Saturday, November 2, 2013

Trivial Only Post: Last Night's Dinner Entertainment - the Mutant Fruit Fly

My husband and I went to one of our favorite local beer gardens for dinner.  Everything was excellent - except for this one fruit fly buzzing around our heads as we ate and drank.  We cracked jokes about it (I'd ordered a lambic beer - so I joked that my fruit beer came with a fruit fly), tried to kill it several times, and eventually gave up on it until my husband looked down and noticed that it had fallen into his beer.

Certain the fruit fly was dead, we looked closer only to see that it was swimming - kicking its legs and seemingly quite alive.  My husband fished the fruit fly out with his fork and set it on his napkin, saying, "You're welcome."  Of course, we were certain it wouldn't be alive much longer.

We were wrong.  Slowly, it straightened out its wings, walking along the napkin, shaking its legs.  We watched this for a couple of minutes, and snapped a picture.

Almost good as new - but will he ever be able to fly again?
It hung around for several minutes, walking around a little square of my husband's napkin, and didn't move when I got in close to take the above picture.  Finally, my husband reached over to grab his phone, and it took off.

In fact, it flew back and landed on my beer bottle and crawled inside (it was empty).  I decided not to bother him.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What is Science?

I can see from my previous blog post that I haven't posted in a few months.  I've been thinking many deeply trivial thoughts but just haven't had the time to sit down and organize them coherently.  But a couple of recent conversations prompted me to sit down and write once again.

One conversation dealt with the definition of science.  A commenter argued that "science was bogus" because the findings are always changing and contradicting what was found previously; I decided to deprive the trolls of food and not respond.  Another dealt with religious extremists.  I actually got involved in this conversation and argued that religion fulfills a basic human need of explaining our world.

In fact, a variety of human enterprises are meant to explain our world and help us understand and navigate the many environments and situations in which we find ourselves.  When we make many observations systematically, we call it science.  However, finding patterns does not help us to truly understand what is occurring, so we need to apply an explanation for the pattern we observed (without going into the true meanings of various words with regard to this concept, we will simply call this "theory").  This is where things get tricky.

The way we explain the pattern we observed is highly influenced (I even go so far as to say "biased) by our current knowledge.  When we observed that certain metals "stick" to other metals, we recognize that pattern.  However, the way we explain that observation is influenced by our level of knowledge and observations about other things.  In the past, we might have referred to this phenomena using magical or supernatural explanations.  Today, we recognize that magnetism occurs because electromagnetic fields are generated from the behavior of our planet's core.  What we know about our planet (from other scientific endeavors) has helped us to understand another pattern in a nice, well-rounded theory.

The point I'm trying to make is the explanation for and labeling of these patterns is not in and of itself science.  But it is a necessary part of human discovery that we give a pattern a label and explanation to help us wrap our head around it, and make it fit into our understanding of the world.  A bunch of disparate patterns from research is only useful when we can tie it back to something we already know.  In addition, this is why scientific findings are constantly changing, and a theory that was long believed to be true is found to be incorrect.  The theory is not science, but an essential adjunct to science and a way to tie multiple scientific findings together.  We couldn't truly understand and explain magnetism until we had the knowledge of our planet.  This means that, in the future, when we learn even more, our explanation may change drastically.

The types of things we can observe is also constantly in flux.  Psychologists in the early 20th century were more drawn toward behaviorism and downplayed the activities occurring within our brain mainly because we couldn't observe the brain directly, at least not in a living, normal functioning state.  We could only measure the outward behaviors of people and animals.  Today, we can examine the brain directly, which has led to some amazing discoveries, the most recent of which is that dogs can experience very similar emotions as humans, such as happiness and love.  Who knows what we will find in the future?  Perhaps we will discover that other species are more similar to us than we realize, which will have interesting ramifications for things like animal research.

Science is a useful way to understand our world.  And it is one of the many ways we discover knowledge about ourselves and our way of life.  But the explanation portion is more difficult to label as "science" or something else, because of limitations in our knowledge and biases that color our worldview.  We laugh now at "scientific" explanations from hundreds of years ago, but often fail to recognize how puny our current knowledge is compared to where we may be in the future.  Hundreds of years from now, this time in human history may be viewed as the "dark ages."

Scientifically yours,

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Attempting to Define the Elusive Quality of Stage Presence

I've spent many years in theatre - in fact, it was my original career path when I started college, though I switched to psychology early on and haven't really looked back. I still try to perform when I get the chance, in my choir, at karaoke night, and by singing at church. Tonight, I cantored a mass at our local Catholic church, where I have been part of the music ministry for a while, and was complimented by the accompanist, not only on my singing, but on my stage presence. I've had many friends compliment me on my presence in recent years, which I find somewhat funny.

Why do I find it funny? In high school, when theatre was my life, my theatre teacher told me repeatedly that I needed to work on my stage presence. Not really having a clear picture of what that was and how to get it, I tried to exude some quality during my acting. I had no clue what I was doing. Seriously. No. Clue.

So she recommended I try taking dance classes. At 17 years old, I took my very first dance class. Tap. I loved it. It was rhythmic. It was fun. I didn't have to be graceful - that is a quality I seriously lack - and I caught on quickly. My teacher told me what I joy I was to teach because I just got it. With my hubris and belief in untapped dance ability, I decided to add jazz and ballet. Ballet, I was just okay. Jazz, I was horrible. Should have just stuck with tap.

But somewhere along the way, I got it. I got the stage presence. And I've had people telling me how wonderful my presence is ever since. I wish I could nail down what it is I'm doing now that I wasn't doing as a freshmen and sophomore theatre geek. I think that's why psychological research appealed to me - I don't do well with vague, undefined concepts. I like to be able to understand the nuts and bolts of a concept, so that I can explain it to others. In research, we call these "operational definitions" - and see a previous blog post about the concept.

So I started thinking about what stage presence is, in an effort to teach others how they can get it too. Here's what I've got so far. Feel free to add anything in the comments.

Of course, there are apparently many workshops that purport to teach you stage presence. I'm giving these tips away for free, mostly because I'm not sure if they're actually good tips. You've been warned! :)
1. Posture: It sounds silly to tell people to make sure they have good posture, but it's true. Standing up straight really does make a difference. It makes you seem taller, and, as a short person, I know I don't take up much space, so this by itself does a lot. You'd be surprised how many people have bad posture. I've watched many actors (even big-name actors) with their upper body leaned slightly forward, and it makes them look like they're uncomfortable and out of place.

2. Even when you're not doing something, do something: There's a singer (who shall remain nameless) who is really involved when she sings. But only when she sings. When the accompaniment continues between verses, she does nothing. She looks like she's waiting for a bus. I'm not saying you should flail your arms around, or do jumping jacks, or something. But don't look like you're just waiting for the music. Smile. Look like you're thinking about something wonderful (or terrible, if you're singing a sad song). If you're singing with another person, engage with them. Whatever you do, it should make sense with the song. But don't look like you're waiting for a bus - unless you're singing about waiting for a bus.

3. Engage someone, whoever makes sense: If you're performing at a recital or church, look at your audience. It's okay to look at your music, but don't just stare at it. If you're in a play, where it doesn't make sense to notice an audience of people sitting there (i.e., the fourth wall), engage with other people on the stage. If you're alone, take in your surroundings. Once again, do what makes sense with the song, but you're doing more than just singing. You're a character, even in a recital or a church. So figure out what your character would be thinking or doing or wanting to look at, and do that.

4. Pretend that whatever you're doing is right, even if it's wrong: I sing wrong words more than I'd like to admit. I mess up notes. I miss pick-ups. We all do it. Don't cringe when you notice your mistake. Just go with it. This is probably the biggest mistake made by good, but amateur, musicians. You're good enough to know when you've messed up (which sets you apart from the not-so-good amateur musicians), but not yet confident enough to hide it well. Of course, keep practicing. Work to minimize your mistakes. But also work to suppress reactions to those mistakes. If you can master that, most people won't even notice when you screw up.

5. Related to #4, always look like you know what you're doing, even when you don't: Once again, this takes practice. Walk with purpose, even if you think you're going the wrong way. Speak as if your words are gospel, even if you know in the back of your mind that they're the wrong words. Don't look lost - unless that's your character. But whatever you're doing, do it 100% and most people will think that's exactly what you should do.

6. If all else fails, try tap-dancing: I'm not sure if it actually worked, but hey, it was fun. And that's always something. :)

Presently yours,

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Marriage, Anniversaries, and the Striking Down of DOMA

Today is a very special day. Today I celebrate my third anniversary of marriage. Today is also the day that the Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. I feel very privileged to share my anniversary with a day that I hope signals massive change in how we view the construct of marriage.

In the distant past, a wedding was a luxury generally afforded to the wealthy. Common law marriages were established so that the poor could still be considered married, even if they could not afford to go through the ritual of marriage. Even in more recent centuries, when the United States was expanding Westward, many towns did not have a church, and so couples would move in together and start their families, and have the wedding when a circuit rider (a pastor, usually of a Protestant denomination, who rode around preaching to the settlements) came around and could perform the ceremony - sometimes months or years later.

Today, weddings are still an expensive undertaking, but there are many options for people. Small wedding chapels, justice of the peace ceremonies - hell, you can even have Elvis marry you in Vegas, something I half-jokingly referenced multiple times while my fiance and I complained about wedding planning and its costs. A wedding, and marriage, is no longer a luxury of the very wealthy.

Instead, it is the luxury of the straight. It has been used as a new form of division,  this time not between the wealthy and the poor, but between the heterosexual and the homosexual. Say what you will about the religious underpinnings of the concept of marriage - the way we think of marriage today is as a contract between two willing parties. Two people who wish to be bound together in some way, whether that be under God, under the State, or all of the above. Even among people who generally think of marriage in the same way (say, as a contract under God), the definition of marriage will still vary widely. I'm sure my idea of marriage differs very much from others who share my faith and religious practice. It's a very personal concept and decision.

So even in the face of all that variability - as well as all the variability in opinions on gender roles (don't even get me started on that one - this blog post would be way too long) - why do so many people still insist that marriage is only to occur between a man and a woman? And further, why is there this belief that allowing a man to marry another man, or a woman to marry another woman, will somehow change the definition and meaning of a given couple's marriage? Like I said, the definition and meaning is a very personal thing. And nothing anyone else does can alter it.

I'm happy that I was able to marry my husband. And I'm happy that others, who have been denied this privilege in the past, will hopefully soon be able to share this institution.

Thoughtfully yours,

Monday, June 3, 2013

Willpower, Self-Regulation, and One NYU Professor's War on "Fatties"

You've locked yourself in your apartment, finally beginning to tackle the thing grad students dread, the stuff of nightmares, the fodder for PhD comics, the event grad schools create support groups about: your dissertation. But, gosh, that leftover piece of chocolate cake looks so tasty. Well, it will only take a minute to eat. At least, that's how I eat chocolate cake.

Okay, now that that's gone, time to get back to this dissertation thingy. Oh, but I have chips. And cheese. Nachos? Brilliant.

What was I doing? Oh yeah, dissertation. Oh, but I'm still hungry. Better get some food. Can't work hungry. Before you know it, the dissertation is but a foggy memory in your food binge coma.

Sound ridiculous? Not to this NYU professor:

You know, this tweet seemed fishy, until he hash-tagged it truth. Now it's indisputable.
I know what you're thinking. "Really, this guy has a PhD in psychology?" Unfortunately, perhaps he slept through the lesson on self-regulation. Self-regulation, or what some people might refer to as "willpower", is a cognitively demanding task, involving multiple processes, including self-monitoring (what am I doing?), social comparisons (what would I like to be doing or what should I be doing), and thought suppression (am I thinking about the thing I shouldn't be thinking about?). These processes require a great deal of our working memory, basically short term memory, which years of psychological research shows is a limited resource. Ever hear the expression "5 plus or minus 2"? That is the number of digits you can keep in your working memory at a time. That comes from a psychologist also, unfortunately, named Miller (George A. Miller, in fact), who hopefully would have been a bit more thoughtful in what he tweeted.

Some research does show that ability to self-regulate in childhood (usually measured by ability to forgo a small reward  - often sweets - for a larger reward later - often more sweets) has a significant correlation with ability to self-regulate later (frequently measured by achievements and completion of higher education, like a graduate degree). It's possible, then, that Miller did pay attention to this lesson, but got the wrong message. This research does not support (or even say) that children who like to eat a lot are unlikely to obtain higher degrees. The studies are simply operationalizing their concepts using things kids can understand; children, regardless of their weight status, in general like treats, and even the children who were able to forgo the treat now for a bigger treat later still ate the treat. And ate more as a result of their self-regulation. Kids who were able to "self-regulate" because they didn't actually like the treat offered were probably not included in the study results, because what they were doing was not truly self-regulation.

Additionally, the ability to self-regulate is a general trait. It's not situation-specific. So people who are shown to be good at self-regulation in one situation are likely good at self-regulating in another situation. BUT, not if those situations occur at the same time; because it's a general trait, and a limited resource, exercising strong self-regulation in one situation can actually lessen your ability to self-regulate in another. So people who practice what Miller refers to as "willpower" in completing their dissertation might actually find it difficult to self-regulate in another situation, such as healthy eating.

And grad students eating unhealthily? Yeah, that never happens. </sarcasm>

Further, grad students have another thing that could stand in the way of maintaining a healthy weight. Sleep deprivation has been shown to have a strong effect. I heard one doctor say, "Trying to diet while sleep deprived is like trying to ski uphill." Sleep deprivation has a lot of negative effects on your brain, including monitoring of hunger and satiation (feeling full). When you're sleep deprived, you feel hungry much more because your brain is telling you you're hungry, even if physiologically, you have ingested enough. So those good grad students who work long hours, late into the night, to finish their dissertation might find themselves reaching for the Cheetos a bit more often than those able to get a healthy amount of sleep. Of course, eventually, sleep deprivation does begin to attack your cognitive skills, but that's another post for another day.

So what am I trying to say? What many have said in the backlash against Miller's tweet: that weight status has no bearing on ability to complete a graduate degree. While also giving a healthy dose of psychological knowledge. Because regardless of what I may think when I look at my waistline, I have my brain and all the psychology info acquired through years of education.

Oh yeah, and my PhD. While eating all the carbs I want. Take that, Miller! Now where's that chocolate cake?

~Thoughtfully (and carb-iliciously) yours,

Sunday, June 2, 2013

My Best of Buffy List

As promised, here is the list of my top 10 episodes; and because I can't narrow down anything, 5 additional episodes to which I give "Honorable Mentions":

The Top 10

The Pack (Season 1, Episode 6) 

Rest in peace, Herbert
It's easy to cast-off season 1. The characters are being introduced, and with all that exposition, it's difficult to do more than monster-of-the-week without confusing viewers with far too many story lines. And much of the first season, while establishing the snarkiness I've come to know and love in Buffy, didn't really delve into the big issues of growing up in the same way later seasons did. The limited amount of time given - Buffy was a mid-season replacement and this season was only given 12 episodes - also made it difficult to do much. However, this episode remains one of my favorites, for it's examination of bullying and peer pressure. It shows how even one of the "good guys", Xander, can get caught up and become a monster. I suppose the message here is that any of us can be made into a monster in the right situation. The challenge, then, is to resist those urges, and make amends when they overtake us. This episode also sets up the presumed fate of Sunnydale High School principals alluded to again in Season 7 - that they are destined to be eaten by something horrible. The world can swallow you whole - or perhaps rip you to shreds. Just think of poor Herbert.

Becoming, Part 2 (Season 2, Episode 22)

There are so many great scenes and episodes in Season 2, that it was tough for me to narrow it down
Buffy, never one to be knocked down
without a witty comeback
beyond the whole season. For example, "Innocence", which explores changes in relationships, plus Buffy uses a rocket launcher, then fights Angelus (kicking him where it really hurts). There's "Passion", partially narrated by Angelus, in which we first learn about the spell to de-invite vampires from your home ("Sorry Angel, changed the locks," has to be one of my favorite lines ever). But all that is building toward the "Becoming" two-parter. The many things set in motion throughout this season, come to fruition here in Part 2 and carry over into future seasons: Buffy learning about sacrifice for the greater good; Willow performing a spell as part of the fight; Spike's alliance with Buffy; even the notion of prophecies and Powers-That-Be that play a major role in the spin-off series, Angel. My favorite line from this episode really sums up Buffy as a character. She is down, seemingly defeated. Angelus says, "Now that's everything, huh? No weapons... No friends...No hope. Take all that away... and what's left?" Buffy simply replies, "Me."

The Zeppo (Season 3, Episode 13)

Buffy constantly defied categorization, and no episode shows this better than the Zeppo, where drama and the tragic love story are seamlessly blended with slapstick comedy. My favorite scene is one in which Buffy and Angel are having a heartfelt, dramatic conversation about fighting, love, protecting each other, and death, only to be interrupted by Xander - it's a little like what might happen when a comedian walks onto the set of a soap opera. Not only does this episode follow Xander, perhaps my favorite character on the show, the pending apocalypse, which takes center stage in other episodes, is the side story. In terms of arc, this episode shows us - and more importantly, Xander himself - that Xander is not just the plucky comic relief; he is a valuable member of the team who will continue to grow and strengthen into the man that Buffy calls in Season 5, Episode 12, "Part of the unit."

Earshot (Season 3, Episode 18)

In my previous blog post, I discussed what I love about this episode, so I won't repeat it here. Much like a Shakespearean play (such as Othello, discussed in this episode during Buffy's English class), this episode has just enough comedy mixed in, not to make light of the events, but to help deal with the heaviness of the issues tackled: for example, when Buffy learns a little more about the night with the "Band Candy".

Fear Itself (Season 4, Episode 4)

"Bunnies frighten me."
This was the first episode of Buffy I ever saw. I think it was Anya in the bunny suit that really drew me in (Anya might just be the most interesting character ever created), but once I went back to the beginning of the series and finally saw this episode in context, I really began to appreciate it's role in character development and the arc of the series. The big bad in this episode is neither big, nor very bad. The worst he does is to manifest the characters' fears, but even then, the power of these manifestations comes not from the demon, but from the characters themselves. Sure, there were spiders and creepy crawlers, but that isn't what truly scares us; as we grow and age, our fears become much more abstract than that: the fear of being left behind, the fear of growing up and changing into something one's friends can't understand, the fear of being a monster, the fear of being alone and unloved. This episode embodies the statement that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Fear can paralyze us, keep us from doing what has to be done. The challenge of growing up is learning to face our fears and grow stronger in the process. Though the characters make it through the episode unscathed, these inner fears have now been brought to the surface and begin to have an effect on the connections among the Scoobies. This seed is what grows throughout the season, allowing Spike to pull the group apart in "The Yoko Factor". Additionally, the ideas explored in this episode (sometimes, the biggest enemy is ourselves and our own fear) get a much larger treatment in season 6.

Hush (Season 4, Episode 10)

Pretty much any "Best of Buffy" list will include this episode, the only episode to win an Emmy for writing, which is why I thought about not including it here (gotta be original, right?), but this episode is just too good to overlook. The episode explores the issue of communication, and that sometimes words get in the way. "The Gentlemen" come to Sunnydale and steal everyone's voices. Without the ability to speak, the characters must communicate with each other on a deeper level. Plus, hilarious charades. This is also the episode where Riley, Buffy's boyfriend, discovers her identity as the Slayer (and Buffy, in turn, discovers Riley's involvement with the military group she'd witnessed on other occasions). By the end of the episode, when Riley comes to Buffy to talk about their revelations, they struggle for the words, and though their voices have been returned, the episode ends in silence.

The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)

Much like "Hush", you pretty much couldn't have a "Best of Buffy" list without including this episode. From Buffy's flashing to memories and fantasies when she first finds her mother dead, to Anya's childlike (but completely relatable) reaction, to the negative space drawings in the art room, this episode captures the feeling that the world turns upside down when a loved one dies without resorting to cliches or pensive montages set to bad music. In fact, the entire episode has no soundtrack, as though the music of life has died as well. There's pretty much no way I can watch this episode without turning into a blubbering mess as soon as Buffy tries to shake her mom awake. No matter how many times I see it, it never gets any easier to make it through, much like Buffy, who, despite dealing with death, pain, and apocalypse on a regular basis, still reacts as any of us would.

The Gift (Season 5, Episode 22)

"The Gift" might be the best season finale of all of Buffy, and I'm sure most fans would agree. While in some sense a series finale (Buffy was originally on the WB, but was canceled after the fifth season), Buffy lived on for two more seasons and on a new network, UPN, and this episode, while seemingly final, was just another event in Buffy's journey. However, this season (as well as season 7, the true final season) showed the most brilliant way to end a coming-of-age story like Buffy - go back to the beginning; give us a brief glimpse of where this all started, which makes the end that much more meaningful. The first scene of this episode says it all: Buffy, an alley, a single vampire, and a would-be victim. After Buffy has defeated the vampire, the would-be victim says, "But you're just a girl." And Buffy replies, "That's what I keep saying." This power, while not something Buffy ever asked for, is something that she accepted and used to stop the end of the world several times. But that responsibility may be too much for one person. The ambivalence Buffy has felt about her power since the beginning comes flooding to the surface, and through that, Buffy finally realizes what love truly is - love is sacrifice. And that is the gift.

Once More, With Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7)

The most depressing ensemble bow
in the history of musical theatre
What do you do when you have finally achieved something wonderful, something you've been working for your entire life? Or even simply working toward for a very long time? You wake up the next morning, and have to go on about your day as you would any other time. It almost feels like a let-down, anti-climactic. Because of this, some emotion theorists have speculated that a dip in emotion is perfectly natural after such an achievement or occasion. But still, you feel ungrateful for feeling down, and naturally, try to hide it, leading to an appearance of being numb or indifferent. Eventually something has to happen - you either get over the numbness or you admit your feelings. Once again, Buffy captures this everyday occurrence perfectly, and analyzes it through the lens of the supernatural. Similarly to "Hush", this episode explores our failure to communicate. The curse of the singing demon is almost like an intervention for Buffy and her friends, forcing them all to admit their fears and feelings. However, this forced intervention does not solve these issues, and only makes them worse. It all leads up to the season finale where, as I alluded to above, the Scoobies discover "the enemy is ourselves," but this episode is the turning point that pulls everything onto the path to lead to that conclusion. Not only is this episode pivotal, it is beautifully done, and completely organic - the musical episode has been attempted in other series before and especially after this one, but never at this level.

Selfless (Season 7, Episode 5)

Bunnies, bunnies, it must be bunnies!
As I said above in "Fear Itself", Anya might be the most interesting character ever created, and, though we've learned bits and pieces about her throughout the series, this episode is what brings it all together. We really begin to understand her, to sympathize with where she's been, and where she has ended up in the present. Though it seems easy for Buffy to cast Anya as a bad guy ("She chose to be a demon - twice."), this episode shows - as Joss is so fond of showing - that good and evil is not nearly so black-and-white (outside of the Buffyverse, see Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). Perhaps the most surprising scene in the episode is the flashback to "Once More, With Feeling", where we hear Anya sing about her excitement at getting married to Xander, and the clarity of character and path she felt during that time. It makes what happened in the rest of Season 6 that much more heart-breaking.

Honorable Mentions: 

Helpless (Season 3, Episode 12) 

Over the years, we had watched Giles and Buffy's relationship morph from Watcher-Slayer into a Father-Daughter dynamic. One of the most moving scenes in the season 2 episode, "Passion," is when Buffy punches Giles for going after Angelus himself and they cry together as she says, "I can't lose you." In "Helpless," Buffy has reached the age of 18, at which point, the Watchers' Council introduces a test on the now-adult Slayer - a drug is administered to take away her power (temporarily) and she is forced to fight a vampire with the strength of a regular human. This test, which Giles refers to as barbaric, is really just the test of adulthood, of sending individuals, who were the day before still considered children, out into the world to sink or swim. As much as Giles disapproves of this test, he perhaps sees it as a way to see if his training has given her the skills she needs to survive, no matter how overpowered she may be. Giles, like many parents, does not want to see Buffy fail and, when the test goes horribly wrong, steps in to help. This conflict of when to help and when to expect independence and adult decision-making continues between Buffy and Giles throughout the series. But the most revealing thing about this episode is how upset Buffy is when she thinks she is no longer the Slayer.

Who Are You (Season 4, Episode 16) 

Though we can imagine it, we never know what other people see when they look at us. This episode examines that difficulty in seeing ourselves as others see us, through body-swap magic. Faith awakens from her coma (after having been put there by Buffy at the end of season 3), and uses a device left for her by the Mayor (the big bad of season 3), to switch places with Buffy. In the confusion, Faith (now in Buffy's body) is able to knock Buffy out and watch her be dragged away by the police. As Buffy tries to free herself and convince others that she is not who she appears to be, she begins to understand what it must be like to be Faith. On the other hand, Faith, appearing as Buffy to the outside world and most importantly Buffy's friends, begins to feel what it is like to be good, depended upon, trusted. This begins her path to redemption.

Restless (Season 4, Episode 22) 

I already had two season finales on the list above, and wasn't sure about including one more. But "Restless" deserves some consideration. Unlike the other seasons, in which the finale is the final battle between the season's big bad, this finale takes place after Adam was defeated (in the penultimate episode of the season). Once again, the notion of fear plays a big part, and overtakes the Scoobies in the form of the First Slayer, who will play a key role in the rest of the series; the only one not to be defeated by her in the dream is Buffy, who understands her but chooses not to be like her. The First Slayer is the voice telling you not to try something new, not to do something differently than others before you; Buffy shows the strength to tell this voice no, that she is not afraid doing things differently will result in failure. This episode also foreshadows events for the next season (and perhaps even farther in the future than that), and it only makes sense that the First Slayer comes back in dreams and visions later on to tell Buffy whether she is on the right path.

Him (Season 7, Episode 6) 

I'll be honest; this episode mainly just cracks me up. My favorite scene is when Buffy decides to follow through on her love-spell-fueled plan to kill the principal. The decision to put the insanity in the background and the mundane in the foreground just makes it that much funnier. Also, if I'm not mistaken, that's another rocket launcher. Seriously, where does she get those wonderful toys?

Storyteller (Season 7, Episode 16)

One thing we've learned in Buffy and the spin-off Angel is that even the worst villain can find redemption if he or she truly desires it. This episode is the first stage in Andrew's search for redemption, when he has to take a long, honest look at what he has done. He learns, as others before him have learned (Angel, Spike, even Willow), that not everyone will accept it, not everyone will trust it, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't try. This episode also deals with our natural tendency to tell stories and to see our lives as a story. Through the development of our personal narrative, we are able to clearly understand who we are and how we relate to the world. However, Andrew uses his storytelling to hide from the truth, and see himself and his actions in a detached way. Buffy, whose story we have followed for seven seasons now, has to set him straight. In following with the "back to the beginning" theme pervasive in season 7, this episode flashes back to many things that have happened on the Hellmouth (e.g., shy girls turning invisible), and shows the power the Hellmouth has - not just as a gateway to somewhere bad, but in and of itself.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Buffy, Role Theory, and the Horrors of Growing Up

May 20, 2013 marked the 10-year anniversary of the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - aka: my favorite show. Though the concepts explored in Buffy are always on my mind - it is my favorite show, after all - this milestone has got me thinking about what I love about the show.

I love pretty much anything Joss Whedon does, but this show is what first pulled me in to the so-called "Whedon-verse". Though it is easy to cast this show off as fantasy, horror, Vampire-love teen drama, the show is really a metaphor for the horrors of growing up.

Early in the series (Seasons 1 through 3), much of the show focused on the metaphor of "high school is hell". Though the forces of evil that Buffy and her friends fought during this time are stand-ins for the true conflicts one experiences during this age (relationships, betrayals, popularity), the show was also quite literal in its attention to some of the relevant topics.

In one of my favorite episodes, Earshot (Season 3, episode 18), the set-up begins as supernatural: Buffy, during a fight with a demon, obtains one of the demon's powers of telepathy. At first, being able to hear other people's thoughts is exciting for her. She uses it to impress her English teacher with her knowledge and interpretation of Shakespeare's Othello.

One of the deeper thoughts Buffy hears.
The High School principal, on the other hand, has "Walk Like an Egyptian" stuck in his head.

As the gift become stronger, Buffy is overwhelmed, but she is able to pick out one evil rasp in the high school din: "This time tomorrow, I'll kill you all."

Though her gift begins to weigh her down and leads her to cut herself off from others, she is able to communicate this message to her friends who seek out the killer in their midst. They think they have identified the potential killer around the same time that Buffy is cured of her telepathic abilities, and Buffy seeks out Jonathan, who has climbed into one of the school's towers and begun assembling a weapon, presumably to shoot his classmates. Buffy bursts in and talks Jonathan down, discussing the feelings of alienation head-on: "I don't think about you much at all. Nobody here really does. Bugs you, doesn't it? You have all this pain and all these feelings, and nobody's really paying attention… Believe it or not Jonathan, I understand about the pain… My life happens to, on occasion, suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it's not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own. Beautiful ones, popular ones, the guys who pick on you, everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling, the loneliness, the confusion. It looks quiet down there. It's not. It's deafening."

As Buffy and her friends move on to college in Season 4, the themes become more adult, but still deal with notions of growing up. The thing I (as a psychologist) find most fascinating about Buffy is the notion of roles. Thoughout the series, Buffy struggles with the different roles she is expected to adopt, roles that are sometimes complimentary and sometimes in conflict with each other: her role as the Slayer (in which she must be a leader, depended upon by others; a hero where her focus is expected to be on others, but one in which she must fight alone); her role as a young woman, and all the thing she desires to come along with that (finding love, developing relationships and friendships with others, being able to depend on others and being able to focus at times on her own fulfillment and her own life); her role as a daughter (in which she is often expected to be a follower, to be the listener rather than the speaker); and later in the series, her role as a caregiver and mother-figure to her sister Dawn (where she has now taken on the role once occupied by her mother and Dawn stands-in for a teenage, sometimes rebellious, Buffy).

The way that Buffy moves through these different roles, trying them on and occasionally trying on different personas as well (e.g., her brief stint as a "bad girl, rule breaker" in season 3), is very much a metaphor for growing up and figuring out one's place in the world. I think this is why the show resonated with me so much when I first started watching it in college and graduate school. Though the show ends with a shift in one of Buffy's roles (and as a result, a shift in others - don't worry, no major spoilers here), she still recognizes that she has not finished developing into the person she is going to be. Even in the very last episode of the series, Buffy says: "I'm cookie dough... I haven't finished baking."

I had so much fun writing this blog post, that I hope to write another one, in which I tackle the impossible (for me): picking my favorite all-time episodes and explaining why they are my favorites. This task is not necessarily impossible, but ruling down to a manageable number will be. I don't want to commit myself to a number, like 10, because I'm sure I won't be able to meet that goal if I do. But suffice it to say, it will not include entire seasons and should be a reasonable number. (Stay tuned!)

Thoughtfully yours,

Monday, May 20, 2013

On Word Choice, Logical Conclusions, and Not Being a Cheater

I've blogged about scientific misconduct, specifically falsifying and fabricating data before, so I don't intend on touching upon the effect this behavior has on our field or those trying to make a name for themselves honestly.

However, this topic came back to me recently as I was completing an ethics form for an APA journal. Near the bottom of the form, I found this statement: 8.10 Reporting Research Results: (a) Psychologists do not fabricate data.

I found the word choice interesting: "do not". It is not prescriptive, as in "Psychologists should not fabricate data" or "Psychologists are prohibited from fabricating data." Rather, it is descriptive. Psychologists don't do this.

Which resulted in my pithy Facebook status update:

For today's episode of fun with logic - As I was completing an ethics form for a journal submission, I stumbled upon this statement: 8.10 Reporting Research Results: (a) Psychologists do not fabricate data.
Conclusion: Researchers who falsify data are not psychologists. 
Impact: We get to disown Diederik Stapel, Marc Hauser, and any other psychological researcher who falsified data. 

But interesting word choice aside, perhaps this statement is intended to do something else. Research has identified that one way to stop cheating is through word choice. "Cheating" is a behavior, while "cheater" is an identity. Bryan, Adams, and Monin (2012) found that telling people not to be a cheater has a strong, positive influence on their behavior when they were placed in a situation conducive to cheating, than if they were simply told not to cheat. That is, the possibility of being considered "a cheater" made them more honest than the possibility of being considered "someone who cheated."

So perhaps by wording the document as descriptive, they were capitalizing on the identity of "psychologist", and prescribing what this identity means - i.e., they do not fabricate data. This approach may be stronger than telling them they "should not" do this or "are prohibited from" doing this.

If that's the case, however, why then do we have highly publicized instances of psychologists doing the very thing they have been told they do not do - fabricating data? Perhaps being told "not to be a liar" would be a stronger disincentive. Or perhaps Bryan and colleagues' study simply does not mirror this real-life situation well enough: where the incentives to rise up in the psychological research world are so great and have such long-term consequences - on future success with obtaining grants, tenure, job prospects, and overall prestige - that they lead these individuals to overlook the consequences of being caught - that everything they worked for would be taken away and even research results obtained honestly would be scrutinized and cast off. In gambling terms, it is the possibility of becoming rich if you win, and becoming completely broke and unemployed if you lose. True, participants in the Bryan et al. study had the opportunity to win money, and would receive more money by cheating than by being honest, but $5-$10 is a poor stand-in for concepts like job security, and opportunity for advancement. Further, they didn't lose anything and there was no possibility of or consequences for "being caught".

What do you think? Would this notion of identity apply in situations where the incentives are so much greater? Or do researchers who fabricate data simply accept "cheater" as part of their greater identity of "successful"?

Bryan, C. J., Adams, G. S., & Monin, B. (2012, November 5). When cheating would make you a cheater: Implicating the self prevents unethical behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030655

Monday, February 25, 2013

On Approach-Avoidance and Feeling Like I'm in a Rut

I've had this strange feeling lately - one I've had before but thankfully not very often - where I feel really unmotivated to do anything but at the same time, feel intense guilt for not doing anything and try to motivate myself into doing something. Who knows exactly where this strange guilt/apathy comes from?

I think it has something to do with being Catholic. We always think we have to feel guilty about something.

Anyway, religious jokes aside, this feeling reminded me of a psychological concept I learned in my social psychology class many years ago but generally don't have any cause to apply to anything more than my own odd behavior.

In all fairness, though, that describes about 75% of the things I learned in my psychology classes.

This concept, referred to as the approach-avoidance conflict, originates from Kurt Lewin, who did a lot for the field of psychology and is like the godfather of modern social psychology. He also once said "There is nothing more practical than a good theory" which has become the opening quote for practically every theory class/presentation/paper I've been exposed to in my 13 years in the field.

A psychologist who doesn't spend time with a theory can never be a real psychologist.
Approach-avoidance conflict occurs when a goal has both positive or negative aspects. Like finishing grad school. Or renovating a house. Or a night of heavy drinking.

Okay, that last one may not qualify, because the other part of this conflict is that you feel both approach or avoidance at about the same time, or maybe you feel one (approach) but as you get closer to the intended behavior, you feel the other one (avoidance). This conflict keeps you from engaging in the behavior or makes you start and then stop before reaching the goal.

So I'm thinking of all the fun things I could/should/would be doing, like writing, but as I sit down to start doing that thing, feel suddenly unmotivated. But then, as I consider the alternative - doing nothing - I have the same sensation, where I kind of want to sit and do nothing but at the same time, kind of don't.

Don't want to do nothing. Yeah, nothing confusing about that double negative.

But at least now I feel better for having written something. Even if it's a short, kind of rant-y post with a Kurt Lewin picture and an altered Godfather quote. Now if only I could get out of this rut I've found myself in.

Thoughtfully (?) yours,

Thursday, February 7, 2013

My 30s and Being Comfortable in my own Skin

Lots of people dread turning thirty - they see it as leaving their youth (aka: their 20s) behind. In my case, I also was pretty emotional on my thirtieth birthday, but for a far different, more personal reason. When I was 22, my cousin committed suicide on his thirtieth birthday. It hit the whole family pretty hard. So when I turned 30, it hit me - I am older now than my cousin will ever be. That thought haunted me throughout my 30th year, and I was, for lack of a better word, relieved to turn 31 and be able to leave that thought behind.

But something else happened during my 30th year that I was quite happy about.

Since my teenage years, I have had strong body hatred issues. I was a stick as a child, but when I hit puberty, my body turned into an hourglass shape seemingly overnight. Whether it was from the boys in school who would comment on my 13-year-old but quite curvaceous figure, a product of media exposure, or my new involvement with the theatre world and all the evaluation and appearance issues that come with it, I don't know - probably it was a combination of all three.

These issues continued into my 20s. In the summer of my 22nd year, I was dealing with not only the loss of a family member but the ending of a 7-year relationship and my plans to move to a new city where I knew no one. I stopped eating - my family had to practically force me to eat. Even after I moved to Chicago, I would come home from grad school, and cry in my apartment. I would skip meals and obsessively go to the gym, wondering why I felt so faint after even a brief workout. And one day I shouted at myself in my head, "It's because you're not eating!" That helped to pull me out of the worst of it, but I still struggled with those issues. I was down to a size 6 - the smallest I've worn since I was a teenager - and I still looked at myself in the mirror and thought, "I'm so fat. I'm so hideous. No one will ever love me."

I met my husband and we spent lots of time going out on dates (usually involving food) and enjoying each other's company. That, combined with a back injury from a car accident, made my weight creep back up. I was a wreck. I dreaded trying on clothes. I would spend hours trying to figure out what to wear that would hide my body. I loved that I had found someone who loved me for who I was, but I just couldn't understand how he could look at me and call me beautiful.

When I turned 30, those feelings subsided. I suddenly felt comfortable in my own skin. I started wearing clothes that showed off my figure more. As I write this, I'm rocking a pair of skinny jeans, something I never would have worn, even 20 pounds ago. And I can look in the mirror and think, "Hey, I look good. I have great eyes. I have fantastic hair." I still see the problems, but I don't fret over them like I used to. I'm sure that finishing my PhD, getting married, and buying a house, also helped, and I'm not downplaying my career, intellectual, and social accomplishments. I know that life is not all about what one looks like. But I think that's also something that came with my 30s - a realization about what is really important (to me) in life.

I read a column once about a woman who, in her 20s, asked an older woman her favorite age, the age at which she felt most beautiful. Her answer - 35. This columnist, in her 20s, just couldn't fathom how she  could pick any age in her 30s. But the columnist, now in her 30s, said she finally got it. There's something about a woman's 30s that helps her to leave some of that baggage behind.

Maybe it is the fact that we leave our youth, and all of its hang-ups behind. Maybe it is because of the major life changes that occur around that age and help us to realize what's really important. Maybe it is the changes to our brains and bodies that help us to "grow into" what nature has given us. Whatever it is, I'm glad.

And I do love these skinny jeans.

Trivially yours,

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

In the Quiet Calm of the Mind

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I'm painfully self-aware - either from my background in theatre, or my current career in psychology & research, who knows? - and tend to think about and analyze my thoughts, actions, and feelings. This could be a blessing or a curse, and which of the two often depends on what I do with the information.

But occasionally, I stumble across something that makes me think, "Hmm, that's an interesting psychological phenomenon. How can I study that?" I don't always come up with a good study idea right away, but it's something I tuck into my back pocket for later.

Recently, I was nearly in a car accident. There was probably nothing special about this near-miss, but something very interesting hit me - figuratively, of course. I was driving to pick something up at the store, going east, and a car coming from the west hung a left in front of me without looking. I slammed on my breaks, thinking, "Gotta stop, gotta stop." I hit a patch of ice and began to skid. In that moment, I felt a sudden sense of peace, as I very calmly thought, "I'm going to hit him. There's nothing I can do about it. My passenger front will hit his passenger back. This is going to happen."

It wasn't freaking out, it wasn't, "Oh God, my cheap, old car is going to be totaled." Or "I hope this guy has insurance." It was a peaceful acceptance that, "This is going to happen."

I wonder if that happens in other situations. After you've fought like hell to stop whatever from happening, when you realize that your actions are probably not going to make a difference, you quietly accept that "This is how it is." I realized after that this feeling happened to me in another car accident, when a man in front of me braked suddenly and I rear-ended him. I think that's one reason the thud of a car accident sounds so deafening - because it follows that quiet calm. Thankfully, there was no damage to either car - it was a pretty slow rear-ending - and we both thanked the Lord we were okay and went about our business. He even gave me a hug. Nice guy.

Sorry, getting off the subject. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the accident didn't happen. The other car began to slow down - which is bad, because it means he would have stopped right in front of me - but thankfully, sped up and got through the intersection. We missed by mere inches. Perhaps it's because this was a near-miss that I noticed this sensation. If we had collided, the calm would have been followed by, "Thud" and "Well, better call the cops".

It was of course, after the accident didn't happen that my heart began to pound, as I thought, "Crap, that was really close!" That's when the freak-out occurred. But it was short-lived, given nothing really happened.

So what is driving this sensation? (Man, I am full of unintentional puns this evening.) Is it the "death instinct" Freud insists we all have, that at some point, when faced with our unavoidable demise or something like it, we accept or perhaps even welcome it? Is it an evolutionary holdover from our hunter-gatherer days where struggling with the predator/whatever was more likely to get us killed? What could it be?

Pensively yours,

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Trivial Only Post: The Power of Serendipity

My family is full of excellent cooks. And by excellent, I don't mean, "Whip up something amazing, with restaurant-worthy presentation, and ingredients no one can correctly pronounce." I mean excellent in terms of improvisation, of taking something that would be considered "a recipe gone wrong" and making something else out of it.

My mom still tells the story about "spoon fudge". My grandma tried to make fudge, but it turned out wrong. It was far too runny and would refuse to set up into perfect little fudge bars. But it tasted amazing! So everyone just ate it with a spoon. Hence the name.

When I was a child, my mom got a shiny new cookie press. And like all cookie presses, this one came with a bunch of recipes. She tried making one for sugar cookies, but the batter was all wrong. It was again, too runny, and when she tried squeezing it out of the cookie press into perfect little shapes, it melted into a runny blob. So what did she do? She scraped the batter into a cake pan, baked it, frosted it, and served - it quickly became a family favorite. "Cookie cake", as we called it, was always requested as birthday cakes as a child. I still find myself craving those chewy frosted squares with multicolored sprinkles every year on my birthday.

Several years ago, I started getting the baking bug. I'd cooked for myself all through college and found I enjoyed it; it was great stress-relief, and I looked forward to making food for others and watching their reactions when they took a bite. For Thanksgiving, I decided to bake a blackberry pie. I mixed up the filling, made the perfect crust (following my mom's excellent recipe passed down through the generations), and popped that baby in the oven. As I was removing my perfectly cooked pie from the oven - bam, it fell onto our (thankfully recently cleaned) oven door. I was as crushed as my pie, at first. But we decided to just scrape it back into our pan and call it "Oven-Door Cobbler". It was a hit, both figuratively and literally.

Life is what you make of it. Sometimes, the fudge is runny. Sometimes, the cookie press doesn't work. Sometimes, the oven door gets the first taste of the pie. You can give up, or make something else with what you've got left. It's all up to you.

Trivially and nostalgically yours,