I got you on the “how to live forever” part, didn’t I? Okay, it depends on your interpretation of forever, but let’s just say “longer than you might otherwise expect,” especially when you consider your other life habits. But what does health and longevity have to do with the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania? You probably have a general idea of where I’m going with this, but pull up a chair and pour yourself a glass of (red) wine anyway. If you haven’t heard this story before, you’ll find it a cool little piece of Italian-American history.

                                    

The Roseto Effectnce upon a time in America, as long ago as the 1950s, there was a physician named Benjamin Falcone who practiced in Pennsylvania near the small towns of Bangor and Nazareth. During the 17 years he had been treating patients in the vicinity, Dr. Falcone noticed that older residents from a third nearby town, called Roseto, hardly ever needed to be seen for heart problems, even though the rate of heart attacks within the other two towns, and across the United States in general, were increasing steadily.

Could it have something to do with their relative seclusion? The inhabitants of Roseto had emigrated almost en masse from an Italian village called Roseto Valfortore, located in the province of Foggia. Hoping to escape poverty in their homeland, about 1,200 inhabitants of Roseto Valfortore had been issued passports bound for America by 1894. After they arrived, existing cultural pressures and social restrictions prevented them from scattering and melting into the local populations, so they eventually built their own community on a rather confined hillside, essentially separated from nearby English, Welsh or German immigrants. By 1912, Roseto’s population had exceeded 2,000 and it incorporated to become the first American municipality governed by Italians. By the time Dr. Falcone began to notice the extraordinary heart health of its residents, Roseto was a thriving town, accepted and even admired by neighboring Bangor and Nazareth, and served by the same doctors and hospitals.

One day, Dr. Falcone attended a local medical society talk given by a visiting physician from the University of Oklahoma, Dr. Stewart Wolf, who frequently spent summers at a nearby farm. Dr. Falcone invited Dr. Wolf out to a local pub for a beer and in the course of their conversation, mentioned the strange phenomenon he had noticed in the Roseto residents.

It was now 1961, and Wolf was intrigued enough to engage some of his colleagues from the University of Oklahoma in taking a deeper look at the Roseto effect. Along with sociologist John G. Bruhn, the research team began to compare medical histories, physical exams, and lab tests in a large sample of Rosetans—as well as the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth—hoping to find the key to the apparent health and happiness of this unusual community.

What they found stymied them. Yes, the evidence confirmed it was true that coronary heart disease and death from myocardial infarction (heart attack) was strikingly lower in Roseto than in its neighboring towns. Importantly, mental illness (including senile dementia) was also much lower: half the rate of Bangor, and only a third the rate of Nazareth. But at first, no one could understand why.

“The findings were surprising because of a greater prevalence of obesity among the Rosetans,” wrote Wolf and Bruhn in their report, published in 1979 under the title, The Roseto Story: An Anatomy of Health. “A meticulous study of dietary habits established that Rosetans ate at least as much animal fat as did the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth.” This was reflected, not only in the high obesity rates of Roseto, but also in the fact that the town’s rates of hypertension, diabetes, and measures of serum cholesterol concentration closely matched those of the other communities. Smoking and exercise habits were also similar, and the researchers were able to eliminate ethnic and genetic factors from the mix. After all, inhabitants who left Roseto to live in other communities soon became subject to the higher death rates that plagued the rest of the nation.

What, then, could explain Roseto’s strange effect? (And no, people weren’t drinking from a special communal well or making mysterious concoctions from South American miracle plants). Having already ruled out diet, exercise, genetics, and other factors that the medical community has long believed to be “risk factors” for heart disease, the researchers turned to studying the way Rosetans lived.

What they discovered was that their initial rejection by outlying communities had forced Rosetans to turn to one another for support and mutual help. Ultimately, the researchers found, the only real differences between Roseto and its neighboring communities were social ones. Roseto’s citizens enthusiastically took on the responsibility of being their neighbor’s keeper.

The researchers described the character of the townsfolk as buoyant, fun-loving, enterprising, optimistic, cohesive, and mutually supportive. “Our first sociological study of Roseto revealed that crises and problems were coped with jointly by family members with support from relatives and friends,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “Following a death in the family, interfamilial differences were forgotten, and the bereaved received food and money from relatives and friends, who at times temporarily assumed responsibility for the care of the children of the bereaved. When financial problems arose, relatives and friends rallied to the aid of the family, and in instances of abrupt, extreme financial loss the community itself assumed responsibility for helping the family.”

In addition, families weren’t secretive. Their problems were shared—and then worked out with the help of the local priest or family “pillars.” Pillars were often older single women in the community who had taken on the responsibility of aging parents and who were highly respected and valued for their role in maintaining cohesive family and community ties.

In Roseto, nearly everyone had a vital role to fulfill—whatever their age or gender. At the end of the day, they gathered together in each other’s homes, social clubs or the local diner. But the cornerstone of life in Roseto was the family. “Family traditions provide a buffer in times of crisis and a source of stability for the community,” wrote the researchers in their 1979 report.

Of course, even in Roseto life wasn’t always rosy, and a good study wouldn’t be complete without taking a look at the “outliers,” or those whose circumstances were remarkably different from the main sample. There were some who were marginalized in Roseto, either because they had no ethnic or social ties within the community or because, for whatever reason, they had been excluded or had excluded themselves from the community’s social culture. Like their neighbors in Bangor and Nazareth, these marginalized Rosetans showed a higher incidence of illness and myocardial infarction than the general population. Indeed, in one case history, a seemingly healthy “Mr. F.” commented to the researchers (five years before he died of a heart attack) that “I don’t fit in the town—I don’t live like they do—I’m not like the Rosetans.”

He was not the only marginalized inhabitant who missed out on the health benefits of living in Roseto. “Hard work and family and personal problems were common to most of them,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “In addition they emphasized self-reliance and responsibility for their own actions and hence enjoyed little or no family or community support in times of crisis.”

With these observations in hand after two years of study, it wasn’t difficult for the researchers to predict in 1963 that, “If and when Roseto’s traditional close-knit, mutually supportive social structure began to crumble . . . the town’s relative immunity to death from myocardial infarction would gradually come to an end.”

In fact, that is exactly what happened. As Roseto gradually became Americanized, adopting what the researchers called “materialistic and individualistic values,” mortality from heart attacks shot up, reaching the prevailing rate in Bangor by 1975. Unfortunately, the study didn’t follow up on mental health effects, but there is no shortage of more recent research linking mental health and well-being to social support—or indeed linking physical health to mental health.

Can materialistic and individualistic values really do so much harm to the health of a community? Isn’t independence one of the greatest gifts we can give our children?

It’s a valid question. As parents we certainly want our children to grow up knowing how to dress themselves, regulate themselves and exercise a great deal of the trait that we call “independence.” But as you consider independence in terms of community, also consider that the human brain is not only itself a mass of connections that feed the health of mind and body, but the stability of these connections is maintained and supported by reliable interconnectivity with other human brains. And contrary to the fears of some, you can’t have “too many” connections. You may not treasure them all equally, but all serve a purpose and contribute to the larger safety net that is community.

That said, I wouldn’t dream of arguing with Monty Python: “We’re all individuals! Yes, we ARE all different!” But we are individuals who, because we are human, are pro-social beings. Whether we like it or not, this makes us interdependent, and that’s not so bad—in fact, it’s actually the way of all living things.

Of course, if you prefer, you can try to do “forever” on your own . . . but the odds aren’t going to be stacked in your favor.

 

 

RELATED RESEARCH:

Humans Are Happier when They Do the Right Thing; It Also Helps Them Overcome Difficulties

June 12, 2013—Communities that stick together and do good for others cope better with crises and are happier for it, according to University of British Columbia researcher John Helliwell and colleagues. Their work suggests that part of the reason for this greater resilience is the fact that humans are more than simply social beings, they are so-called ‘pro-social‘ beings. In other words, they get happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others. The paper is published online in Springer’s Journal of Happiness Studies.”

Heart Disease Risk Linked with Spouses’ Social Support

February 6, 2014—Matters of the heart can influence actual heart health, according to new research. A study from researchers at the University of Utah shows that the ways in which your spouse is supportive—and how you support your spouse—can actually have significant bearing on your overall cardiovascular health.

People Who Are Socially Isolated Experience More Pain after Hip Replacement

October 27, 2013—Could being socially isolated affect how well you do and the amount of pain you experience after surgery? Researchers at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) set out to test this hypothesis. They found that people who lacked good social ties were much more likely to experience serious, ongoing pain following total hip replacement surgery two or more years after the procedure.

People Mean Most for our Collective Happiness

October 7, 2013—Swedish soccer star Zlatan is associated with happiness, but not iPhones. A new study at the Sahlgrenska Academy and Lund Universitysuggests that our collective picture of what makes us happy is more about relationships, and less about things.

PeopleWho Needs Them?
 Nov 2, 2011 … As much as our inner cowboy might like the idea of riding off alone into the sunset, real people cannot thrive that way.

Young father helping her daughter with her school project at homMy almost-17-year-old daughter is in China on a school trip, which prompted me to search out some of the week’s news from that country. Unfortunately, one of the first stories to cross my screen was a tragic piece that could have happened anywhere, and demonstrates how confused the public is about how to respond to problem behavior in children. A great deal of the confusion seems to center on punishment—not only on how to use it, but how to define it.

As the reporter relates the story, a security worker known as Mr. Zhang, tried to punish his daughter for academic cheating, but accidentally killed her in the process. This was not the first time the young girl had cheated in school. According to the reporter, Zhang explained that he had beaten his 11-year-old daughter because she had copied a classmate’s homework “again.” On finding out, her father was furious and “dragged her to the bicycle shed to beat her” on the evening of May 19th. Zhang says he “hung her up with a rope,” beat her legs with another rope for a short time, and left the bike shed. When he returned half an hour later, his daughter was near death. The girl was pronounced dead shortly after being brought in to the hospital. The father, “contrary to much speculation,” says the news report, loved his daughter and “spoiled her from time to time.” No specifics were offered to describe what he had done to spoil her, but perhaps we are meant to believe that the beating would not have been necessary had it not been for the spoiling. The photo accompanying the story shows Mr. Zhang prostrate on the floor, weeping over his daughter’s death.

In a strange way, I am sorry for the father. I’m sorry he was never taught more effective ways of dealing with problem behavior. But I’m much sorrier for his 11-year-old daughter. Tragic examples like these illustrate why it is so important for parents to understand how behavior change works and to consider constructive interventions and strategies as a replacement for “default technologies,” however embedded they may be in a culture. Default technologies are the “tried and survived” behavior-change tactics that worked enough of the time that they provided reinforcement for our parents (and for us) and now we believe they are the “best” ways of changing behavior. Keep in mind that we survive many things that aren’t necessarily the “best” options at our disposal. Yes, maybe you survived the era of no seatbelts . . . but many others didn’t. The fact that you survived doesn’t mean we should go back to the days when they weren’t required. Survival doesn’t prove efficacy, contrary to popular Facebook memes. People survived the Holocaust, for instance. What are we to make of that?

When we become dependent on default technologies, we become rusty at using more creative ones like reinforcement—a strategy that is surprisingly effective and doesn’t leave us open, as parents, to taking things dangerously far.This is not to say that punishment doesn’t have a place. It certainly can work, approached in the right way. But what is punishment? And how is it best used?

In its most precise sense, punishment is something that decreases the future frequency of a behavior. Positive punishment means “adding something,” while negative punishment means “taking something away.” For instance, if you walk carelessly into a dark room and stub your toe, you’re unlikely to make the same mistake again. Stubbing your toe has decreased the future frequency of walking into a dark room without turning on a light—and it’s “positive punishment” because it has added a stimulus: the stubbed toe. On the other hand, when you get a speeding ticket, you have to pay money. You lose something that you like. That’s “negative” punishment (the math kind of negative), because something has been taken away (money), and you’re going to think long and hard about speeding again. On the other hand, if you don’t blink at writing a $300 check to city hall, a ticket might not decrease your behavior. If it doesn’t, the consequence intended as a punishment is not a punisher. Rather, something else is reinforcing the behavior (probably the consequence of getting to your destination faster) and the intervention has no effect.

To avoid repetitive, ineffective attempts at punishment, it’s important for parents to clearly understand what is reinforcing the behavior we don’t want to see. Until we know how the behavior is “helping” our child, any attempt to change it is unlikely to succeed. Another key principle is that we can’t simply teach a child what not to do . . . we also have to teach him or her what to do as a replacement. Punishment works best if you are reinforcing alternate (positive) behaviors at the same time. This is a principle well demonstrated by research.

Using a child’s cheating as an example of a behavior we want to change, the first order of business would be to determine what is reinforcing the cheating behavior. If it’s simply avoidance of work, why doesn’t the child just skip the assignment? More likely, the child also wants to avoid her father’s displeasure at the bad grades that would certainly result from neglecting her homework. By copying a friend’s homework, she avoids her parent’s displeasure (because she gets a good grade on the assignment) but she also avoids doing the work. Maybe she doesn’t believe she’s capable of doing the work. Either way . . . certain consequences have been avoided. Unless, of course, her father finds out.

When he does find out, one way a parent in this position could apply positive punishment (in other words, add something to decrease future cheating), would be to require the girl to do the homework assignment over again each time she copied her classmate’s work. If one of her goals is to avoid work, this is a potentially valid punisher. But remember that punishment works best when paired with reinforcement for an alternate behavior. What alternate behavior would a parent want in this case? Well . . . they would want their daughter to do her homework without copying from a friend. One way to reinforce that would be for a parent to be present while she did the work. The parent could then monitor her progress while also being available to answer any questions she may have and offer social support as she works.

Does this seem like a “reward”? Think again. It’s positive reinforcement, which is rather different. Having a supportive parent in the room to answer questions is reinforcing the current behavior of doing the homework herself . . . not the already past behavior of copying her classmate’s homework. This kind of immediate reinforcement is especially important at the beginning stages of behavior change. But, of course, if the child receives good grades as a result of her parent’s help, the preferred behavior is going to be even further reinforced by her accomplishment, as well as by her parent’s approval.

A bonus side-effect of using a constructive behavior-change approach is that the child is more likely to trust the parent’s future responsiveness and less likely to resort to lying, sneaking around, or other problem behaviors often employed in the aim of circumventing physically painful punishments. It’s a natural, human reflex to want to avoid pain. Of course, that doesn’t make lying or cheating right. Simply “natural,” like a parent’s tendency to go further than necessary when caught up in the throes of emotion.

Why is it so tempting for parents to rely on risky default technologies when it comes to addressing children’s behavior? One reason is that we receive automatic reinforcement for using them, because they seem to work in the short term, and the short-term consequence is what we associate most strongly with our action. We may be aware of the fact that there are long-term side effects to some types of punishment—such as the potential to stir up strong, destructive emotional responses in the learner. And we may be aware of the danger in modeling undesirable behavior ourselves. But it’s not always easy to see that we have other, more effective options.

Yet we do. And it’s well worth adding some of them to our parenting repertoire.

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SEE ALSO:

Bye-Bye Boot Camp: Positive Parenting for Challenging Kids

April 1, 2014—Having children is not a prerequisite for having strong opinions about childrearing, so it’s not remarkable that when we do have children, we can be a bit defensive about our parenting style. This is true even when it seems to be working well; but what if our child’s behavior seems particularly challenging? Because we take our responsibility seriously, we may focus on who or what is to blame, rather than on what we can do to improve the situation. We may even wonder whether it can be improved. Is a noncompliant toddler doomed to become a challenging adolescent? Worse, if we have a defiant teenager—one who refuses to comply with requests or follow rules of conduct—do we have any real chance of producing the result we want for him or her?
(Full story . . . )

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MOM PSYCH RECOMMENDS:

You Just Broke Your Child, Congratulations

To Build (or Break) a Child’s Spirit

Sister and brother stick out tongues to each otherI don’t care how perfect you are as a parent, there are going to be some occasions when your children squabble. This is why Erma Bombeck’s timeless wisdom resonates: “Never have more children than you have car windows.” But as this warning also suggests, with a little mindful planning, parents can influence—to a great degree—how well children get along.

Most parents do try to encourage good relationships among their children, but even so, some siblings seem incapable of spending even a civil second in one another’s company, and there may not be clear reasons for this at first. If this describes your family, it’s worth considering that some of the following unconscious habits might be undermining your efforts.

1. Playing Favorites

When parents are surveyed on the subject of favoritism, nearly all respondents say that despite their best efforts to the contrary, they have favored one child over another at least occasionally. They also typically admit that they know favoritism is hurtful to children and that they try to avoid it as much as possible—and there’s good reason to do so. Unfavored children are vulnerable to depression and aggressive behaviors, and a reduced sense of self-worth and social responsibility. But favored children also suffer from harmful effects. They may feel empathy, or even guilt, for the “underprivileged” sibling’s experiences; or feel the loss of what might otherwise have been a close sibling relationship. Of course, just because parents may treat children differently does not mean their actions are necessarily “preferential.” But when differential treatment is necessary, it helps for parents to explain why it’s necessary.

2. Viewing sibling conflict as “normal” preparation for “real life.

Many harmful stereotypes could cloud parents’ understanding of the boundary between healthy and unhealthy sibling relationships, but this may be the worst offender. It’s true that children can learn a great deal about how to resolve conflict as they interact with their brothers and sisters, but the necessary skills are not automatically absorbed. Without clear boundaries and parental intervention, “ordinary” conflict can develop into chronic aggression, which in turn can escalate into violence. It may not always be easy for parents to recognize the line between normal developmental conflict and abuse, but researcher and psychologist John Caffaro offers a helpful guideline: “Violent sibling conflict is a repeated pattern of physical or psychological aggression with the intent to inflict harm and motivated by the need for power and control,” he says, noting that psychological attacks are frequently at the core. “‘Teasing’ often precedes physical violence and may include ridiculing, insulting, threatening, and terrorizing as well as destroying a sibling’s personal property.” Often one sibling (not always the oldest or biggest) consistently dominates in these conflicts, and the weaker or more passive child, having failed at all attempts to stand up to the aggression, will cease to resist in what researchers call “learned helplessness.” A common manipulative tactic among children is to say, “I won’t play with you if you don’t . . . [fill-in-the-blank].” This is not harmless teasing, says researcher Laurie Kramer. Rather, it’s full-fledged bullying.

Bullying perpetrated by brothers or sisters can be considerably more traumatic to children than peer bullying, because it occurs within the home on an ongoing basis and there is often no way of escape—and very little respite—for the sibling on the receiving end.

3. Tolerating conflict as a normal part of the general family atmosphere.

A retired professor of social sciences at Swansea University in Wales, Robert Sanders has extensive experience in working with children and families. In his 2004 book on the subject of sibling relationships, he summarizes that“factors such as the child’s temperament, the level of positivity in the relationship between the parent and children, differential negativity in the relationship that the parent(s) has with the children, and the level of conflict between the parents, all combine to influence the quality of the relationship between siblings, which may prove quite consistent over time between middle childhood and early adolescence.” While all these factors could, in theory, be modified, often they are not: patterns of behavior in dysfunctional families tend to persist unless someone or something becomes a catalyst for change.

4. Believing that it’s enough to discourage negative interactions between siblings.

Just because children don’t lash out at one another doesn’t mean they feel warmth in their relationship—and it’s the degree of warm feelings rather than the absence of negative ones that predicts children’s well being. This isn’t to say that children who feel warmth toward one another will never experience conflict, of course; but the goal for parents is to help children increase their ability to resolve conflict reasonably quickly and restore an atmosphere of active support. This may require parents to change their expectations: instead of brushing off hitting, name-calling and shunning as harmless behaviors, parents ideally would make it clear that they expect their children to treat each other with warmth and affection, and would reward such behavior when it occurs spontaneously. Positive reinforcement works wonders.

5. Neglecting to talk to kids about the “bonus benefits” offered by good sibling relationships.

Sibling relationships are likely to be the most enduring they will have in their lifetime. Like our parents, siblings are party to our early experiences, but barring unnatural death, they are likely to remain part of our lives much longer, outliving parents by 20 years or more. In addition, if siblings share both parents with us, we will typically have about 50 percent of our DNA in common. That means they are genetically more like us than anyone else on earth other than our parents. Considering that these relationships can contribute tremendously to the stores of resilience that will help carry us through the adverse events that are an inevitable part of life, it makes sense to ensure that they are as supportive and nurturing as possible.

With these 5 considerations in mind, what do you think the chances are that the siblings in this video will grow up to have close, supportive relationships in adulthood?

daylight savings timeI was going to write a post about Daylight Saving Time yesterday, but I was feeling very draggy for some reason. It couldn’t have anything to do with that tiny little nudge forward of the clock’s hour hand Sunday morning, could it? One measly hour out of my life, taken from the middle of a weekend. How much damage could that possibly do?

Turns out, the damage potential is pretty impressive. “People often feel draggy the day after they have to set their clocks forward in the spring but often shrug off that feeling as trivial,” says Erik Herzog, PhD, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis who studies biological clocks. “In fact,” he says, “jamming our biological clocks into reverse, as daylight saving time does, has serious consequences.” (Aha! I knew it!)

“Daylight saving time does not seem to help conserve energy, one of its original goals. Instead, the evidence is that the one hour advance of our wall clocks each spring is associated with statistically higher rates of traffic accidents over the following three days and heart attacks over the following two days,” Herzog says.DaylightSavingsTimeSm

You’ll want to check out Herzog’s research on his Washington University website, because Daylight Saving Time is only one of the ways we knock our circadian rhythms out of kilter.

In June of 2013 Herzog published research in the journal Neuron reporting the discovery of a crucial part of the biological clock: the wiring that sets its accuracy to within a few minutes out of the 1440 minutes per day.  Two networks (VIP and GABA), they have found, ensure the clock runs as a coordinated, precise timepiece but one that can still adjust its timing to synchronize with the environment.

“We think the neurotransmitter network is there to introduce enough jitter into the system to allow the neurons to resynchronize when environmental cues change, as they do with the seasons,” Herzog said. However, he explains, “since this biological ‘reset button’ evolved long before mechanical clocks, Elderly Navajo Womanartificial lights, and high-speed travel, it doesn’t introduce enough jitter to allow us to adjust quickly to the extreme time shifts of modern life, such as flying ‘backward’ (east) through several time zones.”

Understanding this system is important for understanding the health effects of messing with the body clock: in terms of daylight saving times, shift work, school starting times, medical intern schedules, truck driver hours, and many other areas where we attempt to push the body’s clock beyond its natural limits.

And as serious as heart attacks and traffic accidents are, researchers have also found that disruptions to the body clock caused by shift work contribute to obesity, and the World Health Organization lists shift work as a potential carcinogen.

It’s beginning to look as though feeling draggy is the least of my worries. It’s almost enough to make me consider moving to Arizona. But then . . . there must be research into the health effects of extreme heat, tarantulas and scorpions. I could look it up, but I think I’d rather take a nap.

OR, What Will Autism Be Like in 100 Years?

MileyCyrusI’ll confess: I didn’t come up with either of these titles on my own. They were simply two of the choices I was given by Hubspot’s new Blog Topic Generator Tool, which was unveiled to me (and presumably to many others) in an email last Thursday.  “Give us three nouns,” promised everyone’s favorite inbound marketing platform, “and we’ll give you a week’s worth of blog post titles in a matter of seconds.” (I’m paraphrasing, somewhat.) I gave them “autism,” “personality,” and “parenting.” At the end of this post you’ll find a screenshot of the other options I could have chosen. I’m sure you’ll agree I made the right choice.

Of course, as behooves any marketing guru, Hubspot does offer a fabulous disclaimer: “Our algorithm isn’t perfect,” they write. “After you have your titles, you may want to tweak them to be more relevant to your terms and grammatically correct.” To be honest, I wasn’t all that keen about tweaking (notice I didn’t say “twerking,” although you wouldn’t want to see me do that either).  

Rather, I chose to stick to what I was assigned, finding it very personally compelling. If only I had a snowball’s chance in Florida of coming anywhere close to living up to it, given that these subjects deserve serious treatment. At least, the subject of autism does, so that’s where our attention will be focused.  Forgive me, Hannah Montana fans, but I don’t think there are any connections to be made between the following recent autism studies and Miley Cyrus, although you’re welcome to challenge me in a comment if you feel otherwise. Nevertheless, I’m sure there are many Miley Cyrus fans who would appreciate a better understanding of autism, so welcome. Let’s start with these recent research reports:

1. Study Reveals Senses of Sight and Sound Separated in Children with Autism

January 14, 2014—Like watching a foreign movie that was badly dubbed, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have trouble integrating simultaneous information from their eyes and their ears, according to a Vanderbilt study published today in The Journal of Neuroscience.

2. Hospital-Diagnosed Maternal Infections Linked to Increased Autism Risk

December 23, 2013—Hospital-diagnosed maternal bacterial infections during pregnancy were associated with an increased risk of autism spectrum disorders in children, according to a Kaiser Permanente study published Dec. 23 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
(Full story . . . )

3. Probiotic Therapy Alleviates Some Autism-like Behaviors in Mice

December 5, 2013—Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is diagnosed when individuals exhibit characteristic behaviors that include repetitive actions, decreased social interactions, and impaired communication. Curiously, many individuals with ASD also suffer from gastrointestinal (GI) issues, such as abdominal cramps and constipation.
(Full story . . . )

4. Video Could Transform How Schools Serve Teens with Autism

October 17, 2013—Video-based teaching helps teens with autism learn important social skills, and the method eventually could be used widely by schools with limited resources, a Michigan State University researcher says.
(Full story . . . )

5. Study Provides Clues about Imitation or “Empathy Impairments” in Autistic Children

September 30, 2013—Researchers say it’s clear that some cases of autism are hereditary, but have struggled to draw direct links between the condition and particular genes. Now a team at the Johns Hopkins University School of MedicineTel Aviv University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology has devised a process for connecting a suspect gene to its function in autism.
(Full story . . . )

6. Researchers Discover a Potential Cause of Autism

CHAPEL HILL, NC; August 28, 2013—Key enzymes are found to have a ‘profound effect’ across dozens of genes linked to autism, the insight could help illuminate environmental factors behind autism spectrum disorder and contribute to a unified theory of how the disorder develops. This represents a significant advance in the hunt for environmental factors behind autism and lends new insights into the disorder’s genetic causes.
(Full story . . . )

7. Autistic Children Can Outgrow Difficulty Understanding Visual Cues and Sounds

BRONX, NY; August 28, 2013—Scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have shown that high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) children appear to outgrow a critical social communication disability. Younger children with ASD have trouble integrating the auditory and visual cues associated with speech, but the researchers found that the problem clears up in adolescence. The study was published today in the online edition of the journal Cerebral Cortex.
(Full story with video . . . )

8. Autistic Kids Who Best Peers at Math Show Different Brain Organization

STANFORD, CA; August 16, 2013—Children with autism and average IQs consistently demonstrated superior math skills compared with nonautistic children in the same IQ range, according to a study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.(Full story . . . )

9. Making the Brain Attend to Faces in Autism

A new study in Biological Psychiatry explores the influence of oxytocin

Philadelphia, PA; August 15, 2013Difficulty in registering and responding to the facial expressions of other people is a hallmark of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Relatedly, functional imaging studies have shown that individuals with ASD display altered brain activations when processing facial images. The hormone oxytocin plays a vital role in the social interactions of both animals and humans. In fact, multiple studies conducted with healthy volunteers have provided evidence for beneficial effects of oxytocin in terms of increased trust, improved emotion recognition, and preference for social stimuli.
(Full story . . . )

10. Elevated Gluten Antibodies Found in Children with Autism: But No Link to Celiac Disease

NEW YORK; June 20, 2013—Researchers have found elevated antibodies to gluten proteins of wheat in children with autism in comparison to those without autism. The results also indicated an association between the elevated antibodies and the presence of gastrointestinal symptoms in the affected children. They did not find any connection, however, between the elevated antibodies and celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder known to be triggered by gluten.
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And yes, here’s a screenshot to prove that I did not make this up. (PS: I’ll let you know in my next post whether Hubspot is correct in its assessment that all you have to do is mention a celebrity to get people to read your blog):

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research-the science of gratitudeThere are so many things I love about Autumn days—and yes, we get them even in Southern California. A crispy edge to the air; pumpkins, cranberries and turkeys, falling leaves drifting by the window —(to borrow a little poetic imagery from Nat King Cole)—and of course, all the Facebook posts from friends who are counting down the days of November with reasons to be thankful.

Some of my friends have momentous events to be thankful for: the birth of a child, an engagement, a championship trophy. Some may seem less earth-shattering. “Today, I’m thankful that, for the first time in many years, I will be hosting Thanksgiving,” wrote one friend. “I’m thankful it’s going to be a short school week for my son,” wrote another. These two friends in particular have proven resilient through some difficult times over the years, and it struck me that they both took the time to express gratitude for some deceptively simple things. Could their “attitude of gratitude” be part of the reason for their resilience?

Knowing all my friends, I’m certain that their expressions of gratitude come from the heart and are voiced without the anticipation of payback. But in actual fact, the simple act of taking time to reflect on whatever we have to be grateful for does pay dividends, say researchers, no matter how great or small our gifts.

What kinds of dividends?

Beginning with the big picture, several studies point to gratitude as being an overall key to happiness. One way gratitude contributes to happiness is by strengthening our relationships with family and friends, not only because of the positive feelings we evoke in them when we thank them—but also because of the pleasure we feel when we make others feel appreciated. At the same time, however, we increase the degree of responsibility we feel for their future welfare which may make us more invested in strengthening the relationship further. This is good for our brain in all kinds of ways. We’re social beings, and the stronger our relationships, the happier we are in general. But there are also more specific ways gratitude pays us back.

Robert A. Emmons of the University of California-Davis and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami are two of many researchers around the world who focus on the effects of gratitude. In a 2003 study, they looked at how gratitude affects well-being by comparing three randomly assigned groups of subjects over nine weeks. Each group had a different assignment: one was to report on five things they were grateful for in their lives. The second were to report on negative aspects: irritating or annoying events. The third  were simply to report on any events that “had an impact.”

As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, the “gratitude” group ended up with the most positive outcomes, both physically and psychologically. They had fewer symptoms of illness, spent more time exercising, reported higher levels of positive emotions, more sleep, better sleep quality, greater optimism and a greater sense of interpersonal connection than those in the other two groups. They also were more likely to have helped someone, or to have offered emotional support to others. A few years later, Emmons conducted a similar study with recipients of donated organs. Those patients who kept “gratitude journals” scored higher on measures of mental health, general health and overall vitality than those who simply kept routine notes about daily events.

Like Emmons and McCullough, researchers Giacomo Bono and Jeffrey J. Froh have also focused on gratitude, particularly in children and teens. (Their new book, Making Grateful Kids, is due out in February 2014. Stay tuned, I fully intend to review it here.) In research they presented at meetings of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2012, Bono and Froh found that “grateful teens are more likely than their less grateful peers to be happy, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and less likely to have behavior problems at school.” Fortunately, say the researchers, if your teen isn’t yet up to snuff on the gratitude scale, never fear. This is a habit that can be developed.

This is good news, especially in light of Todd Kashdan’s 2009 study suggesting that men tend to have a more difficult time feeling and expressing gratitude than women.  Men tend to feel more burden and obligation when presented with gifts . . . and as a result, less gratitude, he found. This was especially true when the gift came from another man. “The way we get socialized as children affects what we do with our emotions as adults,” says Kashdan. “Because men are generally taught to control and conceal their softer emotions, this may be limiting their well-being.”

Whatever your gender, if you’re up for change in mental or physical well-being, you could do worse than to try the same exercise used in much of the above research: journal about the things in your life that you can feel grateful for. Even if you can only come up with five things a week, you stand a chance of improving your outlook. Of course, as you become adept at noticing more of the “little things,” like my two Facebook friends, you may be able to come up with far more than that.

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For more about the science of gratitude, you might want to check out these researchers whose work appears in recent journal issues from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology:

David DeSteno, Northeastern University

DeSteno’s work shows the social benefits of feeling gratitude: how it makes us more resilient, how it makes us more honest and cooperative, how it alters our financial decisions such that we favor the greater good, and how it makes us “pay virtue forward” without even knowing it.

Naomi Eisenberger, UCLA

Eisenberger’s work focuses on measuring gene expression and using brain scanning to examine some of the biological and neurological effects of being grateful.

5MythsA friend of mine recently pointed out that media articles promoting Bullying Prevention Month seem to focus on the effects of bullying more often than strategies for prevention. I had to admit she had a point, so I immediately went off to write an article that focused on prevention in her honor.

This isn’t it.

You knew that though, because you clicked on a link titled “5 Myths about Bullying.” And frankly, I have to say it was pretty brilliant of you to do it. After all, you can’t actually prevent something until you can recognize it, right? So before I give you a link to the article on Bullying Prevention, let’s be as sure as we can about what the behavior we’re trying to prevent looks like. We’ll start by defining bullying. This is not as easy you might think.

A Google search will turn up a range of definitions for the term bullying, but the definition most commonly accepted by researchers amounts to: persistent aggressive behavior that often involves a power imbalance and intention to harm. It sounds simple enough on the surface, but it becomes complicated quickly because the power imbalance may be real or perceived, intentions may not always be clear, and harm may be physical or emotional. The key part of the definition is actually the presence of recurring aggressive behavior. Without considering a pattern of behavior, everyone could be considered a bully: we’ve all caused interpersonal harm to someone at some time in our lives.

No doubt we each have slightly different images in mind of a “typical” bully. One of the most common stereotypes in the media is that of a big bruiser of a schoolboy physically threatening a smaller child—perhaps stealing his lunch money or harassing him on the playground. Another stereotype, usually assigned to girls, consists of a group whispering about an ostracized classmate. Both are valid representations of bullying behavior as far as they go, but if we are interested in making real strides toward bullying prevention, we need to dispel some of the myths that restrict our thinking. I chose five, so this obviously isn’t an exhaustive list, but it offers some of the most fundamental misconceptions. If you’d like to bring up others, by all means, please add yours as a comment below.

Myth #1:  Bullying is mainly a childhood or teen issue taking place in the context of school.

People bully others in all kinds of settings at all ages. At home, at school, in the workplace, and online, bullies can be found among every age group. In fact, those who bully in one context also tend to have problems in their other relationships. They may bully online, and may have displayed similarly aggressive behaviors in preschool years at home among siblings or playmates. After high school, they may move on to bullying coworkers, intimate partners and/or children.

Different forms of bullying may carry one or two unique characteristics, but in the main, say researchers, bullies display relational aggression and in some cases, deficits in social problem-solving skills. This does not mean bullies are always loners, bereft of social skills. In fact, says University of Warwick researcher Dieter Wolke, when you look at relational bullying, for instance, certain social skills actually increase a bully’s capacity for harm. “Spreading rumors, excluding someone—these require that you know how to hurt someone without actually physically attacking them.” In some cases, otherwise socially engaged and/or self-righteous people may simply have learned to view the use of superiority or the degradation of others as acceptable forms of enforcing their will: perhaps after observing such behaviors at home, or through having themselves been victims of peer bullying.

Myth #2: Bullying is a harmless and necessary part of growing up. Kids will be kids, and they need to learn how to deal with life in the “real world.”

The best way for kids to learn how to deal with life “in the real world” is to be taught appropriate behavior toward others. While it’s certain we will each encounter bullies at various points in our lives, bystanders (whether adults or peers) should always intervene in bullying. Research finds that doing so does make a difference. Children can (and should) be taught prosocial skills whether they interact on a bus, a playground, at school, or online. As we are about to see, bullying is far from harmless and can impede, rather than encourage, the process of growing up.

Myth #3:  The effects of bullying are confined to its victims.

Those who are bullied indeed suffer, not only effects such as higher rates of incarceration and problems with health, poverty, and social relationships, but as one recent study found, “being bullied during childhood directly increases the likelihood of self-harm in late adolescence.” And the effects of social bullying in particular can linger long into adulthood in the form of mental health issues such as suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression.

But bullying impacts everyone involved: including the bullies themselves and those bystanders who witness the behavior. As bystanders learn which behaviors are tolerated in their community, they may emulate the bully—or they may run the risk of falling prey to others who do. Bully victims who go on to become bullies themselves tend to end up with higher levels of all anxiety and depressive disorders, plus the highest levels of suicidal thoughts, depressive disorders, generalized anxiety and panic disorder. But even pure bullies, who tend to suffer relatively few consequences compared to their victims, are also at increased risk for some mental health issues, such as psychotic experiences and even antisocial personality disorder—a finding that held even after researchers controlled for other factors.

Myth #4: Cyberbullying is not “as bad” as face-to-face bullying.

It can be difficult to parse out the effects of cyberbullying and face-to-face bullying. As much as 90 percent of those who are cyberbullied are also bullied face-to-face: digital communication is simply one more tool in the bully’s arsenal. In some cases, says Wolke, cyberbullying offers the victim a chance to fight back that they may not have when face-to-face. But cyberbullying can be extremely stressful and may actually be worse than face-to-face bullying in other circumstances. Researchers have found that the degree of stress is much higher when humiliating photographs or videos are involved, since these materials can be proliferated across the Internet to an almost unlimited audience.

It’s true, of course, that a cyberbully may believe his or her actions are less hurtful than those of a schoolyard or workplace bully. However, this is a dangerous myth. All forms of bullying can cause intense emotional harm. It can be argued that traditional power imbalances (such as size and popularity) don’t exist in cyberbullying, but there are “non-traditional” or perceived power imbalances at work online that are not immediately obvious. For instance, when someone posts degrading or humiliating comments or photos about another person, the poster is often the only one with the power to remove them from public view. Depending on where and how the attack is posted, a victim may not even have access to a platform for responding, an imbalance of power that can impose a pervasive sense of helplessness and humiliation.

Myth #5: If we can define bullying precisely, it will be easy to recognize and address.

In a 2004 study published in the journal Children and Schools, researcher Faye Mishna found that even when children and adults agreed on a definition, they did not necessarily categorize the same incidents as bullying. One reason for this was that parents often did not see power imbalances or intention to hurt where children did, particularly in situations where bullying occurred among children that the adults considered to be friends and equals.

Mishna offers the example of one father describing a situation in which his daughter was bullied by friends. He and his wife struggled (in his words) “to get a sense of is it 50/50, or is it more your fault or more their fault?'” Another mother  wondered whether her daughter was really being bullied or whether the behavior could simply be considered ‘typical’ conflict.’  Was her friend being manipulative, or was it simply ‘an age thing” to attempt to control another child by threatening not to be her friend anymore?

Threatening to dissolve a friendship in an effort to control a playmate should not be considered harmless. It’s relational aggression, says University of Illinois researcher Laurie Kramer. “It’s very common and I think it happens because one child is essentially saying, ‘I’m frustrated that you don’t see the world the way I do, and that you don’t want to do what I want to do.’ It comes back to that lesson about perspective-taking and being willing to accept the other person’s feelings as valid, particularly when those feelings are different from their own. And there are ways to help kids learn how to have those conversations.” But adults won’t be having these conversations with children if they suffer under the misconception that kids should simply be left to work out their problems on their own.

Clearly this takes us back to Myth #2—and maybe even to the fundamental issue underlying bullying. The inescapable truth is that If children aren’t taught positive conflict resolution skills, leaving them to “work it out” is not going to magically endow them with the hoped-for “Aha!” moment. Unwanted behaviors that aren’t addressed can become habitual. That’s when they begin to slide from the category of “conflict” to “bullying.”

With these concepts in mind, where do we begin a strategy for bullying prevention? It would seem that laying the groundwork for prevention in workplaces, schools, and other institutions calls for creating a culture that refuses to tolerate aggressive behavior. But of course, there’s a level that’s even more fundamental than schoolrooms and workplaces.

Okay, you get the link to the prevention article now. There, that didn’t take long, did it? We still have two weeks left in Bullying Prevention Month:

Bullying Prevention Begins at Home

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