Don’t Speak, Memory

by Sue Halpern


I’ve been reading various reports (like this one) of the success of a research group at MIT in taking the sting out of bad memories by switching the bad ones with good ones:

“In our day to day lives we encounter a variety of events and episodes that give positive or negative impact to our emotions,” said Susuma Tonegawa, Professor of Biology and Neuroscience at the Riken-MIT Centre for Neural Circuit Genetics.

“If you are mugged late at night in a dark alley you are terrified and have a strong fear memory and never want to go back to that alley.

“On the other hand if you have a great vacation, say on a Caribbean island, you also remember it for your lifetime and repeatedly recall that memory to enjoy the experience.

“So emotions are intimately associated with memory of past events. And yet the emotional value of the memory is malleable. Recalling a memory is not like playing a tape recorder. Rather it is like a creative process.

Granted, the experiments are on mice, but mouse models tend to transfer well-enough to humans that the scientists are hopeful that they are on to something useful. But will it be?

I realize this sounds crazy. Given the chance, who wouldn’t want to erase or in some way circumvent the memory of being mugged? And what about PTSD? The MIT group is hopeful that their technique, when applied to humans, will counter the effects of post traumatic stress.

If the MIT group fails, there still may be hope, courtesy of DARPA, the research arm of the Defense Department, which is developing an implantable chip that intended to lessen the effects of post traumatic stress. According to the Washington Post:

It’s part of the Obama administration’s larger “BRAIN Initiative,” which involves the National Institutes of Health, DARPA, the National Science Foundation and the Food and Drug Administration, among other organizations.

Officials say the BRAIN Initiative — which stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies — includes a related DARPA effort to build new brain chips that will be able to predict moods to help treat post-traumatic stress. It’s known as the SUBNETS program, short for Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies. Teams at both the University of California, San Francisco, and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston are involved.

“Instead of relying only on medication, we envision a closed-loop system that would work in concept like a tiny, intelligent pacemaker,” said Doug Weber, the program’s manager. “It would continually assess conditions and provide stimulus patterns tailored to help maintain healthy organ function, helping patients get healthy and stay healthy using their body’s own systems.”

(If I am a little suspicious of this technique, it may be because a few years ago, while writing about the use of virtual reality to help veterans overcome PTSD, I also learned that the military was interested in using the technique in the field, to get psychologically damaged soldiers quickly back into action, which seemed both dangerous and creepy to me.)

We are made of memories and formed by experience. I keep wondering what kind of people we would be, and what kind of world this would be, if when bad things happened we could erase them, or somehow make them sweet. Consider Anna Whiston-Donaldson, author of the just published memoir Rare Bird, whose 12-year-old son died in a freak accident, drowning during a rainstorm. One imagines what she’d wish for is that her son did not die, not that she didn’t remember it, and not, even, that it wasn’t as painful as it was.  Wouldn’t that impair grieving? Wouldn’t it dishonor–for lack of a better word–her son? I am not presuming to know. I don’t know. But I do know that meaning comes from many places.

So here is my question: if you could forget or erase that bad thing that happened to you, whatever it is, would you? Another way of asking this question is this: how has that bad thing made you who you are? Is there value–not in grief, but in grieving?

(Photo: circa 1880: A phrenological cross-section of a man’s head, illustrating the idea that the brain processes thoughts in different locations according to their type. By Hulton Archive/Getty Images)




Death To Monarchs

by Sue Halpern

By all accounts, the 21st century has not been kind to monarch butterflies in North America. The orange-and-black creatures, who make a remarkable 3500 mile migration from Canada, through the United States, to the Transvolcanic Mountains of Mexico where they spend the winter, have seen a 90 percent decline in population. There are many causes, but all of them have to do in some way or other with habitat loss, both here and in Mexico. A particularly virulent culprit is the herbicide Roundup, which farmers spray on their fields to curtail weeds, and which has had the unintended consequence of wiping out the milkweed monarch need to survive. As Chris Clark explains it:

With the advent of genetically modified corn and soybeans designed to resist the effects of the broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate, trade-named Roundup, use of the herbicide has increased dramatically over the last two decades. That increased use of Roundup is also spurred by federal energy policy, as we reported here in February: subsidies to encourage growing corn for ethanol have encouraged a huge increase in acreage devoted to growing corn: about 30,000 square miles more than in 2007.

The monarch’s population decline is so precipitous–from about a billion in 1990 down to about 33 million overwintering in Mexico last year–that yesterday a petition was filed by three environmental groups asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the monarch butterfly be designated an endangered species.

In the words of perhaps the world’s leading monarch researcher, the zoologist Lincoln Brower, who was also a signatory to the petition, “Monarchs are in a deadly free fall and the threats they face are now so large in scale that Endangered Species Act protection is needed sooner rather than later, while there is still time to reverse the severe decline in the heart of their range.”

But time may not be on the monarch’s side. The Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days to decide if it it will consider the request, and after that, as Clark reports, “the soonest the butterfly could win ESA protection is two years from the petition date.”

Walter Bernstein, Still Kicking

by Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern

Okay, admittedly, we can put a headline like that our post because we know Walter Bernstein, and chances are, so do you. Remember “You Were There?” (Probably not, you’re too young). Remember “Fail Safe?” “The Magnificent Seven?” Bernstein, who just turned 95, wrote the screenplays for all of them. How old is 95 in film years? Movies were just starting to talk when he would ditch school in Brooklyn to watch them.

Bernstein’s best known, though, for not working, at least under his own name: he was one of the many in Hollywood blacklisted during the 1950s for supposed communist ties. According to a remarkable encomium in Variety (the kind of thing that for once was published before someone dies, not after), his crimes included “supporting the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and advocating for the Russian War Relief Fund.” He spent those years trying to find work under pseudonyms, and he later wrote a memoir (“Inside Out”) and a great screenplay for “The Front”–which starred a then little known Brooklyn movie buff that other Brooklynite, Woody Allen.

He’s writing still: in addition to a biopic about the crusading lawyer William Kunstler, he’s finishing a project started by his late friend Sidney Lumet, working as an advisor at Sundance and teaching at the Tisch School, and on and on. And remains politically engaged, and unrepentant:

“If you want to attack someone in this country, you’re always safe to call them a socialist. It’s a word that’s been successfully demonized,” he says, noting the prevalence of the term in much anti-Obama rhetoric. And getting a script from page to screen? That remains as tricky as ever. “One of my sons has been a location manager and is now dipping his feet into producing,” he says. “So he’s on the phone talking to agents and people like that. The thing I keep trying to knock into his head, which is so hard, is that nothing is real until it’s real.”

NSA Overshare

by Sue Halpern

Back in March, in his virtual appearance at a TED conference in Vancouver, Edward Snowden said that the most shocking revelations from the documents he’d taken from the NSA were yet to come. On Monday, Ryan Gallagher and the team at First Look Media made good on that claim. Since at least 2010 and most likely before that, the NSA has been sharing 850 billion surveillance records with a dozen other government agencies including the DEA and the FBI through a Google-like search engine called ICREACH.  When an FBI agent enters a scrap of information like a phone number, for example, the ICREACH search engine sends back everything in the NSA archives associated with that number–private chats, phone logs, photos and so on. According to the Intercept report, “Information shared through ICREACH can be used to track people’s movements, map out their networks of associates, help predict future actions, and potentially reveal religious affiliations or political beliefs.” While the database for ICREACH is, in theory, restricted to material obtained from foreign surveillance operations, in practice many of those operations have netted information on American citizens with no ties to terrorism:

In a statement to The Intercept, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed that the system shares data that is swept up by programs authorized under Executive Order 12333, a controversial Reagan-era presidential directive that underpins several NSA bulk surveillance operations that monitor communications overseas. The 12333 surveillance takes place with no court oversight and has received minimal Congressional scrutiny because it is targeted at foreign, not domestic, communication networks. But the broad scale of 12333 surveillance means that some Americans’ communication get caught in the dragnet as they transit international cables or satellites—and documents contained in the Snowden archive indicate that ICREACH taps into some of that data.

In the words of Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, “with ICREACH, the government ‘drove a truck’ through loopholes that allowed it to circumvent restrictions on retaining data about Americans”:

A key question, according to several experts consulted by The Intercept, is whether the FBI, DEA or other domestic agencies have used their access to ICREACH to secretly trigger investigations of Americans through a controversial process known as “parallel construction.”

Parallel construction involves law enforcement agents using information gleaned from covert surveillance, but later covering up their use of that data by creating a new evidence trail that excludes it. This hides the true origin of the investigation from defense lawyers and, on occasion, prosecutors and judges—which means the legality of the evidence that triggered the investigation cannot be challenged in court.

Here, again, is yet more evidence that collecting phone and Internet metadata is not a benign activity, as President Obama among others would like us to believe. But we knew that, didn’t we? It should give us pause, if nothing else, that the newly “strengthened” USA Freedom Act proposed last month by Senator Patrick Leahy, is not going to slow down traffic to ICREACH. And those 850 billion records? That number was from back in 2010. As Gallagher notes, “while the NSA initially estimated making upwards of 850 billion records available on ICREACH, the documents indicate that target could have been surpassed… .”

Unliking Facebook

by Sue Halpern

Dislike Facebook

Anyone who has ever read Facebook’s privacy policy–and that probably would not include you–understands that it is not meant to protect your privacy, but provide Facebook and its clients with access to you, your habits, your contacts, your life. This kind of access is the lifeblood of Facebook (read: money), so attempting to indemnify itself against any claims of invasiveness is crucial. This, of course, has not exempted the company from lawsuits, as well as from less formal but no less vociferous user discontent. A quick search on the website of the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a lesson in the thrust and parry around privacy that’s accompanied Facebook’s remarkable insinuation into the culture.

Earlier this summer, a young Austrian law student named Maximilian Schrems filed a class action lawsuit against Facebook which has draw an unprecedented number of claimants.

As Malarie Gokey writes, 60,000 people have now joined young Schrems:

According to the advocate’s site, the Vienna Regional Court in Austria has reviewed the case and commanded Facebook Ireland to respond to the charges within four weeks. Facebook’s international efforts are based in Ireland and serve 80 percent of its users worldwide.

Shortly after Schrems announced the lawsuit and called upon Europeans and anyone outside the U.S. and Canada to join him, the lawsuit reached its maximum number of claimants with 25,000 people joining the suit. An additional 35,000 pledged their support for the privacy lawsuit, should it be expanded to include more claimants, bringing the total number of people suing Facebook for violating privacy laws above 60,000.

Among other things, Schrems is suing Facebook for providing user data (including private messages) to the National Security Agency for its massive, data-mining PRISM program. He is also hoping to hold Facebook’s collective feet to the EU Data-Protection Directive fire, which is meant to protect European Union citizens from the very kinds of intrusive activities practiced by both the NSA and Facebook. (The US has nothing comparable.) “Our aim is to make Facebook finally operate lawfully in the area of data protection,” he said.

Another suit against Facebook, this one closer to home:

A Texas woman is suing Facebook for $123 million dollars. Allegedly, the social media company failed to take down a fake profile that was created with the intent to publicly humiliate her. The woman, Meryem Ali, claims that the profile displayed her name alongside photos of her face photoshopped onto pornographic images.

(Photo by zeevveez.)

The Failure Of Diversity

by Sue Halpern

University Of Birmingham Hold Degree Congregations

Over the past few years we’ve read debate after debate about the value of a college degree, about the value of studying the humanities, about the value–not!–of an Ivy League education. We’ve learned that it still pays to go to college since college grads earn more than those who without a degree. We’ve learned that English majors do better than promoters of STEM education might have us believe. We’ve learned that this bit of information has not been shared with some university administrators and legislators, who would like to eliminate such “useless” degree programs. We’ve learned that there aren’t as many STEM jobs as we’ve been lead to think there are, but we’ve also learned that math and computer science graduates make more money than, say, psych majors. We’ve learned from a former Yale professor (though we’ve heard it before) that his colleagues at big, fancy research institutions don’t really value interacting with students. We’ve learned, from students and alumnae at some of those places, that that’s not always the case. (As I learned yesterday from a video posted on this site, “the plural of anecdote is not data.”)

But what may be the most pertinent piece of information has emerged this summer comes from a pair of government studies, reported yesterday in The New York Times, that show that despite all efforts at “diversity,” American colleges and universities have made essentially no gains in opening their doors to the poor and less-well-off. And this despite the fact that the number of high achieving students from poor families has substantially increased.  

Another study, of the most selective colleges in the country, found that

from 2001 to 2009, a period of major increases in financial aid at those schools, enrollment of students from the bottom 40 percent of family incomes increased from just 10 percent to 11 percent.

Education experts offer numerous explanations for this flat line: these are students without role models and without parents who have attended college so they do not know what is possible; these are families who look at the sticker price–now over $60,000 in some cases–and don’t know that financial aid might knock that down to something reasonable; these are schools that don’t do a great job of seeking out the best-and-the brightest from low income backgrounds. According to Cappy Hill, the president of Vassar, a school that has made an effort to enroll these students, and has succeeded, “There has to be a commitment to go out and find them.”

It may be, though, that it is precisely commitment that is lacking:

“A lot of it is just about money, because each additional low-income student you enroll costs you a lot in financial aid,” said Michael N. Bastedo, director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. “No one is going to talk openly and say, ‘Oh, we’re not making low-income students a priority.’ But enrollment management is so sophisticated that they know pretty clearly how much each student would cost.”

Colleges generally spend 4 percent to 5 percent of their endowments per year on financial aid, prompting some administrators to cite this rough math: Sustaining one poor student who needs $45,000 a year in aid requires $1 million in endowment devoted to that purpose; 100 of them require $100 million. Only the wealthiest schools can do that, and build new laboratories, renovate dining halls, provide small classes and bid for top professors.

The rankings published by U.S. News and World Report, and others, also play a major role. The rankings reward spending on facilities and faculty, but most pay little or no attention to financial aid and diversity.

Here’s a plan: Next time you hear a college with which you are affiliated touting its diversity statistics, dig deeper. Critical Inquiry: the true value of the liberal arts.

(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Love In The Ruins

by Sue Halpern

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For the past five years I have spent every Tuesday with my dog at our local public nursing home, and in the time have spent many hours with people with dementia. I say dementia, the generic, rather than Alzheimer’s, because many residents have varying degrees of memory loss, not all of it clinically diagnosed AD, though they often present in the same way: confusion, trouble with the tasks of daily care, disorientation. Until recently, Alzheimer’s was only diagnosed upon death and autopsy, so that it didn’t really matter what you called what was going on. What mattered was that it was going on. I have seen Alzheimer’s brains–they are distinctive, surrounded by what appears to be an ever-expanding moat of cerebral spinal fluid. Brain images often tend to be beautiful, colorful. They look like weather maps, which can be beautiful, too, even as the category five hurricane is approaching.

I would like to say that people with dementia, despite their debilities, retain their essence, and from what I’ve seen, that is true for some. Or, it is true for some, some of the time. What I mean by this is that they can be generous or funny or kind, even when they don’t know who you are, or who they are, or where they are. The dog can help. People touch her and it brings them into the moment and there is a connection, a spark, and for a while there is light.

But of course, over five years, I have watched people lose their words and lose their way. And I have watched, with a kind of displaced gratitude, the devotion of family members, even when that loss encompasses them. I use the words “family members” loosely. I don’t always know how people are related, only that they are in some fundamental way. There are days when I can be slapped out of the  despair that comes from knowing what is going on in the larger world, by watching a man brushing his wife’s hair, or a daughter holding her mother’s hand as they walk down the hall. I don’t doubt for a moment that there isn’t despair there, but tempered by love, it bends.

This is what I see in Banker White’s beautiful rendering of his mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s. He set out to document her decline, and he does, but all the while another image–a stronger image, of love made tangible–appears in every frame.