The Gray Lady needs a get-a-grip friend

Attention, aspiring writers!  I have glorious news for you.  If you have struggled for years to find a publication that will accept your offerings, your long wait is over.  The venerable New York Times, august paper of record for the nation, is now apparently willing to publish anything.  So long as you can line up a subject and a predicate, capitalize the first letter of your sentences and end them all with an approved punctuation mark, you have a decent chance of being found fit to print.

That is, at least, the only reasonable conclusion I can draw from its decision to publish this piece of unalloyed nonsense, which includes what may possibly be the single stupidest sentence I have ever read in my life.  (Not to toot my own horn, but my refraining from saying outright that it is indeed the stupidest demonstrates more intellectual integrity than the Times did in running this pseudoscientific garbage.)  The entire piece is so rife with addled-brained psychobabble it would make Deepak Chopra blush.

Let’s begin, shall we?

Can you remember the last time you were in a public space in America and didn’t notice that half the people around you were bent over a digital screen, thumbing a connection to somewhere else?

Yes.  Church.  Also, the symphony.  Also, the movies.  Also, the beach.  Next?

Most of us are well aware of the convenience that instant electronic access provides. Less has been said about the costs. Research that my colleagues and I have just completed, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, suggests that one measurable toll may be on our biological capacity to connect with other people.

Well, since the study hasn’t actually been published, in all fairness I can’t judge with too much authority what it actually reports.  You will forgive my deep, deep skepticism that it is powerful enough to lift the boulder laid down by the last sentence in that paragraph.

My research team and I conducted a longitudinal field experiment on the effects of learning skills for cultivating warmer interpersonal connections in daily life. Half the participants, chosen at random, attended a six-week workshop on an ancient mind-training practice known as metta, or “lovingkindness,” that teaches participants to develop more warmth and tenderness toward themselves and others.

We discovered that the meditators not only felt more upbeat and socially connected; but they also altered a key part of their cardiovascular system called vagal tone. Scientists used to think vagal tone was largely stable, like your height in adulthood. Our data show that this part of you is plastic, too, and altered by your social habits.

It was when I reached this part of the article that my face felt like it was dangerously close to exploding.  The study that supposedly will offer evidence that we will lose our biological capacity to connect with other people is based on a workshop on “lovingkindness”?!?!?  I… cannot adequately express the degree of my admixed incredulity and scorn at that thought.  Let’s just call it “a great deal.”

Before I go any farther, let me concede a point.  I am not a psychologist or a specialist in behavioral or developmental pediatrics.  I have a colleague who is (and I now have a shiny new question for him burning in my brain), but I am not personally acquainted with the vanguard of thought in these fields.

With that said, I have read a lot of neuropsychological evaluations, and have seen a lot of kids with behavioral or emotional problems.  The number of times I have seen reference to vagal tone mentioned in any report from any mental health evaluator or provider is, precisely, zero.  Not once.  And while I was able to dig up a decent number of studies that looked into what it was and how it can be measured with regard to patient well-being and mental health, it certainly is not used as a reliable marker of anything in the medical community so far as I am aware.  Is it a wholly worthless concept?  I can’t go that far.  Would I make any clinical decision whatsoever based on a patient’s “vagal tone”?  No.

The article goes on to offer a grossly oversimplified explanation of the function of the vagus nerve, and to stipulate that the incredibly complex workings of the parasympathetic nervous system can be accurately reflected in a person’s heart rate.  It then engages in some epic question-begging by likening the atrophy the muscles undergo when they are not used to the supposed lessening of our ability to interact face-to-face when we don’t use it.  I had to fight the urge to copy each paragraph and rant about it, but that probably exceeds fair use reproduction and also would make this already-long piece unreadable.  Suffice it to say I found the whole thing an unconvincing shambles, but YMMV.

But this next paragraph I simply must share:

Work in social genomics reveals that our personal histories of social connection or loneliness, for instance, alter how our genes are expressed within the cells of our immune system. New parents may need to worry less about genetic testing and more about how their own actions — like texting while breast-feeding or otherwise paying more attention to their phone than their child — leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression.

Please excuse me, but I need to slip on my old rantin’ pants.  (The roomier waistline allows for more effective bellowing with rage.)  Are you kidding me with this?  Do my eyes deceive me, or has the author of this lamentable joke of an article actually indicated that her study of “lovingkindness” workshop participants offers results that have anything to do with the genetic expression of small children, to say nothing of how that expression is in any way altered by such activities as texting while breastfeeding?  That must have been one humdinger of a workshop to have yielded such a plentiful cornucopia of data.

Or could it be that she’s just stitched together a whole lot of speculative crap spackle in order to seem important, in the process giving new mothers something else to feel anxious and guilty about?  Apparently if you don’t keep your eyes fixed with eagle-like focus on your nursing infant, some errant exon will go haywire and boom — Jeffrey Dahmer.

When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health.

We know this from all those studies that were done on good friends chatting amiably while sitting comfortably inside SPECT scanners and having their blood drawn at regular intervals.  (What’s that you say?  We don’t?  Never mind.  The Times will publish it anyway.)

To be sure, it would be foolish to expect a lay publication such as the Times to have the same strict standards for printing something as, say, Nature.  Furthermore, I am quite willing to accept the premises that we spend too much time looking at screens rather than each other, and that there are measurable benefits to having stronger social supports.  I don’t think it beggars credulity to accept any of that, and I don’t scoff at the idea that there are ways to study and verify these effects.  Hell, I’m willing to be open-minded on the whole “vagal tone” idea.

What I find utterly baffling, however, is that a newspaper of the Times‘s stature would run an article so patently absurd as this one.  No scientist worth publishing would draw such grandiose conclusions and make such idiotic overstatements as are contained in this piece.  To go from a study of a bunch of workshop participants to pronouncing on the epigenetic effects on infants of mothers who send a text message while they’re nursing requires a canyon-sized leap of logic, one into which this preposterous essay plunges headlong.  It is a piece of unmitigated junk masquerading as science, and there is no excuse for its publication.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. Quomodo ceciderunt fortes in prælio? How have the mighty fallen in battle prattle?

  2. one measurable toll may be on our biological capacity to connect with other people

    Cell phones cause impotence!

    • That reminds me of a joke about a guy who shows up to get a vasectomy in a tuxedo because ‘If you’re going to be impotent, you gotta look impotent.” Smart phones: the new tuxedo.

      • Which reminds me of a Dorothy Parker story where a drunk at a party is coughing as loud as he possibly can, saying “If you have consumption, it might as well be conspicuous!”

  3. Isn’t “vagal tone” what Kegel exercises are supposed to help with?

  4. Crap! My kid would have been fine if only I hadn’t sent those texts! Damn my willingness to play fast and loose with genetic expression!

      • Stop, Doc. You’re bending my genetic expression beyond human ability to express in text; plus I have to clean my screen after guffawing all over it.

  5. I also notice the article false into the standard trap of assuming looking at screens is different to, and the opposite of, connecting with people. As an introvert, I can tell you connecting with people via the Internet (like I’m doing now) means I socialise much more than I would otherwise. Hell, Skype is the only reason I get to see my parents faces more than about twice a year.

    Ah, but connection is all warm and friendly and organic, and computers are so cold and clinical and sterile, so they must be opposites.

  6. I generally treat the Sunday Review and Styles section at a lower standard than I do the rest of the Gray Lady.

    I never quite understood the rage that certain articles in the Styles section generated. It is the styles section for Pete’s sake. It is supposed to be light and frothy and generally aspirational/coveting inducing. It is only slightly more democratic than when it used to be the Society pages. The wedding pages are referred to as Mergers and Acquisitions! You can feel the mingling of the SAT scores, Rhodes Scholarships and Fulbright Fellowships!

  7. to be fair, dr. doctor, it is an op-ed. they regularly publish them from david brooks and maureen dowd – on purpose and everything.

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