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David Goggins
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Bryan Cranston
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Liv Boeree
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Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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What causes poverty? Not a lack of money, but a lack of social relationships.

There's a lot missing from debates and policy surrounding poverty but the biggest deficit, according to Dr C. Nicole Mason, is in honesty. Impoverished people aren't poor because they're lazy, they're poor because social mobility is institutionally suppressed.

C. Nicole Mason: We’re not talking honestly about what it really takes to get from poverty to the middle class. So, for example, we know that only four percent of people who are born into poverty will ever make it to the upper middle class or to, you know, have middle class success. And so what that means is that 96 percent of people are not making it out. And I think we’re being dishonest when we say everybody has a fair and equal chance of achieving the American Dream. So it wasn’t until college that I figured out that I was poor. I hadn’t – before then I had no context for what it meant to have less than other people who lived around me or across town. And I certainly didn’t know that I was outside of what was considered the middle class. And the first time that I heard about people living in poverty was in a political science class. In there we were talking about welfare policies. And one of the big policies at the time was welfare reform. And the debate was raging about what should be done and a lot of the conversation was up here and really detached from the women and families that were going to be directly impacted by the policy.

So we heard a lot of things about welfare queens, people living off the system, not wanting to work, women being lazy, having multiple children. And that really wasn’t the reality for the women who were actually impoverished. And so when we look at the kind of policies that result – the kind of policy, the welfare reform policy that we got on the other end we got a policy that said well, you can’t – if you don’t work you can’t receive benefits. And you have time limits. And if you have another child you’re penalized. Those policies and that restrictiveness was counter to the everyday lived experiences of the women who were actually receiving the benefits. So what was excluded from that policy was a clear pathway out of poverty like education. There missing – in the very beginning there was very few provisions for childcare and a lot of other things that we know family and women need to be able to chart a path out of poverty.

When people think of poverty they think about money and resources and cash. But a big part of poverty is the lack of social connections and social networks. And what we know is that those social networks and connections are really powerful in terms of helping people to navigate complex institutions and structures. And for poor people those social networks are often missing. And when we talk about bridging from poverty to the middle class social networks and social capital that are really important to making that leap. And so when we talk about what can institutions and leaders do to support that it’s really important to make sure that children and people in low income neighborhoods have ample access to bridge opportunities meaning opportunities outside of their community, that they’re engaged in programs not only within their community but outside of their community that connect them to people outside of their normal social network. What we need to do is be working together across class, across race and across all these markers of difference to figure out what are the connections? How might we support one another? And looking at the richness of what each of us bring to the table as opposed to assuming there’s a deficit coming from one end.

The poor housing, the poor quality schools, the infrastructure, the lack of libraries and institutions in communities and hospitals and high unemployment. We’re not talking about how those things are barriers in and of themselves to people escaping poverty. And so when those things are absent from communities people are rightly preoccupied with securing those things. And we’re not having that conversation about what does it really look like for a community to be thriving. We know what it looks like. We’ve seen it, you know. We know that communities that have great schools, low levels of unemployment, low levels of crime, high civic engagement, great grocery stores and banks. Those communities are doing well. The people and the kids in those communities are doing well. And when those things are absent we know that the communities are not working and that people are struggling. And so we just need to be honest about what it really takes for everybody to have a fair shot at the American Dream.

Dr C. Nicole Mason was born in Los Angeles, raised by a beautiful but volatile 16-year-old single mother. Early on, she learned to navigate between an unpredictable home life and school where she excelled. Having figured out the college application process by eavesdropping on the few white kids in her predominantly Black and Latino school, and along with the help of a high school counselor, Mason eventually boarded a plane for Howard University, alone and with $200 in her pocket.


Mason found a path out of poverty – something that only 4% of America’s impoverished population are able to do. An alarming majority will never rise into the middle class, and so it seems that in the US, if you’re born poor, you stay poor. And no one is being very honest about this invisible caste system.

Mason is a vocal advocate against the presumption that the poor are poor simply because they don’t help themselves enough. "[In college] we heard a lot of things about welfare queens, people living off the system, not wanting to work, women being lazy, having multiple children. And that really wasn’t the reality for the women who were actually impoverished." Mason found that the policies were detached from reality, and in fact the barriers built into the system (some intended to motivate people) – such as time limits, additional child penalties, and few provisions for childcare – were ineffective and suppressed social mobility. "What was excluded from that policy was a clear pathway out of poverty, like education," she says.

When people think of poverty they think in terms of money and material resources, but a large part of being poor is suffering from a lack of social connections and networks, and living in a low-income area with no infrastructure that enables the leap up to the middle class.

If institutions and leaders want to support and elevate poor communities, Mason argues that they need to provide better infrastructure (like libraries, parks, good grocery stores, and hospitals) as well as bridging programs both within the community and, very importantly, outside of it, so people can get in contact with people outside of their normal social network. "We just need to be honest about what it really takes for everybody to have a fair shot at the American Dream," she says.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason's new book is Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America.

Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
  • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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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Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Videos
  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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