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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

Cambridge 02138

The high price of reuning, women and science, risk analysis

September-October 2005

Understanding Sleep

Your readers should know something of what was left out of “Deep into Sleep,” by Craig Lambert (May-June, page 25). I will cite only two egregious errors. The article states, “Even 20 years ago, ‘The dominant paradigm in sleep research was that “Sleep cures sleepiness,”’ says Stickgold. Since then, researchers have developed a far more complex picture of what happens while we snooze.” This ignores the large body of work, developed in the 1960s and ’70s, on the role of REM sleep in memory consolidation. Researchers from many labs in the United States as well as France, Russia, Canada, and Israel contributed to this and it provided the foundation for much of Stickgold’s work.

The second error is in the sidebar on Freud. The reader is asked to ignore the fact that psychoanalytic thinking has moved a great distance from Freud’s ideas in The Interpretation of Dreams, although it is still able to show the importance of understanding what dreams mean to the dreamer. The author should have spoken to one of several sleep researchers in Boston or elsewhere in this country rather than providing such a one-sided diatribe against Freud and psychoanalysis.

Ramon Greenberg, M.D. ’54
Clinical professor of psychiatry
Harvard Medical School
Jamaica Plain, Mass.

 

Robert Stickgold replies: Greenberg is absolutely correct that my work on sleep and memory would have been impossible if not for the tireless efforts of many other researchers, including Greenberg himself, who have struggled with this question for almost 50 years, and I’m delighted to have this opportunity to acknowledge their work. But the perception of the larger scientific community changed only recently, and it was my good fortune to be there to be able to carry out those studies that I believe finally have led to a general acceptance, both in the fields of sleep research and memory research, that sleep-dependent memory consolidation is real.

It seems that Greenberg is agreeing with my statements about Freud, but not about modern psychoanalysis. Yet my one statement about “analysts” was that they can’t agree on the meaning of a dream. I stand by that claim. But I also agree with Greenberg that dreams can be delightfully useful in providing clues to what’s going on in our minds. Sometimes I have felt that my own dreams have given me insights into issues and concerns in my life. My only caveat is that they’re clues, and sometimes they really tell you nothing; it may just be your brain trying out an idea and not revealing a hidden desire.

 

For more than 30 years I practiced psychoanalysis. Like many other analysts, I found that Freud’s theory of dreams as wish fulfillment does not explain the meanings of most dreams. Erich Fromm’s The Forgotten Language proved a better guide for me. Dream interpretation, like understanding a poem, myth, or fairy tale, is an art. Some people have more of a talent for it than others.

Michael Maccoby ’54, Ph.D. ’60
Washington, D.C.

 

“Deep into Sleep” provides evidence that residents, interns, and medical students are sleep-deprived and so make more mistakes than they would if they did get enough sleep. I hope that medical schools will change their requirements and their schedules so that these doctors and students get enough sleep. The practical obstacles are probably that the long hours are considered a rite of passage and that it may be more expensive to have schedules with shorter shifts.   

Lynn Selker Lichtenstein ’65 
Chevy Chase, Md.

 

The research of Professors Stickgold, Czeisler, and White seems to exclude the group that may offer the most insight into sleep study: parents of babies. We spend the better part of our children’s infancy and toddlerhood in a makeshift sleep lab—adjusting sleep schedules, timing feedings, perfecting bedtime routines, and more often than not, dealing with the effects of chronic sleep deprivation. That we should sleep in a dark room when we are tired and wake only when we are fully rested is not just startlingly simple, it’s plain old common sense, and to parents of young children, necessary for survival. If anyone doubts the importance of adequate sleep, they are more than welcome to observe me and my children after my four-month-old has kept me up all night or my two-year-old skips a nap.

Alisha Gale
Newport Beach, Calif.

 

How Many Dancers?

This frequent traveler has seen bronze casts of Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen by Degas (July-August) in more than one place. How many exist?

Nelson E. Bailey, D.M.D. ’63
Selinsgrove, Pa.

 

Editor’s note: The number is unknown but has been assumed to be 22, the edition size of other Degas bronzes: 20 for sale, one for the head of the foundry that made them, and one for the Degas heirs. Artist and friend of Degas Mary Cassatt suggested in two letters, however, that an edition of 25 was proposed. Edward Sayell, cocurator of the current exhibition Degas at Harvard, notes that two previously unknown plaster casts of the sculpture were uncovered about 30 years ago.

 

The High Price of Reuning

I am an alumna, class of 1990. I am writing to express my appreciation to the university for putting together a fantastic fifteenth-reunion weekend. It was really terrific to reconnect with old friends and revisit old memories. My only regret is that I’m not talking about my own University, my own fifteenth reunion, my own friends, or my own memories. I’m talking about my husband’s.

Over Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I took our two daughters to Brown University to celebrate his reunion. The events at Brown were remarkably similar to those that Harvard offers, with one gigantic exception: Brown’s events were affordable. Harvard’s were not.

On Saturday afternoon, the four of us attended Field Day, a large fair at Brown’s athletic fields featuring barbecues, ice-cream trucks, children’s games, magic shows, and concerts. The total cost for this event: $18 per person, but only for those people who wanted to eat the barbecue food. People who didn’t eat the food did not pay. The ice cream was free. By contrast, Harvard’s analogous event, also scheduled for the Saturday of reunion weekend, had the following costs: $65 for adults who paid in advance, $75 for adults at the event, $10 for children.

Similarly, Brown has a huge semi-formal dance every reunion weekend that attracts thousands of attendees. The cost for tickets: $25 in advance, $30 at the door. The cost for the analogous Harvard event: $100 in advance, $125 at the door. Other Harvard reunion events were similarly overpriced.

I have spoken to friends who recently celebrated reunions at other universities, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Brandeis, and the prices at those places are similar to Brown’s, not Harvard’s.

When I called the Harvard Alumni Association to complain, the woman to whom I was connected told me that many other alumni also had complained, but “that’s the way it is and always has been.”

That is an an elitist cop-out, an unacceptable explanation for an outrageous policy. When I was at Harvard, working in the public sector was encouraged. These reunion prices are not affordable to those who do public service or not-for-profit work, and they’re much too high even for those who work in the private sector. Moreover, Harvard’s policy is counterproductive as it engenders bitterness and resentment from the very people from whom the University solicits charitable donations.

Valerie Feldman Dubnoff ’90
Newtonville, Mass.

 

Women, Science, and Civility

In his letter-to-the-editor in the July-August issue, behavioral neuroscientist Christopher Frederickson asserts that from his 35 years in the field there is, indeed, a male/female difference in aptitude (dimorphism) and that equality of opportunity should not require equality of outcome.

The question is, how can these obvious facts be trumped in the minds of very accomplished intellectuals, such as those at Harvard? The paradox is deepened when members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences criticize some researchers for presenting “half-baked sociological prejudices” and yet also criticize President Lawrence H. Summers for showing a “lack of respect for a faculty member’s intellectual expertise.”

The answer is that postmodern privileging, not the pursuit of Madisonian equality, is at work here.

George Seaver, Ph.D. ’73
Cataumet, Mass.

 

It is disheartening, to say the least, to read the letters of my fellow Harvard alumni in recent editions of Harvard Magazine. The vitriolic attacks on such figures as Daniel Pipes and President Summers—who have not noticeably burnt down any orphanages or driven any rare species into extinction recently—are all too indicative of a larger world where no one can simply disagree with anyone else anymore: there must be all-out war, slash-and-burn denunciation. Aside from the dismal implications for academic freedom this entails, it should also give pause to anyone who believes that the really large conflicts that tear our world today are resolvable if the ostensibly peaceful community of Harvard University cannot disagree with grace.

Jack Solomon, Ph.D. ’81
Northridge, Calif.

 

Odin's Eye

Are you sure that the drawing on page 23 of the July-August issue, to illustrate a review of the CD Myth Songs by Nicholas Humez, really depicts the Norse god Odin? Norse mythology clearly states that Odin had only one eye!

Igor Alexeff ’52
Oak Ridge, Tenn.

 

Editor’s note: Although difficult to discern in the drawing, a lock of hair covers Odin’s left eye. Nicholas Humez points out that “in most productions of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle you’ll see Wotan (Odin) wearing an eyepatch like the Hathaway shirt guy. The reason is that he gave up an eye to Mimir in exchange for drinking at the well of foreknowledge (Mimir being the keeper of said well). He hardly had need of a sword, as in the picture; his spear, Gungnir, invariably hit whatever he lobbed it at. But the Romantic-era illustrator has captured the spirit of the character very well.”

 

Socioeconomic Diversity

Recruiting students from the lowest socioeconomic group is a major obstacle to increasing their numbers in selective universities and colleges (“A Thumb on the Scale,” by William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil, and Eugene M. Tobin, May-June, page 48). Legacies have family and athletes have coaches, but this group has very few to urge them to apply. I suspect that many just look at the tuition and not the aid and look elsewhere. Their high-school counselors often suggest the state-university system or a community college. Alumni of selective institutions can be very effective in finding and guiding possible applicants, but they can cover only a small part of the country.

Elroy LaCasce, A.M. ’51
Professor of physics emeritus, Bowdoin College
Brunswick, Me.

 

Bishop was in Natick

I greatly enjoyed the “Vita” on Elizabeth Bishop by Cheryl Lawson Walker (July-August) but would like to point out a slight error. Bishop was an alumna of the Walnut Hill School, class of 1930. Walnut Hill is in Natick, Massachusetts. Your article states that she “moved from one temporary situation to another in Worchester, Revere, and Walnut Hill, Massachusetts.” Much as we think there should be a town named after our school, there isn’t to date (to my knowledge).

Martha D. Kleinman
Dean for external relations, Walnut Hill School
Natick, Mass.

 

The Wisdom of the ORP

Once again the sages of risk analysis have taken it on themselves to tell the ordinary, reasonable person (ORP) where s/he is all wrong (“Society’s Casino,” May-June, page 16). David Ropeik tells us once more that flying is safer than driving and that we worry too much about chemical additives in our food and radiation in our environment. But the ORP has his own kind of rationality. Ropeik finds it quaint that we prefer activities under our own control to those controlled by someone else. But we presume (not always accurately, but understandably) that we are sober and competent. We really don’t know that about the pilot who flies our plane, who may have been working some really awful hours this week (judging from the content of one of the other articles in this issue). If the airlines want us to stop worrying, maybe they should let us shake hands with the pilot as we board, so we can see if his eyes are bloodshot or his hands tremble.

And Ropeik seems to have trouble understanding the “dread factor” which leads the ORP to worry more about cancer than about heart disease (because, although the latter is more prevalent, the former is a really nasty way to die). But, apparently unlike Ropeik, most of us have accepted the fact that everybody dies of something, sometime, that the universal death rate is one to a person. Why is it quaintly irrational to prefer dying of something less nasty than cancer? (It might be more to the point that heart disease can also sometimes be a nasty way to die, not necessarily just the conventional quick grab at the chest and instantaneously dropping dead. If more people knew that, they might make different kinds of decisions.)

Finally, the ORP often deals with situations in which The Authorities (like Ropeik) have made their risk-benefit calculus on the global level and, for instance, pronounce living near a nuclear power plant to be safer on average than smoking cigarettes. But most of the benefits from the nuclear power plant inure to people other than those living in its backyard, most notably to the shareholders of the utility in question (though not necessarily to the utility’s customers, who, at least in my highly nuclearized home state, actually pay more for electricity than power customers in other states). And, on the other hand, however unpleasant the consequences of smoking, most of the people who do it have done their own risk-benefit calculus, consciously or otherwise, and decided that the benefit to them personally outweighs the risk. So the risk mavens probably ought to give the rest of us more credit for using the information available to us to maximize our benefit-cost ratio, and concentrate on providing us with better information.

Marian Henriquez Neudel ’63
Chicago

 

 

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