Your Brain Has No-Fault Insurance

Hey, remember that time you cheated, stole, lied or [insert another lapse of ethics here]?

No? If your memory of past transgressions is hazy, there’s a scientific explanation for that. It seems that humans are blessed with “unethical amnesia.” We have trouble recalling our own bad behaviour.

A set of studies at Harvard and Northwestern University shows that when we act dishonourably, we tend to forget the details more quickly compared to other kinds of memories. Apparently, we’re so invested in maintaining a positive self-image that our brains try to avoid any evidence to the contrary. So when people cheat on their taxes or lie to their bosses, they unconsciously refrain from thinking too hard about it – lest it threaten their belief that they are good, kind and pure souls.

What’s the solution? If you start a practice of reflecting back on your day’s deeds, your brain won’t be able to blur out the bad times quite so easily. “A habit of self-reflection helps to keep such memories alive and to learn from them,” co-author Maryam Kouchaki says in a press release.

Sure, it may be painful to relive your more imperfect moments. But perhaps it’s worth it, if it helps you behave better next time.

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Watch out, son, it’s a slippery slope. Today it’s just cheating on a math test, but tomorrow it’s offshore tax evasion… (Photo by stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Ahead of the Pack

There are three ways you can tell that the men behind Saltwater Brewery are salt-of-the-earth good guys.

One: The microbrewery in Delray Beach, Florida, is named after the world’s wide, wondrous oceans. The founders are self-described as “fishermen, surfers and people who love the sea.”

Two: Part of the profits from selling the crafty products – various beers have entertaining names like Screamin’ Reels and Sea Cow – are donated to charities that benefit the oceans.

Three: The team, in collaboration with the WeBelievers ad agency, has developed the world’s first edible six-pack ring. This matters, because no matter where in the world you happen to drink your beer, your plastic six-pack ring tends to end up in the ocean. And even if the rings are designed to break down in sunlight after a few weeks so they don’t entangle aquatic animals… well, all they really do is transmute from big plastic pieces into tiny plastic pieces. Fish mistake these bits for food (totally not their fault – they have fish brains), and end up stuffing their stomachs. Not a very healthy habit. Potentially even fatal.

Saltwater Brewery is trying to help marine life, not destroy it. So its beer cans are now attached to rings made from leftover brewing grain. If these rings do find their way into the sea, they’ll break apart into biodegradable and perfectly edible chunks.

Compared to shards of plastic, this is gourmet fare.

Anyway, who says these will end up in the ocean at all? Maybe this microbrewery has unwittingly kicked off a new foodie trend. Mix in a little chipotle seasoning, and you’ve suddenly got a snack go with your beer.

Hey, why not? I’ve seen what you put in that chip bowl during game time. At least the six-pack ring is low in trans fat.

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It doesn’t even have to be chipotle. I’ll bet nacho cheese would be a hit. (Photo courtesy of Saltwater Brewery)

Community Service

Somebody in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood wants you to know that you matter.

Admittedly, he or she doesn’t know you. But he or she nevertheless cares how you feel about yourself. In fact, his or her intentions are so heartfelt that he or she –

Okay. Because English can be awkward and unwieldy, henceforth we are going to refer to this person as “Hoh” instead of him or her. For decency’s sake, we shall pronounce this a way that rhymes with “paw.”

Hoh recently invested time in printing and preparing a series of eye-catching posters. Then Hoh distributed them around the community. Each poster includes ready-to-remove compliments: “You matter.” “You are amazing.” “You make a difference.” Passersby are encouraged to take them, keep them or pass them to others who need them. A sweet idea!

The downloadable posters were originally created by Scholastic Books in New York, as part of a campaign against bullying. Nice to see it’s spread beyond the borders of the Big Apple.

In the Toronto neighbourhood where Hoh lives, these compliments have clearly been welcome. By the time my friend Lorin spotted a couple of them, one had already been completely stripped of its compliments. The other was more than half depleted.

“You matter.” Doesn’t it feel good to have a reminder?

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“You absolutely do!” Photo creds to Lorin, intrepid community reporter.

The Doctor is in

It’s bad luck to start choking on a bite of hamburger during what’s supposed to be a pleasant dining experience at your senior living facility.

But it’s very good luck to be sitting next to Dr. Henry Heimlich.

Today Patty Ris, 87, is alive – and thankful. And Dr. Heimlich, who is 96 years old and lives in the same Cincinnati seniors building as Ms Ris, finally understands what tens of thousands of others have already experienced: How it feels to rescue someone using the Heimlich manoeuvre.

The dining room’s maître d’ points out that the technique is actually quite a physical feat for someone who is not exactly young and spry. He also noted that staff would normally prevent residents from trying to administer first aid on one of their own in a medical emergency. “But I noticed it was Dr. Heimlich and he was doing the manoeuvre,” he told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “I stepped back and let Dr. Heimlich continue on.”

What does the retired surgeon have to say about the unexpected turn of events? “I sort of felt wonderful about it, having saved that girl,” he told the reporter. (Side note: Is it not adorable that he refers to an 87-year-old woman as a “girl”? If he were any younger, we wouldn’t give him a pass on that one…)

“I knew it was working all over the world,” he added. “I just felt a satisfaction.”

According to some reports, this may not actually have been the first time Heimlich used his own lifesaving technique. But if that’s the case, it’s certainly slipped this doc’s mind by now. You can forgive him; the guy is, after all, almost 100 years old.

And if his memory isn’t perfect, his heart certainly makes up for it.

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Take care when you eat. Chances are, Dr. Heimlich isn’t sitting beside you. (FreeImages.com/Drew Broadley)

Flower Power

It’s my favourite time of year. There’s no longer any trace of snow, ice or general subzero misery. Just last week, the mornings finally warmed up enough for us all to leave our hats at home – even mittens, if we were feeling reckless. Yet it’s not yet so oven-stuffy hot that we want to peel off our skin. The grass is a vibrant green, not the hue of dead swamp that it will surely have taken on by the end of July.

Oh, and those spring flowers. I love them: the way they look, the way they smell, the way they wave jovially at me whenever I walk by.

Last week, a friend’s much-admired flowerbed became the backdrop for a few spontaneous Kodak moments. As she tells it, two passing ladies were so enchanted with her front garden that they arranged themselves into various poses on her property, sitting on one of her rocks and even lying on her grass, while they snapped photographs of each other.

My friend wasn’t perturbed. In fact, she took care to stay indoors so she wouldn’t disrupt them. Gardens are conduits for spreading beauty and joy.

It reminded me of a spring afternoon years ago, at my first house, where my new husband and I had carefully nurtured a front yard jam-packed with perennials. The outgoing little girl who lived across the street was celebrating her first communion in the Catholic tradition. She was outfitted in a showy white dress and her parents had hired a professional photographer. But instead of posing for pictures in front of her house, the precocious child dragged the photographer across to our front garden, preferring our blossomy backdrop to her own plain yard.

Flowers lift spirits. Sharing flowers lifts them higher.

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Bitter Pill

A pill that lowers your empathy for others – not real, right? Strictly science fiction, right?

Wrong. It’s very real. And chances are, you already have it in your medicine cabinet at home.

In a crazier-than-Hollywood finding, researchers at Ohio State University have announced that acetaminophen – that’s the active ingredient in Tylenol – doesn’t just dampen your own feelings of pain. It actually seems to reduce your empathy for the pain that other people are feeling.

That applies to both pain in the physical sense, as in, “Boy, that stubbed toe sure smarts!”, as well as emotional suffering, as in, “Boy, I sure could use a hug!”

In their experiment, the researchers gave acetaminophen to half the participants, while the other half got a placebo. After waiting for the drugs (or pretend drugs) to kick in, the two groups listened to different scenarios in which a person experienced some kind of pain: a cringeworthy knife cut, for instance, or the loss of a parent. The participants were asked to rate how much pain they thought the person was feeling.

Weirdly, the group on acetaminophen seemed rather numb to the suffering of others. On average, compared to the group on placebo, they tended to rate the pain lower on a scale of 1 to 10.

The researchers describe it as a decrease in empathy.

“Empathy is important,” the study’s senior author points out in a news release. “If you are having an argument with your spouse and you just took acetaminophen, this research suggests you might be less understanding of what you did to hurt your spouse’s feelings.”

He went on to say that if we want our loved ones to care about us, we should keep all their medications hidden away.

Okay, I’m not serious about that last part. But it’s certainly a thought-provoking experiment. Now, if they could just discover a pill that has the opposite effect…

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Imagine a pill that makes you sweeter… for me, it would be gourmet jelly beans. (Photo by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Disaster Relief

If you hadn’t heard much about Fort McMurray before, you know it well now. This region of western Canada has been under siege from spreading, uncontrolled forest fires – and it’s been in news all over the world. The stats are shocking. More than 80,000 people have been displaced from their homes, some initially to oilsands work camps up north because they had nowhere else to go. Many folks drove out of the city using sidewalks or wrong-way lanes just to put a bit more distance between their vehicles and the flying sparks of fire. Tragically, two people were killed in a road accident while trying to leave the city. About 1,600 buildings – mostly people’s houses – burned to the ground. Insurers say they’ve never seen a level of damage like this before – over 9 billion dollars’ worth, by one estimate. The narrative changes daily. As of Sunday, fire covered 161,000 hectares. That’s almost half the size of Long Island, New York.

Evacuees are telling stories that will make you cry: Pets lost to the fires. Family heirlooms and precious photos, gone forever. An iPhone security video of a living room becoming destroyed by flames and smoke. The homeowner watched it happen, live, soon after escaping with his wife.

But, of course, there are stories of compassion as well. So many touching accounts of people reaching out to those in need.

Like the group of Syrian refugees who leapt into rescue mode, collecting donations despite having almost nothing themselves, and telling media: “It’s not easy to lose everything… We can understand them more than anyone in Canada.”

Or the volunteer who retrieved dozens of stranded pets from abandoned houses – including a family’s cherished puppy and pet rabbit mere moments before their home caught fire. (He would have located the house much faster, had the street signs not melted.)

Or the sweet video created by caring students at Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation School, in Loon Lake, Saskatchewan, who wanted to send messages of support so the disaster victims would know they’re not alone.

And, of course, we’ve seen the rise of countless fundraising campaigns all over the country, giving every one of us an opportunity to help.

My heart goes out to all those who are displaced or struggling with devastating losses right now. But my heart is also gladdened to know how much it matters to everyone else.

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FreeImages.com/Odan Jaeger