Seventeen years ago, a couple of criminologists at the University of Maryland published an interesting paper about the 1976 District ban on handguns — a ban that was recently overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds it was inimical to the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms to protect themselves.
The researchers employed a simple procedure: They tabulated all the suicides that had taken place in Washington between 1968 and 1987. Colin Loftin and David McDowall found that the gun ban correlated with an abrupt 25 percent decline in suicides in the city.
Loftin and McDowall, who now work at the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York, also tabulated suicide rates in Maryland and Virginia over the same period, to test whether suicide rates just happened to be declining in the entire region. There was no difference in the suicide rate in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs before and after the D.C. gun ban. The researchers also tabulated the kinds of suicide that declined in Washington: The 25 percent decline was entirely driven by a decline in firearm-related suicide.
There are many ways to read the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, but all the versions point to one core idea: Americans have the right to own guns to protect themselves against outside threats, whether the danger comes from a school shooter, a vicious mugger, a robber breaking into a house, a lawless neighborhood — even the government itself.
What the authors of the Second Amendment did not foresee, however, is that when people own a gun, they unwittingly raise their risk of getting hurt and killed — because the odds that they will one day use their gun to commit suicide are much larger than the odds they will use their gun to defend themselves against intruders, muggers and killers.
States with high rates of gun ownership — Alabama, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico — have suicide rates that are more than double the suicide rate in states with low rates of gun ownership, such as Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii and New York, said Matthew Miller, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. The difference is not because people in gun-owning states are more suicidal than people in states where fewer people own guns, but that suicide attempts in states with lots of guns produce many more completed suicides.
“The evidence is overwhelming,” said David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard. “There are a dozen case-controlled studies, all of which show the gun in the home is a risk factor for suicide for the gun owner, for the spouse, for the gun owner’s children.”
Turning a gun on ourselves, or having a family member turn a gun on someone in the household, doesn’t intuitively feel as real a risk as muggers, robbers and murderers. Given the choice between trusting our intuitions and trusting the evidence, most of us go with our gut.
If TV dramas about cops and violence were to actually depict the reality of how death and mayhem usually unfold in America, however, these are the scenarios that would stream into our homes each night: An elderly widower, lonely beyond words, shoots himself. A middle-aged executive, who has lost everything in an economic downturn, throws herself off a tall building. Two teenagers pull a Romeo-and-Juliet-style suicide as a protest against an uncaring world.
The reason we can be sure that suicide — and not assaults, break-ins, muggings, school shootings and other fatal attacks by sinister strangers — would account for most of the stories is that suicide dwarfs homicide as a killer in the United States. There were 32,637 suicides in the country in 2005, the latest year for which statistics are available. That year, the collective homicidal mayhem caused by domestic abusers, violent criminals, gang fights, drug wars, break-ins, shootouts with cops, accidental gun discharges and cold, premeditated murder produced 18,538 deaths.
Even the risk of terrorism doesn’t begin to come close to the risk of suicide.
Only a tiny fraction of the 400,000 suicide attempts that bring Americans into emergency rooms each year involve guns. But because guns are so lethal, 17,002 of all suicides in 2005 — 52 percent — involved people shooting themselves.
The grimness of these statistics repeats itself endlessly, year after year, but makes no difference to our collective fantasies and fears about violence — and the reasons millions of people buy handguns for “protection.” Muggers, robbers and gangs feel scary. Most people don’t think of themselves as potential threats — after all, doesn’t suicide happen only to the insane?
Overwhelmingly, the research suggests suicide is usually an act of impulsive desperation — an impulse that passes. Most people who survive suicide attempts do not go on to kill themselves later on. Gun owners are no more likely than non-gun-owners to be suicidal. But within the window of a mad impulse, people who have lethal means at their disposal are much more likely to kill themselves than those who lack such means.
“If you bought a gun today, I could tell you the risk of suicide to you and your family members is going to be two- to tenfold higher over the next 20 years,” Harvard’s Miller said. “There are not many things you can do to increase your risk of dying tenfold.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
From the moment news broke of another shooting, the question reverberated: why? As the tragedies continue, our collective national frustration has boiled over: Aurora, Columbine, Tucson, Virginia Tech … Why does this keep happening? Why can’t someone explain?
In the 80 interminable hours it took to get a glimpse at the suspect, a second question emerged: what was a look at James Holmes going to reveal?
When he walked into court Monday morning, one thing was immediately obvious. Something was wrong with this guy. Which was weirder, the dazed expression he wore most of the 11 minutes of the hearing, or the sudden bursts of wild eyes, matching his ridiculous orange hair?
The obvious explanation, which many viewers and commentators embraced, was that he was out of his mind or, medically speaking, undergoing some sort of psychotic break. But a minority view pushed back, and hard: the hair, the eyes, the sensational getup for the attack were a little too cute: a cold-blooded killer, playing crazy.
You will never understand this man if you leap to either of these conclusions. Do not look for a unified theory of mass murder, a single coherent drive. It doesn’t exist. Examining all the mass murderers together yields a hopeless mass of contradictions.
Forensic psychiatrists are not baffled by these tragedies. One drive will never explain them. Instead, experts have sorted them into types, which bring the crimes into remarkably clear relief. These researchers find that aside from terrorism, most of these mass murders are committed by criminals who fall into three groups: psychopaths, the delusionally insane, and the suicidally depressed. Look through these lenses, accept the differences, and some of our worst recent tragedies make more sense: Seung-Hui Cho, who shot up Virginia Tech, was delusionally insane; Dylan Klebold, at Columbine, was deeply depressed; and Eric Harris, his co-conspirator, was the psychopath.
Occasionally, there are combinations, or rare exceptions, involving brain tumors or substance abuse. The substance danger has made a resurgence with the abuse of bath salts, recently implicated in many violent crimes.
Mass murderers do share a few common traits. The best meta-study on the subject is an exhaustive report by the Secret Service in 2002, which studied all school shooters for a 26-year period. In this cohort, all the shooters were male, 81 percent warned someone overtly that they were going to do it, and a staggering 98 percent had recently experienced what they considered a significant failure or loss.
Despite this last fact, the ubiquitous question “what made him snap?” leads us astray. The Secret Service found that 93 percent planned the attack in advance. Hardly spontaneous combustion. A long, slow, chilling spiral down. Early evidence in the Aurora case suggests it fits this pattern. James Holmes apparently spent months acquiring the guns and ammunition he used, and it’s likely his descent began much earlier. What set him off down that path?
Psychopaths are the easiest to explain. They seem to be born with no capacity for empathy, a complete disregard for the suffering of others. The sadistic psychopath, a rarity, makes a cold-blooded calculation to enjoy the pain he inflicts. Killing meant nothing to Eric Harris at Columbine—humans were as disposable as fungus in a petri dish. “Just all nature, chemistry, and math,” he wrote.
Harris was witty, charming, and endearing—like most psychopaths—but he artfully masked his hate. “I hate the f–king world,” his journal begins, a year before the attack. Hate roars from every page, but it is contempt that really comes through. “You know what I hate?” he posted on his website. “People who mispronounce words, like ‘acrost,’ and ‘pacific’ for ‘specific.’ You know what I hate? The WB network!!!! Oh Jesus, Mary Mother of God Almighty, I hate that channel with all my heart and soul.” What an ordeal for him to tolerate all us inferior beings.
Harris’s burning desire was a command performance to show us how powerful he really was: “I have a goal to destroy as much as possible,” he wrote in his journal. “I want to burn the world. KILL MANKIND. no one should survive. ”
For those bandying about terms like “evil,” “bad seed,” or “born bad,” this is who you have in mind. Sadistic psychopaths are callous, vicious creatures, probably born that way, with cruelty to animals and a fascination with fire typically showing up by grade school. There is no known effective treatment or cure. It is what the otherwise eloquent Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was describing when he went briefly astray and called the Aurora killer “delusional,” “diabolical,” and “demonic.”
Can we spot these killers? Of the three types of mass killers, psychopaths leave the fewest warning signs. They are master manipulators who delight in deceit. People see them as kind, trustworthy, and endearing. But it is an elaborate ruse. Harris bragged that he deserved an Oscar for duping his parents.
Families who met with Wayne and Kathy Harris told me the Harrises realized in retrospect their boy was a psychopath, but were oblivious to that danger at the time. They knew he had anger issues, and legal run-ins; they were punishing him sternly, restricting his freedom (the surest way to infuriate a psychopath). They thought if he could find an interest or vocation in which to immerse himself, his idle hands would be out of the devil’s playground. How were they to know he was flexing his creative muscles, staging an elaborate death ritual?
Those who saw Holmes’s bizarre courtroom behavior as a calculated ploy to appear insane are describing a psychopath, also called a “sociopath” by clinicians. Psychopaths are not crazy in the sense that they don’t know what they are doing. They are hyperrational—they just don’t care about our pain. Psychopaths are remarkably like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, if you strip away the costume and theatrics. But psychopathic killers have one Achilles’ heel: they revel in glory and like to brag. Look for clues as James Holmes’s history comes to light.
While psychopaths kill for their own amusement, severe psychotics—a very different category of sufferers—are driven to slaughter to extinguish their torment.
Their agony is typically apparent to everyone. The official report on the Virginia Tech killings documented Seung-Hui Cho’s steady disintegration, beginning in third grade and reaching homicidal ideation by eighth. It listed a dozen pages of “aberrant behavior,” from “pathological shyness and isolation” to stalking women in the dorm. Cho wrote weird, angry plays for creative-writing class, which he refused to discuss. He sat silently, spurning eye contact, with his ball cap pulled down to shield his eyes.
Since the tragedy, Cho was widely diagnosed as psychotic—the clinical term for a broad spectrum of deep mental illnesses including schizophrenia and paranoia. Psychotic killers are, most commonly, suffering from schizophrenia, a disease marked by delusions, hallucinations, and loss of emotion, speech, or motivation. Schizophrenia seems genetically predetermined but generally lies dormant until the late teens or early 20s. Alleged Tucson killer Jared Lee Loughner, 22, and Reagan would-be assassin John Hinckley, 25, were both diagnosed as schizophrenics.
Severe psychotics like Cho are delusional, way out of touch with reality. And yet most who suffer from these mental illnesses, even some severely, pose no threat to anyone but themselves. So how does a mentally ill man like Cho make that awful journey to the trigger of a gun? Slowly. Days or months of planning are preceded by years of mental unraveling. As the disease sets in, the victim is typically perplexed and then distraught by the alarming thoughts ricocheting around his brain. Occasional flutters build to a chorus of angry chatter. “Schizophrenic delusions are usually grandiose and persecutory,” noted psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg explains. “There can be terror as a teen or young adult feels he is losing his mind.” Cho was a red-flag assembly line. Everyone around him could see. Cho even checked himself in for a psych evaluation.
What we fail to grasp about killers descending into this kind of illness is the fear. Picture yourself waking up this morning, coherent enough to see that yesterday you were off your rocker. Likewise, three days ago. And two days last week. In and out, but drifting deeper into what you see quite clearly as the crazy pit. Could you get help? That would require confessing. Too dangerous. If you shared what you were up to yesterday, you’d land in a padded cell, electrodes attached to your head, medications administered to obliterate your personality. No way.
Most schizophrenics survive the internal terror, but for future killers, the delusion can be a coping mechanism: I’m not losing my grasp, you people are just out to get me. Arm yourself. Oh God. Which way to point it? Me? Them? For most mass murderers, it will end up being both.
“Do you know what it feels to be spit on your face and to have trash shoved down your throat?” Cho railed in his manifesto before killing at Virginia Tech. “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul, and torched my conscience. You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people.” Cho found a way to help everyone. He would be the hero of this tragedy.
“There was pleasure in planning such a grand demonstration of ‘justice,’” wrote Roger Depue, former chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, in the official report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel. “His thought processes were so distorted that he began arguing to himself that his evil plan was actually doing good.”
These tortured minds can lurch momentarily from one extreme to the next, an exhausting ride. Ochberg explains that the flat affect tends to be rather constant, while the bizarre impulses and behavior tend to come and go in bursts. It can puzzle the untrained observer. Psychiatrists who consider Holmes, the alleged Aurora killer, psychotic, would not have been surprised to see him looking catatonic for most of his court appearance, with fits of crazy eyes. It’s unclear whether Holmes is schizophrenic, but his behavior would fit neatly with the profile if he is.
The third type of killer is the hardest to fathom. Depression, for mass murder? We’ve all tasted depression, or some version of it, so we think. But it’s not even close.
Dylan Klebold, before his rampage at Columbine, felt his soul dying. Hopeless. Helpless. Unrelenting despair. He documented it in a private journal for two years. He also left telling school essays and notorious videotapes. The wealth of information provides one of the most enlightening portraits of the depressive descent to a killing spree.
“Such a sad, desolate, lonely unsalvageable i feel I am,” Klebold confided to his journal. “not fair, NOT FAIR!!! I wanted happiness!! I never got it!!! Let’s sum up my life. the most miserable existence in the history of time.”
Other days, Klebold’s spirit soared. He dreamed of a blissful world, with himself vaguely superhuman, “this tranciever of the everything.” It’s glorious. Tranquil. Radiating with love. Klebold fills entire pages with elaborate hearts. “OH MY GOD,” he gushes between suicidal gasps, “I am almost sure I am in love. Hehehe.”
The despair returns. His writing grows erratic, fevered all-caps: “F–KIN DUM-ASS SHITHEAD…F–K!” He grows quiet, returns to his tidy penmanship to close out the entry: “No emotions. not caring. Yet another stage in this shit life. Suicide.”
A startling wake-up call came three years after Columbine. The Secret Service found that 78 percent of shooters had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts. Sixty-one percent had a documented history of extreme depression or desperation.
The difficulty is not in recognizing a problem, but its severity. An angry, moping teenage boy? That describes much of the high-school population. Dylan’s mother, Sue Klebold, wrote movingly about her experience in an essay for O Magazine in 2009: “I believed that if I loved someone as deeply as I loved him, I would know if he were in trouble.” She saw only sadness. “He did not speak of death, give away possessions, or say that the world would be better off without him.” Sue Klebold used the piece as a plea to other moms to take what appears like recurring sadness seriously. Good advice. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force estimates that 6 percent of American adolescents—2 million kids—suffer clinical depression. Most go undiagnosed.
With one quick skim of Klebold’s journal, suicide is easy to understand. But why take others with you? Murder instead of suicide comes down to whom you blame. Through much of his journal, Klebold blames himself (he talks about suicide on the very first page). Sometimes God. But slowly, gradually, he focuses the blame outward.
Most vengeful depressives blame their girlfriend, boss, or schoolmates. Some just aim to kill those targets. But the eventual mass murderer sees it differently: it wasn’t one or two mean people who drove him down, it was all of us. Society was brutal, the whole teeming world is mean. We all need to understand what we did to him; we all need to pay. “In 26.5 hours ill be dead, & in happiness,” Klebold finally wrote. “The little zombie human fags will know their errors & be forever suffering & mournful. HAHAHA.”
Two months before Columbine, he wrote a chilling short story for a creative-writing class—after Harris had already assembled the guns and some of the explosives. The story involved a single killer very much like Harris shooting down random “preps” in cold blood, with many of the same atmospherics planned for Columbine. The first-person narrator, apparently a stand-in for Klebold, is just an observer. He watches the gunman intently, and in the final moments, gets a good look and sees right into him. “I not only saw in his face, but also felt emanating from him power, complacence, closure, and godliness.” Sounds pretty appealing. Especially compared to “the most miserable existence in the history of time.”
These seem strikingly similar to Cho’s rants, but Klebold understood what he was doing. Cho had lost the ability to discern reality from fantasy. In his reality, he was helping the world. Klebold knew he wasn’t. He was just getting even.
Most mass murderers intend to die in the act. And most do. James Holmes was an exception, meaning a trial, a psychological evaluation, and answers about why it happened this time.
If Holmes is a psychopath, he probably had a ball Friday. He would have been gleeful through the months from conception to planning and attack. If he’s not a psychopath, he may have spent months or years descending into his own private hell. But which hell? Insanity or suicidal depression? Anyone who claims they can answer these questions this early is ignorant or irresponsible. But we will learn.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Donna Talarico sat at her computer one morning, stared at the screen and realized she had forgotten—again!—her password.
She was having financial difficulties at the time, and was reading self-help books to boost her mood and self-confidence. The books talked about the power of positive affirmation—which gave her an idea: She changed her various passwords to private messages to herself, like “imawe$some1″ or “dogoodworktoday.”
“It’s something so simple,” says the 34-year-old marketing manager at Elizabethtown College, in Pennsylvania. “It just reinforces that you’re a good person. You can do a good job at whatever you are trying to talk yourself into.”
In times of stress, even people with close social networks can feel utterly alone. We’re often advised to “buck up,” “talk to someone” (who is often paid to listen) or take a pill. Wouldn’t it also make sense to learn ways to comfort and be supportive of ourselves?
Think of it as becoming our own best friend, or our own personal coach, ready with the kind of encouragement and tough love that works best for us. After all, who else knows us better than ourselves? If that sounds crazy, bear in mind it sure beats turning to chocolate, alcohol or your Pekingese for support.
Experts say that to feel better you need to treat yourself kindly—this is called “self-compassion”—and focus on the positive, by being optimistic. Research shows self-compassionate people cope better with everything from a major relationship breakup to the loss of their car keys. They don’t compound their misery by beating themselves up over every unfortunate accident or mistake. Car broke down? Sure, it’s a drag, but it doesn’t make you an idiot.
“They are treating themselves like a kind friend,” says Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. “When bad things happen to a friend, you wouldn’t yell at him.”
In 15 studies conducted over the past seven years, Dr. Leary has found that self-compassionate people are happier. Three of the studies, soon to be published, examine how self-compassion affects people over age 65. The studies found that people who accepted memory lapses, arthritis and other difficulties of getting older, and who treated themselves extra nicely on tough days, reported more positive emotions and were coping better with the aging process.
Self-compassion helps people overcome life’s little, and not-so-little, stressors, such as public speaking. In another study, Dr. Leary asked people to stand in front of a videocamera and make up a story starting with the phrase, “Once there was a little bear…” Then he asked them to critique their performance, captured on videotape.
People whom the study had identified as being high in self-compassion admitted they looked silly, recognized the task wasn’t easy and joked about it. People low in self-compassion gave harsh self-criticism.
Experts say you can learn self-compassion in real time. You can train your brain to focus on the positive—even if you’re wired to see the glass as half empty. A person’s perspective, or outlook, is influenced by factors including genetic makeup (is he prone to depression?), experiences (what happened to him?) and “cognitive bias” (how does he interpret his experiences?). We can’t change our genes or our experiences, but experts say we can change the way we interpret what has happened in the past.
Everyone has an optimistic and a pessimistic circuit in their brain, says Elaine Fox, visiting research professor at the University of Oxford, England, and director of the Affective Neuroscience Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex. Fear, rooted in the amygdala, helps us identify and respond to threats and is at the root of pessimism. Optimism, in contrast, is rooted in the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure center, which responds to food, sex and other healthy, good things in life.
“The most resilient people experience a wide range of emotions, both negative and positive,” says Dr. Fox, author of “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain.” To enjoy life and feel good, people need roughly four positive emotions to counteract the effect of one negative emotion, she says. People who experience life as drudgery had two or even one positive emotion for every negative one, Dr. Fox has found.
It’s possible to change your cognitive bias by training the brain to focus more on the positive than on the negative. In the lab, Dr. Fox showed subjects pairs of images, one negative (the aftermath of a bomb blast, say) and one either positive (a cute child) or neutral (an office). Participants were asked to point out, as quickly as possible, a small target that appeared immediately after each positive or neutral image—subliminally requiring them to pay less attention to the negative images, which had no target.
Want to try this at home? Write down, in a journal, the positive and negative things that happen to you each day, whether running into an old friend or missing your bus. Try for four positives for each negative. You’ll be training your brain to look for the good even as you acknowledge the bad, Dr. Fox says.
When I asked, I was pleasantly surprised by the number and variety of ways people said they treat themselves with compassion, care and kindness. Anittah Patrick, a 35-year-old online marketing consultant in Philadelphia, celebrated her emergence from a long depression by making herself a valentine. She covered an old picture frame with lace and corks from special bottles of wine, and drew a big heart inside. Using old computer keys, she spelled out the message “Welc*me Back.” Then she put it on her dressing table, where she sees it every morning. “It’s a nice reminder that I’ll get through whatever challenge I’m facing,” she says.
If Kris Wittenberg, a 45-year-old entrepreneur from Vail, Colo., starts to feel bad, she tells herself “Stop,” and jots down something she is grateful for. She writes down at least five things at the end of each day. “You start to see how many negative thoughts you have,” she says.
Kevin Kilpatrick, 55, a college professor and children’s author in San Diego, talks to himself—silently, unless he is in the car—going over everything positive he has accomplished recently. “It helps me to hear it out loud, especially from the voice that’s usually screaming at me to do better, work harder and whatever else it wants to berate me about,” he says.
Adam Urbanski, 42, who owns a marketing firm and lives in Irvine, Calif., keeps a binder labeled “My Raving Fans” in his office. Filling it are more than 100 cards and letters from clients and business contacts thanking him for his help. “All it takes is reading a couple of them to realize that I do make a difference,” Mr. Urbanski says.
He has something he calls his “1-800-DE-FUNK line.” It’s not a real number, but a strategy he uses when he is upset. He calls a friend, vents for 60 seconds, then asks her about her problems. “It’s amazing how five minutes of working on someone else’s problems makes my own disappear,” he says. Sometimes, as a reality check, he asks himself, “What Would John Nash Think?” in honor of the mathematician, Nobel laureate and subject of the film “A Beautiful Mind,” who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
Are things really as dire as he thinks? Is he overreacting? “It always turns out that whatever keeps me down isn’t really as bad as I thought,” Mr. Urbanski says.
Here are ways to be your own best friend in stressful times.
- Instead of “pushing through” a bad day, look for ways to actively improve it. Take a small break. Get an ice-cream cone. Invite a friend out to dinner.
- Resist the urge to make your problems worse. “Ask yourself, How much of my distress is the real problem, and how much is stuff I am heaping on myself unnecessarily?” says Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.
- Boost your daily ratio of positive-to-negative emotions, says Elaine Fox, a cognitive psychologist. What do you enjoy doing? Seeing your best buddy, watching a funny movie, walking in the park? Make a list and do one a day.
- Then list things you really don’t enjoy. Are there people who bring you down? Hobbies that no longer interest you? Errands you can delegate? Some of this stuff can be avoided.
- If you don’t feel happy, fake it. You wouldn’t constantly burden a friend with your bad mood, so don’t burden yourself. Try holding a pencil horizontally in your mouth. “This activates the same muscles that create a smile, and our brain interprets this as happiness,” Dr. Fox says.
When David Eagleman was 8 years old, he went exploring. He found a house under construction — prime territory for an adventurous kid — and he climbed on the roof to check out the view. But what looked like the edge of the roof was just tar paper, and — you can feel it coming — when David stepped on it, he fell.
Whoosh … Thud.
David was fine. But between whoosh and the thud, something odd happened. As David remembers it, he noticed every detail of his surroundings: the edge of the roof moving past him, the red bricks below moving toward him. He even did a little literary analysis: “I was thinking about Alice in Wonderland, how this must be what it was like for her, when she fell down the rabbit hole.”
All of that happened in just 0.86 seconds. David knows that now because he has calculated how long it takes to fall 12 feet. David Eagleman is now Dr. Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, and one of his specialties is exploring how our brains perceive and understand time.
Several years ago, motivated in part by his childhood plunge, David started studying the way our sense of time distorts in crisis situations. He has gathered a huge number of stories from people who have survived falls, car crashes, bike accidents, etc. Everyone, he says, seems to say the same thing: “It felt like the world was moving in slow motion.”
But what is really going on? David started to think that maybe, in a crisis, the brain goes into a sort of turbo mode, processing everything at higher-than-normal-speed. If the brain were to speed up, he thought, the world would appear to slow down. This would work just like a slow-motion movie; in a slow-mo shot of a hummingbird, for example, you can see each individual wing movement in what would otherwise be just a blur.
Taking The Plunge
So David decided to craft an experiment to study this “slow-motion effect” in action. But to do that, he had to make people fear for their lives — without actually putting them in danger. His first attempt involved a field trip to Six Flags AstroWorld, an amusement park in Houston, Texas. He used his students as his subjects. “We went on all of the scariest roller coasters, and we brought all of our equipment and our stopwatches, and had a great time,” David says. “But it turns out nothing there was scary enough to induce this fear for your life that appears to be required for the slow-motion effect.”
But, after a little searching, David discovered something called SCAD diving. (SCAD stands for Suspended Catch Air Device.) It’s like bungee jumping without the bungee. Imagine being dangled by a cable about 150 feet off the ground, facing up to the sky. Then, with a little metallic click, the cable is released and you plummet backward through the air, landing in a net (hopefully) about 3 seconds later.
SCAD diving was just what David needed — it was definitely terrifying. But he also needed a way to judge whether his subjects’ brains really did go into turbo mode. So, he outfitted everybody with a small electronic device, called a perceptual chronometer, which is basically a clunky wristwatch. It flashes numbers just a little too fast to see. Under normal conditions — standing around on the ground, say — the numbers are just a blur. But David figured, if his subjects’ brains were in turbo mode, they would be able to read the numbers.
The Time Blur
The falling experience was, just as David had hoped, enough to freak out all of his subjects. “We asked everyone how scary it was, on a scale from 1 to 10,” he reports, “and everyone said 10.” And all of the subjects reported a slow-motion effect while falling: they consistently over-estimated the time it took to fall. The numbers on the perceptual chronometer? They remained an unreadable blur.
“Turns out, when you’re falling you don’t actually see in slow motion. It’s not equivalent to the way a slow-motion camera would work,” David says. “It’s something more interesting than that.”
According to David, it’s all about memory, not turbo perception. “Normally, our memories are like sieves,” he says. “We’re not writing down most of what’s passing through our system.” Think about walking down a crowded street: You see a lot of faces, street signs, all kinds of stimuli. Most of this, though, never becomes a part of your memory. But if a car suddenly swerves and heads straight for you, your memory shifts gears. Now it’s writing down everything — every cloud, every piece of dirt, every little fleeting thought, anything that might be useful.
Because of this, David believes, you accumulate a tremendous amount of memory in an unusually short amount of time. The slow-motion effect may be your brain’s way of making sense of all this extra information. “When you read that back out,” David says, “the experience feels like it must have taken a very long time.” But really, in a crisis situation, you’re getting a peek into all the pictures and smells and thoughts that usually just pass through your brain and float away, forgotten forever.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Ever since Darwin came up with the whole idea of evolution, there’s been one dominant picture of the moment we truly became human. It’s that cartoon sequence: You see a hairy ape man with a heavy brow hunched in profile. Then, bit by bit, his back uncurls and straightens until all of a sudden there is he, upright, truly a man.
Recently I’ve been thinking about this image, because I’ve decided that we somehow ended up with the wrong one — that there’s something much more fundamental to being human than our ability to stand upright.
Think, for a minute, about the beginning of your day. If the beginning of your day is anything like mine, it goes something like this:
1. About two hours before you’d actually like to be conscious the numbers on your alarm clock hit that magical combination, 6:15, and suddenly your room is filled with a sound indicating that you are doing something terribly, terribly wrong.
2. You make the alarm stop and head to the shower where you listen to the news — talking heads who fill your brain with different pictures from faraway places.
3. Then comes the problem of trying to dress yourself for work. You leaf through the hangers in your closet in search of something that might suggest competence, professionalism, a sense of purpose. You go through a lot of hangers.
4. Finally you find something, but as you’re zipping yourself up your 3-year-old comes in and decides that the closet is not in fact a closet, but a train headed for a distant locale. “We’re going to ASIA!” he screams over and over as he opens and closes the closet doors about 2,000 times.
5. You head to the coffee shop for a cup of joe, give the nice woman behind the counter $2, and stumble out the door to work.
You have been awake for approximately two hours and almost every moment in your day has been predicated not on your ability to stand upright, but on something else entirely — your completely underrated, chronically overlooked capacity for symbolic thought.
Thinking symbolically is the foundation of everything we do — we live in a symbolic world.
Symbols: Shorthand For Ideas
I know what you’re thinking: Just what is symbolic thought?
If you’re fuzzy on this, don’t feel bad. A couple of weeks ago I took a tape recorder around NPR to see if anyone could cough up a decent definition, and basically what I got for my trouble was a tape full of “umms,” and the sound of people staring at the ceiling.
So then I posed another question: Name five symbols.
This was much easier. In fact, an intern named Connor Donevan reeled off close to half a dozen in under two minutes. The Christian cross, the American flag, a wedding ring, a designer label.
When we think about symbols, these are the sort of things that come to mind — signs that act as a stand-in or shorthand for a whole set of ideas. But in fact symbols play a much larger role in our lives.
Let’s return to one of the most basic parts of your day. Getting dressed.
Every piece of clothing you place on your body is a symbol. That leather motorcycle jacket or button-down polo communicates to the world who you are, what you believe in, and where you sit on the social ladder, and it does that instantly.
Alison Brooks, an anthropology professor at George Washington University, points out that her school is located only 30 feet away from the office of the World Bank, so students and bankers are constantly walking the same streets. But, she says, you can tell in a second which ones are the students and which are the bankers. “Because the students dress like students and the world bankers dress like bankers. The [bankers] all wear suits or very formal clothing. Each of those different populations gets up in the morning and puts on symbols of their status.”
Symbols In Everyday Life
Now let’s consider the next moment in your day: Your 3-year-old has declared that he and the closet are going to Asia.
Asia, like America, is a concept that depends on our ability to think symbolically. America exists only because a group of people got together more than 200 years ago and decided that this great mass of land directly to the south of Canada should bear that name.
California wasn’t America, and then it was. It became America because a group of people decided — more or less out of thin air — that it was. And then they fought a bunch of other people to turn this abstraction into reality.
The money you passed to the lady at the coffee shop — a symbol of the gold in Fort Knox, which it itself, is symbolic of something else: power.
And finally there’s the stuff you heard coming out of the radio during your shower: language. In order to have language, any language, you need to be able to think symbolically.
Think of the word “cat.”
Even though the written word C-A-T looks nothing like a cat, and the spoken word “cat” sounds nothing like a cat sounds, when someone says the word out loud, you’re able to conjure up an image.
Language, says anthropologist Brooks, is entirely composed of these arbitrary symbols.
“Every sound that comes out of my mouth has some kind of arbitrary meaning assigned to it,” she says. “I could just as well be talking to you in another language and making totally different sounds and saying the same thing.”
The miracle is that these arbitrary sounds — these symbols — allow us to see what’s going on in other people’s minds and also allows us to share what’s going on in ours.
For example, if I say the word “bead” you immediately have a picture in your mind of what I’m talking about. If I said beads, you’d generate a slightly different picture in your mind, that I have made your mind form. If I said glass beads — using an adjective to modify the concept — you’d immediately see something different than if I said gold beads. In this way, I make you think in your mind of a thing that I have in my mind.
And once we have this ability for symbolic thought and language then all kinds of things become possible. Through language we can pass down what we’ve learned, organize larger and larger groups of people who can do more and more complex things like build bridges and schools and computers and practically everything else in modern life.
Evolution Of Symbolic Thought
The question to answer, though, is when did we get like this? When is the first evidence that we had acquired this magical ability and were finally mentally modern?
Museums are full of bones under glass — fossils that can tell us when we became physically modern. But how do you find a fossil of a symbolic thought?
Not very long ago a man named Chris Henshilwood stumbled upon one possible answer to this question.
Henshilwood is an academic in Norway, but when he was a small boy, he would often visit his grandfather’s farm on the western coast of South Africa. It was there one day in his youth that Henshilwood discovered a cave half obscured by a sand dune.
Thirty years later, when Henshilwood was no longer a boy but a new archaeologist trying to make a name for himself, he went back to that cave and, under a layer of sand, found several dozen seashells that dated back 75,000 years.
“They are the size, or even smaller, than the nail on your pinkie,” Henshilwood says. “They’re very tiny little shells, and really if you don’t look at them carefully, they are rather insignificant.”
Henshilwood originally dismissed the shells — he assumed they were leftovers from meals or other activities. But then he put them under a microscope and noticed that each of these small, insignificant shells had a tiny hole in its lip. And that’s when Henshilwood had his epiphany: These shells weren’t simply shells — the shells were beads.
“The hole that had been made was in the same place. I could very clearly see under the microscope the wear that had been made by the string or whatever had been used to string these beads together,” Henshilwood says. “And by the time I’d looked through 30 I was convinced — these are beads. These are the oldest beads yet discovered.”
Why are a few shell beads such a big deal?
The handful of shells Henshilwood found was an early version of the wedding band on your finger or the golden cross around your neck. The beads were symbols — symbols that indicated to the people of that community who this person was, what he believed and whether he was friend or enemy.
So with all of this in mind, I’d like to make a proposal: It’s time for a new iconic image of the moment we became human. And here’s the one I suggest: A hairy ape man with a thick brow sits crouched, working a tiny hole into a small shell. He pushes a strip of animal hide through the hole. And — suddenly — you and I are born.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Think back over the soundtrack to your life. Those songs you heard in grade school and church, on first dates and at dances, in college dorms and convertibles, at weddings and graduations — it’s all part of your musical makeup.
And today, the mysterious power of music seems to be even more personal and pervasive. With help from iPods, downloads, clouds and smartphones, we can literally “soundtrack” our lives any time, anywhere.
But why do we like what we like? What makes us choose Kanye over Coltrane, Mahler over Madonna, or Youssou N’Dour over Yeasayer? And what does it say about us, personally?
These and other questions about why music matters to just about everyone, in every culture, are posed in a recent article in the Guardian by musicologist Eric Clarke. And along with the Oxford professor’s theories, which range from scientific to social, the British publication has launched “Six Songs of Me,” a project to map as many personal playlists as possible. They’ve set up a special site (fueled by Spotify) where you can pick your most meaningful songs in six categories. They’re hoping to gather enough data, Clarke says, to “help us think more fruitfully about the ‘big questions’ that lie behind the sounds of our lives.”
The categories, in the form of questions, are:
- What was the first song you ever bought?
- What song always gets you dancing?
- What song takes you back to your childhood?
- What is your perfect love song?
- What song would you want at your funeral?
- Time for an encore. One last song that makes you, you.
I’m particularly intrigued by that last category. Is it possible to pick a single song and say, “This is me?” Our very favorite music, the sounds we connect with most profoundly, can be a very personal thing not easily shared. Still, sometimes we wear our favorites proudly — like our choice of clothing — in a form of self-expression.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
I was recently stumped by a seemingly obvious query that I hadn’t really considered. It was asked by a 4th grader: “What,” he wanted to know, “is the downside of creativity? Isn’t it possible that humans are toocreative?”
I muttered something incoherent about nuclear weapons and human ingenuity creating the seeds of its own destruction. I’m pretty sure I quoted Einstein. But I could tell he wasn’t satisfied, that my answer struck him as facile and trite, which it was. So here’s my attempt to give him a better answer, because I think the absurd success of human creativity comes with a real cost.
Geoffrey West, is a brilliant theoretical physicist at the Sante Fe Insititute. (He has done a lot of intriguing work on cities, trying to figure out why cities are “the most important invention in the history of human civilization” and why some cities are so much more innovative than others, at least measured by per capita production of patents.) Although West celebrates the inventiveness of cities – all those knowledge spillovers leads to new knowledge – he is quick to point out that our creativity has its disadvantages. New ideas, after all, have a disturbing tendency to become new things, and things aren’t free.
West illustrates the problem by translating the modern human lifestyle – and we live surrounded by our own inventions – into watts. “A human being at rest runs on 90 watts,” he told me. “That’s how much power you need just to lie down. And if you’re a hunter-gatherer and you live in the Amazon, you’ll need about 250 watts. That’s how much energy it takes to run about and find food. So how much energy does our lifestyle [in America] require? Well, when you add up all our calories and then you add up the energy needed to run the computer and the air-conditioner, you get an incredibly large number, somewhere around 11,000 watts. Now you can ask yourself: What kind of animal requires 11,000 watts to live? And what you find is that we have created a lifestyle where we need more watts than a blue whale. We require more energy than the biggest animal that has ever existed. That is why our lifestyle is unsustainable. We can’t have seven billion blue whales on this planet. It’s not even clear that we can afford to have 300 million blue whales.”
The historian Lewis Mumford described the rise of the megalopolis as “the last stage in the classical cycle of civilization,” which would end with “complete disruption and downfall.” In his more pessimistic moods, West seems to agree: he knows that nothing can trend upward forever, that eventually our creativity will make life utterly unsustainable. In fact, West sees human history as defined by this constant tension between expansion and scarcity, between the relentless growth made possible by our creativity and the limited resources that hold our growth back.
Of course, the only solution to the problem of human innovation is more innovation. After a resource is exhausted, we are forced to exploit a new resource, if only to sustain our craving for growth. West cites a long list of breakthroughs to illustrate this historical pattern, from the discovery of the steam engine to the invention of the Internet. “These major innovations completely changed the way society operates,” West says. “It’s like we’re on the edge of a cliff, about to run out of something, and then we find a new way of creating wealth. That means we can start to climb again.”
But the escape is only temporary, as every innovation eventually leads to new shortages. We clear-cut forests, and so we turn to oil; once we exhaust our fossil-fuel reserves, we’ll start driving electric cars, at least until we run out of lithium. Although human creativity has generated a seemingly impossible amount of economic growth, it has also inspired the innovations that allow the growth to continue. So here’s the paradox: creativity is the only solution to the very real problem of creativity.
There is a serious complication to this triumphant narrative of cliff edges and innovation, however. Because our lifestyle has become so expensive to maintain, every new resource now becomes exhausted at a faster rate. This means that the cycle of innovations has to constantly accelerate, with each breakthrough providing a shorter reprieve. The end result is that our creativity isn’t just increasing the pace of life; it is also increasing the pace at which life changes. “It’s like being on a treadmill that keeps on getting faster,” West says. “We used to get a big revolution every few thousand years. And then it took us a century to go from the steam engine to the internal-combustion engine. Now we’re down to about 15 years between big innovations. What this means is that, for the first time ever, people are living through multiple revolutions.”
Needless to say, such revolutions aren’t fun. They’re unsettling and disruptive. But they appear to be the inevitable downside of our ceaseless ingenuity, for creativity comes with a multiplier effect: new ideas beget more new ideas. The treadmill is going fast. And it’s getting faster.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
What does famed urbanist William “Holly” Whyte have in common with David Simon’s award-winning television series The Wire? They both understood the importance of street corners. On The Wire, drug slingers battle for control of Baltimore’s choicest retail outlets; “them corners” offer strategic advantage: double the traffic, better sightlines, more escape routes, and the presence of businesses, magnets for potential customers.
Several decades earlier, Whyte, in his films of New York City street life, identified the street corner as an important factor in urban dynamics. Here was a zone of serendipity where people encountered one another beneath the blinking walk man, where they paused to chat before parting, where they formed small convivial islands just as pedestrian flow was surging most strongly. Even today, corners offer new uses; one often finds people talking there on their mobile devices, either held up by the signal or forgetting to move after the signal has changed. Either way, the corner is urban punctuation, a place to pause, essential to the whole civic grammar.
And so it’s appropriate that Jeff Zupan and I are stopped on a New York corner—at 34th and Broadway—watching how pedestrians navigate a typical crowded crosswalk. In 1975 Zupan wrote (with Boris Pushkarev), one of the seminal books on how people move on foot in cities, Urban Space for Pedestrians. Although he now lives in the suburbs, his ardor for the bipedal New Yorker is undiminished. At one point, after walking a while, I offer to buy him a drink at a sidewalk stand. He bristles. “I don’t patronize food carts,” he says. The reason? They take up sidewalk space on already crowded thoroughfares. Outside of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, he pauses briefly to berate a tour bus driver, whose empty bus sits idly, its engine sending a noisy blast of hot air onto the sidewalks. The driver briefly looks up from his New York Post and, sensing no immediate physical threat, resumes reading.
I have gone out today on a stroll with Zupan in the tradition of the Peripatetics, those ancient Greek scholars who were said, perhaps apocryphally, to accompany Aristotle on walking lectures. My purpose is to study the pedestrian in his natural setting (the most-walked city in the U.S.) and to bring to light the discrete dynamics that lie beneath this achingly commonplace activity—which, like most commonplace activities, rewards a further look. Zupan, my Aristotle, represents a bridge to the past, when the best way to understand how people moved on foot was to watch them; an approach that has been slowly eclipsed by computer modeling, which automatically counts pedestrians in large flows, tracks their movements, and then, via algorithms, tries to predict what they’ll do next. But this morning, it’s strictly old school, jostling amid the darter fish, the lumbering wildebeest, and every other genus of Gotham pedestrian. What better way to understand pedestrians than to be out among them, with the man who knows them best?
Crosswalks, like corners, have their own dynamics. Zupan points to two large groups paused on opposite corners across 34th. They are distributed widely across the curb cut. As the signal changes, they begin to walk, but as Zupan notes, they don’t veer to the right as they would on a sidewalk. Instead, the two groups meet in the middle, and there’s what Zupan calls a “bulge” at the midpoint, as walkers spill beyond the painted confines of the crosswalk, sifting through each other’s directionality.
A few blocks later, Zupan wants to demonstrate what he calls “shy distance”: how close you get to an approaching person with whom you are bound to collide before one of you shifts to the side. The process is sometimes anticipated with a kind of foreplay, what Nicholson Baker in The Mezzanine described as “the mutual bobbings you exchange with an oncoming pedestrian, as both of you lurch to indicate whether you are going to pass to the right or to the left.” Scanning the sidewalks, Zupan announces, “I’m going to find someone who’s not looking at their phone. I usually try to find someone smaller than me.” He finds his mark: an ordinary commuter in Dockers and oxford shift, striding purposefully. Zupan puts his head down, and gets to within a few feet before the man breaks right, shooting back an irritated glare. (As Zupan wrote in Urban Space, “Pedestrians have been found to take evasive action anywhere from 2 to 17 ft ahead of a stationary or moving obstacle.”)
What might be for some the unchoreographed whir of the city is for Zupan a set of discrete patterns; if a pattern can’t be observed, it probably just means you haven’t looked long enough. Block by block, they emerge: The way people drift toward the shady side of the street on hot days; the way women (in particular) avoid subway grating on the sidewalk; the way walking speeds are slower at midday than before or after work; the way people don’t like to maintain the same walking speed as a stranger next to them; the way tourists walk in inappropriately spread out groups (a phenomenon captured by this satirical call for “tourist lanes”); the way sidewalk planters, parking meters, and other obstacles reduce the “effective width” of sidewalks, which have been under slow and steady spatial assault since the early 20th century.
One place Zupan spent a lot of time during his research was Penn Station, the very place we had met that morning (where the queue at the Starbucks alone was worthy of study). During the period he was working on the book, Penn was experiencing an upsurge in ridership; the station and the surrounding streets were becoming untenable. “There were situations where it was so crowded where even slow walkers had to go slower than they would like.” When he began the research, pedestrians were still something of an unknown quantity, and indeed, his work was part of a small renaissance in pedestrian studies that flourished in the 1970s, producing works from John Fruin’s landmark—and still consulted—book Pedestrian Engineering, to sociological studies like Erving Goffman’s Relations in Public or Michael Prager’s People in Places. Every street corner was a stage-set of human interaction, no behavior too small to be insignificant. One typical study found that when two pedestrians passed closely to another, the majority of women turned away from the other walker, while the majority of men turned toward the opposing pedestrian. “We were learning by just going out in the field,” Zupan says. “If there was something we didn’t understand, we went out and took a look.”
For example: When do people choose to take the escalator versus the stairs? How crowded does the former have to be before the latter is chosen? Standing by a bank of short escalators and stairs exiting to Eighth Avenue, we watch a small queue form at the “up” escalator (not surprisingly, people are more likely to take stairs going down than up). What Zupan found, then as now, is that people’s desire to avoid exertion is relatively high. “To take the most extreme example, when the stairs in the subway are five flights, what’s the percentage of people who will take them?” The answer: About four percent. The people Zupan calls the “health addicts.” He adds: “I was one of them.” Contrary to what you might expect, escalators do not actually improve efficiency. “If you count the per square foot width on an escalator, plus the acceptance rate”—i.e., how willing people are to stand near each other—“it’s about the same as stairs.” And when people walk on an escalator, the capacity is, a bit counterintuitively, reduced, because of the subsequent shuffling—and accidents. (Escalator walking was actually banned in Japan.) What escalators do, simply, is reduce the amount of energy people have to exert (and during rush hours, an escalator is often the only way people are assured of being able to go against the cresting tide of directional flow).
Since Zupan’s research, a few new behaviors have come on the scene. One behavior pointed out to me by traffic engineer Sam Schwartz is people pausing before they enter the stairs of a subway station to check their mobile device one last time. Who knows what this social hiccup does to the overall efficiency? Recent research by the New York City Department of Transportation has found that when walkers talk on the phone, they walk more slowly, and when they wear headphones, they actually walk faster. As Zupan told me, “There are a lot of really microscopic dynamics—as Yogi Berra said, ‘You can see a lot just by observing.’ ”
Despite the advances of early walking-theorists like Zupan, there is a great deal of mystery and academic disputation that surrounding this fundamental human task. What’s the purpose of swinging arms, balance or propulsion? Which muscles contribute most to the body’s “angular momentum”? What part does our vision play in walking. (It was once thought we used our eyes to only plan a step, not monitor and “fine tune” its ongoing progress, but recent research suggests otherwise.)
The complexity of walking is perhaps best appreciated by those who can no longer do it, or need mechanical assistance. Alena Grabowski, a researcher at the University of Colorado who has done extensive work with prosthetic devices (including the question of whether a runner with a device has an unfair edge), says it’s not simply a question of the foot—“one of the more complex designs you’ve got,” with 20 bones in each and any number of directional possibilities. There are a number of systems that come into play. Take the knee. “The knee is challenging, there’s so much weight bearing on the leg. You need to have something that not only goes forward, but side to side, or up a hill, to catch a bus. There’s so many different things you want to model.”
As Laurie Anderson once noted, when we walk, we are always falling, and then always catching ourselves. Walking is known as a “learned motor behavior,” done without conscious thought. Walking is so second-nature that even certain types of walking become ingrained. A few years ago, a pair of researchers at London’s Imperial College identified what they called the “broken escalator” phenomenon: When people walk onto an escalator that is not moving, they still sense a “sway,” and adapt their gait accordingly. The reason, the researchers argued, was not a perceptual illusion, but a “motor adaptation.” Something tickles us at the back of the brain, and our feet respond in kind.
Escalators and stairs are, it turns out, problem points in walking, and not just for the commuters at Penn Station. As John Templar notes in his oddly fascinating book The Staircase, an estimate for one U.S. year found that more than 6,000 people died as a result of a fall on stairs or a ramp. Studies have noted that most stair accidents involve either the first three or last three stairs on a flight. “On these high risk-steps,” Templar writes, “many orientation factor changes occur—route direction change, changes of view, and very large changes of illumination.” As we come to the top or bottom of a stair, we are preparing to change our gait, and we may be looking ahead to where we’re going next. We are distracted pedestrians. What’s more, when we fall, Templar notes, “our natural defense reaction systems will not help much until after we have already fallen about one step of 7 inches (18 cm).” The design of the stair and the tread plays a largely hidden, but crucial role; in one problematic staircase, the stairs were marked with lines parallel to the edge of the tread. In six weeks, 1,400 people fell on the stair: They were confusing the marked line with the actual edge of the tread.
If walking is, as one researcher describes it, a “complex dynamic task that requires the generation of whole-body angular momentum to maintain dynamic balance while performing a wide range of locomotor subtasks such as providing body support, forward propulsion and accelerating the leg into swing,” it’s no surprise that the collectivity of all this motion, coupled with the vagaries of human psychology (among other constraints) should prove such a rich field of study, demanding analytical power equal to that required at higher order institutes of physics. Pedestrians have been interviewed, tracked, modeled, asked to navigate artificial environments, and placed in wind tunnels.
Wind tunnels? Another form of pedestrian research emerging in the 1970s was the effect of tall buildings on people, and general benchmarks for urban pedestrian comfort. This was done, in part, as an ex post facto response to poor design; Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center, for example, generated such ground-level gusts that, as the New York Times noted, “on certain days wind conditions at 140 West Street were so severe that pedestrians needed to hold onto ropes to allow travel.” In England, there were cases of pedestrians being killed by building-generated winds. And so people, wearing representative garments to establish “drag area” benchmarks, were trundled into the kind of wind tunnels used for aerodynamics and subjected to various gales.
The basic issue, as explained to me by Bert Blocken, a professor of Urban Physics and Building Physics at the Technical University Eindhoven (the Netherlands is the one country in the world with a “wind nuisance” standard), is that tall buildings “catch” wind. “The most intense cases are where you only have a few high rise buildings and the rest are low rise,” he says. “The tall building deviates the wind to the ground level, where it has to find its way through the network of streets.” The corners of buildings are particular trouble spots—people may not be expecting the gust as they round the corner. Architects are often not sensitive to the effect their buildings will have on people, leaving people like Blocken to come in and retrofit. In a building in Antwerp, an architect’s winning proposal featured a passageway running entirely through the building. But Blocken’s model showed it would be, in essence, a wind tunnel. In the resulting compromise, people entering the building at one end must push a button to enter the sliding doors, and, as a sign informs them, if the set at the other end of the building is open, they must wait until the other set is closed.
Since the early work of Zupan and colleagues, the body of walking knowledge has grown. We know, among other things, that nearly half of all daily walking “bouts,” as researchers dub trips, are 12 steps or fewer. It has been observed that men walk faster than women, and that walking speed is correlated to socioeconomic standing. In Copenhagen, as Jan Gehl writes in Cities for People, “on Copenhagen’s main walking street, Strøget, pedestrian traffic on cold winter days is 35 percent faster than on good summer days.” In New York, it was observed that streets with more people carrying bags had higher walking speeds. There are basic principles that have been established about group pedestrian behavior; e.g., per one study, “an individual pedestrian diverges for a group of two or more pedestrians.” As people approach a bottleneck, they tend to walk straight; as they slow to enter it, they begin to “oscillate” from side to side. There is more anecdotal research as well. As I walked one afternoon with Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces, he recalled his microscopic studies of Madison Avenue in the early 1970s, part of a project funded by National Geographic. (The street, presumably, was an exotic as a Sumatran rain forest.) “I spent one day analyzing a waste basket, another day with pickpocket detectives,” he says. He recalls talking to the owner of a small cosmetics store, which leased the front of a wig store. “I went in and asked him, you have 39,000 people going by, how do you like your location?” He was unhappy, it turned out, because he was next to a bank. “When they walk past the bank, they speed up. It takes three or four stores to get back into a normal walking rhythm.”
Much of this accumulated knowledge is now being plowed back into increasingly sophisticated computer models, which in their scope and analytical power tend to dwarf the earlier analog efforts, allowing planners to peer ever deeper into ever larger and complex crowds. One afternoon I traveled to 23rd Street to visit Legion, creators of the world’s first dedicated pedestrian modeling software. As I enter the building, I imagine myself transforming from a person on foot to—in the cold, binary eyes of Legion—a “two-dimensional ‘entity’ with a circular body, which moves in 2D continuous space, in 0.6s time step.” When I meet Dan Plottner, Legion’s (three-dimensional) vice president for business development, one of the first things he tells me is how hard it is to model people, as opposed to people in cars. “A car traveling in a lane doesn’t stop, do a 180 degree turn, and turn around and come the other way.”
At the heart of the company’s algorithms is the idea that a “person, when they walk, is seeking to minimize their dissatisfaction.” On foot, as with life itself! “The same way you can plot density on a map,” Plottner says, “you can plot frustration.” But this simple statement—minimizing dissatisfaction—explains a lot. It is why people take the escalator (and disdain elevated walkways or subterranean tunnels), it is why pedestrians will begin to rampantly jaywalk if you make them wait too long, it is why they trample “desire lines” on aloofly chained-off college quadrangles. As a British engineer once told me, “pedestrians are natural Pythagoreans”—they will always seek the shortest path.
The Legion model seeks to understand, with each step the pedestrian takes, what their next step will be, based on a mathematically weighted combination of three factors (the tolerance for, and wish to avoid, inconvenience, frustration, and discomfort). More minor things are often observed—people pausing briefly in London before exiting a transit station to see if it’s raining—but not fully modeled yet. (Plottner notes the company already has some 9 million pedestrian measurements.) Getting large crowds of people to move smoothly often involves negating people’s own natural inclinations. In London, or in Chinese cities, he notes, it is common to see a long railing at the bottom of pairs of escalators. “It forces you to take a few extra steps,” he says. “Every time we turn, we’re always trying to cut the corner, always trying to get a leg up on that other person. This removes the conflict area from the base of the escalator.” Similarly, Legion’s models for sports stadiums and other large facilities often show circular switchbacks in staircases can handle more people than square. “People are better about following the outline of the wall,” says Plottner. “They don’t feel like it’s causing them extra work.”
As cities become more crowded, with more people pushing through congested centers, Plottner says modeling becomes crucial. “When things get dense, they don’t behave in a way that makes sense,” he says. “That’s what simulation can help you unlock.” An example of this can be found at Vesey Street in lower Manhattan, between Church and West Broadway, just adjacent to the former World Trade Center site. In the morning rush, some 15,000 people per hour course down this single passage. In an effort to keep the tide from simply overwhelming the cross streets, the city has installed special fluorescent-vested “pedestrian managers,” who stretch chains across the sidewalk when the “Don’t Walk” signal is activated. When I passed by one morning and dismounted my bike, preparing to walk, I quickly gave up—with my added baggage, I simply couldn’t find an entry point among the tightly compressed torrent of commuters. “People tend to order themselves more when it’s congested,” Plottner says. “So a congested system is more efficient than an uncongested system.”
There was just one problem with Vesey: It occasionally needs to be used by trucks accessing the Trade Center construction site. Simply blocking off the street and forcing people to detour, Legion’s models showed, increased the amount of time people would have to walk by 70 percent. What about halting people temporarily while trucks entered and exited? One morning, in the offices of Sam Schwartz, a team of engineers working on the Vesey Street congestion ran through various simulations. (Schwartz uses Legion, among other tools.) On a large screen, I watched thousands of small dots swarming from the transit station, with various color-coded swirls indicating density. What the models showed is that when you held groups for upward of 90 seconds, you had “crush volumes.” At volumes of more than seven people per square meter, the engineer Jon Fruin once noted, crowds become, in essence, a liquid mass. “Shock waves can be propagated through the mass, sufficient to … propel them distances of 3 meters or more. … People may be literally lifted out of their shoes, and have clothing torn off.”
There were actually two risks, Schwartz told me: Crush, and people backing up and toppling down the escalators. A compromise was reached: The gate to the site could be open no longer than 45 seconds (and this would be closely monitored). Morgan Whitcomb, a Schwartz engineer, told me: “We did practice runs to make sure the construction operations could time it perfectly with a truck coming in. They can do it in as little as 30 seconds.”
Modeling pedestrians works best for discrete flows in concentrated spaces, when masses of people are trying to get somewhere with purpose. “We can’t do people loitering in Times Square,” says Plottner. “We don’t understand why their behavior is what it is.” Neither do many New Yorkers, but there is something comforting in the fact that some human behaviors—pausing to admire the play of light on a 19th-century cornice, crossing the street to avoid that earnest-looking person with the clipboard, holding the door for someone at the entrance to a crowded building and finding yourself caught in a cycle of politeness as you anxiously decide when to relinquish your impromptu role as doorman—can’t easily be reduced to math.
Is this you? You’re waiting for a traffic light to change, and your heart races at the thought of all the time you’re wasting going nowhere. Going through security at the airport, you want to scream at the first-time flyer who’s just in front of you who still has his shoes on because you know he’s about to bring the whole system to a halt. At work, your boss is so much less competent than you are that at night you dream of various unsavory forms of overthrow. Well, what you need in these scenarios and several others that present themselves in modern life is a dose of patience, which, says Allan Lokos, who thought about this a lot and has just published a book called “Patience,” is something that you can actually practice and develop and build.
The benefit of this, well, a lot less impatience in your life, which, Lokos says, translates into a lot less anger. And how much of that is there going around these days? We want to hear from you on this. If you do practice patience in your life, we would like to know how you got there. What incident turned you around? Or what lesson did you learn that maybe the rest of us can learn something from?
So if you practice patience, how did you get there? What was the turning point for you? If anger is close to impatience, and the scenarios that I was just outlining, being in traffic or being in that security line at the airport or having a boss that drives you crazy and leaves you tied up in balls of anger, you know, maybe it doesn’t feel good, but what’s wrong with anger? It’s actually an honest emotion, is it not?
LOKOS: Oh, definitely, it is. And there’s nothing wrong with anger. There’s nothing wrong with impatience. The problem is do we act when we’re experiencing impatience? Do we act when we’re experiencing anger? That’s where the problems can arise. But the feelings of impatience and anger are perfectly normal, just as you said.
DONVAN: Well, you do write in the book that you call anger almost a form of insanity, which doesn’t sound like it’s necessarily all right.
LOKOS: Well, it’s acting when we are angry that can really lead us into a lot of trouble. The key is to be in touch with what we are experiencing as early as possible, let’s say as in the examples that you used, if we’re stuck in traffic or our boss is acting in a way that’s idiotic, we will experience the arising of impatience or anger. But if we can exercise patience just for a moment or two, we’re much, much less likely to say or to do something that we’re going to regret. That would be the part that’s really insane.
DONVAN: So what is that experience of exercising patience? What does it feel like?
LOKOS: I think it’s personal within each of us. We can learn what that’s like by stopping and taking a moment to just become more aware of what is going on within us, specifically the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that arise, and they’re constantly arising one after another. They arise, and they die away. When we cling to them, that’s when trouble can begin. You know, your example about the boss who’s not as competent as I am, if I begin to write my stories about I’m always in this situation, I’m always playing second fiddle to someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, that’s why I never get anyplace, that’s why I’m not in a good relationship, that’s why nobody likes me, all that’s happening is that I had the experience of dissatisfaction with an aspect of my boss. All the rest of that I’ve made up, and that’s where problems can arise.
DONVAN: Wow. So you’re saying that we don’t have to have the second and third and fourth layers of those reactions?
LOKOS: We don’t have to have them and we don’t really want them. It’s the bare experience. The experience of what I just simply call the arising of impatience or the arising of anger. They’re feelings, and exactly as you said, they’re absolutely normal. There’s nothing wrong with the feelings themselves, except for the fact that impatience and anger don’t usually feel very good. You know, happiness, love, compassion simply feel better. They have a more pleasant tone about them.
DONVAN: Can there not be an argument made that anger gets things done, anger as a driver?
LOKOS: If anger becomes the motivation to act in a way that is both wise and compassionate, then yes. But the danger is because anger can be very powerful that we will go right past wisdom and compassion and act just simply on anger, which can mean revenge, getting even, that sort of thing. And that’s not really going to be wise.
DONVAN: We’ve asked listeners to call in with their stories of, I guess, learning patience and where it comes from. What was that turning point? What was the moment, if it was, indeed, a moment and not a long process? Let’s bring in Amy from Dearborn, Michigan.
AMY: Hi there. I was at a funeral a couple of weeks ago, and I’m generally a very impatient person and it translates the most when I’m with my children. And the impatience I feel sometimes when they’re not doing what I’m asking them to do. So I went to a funeral a couple of weeks ago, and somebody who spoke read a poem called “The Dash.” And “The Dash” is about the – there’s a date from when you’re born and a date when you die. And the dash in between is how we live our lives. And that to me is such a powerful thing. I’m getting choked up.
DONVAN: It’s so interesting. So it was something you heard. It was…
AMY: It was.
DONVAN: …a lesson imparted, really, really stuck with you.
AMY: And I don’t want my dash to be all about impatience and anger with my kids.
DONVAN: Can I ask why that’s hitting you so hard, Amy?
AMY: Because I’m still struggling with it. It’s difficult for me. I kind of blame it on, you know, astrology a little bit because my sign and things like that, which is another conversation. But I feel that I’m a very imperfect person, and it comes out the most in a stressful situation with my kids.
DONVAN: Yeah. Allan, what do you hear in this?
LOKOS: Well, Amy and so many of the rest of us have a tendency to categorize our self this way and say I’m an impatient person. A statement like that is always going to be inaccurate because as science has now proven, we are constantly changing. So, you know, Amy, if we say, to this point, I’ve experienced a lot of impatience, that could be accurate. But this – it just sounds like you’ve come to a moment of awakening, of realization and wanting to do something about that. And that can change everything. And our children are great teachers because they’re going to bring out our impatience. You know, the job of parenting is a difficult job.
DONVAN: I have an email, actually, from a listener named Patience, who writes two sentences to us, Allan. She writes: Small children teach patience. They are never hurried.
DONVAN: I don’t know if they’re never hurried but…
LOKOS: Well, I’ve seen a pillow that was embroidered with the words impatience – oh, no. I’m sorry. It says insanity is inherited. We get it from our children.
DONVAN: Thank you. We’re going to bring in Tara in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
TARA: Hi there. I just thought of a particular lesson in which I’ve learned the value of patience. And that was in middle school when I was being bullied by a particular girl when I was engaging with her and retaliating against her, and I realized that in doing that, I was just continuing to give her the power that she wanted in the first place. And so that’s where I really learned my lesson of patience, that if you give in that you’re really letting someone else control your emotions. And I’m a control freak, yes, but I don’t want someone else to control my emotions in that way.
DONVAN: So interesting that you’re a control freak but don’t want that kind of control. And so you’ve found patience as the solution. I think, Allan, that’s almost exactly what you’re talking about before.
LOKOS: I think it is, and I think this realization that Tara had is a way of saying that she realizes that she is the only who can give up her inner peace. No one else can take that from her.
DONVAN: And we’re going to go now to Chris in Naugatuck, Connecticut.
CHRIS: Hello. I moved to Seattle out of college, and I went to school at UConn in Connecticut, and I moved out to Seattle after graduation. And the first time that I actually had like a real interaction from somebody who lived in Seattle was at the supermarket. When I checked out, the cashier said thank you. Have a nice day. And I was – it took me aback because I wasn’t used to people being nice and taking their time to say something pleasant.
DONVAN: Interesting. So it sounds as though, Allan, maybe what Chris is saying is that we can pay forward a little bit?
LOKOS: Absolutely. It’s amazing what just a kind word or a smile does, you know? We just need to realize what it does for us if someone just looks back and holds the door for us for a moment or just says, hi, how are you doing? That just can change our outlook for the entire day. It’s so great to offer that and to receive that.
CHRIS: Well, absolutely. I mean, there was – there are other points. I lived there for about seven years, and there was, I guess, a study that was done that someone told me about that if you’re in a line of traffic in New York, it takes exactly zero seconds for the light – when the light turns green that people are going to start beeping. In Seattle, it takes 10 seconds, and in rural Oregon, it takes – there’s – they don’t beep.
DONVAN: I want to go to Alan in St. Petersburg, Florida.
ALAN: Hi. So I’m in – I’m almost 30 now, and I developed this anger – I don’t know – just impatience and anger probably in my mid-20s that I’ve never had before. And I found myself doing things that I would never do before or saying things that were totally irrational and things that I would regret later. And the way I’m coping with it now, which I don’t like it at all because it’s totally not me, is I think about how my father and how my brother would react and how they would handle the situation because they’re very patient people. And when I stop and I think clearly on what they would do in the situation, you know, I act out, you know, better responses to the situation.
DONVAN: You mean by learning from them as a negative lesson and I’m not going to do what they did?
ALAN: Right, exactly. You know, how would they act in the situation?
DONVAN: Well, let me ask Lokos this question about family. Is family sort of a built-in, you know, since we know members of our family, generally speaking, very, very well and patterns are very, very deeply laid down, are families a difficult area particularly where patience comes in, or is it a safe place?
LOKOS: Well, my research that I did before writing this book certainly shows that families are tricky areas for most of us. You know, we speak about our buttons being pushed. It’s our families who installed those buttons. So, yes, they can be problematic areas.
DONVAN: I’d like to share an email with you, who writes: In 1997, at 35, I was diagnosed with a tumor, which was benign. After surgery and physical therapy, I realized that life is too important to be rushed. What about these big life-changing moments, do they play a role often?
LOKOS: We shut our eyes to what’s important, the loss of a loved one, the diagnosis of a serious illness or in the case of the person who wrote the email, fortunately, a diagnosis that was not serious. But these can open our eyes. They can be those big moments where suddenly we say, hey, what am I doing? I’m just wasting a life that’s precious. Let me re-examine. I think those things are very big moments.
DONVAN: Another email writes: I have recently begun practicing patience after I just went through a rehab program. I do simple things like choosing the longest line at the supermarket or staying behind a driver doing the speed limit on the highway. The turning point was accepting the fact that I have absolutely no control over the actions of others, only my responses to them. Taking myself out of an angry situation even if only mentally for a moment and putting myself in the other person’s shoes gives me a much better perspective. Patience is like a muscle though. It gets stronger through practice, but at least right now, mine is not the strongest.
LOKOS: Well, he is showing considerable wisdom. I love his exercises of getting behind the slower driver, et cetera. Patience is not usually the word that comes to mind first when something is provoking our impatience and causing it to arise. So this type of exercise can be great. In the book that I wrote called “Patience,” I lay out a whole list of exercises that are very, very easy to do that you don’t need patience to do, but you practice them using the word patience. Usually that’s all we need is to just have something in the mind say, oh, patience. And that’s it.
DONVAN: Mary Beth, Cedar Rapids, Iowa,
MARY BETH: Hi. I was a having a very busy day with lots of errands a few years ago and went into a post office where I was the only customer. And the attendant was taking his time rhythmically stamping a very tall pile of envelopes. And he didn’t even look at me. I stood there for about five minutes. And finally, I just laid it into him, at which point he looked at me and he said, ma’am, that is the prettiest blouse. He completely disarmed me. And I thought what a great tool to have in your toolbox when somebody is impatient, to be able to use something like that, that completely changes the subject and gets you see how unimportant this little delay is in the bigger scheme of things.
DONVAN: So, Mary Beth, how did – how do you bring that into you life so that it’s not always the other guy who has to say the nice thing?
BETH: Well, I try very hard to remember that fellow and try to exemplify that, but I always fall short. I mean, I think we all do. It helps, though, to use humor, and I think humor is a very powerful tool.
DONVAN: I want to ask you one more thing. The issue of aging relates to patience you talk about in the book. We only have about 40 seconds or so left, but what do you mean by being patient about being older?
LOKOS: Well, the body is changing. And we look in the mirror and we realize one day, oh, the muscle tone is not what it was. And sometimes we can become very angry at our own body, impatient with ourselves. And I think it’s very important to realize that is the nature of the body: everything is changing. The body is changing. So why not go with that so that we don’t go to the finish line just resisting and unhappy, but going with what is natural order instead?Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
This week’s Chicagoan: Aaron Karmin, anger-management therapist By Anne Ford
‘A lot of people think that in an anger-management session, we’re gonna pass the drum around and have a men’s retreat thing. Or that it’ll be like driver’s ed, where they can sit there watching videos. That’s not what I’m about. I get people to take some ownership over the consequences of their choices. To understand that there is a basic thing called ‘It’s not fair.’
“Respect is the foundation of my approach. If somebody’s being disrespectful toward me, I can still maintain my composure. It’s impossible to argue with somebody when you agree with them. That’s my Jedi mind trick.
“I work with people who are homeless, people who are coming out of the Department of Corrections. I have judges, I have attorneys, people who are living very high-profile lifestyles. I’ve worked with people who are elderly. “Oh, he’s a nice old man.” No, he’s bitter and angry.
Depression, you can kind of hide. Anger—you hear it, you see it. Everybody knows when somebody’s angry. ‘Oh God, this guy hit his wife, or he was throwing things at his kids.’ You can’t help but say, ‘You need to do something about that.’
“I’m in an office downtown, and the doorman knows I do anger management. One time a client’s coming up, and I get a call from the doorman, which is unusual, and he’s like, ‘Aaron, there’s a client coming up.’ I say, ‘You never call me—is there something I should know?’ And he says, ‘He’s coming up with a baseball bat.’
“So my client walks in. He’s swinging the bat over his shoulder. I say, ‘What’s up with the bat?’ He says, ‘Oh, there was a Ron Santos signing at Borders, and look! Ron Santos signed my baseball bat.’
“If you have a rush of emotional energy, write. I wouldn’t pound a pillow. I had one client who was literally a Hells Angel. He was like, ‘I’m not going to write. I don’t have a pad or a pen.’ I said, ‘Fine, here’s a pad, here’s a pen.’
“He came in next week, and on every single page of the pad, both sides of the paper, he had written, ‘You stupid motherfucker shithead. You stupid motherfucker shithead.’ I said, ‘How did you feel?’ He said, ‘Well, I didn’t want to punch anybody this week.’ I said, ‘Here’s another pad. Here’s another pen.’”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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