Is Loneliness Contagious?

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Humans live in an interconnected, interdependent world. This is true for all social species. These facts have led researchers to study the effects of social isolation for many different types of animals. What they have found is that, for instance, isolation decreases the lifespan of the fruit fly, and leads to type II diabetes and obesity in mice. They have also found that, in rhesus monkeys, isolation negatively effects their psychological and sexual development. The effects of isolation can be even more profound in humans perhaps because our kids have the longest period of dependency of any species. Researchers have also discovered that it is not the objective number of social contacts that predicts loneliness, but rather our perceived feelings of social isolation.

Recently, researchers have been looking at how loneliness spreads within communities. In a 2009 edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology researchers John Cacioppo, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler looked at this question more closely. The researchers looked at data from a famous medical study that tracked people from a small town over a close to 40-year period. Cacioppo and his colleagues were looking for patterns of connection, loneliness and isolation.

The researchers were able to rule out two different hypotheses. First, that lonely people attract other lonely people. Second, that the environment that lonely people were in was creating their sense of loneliness. For instance, that going away to college or getting divorced led to persistent or increased loneliness. Instead, what they found was that loneliness acts rather like a contagion, and that it spreads through face-to-face discussions and disclosures. In effect, they found that lonely people tend to make non-lonely people, lonely. Furthermore, they found that this phenomenon is evident to three degrees.  That is, that lonely people make friends of friends, of friends, lonelier.

UK schools to declare war on parents

Angry TeacherHot on the heels of last week’s story about U.K. teachers who believe that parents are failing to provide their kids with basic skills, the Telegraph reports that a U.K. government study is recommending fines for parents based on their children’s school behaviour. Sir Alan Steer was asked to review behaviour control methods in state schools after it was revealed that some schools were giving out thousands of pounds in rewards for students’ good behaviour, including game consoles and plasma TVs. At the same time, surveys indicated that, on average, nearly an hour of instructional time was lost per day because of inappropriate behaviour in high schools, while more than 60% of teachers were not aware of their right to discipline their students.

Sir Alan has previously recommended that schools avoid concentrating children with behaviour problems in the same classes, and suggested that vocational schools be established for expelled students. His report suggests that schools be given a set of guidelines aimed at imposing order. Schools will be able to apply to courts for a parenting contract, requiring parents to attend parenting classes; fines of up to £1000 can be levied against those who fail to attend. Guidelines for detention will be provided to schools as well. Teachers will be made aware that they can confiscate students’ electronics (such as cell phones and iPods), and “time out” rooms are also expected to be recommended.

High fluoride levels may affect cognitive development

Some recent research suggests that children growing up in areas where there are high concentrations of fluoride in their drinking water have lower IQ scores. Several studies, many of them conducted in China, have found a link between a decrease in IQ and fluoride concentrations. Health Canada recently recommended a reduction in the maximum amount of fluoride added to drinking water, but this was meant to reduce the risk of fluorosis, a mottling of children’s teeth. The Canadian agency has concluded that the “weight of evidence” does not support a fluoride – IQ link. Unsurprisingly, dentists agree, although I’m not sure how dentists would measure IQ!

A systematic review of studies examining connections between cognitive scores and fluoride levels was conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto. Their review indicated that, although the evidence is not conclusive, there are at least 20 studies reporting a significant drop in IQ scores for children in high-fluoride areas.

You can read more here, here, and here.

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It's Now or Never – Graduation, Motivation, and Celebration

This week our eldest son graduated from kindergarten. This is most certainly something that did not happen when I was his age. It reflects the increased level of respect granted to kids over the years and the pride that parents have decided to take in their childrens’ most modest accomplishments. My son was looking forward to my wife and I being there. All week long  he practiced the play his class would perform for us. All the kids seemed to enjoy the attention and celebration surrounding their last day of kindergarten, although the true meaning of the day was more evident to the parents than to the kids. As adults, we come to realize that everything we currently enjoy will one day fade away or be taken from us abruptly. While abrupt changes to the pleasures of life are more obvious (i.e., the death of a loved one, sudden illness), the pleasures that mysteriously fade with time are not predictable, are not typically anticipated, and are mostly beyond our control. When the song, food, movie, friendship, or activity that we used to love, loses its ability to intrigue and motivate us, it happens so gradually as to be imperceptable until it is over. It can sometimes surprise and sadden us at the same time. These mini-life cycles, within our lives, need to be highlighted. Celebrating kindergarten is one example of appreciating moments of pleasure that would otherwise pass and leave us surprised and saddened by the imperceptable passing of a time that will never again return. Of course, pleasant memories remain, but the experience – in real time – will have passed never to return again. Celebrating kindergarten is an example of living life in the moment and appreciating the moment before it fades into the past.