Cognitive Daily

Earlier today I wrote a post about optical illusions. I was hoping it would distract me from thinking about the Virginia Tech shootings. It didn’t. I began to see connections between the illusions and the tragedy: That sinking feeling that somebody was being shot, that spiral like a gun sight.

The problem is that human brains are connecting machines: we can connect anything to anything else. Trying not to think about the shootings was the worst thing I could do. How should I be handling it? I should be talking about it directly — preferably face-to-face or over the phone. I did spend some time talking with Greta and with each of my kids about it last night — and last night, I slept well. But this morning everyone rushed off to school and to work, and I started watching some of the online footage of the shootings. After a while I couldn’t think about anything else, so I began to look for distractions. As I should have known, the distractions just weren’t distracting enough, and I kept connecting everything back to the grisly deaths in Virginia.

What I’m planning to do is to call my brother to talk about it. I haven’t spoken with him for over three months (mostly because I feel guilty about not calling), so it will be great to catch up and share our thoughts about the tragedy. But I can’t call now because of time zone differences. In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for virtual conversation with my fellow ScienceBloggers, who have written many, many thoughtful posts on the tragic events in Virginia. In case you’re in a similar situation, I thought I’d offer a guide to what the ScienceBloggers are saying.

Horror, fear, struggle to cope with the tragedy
Shelley Batts of Retrospectacle.
P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula.
Jason Rosenhause of Evolutionblog.
Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science.
Alex Palazzo of The Daily Transcript.
Craig Hildreth of the Cheerful Oncologist.
John Lynch of Stranger Fruit.

Searching for causes and solutions
Cognitive Daily finds a connection with suicide.
Retrospectacle explores the possibility of a “social meme”.
The Questionable authority suggests limited gun control might help reduce gun violence.
Evolving Thoughts argues for even more restrictions.
Galactic Interactions argues that now is not the time to enact more gun restrictions.
Uncertain Principles argues that it’s tactless to argue about gun control right now.
The Questionable Authority argues that now is the time to speak.
Uncertain Principles repeats its previous argument using more colorful language.

Debunking the pundits
OmniBrain is critical of those leaping to blame video games.
Mike the Mad Biologist says Instapundit’s “guns for everyone” argument is wacked.
Pharyngula lambastes Debbie Schlussel for suggesting a link to Muslim terrorism.
Respectful Insolence skewers Ken Ham for trying to connect the tragedy to atheism.
So does Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

Searching for hope
Evolving Thoughts identifies a hero in tragic circumstances.

Go visit these blogs and comment, or comment here, but most importantly, talk — to your friends, your loved ones, to a counselor or clergy member if necessary. Only by confronting a tragedy such as this can we begin to put it behind us — and hopefully, prevent it from happening again.


  1. #1 bug_girl
    April 17, 2007

    Thanks for the compilation.
    Here’s my own pitiful contribution:

    Do you by any chance remember the paper that came out recently that discussed the greater ability of humans to empthasize with small groups in tragedies, rather than larger groups (genocide)?
    It’s been driving me nuts trying to remember that.

  2. #2 Jan-Maarten
    April 17, 2007

    Hello Dave,

    It’s a terrible tragedy, and it’s hard to find anything to say but express compassion for those who are living through this now. It makes you wonder how someone can come to that place in his head, where desperation or sheer anger can take over, and makes that person lose the sheer humaneness that I feel in your post, and a lot of other blogs I read too. Which is an important and good thing, in these grim circumstances.

    I wish you, and all involved strength and compassion.

    Best, Jan-Maarten

  3. #3 ECB
    April 17, 2007

    I think, bug girl, you are trying to remember the work of Paul Slovic? Links etc here: or here:

  4. #4 afarensis
    April 17, 2007

  5. #5 afarensis
    April 17, 2007

    Apparently, I left a tag unclosed. So let me try that again. I wrote one too…

  6. #6 bug_girl
    April 17, 2007

    Thank you ECB! That is exactly what I was trying to remember.

  7. #7 Clark Goble
    April 17, 2007

    Out of curiosity what do you think of Pinker’s view of this phenomena from How the Mind Works? I admit I sometimes have trouble with Pinker but I did find his arguments about people who “go postal” rather interesting.

  8. #8 Self Help Zone
    April 18, 2007

    My deep condolence to the family’s who lost their loved once in this tragedy…

    What is behind the mind walls? There may be a very complex issue that is in constant study. We have people of all kinds, including mentally ill, so-called normal minds, geniuses and so forth. The mind has been notorious to play tricks on us, let us down, skip to another level and so forth. It seems with the war between the brain and self there is never a winning ticket.

    Mental health is tricky since there are many types of diagnosis, together with personality disorders, cognitive disorder, mental diseases and so forth. To understand mental health entirely is nearly impossible, but there are many answers to questions that many have, because all of us directly or indirectly are affected by mental illnesses.

  9. #9 tabitham
    April 18, 2007

    Dave – Thanks to you for digging up that Secret Service report on school shootings, which was helpful to my post on Brain-E yesterday.
    Clark’s post prompted me to consult my copy of Pinker. Turns out he and the Secret Service agree!

  10. #10 MoonShadow
    April 18, 2007

    Hey dave,
    thanks for the great article and links…

    i wrote a little poem the other day…and found that it’s fitting for this situation..i want to share it…

    here’s the link…

    i hope that every gets well from this…
    and that we won’t have to see it happening again…

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