All posts by vlmorgan3

The Right Type of Busy

CULTURE AND THE SOCIALIZATION OF CHILD CARDIOVASCULAR REGULATION AT SCHOOL ENTRY IN THE US

Dr. Jason Decaro is an associate professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in human development, evolutionary biology, and social epidemiology in East Africa, Central America, and the U.S. He received his Ph.D. from Emory University as a student of Dr. Carol Worthman, who is a Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor at Emory University. She received her  Ph.D. in biological anthropology from Harvard University and specializes in human reproduction, development, and developmental epidemiology.

In this 2008 research article, Decaro and Worthman examine the link between childrearing practices and the child’s emotional response to normative social challenges, particularly the cardiovascular response. They conclude that culture shapes family ecology and this has a measurable effect on a child’s developing cardiovascular response. Ultimately, patterns in cardiovascular function can be linked to long-term health and well-being.

Study Overview 

Specifically, the busyness of the mother’s schedule, rather than the child’s, was examined to see if there were any implications for the child’s respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) following the normative social challenge of a school grade transition. RSA is a natural variation in an individual’s heart rate that occurs during the breathing cycle. RSAs are described in terms of vagal tones,

image via Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body

which refers to the activity of the vagus nerve. Increased vagal tone corresponds to diminished heart rate and more variability. RSAs are pronounced in children and are thought to be indicative of mental health. Research also suggests that children with more significant maternal attachments demonstrated higher vagal tones and, therefore, more social integration and empathetic receptiveness.

Decaro and Worthman hypothesized that 1) maternal busyness in year 1  (prior to grade transition) will affect the child’s RSA the following year, 2) maternal busyness will be linked to high maternal and family function, and 3) maternal mood, family dinner frequency, and parenting stress will also predict the child’s RSA in the following year.

Methods

The study consists of 38 families from metro Atlanta, GA. All children attended Pre-K the first year and kindergarten or some other form of primary schooling in the following year. Each family was visited four time during the child’s Pre-K year and data on daily schedule and maternal and child busyness was collected. Parenting stress and depression inventories were collected and frequency of family dinner was also collected as a marker for family function. In the last interview, a continuously monitored electrocardiogram (EKG) was conducted on the children as a baseline for future physiological data (prior to school grade transition). During the monitoring, children were asked to engage in a non-threatening interaction with two puppets to simulate social transition and interactions in the following grade year.

Berkeley Puppet Interview
image via University of Oregon

During the second year (after school grade transition), each family was visited again 3 to 11 weeks after the transition and the same data was collected.

Results and Discussion 

The study found that, consistent with the first hypothesis, maternal busyness but not child busyness predicted the children’s parasympathetic regulations (RSA patterns) during the second year. The results showed a statically significant increase in children’s RSA in relation to maternal busyness, however, in married families only. (Remember that high RSA is a marker of low arousal). The study also confirmed the second hypothesis that high levels of maternal busyness correlated with positive maternal mood and less parenting stress. The results showed that increased maternal busyness correlated with lower maternal depression, as well as lower parent-child dysfunctional interactions/ parenting stress. The third hypothesis, however, was not confirmed by the study which showed that family dinner, parenting stress, and maternal mood were not predictors of children’s vagal regulation.

My Thoughts 

It was difficult for me to understand the psychological implications of the biomarker used in this study. My understanding is that vagal tones are thought to have a regulatory effect on social and emotional function. Therefore, a higher vagal tone, which we now see is observed in children whose mothers have low scores of depression and parenting stress, indicates that the child will exhibit less social inhibition and maybe deal with social normative challenges, like grade changes, better than children with low vagal tones. It would make sense then that RSAs and vagal tones are studied as a predictive measure. I did think that the RSA was interesting to learn about, especially in relation to child development. It plays into the parasympathetic nervous system and the idea of “rest and digest,” which is a fascinating topic.

I also feel like this article did a good job of explicitly stating its main points and using language that was easy for the reader to follow. A lot of the physiology was explained, too, which is important for biological anthropology.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Why do you think there is a disconnect in the results between married families and single mothers?
  • What does this study suggest about the state of a mother’s well-being and the well-being of her child?
  • Can you think of any confounding factors that may have played a role in children’s physiological response that were not mentioned in the study?
  • Are there any other biomarkers linked to early developmental experience that could be used?
  • What are some cultural beliefs that shape childrearing practices?

Sources:

  1. Decaro, J. A., & Worthman, C. M. (2008). Culture and the socialization of child cardiovascular regulation at school entry in the US. American Journal of Human Biology, 20(5), 572-583. doi:10.1002/ajhb.20782
  2. Gray, H. (2012). Anatomy of the human body. London, England: Bounty.
  3. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2017, from http://pages.uoregon.edu/dslab/BPI.html

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

The Amstel river that runs through the city of Amsterdam.

I feel a little silly writing a personal post about travel- like the typical millennial blog about why you should travel to every country before you turn 30 (if you are blessed with money and time). Honestly, I’m not sure I would even call traveling a hobby and I don’t think I would consider myself a “wandering soul” or someone with the “travel bug.” I am perfectly happy nesting in my bed during my vacations.

Most of the hobbies I consider essential to how I define myself are personal, and, usually, things that no body knows about me. That’s what makes them special. However, I do think traveling has had some impact on the person that I’ve become and the way that I view things. Plus, it’s the only thing I have original images of so….

Historically: Ancestrally, I suppose humans have always been nomadic before civilization evolved; although, I don’t think early homo sapiens traveled for the same reasons that I did. Their reasons were purely pragmatic and had nothing to do with the existential crises that people my age seem to face. Nomads went where the food was. Come to think of it… so did I.

In more recent history, traveling (at least, internationally) has not been a theme in my family, aside from my father and I. My mother’s

The Hohenzollern Bridge that goes over the Rhine river in Cologne, Germany. It’s filled with locks, much like Pont des Arts in Paris.

family were all born and raised (and stayed) in Alabama. My mother, by coincidence, has a crippling anxiety of planes, so she never traveled- ironic since my father is a pilot. I guess both of my sisters just never really had the desire to. They’re home bodies, like me, but I never like to say no to an opportunity.

Proximally: If my father weren’t a pilot, I probably would have never left the country, or at least not in my twenties. Traveling is expensive if your airline tickets and hotels aren’t free- I’m privileged in that regard. It started with me just meeting my dad on trips. He flies cargo so his job is basically to fly a plane full of boxes to one location, wait a couple of days, and then fly it back. He flies the Asia route, so his typical destinations are places like Dubai, China, India, ect.. but every now and then they do half way stops in European countries, like Germany. For my father, traveling at this point is more of a job than an adventure, so when he gets bored, he asks us to fly out and visit him. I’m usually the only one who says yes, so I’ve become accustomed to traveling solo.

But flying non-reservation to distant lands isn’t as romantic as it sounds. Flying as the dependent of a cargo pilot has its pros and cons. Pro- I can fly any airline I want. Most dependents of airline pilots only get free tickets on the airline they’re associated with. Cons- Depending on the airline, my name is always the last on the list. Planes are notorious for over selling their tickets. But just as an extra precaution, they allow a list of stand by passengers to sit around and wait to see if the plane fills up. If it doesn’t, that’s where the list comes in. First, goes the people who work for the airline, then the dependents of those people, then me. Sometimes I’ll spend all day in an airport trying to catch a flight with an empty seat. If I’m lucky, they will only have first class seats available and I’ll get the seat for free.

Pretty much the only photo I took in Iceland before my camera ran out of storage.

Getting to my desired destination can be like a game of planes, trains, and automobiles. Sometimes it amounts to more time in the air than on the actual ground. The first time I visited him in Germany, I took a 9 hour flight to Amsterdam (although first class so I’m not complaining), then an hour bus ride to a train station, then a three hour train ride to Cologne where my dad was. I was in Cologne for less than 24 hours before I had to go back. I honestly don’t mind the traveling. Sometimes it can be more adventurous than the destination.

Developmental: I don’t want to say that traveling is developmentally essential in your 20s. It’s a luxury in more ways than one. I know you’ll see a million blog posts about how to travel on a budget and how it can be affordable for anybody, but really that’s only one part of the equation. Traveling takes time. Not everyone has the luxury to drop whatever they’re doing and leave the country or take breaks from school or work. More than that, it takes support. There are a lot of factors to international travel.- customs you have to adhere to, languages you have to take into consideration, along with currency differences and travel restrictions. You can always wing it like I did, but I wouldn’t advise it. I may have traveled alone, but I was never really alone. When I lost my wallet in Shanghai, I was able to call my mom while I had my mini panic attack, and when I got on a train going the wrong direction in Amsterdam, I had a friend to call who spoke fluent Dutch and was able to get me back in the right direction. It’s the little things you don’t think of that really make traveling a privilege, not just the money.

A random hammock i found in Ambergris Caye, which is an island off the coast of Belize.

I suppose that it is most common for people to want to travel in their 20s. It’s typically a time in your life when you have minimal responsibilities and attachments, which is ideal when you’re leaving the country. I do, however, think that it’s just as acceptable, maybe even more so, to do it later on in life. At that point, you have more financial accessibility, life experience, etc. but I do understand the “seize the day” attitude people have and the appeal and romanticism of traveling when you’re young. It’s a common theme that traveling is something that changes you forever. You hear stories about someone climbing to the top of the Eiffel tower or studying abroad in Italy and becoming a “new person.” I think that’s kind of absurd. These are just places; they aren’t magic. Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonderful experience to have and it can have a lasting impact, but not being able to travel doesn’t mean you aren’t developing as a person and being able to travel doesn’t mean you will become a new one.

The coast of San Juan, PR. Right next to Fort San Cristobal.

Functional: Well, one thing that isn’t compatible with international travel, I’ve learned, is a crippling fear of planes, so you have to be able to physically get yourself to your destination. A big part is just mobility. That’s another luxury. Not everyone can travel easily and at a fast past. There are a lot of physical factors that can limit that.