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Chris Hadfield
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Why Are Humans So Drawn to Stories?

Literary types used to run the world. To understand life and society, people counted on great orators and poets and interpreters of sacred texts. Political, moral and literary power were the same: Apt analogies and convincing metaphors were taken as arguments, not just pretty wordplay. In medieval Europe, to see the King's relationship to his people as like that of God to the world was no "mere figure of speech." It was the source of your obligation to give the king absolute obedience. In ancient Rome, having an eagle drop a wolf cub in your lap wasn't just a poetic image of unwanted elevation to high office. It was a reason to bet on you to become emperor. Or maybe on your being eaten by wolves. Literature can be ambiguous, after all. But the important point is that everyone agreed that a striking story told something important about reality.


Today, the literary folk have given way to the numbers people. The modern gold standard for truth about ourselves, and the foundation of political action, is measurement and its resulting statistics. How many pregnancies does abstinence education prevent? How much did the crime rate go down after that change in our gun laws? How much better did the children do who experienced this teaching method? Don't just tell me a story; show me the numbers.

This rationalist devotion— to data and the numbers that data creates—is new in human history. Many psychologists and philosophers think it's a thin overlay that doesn't have much influence on the real life of the mind. At least, it's a fact that statistics, probability and other quantifiable approaches to understanding the world are pretty hard for people to grasp. Instinctively, we still seem to prefer stories. And so those psychologists and philosophers have claimed lately that narrative structure is a deep, essential part of human nature.

In his lively and readable new book, The Storytelling Animal, for example, Jonathan Gottschall argues that we live our entire lives in a web of story—not just when we're consciously taking in narratives from the news or the movies but whenever we dream, daydream or (if we happen to be children) play make-believe ("as automatic and insuppressible as dreams," Gottschall points out). That's a lot of time, and Gottschall argues it's not just an accidental byproduct of other mental activities. He suspects that stories conferred an advantage on our ancestors, such that if there were ever people who didn't tell tales, they died out, leaving only us—night-dreaming, day-dreaming, anecdote-remembering, TV-serial watching suckers for a tale.

Some have argued that stories fascinate because they let us rehearse future problems. Before the big date, you recall friends' tales, movies, TV plots, and it helps you negotiate the experience. Gottschall is pretty convicing that this can't be right. After all, you aren't likely to struggle for the throne of Denmark after your father is bumped off by your uncle, nor are you going to end up flying over New York in a wearable piece of armored weaponry—yet you can still be interested in Hamlet or The Avengers. Nor does Gottschall think stories compel us by offering a pleasant escape from our humdrum lives: Dreams and child's play, like videogames, movies, TV, books and drama, are chock full of monsters, disasters and death—the "fat red thread" that ties together all forms of human narrative, he notes, is trouble, not pleasure.

So what's the deal? Gottschall thinks stories are a kind of simulator for future experience, but not in an explicit, when-I-get-my-chance-to-be-Iron-Man way. Rather, he writes, stories train implicit memories—the knowledge you have without knowing that you know it. In other words, Hamlet's draw isn't that it will give you good tips on handling your struggle to run Denmark, but rather that it will give you three hours' more practice at empathizing with others, judging their actions and evaluating their motives. You won't remember the specifics, any more than you recall how you learned to ride a bike, but the practice, like all practice, will help.

Tomorrow's Post: It's very popular these days to assert that story-telling is central to the human experience (not least because we who tell stories for a living love the idea). But is the idea just trendy "narrababble"?

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Lee Jae-Sung of Korea Republic lies on the pitch holding his knee during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group F match between Korea Republic and Germany at Kazan Arena on June 27, 2018 in Kazan, Russia.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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