Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Common Sense Study: Virtual Reality, Television, and Budding Brains

My mother was telling me the other day that someone's done a study on virtual reality, and discovered that, when people are reading and engrossed in a book, what happens in their head is essentially the same as virtual reality.

To which I can only roll my eyes and wonder if my tax dollars went to pay for said study. In other words, duh.

This reminds me of a study I read a year ago on Broadsheet, one that found out that the sight of their baby's smile triggers peaceful, loving hormones in mothers. Gasp! I mean, really. You couldn't just say, figure that out from looking at people?

And yet, it seems like we so often need studies like these, because people's grasp of common sense is so slippery. We need studies like these -- seemingly expensive and unecessary -- to reaffirm the obvious for the mass population that logic brushes only tangentially.

For example, the news this last week or two that bank executives in the US are using government bailout money to give themselves huge bonuses. Everyone's shocked. And all I can say is that you didn't need a PhD in anything so complex as underwater basket weaving to have seen that coming. The assumption that the executives would have been chastened and suddenly behave in a fiscally responsible manner defies even the most basic logic.

If any of the blind people in government or think tanks had asked me for advice, this is what I would have mapped out for them:

A. Greedy people are greedy.
B. Greedy people are generally greedy rather than smart (they use their brains to acquire more of what they're greedy for), and they're certainly never altruistic.
C. Greedy people made decisions that made them lots of money and flattened the economy.
D. The government then gave the greedy people more money, trusting said greedy people to use it wisely.

What do you think happens next?

This is all aside from the common sense realization that an economy based on people buying stuff they don't need with money they don't have is by definition unhealthy, no matter how fast it grows.

Personally, I'd go for a common sense study that researches something more useful than what happens in our brains while we're reading, or even what happens if you hand a bunch of bank executives billions of dollars with no strings attached.

I'd like to lobby hard for a study that goes into depth to examine what happens to the brain development of children exposed to any significant telelvision time before the age of three. I read a survey result recently that found that 45% of American children under age three have a television in their bedrooms. Situations like this, and DVD players in cars are, I'm willing to bet, far more damaging to brain development than, say, being exposed to moderate amounts of wine in utero.

When I saw that little statistic in my Mothering magazine, I flipped immediately to the section on the visual cortex in my favorite parenting book, What's Going on in There? by Lise Eliot, a neurobiologist. The visual cortex is essential to brain development, and does a lot of its growing in those first three years. Television is not evil per se, but watching it has an unknown and likely huge impact on the tiny brains of infants.

I've met many parents who have proclaimed to me how quiet their kids are in front of Spongebob, or how they love to watch Baby Einstein. They never make the connection that the mental fixation, and glazed expression directed toward flickering pixels and images that will never in fact interact with them, has to be hugely damaging to babies' tiny, developing brains.

That's a study I'd get behind. After all, even though my son has never met television or fruit juice, he will be spending the rest of his life interacting with children, and then grown-ups, who did. Seemingly simple parenting decisions like this can have unforseen and enormous consequences. Without a study -- confirming what, to me, seems to be common sense -- it seems that we can't change people's behavior.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Federalist Paper 2: Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence

"Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government; and it is equally undeniable that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers."

It is important to remember that in these Federalist Papers the writers are setting forth arguments for their form of government -- one weighted towards federal (that is, national) power rather than distributed more heavily among individual states -- during the formation of the United States. So John Jay isn't debating the purpose of government here, but what system best achieves certain assumed goals.

In this paper he is laying the ground for his case that the physical security of Americans can best be achieved by a cohesive Union, a United States rather than several separate confederacies and commonwealths, as many favored at the time.

He's probably right, to a point. I'm no security expert. But I find the language of this letter intriguing, because it drums on the heart of a belief that underlies much of modern America's isolationism, pride, independence, and yes, racism, arrogance, and xenophobia.

"It has often given me pleasure to observe that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, wide-spreading country was the portion of our western sons of liberty. ... A succession of navigable waters forms a kind of chain round its borders, as if to bind it together ... With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people -- a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs. ... This country and this people seem to have been made for each other." (Emphasis mine.)

Sidestepping the issues of slavery and what amounted to a policy of genocide toward Native Americans (since it's impossible to reach back through time, grasp 18th-century America by the throat and say, "You should know better"), the concept that the Christian God has somehow blessed both this country and this people is a refrain that recurs again and again throughout American history. Its tiresome voice harped again in the last three elections, coming largely from those of the Christian Right who believe that America is meant to be a beacon of godly light to the rest of the heathen world (talking to you, Europe!), a "shining city on the hill."

I would contend that it is this belief that has prompted American leaders to perform, and its citizens to condone, some of the most egregious and appalling acts in our recent history. When horrified and exasperated American voices asked again and again how the US government could sanction torture -- torture -- of any human being, there was one simple answer hidden among the manufactured legal gibberish: a quiet voice whispering that America is blessed, America is special, America must survive as a beacon, either of democracy or Christian values, for the rest of the world. America, in other words, must protect its physical security at the cost of all else: its liberty, its justice, its humanity.

John Jay and his contemporaries are not to blame for the evils of Dick Cheney and the rest of the Bush administration. But if modern Americans are to argue the case of justice and true liberty, we must learn to understand, and more importantly, to speak, the language of those who believe the US's actions are always justified, simply by our existence. We must go back to where it all started.