Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
The Great Zika Freak-Out: A Teaching Moment in the Psychology of Fear
An unfamiliar new threat that harms babies, that we can't protect ourselves from, that experts don't fully understand, and about which the media is blaring loud alarms; Zika virus has several powerful emotional characteristics that make any potential danger feel much more dangerous than it might actually be.
A new disease with an exotic name, Zika virus, is spreading "explosively" around the world. It may be causing babies to be born with shrunken heads and brains. No one has immunity. Experts admit significant uncertainty about how the disease spreads, what symptoms it causes, or just which parts of the population face the greatest danger. And the media is going bonkers. There could not be a more perfect set of conditions for a full-blown freak-out about a threat that plenty of evidence also suggests may not be that great a threat at all. And that kind of risk reaction can be dangerous all by itself.
I'm no expert in Zika virus or infectious diseases. For scientific particulars, one great source is Helen Branswell at STAT; Everything You Need to Know About Zika virus. There is also a solid backgrounder in The New York Times: Short Answers to Hard Questions About Zika Virus
But interestingly, the WHO information site is FAR more measured than the public statements by WHO head Dr. Margaret Chan, who spoke in much more dramatic terms.
“Last year the disease was detected in the Americas, where it is spreading explosively.”
“The level of alarm is extremely high. Arrival of the virus in some cases has been associated with a steep increase in the birth of babies with abnormally small heads.”
“The possible links have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions."
Dr. Chan’s statements, which almost surely will be widely criticized as poor risk communication, set the world press into a Zika frenzy:
But compare that scary headline with what the BBC story itself says in the second paragraph;
Most will not develop symptoms, but the virus, spread by mosquitoes, has been linked to brain defects in babies.
And compare Dr. Chan’s alarmist language (speaking about a global threat) with the comments of Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, describing the risk for the United States, where there have been a grand total of 31 recorded cases of an infectious disease that has been around in many tropical areas (that breed the right species of mosquito) for at least eight years.
For the average American who is not traveling, this is not something they need to worry about. For people who are pregnant and considering travel to the affected areas, please take this seriously.
Dr. Schuchat also did a wise thing with her risk communication. She all but promised there would be more travel-related cases, rather than trying to over-reassure the public. But she said that conditions in the United States make it highly unlikely (not impossible, but highly unlikely) there will be a serious outbreak here.
Perhaps most importantly, compare Dr. Chan’s alarm with the actual numbers from Brazil, one of the first places where doctors noticed a spike in microcephaly, the condition of babies born with shrunken heads or malformed brains. Nature reported on an analysis of the actual numbers: Brazil's surge in small-headed babies questioned by report
It is not known how common microcephaly has become in Brazil’s outbreak. About 3 million babies are born in Brazil each year. Normally, about 150 cases of microcephaly are reported, and Brazil says it is investigating nearly 4,000 cases.
From 150 to 4,000 in one year is a frightening spike on a percentage basis, and certainly cause for alarm. But how much alarm? A total of 4,000 cases of microcephaly out of 3 million babies comes to a risk rate of 0.0013. Tiny. And the study reported by Nature found that only 270 of the Brazil cases have been confirmed as microcephaly, and a tenth of the reported cases have been discounted as false diagnoses.
So the basic facts about Zika virus at this point suggest that even if the worst case is real, the statistical risk, even where conditions are favorable for the spread of the disease, is probably tiny. But at this point facts are, well, equivocal, which is why public health authorities are responding with due caution, (even though some, like Dr. Chan, are responding with less-than-cautious language.) And the very fact that there is uncertainty is just one of several psychological characteristics that make the threat of Zika virus feel much more worrisome than the evidence alone suggests.
New risks freak us out more than the ones we’re familiar with. The way we freaked out about West Nile virus, and then calmed down about it even though it’s still around, provides a good analogy. We are much more concerned about risks to babies than risks to adults. Zika scores high on that risk perception factor too. So does the fact that we have no immunity or vaccines, which means we are powerless — we have no sense of control. Not being able to protect ourselves makes any risk scarier. Uncertainty about the nature of the Zika threat adds to the sense of not knowing what we need to know to protect ourselves/powerlessness.
And the media alarms play a huge magnifying role. The more readily available something is to our awareness, the more space it takes up on our limited radar screen of risk. No matter how measured the stories on Zika virus may be as you get down into the details, (and most are), blaring headlines of “spreading explosively” and “4 million possible victims” (thank you, Dr. Chan) are what we hear and read first and, cautious beings that we are, we tend to put too much weight on the worst-case possibilities of any threat and those reassuring caveats down in the story, if we even get that far, do little to disabuse us of our fears.
Let’s be clear, and fair: Nobody is panicking. These worries, even if based more on feelings that an objective look at the evidence, are real, and valid, and entirely reasonable. Better-safe-than-sorry precaution is built into the psychology of how we keep ourselves safe. Given what isn’t known, only a fool would suggest there is no need to worry.
But we also have to worry about worrying too much, about this threat or any threat, because excessive fear can be risky too — from the choices it leads us to make, or just the harmful effects of chronic stress. So it’s worth observing how the Zika outbreak is demonstrating how we supposedly rational intelligent creatures often respond to potential danger with emotion and instinct as much as with objective analysis and reason. Understanding that can help us stay safe too.
image, GettyImages, Inti Ocon
All this from a wad of gum?
- Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
- Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
- The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
Five thousand and seven hundred years ago, "Lola" — a blue-eyed woman with dark skin and hair — was chewing on a piece of pitch derived from heating birch bark. Then, this women spit her chewing gum out into the mud on an island in Denmark that we call Syltholm today, where it was unearthed by archaeologists thousands of years later. A genetic analysis of the chewing gum has provided us with a wealth of information on this nearly six-thousand-year-old Violet Beauregarde.
This represents the first time that the human genome has been extracted from material such as this. "It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone," said lead researcher Hannes Schroeder in a statement.
"What is more," he added, "we also retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, which makes this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for time periods where we have no human remains."
In the pitch, researchers identified the DNA of the Epstein-Barr virus, which infects about 90 percent of adults. They also found DNA belonging to hazelnuts and mallards, which were likely the most recent meal that Lola had eaten before spitting out her chewing gum.
Insights into ancient peoples
The birch pitch was found on the island of Lolland (the inspiration for Lola's name) at a site called Syltholm. "Syltholm is completely unique," said Theis Jensen, who worked on the study for his PhD. "Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal.
"It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark and the archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia."
Since Lola's genome doesn't show any of the markers associated with the agricultural populations that had begun to appear in this region around her time, she provides evidence for a growing idea that hunter-gatherers persisted alongside agricultural communities in northern Europe longer than previously thought.
Her genome supports additional theories on northern European peoples. For example, her dark skin bolsters the idea that northern populations only recently acquired their light-skinned adaptation to the low sunlight in the winter months. She was also lactose intolerant, which researchers believe was the norm for most humans prior to the agricultural revolution. Most mammals lose their tolerance for lactose once they've weaned off of their mother's milk, but once humans began keeping cows, goats, and other dairy animals, their tolerance for lactose persisted into adulthood. As a descendent of hunter-gatherers, Lola wouldn't have needed this adaptation.
A hardworking piece of gum
A photo of the birch pitch used as chewing gum.
These findings are encouraging for researchers focusing on ancient peoples from this part of the world. Before this study, ancient genomes were really only ever recovered from human remains, but now, scientists have another tool in their kit. Birch pitch is commonly found in archaeological sites, often with tooth imprints.
Ancient peoples used and chewed on birch pitch for a variety of reasons. It was commonly heated up to make it pliable, enabling it to be molded as an adhesive or hafting agent before it settled. Chewing the pitch may have kept it pliable as it cooled down. It also contains a natural antiseptic, and so chewing birch pitch may have been a folk medicine for dental issues. And, considering that we chew gum today for no other reason than to pass the time, it may be that ancient peoples chewed pitch for fun.
Whatever their reasons, chewed and discarded pieces of birch pitch offer us the mind-boggling option of learning what someone several thousands of years ago ate for lunch, or what the color of their hair was, their health, where their ancestors came from, and more. It's an unlikely treasure trove of information to be found in a mere piece of gum.
The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.
- This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
- Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
- The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
Some countries value self-expression more than others.Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
Question: On what map is Lithuania a neighbor of China, Poland lies next to Brazil, and Morocco and Yemen touch?
Answer: The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map. To be precise, the 2017 map. Because on the 2020 version, each of those pairs has drifted apart significantly.
These are not, strictly speaking, maps but rather scatterplot diagrams. Each dot represents a country, the position of which is based on how it ranks on two different values (discussed below). The dots are corralled together into geo-cultural groups:
- Catholic Europe, which comprises countries as diverse and far apart as Hungary and Andorra■ Protestant Europe, taking in both Iceland and Germany
- The Orthodox world, from Belarus all the way to Armenia
- The three Baltic states
- The English-speaking world, including both the U.S. and Northern Ireland
- The huge African-Islamic world, ranging from Azerbaijan to South Africa
- Latin America, which goes from Mexico to Argentina
- South Asia, which comprises both India and Cyprus
- The Confucian world, encompassing China and Japan.
The placement of the dots indicates cultural proximity or distance. Some countries from different groups can be more similar than other countries in the same group.
See the examples indicated above: cultural neighbors China and Lithuania belong to the Confucian and Baltic groups, respectively. Poland is part of Catholic Europe; its 2017 neighbor Brazil is in Latin America. Morocco and Yemen are closer culturally to Armenia, in the Orthodox group, than they are to Qatar, despite all belonging to the African-Islamic group.
The 2017 version of the map places Malta deep inside South America and lets Vietnam, Portugal, and Macedonia meet.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Creating a culture map
So, what exactly are the criteria used for plotting these dots in the first place?
These maps are part of the World Values Survey, first conducted by political scientist Ronald Inglehart in the late 1990s. With his colleague Christian Welzel, he produced an update in 2005. The WVS has been revised several times since, most recently in 2020.
The WVS asserts that there are two fundamental dimensions to cross-cultural variation across the world. These are used as the axes to plot the various countries on the diagram.
- The X-axis measures survival versus self-expression values.
Survival values focus on economic and physical security. There is not much room for trust and tolerance of "others." Self-expression values prioritize well-being, quality of life, and self-expression. There is more room for tolerating ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.
- The Y-axis measures traditional versus secular-rational values.
Traditional values include deference to religion and parental authority as well as traditional social and family values. Societies that score high on traditions typically also are highly nationalistic. In more secular-rational societies, science and bureaucracy replace faith as the basis for authority. Secular-rational values include high tolerance of things like divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide.
As indicated by the significant changes on the 2020 map, the cultural values of nations are not static:
- Countries that move up on the map are shifting from traditional to more secular-rational values.
- Countries that move to the right on the map are shifting from survival values to self-expression values.
- And, of course, vice versa in both cases.
According to the authors of the map, changes in cultural outlook can be the result of socioeconomic changes — increasing levels of wealth, for example. But the religious and cultural heritage of each country also plays a part.
The world's cultural landscape is dynamic — you could even say promiscuous, producing new bedfellows every few years.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Some notable features of the 2020 map:
- The Baltic group has been dissolved; Lithuania is now part of Catholic Europe, Estonia a lone Protestant island in a Catholic sea. More worryingly, Latvia seems to have dissolved completely.
- In general, survival values are strongest in African-Islamic countries, self-expression values in Protestant Europe.
- Traditional values are strongest in African-Islamic countries and Latin America, while secular values dominate in Confucian countries and Protestant Europe.
- The United States is an atypical member of the English-speaking group, scoring much lower on both scales (that is to say, lower and more to the left). In other words, the U.S. is more into traditional and survival values than the group's other members.
- Shifting attitudes don't just separate; they also unite. Belgium and the U.S. are now culture buddies, as are New Zealand and Iceland. Kazakhstan is virtually indistinguishable from Bosnia.
The Inglehart-Welzel map is not without its critics. It has been decried as Eurocentric, simplistic, and culturally essentialist (that is, the assumption that certain cultural characteristics are essential and fixed, and that some are superior to others). Which is, of course, a very self-expressive thing to say.
For more on these maps, on the WVS surveys, and on the methodology used, visit the World Values Survey.
Strange Maps #1098
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A study finds that baby mammals dream about the world they are about to experience to prepare their senses.
- Researchers find that babies of mammals dream about the world they are entering.
- The study focused on neonatal waves in mice before they first opened their eyes.
- Scientists believe human babies also prime their visual motion detection before birth.
Imagine opening your eyes for the first time as a brand new baby. The world is so mysterious, full of obstacles and strange shapes. And yet it does not take babies all that long to get their bearings, to latch on to their parents, and to start interacting. How do they do this so quickly? A new study published in Science proposes that babies of mammals dream about the world they are about to enter before being born, developing important skills.
The team, led by professor Michael Crair, who specializes in neuroscience, ophthalmology, and visual science, wanted to understand why when mammals are born, they are already somewhat prepared to interact with the world.
"At eye opening, mammals are capable of pretty sophisticated behavior," said Craig, "But how do the circuits form that allow us to perceive motion and navigate the world? It turns out we are born capable of many of these behaviors, at least in rudimentary form."
Unusual retinal activity
The scientists observed waves of activity radiating from the retinas of newborn mice before their eyes first open. Imaging shows that soon after birth, this activity disappears. In its place matures a network of neural transmissions that carries visual stimuli to the brain, as explained by a Yale press release. Once it reaches the brain, the information is encoded for storage.
What's particularly unusual about this neonatal activity is that it demonstrates a pattern that would happen if the animal was moving forward somewhere. As the researchers write in the study, "Spontaneous waves of retinal activity flow in the same pattern as would be produced days later by actual movement through the environment."
Crair explained that this "dream-like activity" makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, as it helps the mouse get ready for what will happen to it after it opens its eyes. It allows the animal to "respond immediately to environmental threats," Crair shared.
Retinal waves in a newborn mouse prepare it for vision www.youtube.com
What is creating the waves?
The scientists also probed what is responsible for creating the retinal waves that mimic the forward motion. They turned on and off the functionality of starburst amacrine cells — retinal cells that release neurotransmitters — and discovered that blocking them stopped the retinal waves from flowing, which hindered the mouse from developing the ability to react to visual motion upon birth. These cells are also important to an adult mouse, affecting how it reacts to environmental stimuli.
Graphic showing the origin and functionality of directional retinal waves.Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
What about human babies?
While the study focused on mice, human babies also seem to be able to identify objects and motion right after birth. This suggests the presence of a similar phenomenon in babies before they are born.
"These brain circuits are self-organized at birth and some of the early teaching is already done," Crair stated. "It's like dreaming about what you are going to see before you even open your eyes."