AMELIORATING A MISTAKE:

How Congestion Pricing Makes Cities More Livable: As New York puts its gridlock-busting plans on hold, the success of congestion pricing elsewhere proves it’s not just smart — it’s popular. (Eric Krebs, June 7, 2024, Reasons to be Cheerful)


In just a few short decades during the mid-twentieth century, cars conquered the 750-year-old city of Stockholm. As early as the 1980s, various schemes for reclaiming the city’s fourteen islands from gridlock had been proposed, but politics kept getting in the way and plans never materialized. In 2002, as part of political compromise, a divided Swedish parliament began to work toward a long-desired goal: a trial run of congestion pricing in Stockholm, with a public referendum on the policy to follow.

On January 3, 2006, the trial began. Watching it unfold, Jonas Eliasson, a life-long transit researcher (and enthusiast) who has served as director of transport accessibility at the Swedish Transport Administration since 2019, was excited — and worried. Neither emotion was unwarranted.

Congestion pricing had succeeded before. In 1975, Singapore pioneered its Area Licensing Scheme, a precursor to its modern Electronic Road Pricing system in which drivers are tolled automatically based on their location, type of car, and the time of day. In 2003, London began charging drivers for entering its city-center — an idea first proposed in the 1950s. By 2006, there were 33 percent fewer car trips into central London than in 2002, 25 percent more bus trips and 49 percent more bicycle trips. Congestion, pollution and traffic accidents all fell in tow.


Eliasson was aware of these benefits, but he still feared that politics would squash Stockholm’s program before its results were realized. The trial (whose start-day had been delayed by, again, politics) was slated to last just seven months. “Having a congestion pricing trial meant building up all the technical stuff in the business district, the gantries and the cameras and everything, and just for a trial,” says Eliasson. “I thought that in order to make congestion pricing acceptable, we would have to spend the revenues in a really salient, tangible way. And at the time, we didn’t have that.”

Eliasson was wrong, and happily so. Despite negative media coverage and public suspicion, the tide of approval turned on congestion pricing in Stockholm almost as soon as it was implemented. “I think that what surprised everyone was that the effects on traffic were just so visible. From day one, you could see the benefits with your naked eye,” says Eliasson.

Road traffic into Stockholm’s central district fell by 20 percent almost as soon as the program began, as drivers swapped their individual trips for carpooling and alternative means of transit. The streets grew quieter, and air pollution decreased by 12 percent — all from a maximum charge equivalent to just $2. In September of 2006, congestion pricing was made permanent by a majority vote, and by 2011, the policy saw nearly 70 percent public support.

THERE IS NO PRO-LIFE PARTY:

New research shows gas stove emissions contribute to 19,000 deaths annually (VICTORIA ST. MARTIN, 5/19/24, INSIDE CLIMATE NEWS)

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, found that gas stoves contribute to about 19,000 adult deaths each year and increase long-time exposure to nitrogen dioxide to 75 percent of the World Health Organization’s exposure guideline.

That last figure was one of the most significant findings by the research team, said the study’s lead author, Yannai Kashtan.

“This study’s main contribution is quantifying how much of that pollution really makes it to your nose, if you will,” Kashtan said in an interview.

Kashtan said that the study found that the most pressing dangers to gas stove owners—estimated to be as much as 40 percent of the population—stemmed from long-term exposure to harmful gases.

“The exposures that we’re estimating, they’re not going to cause immediate, terrible health outcomes tomorrow,” Kashtan said. “So we certainly don’t want to be alarmist. On the other hand, day after day, year after year, using a stove that the exposure really does build up and does increase the risk of all these respiratory diseases.

“It’s most important that people are aware of the risks and on the one hand, don’t freak out tomorrow, but also think seriously about indoor air pollution when they’re thinking about, ‘OK, you know, what’s my next appliance going to be?’” he added.

Researchers also found that people of color are disproportionately affected by the stoves.

MEDICALIZING OUR DIFFERENCES:

An Absurd Umbrella: Neurodiversity and the Autism Spectrum (Jason Garshfield, 21 Apr 2024, Quillette)

There is a core of truth to the arguments undergirding neurodiversity. Human minds cannot be whittled down to a unitary norm, and people with unusual or eccentric approaches can make great contributions to society. To “cure” autism might be said to be akin to “curing” creativity or introversion.

Yet the arguments against regarding autism as merely a benign form of neurodiversity are compelling, too. One prominent critic is Jill Escher, president of the National Council on Severe Autism. Escher has two autistic children, both of whom are profoundly impaired in their ability to perform basic life functions. As she has pointed out, the diagnosis of autism has taken on “an absurd umbrella aspect that can cover quirky people like Elon Musk, sensitive artists like the singer Sia, and even elite athletes like Tony Snell,” some of whom “are so high-functioning I would consider my kids completely cured if they had similar abilities.”

The problem is inherent in the absurdity of an “autism spectrum” that groups together highly disparate individuals and conditions. On one end of the spectrum are people who may be different from the norm, but who are perfectly capable of living full and dignified lives. For them, the notion of a cure is sinister, even dystopian. On the other end are people who are severely disabled by the condition, for whom a cure might be an immeasurable gift. […]

Rates of autism have skyrocketed in recent decades, from well below 1 in 1,000 children in the 1960s to 1 in 36 today. This is almost certainly partially attributable to a broadening of the diagnostic parameters. People who might have been considered merely somewhat abnormal in 1960 are liable to be classified as high-functioning autistic in 2024—a shift that has led to considerable confusion.

We’re all on the spectrum somewhere.

EASY OUTS:

Are smartphones really destroying the mental health of a generation? (Glynn Harrison, Apr. 21st, 2024, Spectator)

[T]he idea of the one-factor solution has never been particularly attractive to me. After all, over the first half of the last century, the lure of a surgical solution to mental health ailments scarred the lives of tens of thousands of patients who were subject to brain lobotomies. The same problem – good intentions but bad science – drove the over-use of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) and, more recently, rocketing prescriptions for the latest pharmaceutical remedies. The scandalous use of puberty blockers may yet turn out to have been the latest intervention fuelled by our need for the big fix.

Add in the replication-crisis engulfing the behavioural sciences right now (many study findings reported with great fanfare don’t hold up when other researchers try to repeat the experiments), and the latest health scare to wash up on our shores – an apparent link between social media and an epidemic of teenage mental illness – is not promising.

IT’S ABOUT THEM, NOT YOU:

Empathy, It Seems, Is Overrated (Jeannette Cooperman, APRIL 18, 2024, Common Reader)

But empathy springs from compassion, I mutter. Compassion without empathy is just sympathy, a sentiment that is easily mawkish, condescending, and deliberately distanced. Or so I have always believed.

Dr. Tania Singer, a social neuroscientist and psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Berlin, disagrees. A world-class expert in empathy and compassion, she scanned the brains of Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, also a neuroscientist, and other monks close to the Dalai Lama. She wanted to see where their brains lit up at moments of compassion and at moments of empathy. She found two entirely different neural pathways.

When empathizing with human tragedy, even wise contemplative monks become overwhelmed. Empathy causes you to feel the pain you are witnessing—in the same part of the brain that the sufferer feels it. Cut off from the meditative practice that buffers reactive emotions, the monks found the experience almost intolerable. But in the next round of scans, they were allowed to return to meditative compassion, which let them feel the pain without withdrawing or shutting down. Soak what you are perceiving with loving kindness, Ricard says, “and in the brain, complete change.”

The problem with pure, unadulterated empathy is that it becomes unbearable. Too much, too often, and you either withdraw or let it paralyze you. Either way, you are useless. Researchers say those who feel compassion are much more likely to help the other person than those who feel empathic distress.

MIND THE GAP:

Finding Awe Amid Everyday Splendor: A new field of psychology has begun to quantify an age-old intuition: Feeling awe is good for us. (HENRY WISMAYER, JANUARY 5, 2023, Noema)

“Yeah, that’s very nice,” he replied in a slow, portentous way, which I took to imply that I should stop commentating. And then we stood in silence for a long time.

“I’m 60, so I need to pee,” Keltner said suddenly, striding off down the slope. “It’s the great antagonist of awe in later life!”

With that, the moment passed. […]


The word “awe” derives from the Old Norse “agi” and the Old English “ege,” both of which denoted feelings of fear or terror. Its modern English derivative evolved to encapsulate a more nuanced emotion, one in which that same medieval dread mingles with a sense of pleasing, almost euphoric, overwhelm.

During the Scientific Revolution in Europe, awe fell into vogue as an explosion of discovery prompted fascination in all that remained inexplicable and out of reach. Europe’s wealthy developed a fashion for wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, collections of esoteric miscellanea from around the world. These displays, which often included animal specimens, arcane artworks and scientific instruments, were partly an ostentation: a show of their owner’s discernment. But they were also a cognitive tool. Awe, and its milder cousin “wonder,” had come to be seen as an aesthetic prompt for the inquiring mind.

In 1757, the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke revolutionized the intellectual contemplation of awe with his celebrated “Philosophical Enquiry,” in which he described the distinction between beauty and “the sublime,” a de facto synonym for awe. Burke argued that the sublime was “our strongest passion.” It could often stem from sensory impression, but it differed from beauty in that it also required a note of astonishment, the hint of threat. “Terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close,” he wrote.

Soon, this blossoming interest in wonder would give rise to great literary movements. In Europe, the Romantic poets found lofty words to echo the rarefied feelings of the awestruck soul. America’s transcendentalists struck out into the woods and mountains of New England to seek sanctity in the everyday.


Such thinking was at once a retort to the burgeoning fields of empirical science and a source of inspiration for some of its most famous exponents. In his history of the Romantic scientists, “The Age of Wonder,” the biographer Richard Holmes quotes an early poem by William Wordsworth, in which he describes a statue of Isaac Newton in terms that transform him from scholarly philomath to dauntless navigator, “Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”

William Herschel’s maps of the cosmos; Alexander von Humboldt’s concept of the web of life; Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution: Generations were spurred to genius by a desire to unlock the mysteries of the interconnected universe. Decades later, Albert Einstein would write: “He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder or stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: His eyes are closed.” For trailblazers and heretics, awe was a driving force, the handmaiden of revelation.

As these notions of the virtue of explorations both physical and intellectual percolated through to the masses, this era yielded what we might recognize today as the modern pursuit of awe. The transition away from agricultural work and intermittent peace in Europe would eventually give rise to the weekend, to holidays, to leisure. “When previously wildernesses had been shunned,” Robert Macfarlane wrote in “Mountains of the Mind,” “now they were sought out as arenas of intense experience.”

Still, awe itself remained a scientific enigma. In his 1605 treatise “The Advancement of Learning,” the father of empiricism, Francis Bacon, described wonder as “broken knowledge” — a facet of the human condition, in other words, that defied his scientific method. For all the words expended on its cause and effect, awe was still the preserve of the metaphysical, its vagaries explained away as the handiwork of God, beyond human comprehension. Awe and science existed in tension, even as the one fed the other. It was a lacuna in our understanding of the human condition that future wonderers would seek to fill.

GENDER DYSPHORIA WASN’T COOL YET:

A history of hypochondria wonders why we worry (Becca Rothfeld, April 12, 2024, Washington Post)

In the late 14th century, a spate of patients scattered across Europe developed an unusual delusion: They came to believe that their bodies were made of glass. Those suffering from this bizarre affliction were terrified of shattering — at least one of them insisted on sleeping in heaps of straw so as to prevent any mishaps.

There’s nothing new about socially communicable mental disorders.

IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD:

Manufacturing Bliss (Nadia Asparouhova, April 2024, Asterisk)

If the mind is like a car, we are still learning how to tune its gears. Psychedelic substances such as MDMA, psilocybin, and LSD offer one promising path, having reemerged from the shadows of prohibition to find new roles in therapeutic treatment. It turns out that inducing altered states of consciousness, in the right setting, can help people work through depression, anxiety, and addiction, as well as navigate major life transitions such as loss or terminal illness.

But what if we could engineer these altered states without any external substances or stimuli? Enter the jhanas, a growing meditation trend that’s made its way into some corners of tech. Practitioners claim they can induce extremely blissful mental states that rival life’s peak experiences, available at any time with enough concentration.

Jhanas, if they are as accessible and transformative as they seem, create new inroads to understanding, and improving, how our brains work. By revealing the mind’s potential to transform our subjective experience, they point toward a radically expanded notion of what happiness can be — and where it comes from.

IT’S LONG COVID:

Britain Is Leaving the U.S. Gender-Medicine Debate Behind: The Cass report challenges the scientific basis of medical transition for minors. (Helen Lewis, 4/14/24, The Atlantic)

The report drew on extensive interviews with doctors, parents, and young people, as well as on a series of new, systematic literature reviews. Its publication marks a decisive turn away from the affirmative model of treatment, in line with similar moves in other European countries. What Cass’s final document finds, largely, is an absence. “The reality is that we have no good evidence on the long-term outcomes of interventions to manage gender-related distress,” Cass writes. We also don’t have strong evidence that social transitioning, such as changing names or pronouns, affects adolescents’ mental-health outcomes (either positively or negatively). We don’t have strong evidence that puberty blockers are merely a pause button, or that their benefits outweigh their downsides, or that they are lifesaving care in the sense that they prevent suicides. We don’t know why the number of children turning up at gender clinics rose so dramatically during the 2010s, or why the demographics of those children changed from a majority of biological males to a majority of biological females. Neither “born that way” nor “it’s all social contagion” captures the complexity of the picture, Cass writes.

What Cass does feel confident in saying is this: When it comes to alleviating gender-related distress, “for the majority of young people, a medical pathway may not be the best way to achieve this.”