving in the opposite direction. The NCBI reports that worldwide meat consumption tripled between 1971 and 2010 during which our population grew by only eighty-one percent.

If we take environmental scientists at their word, we cannot sustain our current eating habits. They exacerbate global warming, needlessly contribute to the degradation of the environment, and deplete nonrenewable resources. Given the eminent threat of food and water shortages, it makes no sense to stay this course.

Having transitioned to a predominantly whole foods plant-based diet a few years ago, I can say honestly that I do not miss eating meat, poultry, or dairy products. I’ve found savory substitutes and improved my health outcomes. I simply had to adjust meal planning and learn a bunch of new recipes. No big deal!

When it costs so little, why not take the plunge and shift some or all the daily menu to more environmentally sensitive choices?

The Trouble with Chicken

chickens

Chicken used to play a big role in our meal planning. We regularly ate eggs for breakfast, opted for chicken atop our lunchtime salads, and featured chicken most nights for dinner. When I started reading up on diet and nutrition a few years ago, we made the switch to a predominantly whole food plant based diet. So, chicken has fallen out of favor in our household. As it turns out, chicken has also fallen out of favor with epidemiologists and environmentalists, too.

According to the Pew Environmental Group,1 chicken is the most popular meat in America. In the forty years between 1970 and 2010, we doubled our per capita chicken consumption (to 84 pounds annually) while expanding the US population by ~50%. The poultry industry responded by gearing up production and finding ways to finding ways to bring their products to market at lower cost for producers and consumers. Their key strategy: economies of scale.

Sentience Institute’s US factory farming estimates suggest that we raise 99% of our meat chickens and 98% of our egg-laying chickens in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).2 For chickens, the USDA defines a CAFO as an operation in which 125,000 meat chickens or 82,000 eggs chickens are confined for over 45 days per year. Breeding and specialized feed have enabled chickens to reach their full weight in just 6-7 weeks.

Conditions within factory farms are rather grim. There’s no fresh air or natural sunlight. The animals live beak-to-beak atop their droppings, breathing the ammonia fumes from all their waste. Overcrowding brings on stress which dampens their immune systems and elevates aggressive behavior. (My first case study in business school examined the practically of fitting chickens with blurry contact lenses so they’d be less successful in their attacks on other birds.) A lack of exercise and excess weight puts strain on their muscular-skeletal systems which may give rise to suffering.

If your compassion for chicken life has not been aroused, perhaps your concern for human life might be. According to Dr. Michael Greger,3 these environments are breeding grounds for the frightening emergence of supervirus strains. Hundreds of individuals were infected by the Avian influenza (H5N1) in 1997 for which there was a 50% fatality rate. The 2002 SARS-CoV outbreak claimed 774 victims among 8098 cases, or a 9.5% fatality rate. The 2012 MERS-CoV outbreak claimed 858 deaths among 2499 laboratory-confirmed cases, or a 34.3% fatality rate. These outbreaks were subject to rapid containment because the afflicted parties presented clear manifestations of illness. We have not been so fortunate with COVID-19. Though its fatality rate is far lower than other CoV strains to date, its ease of transmission and prevalence of asymptomatic carriers presents substantial hurdles for containment.

Dr. Greger warns that the worst may be yet to come. An H7N9 virus has managed to jump from poultry to humans, killing 616 of the 1568 infected. While it hasn’t yet acquired the capacity to transmit from human to human, animal factories may present an opportunity for mutation that would activate a human type receptor. If so, the results could be devastating in loss of lives, disruption to supply chains that support life, and massive economic losses.

Even if we were to turn a blind eye to our exposure to deadly viral agents, we should acknowledge the environmental risks posed by CAFOs. Pew Environmental Group tells us that these operations produce an enormous amount of waste that cannot be used productively for cropland nutrients. The excess washes off the land and into local streams, rivers, and other bodies of water. The resultant algae overgrowth creates a hostile environment for fish and other marine life, often creating “dead zones.”

While advocacy groups and regulators are busy figuring out how to adjust factory farming standards to mitigate risk to human and environmental health, there are two simple practices that we can adopt to reverse these unsettling trends:

  • Reduce the demand for poultry by reducing the amount that we consume. (I rarely eat chicken or turkey these days and don’t miss it at all.)
  • Purchase free-range poultry from farmers who raise their animals humanely and safely. (You can generally find these folks at local farmers’ markets.)

References:

1https://www.pewtrusts.org/-/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/peg/publications/report/pegbigchickenjuly2011pdf.pdf
2https://www.sentienceinstitute.org/us-factory-farming-estimates
3https://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-covid-19-pandemic-may-just-be-a-dress-rehearsal/

Principles for a Life Well-Lived

In last week’s posts, I shared thoughts on why I find Emilio Estefan’s life story inspiring. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to read his book, The Rhythm of Success: How an Immigrant Produced His Own American Dream, here are some of his principles for a life well lived.

  1. journey to successMake bold decisions and take responsibility for the actions and outcomes that come with them.
  2. Always find the positive side of any circumstance; be grateful for blessings, however small.
  3. Define success based on your foundational values and a knowledge of what makes your life satisfying and enjoyable.
  4. Know what gives your life meaning – e.g., family, a passion for the work, a sense of accomplishment – and let that be the driving force to embrace each day’s activities.
  5. Be open to change and all of the opportunities that it provides.
  6. Find your advantage, take pride in who you are, and work hard to leverage your skills, abilities, and passion to maximum effect.
  7. Honor your family. Commit to their well-being and take comfort personally and professionally in the support they provide.
  8. Be yourself; let your outward appearance and reputation be authentic reflections of who you are. “Don’t spend money you don’t have trying to impress others with a false image.”
  9. Get an education; keep developing skills and talents. Among other things, school provides discipline, teaches you how to learn, and confers a sense of accomplishment.
  10. Do what you love to do. It may take time and effort to find your passion. Commit to the process of discovery for the sake of enjoying your life’s journey. “You can pay off a debt, but you can’t pay off a regret.”
  11. Be meticulous with planning and execution. Time is a precious resource. Planning helps you get more out of what you do and what you have. Change your plans as conditions warrant.
  12. Work hard. Keep your commitments to yourself and others. Never give up. Ever.
  13. Work smart. Have a plan for each day and focus on the tasks and responsibilities that really matter.
  14. Think big and take calculated risks. Don’t be paralyzed by fear when pursuing your dreams. Take appropriately bold steps to let your passion, knowledge, and skills come to fruition.
  15. Have great companions on your life journey. No one navigates life alone.
  16. Expect resistance and make plans to address it. If you are rock solid in belief in yourself and your dream, stand firm. Fight the impulse to give into the idea that it won’t work. Find a way.
  17. Do it yourself. No one will hand you success on a silver platter; no one will work harder to fulfill your dreams than you. Grab the reins and go!
  18. Learn how to turn “no” into “yes.” Don’t be deterred by discouraging news or feedback. Take matters into your own hands. Visualize success and work hard to achieve it. Build a track record of success to support your positions and sway doubters.
  19. Embrace new markets. Introduce your offerings to others, and let their traditions, cultures, ideas, and talents influence yours.
  20. Take care of business. Have an organic understanding of all aspects of your chosen field – how products/services are produced, marketed, supported, and financed. Keep growing in your craft and your managerial skills.
  21. Think out of the box. Fresh ideas are the coin of the realm in business. Quality alone is not enough. Use your imagination, listen to your heart, and trust your intuition. Be resourceful.
  22. Renew. Revive. Don’t be wasteful. Be on the lookout for ways to achieve goals using less time, energy, and money. Give old things new life. Find ways to renew and recycle your skills and experience, too.
  23. Keep growing and innovating. “A successful business is one that never stands still.”
  24. Be a great boss. Take responsibility for your employees. Make sure they have a good livelihood and provide opportunities to meet their needs and realize their aspirations. Treat them well and motivate them to do their best work. Be loyal.
  25. Give back. Do as much as you are able to help others.

Emilio Estefan

emilio estefanWith all the rhetoric surrounding immigration in recent years, I found myself drawn to a story of one of the most successful immigrants of my generation – Emilio Estefan. Founder of the Miami Sound Machine, he and his wife Gloria orchestrated the group’s ascent to the top of popular music while establishing themselves as icons in the entertainment industry. He captures his impressive journey from rags-to-riches in The Rhythm of Success: How an Immigrant Produced His Own American Dream.

Here are aspects of his life that I found inspiring.

He left Cuba with his father at age 11 with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Emilio and his father hoped to reach America and establish a base from which they could send for the rest of their family. However, in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, Cubans could not travel to the United States directly. Emilio and his father had to spend 18 months in Spain before gaining admission to this country. They were unable to secure employment and lived on meager resources supplied by relatives who’d escaped Cuba.

He took responsibility to secure freedom for his family. That desire fueled a stellar work ethic and ferocious desire to succeed. He learned the language, excelled at school, and worked multiple jobs to support the family. Throughout his teens and twenties, Emilio’s “north star” was getting his extended family out of Cuba – a goal he reached 15 years after his arrival in Miami.

He built a career doing work that he truly loved. Music was Emlio’s passion from an early age. He found the Latin beat contagious and took solace in making music with others. He formed the Miami Latin Boys as a teenager and booked gigs in the area to feed his passion and generate supplemental income. With the addition of a female lead singer, Gloria Fajardo (Emilio’s future wife), the group changed its name to the Miami Sound Machine. Emilio eventually stopped performing and took over the group’s business affairs.

Emilio, Gloria, and the Miami Sound Machine changed the face of popular music with their distinctive fusion of Latin, pop, salsa, and disco. Emilio branched out into music publishing, producing, and recording. His Crescent Moon studios became the center of Miami’s “Motown.” Their success paved the way for the artistry of Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, and Shakira, among others.

He is a visionary entrepreneur with a lengthy track record of successful ventures. Emilio formed Estefan Enterprises in May 1986 through which he managed a music publishing company, a recording studio, restaurants, hotels, and commercial property investments. He has collaborated with some of the giants in the recording industry (Quincy Jones, Tommy Motolla, Sean Coombs). He and his wife are part owners in the Miami Dolphins.

He commits himself to being a great boss. Emilio speaks to the importance of working shoulder-to-shoulder with his employees and treating them with respect. He takes responsibility for their livelihoods and provides opportunities for them to grow personally and professionally. He challenges them to do their best work and feel a sense of ownership to the business and clientele they support. He is loyal to his co-workers and values loyalty in return.

He adopted a conservative approach to fiscal management. From the moment he arrived in America, he never spent money he didn’t have or wasted it on things he didn’t need. He kept his “day job” during the Miami Sound Machine’s early years to ensure a steady source of income. He leaned heavily on his own resources to finance new business ventures rather than go into debt. He manages all of his business enterprises frugally, thereby promoting their longevity even when unforeseen disasters strike.

He’s an optimist. He makes a habit of finding the positive in any given situation. He works toward his goals tenaciously even when faced with sizable headwinds. He sees opportunity amidst adversity and has proven time and again that he can achieve what he sets out to accomplish.

He remains a committed family man. He and wife Gloria have been married for over 40 years and have raised two exceptional children. They live and work with their extended family. Despite a very public lifestyle, their names have never been associated with scandal. They’ve maintained humility and grace in the wake of astonishing success and a heap of international accolades.

Self-Esteem

Gloria Steinem was an iconic figure during my formative years. A pillar of second wave feminism, she made headlines as a speaker, writer, editor, advocate, and community organizer. She embodied the winning trifecta of bold, brilliant, and beautiful. It would never have occurred to me that she ever experienced self-doubt. Yet in Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, she reminded me that even superachievers aren’t superhuman.

For each of us, the communities of which we are a part exert a profound influence on our sense of self. The dominant culture establishes social hierarchies and normative behavior based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation. In particular, Western civilization teems with disempowering messages for women:

  • Aristotle’s Politics shaped gender relations for centuries with such assertions as: “A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children… For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature.”
  • A majority of U.S.-based Christian churches continue to place women in a subordinate role by virtue of their interpretation of Genesis 2.
  • Our history books assign power and agency to men. Even today, there are relatively few female role models in positions of authority.
  • Women are regularly chided for being “subjective” or “emotional” in their commentary and analyses rather than “objective” and “rational.”
  • Women are encouraged to be gentle, nice, and agreeable, never bold, powerful, and decisive.

Given the power of these external influences, it’s easy to quash an inner spirit. We become some version of what society expects of us or face substantial headwinds when charting a different course. Gloria’s root thesis: “Systems of authority undermine our self-authority to secure obedience; thus, self-esteem becomes the root of revolution.”

Gloria makes a distinction between core self-esteem and situational self-esteem. Core self-esteem entails a conviction that we are loved and lovable, valued and valuable as we are, no matter what we do. Situational self-esteem ties to evidence of being good at something, praised for something, overcoming obstacles, achieving goals, and/or aligned with the “right people.” The former confers a sense of inner peace and equanimity with which to engage the outer world. The latter places the outer world in control and tells us that we are never enough.

self-esteemSo how does the revolution begin? Gloria encourages us to go on a journey of self-discovery through which we:

  • See through our own eyes rather than those of the dominant culture
  • Give voice to our deepest thoughts, dreams, secrets, and desires and recognize that there is nothing shameful in owning them
  • Call out attitudes and patterns of behavior that have been treated as normal and dare to set different expectations
  • Bond with others who share similar experiences and are traveling on the same path to enlightenment
  • Achieve empowerment and self-governance
  • Find a balance of independence and interdependence

When we come into our own, we gain new eyes with which to see ourselves and a new perspective when looking outward. We experience an inner energy that is ours alone yet connects us with everything else. Core self-esteem becomes a self-reinforcing fountainhead of positive action for one’s self, one’s friends and family, and the world.

As one who has lived for over six decades, I’m not the least bit surprised that this work emerged as Gloria entered her 60s. There’s something wonderful about having a lifetime of experiences when settling in to who and what one will become in the final chapters of life. One feels less of a need to prove anything to anyone else and more of a determination to be fully authentic and fully alive. For me, these parting thoughts say it all:

“Our brains are ever subject to improving, diversifying, and sharpening, if we will only believe in them enough to stimulate them… When our talents are required and rewarded, we can stretch our abilities, use the energy of self-esteem to activate the unique mix of universal human traits we each possess, and uncover a microcosm of the universe within ourselves.”

Watch Your Mouth!

I grew up in a household with zero tolerance for profanity. Dad may have used colorful language away from home, but it wasn’t countenanced within earshot of Mom. Of course, I still managed to add these terms to my vocabulary and have been known to use them from time to time. But I kept a lid on them in my mother’s presence to her dying day.

I just finished reading Dr. Benjamin K. Bergen’s book entitled What the F?: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. Dr. Bergen teaches at UC San Diego and serves as the Director of its Language and Cognition Lab. He’s also the nephew of one of my brother’s closest high school friends.

watch your mouthThe book explores the cognitive and social science of swearing. Dr. Bergen tells us that profane word origins have their roots in religion (e.g., taking the Lord’s name in vain), sexual acts, other bodily functions, and insults/curses. Every culture has its own collective of taboo words that are deemed unsuited for polite company. Yet such words typically have synonyms and/or “sound alike” words which we feel free to use without reproach. Our “bad words” change over time. Some become so commonplace that they are no longer considered offensive. Erstwhile innocuous words can be transformed into something taboo. (I’ll forego the concrete examples and assume that you can use your imagination.)

Here are a few “fun facts” about the blue side of language.

Survey data suggests that Americans do not agree on what constitutes acceptable levels of swearing in common discourse, on the airwaves, or in other forms of media. We still regulate language usage via the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Yet even these bodies do not have well-documented guidelines to govern how ratings get assigned to content.

Arguments for restrictive use of language focus on a supposed link to aggressive or violent behavior. Dr. Bergen discusses attempts at proving this thesis scientifically and notes that a definitive correlation cannot be asserted. Likewise, some argue that we encourage lazy use of language by tolerating profanity in public forums. The evidence does not support that thesis either. In fact, it would appear that masters of profanity have above average language skills across the board.

However much we disagree on the use of profanity, body scans reveal that we all seem to know which words are inbounds versus out-of-bounds. When we swear, our pores tend to open up and increase sweating. We evince an emotional response when we see a swear word. We also use extra brain cycles to self-monitor should we run the risk of blurting out some colorful tidbit when we feel it would be inappropriate. Thank you pre-frontal cortex!

Of course, if you bang your finger with a hammer, stub your toe, or watch yourself careening into another car while sitting behind the wheel, you may experience a lapse in linguistic control. Spontaneous eruptions of 4-letter words frequently occur when we are highly agitated, frustrated, angry, or in pain. Scientists deem such usage healthy in that it relieves tension and facilitates rapid recovery. Brain scans suggest that the limbic system (a.k.a., our “lizard brain”) may be a repository for foul language.

As a correlate to the excited profane utterance, persons who suffer brain damage to the primary language centers of the brain often retain use of swear words. Such words are the most difficult for persons with Tourette’s syndrome to control. And folks who suffer the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease may continue to retain access to excited utterances that are reactive, impulsive, and spontaneous.

Slurs fall into a separate category from other swear words, taking their place atop the offensiveness leaderboard. They aren’t merely crass language forms that could be represented by more genteel ones; they are built to hurt. They are used to dehumanize members of a race, ethnic group, class, gender, or sexual orientation. They’re intended to elevate the “in group” and force the defamed group out. Exposure to slurs carries adverse psychological, social, and financial consequences. They should not be used. Period.

I’ve been party to conversations where acquaintances attempt to defend their use of slurs because: (a) their intentions were honorable, (b) they didn’t realize that a word ruffled feathers, (c) the word never used to be a problem in the past, and/or (d) folks shouldn’t be so sensitive. It’s easy to espouse such claims when speaking from the dominant group. And, yes, language use changes over time, and it takes some effort to stay on top of things. My suggestion: Thank whomever brought it to your attention and update your language filter for next time. Why be defensive when you can choose to be respectful and gracious?

Language and the Brain

I’ve never really given much thought to how we learn and store language. If pressed, I’d have guessed that we had a language database somewhere in the neocortex that pairs words with meanings. I’d also have envisioning this cerebral dictionary growing over time as we learn new words, new uses for existing words, and foreign languages. As it turns out, our brains are a lot more sophisticated than that.

neocortexOur neocortex assumes responsibility for the higher-order brain functions of sensory perception, cognition, motor control, spatial reasoning, and language. It is divided into four pairs of cerebral lobes:

The frontal lobes engage in planning, problem-solving, decision-making, and behavioral control. They provide an awareness of our own thought processes as well as our ability to predict what others will be thinking or doing.

The parietal lobes process somatic (pertaining to the body) sensory information including touch, pressure, pain, heart, cold, and tension.

The occipital lobes are the main centers for visual processing (size, depth, texture, spatial orientation, color).

The temporal lobes engage in long term memory processing, audio processing (hearing), language comprehension, and emotional responses. Visual areas interpret sensory input – i.e., identifying objects (including facial expressions and body language) and anticipating what they might do.

These descriptions make it appear as though the brain supports a clear delineation of responsibilities for the various functions it performs. Science tells us otherwise. As a case in point, the cortical premotor areas of the frontal lobes and the parietal lobes work together to understand actions, objects acted upon, and locations toward which actions are directed. This collective of perception/action circuits also form a crucial role in language processing.

Through the wonders of brain imaging technologies, neuroscientists have been able to measure activity in various regions of the brain when we use language. In one experiment, subjects were asked to observe, name silently, and imagine using various man-made objects – e.g., hammers, screwdrivers, etc. In all cases, the brain regions that would be employed using these tools fired when the subjects simply called them to mind. This neural circuitry gives us a richer sense of meaning for our otherwise spartan vocabulary. Here’s a simple illustration.

Suppose a pro-business commentator decried government regulation for putting a chokehold on investment. Upon hearing or reading this assertion, our brains would ignite circuitry that would be used to execute a chokehold, visualize a chokehold, and experience a chokehold, even though the original sentence has nothing to do with cutting off air supplies. It’s simply how we’re wired. We imagine or simulate the words we speak or hear in a sensory way.

Great authors and orators understand this dynamic. Their words leap off the page/podium and create vibrant imagery in the minds of their readers/listeners. For example, when Toni Morrison describes a little girl’s dress as “lemon drop yellow,” I not only see the color, but I’m firing off taste buds that give me an extra measure of freshness for that Spring fashion choice. Cognitive scientists refer to this construct as embodied language.

Why might our brains work that way? Words underspecify meaning. By themselves, a simple word-meaning pair doesn’t provide enough information to capture what we’re seeing, doing, or experiencing. They don’t help us predict what comes next, what might be expected of us, or what we might be necessary for survival. We recruit resources from across our cerebral spectrum to fill in the blanks.

Of course, not all words evoke multisensory reactions. The pro-business commentator mentioned earlier could have stated that government regulation discouraged investment or limited funds available for investment. We’d come away with the same general meaning. By evoking the imagery of strangulation, the speaker created a much more powerful literary imprint and very likely induced an emotional response.

As we move into the final stages of the upcoming election cycle, I’m playing close attention to the rhetoric employed by candidates for political office and their handlers. While they may not have been trained on embodied language, they’re certainly availing themselves of its precepts. There’s quite a lot of trafficking in words and imagery that engender fear and anxiety. Those emotions play upon our survival instincts. I hope and pray that the electorate separates their visceral reactions to this onslaught and makes informed choices based on facts and reasoned arguments regarding what’s in the best interest of the nation and the world going forward.

Source:

  • Jerome Feldman and Srinivas Narayanan, Embodied meaning in neural theory of language, August 2003 (published by Science Direct)

Dispelling COVID-19 Myths

The pandemic regularly takes center stage in Zoom calls with friends and family. As I’ve heard varying claims about the disease and its treatment, I decided to consult with the experts to dispel some common myths. My chief sources are the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Myth #1: Since young people aren’t hurt by the disease, they don’t have to worry about getting infected.

Young people generally have immune systems that function better than older folks. As such, they are far less likely to develop symptoms or risk severe consequences or death when infected by COVID-19. HOWEVER, they can become efficient carriers of the disease for weeks and months after exposure. Moreover, the folks with whom they interact also participate in spreading the disease. Somewhere along the line, this chain of infection will reach people who will become seriously ill and/or die. As Dr. Fauci reminds us, we cannot stop the spread of the disease unless we all pull together and do our parts.

Myth #2: The only people who really need to be worry about COVID-19 are those with pre-existing conditions.

The CDC evaluated data on 1.3 million laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 during the period between January 22 and May 30. They looked at differences in hospitalization rates, ICU admissions, and deaths for patients with and without underlying conditions (e.g., heart disease, hypertension, pulmonary disease, diabetes, renal disease, immunosuppression, obesity). Here’s what they found:

COVID-19 hospitalization and death

Patients with underlying conditions are six times more likely to be hospitalized and twelve times more likely to die from the coronavirus than healthy individuals.

A report from Los Angeles County confirms this data. Over 90 percent of their COVID-19 deaths tied to patients with chronic medical conditions. The report noted that these conditions are commonplace across all age groups. While the majority of deaths were patients over the age of 65, nearly one-fourth were aged 41-64, and three percent were between 18 and 40.

Myth #3: Once we get vaccinated, we won’t have to worry about getting infected with COVID-19.

It is too early to render commentary on either the efficacy or durability of COVID-19 vaccines under development. That data will not be available until the completion of Phase III trials at the earliest. Even then, it will take widespread usage to validate results. As of this writing, Dr. Fauci expressed the following expectation regarding a vaccine’s ability to prevent infection:

“I would be very happy with 70, 75 percent, and I would be accepting of 50 to 60 percent, because that would be value added, superimposed upon, and complementary, to public health measures.”

Stated differently: Even after getting vaccinated, I may still have upwards of a 50% chance of getting infected if exposed to the virus.

Dr. Fauci also noted that scientists do not know how long the protection will last. Like the flu shot, it may simply get us through the worst of the seasonal infection rates. We may need to get booster shots to bolster our immune systems thereafter. Even if we are among the fortunate ones whose bodies respond favorably to inflection, we will still need to implement public health measures to protect those who aren’t so fortunate. Those measures include:

  • Visiting family and friends outdoors whenever possible (although virtual contact is preferred).
  • Wearing masks over the nose and mouth when interacting or sharing space with people who do not live in our households.
  • Maintaining at least 6 feet in social distance from others.
  • Avoiding large gatherings, especially those held indoors.
  • Washing hands thoroughly and often while still avoiding touching our faces.
  • Limiting contact with commonly touched surfaces or shared items and using disinfectant to sanitize them.

Myth #4: With accelerated vaccine development, it may not be safe to get inoculated.

Dr. Fauci lays this concern to rest. The vaccines in the current pipeline follow the same safety protocols that have been in effect for decades. Today’s technology enables vaccine development to proceed at a much faster rate than the past. Moreover, the government has made preemptive investment in manufacturing capability to shorten the time between the completion of Phase III trials and availability to the general public.

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