Category Archives: Interesting

Why Walking Matters—Now More Than Ever – WSJ

I share just FYI. I have not way to verify the proposition. mrossol

Even how we walk has temporarily changed, especially for city-dwellers. It’s now more social in a peculiar way. We used to obliviously bump shoulders and perhaps mutter apologies while scrolling on smartphones; now we watch each other’s movements, slightly sashay away and smile at one another—at a safe distance. Our brains are quickly calculating where the other person is, getting ready for a passing encounter. Walking is somehow more “mindful” now.

What we probably don’t realize is that walking can be a kind of a behavioral preventive against depression. It benefits us on many levels, physical and psychological. Walking helps to produce protein molecules in muscle and brain that help repair wear and tear. These muscle and brain molecules—myokines and neurotrophic factors, respectively—have been intensively studied in recent years for their health effects. We are discovering that they act almost as a kind of fertilizer that assists in the growth of cells and regulation of metabolism. They also reduce certain types of inflammation.

These essential molecules are produced by movement and the increased brain and body activity created by movement. If you’re not moving about, placing heart and muscle under a bit of positive stress and strain, these molecules aren’t produced in sufficient quantities to perform their roles.


Movement through the world changes the dynamics of the brain itself.

Walking is essential to our nature. Walking upright is one thing that sets humans apart; no other animal does it, but we can’t do without it. At around a year or so of age, we make a unique transition from crawling, from being stable on all fours. We struggle upright, falling a bit, stumbling a bit and eventually walking fluidly and fluently under our own steam.


In our evolutionary history, walking upright set our hands free, allowing us to carry food and tools and children and also to point and gesture. Because we could point to predators and prey in the distance, we could look in the same direction, paying shared attention to what someone is pointing at—a capacity that demands an elaborate brain system.

Walking is also how we find our way around the world. It is how we created our own internal GPS maps before there was GPS. This gives the lie to how we might think we navigate—that is, by sight. People who are completely visually-impaired, even from birth, can and do navigate with purpose and direction. They can do this without sight because the experience of bodily movement itself in complicated three-dimensional space is key to creating our cognitive maps.



Those of us with normal sight are fooled by our sense of the three-dimensional world as visual, but to our brains, vision is just one sense contributing to our understanding of space. After all, we can find our way around in a suddenly darkened room. Close your eyes and point to where the door is: That’s your cognitive map at work. Moving is the thing. It silently updates your position in your GPS without your even realizing it.

Movement through the world changes the dynamics of the brain itself. Recent experiments show that walking increases the strength of the signals in parts of the brain concerned with seeing and other senses, such as touch. This is the biological reality of the phrase “on the prowl.” Walking about helps you discover things more quickly compared to merely sitting in one place.

Experiments by the psychologists Marily Opezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford University have shown that walking boosts creativity. They asked people to quickly come up with alternative uses for common objects, such as a pen. They found that people whom they got to walk before coming up with alternative uses came up with almost twice as many novel ideas as those who remained seated.


We have designed movement out of our world and put more sitting around into it.

Before you start a creatively demanding piece of work, prime yourself by writing down a few questions about what you need to do. Then head off for a 20-minute stroll and bring a voice recorder or a notebook. You’re likely to find that you generate more ideas than you would have while sitting at your desk. A walking brain is a more active brain, and more activity in the brain can bring colliding ideas and associations at the edge of consciousness to mind—resulting in the “a-ha” moment of insight.

Granted, going for a walk acts against our in-built tendency to conserve energy. Remember, for most of our history, food was hard to come by. After a long day walking and foraging and hunting, our forebears would sit and maybe tell stories or sing songs. But we’ve largely solved the food gathering problem now; shops and restaurants and home deliveries make cheap calories easily available. We no longer walk mile after mile to gather food. Instead we can sit and eat, easily. Perhaps too easily. We have designed movement out of our world and put more sitting around into it.

Recent experiments show that as few as three or four days of inactivity reduces muscle mass in the legs, starting to replace muscle with deposits of fat. This isn’t much of a problem when you’re 30, but it is when you are 60, needing assistance to stand up from your chair. The cure? Get up, walk about and fight the frailty that can come with aging.

Walking is the movement that we all profit from and have evolved for. Walk we must, and walk we should, to keep our mental and physical worlds open and to stop the walls from closing in.


don't start with "at least…"

WSJ 4/10/2020By Jessie Stuart

A friend posted on Facebook that her son’s college had closed for the rest of the year: “He and his friends are devastated.” I scrolled down to the comments. “At least he’s not a senior!” someone offered. “My daughter will never get to go back to campus.”

Later I read a tweet from a stranger about how he still had to go to work as a garbageman and was scared he’d get sick on the job. Someone replied: “At least you still have a job, man.”

With the coronavirus shaking the world and forcing us into isolation, I’ve found myself reflecting on how the things we say can bring us closer together or drive us further apart. As a physician, I’ve received training in the art of empathic communication. The job is defined by people coming to us with “complaints,” which we navigate and support them through. I’m still in training and have a lot to learn, but one lesson that’s stuck with me is that it is never helpful to start a sentence with “At least . . .”

We’ve all said it. The intention is almost always good. I can imagine someone reading the garbageman’s tweet thinking it could be helpful— comforting, even—to remind him how lucky he is. It doesn’t work that way.

One of my favorite speakers on this subject is Brené Brown, a professor of social work who has spent the past two decades studying empathy. In her talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” she says: “Rarely, if ever, does an empathic statement start with ‘At least.’ . . . Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

Ms. Brown’s words came to mind recently as I was staffing the oncology service at the hospital where I work as a resident. A patient, recently diagnosed with leukemia, was there for chemotherapy, which, as it killed her cancer, was also destroying her immune system. The patient lay in bed watching CNN report new coronavirus statistics.

“How could this be happening now?” she said. “I have no immune system. I’ll be the first to go.” She turned to us, her breathing heavy. “I’m just—I’m paralyzed with fear.” No answer could allay her concerns.

A colleague was the first to speak: “I can only imagine how scared you’re feeling right now. It’s unfair that you’re dealing with leukemia and now this. I don’t know what the future holds, but we’ll be with you every step of the way.”

Her response wasn’t perfect, but that’s the point. It’s impossible to relate to the precise circumstances that is causing someone distress. Yet we’ve all felt despair. It’s OK— and even helpful—to admit that you can’t imagine what someone is going through. But you can tell her you care and you’ll be with her through it all.

It can be hard as a doctor to keep my “empathy tank” full. I’ve had bad days when I diagnose a 25year-old with a terminal illness, and later find I have trouble caring when a friend calls to complain about a snack-stealing roommate. I worry that the coronavirus era will strain our collective ability for empathy, but I also have hope that we will rise to the challenge.

On tough days, I find it helpful to pause, take a deep breath, and let myself be present for the person in distress. Sometimes we have to silence the small voice in our head that says, “At least you weren’t diagnosed with a horrible disease today”—or “At least you still have a job.” Whether suffering is big or small, it’s all-consuming and it isn’t relative.

Dr. Stuart is a resident in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston


Iran-Contra Was a Better Class of Scandal

As good a summary of Iran-Contra as I have heard in a long time.

WSJ  12/7/2019

During presidential scandals, members of the media often speak of the Iran-Contra affair. I’m not sure they really understand it.

In retrospect that scandal was distinguished by two central, shaping characteristics. First, it was different from other scandals in that its genesis wasn’t low or brutish. It wasn’t about money, or partisan advantage, or sex; it was about trying to free American hostages in the Mideast, and attempting to pursue a possible, if unlikely, foreign-policy advance. It had to do with serious things. Second, when the story blew it eventually yielded a model of how to handle a scandal, though it didn’t look that way at the time. In July 1985 President Reagan was in Bethesda Naval Hospital recovering from colon-cancer surgery when his national security adviser, Bud McFarlane, told him of a potential opening in efforts to free the seven American hostages the Iranian-dominated terrorist group Hezbollah had taken in Beirut. Among them were the Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson; Father Lawrence Jenco, the head of Catholic Relief Services in Lebanon; and William Buckley, the Central Intelligence Agency’s Beirut station chief. Buckley, who’d seen action in the U.S. Army in Korea and Vietnam and been much decorated, had been held since March 1984 and endured more than a year of torture. Reagan knew this, and he’d met with the families of other hostages.

Mr. McFarlane said Israeli contacts had told him that a group of moderate, politically connected Iranians wanted to establish a channel to the U.S. With the Iran-Iraq war raging and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in his 80s, Iran’s political leadership might soon be in play. The moderates would show their sincerity by persuading Hezbollah to give up the hostages. Mr. McFarlane wanted to talk. Reagan approved.

Thus commenced an initiative that its participants thought farsighted, its critics called almost criminally naive, and Secretary of State George Shultz later called “crazy.”

The moderates wanted the U.S. to permit Israel to sell them some TOW antitank missiles. They would pay, and the U.S. would replenish the Israeli stock. This would enhance their position in Iran by proving they had connections to high officials in Washington.

Reagan should have shut everything down at the mention of weapons. He didn’t. He later wrote, “The truth is, once we had information from Israel that we could trust the people in Iran, I didn’t have to think thirty seconds about saying yes.” It was only a one-shipment deal, he reasoned, and the moderates had agreed to his insistence that they get the hostages out. A shipment was made, and hostage Benjamin Weir was released.

In October 1985 the terrorist group Islamic Jihad announced it had killed William Buckley. (The White House National Security Council concluded he’d probably already died of a heart attack.) Reagan stayed hopeful, although when word got around of what was happening, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Mr. Shultz opposed it. Mr. Shultz told Reagan that while it might not technically be an arms-for hostages deal, it would certainly look like one—and it would blow sky-high as soon as it leaked, as it would leak.

By winter it was clear some of the Iranian go-betweens were dubious. No more hostages were being released. Mr. McFarlane resigned. His successor, John Poindexter, pressed for another shipment of missiles, to be followed by talks with Iranian moderates. CIA Director William Casey agreed it was worth the risk if there’s a chance they could deliver. Mr. Shultz and Weinberger pushed back. Reagan later said, “I just put my foot down.” In the spring, Mr. McFarlane returned for a secret trip to Iran, which he’d been told would free the last of the hostages. He went home without them.

That July, Jenco was released. Casey and the NSC asked for another missile shipment. Reagan approved.

Then a new terrorist group took three more American hostages in Lebanon.

A channel had been opened to a group that included a nephew of the speaker of the Iranian Parliament, who requested various gifts including a Bible inscribed by the president. Amazingly, he got them. Later, it was reported the Americans even brought


It arose out of serious aims, not tawdry ones, and holds lessons in resilience and perseverance a cake shaped like a key.

In November 1986, a Lebanese news outlet broke a story saying America was trading arms for hostages.

It was explosive. Reagan looked like a hypocrite—his administration had long pressed others not to sell arms to the Iranians. His people looked like fools gulled by gangsters.

Mr. Shultz later summed it all up this way: “The U.S. government had violated its own policies on antiterrorism and against arms sales to Iran, was buying our own citizens’ freedom in a manner that could only encourage the taking of others, was working through disreputable international go-betweens . . . and was misleading the American people—all in the guise of furthering some purported regional political transformation, or to obtain in actuality a hostage release.” Mr. McFarlane, Mr. Poindexter and Casey “had sold it to a president all too ready to accept it, given his humanitarian urge to free American hostages.”

Reagan was embarrassed, but once he saw the dimensions of the problem—he believed his motivations were right and the American people would understand once he explained—he took a series of constructive decisions. He kept Mr. Schultz, who’d been public in his criticism, in the administration.

When Reagan’s friend and confidante, Attorney General Ed Meese, announced he’d found evidence that Lt. Col Oliver North of the NSC had diverted part of the money the Iranians paid for the weapons to the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua, Reagan was originally sympathetic, less so when he was told Col. North was shredding documents. In the end he fired him. Mr. Poindexter resigned.

Reagan appointed a commission to investigate everything that had been done. The three members were sensitively balanced: chairman John Tower, a Republican senator; Edmund Muskie, a Democratic former senator and vice-presidential nominee; and Brent Scowcroft, the cool-headed former and future White House national security adviser. There were 50 witnesses, including the president. A joint congressional committee held public hearings. Reagan waived executive privilege. He accepted an independent counsel.

The Tower Commission’s 200page report was delivered in February 1987, three months after the story broke. It was sharply critical of the president but found he did not know of the Contra angle.

Democrats in Congress and the media had exploited the mess for all it was worth, but on another level some Democrats quietly pitched in. A former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Robert Strauss, met with the Reagans and helped steady the ship.

Throughout the drama the president fell into a funk. The public turned on him; his poll numbers plummeted.

But he wasn’t over. There were great triumphs ahead—the Intermediate- Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987 and ratified in 1988; “Tear down this wall” in 1987, and its fall in 1989, less than 10 months after Reagan left the presidency.

Our allies were offended by the scandal but impressed by its aftermath. Mikhail Gorbachev noticed too: The old lion didn’t die.

Iran-Contra was a big mistake, a real mess. But its deeper lessons have to do with how to admit and repair mistakes, how to work with the other side, and how to forge through and survive to the betterment of the country.


By Peggy Noonan