David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
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Bryan Cranston
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Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Empathy, Cruelty, and the Curated Life

Cruelty preoccupies me. I find that stories of cruelty stay with me, hauntingly, and infiltrate deeply. I cannot conceive of it in its most basic elements, the physical act of hurting another person. Unintentional psychic injuries against others are all too understandable to me, if not all but inevitable in a life that has other people in it. But the deliberate malice of cruelty eludes me.

Some new research finds compassion and empathy to be as intrinsic to human character as self-preservation. I hope that this is true, although it’s hard to discern in the headlines today. Then again, cruelty fascinates, so we hear about it. In contrast, goodness gives the profoundly deceptive impression of being transparent, unremarkable, and without charisma.

If empathy is hardwired, then it still seems to require some flexing and practice to unleash itself in the world.

Empathy, or at least non-cruelty, doubtless requires a capacity for perspective-taking. You develop empathy by being around people with different lives and beliefs who you are forced by circumstances, manners, or custom to tolerate and listen to—or at least not to blow up, shoot, rape, maim, or scream at, either in person or virtually.

You could also develop empathy by reading stories and books, any and all books, about anybody and any character or topic under the sun—anything that has a subject or character that you don’t already recognize, or know.

Presumably we develop empathic skills by listening to intelligent discourse among differences in the political sphere.

All of these modest empathy-building habits may constitute a more lasting anti-cruelty, anti-rape initiative than the well-lit path, or new laws against harassment. But they’re in conspicuous short supply in the social milieu of the day, and in the online worlds where much of social and intellectual life is migrating.

The normal pathways to empathy and identification—random encounters with the other, or situations where we must tolerate diverse perspectives and lives—are being replaced by ever more finely-sorted and niched worlds.

These worlds are curated for us by personal techno-butlers. The techno-butler sorts through, discards, selects, and displays items to read, wear, cook, drink, drive, use, believe, befriend, or like, as gleaned by our past behavior. They suggest that we like pages based on pre-existing, already-established preferences; that we buy books just like the ones we’ve just bought; that if we liked this dress, we’ll surely like this one, as well; that we stay on the track of our own political views, reiterated into eternity with like-minded comrades in social media’s echo chamber. Online habitats fortify our personal comfort zone. Through Amazon, you can buy books forever solely in the consumer “silo” of Scandinavian detective fiction, if you like. When you’re finished with one, a message, “If you liked this…” or “readers who bought this also bought…” will guide you with the white-gloved seamlessness of a perceptive, discreet manservant to books just like it.

Under the discerning curation of the techno-butler, matters of taste, creed, identity, and affiliation are decided based on already-established affinities.

You need never stray from the self that you think you are.  

Of course, we can always seek out diverse points of view and useful irritants to our own beliefs. That’s what new technologies enable us to do much more easily. Someone in North Dakota can easily befriend hipsters in New York, in the privacy of her own home.

But we must seek out that diverse point of view. The default momentum with the curated life is toward homogeneity, not heterodoxy or heteroglossia. Existing biases of preference and belief are perpetuated. It’s one of the biggest surprise hypotheses of the Internet revolution that it might have encouraged belief balkanization and tribalism when theoretically it could have done the opposite. 

We don’t read much. A Pew study found that Americans read a median of six books in a year. Half read less and half read more. When we do read, we read less about people and stories unrelated to our  lives. Self-improvement, inspirational, and “self-centered” books, in the literal sense of books designed to speak to your particular problems, worries, or issues (how to be happier, more pious, or sexier) dominate the sales. Here, too, the empathy-building functions of reading and literacy defer to solipsism.

Rather than read about them, we shoot the other in lifelike single-shooter video games. While the shooter is a very real subject to himself, the others—the characters in the game—are there to be shot.

We don’t hear intelligent discourse of dissent in the public, political sphere much. This point is too painfully obvious to elaborate, to anyone who’s had to listen to a politician in the last decade, or read the rants of embattled, ideologically non-empathetic partisans online.

The solutions of perspective-taking and empathy-building through books or talk may seem remote from the rape of a 15-year old in Nova Scotia or California. But they’re not. Cruelty festers when empathy and perspective-taking fail—when it becomes easier to look at others at a remove, and as less than entirely real to us as fellow humans. Moments of cruelty and non-empathy are what it looks like when the social compact frays. 

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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