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Lectures for a New Year: Temple Grandin on Autism

This is a TED classic: Temple Grandin explaining what it's like to be autistic, shortly after the release of a movie based on her book Thinking in Pictures. In the book and in the talk, Grandin explains how her cognitive experience as an autistic person differs from that of an average person (let's not say "normal"). Grandin's brain is very visual, and that has helped in her animal husbandry work -- she can think as an animal presumably thinks, and because of that, she's uniquely situated to understand why animals behave as they do.

Grandin's lecture shows two crucial qualities in a good lecture: first, an engaging persona -- we enjoy Grandin's enthusiasm about tangents like church steeples and her repeated concerns about whether kids these days will be taken care of; and second, an actual point -- she's saying, quite simply, there are different kinds of minds. Rather than pathologize these differences and try to "fix" them, we can celebrate them, and as a society we actually need all these different sorts of thinkers. The Q&A at the end is also surprisingly good (albeit brief). Oh, and she even wears a super-cool shirt. I mean, this is pretty much solid lecture gold.

Topics: the autistic spectrum, thinking in pictures, how to teach kids, why we need different kinds of people, and some thoughts on her book and the movie that was made based on it.

For: everyone, especially parents.

Viewing note: you can watch a higher-quality video on the TED site. The YouTube quality is not too bad on this one, though.

Further Reading

I highly recommend Grandin's book Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism. This is a book that appeals to basically everyone: there's a strong element of memoir, a bunch of information about what it's like to be autistic (including some amazing material about Grandin's hug machine), and a bunch of stuff about animal husbandry (which, quite frankly, most people never think about). It was adapted into an excellent HBO movie (YouTube trailer link) with a stellar performance by Claire Danes and directed by Mick Jackson (who did L.A. Story, among others). If you want a sample of the movie, check out this clip.

Transcript

TED provides an interactive transcript as well as subtitles, downloads with subtitles, and so on.

Suggest a Lecture

Got a favorite lecture? Is it online in some video format? Leave a comment and we’ll check it out!

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Experts Say Trying to Force Yourself to Be Happy Doesn't Work
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A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that people who accept their difficult emotions are better off in the long run than those who try to force their way into a better mood.

Many psychologists and meditation teachers endorse a practice called radical acceptance. The basic idea is that when something bad happens—say, a dear friend moves away—you have two options. You can either deny or fight that reality, or you can accept it, deal with the loss, and move on. Or, to put it a different way: Pain is inevitable, but suffering, like the kind caused by denial, is optional.

Radical acceptance works because it teaches practitioners to accept reality and hard situations. Could the same framework help with hard emotions like anger, sadness, and grief? 

To find out, psychologists conducted three separate studies. The first was an online survey, in which 1003 people described how they related to their emotions. Participants were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like "I tell myself I shouldn't be feeling the way that I'm feeling."

The second study took place in the lab and was framed as a mock job interview. The researchers told 156 people that they would be giving a speech extolling their job skills and qualifications. They were told the taped speech would be shown to a panel of judges as part of a mock job application. Then they were given two minutes to prepare. 

The last study invited 222 people to spend two months journaling about tough moments in their lives. Six months later, the researchers surveyed these people to see how they were feeling.

All three experiments yielded the same basic result: People who let themselves feel their feelings were, on average, less stressed, anxious, and depressed than those who tried to avoid or control them. 

"We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health," senior author Iris Mauss of UC Berkeley said in a statement. 

"Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you're not giving them as much attention," Mauss said. "And perhaps, if you're constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up."

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How You Instagram Can Reveal Whether or Not You’re Depressed, Study Says
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How you Instagram might reveal more about you than just what you did last weekend. One study found that certain Instagram photos can predict the markers of depression, as New York Magazine's Select All reports. And it's not the first study to link social media use and mental illness.

The study, in EPJ Data Science, looked at almost 44,000 posts from 166 people (71 of them depressed) using color analysis, metadata, and face detection software. (While less than 200 people isn’t a big enough number to really cement these findings, they at least analyzed a whole lot of brunch pics.) They found machine learning could successfully distinguish between the behavior of people diagnosed with depression and those with a clean bill of mental health by looking at the Instagram filter type of photos, the setting, whether or not there were people, color, brightness, and how many “likes” and comments it got. They also looked at how often people used the app and how often they posted.

The researchers’ Instagram model worked the majority of the time to correctly identify depression, even in posts made before the researchers diagnosed the person’s mental health status. Compare that to general practitioners' rates for correctly diagnosing depressed patients, which studies have found hover around 42 percent.

Depressed people tended to post darker photos, often using Instagram’s black-and-white Inkwell filter. They received more comments, but fewer likes on their posts. They tended to post photos of faces, but typically fewer faces than non-depressed users (social isolation is often linked to depression). By contrast, healthy people loved Valencia, which lightens images, and tended to get more likes.

Loving a black-and-white photo doesn't necessarily mean you're depressed. Maybe you’re just trying out your best Ansel Adams impression. But given the outsized role social media plays in modern life, it might be able to provide doctors with insights into patients' inner thoughts and feelings that they might not otherwise be privy to.

Other studies, too, have found that technology use can provide a window into people's souls, mental health and all. Research has found that unhappy people use their smartphones to cope with negative feelings, linking increased phone usage to anxiety and depression. A 2015 study found that smartphones could predict depression by tracking how often and where people moved.

In some cases, though, social media seems to play an active role in making people unhappy, rather than simply revealing their existing unhappiness. A 2017 study of 5000 people found that the more time people spent using Facebook, the worse their sense of well-being. (And that's even before you start talking about reading the news.) Other surveys have found that for teenagers, Instagram and Snapchat usage are associated with low self-esteem, bullying, and more.

But even if obsessively Instagram is making you unhappy in the first place, how you use social media could be an important factor for doctors to consider when evaluating mental health. It's hard to open up to people about depressive thoughts, especially if it's a medical professional you only see once a year. You might tell your doctor you feel fine, but be more honest about your inner darkness on Instagram—whether you realize it or not. So although you probably don’t want to hand over your social media history to your medical providers on a regular basis, it could provide a useful way to screen patients who aren't able to fully convey their mental health issues.

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