from the world's big
Statistical Numbing. Why Millions Can Die, and We Don’t Care.
Four year-old Khafra was near death three days ago when he was brought to the refugee camp hospital. He was emaciated, his ribs showing through his taut dry skin. He panted for breath. His desperate eyes bulged. His mother Alyan could only sit at his side and watch, helpless, sad beyond comprehension, but herself too malnourished to cry. Doctors are still not sure Khafran can be saved.
The famine in the Horn of Africa has left more than 12 million people malnourished, including half of Somalia’s population. The U.N. says 640,000 Somali children are starving, and more than 29,000 children in southern Somalia have starved to death in the last 90 days.
Which of those two paragraphs was more emotionally powerful? It should have been the second, shouldn’t it, based on the scale of the suffering, 640,000 starving kids to one? But the first paragraph almost certainly carried more emotional punch. The famine in northeast Africa is once again forcing us to confront the truth about the way our brains work, a profound truth with sobering implications. As smart as we think we are, as rational as we believe our powerful brains enable us to be, our perceptions are the product of both reason and emotion, a combination of the facts and how those facts feel, and sometimes this emotional/instinctive/affective system can produce perceptions with tragic consequences.
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Mother Theresa said "If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." Josef Stalin said "One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic." Numerous experiments have helped verify the truth behind what both the saint and the mass murderer knew intuitively, that we relate more closely to what happens to one person than to what happens to large numbers of people.
In one study, people were asked what they’d donate to life saving efforts that might help save one child. They were also asked what they’d donate toward life saving efforts that would help eight children.
One Child Eight Children
In another study people were paid to participate in an unrelated psychological quiz, and on the way out they were given the opportunity to donate up to $5.00 of their earnings to Save The Children. They were given three options;
--- They could donate to help Rokia, a 7 year-old Malian girl. The subjects were shown a picture of Rokia. They were willing to give $2.25.
--- They could donate to help the hundreds of thousands of children in eastern Africa who were starving. They were willing to give only $1.15.
--- The third option was to help Rokia specifically, but along with this request subjects were also given the statistics about the other starving east African kids. The same people who were willing to give $2.25 when it was just for Rokia, were only willing to give $1.40 when the request to help Rokia included information about the larger statistics!
Help Rokia Help Statistical Lives Help Rokia (with statistics)
$2.25 $1.15 $1.40
This statistical numbing begins at anything more than ONE! Researchers asked three groups about donating to save lives. The first group was shown a single child’s face and name and asked to donate to save that one child. The second group was shown another child’s face and name and asked to donate for that child. The third group saw both faces, and was asked to donate to save both.
Save Child One Save Child Two Save Both
$3.25 $3.25 $3.00
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Paul Slovic, one of the pioneers of research into the way we perceive risk, calls this greater concern for the one than the many "a fundamental deficiency in our humanity." As the world watches but, insufficiently moved, fails to act to prevent mass starvation or stop genocides in Congo or Kosovo or Cambodia or so many more, who would not agree with such a lament. But as heartless as it seems to care more about the one than the many, it makes perfect sense in terms of human psychology. You are a person, not a number. You don’t see digits in the mirror, you see a face. And you don’t see a crowd. You see an individual. So you and I relate more powerfully to the reality of a single person than to the numbing faceless nameless lifeless abstraction of numbers. "Statistics," as Slovic put it in a paper titled "Psychic Numbing and Genocide" http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~baron/journal/7303a/jdm7303a.htm, "are human beings with the tears dried off." This tendency to relate more emotionally to the reality of a single person than to two or more people, or to the abstraction of statistics, is especially powerful when it comes to the way we perceive risk and danger, because what might happen to a single real person, might happen to you. As the familiar adage puts it, "There but for the grace of God go I."
This has all sorts of profound implications. Statistical numbing plays a huge role in what the news media covers, and what it doesn’t, since the media are in the business of bringing us information we are likely to pay attention to, and our attention is less drawn to numbers than stories about individual people (which explains the success of the narrative device of weaving stories about big issues around a personal example). Less coverage means less concern, because we certainly can’t be moved by these tragedies if we don’t know much about them. And public concern drives government policy, so statistical numbing helps explain why nations so often fail to expend their resources to save people elsewhere who are starving, or dying of disease, or being raped and murdered, in the tens and hundreds of thousands.
Remember that research about willingness to donate? It’s not just research. British donations to help the victims of the 2004 south Asian tsunami, which got intense media coverage in part because it was a singular catastrophic event rather than an ongoing crisis, were 45 times higher than they have been so far to help feed starving east Africans, regardless of the huge numbers of victims in both cases. Donations in the U.S. for the African famine are also lower than for many other disasters. "I’m asking myself where is everybody and how loud do I have to yell and from what mountaintop," asked one frustrated senior fundraiser about the current east African famine. Sorry, but there is no mountaintop high enough nor voice loud enough to overcome this intrinsic aspect of human psychology.
The profound and sobering truth is that our perceptions are an inextricable blend of reason and subjective emotion. Between the one real human and huge but abstract numbers, the numbers simply don’t carry the same emotional power, and they never will. One death will always move us more than one million. This "fundamental deficiency in our humanity" is an inescapable part of the human animal. Perhaps by recognizing this about ourselves, and its tragic implications, we can do something about it. But that is hoping that reason can overcome emotion in the way we perceive things. Sadly, the evidence suggests that there will be a lot more suffering before that happens.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
How can we promote the creation of new neurons - and why is it so important?
- Neurogenesis, the birth of neurons from stem cells, happens mostly before we are born - as we are formed in the womb, we are generating most of what we need after birth.
- After birth, neurogenesis is still possible in two parts of the brain: the olfactory bulb (which is responsible for our sense of smell) and the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory, spatial navigation, and emotional processing).
- Research from the 1960s proves creating new neurons as adults is possible, and modern-day research explains how (and why) we should promote new neuron growth.
Two parts of the brain can continue growing through neurogenesis<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkyMzk2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwOTAwODc1MH0.4GDLlZmkwuD0-pJ0s0UWcUoYXMy95a-AM61a_QAlAeA/img.jpg?width=980" id="2e77e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4e23499fdf3b2185533979083fd02db7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="brain made of twigs and plants concept of neurogenesis" />
Neurogenesis is still possible well into adulthood in two very important parts of the human brain.
Image by EtiAmmos on Shutterstock<p>Although most people are aware that aging or bad habits such as heavy alcohol use can contribute to the deterioration of our brains, not many of us give thought to how we can generate new brain cells.</p><p>Neurogenesis, the birth of neurons from stem cells, happens mostly before we are born - as we are formed in the womb, we are generating most of what we need after birth. </p><p><strong>After birth, however, neurogenesis is still possible in two parts of the brain:</strong></p><ul><li>The olfactory bulb, which is a structure of the forebrain that's responsible for our sense of smell. </li><li>The hippocampus, which is a structure of the brain located within the temporal lobe (just above your ears) - this area is important for learning, memory, regulation, of emotions and spatial navigation. </li></ul><p>Of course, when this information first came to light <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13860748" target="_blank">back in the 1960s</a>, the next natural question was: How do we promote neurogenesis in those areas where it's still possible? </p><p>Researchers today believe there are activities you can do (some of them may be things you already do on a daily basis) that can promote neurogenesis in your brain. </p><p><strong>Why is it important to promote the growth of new neurons in adulthood?</strong></p><p>We produce an estimated 700 million neurons per day in the hippocampus - this means by the time we reach the age of 50, we will have exchanged the neurons we were born within that area of the brain with new (adult-generated) neurons. </p><p>If we don't promote this exchange with the growth of new neurons, we may block certain abilities these new neurons help us with (such as keeping our memory sharp, for example). </p>
4 ways to promote neurogenesis in your brain<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkyMzk2Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTE3NjczNH0.qyzh_AIUPKfaQIa1QEq4yTNCAAK9nYkH3HFV9vWXwww/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C104&height=700" id="64a68" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee1307fe2dd61ae425552da56db3c5ff" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="child playing trumpet concept of learning a new instrument neurogenesis" />
Learning a new instrument helps promote neurogenesis.
Photo by DenisProduction.com on Shutterstock<p><strong>Intermittent fasting</strong></p><p><a href="https://law.stanford.edu/2015/01/09/lawandbiosciences-2015-01-09-intermittent-fasting-try-this-at-home-for-brain-health/" target="_blank">A 2015 Stanford study</a> examined the link between <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/6-ways-to-do-intermittent-fasting#section1" target="_blank">intermittent fasting</a> and neurogenesis. Calorie restriction and fasting can not only increase synaptic plasticity and promote neuron growth but it can also decrease your risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases and boost cognitive function. </p><p><u>Two of the most common ways you can intermittently fast are: </u></p><ul><li>16 hours per day every day - this is a method where you are able to eat for an 8 hour period of the day and fast for 16 hours of the day. Many people begin their "fast" after dinner, pushing their morning meal far enough towards lunch that most of their "off" eating time happens while they are asleep anyways. </li></ul><ul><li>24 hours every week - this is a method where once a week you fast for an entire day. Some people prefer this method because the rest of the week can resume as normal - but for many, this is a difficult way to fast. </li></ul><p><strong>Traveling to new places</strong></p><p>While traveling is something many of us enjoy — scenic routes and new fun experiences — these things also promote neurogenesis while we're on vacation. <a href="https://www.chicagotribune.com/travel/ct-xpm-2014-01-28-sc-trav-0128-travel-mechanic-20140128-story.html" target="_blank">Paul Nussbaum</a>, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that the mental benefits of traveling are very clear.<br></p><p><em>"When you expose your brain to an environment that's novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts. Those new and challenging situations cause the brain to sprout dendrites (dangling extensions) which grow the brain's capacity." </em></p><p><strong>Learning a new instrument</strong></p><p>The mental health benefits of music have long been studied, but did you know that learning a new instrument can promote new neuron growth? </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2996135/" target="_blank">this 2010 study</a>, learning to play a new musical instrument is an intense, multisensory motor experience that requires that acquisition and maintenance of skills over your entire lifetime - which of course, promotes the new formation of new neural networks. </p><p>When is the best time to begin learning a new instrument? Childhood, of course. </p><p><em>"Learning to play a new musical instrument in childhood can result in long-lasting changes in brain organization," </em>according to the study mentioned above. </p><p>While learning an instrument in adulthood will also promote neurogenesis, children who began training with a musical instrument before the age of 7 have shown that they have a significantly larger corpus callosum (the area of the brain the allows communication between the two hemispheres of the brain) than many adults. </p><p><strong>Reading novels</strong></p><p>A study from <a href="http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-novel-look-at-how-stories-may-change.html" target="_blank">Emory University</a> showed there was an increase in ongoing connectivity in the brains of participants after reading the same (fiction) novel. </p><p>In this study, enhanced brain activity was observed in the region that control physical sensations and movement. Reading a novel, according to lead researcher Gregory Berns, can transport you into the body of the protagonist. </p><p>This ability to shift into another mental state is a vital skill that promotes healthy neurogenesis in those areas of the brain. </p>
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
Paul Krugman on the Virtues of Selfishness<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7ZtAkm6C" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="828936bf6953080e9018307354c0c02b"> <div id="botr_7ZtAkm6C_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7ZtAkm6C-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> The Nobel Prize-winning economist on the virtues of selfishness.
Evolution Is Moving Us Away from Selfishness. But Where Is It Taking ...<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cyeqmYCb" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="6c5efecb56456e9acc25cf36935b1826"> <div id="botr_cyeqmYCb_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cyeqmYCb-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Exploring Morality and Selfishness in Modern Times<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="02eX1Cag" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="45cc6180db791f32683988fb52faff26"> <div id="botr_02eX1Cag_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/02eX1Cag-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> Philosopher Peter Singer discusses the state of global ethics.
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