Deep end of the gene pool.

Often when I read some fascinating piece in The New York Times about mental health, addiction or behavior…I look up and see reporter Benedict Carey’s byline on it. The piece headlined “Genes as Mirrors of Life Experiences” in the online edition is the latest one to catch my eye.

The piece is about “epigenetics” — the study of how our life experiences and surroundings affect gene function. This is all new to me — and mind-boggling stuff. I long ago came to understand how my paternal forebears’ addictions took up residence in my genes’ neighborhood, but this? Whoa.

Carey writes:

“In studies of rats, researchers have shown that affectionate mothering alters the expression of genes, allowing them to dampen their physiological response to stress. These biological buffers are then passed on to the next generation: rodents and nonhuman primates biologically primed to handle stress tend to be more nurturing to their own offspring, and the system is thought to work similarly in humans.

Epigenetic markers may likewise hinder normal development: the offspring of parents who experience famine are at heightened risk for developing schizophrenia, some research suggests — perhaps because of the chemical signatures on the genes that parents pass on….”

The children of Holocaust survivors, offspring of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, descendants of successful, happy folks…all those genes carry their own back story, it seems.

Read the whole story here.

Escapist reading has its uses.

If you wait long enough, your favorite theories will be proven by some researcher, somewhere. If you’re very lucky, the research will be explained by a talented reporter.

Some years ago I returned to college as a full-time student. It was the first time I’d studied for exams in more than 20 years. Okay, if I’m honest, it was probably the first time I’d ever studied for exams, period.

I discovered a technique, by accident, that helped me retain information. The week before exams, I read through my notes from textbook readings and class lectures.  I read those notes for 30 minutes or so, then took a break. During the break I read a trashy period-piece novel with very detailed descriptions of places, furnishings and clothing. It had a plot so predictable that it took almost no thinking to absorb what was going on.

I aced the exam.

Now perhaps I know why it worked. As reporter Ben Carey explains in The New York Times:

The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

It’s not exactly what Carey is describing, but close. For me “background associations” were not the physical rooms in which I studied, but the places I saw in my mind while reading the novel.

This is cool stuff. Read Carey’s piece, here.

And the next time you have to read and learn material, try switching locations. If nothing else, it will acquaint you with new coffee shops.

All the news that fits. And solves.

I’ve only read some of the stories and ads in three sections in Sunday’s New York Times (Book Review, Business and Week in Review) and here’s what I’ve already learned:

Most new fiction is deeply flawed. A five-line letter from Ronald Reagan to his old actress friend Kitty Carlisle Hart is worth $6,100. Whales and dolphins are as smart as we are, and probably nicer. Congo is still the rape capital on earth. Congress still has absolutely no balls when it comes to regulating Wall Street. Our cellphones are built with materials that are obtained at human cost. Author Danielle Steele and legal pot growers in Colorado work harder than the rest of us. Camile Paglia says “female Viagra” pharmaceuticals will not cure the sexual malaise blanketing America.

It seems so clear:

Send sexually disappointed whiners to witness real problems in Congo.  Sell collections of witless Presidential missives as e-books in order to fund the increased cost of cruelty-free cellphone manufacturing. Deploy the hyper-prolific Ms. Steele to the pot-growing operations for one week. Swear in Ms. Paglia, stand her up in front of Congress, and let her spell it out for them: No balls, no glory.

If that last thing doesn’t work, vote for a whale or a dolphin next time.

77 Words: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot (Crown, 2010) -

Cells from Henrietta Lacks, a cancer patient in the 1950s, started something that seems more magical than scientific. Johns Hopkins doctors who took the cells from Lacks, a poor African American farmer, never imagined creating HeLa – the “immortal” cells grown in culture that live on and save lives around the world. This is tireless, deep reporting sensitively done and written with unusual clarity. The very talented Skloot erases the line between lab and humanity with inspiring deftness.
(For more “77 Words: Tiny Book Reviews, click here.)

High-risk sleepwalking

When I read “Raiding the Refrigerator, but Still Asleep” by Randi Hutter Epstein in The New York Times, I immediately had two questions:

1. Whoa! Do people actually binge eat in their sleep?

2. Do people do this in poor countries, or just in places where there’s a lot of extra food sitting around?

Epstein’s good reporting and respectful treatment of this makes one take it seriously:

“Consequences of nighttime eating can include injuries like black eyes from walking into a wall or hand cuts from a prep knife, or dental problems from gnawing on frozen food. On a deeper level, many sleep eaters feel depressed, frustrated and ashamed. Upwards of 10 percent of adults suffer from some sort of parasomnia, or sleep disorder, like sleepwalking or night terrors. Some have driven cars or performed inappropriate sexual acts — all while in a sleep-induced fog.”

There’s another thing I wonder about: Why don’t such nocturnal wanderings include chores? Does anyone fold laundry while sleepwalking? Clean out the spice cabinet? Give the dog his ear drops? Vote on health-care legislation?

Wait, nix that last question. I know the answer. 212 members of the US House of Representatives sleepwalked through a vote on March 21. Fortunately 219 of their colleagues were wide awake.

Gimme five so I can blog faster

Human touch is a powerful language, says a study written about by Ben Carey of The New York Times. The story says a range of emotions can be shown, or triggered, by the most casual interactions, such as a slap on the back or a high-five.

Touch makes people feel better and even excel at things they do. I think back to that boss who often gave me an encouraging shoulder whack on deadline.  I probably worked harder in that job, or at least rose above the chaos with some success.  (I’m not talking about the creepy grabber-boss here, mind you.)

Read Carey’s story; he’s a fine reporter and always a strong writer. This time he slipped in a clever last paragraph, so pay attention.

God is in the details…and the DNA

We humans hunt, gather, mate…and we instinctively reach out for something bigger than ourselves. We’ve evolved over zillions of years and all these behaviors seem to be wired into us, according to a tantalizingly short New York Times article, “The Evolution of the God Gene.”

Archaeologists in Mexico are the source for this provocative view. Their fascinating work has turned up more than worship spaces from 7,000 B.C., it has fueled the idea (for the NYT reporter Nicolas Wade anyway) that our need to believe in some kind of creator figure is not just the result of learned social norms…it is part of our cells and gray matter.

As Wade points out, this could shake up the religious and atheist alike. One side wants religion to be divine-inspired, the other regards it as superstitious voodoo. Wade goes on to assure both sides that there is no need to feel threatened, that this notion of a “God gene” doesn’t refute either position.

This passage also caught my eye:

“The ancestral human population of 50,000 years ago, to judge from living hunter-gatherers, would have lived in small, egalitarian groups without chiefs or headmen. Religion served them as an invisible government. It bound people together, committing them to put their community’s needs ahead of their own self-interest. For fear of divine punishment, people followed rules of self-restraint toward members of the community.”

That’s as cogent a description of religious community as I’ve ever seen. I’m going to save it in a file somewhere, like a good poem.

Here’s why I like it:

Religion is more often seen as a personal and elected thing in our society, but in fact it really is still an “invisible government.” Even if you do not believe that bad acts will send you to Hell, even if you never set foot in a house of worship; even if you do not believe that there is any greater force that influences the universe, you are still tethered to this government.

After reading the article, my mind wandered to a dear friend of mine who was raised as a Roman Catholic and who left the Church decades ago. When asked if he believes in God, he firmly says, “No.” Yet the rules he lives by are remarkably similar to, say, the Ten Commandments.

Also, I don’t want to speak for Jesus, but I’m pretty sure that if he came back, he’d give my friend a hearty high-five for all the clothing/feeding/caring for the poor, halt and lame that my buddy has done, all while politely eschewing God with a capital G. For that matter, the good this friend quietly does in his own small sphere is none other than the tikkun olam, the “repairing the world” that my rabbi endorses.

Yes, yes, I know. These things can be said to be morals or ethics, not religion. (In fact, I bet that’s how my friend labels them.) True. But it makes sense to me that this God-ish DNA is behind them, whatever labels we slap on.

More than once I’ve rolled my eyes at said friend when he does the no-God-for-me riff. Now I have a different way to think about this.

Somewhere back in time, when flippers gave way to feet and our ancestors plodded up on land and started considering condo development, they also developed wiring that drives us to create the invisible governments we need.

I buy that.

Try taking these with that puny little iPhone

This surely violates copyright law, but I’m going to risk it to draw attention to what has to be the most wonderful collection of photos to grace a website.

These Smithsonian magazine shots give our solar system its due: shockingly beautiful in its alternating moods of violence and calm. The pictures originated during various space-exploration missions and I don’t think have been grouped this way before, displayed with such clarity.

Saturn, of course, is absolutely the best planet, just by virtue of its ever-present accessories. But the moons of Jupiter and Neptune look pretty snappy here too. Click through all the photos using the panel of dots below the description–and feel free to add appropriate background music of your choosing. (Viewers of a certain vintage might want to dig out the “Trick of the Tail” album by Genesis.)

I did experience one reality check: I was delighted when the first good photos of Mars started coming back, but these much sharper shots make it look like the site of the Burning Man gathering. Sorry, but I just can’t get excited about any event involving a lot of strangers in the desert unless it takes place on a big screen with Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif nearby.

The article accompanying these photos is a delight too. (Not always the case with such pieces.) Writer Laura Helmuth has a fine touch that works for the science nerd and layreader alike. She writes this about Saturn’s moons:

Titan, the largest (bigger even than Mercury), has lakes of supercool methane and slushy eruptions of a water-ammonia mix. Enceladus is riddled with geysers so powerful they feed matter into Saturn’s rings. Rhea may have its own rings. Saturn is practically a solar system unto itself.”

If you too once spent many happy hours constructing a shaky model of the solar system involving a lot of toothpicks and ping-pong balls, this is your chance to be transported again.

Happy hour in the woods, that’s the ticket

Why is it that every new revelation about boosting brainpower requires pursuing some pastime I’ve taken great pains to avoid?

The two examples that prompted this worry:

A brief piece in The New York Times claims “moderate drinking” after age 60 reduces the odds of developing dementia.

A fascinating essay that ran some months back in the Boston Globe, and was given to me by a friend yesterday. It says urban settings jumble the mind and reduce ability to concentrate, while greener, leafier surroundings have the opposite effect. (“How a city hurts your brain…and what you can do about it” by Jonah Lehrer.)

Now, with my gene pool, the likelihood of my practicing “moderate drinking” is roughly the same as indulging in “occasional invisibility.” So that leaves the rural-settings-are-better issue. That sound you hear is my heart sinking. My natural habitat is pavement, and I like my big blue skies best on a large multiplex screen.

Lehrer is utterly convincing when he explains just how a walk along a crowded city sidewalk causes our memories to short-circuit, nerves to fray and our self-control to erode. This is straightforward stuff, not windy theory.

The worst part is the connection between urban chaos and splurging. The same part of the brain monitors both things, and once you’ve busied the prefrontal cortex by dodging skateboarders and purse-snatchers, it’s hard to say no to a $3.65 cup of coffee. (At last, an answer to the question of why Starbucks locates stores so close together on city blocks.)

Embracing nature at this point in my life is unlikely. The sight of more than two trees together makes me nervous, as do chirping crickets, swooping birds, rustling grasses and large amounts of (unbottled) still water. (A fountain is fine. As long as I can hear sirens over the rushing water.)

I’m clinging to Lehrer’s point that “studies have found that even a relatively paltry patch of nature can confer benefits.” I hope this is true, because I’m thinking of borrowing some technology from the Seasonal Affective Disorder folks — you know, the ones who stare into those bright indoor lights to get over the winter blues?

Instead of lightbulbs, I’ll set up a small basket of potted plants and a strip of sod on the coffee table. I’ll ease into the habit of sitting quietly in front of it for a few minutes a day.

I’m wondering; would it be cheating to put part of a gum wrapper and some tiny pieces of broken glass in there? You know, just until I get used to spending time in the country.

One small step

The brief profile of astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the June 21 New York Times Sunday Magazine delighted me. He’s a hero of mine, and his dry sense of humor comes through in Deborah Solomon’s column.

When men first walked on the moon 40 years ago, it was big news at Camp Teela-Wooket in Roxbury, Vt. We were allowed to stay up and watch the one night of television we’d see during the month of July 1969. Most campers fell asleep before Neil Armstrong emerged for his walk; I was wide awake.

I was 10, away from home for the first time and for a month, wearing a uniform of stiffly starched light-blue cotton shorts, matching button-down camp shirt and precisely knotted red neck scarf. My mother, who suspected that even the Girl Scouts were a Fascist front, had allowed me to do this only because she was recovering from a near-death illness, and because I begged.

“But you’re sewing all those damn name-tags in your clothes,” she warned. I was probably 20 before I tossed out the last garment with that little blue-lettered KIMMIE MARLOWE tag sewn in with my ragged Frankensteinian stitches.

I fell in love with both camp and the space program that summer, and for some of the same reasons. Both transported me to a new place, the latter with nearly infinite possibilities.

If there has been any other event in my lifetime that’s appealed to such a broad swath of Americans, I don’t know what it is. Especially in the turmoil of the ’60s, it was rare for people in my world to agree on anything.

“If you were a boy, I’d shoot you in the knee myself to keep you from going to Vietnam,” my mother declared. My father wished our gutless enemies (any or all of them) would try to come ashore in New England where the flinty locals would set them straight. “They’d never get past the beach.”

Space travel, though, was fine all around. It was art, poetry, history, science, triumph (we kicked Russian butt!) and it united people in a way usually seen only during tragedies. There was a place out there without war or race riots or arguments over too-long hair and too-short skirts.

I’m surprised by the casual disregard for the space program now. Most of the time the launches and landings of our spacecraft are barely mentioned on the news. The idea of an orbiting workplace for scientists of both sexes and from many nations is no big deal.

It’s still a big deal for me. When I sit down at my computer in the morning, with its desktop background a NASA shot looking back at Earth, I get a tiny flash of what I felt in front of the TV that night the first big boot touched the powdery moon:

I am 10, my name-tags are securely in place; the heavens and the future are exactly the same thing.