Saturday, April 12, 2014

Epigenetics: Are Nature and Nurture Really So Different?

Image from: http://robbiestudent.com/
the-doctor-opines-nature-vs-nurture-
part-1/
This semester, I am taking a class called "Biological Embedding of Social Factors." The premise of the class is that we have spent so many years arguing whether health conditions are the result of nature or nurture, without considering that our lived experiences (and those of our ancestors) can actually affect our biology! Sometimes nurture is nature and vice versa. Often, this debate takes place in the context of determining whether a disease is caused by genetic factors or environmental factors. Or if by both, how much is caused by one or the other? As I am learning in class, however, the study of genetics has not turned out to be the panacea it was originally thought to be, and many processes are more complicated than an either/or categorization of genetic versus environmental effects. Sometimes, we may have an identical gene or set of genes that does completely different things depending on context and experience!

Consider first the human body and its parts. Each part has the same set of genes as all other parts, but each part looks completely different from others. The cells in your skin have the exact same genetic makeup as the cells in your bone marrow, and yet one set of cells creates more skin and the other set produces blood cells. How do these two genetically identical cells do completely different things? In scientific terms, we say that the genes are being "expressed" differently in the two cells. Clearly, it is not just the genetic makeup of the cell that determines what the cell does. Something outside of the genome is interpreting what a particular gene means and then translating that into what they cell should do!

This is the type of question being studied by the field of epigenetics, which literally translates to "outside of genetics."

I am not going to get into all of the details of how these processes work (and many processes are still unknown), but rather, I just want to share a few particularly interesting findings to get your juices flowing about how the environment can actually affect outcomes that we often think of as being predetermined by genetics. I find it helpful to imagine a gene or set of genes that, rather than telling the body to "Make X happen," actually tell the body, "If you encounter situation A, make X happen, and if you encounter situation B, make Y happen."

Animals

One interesting example is that even though there are genes known to determine the coat color of  mice, the diet of pregnant mice can still affect the coat color of their offspring. Scientists are able purchase inbred mice strains in order to get genetically identical mice and then feed them different diets to isolate the effects of the dietary supplements. As it turns out, among mice who have the gene for yellow fur coats, mice fed a high-methyl diet are more likely to have gray offspring, whereas those not fed this diet tend to have yellow offspring. The methyl diet effectively "turns off" the yellow coat genes in the offspring! Interestingly enough, the yellow-coated mice are also known to experience increased risk of other health problems. (Wolff, Kodell, Moore, & Cooney, 1998;  Begley, 2009)

Another example that I found to be fascinating is that of the minute parasitic wasp. This wasp actually lays its eggs inside a host insect, either a butterfly or an alder. Wasps bread in butterflies develop wings, whereas wasps bread in alders do not develop wings. One might think that having wings or not having wings would be genetically determined, and in many ways, it is, because wasps have genes that allow them to develop wings in the right conditions. Yet the gene is able to be expressed in a completely different phenotype (visible outcome), depending on the growing conditions of the egg (Gottlieb, 1998)! We might infer that there is some sort of hormone, diet, or other chemical environment in the host insect that actually tells the genes for wings whether or not to be expressed.

Yet one more example is that of the water flea. Offspring are born with a "helmet" for protection if the mother has ever encountered a predator and no helmet if the mother has lived a care-free bug life (Begley, 2009).

There are many such examples of this phenomenon in nature, revealing that animals with identical genes can actually adapt, such that the genes remain the same, but get expressed very differently in response to environmental stimuli.

Humans

In the human realm, scientists are currently asking questions about whether traumatic or prolonged stress exposures (which are known to alter brain chemistry, hormone production, etc. for some individuals who experience them) may also affect the offspring of individuals who experience these exposures. There is already evidence that individuals who experience PTSD have lower levels of cortisol, and children born to these parents may also have lower levels of cortisol throughout their lives, without ever having been traumatized themselves (Yehuda, Halligan, Bierer, 2002). This in turn may make these offspring more susceptible to PTSD if they do encounter a trauma in later life and may also be passed down to their offspring.

Likewise, there is evidence that maternal stress exposure in utero, or even before conception, affects the brain development of offspring, and thus the ability of offspring to handle stress "appropriately" for the rest of their lives (Matter, 2014). While children almost certainly learn many stress coping techniques, either adaptive or maladaptive, from watching their parents and peers, the biological effects of parental stress before birth are of special epigenetic interest. It is not just that children learn from observation after being born, but also that during fetal development, the child's biological abilities to produce and regulate stress hormones, to interpret stressful experiences, to grow certain regions of the brain that control stress response, etc. are being formed. The mother's lived experience is reflected in her hormone levels and other biological traits, which may then affect the way that developmental genes are expressed in the fetus. This fetal development, in turn, informs the specific way the individual will be able to either learn or not learn from their surroundings after they are born. Although these developmental traits are not completely deterministic of behavior or future health outcomes, they can act as a major hurdle or point of susceptibility for those affected and thus make it more difficult for individuals and populations to achieve good mental and physical health.

On another topic, studies show that children of mothers who were pregnant with them during times of famine experience significantly higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and schizophrenia as adults (Lumey, Stein, & Susser, 2011). So while the underlying genes for how to develop a healthy digestive system or a healthy brain may not change due to famine, something about famine affects the way these genes get expressed in development. Similar questions are being asked about a variety of mental illnesses, heart disease, personality, sexual development, and many other human health outcomes for which human biology might be affected by exposure to violence, historical traumas (like slavery), pesticides, household chemicals, and many other experiences.

The question is no longer solely about whether genes predispose a person to a certain health outcome, but also about whether the experiences of our parents, grandparents, and even more distant ancestors are affecting the way our genes are being expressed.


For more information, check out:



References:




Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Anti-Smoking Advertisements

A few days ago, I posted about a handful of recent smoking policies that have come up in discussions with friends and family, in new campus rules, and in laws around town. As promised, today I want to talk about some interesting anti-smoking advertisements.

In my "theories of health and social behavior" class last semester, we talked about various advertising campaigns and what has made them successful (or not). Interestingly enough, studies show that some anti-smoking (and anti-drug, anti-drinking, etc.) campaigns actually increase propensities for engaging in those activities, while others effectively work to reduce them.

For example, after a major industry lawsuit in 1998/1999, some cigarette companies agreed to run anti-teen smoking advertising campaigns. The messaging in these ads may have conveyed with words that smoking was bad for you on the one hand, but the way that was done was often ineffective or even subversively promotional of smoking. Whether this was intentional or simply misguided, I cannot say, but it is definitely interesting. For example, by showing a single brave student resisting the peer pressure of everyone else smoking, the real messages interpreted by teens may have been, "You're the only one who doesn't smoke," and, "Your parents are trying to tell you what to do." Or by directly mentioning companies' brand names as the funders of the messages, the companies may have actually built more positive brand association. Especially for a target audience like teenagers, perceptions about how many other people are doing an activity, how cool/desirable those other people are, how trustworthy an industry is, and whether the teen is being "told what to do" by an adult (as compared to being given greater independence), can actively affect decisions to start or continue a behavior. This is an important reminder as a public health professional that we need to be careful with our interventions and take as much precaution as possible to prevent unintended harm. Here is an example of an ad that was evaluated to have actually produced an increase in intention to smoke among teens:


A totally different type of advertisement that we studied, which was evaluated to be more effective, involved off-beat messaging that cast the tobacco industry in a negative light. This was without ever directly telling people what to do or even mentioning the negative consequences of smoking. Check out this innovative ad:


The reason I started thinking about this topic again so recently is that I saw a series of newer anti-smoking advertisements circulating online. For example, this one has gone viral and boasts the YouTube tagline, "perhaps one of the best anti-smoking ads ever created." I am still skeptical, but it is definitely interesting. Judge for yourself:


And then there is this super  hilarious new series about people who self identify as "social smokers," comparing them to social farters, social nibblers, and social ear wax pickers. To see all three videos, click here, and to check out the campaign's facebook page, click here. Below is one of the videos:



Click here for some other creative anti-smoking print advertisements. What do you think? Will these latest ads achieve their goals to decrease smoking? Are there any unintended messages here? What are your opinions on any of the policies mentioned in my last post, or the anti-smoking movement in general?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Smoking Policies

For whatever reason, smoking has been the topic of many conversations, viral videos, and policies popping up in my life lately, and I wanted to share some of the interesting things that have been coming up. Feel free to leave a comment letting me know what you think about any or all of these issues!

Berkeley Campus Smoking Ban

U.C. Berkeley recently became a smoke-free campus, meaning that you have to physically leave campus to smoke a cigarette. My prior workplace implemented a similar policy during my first year there, while at the same time offering increased smoking cessation support. As an asthmatic with lots of allergies who does not smoke, I personally feel in favor of the ban. Cigarette smoke has often been a trigger for me. 


At the same time, I know that some of my peers have expressed "feeling judged" by the campus administration and fellow students. Whether you believe this judgment is ultimately a bad thing or not, they obviously perceive it as injurious in some way. Having never been a smoker, I cannot say that I personally know how hard it is to quit. Based on what I do understand, however, it seems that for many people, the relaxation associated with smoking, the reflexive association of cigarettes with certain experiences, the reduced appetite that makes weight management easier for some smokers, and especially the addictive power of nicotine, make it difficult for many to stop. In my prior work place, the smoking ban did serve as an added motivation for some people who were on the verge of deciding to quit, and I heard many stories of people who had made the change through smoking cessation programs shortly after the ban went into effect. On the flip side, I also recall that as a result of that smoking ban, instead of smoking in front of our building, many people simply crossed the street and smoked in front of other businesses, thus exposing other employees and customers to more second hand smoke. And since our company no longer provided ash trays on site, many people threw their cigarette butts in the street outside of said other businesses. Suffice it to say, we received some complaints. I am not sure if this will be the case near our campus or not. It seems that only time will tell. All in all, I appreciate and support the policy, but I recognize that for some, it remains controversial.

City of Berkeley Residential Smoking Bans

Then there have been even more controversial smoking bans, such as the City of Berkeley's law against smoking in apartments or condos, where neighbors may presumably suffer the effects of second hand smoke. And more recently, there is a more restrictive proposal on the table to ban smoking inside single family homes where children, seniors, or lodgers are present. (I'm not sure what the law says about seniors who are smokers.) When I first learned of the latest proposal, I felt outraged at the heavy-handedness and immediately concluded it was going too far. But after sitting on it for a couple months, I cannot help but wonder why I jump to so adamantly defend the "right" to expose others to potent known toxins, including allowing a person to expose their kids, just because they are their kids. We do have plenty of laws in place mandating that you send your kids to school, seek medical care when your child has a serious illness, and do not abuse your child, so it is not as if our society as a whole believes parents can simply raise their kids in literally any fashion. While these cigarette laws are certainly paternalistic, I believe there is room for debate about where we draw the line between necessary paternalism and going too far, especially when it comes to exposing kids to things we know to be poisonous carcinogens. Right now, I find myself in the void on this particular issue and still trying to make up my mind.

Hiring Practices

Also related to the topic of smoking, I recently had a conversation about employers who do not hire smokers at all (e.g. Cleveland Clinic). On the one hand, I always found it hypocritical for healthcare professionals to smoke while telling their patients to quit. On the other hand, as a general hiring policy, one could argue that this is discriminatory, especially as we were discussing whether this standard might be applied to other fields not directly related to health. The other people with whom I was discussing the policy emphasized that smoking is a choice, unlike many other personal characteristics that should not be used as reasons for not hiring. I am personally not swayed to their side and will cautiously say that I still see this policy as discriminatory. However, I was clearly in the minority in the discussion I was having, and I am open to having my opinion changed by a compelling argument in future.

CVS to Stop Selling Cigarettes

CVS Caremark recently announced that it will stop selling cigarettes in retail locations by October 14. The CEO stated, "The sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose." (See this article on the CVS site.) As pharmacies are playing a greater role in not only dispensing drugs, but also providing a certain level of patient care (such as walk-in clinic sites), it seems to be even more off-mission to continue to sell a product known to cause so many illnesses and deaths. CVS Caremark specifically is branding itself as a "pharmacy innovation company" that is "working to make health care better." According to their website, they also aim to exercise ethics, abide by principles of corporate social responsibility, and influence health policy. With regards to this latest decision, I have to say that I am impressed at their willingness to lose a portion of their revenue to maintain integrity. Bold move, CVS Caremark. Bold move!


In my next post, I plan to share about some interesting anti-smoking commercials, both old and new. In the meantime, what do you think about the above policies? Which ones are good ideas and which ones go too far?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Reusing Plastic Baggies (I Mean Ziploc!)

Where I live in San Mateo County, single use plastic bags, like those you may be accustomed to receiving in grocery stores, are now taxed ten cents. In nearby San Francisco, the bags are banned altogether, but stores have the legal option of providing a paper bag, compostable plastic bag, or reusable bag for at least ten cents per bag. Apparently, San Francisco became the first U.S city to ban plastic bags in grocery stores in 2007. Then in 2013, they expanded the ban to include all stores and restaurants.

Source: http://plasticbaglaws.org/useful-links/

Despite the inconvenience (as I am still working on the habit of remembering to actually bring my pile of reusable bags with me), I appreciate the move to spare our landfills, streets, and oceans from some of the 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags produced per year. I definitely see a significantly higher number of people bringing their own reusable bags to the store after the tax started, even though it is only ten cents! I love how such small things can really change our habits! And I am excited to see that a lawmaker in my home state of Connecticut is now proposing a similar tax.

Source: http://blog.wwf.ca/blog/2012/06/06/much-ado-about-plastic-bags/

On a related note, I thought it would be fun to share a small plastic bag idea you can implement in your own home to spare the environment (and your wallet). Full disclosure: this idea comes entirely from my mother-in-law!

I am no longer talking about the big plastic grocery bags here, but about the small ones you buy in a box, like Ziploc storage bags. Growing up, I often used plastic sandwich bags, freezer bags, etc. to store food or other items. After I was done with them once, I threw them in the garbage. But did you ever consider that these bags can actually be washed and re-used?

In our home now, after we use a plastic baggie to bring carrots in our lunch, we turn it inside out and wash it with a sponge when we get home. The next day, it is dry, and we can bring our fruit in it. A few days later, we can send a friend home with some leftovers in the cleaned bag. The bags hold up well over two or three hand washes.

I do have some "rules" about the bags that I try to follow. For me, once a bag has had raw meat in it (like when we freeze chicken breasts in plastic freezer bags), I do not feel comfortable washing and reusing it, as I personally feel concerned that bacteria may still linger in the corner nooks. Also, once a bag gets a little wear (I am not talking about holes, but just a bit less smooth and shiny), I no longer use it for anything that requires an air-tight seal, like liquids, fresh produce, or frozen things. But I can still use it a few more times for less demanding purposes, like bringing almonds in my lunch or storing pens and pencils. After many many uses, it does eventually wear out completely, but at least I feel like it has served its time before going to the landfill.
Plastic baggies drying with some other dishes on our counter.

Of course, there are other containers we use regularly that are even more durable and long-lasting than bags and that spare the environment even further. These would be containers like Tupperware or the now-trendy and environmentally friendly alternative - glass jars. I highly recommend using these types of alternatives as often as possible. But for now, I still use baggies for some things, and I definitely feel better about using them more than once, as opposed to tossing a perfectly good container in the trash.

Do you have any simple things you do in your household to spare the environment and/or your wallet?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Some Ethical Limits of Statistics

My piece titled "Some Benefits and Limits of Statistics" has been in the top five of my all-time most viewed posts for a while now. I have no clue why this is so, but in any case, I am glad people like to learn! (Or there are some very zealous cyber bots searching for posts about statistics in the United States and Russia.)

Either way, an observation that my latest statistics professor, Nicholas Jewell, made on the first day of class this semester (yes, I am taking more statistics) really stuck with my heart, and I thought it a good time to share. In so many ways, I am preaching to myself in this post, as I have had many a moment of poor character in my thoughts and words over the years, many times as a result of my numbers bent, and it is something I am constantly praying for God to redeem in me. So here goes.

In statistics, we typically do not have information about every single person or thing we want to understand. Instead, we take samples from a study population and try to generalize what we find in the sample to the whole population. Think of this like asking one hundred random strangers in your town whether they like your hair do. If 80 of the 100 people you stop all over your town tell you it's a bad hair do, you might reasonably guess that about 80% of people in the whole town would think the same, regardless of whether you have actually asked every single one of them. If you care much about what others think, you go get a new hair cut, or if not, you pride yourself on being a hair rebel.

Intuitively, we generally prefer larger sample sizes, because, all other things being equal, they make our results more credible. For example, if you stopped 5 random strangers some place in your town, and 4 of them did not like your hair do, you might chalk it up to bad luck in your stranger selection. You might figure, hey, if I had asked five other people across the street or across town, they might have said something different. But if you ask 1,000 random strangers, and 800 say you look like Medusa, you would be less likely to assume it was an "unlucky 800." As it turns out, this intuitive understanding is also mathematically true in statistics, although I won't get into too many details here.

"The top portion of this graphic depicts probability densities that show the relative likelihood that the "true" percentage is in a particular area given a reported percentage of 50%. The bottom portion shows the 95% confidence intervals (horizontal line segments), the corresponding margins of error (on the left), and sample sizes (on the right). In other words, for each sample size, one is 95% confident that the 'true' percentage is in the region indicated by the corresponding segment. The larger the sample is, the smaller the margin of error is."
(Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margin_of_error)

As Professor Jewell reminded us during our first class, in public health in particular, we are often using epidemiological methods to compare people who experience a certain health outcome with people who do not. For example, we might study the characteristics of people who get pancreatic cancer in their lifetime versus people who do not get pancreatic cancer in their lifetime, in the hopes of figuring out what those who get cancer share in common and how they are different from those who do not get cancer. If we conduct a study of 1,000 people, where we compare 999 individuals who did not get the cancer with one person who did, we are not likely to feel confident that the one person who got cancer in our sample is statistically representative of the multitude of people who get pancreatic cancer around the world. (This is just like the hair-do example above, where we believe the results more when we ask more people.) Let's assume that the single cancer patient in our study is also the only one of the 1,000 people we study who has ever visited the North Pole - so our one cancer patient has visited the North Pole, but our 999 non-cancer patients have never visited the North Pole. Do we then have evidence that the North Pole is associated with pancreatic cancer? Most of us would say no, because we intuitively sense that we cannot draw a conclusion based solely on a single person's experience. On the other hand, if we compare 500 people who did not get cancer with 500 people who did and find that a history of North Pole vacations is much more common among the cancer patients, we are more likely to believe and perhaps further investigate an association between cancer and the North Pole.

In the above example, more cases of disease in our study population gives us more confidence in our conclusions. We are more likely to learn something and believe it could be true more generally by studying 500 cancer patients than by studying only one cancer patient. As statisticians, then, we may find ourselves in the position of wishing for more cases of disease in our sample size in order to have greater confidence in our results. And this is where I really appreciated the insight of Professor Jewell. In moments like those, when we are wrapped up in data and numbers, we should take a moment to step back and realize exactly what we have just thought. Should anyone really wish for more cases of a disease, just for the sake of analytic rigor? The obvious answer should be no. We may wish that we had crafted a better study design to interview more individuals who already have the disease, but it is very easy to forget that each of those data points is a real person.

Every single cancer patient enrolled in a study represents a person and family and community who had to go through an agonizing experience. Participating in a study in and of itself is often no walk in the park, either. Furthermore, the results of a study into what causes a given outcome may benefit future patients, but are often too late to benefit the ones under study at the time. This pain and trial are not to be so callously wished on anyone.

And it is in this sense that as students, teachers, researchers, etc., those who use statistics have an ethical responsibility to consider the human costs of what we quantify. Professor Jewell said he reminds himself of this by watching one particularly compelling and emotionally complex movie about human subjects research every year, which helps re-center him on the human aspects of his work. You may find your own unique ways to heighten your awareness. I believe this need applies not only to public health, but also to many fields that utilize mathematical inquiry beyond public health - education, public policy, social work, and business, just to name a few. It is not that our methods will necessarily be changed in any concrete way by exercising compassion in our thoughts (although they might, in some cases); rather, we can seek an attitude of empathy and a posture of humility as acts of internal integrity. It is not that we should neglect the study of disease or other negative life outcomes, as our numerical inquiry is typically not the cause of such outcomes, and is often ultimately aimed at improving health. But even as we work for these good causes, we should take time to reflect, empathize, and get outside our little boxes to just be human - to appreciate the lived experiences of those studied or affected, and to stop ourselves from so recklessly throwing around words and cold thoughts about those who it is all too easy to see as data point number 732.

Friday, January 17, 2014

International Boulevard

Since it is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and I only briefly mentioned the issue in my prior post, I thought I would share about a side of the problem close to home. Zoe Simone Yi and Rebecca Dharmapalan, two teenagers from Oakland School of the Arts, recently won the 2013 Girls Impact the World Film Festival with their 5 minute documentary on child sex trafficking in Oakland. The film in called "International Boulevard," which also happens to be the same street of the clinic / community center where I volunteer once a week.


I had noticed many young women on the street during my 3/4 mile walk from the BART each week, and I wondered if any of them were trafficked youth. Unfortunately, my intuition was likely correct. On any given night, it is estimated that 100 children participate in commercial sex work on International Boulevard alone, with reports siting some as young as 12 years old. In 2009, Oakland was labeled a high-intensity child prostitution area. Furthermore, the Bay Area as a whole, which includes San Francisco and San Jose, is believed to account for as much as 20% - 40% of sex trafficking in the United States. My understanding is that many of the U.S. citizen children that are trafficked within the country are runaways and/or foster youth fleeing from potentially abusive situations to begin with, which has particularly caught my attention as a CASA for foster youth.

A friend and coworker pointed out that the "International Boulevard" film focuses largely on police perspectives of the problem, and that bothered her. I definitely believe it is important for police to be aware of the complicated issues involved in commercial sex work, and I am happy to see that efforts are being made to get help for children trapped in sex trafficking, rather than criminalizing their circumstances. At the same time, prostitution in general is a very stigmatized profession, with an often strained relationship to law enforcement, so it would have been great to hear more from those who are able to talk about their own lived experiences, to give voice to the actual individuals affected. Of course, this may have been difficult to incorporate in this particular short film, given that (1) the producers are themselves youth, (2) victims are minors, and (3) even now-adult former victims may prefer to maintain their privacy. Alternatively, perhaps local community members or advocates from local nonprofits - both those that provide healing services and those that fight to prevent future trafficking - might have added another perspective to the mix. Although the police necessarily have an integral role in ending human trafficking, there are many other groups also working to meet the needs of youth in the context of sex trafficking. Furthermore, many of the best solutions to community problems involve community members expressing the strengths and needs they see, brainstorming interventions and preventive measures, and taking ownership and responsibility for implementing of the best ideas. My main point is that in considering the issue of sex trafficking, we should keep in mind that there are multiple viewpoints on what constitutes trafficking, a wide array of opinions on how it can best be stopped, and a host of varied experiences by the women (and men) who have lived through it.

For those looking for a little more breadth of information from a few other perspectives, I highly recommend "Oakland struggles to protect children from sex trafficking," an article from Aljazeera America.

Regardless of the above critique of the short documentary, I think it is commendable that local youth are getting involved in important problems and raising awareness. And what a testament to their hard work that they won first prize! I hope that their documentary, and all of the press that the Bay Area has received for the child sex trafficking problems here, will lead to better programs and policies to prevent trafficking, as well as an increase in awareness and action among teachers, families, friends, neighbors, law enforcement, community organizations, and activists to end this injustice!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Emotional" Is Not a Dirty Word

Image from Google.com search
A couple months ago, in an online discussion about a complicated issue, a friend told me that if I did not have all the facts, any argument or opinion I had could "only be emotional." When the conversation was over, that one phrase really got me thinking.

Let me start by saying I do not believe that statement to be the categorical truth, as there have been many times in life when I have had to make a judgment call on what I do not know based on what I do know; as a mere mortal, it is hard for me to think of many situations when I literally know everything that could inform my opinion or decision. Basing an opinion on known facts and feelings, in recognition of many unknowns, is far from "only emotional." But my friend did have a point in some way. Sometimes having half the facts leads to incorrect and even dangerous assumptions.

But as I thought about it more, something bigger started bothering me than whether or not I needed all the facts to hold an opinion or take an action on something. I realized that the word emotional had been thrown into the conversation with a tone of disdain. As a person who majored in mathematics in my undergraduate days and has loved intellectual debate from as early as I can remember, I realized that I too have often put that which can be proven by logic on a pedestal. I too have used the word emotional as if it were an insult, as if my factual understanding of an issue were superior to any sort of emotional reasoning. Yet as I have grown older and have learned more about life, my path has increasingly shaped me into a person who relies on emotion to relate to others and make decisions. If fact-based reasoning is the pinnacle of understanding, I have to wonder why, as I have (theoretically) grown more mature, have I more deeply valued human emotion, including my own?

I have to admit that I can see many ways in which emotion can lead individuals to make poor decisions or to draw poor conclusions. Emotion has led many a person into an unhealthy relationship, supported poor public policies that seem to treat any odd scapegoat as the enemy, reinforced negative lies that people believe about themselves, preceded hurtful words spoken in the heat of an argument, and the list goes on and on. So I would never say that we should let our emotions rule our lives, or they would almost certainly take over our ability to be peaceful and patient. But does that mean we should then ignore or devalue emotions?

This is where I have to say no. Many emotions are valuable, give evidence of our purpose, and provide unique understanding of the world around us. Experiences of compassion, empathy, love, laughter, and fun are inextricably linked with emotion!

As an example, one issue that really made this clear to me is child sex trafficking. Certainly, one could try to make an intellectually logical argument why we should fight against this industry as a matter of policy, apart from using emotions. For example, perhaps one could try an economic argument about women needing to finish their education to grow their skill sets and to provide better opportunities for themselves and their children, thus improving the overall economic productivity of their countries. Of course, they are less likely to go to school if they are being trafficked for sex at a young age. So if you ran the numbers and saw a good economic result with decreased trafficking, this might prove that fighting trafficking at a policy level makes logical sense. Great! But what if the numbers said that a given country brings in more money by hosting foreign pedophiles who stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, take taxi's, and pay for sexual services, as compared to the economic potential of educating the young trafficking victims? Would it change your view on whether or not we should combat child sex trafficking? For me, the answer is a clear "no," because my primary issue with human trafficking was never about the policy logic; it is more of heart issue.

When I think about children forced to have sex with older men multiple times a day, I feel a gut-wrenching sadness and anger over this injustice deep in my soul, and I know that the logic-based arguments ring hollow compared to the emotional reality. This sense of empathy and valuing of human life far outweighs any bullet-pointed list of non-emotional logical reasons to end this evil. In fact, if I heard someone making an appeal to end human trafficking without any touch of emotional connection, I think I would find myself considering that person unreasonable and irrational.

And from that example, this is what occurred to me. Sometimes emotions are the most rational, logical, sane thing we put forth in response to this world. Sometimes our emotional relationship to an issue leads us to the best conclusion, especially in the midst of conflicting logical evidence. And just like the host of ways our emotions can lead us astray that I listed at the start of this post, sometimes our unemotional logic can lead us astray. Sometimes our unemotional logic causes us to hurt people, because we do not consider the potential repercussions of our actions or policies. Sometimes our unemotional logic decreases our ability to communicate with others. Sometimes our unemotional logic blinds us to ethical and moral considerations that need to take priority. And sometimes it doesn't.

Neither emotional reasoning nor purely factual reasoning necessarily define who is right and who is wrong on a given topic or in a particular situation. Neither provides all the right answers on its own. Rather, both are integral to understanding the world, making sound decisions, and leading an abundant life.

Today I will declare.....

"Emotional" is not a dirty word!