Roaring….with laughter

15 07 2011

I am told I have a loud laugh. When I go on holidays, that is what the office notices – it’s suddenly quiet. (I like to flatter myself that they miss other things as well, but somehow this is what is commented on.)

I laugh at lots of things. Often, I laugh at myself. I laugh at my reactions to various things that happen around the office – “wins”, setbacks, frustrations, mistakes and miscommunications. I laugh if something is amusing. I laugh if something takes me by surprise. I laugh in staff meetings when we report back on some of the funny things that happen in our workdays, some of the strange problems I get to deal with (currently I have a sunken boat I need to get raised – so far out of my prior field experience, it seems bizarre to contemplate). I laugh at the differences in perceptions between myself and others – we all come from our own point of view and the difference between those perspectives is often enormous.

All in all, humour works very well for me. I hope the office understands that they can talk to me about pretty much anything. If I explode it will be with laughter, and then we can sit down and work our way through the problem. Laughter is the best medicine, as they say.

I now have a PA who (as well as having an excellent can-do attitude and being very talented) has a very loud laugh and laughs often. We have become a very noisy end of the office. I don’t think that is a bad thing. The sound of laughter, even if you aren’t in on the joke, sets a pleasant tone, cutting through tensions and underlining that you can enjoy your time at work, even when you are under pressure. People want to be here and they want to work here. Why would you want to work somewhere where everyone is miserable?

We use humour in our staff newsletters. As well as valuing incidental humour such as in staff profiles (which they write themselves), we also have jokes and brain-teasers interspersed with the more serious aspects of the newsletter. Hopefully that not only sets the tone for the entire newsletter, but keeps people reading.

I should be clear that none of the laughter is mean. We aren’t laughing at others, and we have an appropriate seriousness with the sad and bad things we sometimes have to deal with in the human services field. We occasionally laugh at our reaction to others and to events, but not at people, clients or staff. The laughter is underpinned by a compassionate view of the world.

And so a study from the University of Kent that found that positive reframing using humour also had beneficial effects on satisfaction comes as no surprise. Positive morale is good for developing a self-motivated cohesive team. But it is also a quality issue. Positive morale is linked to good judgement – decision making.

So maybe one of the most important things I can do at work is develop a positive team morale. As well as making it a more pleasant place for staff, it is so much more enjoyable for me to go to work there as well.


when the animals rule…

14 07 2011

So a fish has now been photographed using a tool to bash open a shellfish. We humans are in trouble.

Personally, I have been waiting for the day that the animals took over. I swear our dog is so clever and domineering, if he had opposable thumbs he would be ruling the house by now. He can unmake beds and turn them into dog-nests. He can open doors. He is particularly good at hitting unwary visitors in the back of the knees to make them buckle (consider yourself warned).

However the honour of ruling our house currently sits with the rabbit. The rabbit is a new addition to the menagerie. He lives indoors in a hutch and gets given the run of our tiled area twice a day. Yes, he is house trained. More-so than the children are anyway.

Now you would think in a house of two dogs and a rabbit, the pecking order would be pretty well established. In the wild, dogs hunt and eat rabbits. Apparently no-one has let our animals know this. The rabbit chases the dogs away from the dog food, and proceeds to eat it. (I need to talk to the vet about whether rabbits should be carnivores – it certainly wasn’t on the list of instructions we were given.) The rabbit rounds the dogs up. All in all, the rabbit treats the dogs with the disdain that they deserve. Call themselves dogs? Gotta be joking.

To be fair however, the rabbit also has the humans trained. When he wants attention – food, a run, etc, he thumps on his hutch floor. Repeatedly. No matter what time of day or night. It is very hard to sleep through a rabbit thumping every ten seconds after about ten minutes.

However, I digress. If animals are smart enough to open doors and use tools – what next? This was supposed to be one of the major defining characteristics between higher order apes (such as us) and other animals. Who’s to say they can’t communicate.

I don’t want you to be paranoid or anything….but maybe they are plotting a take-over. They couldn’t make any more of a mess than we have.

Singing in my head

11 07 2011

for reasons of patient confidentiality, this is not the actual stroke choir) photo credit: laihiu

Last week I went to the first performance of a choir. This choir was a little different from most choirs – they couldn’t speak. Each of them had lost the ability to speak to some degree through stroke or brain injury. But they could sing.

One man stood at the front and sang American Pie. His normal speech is unintelligible, but he sang this familiar classic clearly. The choir and the audience joined in the chorus.

The audience was, for the most part, family and friends. Small children, wives, adult children – some hadn’t heard their loved one speak in years, and yet there they were singing.

A staple of the self-help gurus is the saying “you are only using 10% of your brain capacity”. Clearly this is untrue, it’s a sales pitch – but we are only just beginning to understand the possibilities that brain science might bring.

The old view of the brain was that it was hardwired. A fixed neuronal circuitry which, like an electrical circuit, if broken, remained broken. If a circuit was broken, then you lost that function. Now there is a better understanding of brain plasticity. When one section of the brain is unable to perform, another area may be able to take over the same function.

Similarly, people who have lost the ability to speak, may still be able to sing. Speech is controlled by the left side of the brain, whereas singing is shared by both hemispheres. The functions seem the same – the ability to communicate through enunciation of words. But because different areas of the brain are involved, if the speech centre is damaged through trauma, they may still be able to sing. And through practice, some may be able to slow their singing so that it comes out of their mouth as speech. The inspiration for the Adelaide choir, a Melbourne woman called Wendy Lyons, calls it “singing in your head”.

At the very least, the choir participants are enjoying a social outing. They also get breathing training, posture training, which can affect their health, sense of taste and wellbeing, all through a therapy session which is actually fun, and in which they want to participate.

And occasionally, a miracle occurs.

Retune Choir is a joint venture by Talkback SA, Stroke SA and Hampstead Rehabilitation Centre. Proudly supported by the City of Port Adelaide Enfield.

Ode to the Psychic Fruit Fly

10 07 2011

Ah, the multi-talented fruit fly, staple of genetics experiments the world over…..

Now poised to take over the role of the recently departed and sadly lamented “Paul”, the psychic German Octopus, font of predictive knowledge for soccer games (although of course, being German, he would have known them as football, not soccer).

At this stage the Fruit Flies have an almost amazing ability to predict the outcome of matches incorrectly….which, as the winner of several footy-tipping wooden spoons, I contend is surely a talent. Also, as fruit flies have six legs and Paul presumably had eight, they are probably at a mathematical disadvantage. Which may or may not be relevant.

If we discover that fruit flies are in fact psychic, will that undo years of research? Maybe they knew what we wanted them to do all along…..Were they just humouring us? Will we have to reconsider how the genetic pool continues to replicate itself in recombinant forms?

Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this little ray of metaphysical hope to an otherwise dull logical world.

PS – OK, I accept Ode was probably false advertising. A glass of wine was possibly involved in the writing of this post.

The impact of Marshmallows on the DS generation

10 07 2011

In 1972 Professor Walter Mischel at Stanford University devised a novel way to torment small children.

It should be noted that tormenting small children was not the aim of the study. The aim was to see what techniques some children used to overcome temptation and the differences to those used by children who surrendered to temptation. It was only when it was followed up years later when the children were teenagers that the impact of this ability to delay gratification on the rest of their lives began to become clear.

The study went something like this. A small child, aged approximately 3 to 5 years of age was led into a room where there were a number of treats on display. These included the eponymous marshmallow. The child was allowed to select one treat. At the point at which they were about to consume the treat, the researcher offered them a deal.

One marshmallow now. Or, wait a few minutes and have two marshmallows when the researcher came back. There was a third option – if you chose to wait then changed your mind, you could ring a bell, the researcher would return but you only got one marshmallow. Approximately 30% of children were able to wait and get two marshmallows.

The Marshmallow Experiment is probably well-known to anyone who has done Intro Psych. When followed up as teenagers, those who were able to delay gratification had higher grades. Even later on, those who were unable to delay gratification were more likely to use drugs or be overweight. The ability to wait to get a better reward rather than gobbling up quick and easy rewards now seemed to be a fundamental precursor to success.

Delayed gratification was seem as aligned to long term goals and perseverance – study to get a degree, save to buy a house, start a business. All of these things require a long-term view of life, to understand why it is worth persevering with something that is not immediately rewarding.

So how does this impact on the DS generation? OK, so to start with I am not anti-DS games. I would never have survived long car-trips with my children without plugging them into Mario-kart and Pokemon. And I am quite a fan of the Tomb-raider Series for Playstation (although Lara Croft’s impossible figure and flexibility puts Barbie to shame in terms of physical impossibility).

But if you are going to learn something new, you practice. And what my children are practicing on DS / Playstation / Xbox / Wii etc is a warped version of Newton’s third law of motion – every action receives an immediate reaction. Neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield warns that the impact of screen-culture is to develop shorter attention spans, reliance on instant gratification and self-centredness. And this is what children’s growing, developing, learning brains are being trained to.

The other thing they are learning is that entertainment comes from external input. They have no tolerance for boredom. My response “It’s good to be bored – it makes your brain work to entertain you” was recently echoed in an Advertiser article, which is now, to my children’s disgust, laminated and stuck to the fridge door. If it’s printed in a newspaper, it must be right, right? The children remain unconvinced.

As well as my annoying sayings, the second front in the fight-back – less welcome – is “No-Screen Sunday”. From first thing in the morning until 5pm at night, there are no screens on. No TV, no computers, no DS. The only exception is for homework.

At first, of course, I was the meanest mother in the world (I have explained that “mean” is part of the job description but they look at me blankly). But gradually, they have actually started playing together, reading, riding their bikes. Doing things that involve live human interaction and/or physical movement on their part. Maybe I am channelling my 1970’s childhood, but it seems like a good thing.

There’s no getting away from screen culture. It is here to stay. Many jobs are dependent on screens, study now requires computer literacy for researching, writing and submitting. My current study and much of my last two degrees were conducted online. It is a major form of entertainment and a source of information.

But No Screen Sunday just goes to show, there is life after all.

PS: The New Yorker printed an amusing story about one child who worked out where the other treats were being stored, broke into it and helped himself. According to most of the “Success” coaches who coach thinking differently and not being limited by externally imposed rules, this child should be the most successful of all. Or perhaps a criminal. Turns out he works in the creative arts industry. Maybe a different type of thinking is good for a different type of success.

If you liked this posting you might also like Where are they now?

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9 07 2011

A recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “The Insidious Evils of ‘Like’ Culture” talked about the effect that this infectious facet of Facebook has had on western culture.

The thumbs-up sign, as hijacked by Facebook, is now a universally recognised, if somewhat vague, i-symbol.

As a Facebook afficionado, I am certainly a fan of the “like” button. On my ipad Facebook function, where I can’t “like” other people’s comments, I frequently type in *Like*. I feel a need to spread the love and connect.

But what does *Like* mean? I am a subscriber to several news services Facebook Pages, and have seen examples where people have “liked” some pretty horrible stories. In this shorthand culture, it is hard to know, but I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they weren’t thinking too deeply about what they were “liking”. It was more a registration that they had read it. I hope.

So maybe it’s less about liking something (although it does still have that function). Maybe it’s shorthand for an acknowledgement, a recognition or on some level, agreement with the sentiments, or at least some aspect, of the post. At its most basic level, it is almost a popularity measure – which are the sentiments that gather the most agreement?

And it was this aspect that the Wall Street Journal Article was concerned with: the effect the popularity contest aspect was having on culture and on our ability to think.

Do we, craving acceptance, edit and re-edit our online messages like Pavlovian dogs, repeatedly regurgitating those aspects of our lives that are positively reinforced, and editing out the less acceptable bits? And, layering onto that our 30-second concentration span, does this mean any thought which takes more than 30 seconds to digest and hence doesn’t collect a series of *likes*, is edited out of our online personalities – and possibly our real lives as well?

How does this build a culture of intellectual thought? Or are we pandering to the lowest common denominator. In a world where ability to delay gratification is linked to success in most areas of life….how is this instant popularity contest affecting what we are exposed to through our online interactions. With Facebook now the most visited site and accounting for more internet traffic than pornography (apparently its true!), it is a significant indicator and driver of our culture. More than a neutral channel, the way Facebook works is changing the way we access information and the way information is presented to us.

And if its all down to a popularity contest…..then we’re in trouble.

Please *like* this blog!

Wall Street Journal July 2, 2011
The Insidious Evils of ‘Like” Culture (Neil Strauss)