The Circle of Security

Half a dozen mothers are watching videos of themselves caring for their toddlers, taped in their homes a week or two before. The videos present a montage of each of the mothers with their toddlers in warm moments. The soundtrack: the song “You Are so Beautiful.”

“That is the song,” the group leader tells them, “your children are singing to you.”

The point of the meetings is for each mother to become more aware of her strengths at mothering, and to try to get better at habits that need improvement. So over the ensuing weeks, they will see other videos that show their struggles at caregiving – being too intrusive, or tuned-out, or simply missing cues from their toddler about what’s needed.»

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Social Intelligence for Teachers: Looking for Some Help

I’ve been hearing about schools that are beginning to offer teachers courses in social intelligence. This makes good sense. Social neuroscience makes clear that the emotional tone of a classroom can be set to a large extent by the teacher. This means that teachers are able to help students get and stay in better brain states for learning (see chapter 19 of Social Intelligence for details).

The neural wiring between our thinking and emotional centers, neuroscience tells us, means our feelings can either enhance or inhibit the brain’s ability to learn. And now the new field of social neuroscience has shown that while two people interact, their emotional centers impact each other, for better or for worse.»

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This Book Is Not a Tree

“This book is not a tree.”

That modest, if enigmatic, statement holds out hope for the environmental crisis facing our planet. It comes in the prologue to Cradle to Cradle, an inspiring and visionary book by William McDonough, a green architect and designer, and Michael Braungart, a chemist and former chief scientist for Greenpeace. Together they have written a manifesto for a rethinking of the way we manufacture products and use the resources of our planet.

They urge us to go beyond merely recycling, to utterly rethinking what goes into the things we use so that they when we finish with them they can re-join nature’s cycles rather than simply become clutter in a toxic landfill.»

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Transparency is Inevitable

This essay is also available at

I live in a bowl-shaped valley on the edge of the Berkshire hills in New England. The prevailing winds come from the southwest. As it happens, a coal-burning electric plant sits in the dip next to the Holyoke Range at the southern edge of the valley, perfectly placed to fill the air with its unsavory mix of particulates – the plant is a dinosaur, one that due to various regulatory loopholes has been able to dodge costly upgrades that would make its emissions less toxic.

Nobody seems to mind. True, the head of pulmonary medicine at the local medical center bemoans the toll of the plant’s particulates on the respiratory tracts of those who live in the valley, particularly its children.»

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The Sweet Spot for Performance

As Congress heads toward debating whether to renew the No Child Left Behind Act, its members might do well to consider the biology of boredom, frazzle and the brain’s sweet spot for performance.

The interplay between being daydreamy, feeling stressed, and effective performance was first codified by Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908, in a shape like an upside-down U with its legs spread. The Yerkes-Dodson Law proposes that when our physiological arousal flags (an indicator of boredom), our performance on any task will be poor. But as we get more aroused – motivated, engaged, enthusiastic – performance picks up to a peak point, the brain’s sweet spot.»

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Mel Gibson’s anti-semitic tirade while being arrested for drunken driving and comedian Michael Richard’s un-Kramerly racist rant after being heckled by a black man drew the predictable condemnations. But when it comes to the damage from insults these highly publicized single episodes pale next to the private, day-to-day variety.

Insults are more than emotional irritations, researchers find. If sustained, they harbor a biological toxicity, a hidden toll sensed by their victims and now assayed by physiological research. The occasional epithet poses little problem; it’s the ongoing assaults that matter, which come less often as outright taunts than disparagement.

Such routine slights are all-too-common, for instance, in rigid hierarchies, where bosses tend to be authoritarian in style, freely expressing contempt for their subordinates and their problems.»

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Secret Santa

He was known as “Secret Santa,” a mysterious white-haired man wearing a red shirt and cap who would hand a stranger in need a wad of cash and make a speedy get-away. He suddenly appeared to dispense his largesse in cities across the country around holiday season, not to be seen again.

Secret Santa started his mission in December 1979 with a gift of $5 to a waitress in a drive-in who was wearing a too-thin jacket on a wintry day. Since then he has traversed the country every holiday season in search of people in need, like the widow of a heroic firefighter, or a mother stranded with her children in a bus station.»

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Happy Days: Friends, Family and Tradition

A radio interviewer in Dublin recently asked me why, in my view, people in Ireland were no happier now that their booming economy had brought them a sudden tide of prosperity. In answering I cited longstanding data showing that once people leave the poverty level and are able to satisfy their basic needs, there is little to no correlation between earnings and happiness. Or, as the Beatles put it, “Money can’t buy you love.” Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-winning psychologist at Princeton University explains the paradox of the unhappy rich in terms of “the hedonic treadmill”: no matter how much more income we earn, it’s never enough to meet the escalation of desires as our material expectations ratchet inexorably upward.»

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The iPod Bubble

I have a friend who has an unusual hyper-sensitivity to sounds. Hearing someone jabbering on a cell phone, or the honking of cars stuck in stop-and-go traffic, or a dog barking sends him a jolt. Worse, he lives in Manhattan.

So when he goes outside he finds a bit of solace by putting on his iPod and turning up the volume, making the city’s soundscape recede into the far distance.

In Social Intelligence I complained about people who “have their ears stuffed with two little headphones from an iPod. They’re dazed, lost in any of scads of tunes on their personalized playlist, oblivious to what’s going on around them—and, more to the point, tuned out of everyone they go by.”

But there’s another perspective: the iPod and its ilk allow us to carve a bit of private space while in public.»

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A Dilbert cartoon shows Dilbert and a co-worker madly clicking away on their Blackberries while a third, who they are ignoring, says, “I don’t believe in Blackberries. I prefer the old ways.” He adds, “The only effective way to communicate is person to person,” while the other two continue clicking, oblivious.

One clicks a message, “What’s he babbling about?” To which the other responds, “Something about being old.” At that the third guy protests, “I’m a person!”

To the extent we turn attention away from those we are with, we treat those who are with us as a virtual object – what Martin Buber called an “It.”

As I describe in Chapter Seven of Social Intelligence, “When other tasks or preoccupations split our attention, the dwindling reserve left for the person we are talking with leaves us operating “on automatic,” paying just enough attention to keep the conversation on track.»

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