How MDMA Affects Empathy

Scientific evidence is mounting that ecstasy isn’t just a party drug.

According to lore, in the early 1980s, an enterprising drug distributor in Los Angeles was trying to build a street market for the chemical compound MDMA. It seemed like a promising product— MDMA floods the brain with serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness. Users reported feeling euphoric, appreciating lights and music in a new way, and a rush of emotional intimacy. MDMA was starting to catch on as a club drug, but if it was going to be big, it would need a catchier name.

With partygoers in mind, the dealer coined the name “Ecstasy.” “Empathy,” he reportedly said, “would be more appropriate, but how many people know what it means?”

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Shut Up and Listen

Understanding the cold, hard truths behind the concept of empathy

People are talking about empathy more than ever. A search of New York Times archives reveals that while the paper mentioned the term in only 18 articles in 1960, the count had risen to 241 by 2000. And in 2013, empathy was referenced 563 times. Last week’s Sunday Review section of The Times even included a piece on empathy and its connection to social status. And the Gray Lady isn’t the only one. News organizations ranging from the Harvard Business Review to The Huffington Post are enumerating the benefits of getting in touch with other people’s feelings and advising us on how to do so.

Whether this is a reaction to a perceived pandemic of self-centeredness, a side effect of the recent interest in holistic “wellness,” or simply a spontaneous collective desire to be better people, Americans are, it seems, interested in increasing their ability to share and understand the feelings of the other.

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We’ve designed our world to keep us from having to exert ourselves. We have escalators and elevators and moving sidewalks precisely because we don’t want to be forced to work out all the time. But combine these conveniences with the largely desk-bound life of the modern knowledge worker, and it starts to look like we may have erred in the other direction—engineering physical activity out of our lives.
A new nonprofit organization in New York City is trying to change that. The Center for Active Design, announced by Mayor Mike Bloomberg last week, is working with architects and designers to create urban spaces that encourage movement, community, and yes, maybe even a little light exercise by incorporating features like staircases, pedestrian paths, and secure bicycle storage. It’s an effort to combat obesity with architecture.
The percentage of obese Americans, defined as those with a body mass index of 30 or above, is on track to rise to 27.1 percent this year, up from 26.2 percent in 2012. In a Gallup poll released earlier this year, a lack of exercise was identified as the single most important lifestyle factor affecting obesity rates in America. In an indication of the seriousness of the situation, the American Medical Association recently voted to recognize obesity as a disease for the first time.
The good news is that evidence suggests that small design changes—something as small, even, as a sign pointing out the health benefits of taking the stairs—can influence how much physical activity people get. And studies show that even minimal regular exercise (a few flights of stairs every day counts) can have large health benefits.
The “Active Design strategies” endorsed by this new center try to make physical activity part of daily life. A building might have attractive, conveniently located stairs, such as the Via Verde affordable housing development in South Bronx, or landscape elements that inspire walking and jogging, such as the paths around the New York City Police Academy building in Queens.
The center breaks Active Design into four key concepts:\n
• Active buildings: encouraging greater physical movement within buildings for users and visitors;
• Active transportation: supporting a safe and vibrant environment for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders;
• Active recreation: shaping play and activity spaces for people of different ages, interests, and abilities; and
• Improving access to nutritious foods in communities that need them most.
According to a press release from the Mayor’s office, the center is currently working with New York City, as well as with cities elsewhere in the U.S. and in Canada, the U.K., and Brazil, on streets, buildings, and other public spaces.
This new center seems to be an extension of earlier work by the city’s Department of Design and Construction. Indeed, Bloomberg and New York City have been pushing for new ways to fight public health problems, from the controversial super-size soda ban to the new CitiBike system. As part of last week’s announcement, Bloomberg also issued a new executive order requiring all new major public developments or renovations to follow active design principles.
In that context, some people will surely think about this new center as just another manifestation of Bloomberg’s “nanny state.” But the practical benefits are healthier citizens and less public and private money spent addressing the myriad preventable problems that come with obesity.
And it’s no accident that active design principles often result in spaces that are especially beautiful and popular. Think the Renzo Piano-designed New York Times building, with its extensive indoor staircases, the central atrium of Thom Mayne’s Cooper Union building, or the High Line park, with its extensive pedestrian-oriented landscaping.
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How Meditation Eased My Case of Internet Brain

I think you know what I mean by “internet brain.” After spending an hour or so online—scanning your social networks, jumping from one diverting...

I think you know what I mean by “internet brain.” After spending an hour or so online—scanning your social networks, jumping from one diverting link to another, and sampling little snippets of text and imagery for as long as they hold your increasingly attenuated attention—you feel completely scattered. Any task that requires the sustained and focused application of your brain has become impossible.
The internet makes it very easy to get trapped in a pattern of desultory distraction. In fact, apps and websites are usually engineered to be optimally “engaging” (read: distracting). Some commentators have speculated that the internet exploits the information-gathering impulses we inherited from our savannah-dwelling ancestors. Regardless, the result is often lost time and low productivity.
In the past, I’ve had to be plugged into the internet for work—monitoring Twitter, checking facts on Google, and keeping up with dozens of RSS feeds. When being online is central to your job, a “digital detox” isn’t the answer. It would be impossible without going on vacation entirely. I needed to get work done despite my proximity to the internet. I needed the strength to navigate the Scilla and Charybdis of social media and my RSS reader without a productivity shipwreck.
I started meditating out of curiosity. I had read an excellent book called The Ego Tunnel, in which the hot new philosopher Thomas Metzinger (yes, there exist hot new philosophers) explained how meditation changed the neural activity in monks. I was interested, so I started meditating using email instructions from a friend. I liked it, and started going to a center in L.A. where people practiced zen meditation. Now I do Vipassana meditation on my own using a guide called Mindfulness in Plain English (which still tends to be very aphoristic). You can get it online for free.
Most schools of meditation share one basic foundational activity: You try to focus your attention on the process of breathing to the exlusion of everything else. This may sound easy, but in practice, it’s extremely difficult. You fail constantly. As soon as you begin to meditate, you’re hit with a maelstrom of thoughts and sensations, ranging from the trivial to the deeply important. You’re supposed to acknowledge these thoughts and feelings without judgment when they crop up, as they inevitably do, but then return your attention to your breath.
While meditating, I can sometimes go for several minutes without getting distracted from my breath. These are periods of profound calm. But the practice of meditation is mostly acknowledging that you have been distracted yet again, and trying to focus on your breath. And I found that this process actually built my capacity to recognize when I am being distracted and respond appropriately.
Furthermore, it wasn’t until I tried to quiet and clear my mind in this way that I became truly aware of how loud and cluttered it sometimes gets. I find that when I meditate, this cacophony often calms down. Fleeting thoughts, distractions, and impulses pass. Once the dust from all the frantic thinking has settled, I’m left not only with a renewed capacity to resist distraction, but also with a clearer sense of my priorities.
When meditating regularly, my work life is much easier. I can take a break in the middle of a larger project to look up a critical piece of information or check for an important email and then catch myself immediately if I start to get sidetracked. I found that I can work consistently and productively for longer periods of time—and this means that I have more free time as well.
Wired recently published a piece describing the new enthusiasm for meditation as a productivity booster among Silicon Valley tech professionals. I’m not surprised. As more of us work in roles that require being online and connected for the entire day, and often into the evenings as well, the costs of digital distraction, and effective ways of combating it, will become more apparent and important. In the case of the tech companies, of course, there’s a little irony in the fact that the more productive their employees are, the more quickly they’ll crank out new distracting technologies.
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America's 100,000th Electric Car Just Sold: Are These Things Catching On?

With traditional cars, we’re stuck buying—and burning—gas.

Tesla, Elon Musk’s high-end electric car company, has had a very good quarter.
It made a profit for the first time in history, it's set to pay taxpayers back for its $465 million government loan (with $12 million interest), and it's got a very, very positive review from Consumer Reports (a 99 out of 100; its performance was “off the charts”).
And Tesla’s success might be part of a larger trend. The advocacy group Plug-In America just declared that the 100,000th plug-in electric car was sold in America this week.
Plug-In America didn’t count every electric car sale. Rather, the group determined this number by extrapolating from plug-in sales over the last few years. In 2011, fewer than 20,000 were sold. In 2012, that number jumped to more than 50,000. And at current rates, more than 100,000 will be sold in 2013 alone.

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