Millennials, Psychopaths, and Science Take Stage at PSU TEDx

Oregon State Hospital’s Octavio Choi discussed mental health and mass shootings, and will go into greater depth at a presentation Friday.

Psychopaths could make better use of their natural low empathy by becoming surgeons instead of mass murders. And in the workplace, so-called generational differences attributed to “baby boomers,” “GenX’ers,” “millennials,” and other age groups arise from dubious research and lead to hidden biases and discrimination.

These are two ideas from a diverse set of talks held Saturday at Portland State University for a sold-out audience of 100 people. The stage showcased a forensic psychiatrist, a geology student, a management scholar, a prison writing instructor, a career consultant, and a neuroscientist. Each aimed to make their unforgettable points in 18 minutes or less.

Talks about science are proliferating across the state: Inside Oregon's Science Pub Phenomenon

A student group organized the event under a TEDx license. TEDx is one of the spinoff programs of the influential TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference held every year on the North American West Coast. Individual videos of TED talks are posted on the TED site and its YouTube channel, which combined report well over 1 billion views. TEDx events are mini-TEDs that are independently organized in communities around the world, within strict guidelines, around the same mission of “ideas worth spreading.” The 100,000th TEDx talk was delivered in October 2017.

At PSU, the six speakers were selected from about 60 people who applied to give a talk, said lead organizer Katie Sashchenko. Five hailed from the Portland area, three from PSU, and one flew in from Georgia.

Sashchenko, who graduates in March with a business degree in human resource management, recruited one of her favorite PSU instructors, workplace scientist David Cadiz, PhD. In class, Cadiz uses TED talks on leadership, motivation, stress, and happiness to complement his management curriculum.

On Saturday, Cadiz addressed the darker side of labeling people by generations with stereotypical characteristics. Labels such as “baby boomers” or  “generation X” arise from an assumption that experiencing different historical political and cultural moments, such as the Vietnam War protest or 9/11 U.S. terrorist attack, influence people at key developmental moments that color the way they interact with the world and are shared among their peers.

“It seems like an intuitive, simple, and harmless way to describe people and their complex interactions between societal changes and individual development,” Cadiz said. It also seems like a useful way to manage, work with, and market to people of different ages and birth cohorts.

There’s not enough evidence to say this idea is flat-out wrong, but studies fall short in many ways: shaky statistical methods, fuzzy and conflicting definitions of generations, and—importantly—actual workplace outcome differences, such as job satisfaction and commitment to work. More and much better research is needed.

Most recently, millennials (sometimes called generation Y), a demographic born in the 1980s and 1990s and reaching young adulthood in the early 2000s, have either been singled out as lazy or preferentially indulged as needing frequent feedback and flexible work schedules. That advice works well for workers of all ages, Cadiz said.

“It’s like a horoscope,” he said. “You find a few characteristics that ring true. Then the generational label becomes behaviors you look for to reinforce your beliefs. There may be kernels of truth here and there, but it adds up to an oversimplification of complex differences that ultimately have become an accepted form of ageism.” Such labeling has led to an implicit bias and discrimination that is so embedded in popular culture that few people think about challenging it.

Iris Romo, an undergraduate geology student at PSU, told the story of her transition from mathematics to oceanography at community college and then to paleoseismology at PSU from her starting point as a high school student whose boyfriend dreamed of marrying her and having five babies in the next five years. Don’t let opportunities pass by, she said. Romo leaped at several opportunities to gain educational skills and leadership experience, including ocean research voyages and scholarship programs.

Octavio Choi, MD, PhD, director of the Forensic Evaluation Service at the Oregon State Hospital, started his presentation with the latest mass shooting example in Florida. He has to update his opening for every talk, he said.

After every mass shooting, there is scapegoating of the mentally ill. In fact, the seriously mentally ill are statistically less likely to be violent than the general public, accounting for 4 percent of adults and 3 percent of overall violence.

The violence more likely comes from people with another another biologically based condition, psychopaths, who unlike the seriously mentally ill are considered rational but have extreme antisocial behavior. Psychopaths make up 1 percent of adults and may account for half of violent crimes, Choi said.

“Typically, personality disorders are not viewed as severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder,” Choi explained in a follow-up email.

Psychopaths are emotionally detached, lack empathy, lack remorse, have low anxiety and fear, and when violent typically commit planned aggression, he said in his TEDx talk. Many come from intact family backgrounds, he said. In non-invasive imaging of the brains of psychopaths, researchers have found distinct differences in regions governing social inhibitions, empathy and impulse control.

Some experimental therapies exist, such as empathy training or non-invasive electrical stimulation. “Ending violence is not just about fixing psychopaths, we also need to fix the world around them,” Choi said. One solution may be to find ways to provide opportunities for rational young people with emotional deficits to make pro-social choices. “Less empathy doesn’t have to make you a serial murderer,” he said. “Lots of studies show surgeons are less empathetic.”

Choi will be giving a longer, hour-long, version of this talk on Friday, March 2, at the Oregon Law & Mental Health Conference in Portland.

Wrapping up the show, neuroscientist Lawrence Sherman challenged more people to speak up about science to a society that is increasing skeptical about its value.

Demonizing science goes back centuries, at least to Galileo, who was sentenced to prison by the Inquisition for anti-biblical observations that the Earth was not the center of the universe and instead revolved around the Sun.

These days, Sherman said, some people believe the Earth is flat, and reject scientific observations that the world is warming, an effect linked to carbon dioxide generated by humans. Suspicion of vaccines may have been rational in the 1800s, “when they were bad,” but the modern anti-vaccine movement is founded on a fraudulent paper that has since been withdrawn and may be fueling a recent rise in deadly but preventable infectious childhood diseases.

People attack science for reasons of financial self interest and religious convictions, Sherman said. Tactics include manipulating public messages, withholding funding, hiding identities behind science-sounding organizations, and harassing or litigating against scientists.

Scientists can be their own worst enemy in engaging the public in research, said Sherman, a researcher at Oregon Health & Science University. For example, the title of a 2005 breakthrough paper from his lab is titled, “Hyaluronan accumulates in demyelinated lesions and inhibits oligodendrocyte progenitor maturation.”

A clearer way to say the same thing is, “A sugar molecule that builds up following brain injury prevents cells from repairing the damage.” The finding has led to a pre-clinical trial to repair brain damage in multiple sclerosis and may help in other types of brain damage, including peri-natal brain injury that contributes to cerebral palsy.

Sherman is a popular speaker in the public science lecture circuit around Portland, but he doesn’t talk about his own research. “I love talking about science,” he told the PSU crowd. His preferred neuroscience talks are music and the brain, love and the brain, and even the neuroscience of racism.

“These are hour-long talks where I can go into depth on a specific topic, and I have the freedom to format the talk in a way that I think will be engaging and fun for audiences, but also where I can build a story and share a lot of data on a topic,” Sherman said in a follow up email. “TED talks are short and really need to be about broader concepts. I found that putting this talk together was a bigger challenge, because I really needed to get my message out quickly without getting into the details.”

Sherman’s next talk music and the brain talk (Thursday, March 1), is sold out. He will deliver a different version of that talk on May 3. This one is focused on music and the aging brain with local singer/songwriter Naomi LaViolette, who is helping a local composer who suffers from Alzheimer's recover his music.

Missed the PSU TEDx? This year, four more TEDx events are scheduled at other locations in Portland and one each in Bend, Hillsboro, McMinnville, and Forest Grove. In Oregon, a TEDx site search reveals, 91 mini-TEDs have been held since 2010. At one point, a four-minute talk at the 2012 TEDx at Concordia University in Portland by lawyer Joe Smith on how to use a paper towel was in the top 10 most viewed TEDx talks online. Smith’s talk is included in the official TEDx instructions for speakers as an exemplar.

Carol Cruzan Morton is an Oregon-based health and science journalist who has written for the Boston Globe, Science Magazine, and Harvard Medical School, among others.

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