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December 2011


It's December. Christmas is a comin' — as is Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other celebrations that cluster around the solstice. In this time of celebration, psychology often plays a cautionary role, speaking to the dangers of the holidays, such as stress, overeating, commercialism, and alienation.

For today, though, let's focus not on the risks, however real, but on the delights the holidays can bring. In particular, let's focus on resources we have on how to translate delight to a child.

First, a little time travel. We'll explore PsycBOOKS classic books to see what recommendations were being made during the Victorian Era, when Dickens was creating the cultural vision of the Christmas holiday that still colors its image. Using "holiday" as a keyword, we turn up a number of plums. However, we'll focus on just one, so we can look at it in a little more detail.

The pedagogically named Hints on Child-Training (Trumbull, 1898) is intended for young parents and, though based on the experiences of a father and grandfather, touted as being "considered in light of the best lessons of practical educators on every side." Despite the title and the educational goals, our author's real skill seems to be an imaginative alliance with a child, which he demonstrates in (the suspiciously economic sounding) "Giving Added Value to a Child's Christmas." Here are some examples from his text.

"to children the gifts by themselves are of minor value, in comparison with the interest excited in the manner of their giving."

To illustrate his point, the author gives a wonderful account of an uncle who never plans the same thing twice. One Christmas, doors open on stockings that are limp and empty, at first glance. After the children wait through breakfast, they find that each stocking actually contains a personal challenge to its owner to follow a string of a different color throughout the house, all running in different directions, upstairs and down, through closets and out doors, until all are brought together again before great boots filled with treasure.

But even now, the experience is extended and all are engaged in each other's experience:

All hands sat on the floor together. Only one package at a time was opened, that all might enjoy the disclosures to the full. And there were unlooked-for directions on many a package. One child would take a package from her Christmas boot, and, on removing the first wrapper, would find a written announcement that the package was to be handed over to her cousin. A little later, the cousin would be directed to pass along another package to a third one of the party.

In summation,

the charm of that day was in the mysteries of that pursuing chase all over that beautiful house, and in the excitements of prolonged anticipation and wonder. Those children will never have done enjoying that morning.

Human celebrations — birthdays, holidays, our own intimate creations — are part of what make us who we are. We at APA wish you and yours a happy and safe December. And at least a soupçon of wonder!

November 2011

Is It Just Me or Is It Getting Crowded in Here?

Let's give a warm welcome and a "happy birthday" to the 7 billionth person to enter the world stage. The rate of population growth in the past 200 years has been astounding. For scale, when human agriculture began, around 8,000 BCE, scientists estimated there were about 5 million Homo sapiens on the planet. By 1800, we had hit a billion, and the effects of human crowding were already being noted in the work of writers and poets. Blake's (1804) Jerusalem tolled its warnings of England's "dark satanic mills," and Thomas Malthus was causing a sensation with his theories of overpopulation.

What content is there in PsycBOOKS classic books about the effects of overpopulation? Running a search with "population" as an index word and limiting to the Classic Collection yields a number of interesting results from some giants of science. Among them are these:

  • A revised edition of Thomas Malthus's (1890/1798) seminal work, "An Essay on the Principle of Population, or A View of Its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness, With an Inquiry Into Our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils Which It Occasions." A main thrust of the work developed the Iron Law of Population, a theory that suggests that rising population rates lead to a rising supply of labor, and that too great a pool of laborers leads to overall lower wages. Thus, the increasing population growth itself would lead to increasing poverty. Chapters specifically cover population and food, ways to reduce population, and the populations of various nationalities.
  • "Infant Feeding and Its Influence on Life, or the Causes and Prevention of Infant Mortality" (Routh, 1879). A necessary strand of research on overpopulation necessarily focuses on birth rates. This work provided statistical data on infant mortality rates among foundling children and those in the general population in the overcrowded and slum areas of Lyons, Rheims, and Paris. Mortality was correlated to population and fixed during a foundling's first year at 50%.
  • Conversely, "Population: Inquiries Into Human Faculty and Its Development" (Galton, 1919) discussed overpopulation and "its attendant miseries" in light of lower child mortality (due to improved sanitation). In this research, population was a threat that would grow and "fill up the spare places of the earth." Galton was a pioneer in eugenics, coining the term, as well as the phrase "nature or nurture," and his research cautioned against the rise of "less desirable races." Galton criticized Malthus's main suggestion on controlling population, delayed marriage. The improvident, he warned would not delay marriage to reduce population, whereas the provident would; thus would their progeny crowd out the provident, who would.

June 2011

Christmas in May

In May PsycBOOKS Classic Books received a bonanza of new releases. Instead of the more typical freshet of 20 or so classic titles, we added a torrent of 271. Looking over those titles gives one the same sense of endless possibility as being let loose in the most fascinating attic imaginable. Look at this one! What is that? Who was he? What could they have used that for? Where did they find it? What did she believe and does she explain why?

We owe the wonderful Archives of the History of American Psychology (AHAP) for the bounty of books we've been adding to our Classic Book line. Thanks to our collaboration with them, we've been able to digitize more than 2,000 books from their Collection. The May infusion is almost exclusively 19th century works. Some of the titles invite you to drop whatever you're doing and spend an afternoon like a Victorian lady or gentleman:

  • Apparitions and thought-transference: An examination of the evidence for telepathy, © 1894, by Podmore, Frank
  • Assimilative memory, or How to attend and never forget, © 1896, by Loisette, A.
  • The curse of the world: Narcotics: Why used, what effects, the remedy, © 1887, by Wilkins, Daniel
  • Descriptive mentality from the head, face and hand, © 1899, by Merton, Holmes W.
  • Forty years in phrenology; Embracing recollections of history, anecdote, and experience, © 1882, by Sizer, Nelson
  • How the other half lives: Studies among the tenements of New York, © 1890, by Riis, Jacob A.
  • Menticulture, or The A-B-C of true living, © 1896, by Fletcher, Horace
  • The reign of the stoics: History, religion, maxims of self-control, self-culture, benevolence, justice, philosophy, © 1879, by Holland, Frederic May
  • The speech of monkeys, © 1892, by Garner, R. L.
  • Twenty-five years with the insane, © 1885, by Putnam, Daniel
  • Whatever is, was: In nature, there are no such things as cause, effect, generation, growth, nor death—no time, no past, no future—the self-existence of the universe, also, a critical examination into the foundation on which rests the philosophy of Herbe, © 1887, by Young, Geo. A.

We hope to take a closer look at AHAP in an upcoming PsycINFO News edition in recognition of the value of their mission to the field of psychology generally and to APA specifically. They have been an incredible resource for content for PsycBOOKS, PsycEXTRA®, and now our new PsycTESTS® database. 

May 2011

The Amazing Dr. Darwin

Don't be alarmed, but it seems that your body isn't quite what you think it is. By which I mean "yours."

Princeton University scientist Bonnie Bassler recently analyzed the genes in the human body and found it contained approximately 30,000 human genes—and more than 3 million bacterial genes. So, let's see, that means that the body we share is at most one percent human. The knowledge that our bodies are a virtual Mardi Gras float teeming with other life has been creeping up on us for some time, though it is only with the advent of genetic studies that we've become aware of both how profound that sharing is and how many ways a body's tenants are connected (for example, the Scientific American article referenced above is about neuroscience and suggests that our brain development is dependent on gut bacteria).

This fascinating research is the latest branching of one of the most revolutionary discoveries in human history: creation is not immutable.

It is hard to overstate the impact of that idea. From the time of the ancient Greeks, the dominant theory of the material world was of a great chain of being, hierarchical and rigid as a set of stairs. All things, animal, vegetable, and mineral, had their step on that stair in vertical relation to each other, as God had ordained. When that idea began to shift, everything changed.

The Classic Books in PsycBOOKS provide a window into that cataclysmic shift in understanding through the works of its pioneers. One resource available carries the familiar name Darwin. In this case though, we peer back before Charles to his grandfather. Erasmus Darwin was many things, among them philosopher, physiologist, inventor, feminist, and poet. Indeed, science fiction author Sheffield wrote a book about him (in which Darwin is a kind of Sherlock Holmes) called The Amazing Dr. Darwin.

Darwin's most important scientific work, Zoonomia (1796), is a two-volume medical work on pathology, psychology, and the functioning of the body available in PsycBOOKS. An aside: It is worth noting that the book is beautifully, even brilliantly written and a pleasure to read if for that reason alone. It also begins to question whether life is set as had been thought, envisioning instead a new plasticity and creation as a stream rather than static.

In the chapter "Of Generation," Darwin writes:

when we revolve in our minds the great similarity of structure, which obtains in all the warm-blooded animals, as well quadrupeds, birds, and amphibious animals, as in mankind; from the mouse and bat to the elephant and whale; one is led to conclude, that they have alike been produced from a similar living filament. In some this filament in its advance to maturity has acquired hands and fingers, with a fine sense of touch, as in mankind. In others it has acquired claws or talons, as in tygers and eagles. In others, toes with an intervening web, or membrane, as in seals and geese. In others it has acquired cloven hoofs, as in cows and swine; and whole hoofs in others, as in the horse…And all this exactly as is daily seen in the transmutations of the tadpole, which acquires legs and lungs, when he wants them; and loses his tail, when it is no longer of service to him.

From Erasmus that idea led to Charles, who fleshed out the idea and provided the mechanism through which change occurs. So gradually the stair lost its rigidity, twisting to the spiral helix of DNA.

April 2011

19th Century Social Media and the Death of Little Nell

With all the buzz about social media today, how does it differ from social media that existed at the dawn of time before the Internet? Let's borrow a definition from Wikipedia: Social media is "media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable communication techniques." In other words, they are popular and widely available means by which individuals and groups communicate.

So in the 19th century, social media were publicly shared events like the Lincoln–Douglas debates or Mark Twain's highly acclaimed series of lectures or even publicly shared thoughts like the letter or the editorial. By that definition, Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop is social media. That serialized work created a passionate following so great it led crowds to gather on the New York City quay to demand of incoming sailors whether little Nell died in the next installment (and Oscar Wilde to note that "you would need a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of little Nell"). These events and ideas shaped public and private opinion.

Let us assume you were so moved by the death of little Nell that you decide to research original literature on diseases that were prevalent among children and that were being discussed publicly contemporaneously. A search in PsycBOOKS limited to lecture* and child* disease* as keywords and 1845 to 1865 as a date span would disclose some chilling reminders of how virulent childhood diseases were.

Among your findings you would find a work by Charles West, Lectures on the Diseases of Infancy and Childhood (1854). This 620-page volume includes an entire series of lectures given to the pupils of Middlesex Hospital. The lectures came from observations of nearly 14,000 children and notes on the diseases of 600, including dissections in 180 cases among the 600 that proved fatal.

Lecture 1 provided the following overarching context to the students: "Children will form at least a third of all your patients, and so serious are their diseases that one child in five dies within a year of birth, and one in three before the completion of the fifth year."

In the 40+ lectures that follow, Dr. West discussed myriad diseases that plagued children, included among them are some we still battle but many that have disappeared or become much less of a threat. Among them are discussions of polio (Lecture 14), catarrh (Lecture 18), Hooping-cough (Lecture 24), typhoid (Lecture 34), small-pox (Lecture 40), and fatal attacks of measles and scarlatina (Lecture 41). We may with some discomfort read too about infantile syphilis and gonorrhea. 

On mental disorders, the lecturer admits to limited knowledge. This chapter shows perhaps the widest gap between the 19th century approach to disease and current practice. Though it serves as an instructive discussion on the mores of the day, even the terminology used is jarring to us today. The discussion in Lecture 15 does not distinguish among most "disorders of the mind" and attributes their incidence in children to "moral insanity." Dr. West attributed many mental "peculiarities" to hypochondria or malingering in the child, as well as to overattentive parenting. The same lecture also bundles in a disturbing discussion of "idiocy," "backwardness," and "cretinism" that may make us reflect with some gratitude on the advances of science.

March 2011

Out of the Void

This month, we're going to take a look at variations of the same topic across the three databases we cover in these searches. We've chosen what might be described as the quintessentially human characteristic: creativity.

Let's start at the root, with the origins of our species. Whatever mystery has shaped us, it is essentially  creative. As D. H. Lawrence put it, noting that there's nothing inevitable about our species existence or primacy, creation "could do without the ichthyosauri and the mastodon. These monsters failed creatively to develop, so the creative mystery dispensed with them. In the same way, mystery could dispense with man, should he too fail creatively to change and develop."

Creativity has many names, and one could easily argue that adaptation, from which sprang Darwin's assertion that species were not separately created but evolved, is a kind of species creativity at which our own has excelled.

PsycBOOKS Classic Books gives us entrée to the source documentation of Darwin and fellow scientists' evolutionary (and revolutionary) theories. What books could we find, using keywords evolution and adaptation, and confining our search to the late 19th century?

Among our results, we find the following books, which are broken down in the database into 155 searchable, full-text chapters.

  • Baldwin, J. M. (1895). Mental development in the child and the race: Method and processes. doi:10.1037/10003-000
  • Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man, and Selection in relation to sex, Vol. 1. doi:10.1037/12293-000
  • Fiske, J. (1884). The destiny of man, viewed in the light of his origin (14th ed.). doi:10.1037/12251-000
  • Fiske, J. (1899). A century of science and other essays. doi:10.1037/12014-000
  • Morgan, C. L. (1894). Contemporary science series. An introduction to comparative psychology. doi:10.1037/11344-000
  • Mudie, R. (1888). Man, in his physical structure and adaptations. doi:10.1037/11987-000
  • Nisbet, J. F. (1889). Marriage and heredity: A view of psychological evolution. doi:10.1037/11577-000
  • Ribot, T. (1899). The evolution of general ideas (F. A. Welby, Trans.). doi:10.1037/10850-000
  • Spencer, H. (1875). Illustrations of universal progress: A series of discussions. doi:10.1037/12203-000
  • Youmans, E. L. (1883). Herbert Spencer on the Americans and the Americans on Herbert Spencer, being a full report of his interview, and of the proceedings at the farewell banquet of Nov 9, 1882. doi:10.1037/11730-000

And remember, we're not irreplaceable.

February 2011

Above Us Only Sky

In early January 2011 there was a spate of reports of birds falling dead from the sky. A flock of redwing blackbirds fell in Beebe, Arkansas. More blackbirds fell later in Baton Rouge, starlings in Sweden, and other birds elsewhere.

Internet chatter credited the events to all sorts of phenomena—fireworks, lightning, high voltage wires, poisoned feed—but most ascribed a human causation. Are these birds (almost literally) the archetypal canary in the coalmine? Is our very air failing us? When did the sky itself, as an easel for the works of humans, become a threat to our peace of mind?

Sometimes what's interesting is what you can't find in the literature or when a topic begins to appear. PsycBOOKS classic books provide real time in-depth examination of what concerned scholars at the time their work was produced. And though there certainly were human-posed threats from the air—by the late 19th century pea soup fog had been replaced under the right conditions with killer smog—little had made its way to the literature or was recognized as germane to psychology or the behavioral sciences.

One early observation was made by Benjamin Brodie in The Third Dialogue (1857), a series of essays intended to show how the physical world affects mental faculties. The author observed that a "Mr. Chadwick has shown that many are driven to drinking gin as affording a temporary relief to the feelings of depression and exhaustion produced by living in a noxious atmosphere; and he gives instances of individuals who had spontaneously abandoned the habit, when they were enabled to reside in a locality, where they could breathe a pure air, instead of loathsome exhalations."

That observation was followed by nearly a century of silence. But by the mid-20th century we see acknowledgement that air in a workplace makes a difference in efficiency (Applied Experimental Psychology: Human Factors in Engineering Design; Chapanis, Garner, & Morgan, 1949).

And by the 1970s we see real coverage of pollution and its physical and emotional effects on the public.

For example, in Public Response to Air Pollution (Swan, 1972), the author noted that in a 1965 Gallup poll only 17% of a national sample listed air pollution as being among the national problems they would like to see the government devote most attention to. By 1970, 53% of the respondents named air and water pollution as among the three most important domestic issues.

From that point on, environmental pollution is a common theme in the literature.

January 2011

Goofus or Gallant?

Do you remember those cultural icons Goofus and Gallant? Stars in the Highlights for Children magazines that have festooned generations of pediatric doctors and dentists offices, Goofus ("ya gonna eat that?") and Gallant ("may I take your coat, ma'am?") are apparently brothers, whose parents predestined their children through their names to be separately but (almost) equally appalling to all normal children.

The well-meaning urge to provide behavioral guidance to young people by exhortation and example is as common in literature as it is unpopular with the intended beneficiaries of the advice (e.g., in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Polonious regales his son with strings of platitudes such as "neither a borrower nor a lender be"; cut to Laertes rolling eyes). The 19th century was perhaps particularly prone to sententious advice giving, and a researcher studying expectations of young women can spend a delightful hour chortling over the behavioral instructions of the period.

Sometimes, reading PsycBOOKS Classic Books is just a guilty pleasure. For example, the most recent release includes this jewel, Helen Ekin Starrett's  Letters to a Daughter and a Little Sermon to School-Girls (1885).

To be fair, there's much to like in the book. It was written by a loving mother who envisioned a life for her daughter in which she can honorably earn a living and develop her own character and intellect. But for the sheer perverse enjoyment of being horrified by the actual advice she gives, a modern reader will find it a windfall.

Here is some of the good lady's advice:

  • To talk too much about books is not well; it often marks the pedantic and egotistic character.
  • [A girl] must avoid talking about herself, her exploits, her acquirements, her entertainments, her beaux, etc.
  • She must avoid a loud tone of voice, and also avoid laughing too much and too easily. To laugh aloud is a dangerous thing.
  • She must avoid frequent attempts at wit; avoid punning, which is the cheapest possible form of wit; and avoid sarcasm. The talent for being sarcastic is a most dangerous one. No one ever knew a sarcastic woman who could keep friends.
  • No really cultivated young girl will, for instance, open and play upon a piano in a hotel parlor.
  • She will not eat peanuts or fruit or candy, or chew gum, in public places.
  • One of the greatest blemishes in the character of any young person, especially of any young girl or woman, is forwardness, boldness, pertness.
  • For any advance by a gentleman, young or old, that is not respectful or sincere, a young girl is much to blame if it happens more than once.

To summarize the advice: If you aren't neat, people—the right people, that is—won't like you, ditto for prompt, clean, cheerful, quiet, reverent, helpful, modest, and respectful of your elders.

Remembering it all is enough to give you the vapors.