Utilizing productivity software to schedule family life

Organize your family with Slack, Google Calendar, and Trello (among other options):

Asana said it doesn’t collect data on the various “personal-use cases” its software is put toward. But Joshua Zerkel, the company’s head of global community, says that in talking with people about how they use the product, he hears many say it comes in handy for nonbusiness purposes, such as planning a wedding or a move. When asked how Asana might be designed differently if it were intended for personal use, he said, “I don’t know that that much would actually change.”

“We think of Trello as a tool you can use across work and life,” says Stella Garber, the company’s head of marketing. “The example we had on our homepage for a long time was a kitchen remodel. On our mobile app the example was a Hawaiian vacation. We know humans have a lot of things they need organized, not just what they have at work.” (Slack declined to share any information about how people use its software, and Atlassian, which owns Jira, did not respond to a similar request.)…

Mazmanian says that these programs might be of particular value to households with two working parents, an arrangement that more children grow up with now, compared with a few decades ago. Without one adult in charge of the professional domain and one in charge of the domestic domain, there’s more coordination of who’s in charge of what—which is something productivity tools can assist with.

Perhaps the desire to streamline home life is also a product of how much employers ask of today’s knowledge workers. “I see the use of business software within households as an effort to cope with feeling too stretched at work,” says Erin Kelly, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a co-author of the forthcoming book Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It. She says that the “escalating demands” of many white-collar jobs leave workers (parents or not) increasingly frazzled and worn out—so the same tools that systematize their workdays might appeal as a way to cut down on the time they spend organizing life at home.

There are lots of potential trends converging here including changing labor conditions, changing family life, the rise of productivity software, and the ubiquity of smartphones.

On one hand, this does not seem like a problem at all. Humans have a tendency to use all sorts of mediums in distributed cognition where we can offload our individual responsibility to a helping device or person. Think of making a shopping list: instead of having to spend the energy memorizing a list in our own mind, we write down the items on a piece of paper that we can then trust to have a record of what we were thinking. This new software takes advantage of new efficiencies and new devices to do something humans are used to doing.

On the other hand, the article suggests this software could harm authentic or idealized family life by turning it more into a business or organization rather than a loving group. What happens when partners or parents and children primarily communicate through this software? What if family life only becomes a set of tasks to accomplish (with helpful or annoying reminders along the way)? Where does the blending of work and home life end?

I am surprised by two omissions in this article:

-The amount of experience children in school have with such software that schools and teachers may use to help organize homework, projects, and online learning.

-The lack of specific software/apps aimed at families that could cater more to some of the concerns expressed or provide features kids and parents like.

Explaining phantom cellphone vibrations

Some recent studies suggest phantom cellphone vibrations are common and here are some possible explanations for why they happen:

A handful of studies in recent years have examined the prevalence of phantom cellphone vibrations, and they’ve come up with impressive numbers, from 68 percent of the medical staff at a Massachusetts hospital to 89 percent of undergraduates at a midwestern university, to more than 90 percent of Taiwanese doctors-in-training in the middle of their internships…

Hallucination may not be the most appropriate term, according to Laramie. “You’re misinterpreting something, but there is this external cue. You’re not totally making it up.” A compelling alternative, he suggests, is pareidolia. “That’s the phenomenon where you see a face in the clouds or hear ‘Paul is dead’ when you listen to the Beatles backwards.” (Or see the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich). Essentially, it’s your brain getting a little bit carried away with its normally very useful talent for finding patterns in the world around you…

In his thesis research, he found the two biggest predictors of phantom vibrations and ringing were age (young people experienced them more) and the extent to which people relied on their phone to regulate their emotional state—checking their phone when they wanted to calm down, for example, or get an emotional boost. “My hunch is at this point it’s a generational thing,” Laramie said. Twenty- and thirty-somethings who grew up with cellphones and have them ingrained in their daily lives probably experience the effect more than older people or technophobes, he says…

Like Laramie, Bensmaia thinks phantom vibrations are a result of the brain’s penchant for filling in the gaps to find patterns. A visual equivalent, he suggests, is seeing the outlines of furniture when you walk through your house in near-total darkness, or seeing the image of a Dalmatian in a field of black and white dots (it’s hard to see at first, but once you detect the pattern it’s almost impossible not to see it)…

“What happens, I think, is that because your clothes are rubbing against your skin, you cause activity in the same receptors, and that activity is just similar enough to the activity caused by a vibrating phone that it triggers the learned association and the perception of a vibrating phone,” he said. It’s not clear exactly where in the brain that occurs, Bensmaia says, but it probably involves the primary somatosensory cortex and other higher-level areas that process the sense of touch.

Is it then too far of a leap to suggest that phones are rewiring our brains in certain ways? Granted, lots of objects or behaviors might prompt rewiring but I suspect a good number of people would recoil at this idea as they normally don’t think the connections between objects and actions and the brain.

Quick Review: League of Denial

I had a chance this past week to read the book League of Denial and see the PBS documentary by the same name. Some thoughts about the story of the NFL and concussion research (focusing mostly on the book which provides a more detailed narrative):

1. I know some fans are already complaining of “concussion fatigue” but it is hard to think of football the same way after hearing this story. For decades, we have held up players for their toughness and yet it may be ruining their brains.

2. The human story in all of this is quite interesting. This includes some of the former football players who have been driven to the edge by their football-related brain injuries. At the same time, the story amongst the doctors is also pretty fascinating, the chase for fame, publishing articles, and acquiring brains. Running through the whole book is this question of “who is really doing this research for the right reasons?” Even if the NFL research appears to be irrevocably tainted, are the researchers on the other side completely neutral or pure of heart?

3. The whole scientific process is laid out in the book (glossed over more in the documentary)…and I’m not sure how it fares. You have scientists fighting each other to acquire brains. You have peer-reviewed research – supposed to help prevent erroneous findings – that is viewed by many as erroneous from the start. You have scientists fighting for funding, an ongoing battle for all researchers as they must support their work and have their own livelihoods. In the end, consensus seems to be emerging but the book and documentary highlight the messy process it takes to get there.

4. The comparisons of the NFL to Big Tobacco seem compelling: the NFL tried to bury concussions research for a few decades and still doesn’t admit to a long-term impact of concussions on its players. One place where the comparison might break down for the general public (and scientific research could change this in the near future): the worst problems seem to be in long-time NFL players. When exactly does CTE start in the brains of football players? There is some evidence younger players, college or high school, might already have CTE but we need more evidence of this to be sure. If that is established, that perhaps kids as young as junior high already have CTE and that CTE is derived from regular hits at a young age (not the big knock-out blows), the link to Big Tobacco might be complete.

5. It is not really part of this story but I was struck again by how relatively little we know about the brain. Concussion research didn’t really take off until the 1990s, even as this had happened with football players for decades. (One sports area where it had been studied: boxing.) Much of this research is quite new and is a reminder that we humans don’t know as much as we might think.

6. This also provides a big reminder that the NFL is big business. Players seem the most aware of this: they can be cut at any time and an injury outside of their control could end their careers. The league and owners do not come off well here as they try to protect their holdings. The employees – the players – are generally treated badly: paid well if they perform but thrown aside otherwise. This may lead to a “better product” on the field but the human toll is staggering.

7. How exactly you change people’s opinions, both fans and players, regarding concussions will be fascinating to watch. It will take quite a shift among players from the tough-guy image to being willing to consider their futures more carefully. For fans, they may become more understanding as their favorite players consider what concussions might do to their lives. Will the NFL remain as popular? Hard to say though I imagine most fans this past weekend of football had little problem watching lots of gridiron action Saturday and Sunday.

Comparing the brain to building around an ancient city

In describing the brain, neuroscientist Daniel Bor makes a comparison to building around an ancient city:

The human brain is in some ways an even more extreme example of a process that is far more creative than destructive. We effectively have three evolutionary versions of brains in our heads. Our brains are rather like a city that has existed since ancient times. In Cambridge, for instance, the historic center is squashed inside a fertile bend in the river Cam. This is the core of the city. Here there used to be a castle on a small hill, originally built by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. The oldest parts of the university, along with old churches and so on, are still there. Over the centuries, housing, university colleges, and research departments have sprung up around this central district. And now, around this second band of somewhat old structures, there are the outer suburbs, with modern housing along with large technology and business parks. Although an unromantic person might be tempted to replace the oldest buildings of the city and the narrow winding roads of the core area with efficient modern streets and buildings, all these ancient places still serve some purpose today. The expense of such renovations simply wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

An interesting comparison. However, even in revered ancient cities, changes have been made in the core, whether it is the rise of some modern buildings or the widening of streets to accommodate cars or the burrowing underground for subways or an updated infrastructure for features like sewers and fiber optic cables.

h/t Instapundit

Is an emotional experience in church really like a drug?

Several sociologists of religion make an interesting claim about worship experiences: they are like drugs.

Wellman and co-authors Katie E. Corcoran and Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk analyzed 470 interviews and about 16,000 surveys on megachurch members’ emotional experiences with their churches. Four themes emerged: salvation/spirituality, acceptance/belonging, admiration for and guidance from the leader, and morality and purpose through service.

Many participants used the word “contagious” to describe the feeling of a megachurch service where members arrive hungry for emotional experiences and leave energized, the study says.

One church member said, “(T)he Holy Spirit goes through the crowd like a football team doing the wave. …Never seen it in any other church.”

Wellman said, “That’s what you see when you go into megachurches — you see smiling people; people who are dancing in the aisles, and, in one San Diego megachurch, an interracial mix I’ve never seen anywhere in my time doing research on American churches. “We see this experience of unalloyed joy over and over again in megachurches. That’s why we say it’s like a drug.”

I haven’t seen this full study but I wonder about this comparison. here is what it could mean:

1. It is just a metaphor. Drugs can give people euphoric experiences and religious experiences can also generate euphoria.

1a. Some sociologists might argue that this kind of euphoria is generated more by a collective effervescence (Durkheim) or collective emotional energy (Collins) than religion itself. Put enough people together, give them a common focus, and you might be able to generate similar feelings in a sports stadium, at a rock concert, in a mob, etc.

Indeed, the researchers seem to be building on this. From another report on this study:

Megachurch services feature a come-as-you-are atmosphere, rock music, and what Wellman calls a “multisensory mélange” of visuals and other elements to stimulate the senses, as well as small-group participation and a shared focus on the message from a charismatic pastor.
The researchers hypothesized that such rituals are successful in imparting emotional energy in the megachurch setting — “creating membership feelings and symbols charged with emotional significance, and a heightened sense of spirituality,” they wrote.

2. There could be a suggestion that churches have a sort of power over people. In other words, the conditions are set up so that people are pushed into these upbeat experiences. Outside of this megachurch setting where people’s senses are bombarded, people may not have such experiences.

3. This seems like a great time to include neuroimaging in a sociology study. One could compare the physical response in the brain to drugs versus the physical response to certain worship settings. Do they both engage the same areas of the brain and to the same level? If they do, it doesn’t mean there still isn’t a sociological phenomenon to study but it does link physiological responses with social interactions and outcomes. I suspect we’ll see more and more of this sort of matching of social and physical data in the coming years.

Overblown concern about Google “replacing” or “destroying” our memory

The headlines read: “Google ousts brain,” “Google replaces the brain,” “Here’s how Google search is destroying our memory.” These are all based on a new study:

The Internet is becoming our main source of memory instead of our own brains, a study has concluded.

In the age of Google, our minds are adapting so that we are experts at knowing where to find information even though we don’t recall what it is.

The researchers found that when we want to know something we use the Internet as an ‘external memory’ just as computers use an external hard drive…

‘The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.’

This an example of “distributed cognition,” the idea that humans use other sources to extend their brain’s capacity. In this case, memory space in the brain may be freed up by relying on Google and computers to store certain information. Instead of “replacing” the brain, Google is extending the brain and helping humans offload certain information that can helpfully be stored elsewhere. Google isn’t the first technology that allows this; so does the printed page. Rather than storing a bunch of arcane and typically unhelpful information in our head, we could look up basic information in a reference book.

Perhaps people are more concerned about Google itself and the idea that a corporation, an organization more interested in profit than our well-being, may be behind changes in our brain.

Quick Review (recent reads): The Social Animal, Love Wins, Connected, In the Garden of Beasts, Heat Wave, Travels with Charley

As the summer ended and school started, I was able to get through a backlog of intriguing books. Here are quick thoughts on this varied collection:

1. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. I thought I might not like the “story” that Brooks uses to convey research findings but I found it a helpful way to think about the growing body of research about how our brains and emotions affect our lives. Overall, I like Brook’s argument that we should pay more attention to the British Enlightenment than the French Enlightenment emphasis because of how much humans are truly influenced by their emotions and subconscious and not just reason and rationality. I’m not quite sure what Brooks wants us to do with this information in the end (and why use the term “the big shaggy” to describe our subconcious?) but I do enjoy Brooks skewering certain groups in hilarious paragraphs that mirror some of his commentary in earlier books like Bobos in Paradise. And perhaps I’m required to say this as a sociologist but I think Brooks gives short shrift to the role of culture plays in shaping the subconscious. (See a preview post about the book here.)

2. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell. This book created quite a stir in evangelical circles earlier this year as some, like John Piper, essentially kicked Bell out of their circles. On the whole, I would say the book is uneven: some chapters are quite orthodox in their understanding of God, love, and evangelism while other chapters stray and Bell is not as careful with his words as he pushes boundaries. Also, the book seems aimed less at the general population and more at disaffected evangelicals, an interesting group to address, who can’t come to grips about their beliefs about hell rather. Taking a broader view, the book and the debate around it illustrates several interesting sociological issues: subcultures and drawing symbolic boundaries about who is in and out as well as the how theology and culture influence each other. As a follow-up, I ran into these two videos: MSNBC’s Martin Bashir asks Bell some tough questions (considering the issue of media types asking people about religion, Bashir’s Wikipedia profile includes a quote saying he is a “committed Christian”) in contrast to a fluffier interview with George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America.

3. Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler. This text could serve as a general audience introduction to the study of social networks. Many of the examples in the book are physiological as these researchers are known for their work on how things like obesity, emotions, and diseases are spread throughout social networks. The takeaway of the book: three degrees of separation is what connects us (those are your friends of friends of friends) and the actions and emotions of those people trickle down to us. I like the emphasis on how people seemingly beyond our immediate control have an influence on us.

4. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. This book provides a look at Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s through the eyes of American ambassador William Dodd and his daughter Martha. The story of Germany is of course fascinating: Hitler consolidates power while hardly anyone inside or outside the country challenges him. However, Dodd and his daughter figure it out but they are marginalized, Dodd because he won’t live the opulent lifestyle most US ambassadors were accustomed to and Martha because of her romantic forays and developing ties to the USSR. Even though you know the outcome of the larger story, the story is still interesting as an American academic tries to sound the alarm about the rising tide of Nazism.

5. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg. I’ve been meaning to read this for some time as it concerns the 500+ deaths that occurred as the result of a heat wave in Chicago in 1995. Klinenberg performs a “social autopsy,” looking at the various factors and institution involved in the situation. The elderly who were alone were susceptible, particularly in neighborhoods without much street life, the morgues were unprepared, the media was behind in covering the story, and the City of Chicago and Mayor Daley tried to pass the blame. A lot went wrong in this situation, leading to one of the most deadly natural disasters in American history. (Perhaps this book was ahead of its time in looking at the sociology of disasters.)

6. Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck. I like Steinbeck and regard The Winter of Our Discontent and East of Eden as two of the best books I have read. However, this travelogue seems the opposite of his best novels: Steinbeck rambles around the country and offers some disconnected commentary. It seemed like he was trying to not do what he does in his novel: offer sweeping stories with big points about American life and culture. The only part that really grabbed my attention: Steinbeck passed through New Orleans during protests against the integration of New Orleans’ schools in 1960 (immortalized in a Norman Rockwell painting President Obama recent selected to hang in the Oval Office) and talked with some of the residents.