Category: Column

Currently, I am far too deep in NPR archives than I care to admit with the taste of stale coffee lingering on my lips, and surprisingly this procrastination trip has yielded fruitful insight that I want share with you.

So, NPR does this super dope project wherein it brings up-and-coming performing artists in to do an acoustic set in a tiny desk space, appropriately entitled the “Tiny Desk” series. In large part due to my avoidant behavior, and a smaller part of me that was looking for a potential reprise from the constant trap music that usually floats around in my head (fun side-note: your boss will in fact call you out if you sing about Percocet at work… just a heads up), I stumbled across a soulful rap artist named Noname. Her melodic, thoughtful words over soft jazz tones were just what I needed after what can appropriately be deemed a “rough week.”

Deeper into the performance, Noname herself elaborates more about why she chose to put these words together in this particular order (i.e. what her motivation was), a highlight of any concert in my opinion, but this particular articulation of her emotions really slapped me in the face. She said, “Thank you for appreciating my vulnerability. We should save the world with vulnerability.”

Noname has hit upon something so simplistically novel with this brief interlude. Maybe it was because I was sitting, staring at the blank research paper in front of me, pitying myself for the stupid decisions I’ve recently made (not just in terms of my biannual midterm crisis, but my personal life as well) but this statement kept lingering with me, begging for me to explore it just a bit deeper.

I think I can best describe her genius by emphasizing my own hesitancy at writing this piece. It’s hard to be witty, and careful, and protected behind trivial sexy words, when talking about a subject such as vulnerability. And saying that “I have recently made stupid decisions” is not something easy to burn explicitly into paper. Anxiety gnaws at the back of my head as I write this, whispering, “Just make sure he knows it’s not about him,” and begging me to not validate said illusive “him” with continued thought and emotion, but perhaps that is why discussing it is so important, so revolutionary.

Ironically, vulnerability has no name. Vulnerability is not that boy who “broke your heart” what seems like ages ago, or the friendship wherein amiability has become hyperextended. No, vulnerability is about you. Vulnerability is something only you can posses. As Noname states, “it is my vulnerability.”  The inherent problem in our society then is that our vulnerability is so deeply ingrained into our persona that when revealed to a wrong “other,” it becomes our own downfall. That’s where Noname’s revelation becomes extremely more complex.

Admitting vulnerability is antithetical to survival. This is a fact serving as the foundation of inter-state reactions: revealing vulnerability allows for the other state to use said vulnerability to its own likely aggressively-backed advantage, no matter what the original intentions of the “other” state may be. Tactically, if I am in a battle and I trumpet out, “Ay yo, I have left City Y unguarded,” my opponent would directly advantage by attacking City Y. Although in this situation showing your hand so bluntly initially comes off as stupid, it may actually be self-advantageous. If you put it out there that you understand this particular facet is weak, the other side cannot take advantage of your weakness with their own aggressiveness in a surprise attack. Moreover, you have made it clear that you are not so enchanted by your own strength to think that City Y could stand against the opponent on its own. You have already self-identified your own weakness, and manipulated it to your advantage, making it harder for the opponent to use it against you.

This is the tactic of vulnerability appreciation that Noname thinks can “save the world,” perhaps just one individual at a time. By recognizing that I cannot do something, while it makes me feel fucking stupid, and humiliated, and embarrassed at first, explicitly stating so will eventually inevitably put me back in control of the situation. No matter the person, if I lay out my weakness, they can no longer harm me by discovering it for themselves. I am not allowing for them to take my vulnerability from me, I keep it, along with whatever power over the situation I initially had. Vulnerability then can only harm me if I become disillusioned by it, if I refuse to listen to it, to engage with the possibilities its unavoidable presence inherently brings.

People are not wars. If I leave you with nothing else then this week, remember that, and go into this weekend with that mindset. Be fucking nice to someone. Appreciate their vulnerabilities. Appreciate your vulnerabilities. And I’ll be damned; maybe we’ll eventually be stronger for it.

 

As a transition from education to profession, college is the place where students have gone through lots of changes, and interpersonal relationships are definitely included. For example, let’s say a young and innocent college kid, Bob, has this feeling that although he is always getting to know new people, it is becoming more difficult for him to keep up with existing connections and friends. Of course, he has some “close friends” whom he keeps in touch with every day, but besides that, how close he is to “non-close friends” completely depends on how lucky they are to bump into each other on the way to Ferris Booth.

AbsentWeakStrong-HiRes-Tie-network

Graphic courtesy of Leadership Close Up

In our society, interpersonal relationships can be characterized as weak ties and strong ties. When you have a strong tie with someone, you keep up with him or her frequently and there are ways that you two meet or connect frequently — just think of someone in your housing group. When you have a weak tie with someone, one the other hand, you might still share a lot of common interests with that person, but for some reason you are connecting with him or her less frequently, and the cause of such infrequency could be unintentional — it might be because you two aren’t in the same class, or because you are living in Wien but your friend is living in Harmony and you don’t meet each other.

However, such infrequent connection could also, if not more likely, be caused by human calculation, and therefore we can actually draw a parallel between friendship and the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory. Yes, friendships can indeed be a game.

Let’s suppose we have two friends, Bob and Jim, and they know each other. One of the assumptions that we apply here is that Bob is a friend to Jim because Bob believes Jim will make him happy, and vice versa for Jim (I’m guessing you don’t to be friends with someone who makes you unhappy!). They both want to be very close to each other, but they are also aware that it takes some cost to keep up, for example if they hang out for an hour they lose an hour of study time, and therefore the more they want to connect, the higher the cost they have to pay to sustain a high level of connection.

In economics, we believe all happiness can be quantified, so we can do a simple experiment here to see how the outcome is derived. Suppose both Bob and Jim have two choices: either to connect the other one frequently or not. There is a special case: let’s say Bob chooses to connect with Jim frequently but Jim chooses to connect with Bob less frequently, what does each other gain out of this relationship? Remember since there is a cost of connecting, Jim will be better off choosing to connect frequently, because he is getting the same care and attention from Bob with a smaller cost. But, on the other hand, it will be hurtful, mostly emotionally, for Bob when he sees Jim is not giving him same attention and caring he deserves. We can characterize the situation in the following payoff matrix:

Picture1
If you have taken economic classes you can see what I mean by this matrix, and you know what Bob and Jim will choose to do.  If you are not familiar with economics, the basic idea behind this is that, because Bob knows he will be better off if when Jim contacts him frequently, he contacts Jim less frequently, Bob has an incentive to choose to connect Jim less frequently. But Jim faces the same situation and he will have an incentive to choose to connect less frequently and as a result, they will end up in a weak tie with each other.

It may seem disappointing in the beginning, but such incentives disappear as long as the game of friendship is being played repeatedly for a long time, and for a long time the real benefit of keeping a close relationship will outweigh the advantage of not returning to your friend once, and in such case a strong tie can be sustained. In other words, your relationship ends when you realize that there is an end of it, and upon such calculation from pure reasoning, there is a sentiment of friendship that we cherish.

Image courtesy of freshNYC

How would you describe yourself?

Most people can immediately come up with at least a few adjectives to summarize their personalities, and when these people are asked how well they know themselves on a scale of 1-10, the answers are overwhelmingly above 8. When asked to estimate if their ‘core’ personalities have remained consistent over time, the majority agree that while they have indeed changed, certain fundamental aspects of themselves remain the same.

People make important decisions based on the idea that personality continuity often underlies individual growth. You believe that person you choose to marry has essential qualities  which will remain good, that criminals have essential qualities which will remain bad, and that the people in your life all have dependable qualities. When attributing the incredible successes or failures of CEOs, celebrities, or pro-athletes, most tend to credit or blame their personalities.

While this convincing story pervades our culture, modern research indicates that this idea of an individual’s consistent personality is just a myth. A few months ago, the longest-running study on personality was published. Begun in 1947, teachers were asked to rate their fourteen-year old students on six personality traits. Sixty-three years later, researchers tracked down as many of the original participants as they could and analyzed their personalities.

Upon analysis, none of the six traits showed any significant stability across the time-span. While ideas about personality and experimental methods have changed drastically in the intervening decades, more modern neuroscientific research backs up these sorts of long-running surveys with fMRI studies of the changing brain.

While many ‘tests’ of personality exist on the internet, almost none of them hold any neuropsychological weight. This includes the famed Myers-Briggs model, which sorts individuals into sixteen distinct personalities according to four to five traits, each with a corresponding letter. If you have ever had someone tell you they are an ENFP, or INTJ, that’s the model they’re referring to. Though certainly entertaining, such tests have long-been discredited for being too myopic and binning people into binary categorizations.

Although many scientists disagree, the generally-accepted model of personality these days is the Big-Five, which gives individuals a rating from 1-100 on five distinct traits — Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. If you are interested, this is the best way to take it online.

Recently, neuroscientists have begun to examine how high scores on various factors in the Big Five might map onto brain structure. Using structural MRI, one team examined brain volume as it varies with brain region size, finding that extroverts had a larger medial orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region which processes reward. This area is heavily implicated in response to social reward, so it is  possible that extroverts enjoy social interactions because they supply them with a ‘hit’ of dopamine.

Increased scores on neuroticism correlate with bigger brain regions associated with threat, punishment, and negative behavior. It is possible that neurotic people feel the potential threat of a negative event more powerfully than those with smaller cingulate cortices, and therefore are more concerned over potentially troubling events.

Agreeableness correlated with a larger lateral prefrontal cortex, a region that loosely corresponds with planning and higher-order processing. Though they did not find a significant association with Openness, neuroscientists found some possible correlations with parts of the parietal cortex associated with integrating sensory stimuli.

While this study did not use functional MRI to tell us what regions are activated when exhibiting behaviors associated with these traits, there does appear to be some association between the sizes of these brain regions and an individual’s personality.

If psychology research tells us personality changes drastically over time, and neuroscience research indicates that our brains reflect our personalities, what underlying mechanisms in our brains are underlying these changes?

Some potential clues lie in memory research. A large body of evidence tells us that each time a memory is ‘accessed’, it is altered, sometimes dramatically, before going back into storage. As experiences pile up in our lifetimes, the memories we make are incorporated into the ways we face new information, and change the ways we make decisions.

The other massive factor in our decision-making comes from our surroundings — specifically, our social surroundings. The cultural norms which permeate a place can strongly influence how a personality changes over time, as new experiences permeate the neural wiring. With that in mind, it’s hard to think of a more distinct social environment in the U.S. than our home, New York City itself.

When asked what made a person a New Yorker, former mayor Edward Koch put it most succinctly: “you have to live here for six months, and if at the end of the six months you find you walk faster, talk faster, think faster, you’re a New Yorker.”  I have certainly found that a few years here have changed me in more ways than knowledge gained in the classroom — parts of my personality seem fundamentally altered by my time living in Columbia and in adapting to the the unique social norms such a city carries.

In a place as hectic, stressful, and sometimes isolating as New York City, the unconscious effect of environment likely affects us all. Combined with a student population of high-achieving and hard-working Columbians, it’s possible our particularly potent stress culture might be drawing heavily from the city itself for fuel. While we often talk about the culture-shock of NYC on many of our students during orientation weeks, we rarely take the time to analyze how exactly our city might be changing us.

Maybe the pressures of Columbian sub-culture paired with tough-it-out mentality of the city makes us feel busier and more focused, and therefore primes to think faster and act smarter. Maybe some of these changes are positive, learning how to ‘tough it out’ certainly has its benefits. But I’m more worried about the negatives, about how a city so known for indifference may be affecting our compassion and human integrity.

Luckily, any negative characteristics our brains may be picking up from the city aren’t permanent. The same neuroplasticity which hardened us can prioritize compassion again, if we make a conscious effort to make others as important as our busy schedules. We have the ability to change our own culture of Columbia and only let the positive aspects of the city in.

MMC students and teachers pose for photos after the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

 

“Remember what we said about your princess posture!” No, this was not a line from Brave or The Princess Diaries. Rather, it was heard—of all places—at a music lesson.

Teachers from the Columbia University chapter of Musical Mentors Collaborative (MMC) have been giving lessons at P.S. 145 every week since 2008. Instruments taught—free of charge—include piano, violin, guitar, and voice.

Most of the over 50 students in the program would probably not be able to take lessons otherwise.

“We are a school where the majority of the population are working-class immigrants,” Carlos Salamanca, the Parent Coordinator of P.S. 145, explains.

“It’s important for the Latino and Black communities to have the opportunity to play musical instruments. This is the chance that they have–this Musical Mentors teaching.”

The MMC program leads to many exciting learning experiences. Last Saturday morning, Stephanie Rager, a sophomore in SEAS who is a Co-President of MMC, taught Sophia–after reminding her to stand like a princess, of course–what a half note is.

Stephanie Rager, CC ‘19, with her student, Sophia

Stephanie Rager, SEAS ‘19, with her student, Sophia.

First, Stephanie clapped quarter notes with Sophia. Then, she sang the last three notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”–quarter note, quarter note, half note–while Sophia continued to clap. Stephanie explained that the last note she sang was twice as long as the two prior. After some time of working on the measure–both with and without her bow–Sophia’s face lit up: she had “got it.”

Watching students’ reactions made me smile more times than I could count. I now understand why James Valentini often talks about “Beginner’s Mind”: these elementary school students were incredibly eager to learn and bubbled with joyous excitement when they did.  

Music lessons can even be mathematical. This week, Alexia Le, a junior music major in CC, taught Vanessa 3/8. Explaining time signatures can be complicated: it oftentimes involves fractions, which some students have not yet learned.

Alexia solved the difficulty by finding a different way to explain it. She described how it was similar to 3/4–which Vanessa played earlier in the lesson–in that there are three beats per measure, yet different because the eighth note gets the beat.

These challenging pedagogical moments are rewarding for teachers. Julian Vleeschhouwer, a sophomore in Columbia College, values his new role as piano teacher.

“I really enjoy teaching—prior to this I never really taught music before, I’ve always been the one taking lessons—so to be able to give back a little is really fulfilling for me,” Julian says with an assuring nod.

“It’s helped me to realize the role music can play in different people’s lives; I think that I always took it for granted in my life.

Julian Vleeschhouwer, CC ‘19, and Nicole at the winter recital (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Julian Vleeschhouwer, CC ‘19, and Nicole at the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

However, despite the positive interactions I witnessed, the realities of the program are sobering. Some pianos are extremely out-of-tune (almost a half-step flat). The school’s music program does not include band or orchestra, so most students are unable to develop their instrumental skills during the school day. Instruments are provided by P.S 145, which means there’s a what-we-have-is-what-you’ll-play policy.

Perhaps most disheartening of all: MMC ends after elementary school. Without an instrument, let alone a teacher, many students stop playing.

“Vanessa’s older sister was also in the program, but now that she is in middle school, she doesn’t play violin anymore and doesn’t remember how to play,” Alexia recounts—her voice diving down, crestfallen, at the end of her phrase.

With more teachers the program could expand to the local middle school, ensuring that students can continue making music after graduating.

An increase in instructors would also help at the elementary school level: P.S. 145 often has more interested students than available instructors.

“We always need more!” Salamanca emphasizes.

Recent fundraising from the Columbia Festival of Winds will definitely assist the program: MMC anticipates using the several thousand dollars collected for new classroom pianos.

However, the larger problem–governmental support of art and music programs in public schools–is insurmountable for MMC. Despite written acknowledgement (see page 2) of the arts’ educational value, the Department of Education (DOE) is clearly not doing enough to foster art in schools, which MMC’s very existence and the sad story of Vanessa’s sister illustrate.

These MMC lessons demonstrate, though, just how beneficial and necessary music making in schools is; they show why additional and continued governmental support of the arts is a good—to put things in blunt financial terms—investment in a child’s future.

How do these lessons prove why music has educational value? Take, for example, Alexia’s relationship with Vanessa.

In the lesson that I observed, Alexia spent nine minutes working with Vanessa on just one measure because of its rhythmic complexity. Alexia’s focus on the passage demonstrates her great commitment toward Vanessa’s learning.

Their determined work leads to success: Alexia beamed when describing how proud she was while watching Vanessa’s end-of-semester recital. Throughout our discussion about Vanessa, Alexia’s voice oozed with warmth and care.

Jonathan Herman, SEAS ‘18, looks on after Angel’s performance at the winter recital (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Jonathan Herman, SEAS ‘18, looks on after Angel’s performance at the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Alexia has helped ignite Vanessa’s passion for music. Nowadays, Vanessa often seeks out pieces to learn from YouTube and even composes her own music.

In reality, Vanessa would not have been able to work with–let alone discover–her musical interests without the MMC program. Because of the opportunity, Vanessa has developed not only her musical abilities but also the virtues intrinsic to learning an instrument: independence, patience, and a strong work ethic.

Vanessa’s growth illustrates the benefits of a music education. Her story speaks directly to the NYC Department of Education, proving that music programs are needed in schools.

“I feel like I’m making a difference; I see the progress,” Alexia confirms.

“I think that I’m helping her realize, hopefully, a lifelong love of music.”

 

 

Photo Courtesy of Ogawatsusyou

Much like my Uber rating, I am unabashedly proud of my “sensual soundtrack.” I’m sure you’re familiar with the one, lurking in the “secret” section of nearly every millennial’s Spotify. The playlist that magically makes its way to the speakers after a couple of glasses of wine, as the distance on the couch between you and your company slowly vanishes. Crafting that perfect ear aphrodisiac is my strong suit…. or so I thought until I heard my roommate’s concoction drifting through our paper-thin walls.

Delicately titled “I’m Getting Laid”, her playlist is not merely ambiance. No, it is a ballad, taking you on an epic journey that Homer himself would be impressed by. I don’t mean to be blunt, but it is sheer fucking genius. The exposition of her masterpiece begins with the ever so classic Marvin Gaye–and not that Kygo bullshit–but the actual authentic, original, dirty, baby-making music. Drake and 80’s rock hits concoct the rising action and eventually culminate in a conflict of palpable sexual tension accompanied by The Weeknd and The Arctic Monkeys. And finally, the apex of the journey (I would say “climax,” but that’s a bit gauche): it begins with Beyoncé’s “50 Shades of Grey” rendition of Crazy in Love, which is followed by more Weeknd (obviously). It’s truly tantalizing. As things begin to calm down, more soft pop flows from the speakers and spooning eventually transforms into a “boot and rally” of more raunchy R&B. Finally, the actual resolution of soft electronic music as you recover, sinking into your satisfaction.

While I would not follow her prescribed playlist to a T, it is awe-inspiring–a good model for understanding nationalism in today’s world.

Today is the “beginning of the end of nationalism,” as my Danish friend informed me. While I am largely ignorant to the European political scene, I have learned that, apparently, the upcoming elections are demonstrating a tendency to lean away from the more nationalist parties. To be honest, this isn’t surprising.

Like sex-playlists, nationalism is a good impetus for action, yet cannot serve as a solid foundation for the entire apparatus. While it takes different shapes according to the implementing actor, it is largely the same concept worldwide: a heavy emotional pride cloaked in politics. States and sex both have many complex parts synergistically working together, and a faulty reliance on a single apparatus such as nationalism (or a playlist) will likely lead to failure. From Hillary’s desperate attempts at patriotism at the Democratic National Convention, to Le Pen’s decline in popularity, it is evident that success cannot ride on nationalism alone.

While still crucial to the overall success, neither nationalism nor sex playlists, alone can climax in success.