Improv for Scientists

Science has serious PR problems, and at their root are scientists themselves! We scientists often don’t know how to communicate with non-scientists without a whole lot of jargon and obscure words. Brevity is also difficult for many of us, so the art of effective sound bites and elevator pitches remains a mystery. Yet, those of us who go into academia are, despite first impressions, passionate people. We are in love with ideas, with teasing apart mysteries. So, we have the potential to be incredibly powerful advocates for science, translating the knowledge we generate in our labs into real world applications. If only we could stop putting our audiences to sleep…

Then, along comes Alan Alda, who for decades has been a curious, charming, and enthusiastic advocate for the popularization of science. He excels at translating how fascinating science can be to a wide audience. I just discovered that he founded The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science back in 2009. The Center teaches scientists media communication skills and how to boil down your research findings into understandable take-home messages and engaging stories. And he teaches them improv! Perhaps this is some of the most important work the Center does, because improv allows scientists to practice being present and telling a human story. Here is a clip of what improv for scientists looks like.

Picture taken from http://www.centerforcommunicatingscience.org/improvisation-for-scientists/

Thank you, Mr. Alda. If you can cultivate and empower even a few scientists to communicate more effectively and compellingly, the positive impact of our research could reach a whole new level.

Can Digital Mental Health Tools Save Psychology?

After decades of research on mental health treatments for conditions ranging from schizophrenia to depression, from anxiety to autism, our track record remains poor. For example, anxiety disorders alone will affect over 90 million people in the lifetime – in the U.S. alone. That’s approaching a third of our population. Yet, only a small fraction of us receive effective, long-lasting treatment. Thus, while we mental health professionals do much good and have some excellent, evidence-based treatments, we also know that, on balance, we are far from doing enough. We are failing.

I believe that there are many reasons for this failure. Psychological disorders are incredibly complex, with diverse and wide-ranging causes and manifestations that vary extremely from person to person. So we have an unbelievably tough problem to solve. But in addition, I believe that there is a two-part “recipe for disaster” that has put up additional barriers to the development of effective treatments:

  1. The stigma of mental illness
  2. Professionals minimize the importance of making treatments acceptable to the individual

The Stigma of Mental Illness

If you type “stigma definition” into Google, here is what comes up:

noun: stigma; plural noun: stigmata; plural noun: stigmas

  1. a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.

“the stigma of mental disorder”

synonyms: shamedisgracedishonorignominyopprobriumhumiliation, (bad) reputation
antonyms: honorcredit

It is no coincidence that mental illness is the paradigmatic example given by the dictionary. It is one of the most pervasive and persistent of the social stigmas. If we think about other sources of stigma – like the stigma suffered by those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the 80’s and 90’s and beyond – the stigma of mental illness is especially striking because mental illness is not contagious. But we fear it as if it were. The mentally ill are NOT more likely to commit violence, and yet, this is what many people fear. Take the media frenzy following the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy as an example of this type of assumption.

As long as mental illness remains a sign of disgrace and dishonor, people will avoid seeking professional help because it makes them feel broken – perhaps beyond repair.

Professionals Minimize the Importance of Making Treatments Acceptable to the Individual

There is another issue exacerbating the barrier represented by the stigma of mental illness. This barrier is that we scientists and practitioners, in our education, are socialized away from figuring out how to provide individuals with services they need in a way that they want – something that is obvious to any product- or service-oriented industry. Instead, we are taught to believe that we know best because we use the tools of science to develop the most efficacious treatments. The implicit narrative is: “We are the experts! We have figured out the best “medicine” for you, now take it!” This arrogance often keeps us from seeing that if we develop treatments that are too onerous or if treatments are embedded in a culture of disgrace and stigma, then we have failed to solve the problem. We have failed to meet “consumer needs.”

This is of course an overstatement and many mental health professionals actively fight against these attitudes. But there is a grain of truth here. Anyone on either side of the mental health fence – both professionals and patients – is familiar with this feeling, whether it’s acknowledged or swept under the rug.

How Digital Mental Health Tools Can Disrupt Stigma and Increase Acceptability of Treatmentspersonal zen achievement

In addition to breaking down barriers to effective, affordable, and accessible mental health treatment, I believe that digital – in particular mobile – mental health tools can be harnessed to have profound and lasting disruptive effects on the stigma of mental illness and on our failure to make acceptability of treatments a top priority. Here are five ways I believe digital mental health tools might just save Psychology:

If treatments are administered on a device, they are normalized 

If we are successful in attempts to embed evidence-based treatments into mobile and gamified formats, I believe we can profoundly reduce the experience of and appearance of stigma. Devices have become our filters of information, our gateways to the world, sources of fun, and our hubs of connection. The actions we perform on our devices, by association, feel more “normal,” more connected to every aspect of our lives and to others. This creates a process of validation rather than shaming. By putting mental health treatments on devices, we might just be normalizing these treatments and creating positive emotional contagion – treatments become “good” by association with the devices we love. And if we gamify interventions, these effects could be strengthened even further.

Self-curating our mental health

With digital mental health tools, accessibility is exponentially increased. For example, with mobile mental health apps, you have affordable help “in the palm of your hand.” This ability to curate creates a sense of empowerment. This is “self-help” in a very real sense. With this high level of accessibility and empowerment, many of us will avail ourselves of interventions to reduce negative experiences and states.  In addition, with the proliferation of digital tools to PROMOTE positive outcomes and to reach our fullest potential, we may find on the societal level that this positive focus is just as helpful – if not more so – as the focus on preventing negative outcomes. This attitude of promoting the positive is an excellent antidote to stigma. Who couldn’t benefit from promoting more of what is positive about oneself and how one lives life?

Digital health technology provides powerful platforms for community building

This is readily apparent. With greater community building comes a sense of belonging and a reduction of isolation. But digital community building also provides opportunities for effective advocacy. Of course, many such groups exist, but excellent digital mental health tools with a social media component could accelerate the creation of such systems, leveraging all the power of an individual’s full social network.

The profit motive will fuel innovation and valuing of consumer perspectives

Once interventions enter the digital and mobile technology world, the accompanying consumer focus (read $$$) will force the development of consumer-oriented products. Users have power in this domain. So, if interventions are onerous, boring, or non-intuitive, people will simply not use them. User stats will do the rest – no one will put resources into a product that people won’t use. Better ones WILL be developed.

Digital mental health increases opportunities for gamification

The gamification of mental health is beginning. At this point, we are taking baby steps, since we have an absence of a strong empirical base; in other words, there is precious little research showing that computerized games have a direct, positive influence on mental illness or on the promotion of mental wellness. But we are only in the earliest, exciting stages of this revolution. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think all treatments should be computerized or gamified, nor do I think face-to-face therapy is obsolete – far from it. But I believe that if fun can be combined with powerful treatment technologies, then we can in a single step make profound progress in erasing the stigma of mental illness and creating treatments that people will truly want to use.

Connectedness and the Call of Anxiety

A study suggests that more frequent mobile phone use might make you more anxious. This could reflect the burden of constant social connectedness, or even nomophobia –  the “no-mobile-phone phobia” of losing connection. But we shouldn’t forget that this is a clear chicken and the egg question….. Are devices making us anxious, or do people who are already anxious just use devices more frequently?

 

 

The Medium is the Message: On Mindfulness and Digital Mirrors

I recently had the pleasure of doing a talk-back with Congressman Tim Ryan on the role of mindfulness – focusing your awareness on the present moment – in education, as part of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave Festival in NYC. The film, called “Changing Minds at Concord High School,” followed an entire school as they took part in a mindfulness training program. This school is unique in that it is a transfer school, a last stop for many kids with a history of school failure and discipline problems. The twist here is that the students both filmed the experience and conducted a study – of their classmates! – comparing the effects of mindfulness training with that of a placebo. We also included a science curriculum on the neuroscience of mindfulness – how it can change our brains for the better. I was the lead scientist on this project, so the kids were my “research assistants.” The project was spearheaded and directed by the amazing Susan Finley and filmed by the equally inspiring Peter Barton (with the help of the students). Our outstanding scientific advisors were David Vago and Robert Roeser. There is a lot that was amazing about this project, these kids, and this film. I want to focus on just one aspect, which hinges on the phrase “The medium is the message.”

lake yoga

The medium is the message. This phrase was coined by Marshall McLuhan who put forward the idea that the “form of a medium embeds itself in the message.” That is, the medium in which we experience something influences how we perceive the take-home message. Using movies as an example, he argued that the way in which this medium presents time has transformed our view of time from something that is linear and sequential into something that reflects patterns of connection across people and places. I am obviously no film theorist, but I apply this notion to the idea that different media provide us with an array of tools that can help us create a narrative of ourselves and the world that is unique to that medium.

Film and self-identity. In the case of our film “Changing Minds at Concord High School,” I believe that one way that the medium was the message for our students was that film is able to portray individual identities as being truly flexible and changeable. I think that the teens at Concord High, many of whom have experienced tremendous challenges, stress, and obstacles in life, didn’t believe as a group that change for them was really possible. But what our program strove to do, using converging media – film, scientific readings, mind/body experiences of mindfulness – was to convince these young adults that they really could change their brains, change counterproductive habits of thinking, and find the tools to focus more and let negative feelings go. As we move on to Phase 2 of the project by refining and developing our program, we are asking the fundamental question: How can we best use these tools to teach teens to view themselves and the world differently, creating a narrative in which personal change is possible?

Our digital mirrors. I think these issues are especially important to consider now, in this era of social media and reality television in which we crave to see ourselves reflected back to ourselves. We can criticize this, and analyze this, but the fact of it borders on the irrefutable. We know that it’s easier than ever before to document our lives via pictures and videos on our mobile devices, and share them with our digital networks. And we love to do so. Social media, through which we share our images of ourselves and our lives, are an immeasurably huge and complex array of mirrors into which we can gaze at ourselves. There may be costs and benefits to this, but it simply is. The power of this, however, is that we now have a new set of tools to curate our beliefs about who we are – hopefully for the better. And perhaps we believe this evidence of who we are more strongly because it is concrete, it is documented, it receives “likes” and is seen by others and thus is real. I’m liked therefore I am.

This digital infrastructure also provides a profound opportunity for those trying to support growth and positive change in youth. If we help youth document the possibility of change – like we did in “Changing Minds at Concord High School”- they may start to believe it applies to their own lives. This is particularly important for those of us who aren’t used to feeling that the world is full of possibilities. In this way, social networking may be a medium that gives the message that change is possible and that our limitations are as fluid as the flow of information.

Are Video Games the Learning Tools They’re Cracked Up To Be?

I was just included in an interesting “Up For Discussion” feature on Zócalo Public Square about whether video games in education are all they’re cracked up to be.

http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2012/12/03/class-i-commend-you-for-your-work-on-resident-evil/ideas/up-for-discussion/

Check out the whole array of viewpoints. Here was mine:

I believe that while many people overrate the benefits of video games in education, just as many underrate them. Video games are tools like any other. Their pros and cons depend on how, why, when, and for whom the video games are used. The use of video games in education should be tailored, not off-the-rack. However, until we have more direct scientific evidence on this topic, we can only do thought experiments. For my thought experiment, I focus on how video games might influence the broader contexts of learning: relationships and motivation.

Relationships. Do video games influence the teacher-student relationship? A recent study hints at the possibility. This study compared mothers playing with their toddlers with traditional toys versus electronic versions of the same toy. Mothers playing with the electronic toys were less responsive, less likely to be educational, and less encouraging. Might the same apply to teachers and students? Could video games, because they “do the teaching” have a negative impact on a teacher’s ability and motivation to engage with students? Could video games disempower teachers?

Motivation. We use incentives all the time to motivate learning (e.g., grades), but video games may be unique in the degree to which incentives, whether points or rewards, are integral to the learning process. If the motivation for learning becomes too closely tied to these external incentives, the pleasure of learning for learning’s sake may be squelched and children may miss opportunities to appreciate that setbacks—not getting a reward—are opportunities to improve. We must think through the subtle ways in which video games can shape children’s motivation for learning and design video games to encourage the learning style we believe will be most productive.

Whether one believes that video games will lead to shorter attention spans and boredom in the classroom or that they are powerful tools for igniting a child’s passion for learning, video games will soon become a central part of the educational landscape. So, let’s figure out how to do it right.

 

Mission Impossible?: Fitting the Techno-Social Landscape of Our Lives into Neat Little Boxes

What can science really tell us about the complex roles of social media, technology, and computer-mediated communication in our social lives? It’s a question I’ve been increasingly asking myself.  As a scientist, my job is to deconstruct very complex phenomena into understandable components, put things in neat, little, over-simplified boxes so that we can actually begin to understand something in systematic, replicable ways. Don’t get me wrong. I love science and think the tools of science are still the best we have available to us. But there are also limitations to these tools.

In particular, I think we haven’t even begun to wrap our heads around how all the technologies we use to augment our social lives work together to create a unique social experience. For example, the social context of texting is very different from that of Facebook which is very different from the social context of blogging, etc,… Simply studying the number of hours a given person uses social media or some type of communication technology is not going to tell you a lot about that person’s life. A given person may be on Facebook 12 hours a week, avoid texting and talking on the phone,  listen to all their music on Spotify, troll YouTube videos  5 hours a week, video chat 12 times a week, and the list goes on. It seems to me that the experience of all these media, TOGETHER, makes up our full technosocial landscape; the gestalt of our lives.

So how do we start to understand each person’s unique profile of social technology use? One difference that could matter is that some of us are using technology that facilitates direct social connection and social networking (e.g., Facebook) whereas others are using technology that are more like digital analogs to the phone (e.g., texting). It probably also matters whether these technology augment or take the place of face-to-face interactions. There is an interesting post on the dailydoug blog that includes discussion of these kinds of differences.

I’m also starting to think it’s not so much the explicit social interactions we have via technology (e.g., commenting on someone’s status update on Facebook) but rather, it’s the degree to which we use technology to transport ourselves into a connected state of consciousness.  I actually think this applies to any technology – we probably all have used books, music, TV and other things to transport our consciousness and feel more connected to something bigger than ourselves. But in the case of mobile technology and social media, the nature of the game has changed in a fundamental way – communication is completely portable, deeply social, extremely fast, and set up in such a way that we feel “disconnected” if we don’t constantly check our devices.

So, how do we unpack the complex profiles of our technology use and the key role these technologies play in our sense of connection with others? What are the patterns? Are there patterns that are problematic or helpful in terms of making us all happier (and isn’t that the only thing that really matters?)? If a pattern is problematic, can we tweak it so that it becomes healthy? Are there optimal patterns for certain types of people? How can we take into account that while two people might both use Facebook 3 hours a day, they might respond to this experience completely differently (e.g., some people feel more depressed  after using Facebook because of all the social comparisons that make us feel lacking; many others just feel happy and more connected)? Are there certain combinations of technology use and face-to-face time that allow people to feel connected in a way that enriches without the burden of too many forms of communication to keep up with? I think technology burden is a deepening issue, and that many of us are starting to figure out the costs and benefits of our digitally-connected lives.

Why do I think this is so hard for Science to examine? Because it is very difficult to scientifically study non-linear phenomena – those processes that are not in the format of A influences B which in turn influences C. Instead, when you have individuals, each with a unique profile of technology use that makes up our social lives, along with all the subjective experiences and feelings that go along with it, you have a really interesting multi-level dynamic system. Sometimes when you deconstruct a system to understand its separate parts, you lose the whole. You know, the old, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

In answer to my question, I don’t think this is a mission impossible. But I think it’s a mission that is incredibly rich and challenging. I’m up for trying and hope that I and others can find a way to honor these complexities by finding scientifically-valid “boxes” and approaches which are good enough to hold them.