Nov 17, 2010

Parenting as Addiction

Okay, so this is a blog quoting a blog quoting another blog, but I don't want to make it look like I found this item all by myself. This is a new post at Freakonomics that I like.

It's a theory that says parents continue procreating even though parenting is hard/miserable/stressful/etc, because they are addicted to the rush they get when their children do something lovely.

I love the economists.
I read stuff like this and my reactions are: recognition, partial agreement, amusement, and exasperation (bloody economists! Have to boil everything down to incentives!).

But it is a funny and clever take on parenthood from a behavioural economics-style perspective.
(Though the original article they quote is by a journalist, not an economist, and is a wonderful read)

I think it's partially true but I do think that the "addiction" to the joyful moments is actually a side-issue, tangentially related to why we "continue to procreate". Isn't the real reason just that it is such a strong biological imperative? This is enough of a reason because it is the basis of all life. All life wants to exist and then pass itself on, that's pretty much what life boils down to in its essentials. No one has to explain or defend procreating, to my mind, when it's such a basic, compelling biological urge - we often feel we more or less have no say in it. 
[Which is not to say everyone has to do it, or life is nothing without it. Not at all.  I don't think anyone needs to explain or defend either state - having children or not having them - both are completely natural states].
The "addiction" factor probably kicked in somewhere along the way as an adaptation that helped the process, but I don't think it is the reason.
It probably is the reason we don't always give into despair and depression at the daily grind, because we do remind ourselves about these "rewards" to balance the hard bits.

But anyway have a read, because it's good. Here's a sampler:

 “The unexpected, kind, and loving things that children do produce chemical surges in their parents’ brains like the rush of the pipe or the needle. Like addicts, parents will sacrifice anything for the glimpses of heaven that their offspring periodically provide.”
-  Shankar Vedantam at Slate, quoted at freakonomics

I like the "periodically" !

Nov 16, 2010

The Feeling of Being Stared At

When I started this blog I was intending to spend more time "researching" (i.e., web-surfing) varied questions and phenomena in the worlds of science, economics and psychology. Then I quickly found that (a) I have no time, and (b) there are thousands of people out there doing this already. Also (c) my knowlege in these areas is even more limited than I thought, and I have a fear of posting about something that it turns out I have completely misunderstood or missed reams of research which has resolved any questions I thought were still outstanding.  It's a long time since I was in the halls of academia...

Case in point:
One of the things that has intrigued me for years is that thing where you "feel" someone watching you, look up and see someone staring at you, or vice versa.

Image: Graur Codrin,

My mother alerted me to this when I was a kid; she told me that when she was a teenager hanging out with her friends if one of them liked a boy they had a trick where they would stare at the back of his head and he would turn around.

This has interested me for years, because it sort of makes sense (evolutionary advantage, awareness of predators etc) and most people have experienced it, but there also seems no physical explanation for it. It's not like you can be picking up subliminal cues* of any kind, unless you are facing a mirror.
Another interesting point is that it only seems to "work" when people are not distracted on things that require a lot of concentration - no matter how much you stare at someone arguing on a telephone or watching the last stretch of a horse race, you will not "make" them turn around.

I had not come across any articles or books on this or even any mention of it in studies in other things, and I wasn't sure how to search to find if any research had been done.

Obviously I hadn't thought to Google "the feeling of being stared at".

Because it turns out there has been lots of research on this (see here and here) and while "the jury is out" to some degree, the non-fringe consensus is that this "phenomenon" has been debunked.

I came across the fact of this research while reading a fantastic book, The Invisible Gorilla (Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, Harper Collins 2010). In the chapter "Get Smart Quick!" they assert that this belief, held by 65% of people, has been "thoroughly debunked" with research going back to 1898. Who knew?!

I'm a bit torn here. Logically speaking I do love a debunking - if it's done well and out of good scientific intentions and not gleeful vindictiveness.
And it's always embarassing to be caught out believing something weird for which there is a simple and natural explanation. (The Invisible Gorilla puts belief in this phenomenon in the same chapter as beliefs about brain training, the Mozart effect and the belief that we only use 10% of our brains. Not great finding yourself in that company).

On the other hand... like a lot of people, I feel like I have tried this and found it to work.
I know it's easy to believe something using selective memory especially when the belief is a seductive one (handy skill, to know when being watched). But still it's hard to resist the feeling that this is a real thing.

Clearly I need to re-experiment with my new perspective and keep a faithful tally of the times people don't turn around, or all the times I look up and don't lock eyes with someone staring at my head.

I shall repair to the lab and report back in due course...

Interesting footnote -
*Just today I came across some research in a related topic, which DOES have a logical, "subliminal cues" explanation: "gaze-following".
There is an interesting post about this on the ScienceBlogs site, about Gaze-Following in Red Footed Tortoises

Nov 15, 2010

How to Put Off Going to Work

Sit in car at carpark.
Pick up phone.
Play move in online scrabble game.
Check blog. Check friend's blog. Check friend of friend's blog. Read comments on blogs.
Consider updating status on Facebook; decide against it.
Day-dream briefly about high-paying part-time job in suburb near home.
Fret briefly about how to manage when kids start school next year.
Shake self out of unhelpful reveries.
Do make-up.
Re-organize contents of bag. Look for whatever is making it so heavy.
Change into work shoes.
Lock car.
Look at other cars and wonder why people bother to back into carpark spaces.
Go up lift to ground floor of building. Cross forecourt to coffee shop and buy half-litre of coffee.
Go back to lift and to office floor.
Walk in.

Bad Parent Dreaming

I woke up this morning sweaty with anxiety, tangled in sheets and the remnants of a mix of disturbing dreams.

I had one dream that I sent one of my girls out to work. As she's only five, I went with her to make sure everything was okay, then I dried her tears and pepped her up and sent her on her way.

In another I took my girls out for ice-cream and couldn't control them. One stole something from a shop, one ran out into the middle of a busy road, and neither would do what I asked, commanded, begged, bribed or cajoled. Then I hit them both until a passerby ran up to stop me. I still remember the feelings of rage, shame and helplessness that I was feeling at that instant.

In a third dream one of the girls was declared a dead ringer for our prime minister (though she looks nothing like her), and I was a pushy star-struck mum who agreed we should all hang out in the PM's entourage (?!), even once I found out that my daughter was being used as a body-double/decoy due to her uncanny resemblance to the PM.

I cannot think of any situation in real life that triggered these dreams. Though we did go out for ice-cream yesterday, the girls were good and no one stole anything or lost control. I have never hit them. No one here resembles the prime minister and I don't want my girls to do anything except be pre-schoolers.

But these dreams do all have the "bad parent" theme in common.

What does this mean - am I anxious about the direction things are going? Or do I secretly fear that maybe I am a bad mother?

Probably the second and I would bet that this is a secret fear that most mothers hold, even when they believe they are doing a good job - as they most assuredly are.

Spring Cleaning

We spent most of yesterday cleaning. Having walked in the door on Thursday to the realisation that "our house smells", we decided Sunday to tackle it. We wacked in a DVD for the kids and got to it.
We moved furniture, threw out junk, bagged clothes and books for giving away, tidied toys (by far the biggest task), did 6 loads of washing, folded and put away the clothes sitting in laundry baskets these last 4 months (suddenly I have lots of "new" clothes!), vacuumed, mopped, carpet-shampooed, cut flowers for a vase on the dining table, mowed lawns and nature strip, and whipper-snippered the weedy edges of the lawns and flower beds.

And there is still lots more to do.

In the afternoon I took the girls to our favourite park and we spent a happy 2 hours while they learned to climb the climbing frame and ran around like two kids who had been cooped up watching DVDs all day.
Then we went for an ice-cream and picked up a pizza for dinner.

All in all one of the most enjoyable and satisfying Sundays we've had in awhile.

Nov 10, 2010


Hmm, long time between posts.
And what has inspired me to retrieve my forgotten password and dust off my account?
Germs in advertisements, which are the same as germs in the corporate workplace: everywhere and extremely dangerous.

I always like those little facts and quotes which talk about how many germs are on given surfaces or in a given environment.  These facts are beside the point in most cases because what they miss is this: in most of the examples given, our body can cope with these germs!

It's disappointing when a "trusted" brand uses this nonsense. Like Dettol. I love Dettol. I am loyal to Dettol. Raised on Dettol baths I have passed on this custom to my kids and I still love to suck the Dettol water off a bath facewasher. I'm not into hand sanitiser, but I bought Dettol hand sanitiser when my girls were in nappies for those messy times out where soap might not be handy.
So imagine - just imagine! - my chagrin when I saw the new Dettol product on TV: a liquid soap dispenser where you don't have to touch the hand-pump, which "could harbour hundreds of germs!"
So it's not good to touch the pump on a soap dispenser because of the danger of the germs. Huh.  As well as being over-the-top worried about normal levels of germs it doesn't even make a lot of sense. I mean, even if a normal soap pump is laden with germs from your toilet-hand when you pump it to get the soap, once you have the soap you then wash your hands, and you don't touch it again (unlike the tap for example). So where are these germs going to go anyway?

Now I'm not a complete cavewoman and I have taken some of the germ advice on. I now put down the toilet lid before I flush, and wash my hands after sneezing or blowing my nose; and when someone is sick in our house, we wash our hands more or less constantly - not out of paranoia or fear of illness itself, but out of hoping to avoid the hell that ensues when parents and kids are sick together, or when each kid falls sick one after the other.

But I really can't bring myself to care - much - when I hear my desktop harbors more germs than a toilet seat. I don't get sick much, so it must not be affecting me!

Now I know this is subjective and everyone has their own approach, so it would be interesting to know: what do you find disgusting, and what doesn't bother you, germ-wise?


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