Early on an unusually blustery day in June, Kevin Esvelt climbed aboard a ferry at Hyannis*, bound for Nantucket Island. Esvelt, an assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on his way to present to local health officials a plan for ridding the island of one of its most persistent problems: Lyme disease. He had been up for much of the night working on his slides, and the fatigue showed. He had misaligned the buttons on his gray pin-striped shirt, and the rings around his deep-blue eyes made him look like a sandy-haired raccoon.
Esvelt, who is thirty-four, directs the “sculpting evolution” group at M.I.T., where he and his colleagues are attempting to design molecular tools capable of fundamentally altering the natural world. If the residents of Nantucket agree, Esvelt intends to use those tools to rewrite the DNA of white-footed mice to make them immune to the bacteria that cause Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. He and his team would breed the mice in the laboratory and then, as an initial experiment, release them on an uninhabited island. If the number of infected ticks begins to plummet, he would seek permission to repeat the process on Nantucket and on nearby Martha’s Vineyard.
More than a quarter of Nantucket’s residents have been infected with Lyme, which has become one of the most rapidly spreading diseases in the United States. The illness is often accompanied by a red bull’s-eye rash, along with fever and chills. When the disease is caught early enough, it can be cured in most cases with a single course of antibiotics. For many people, though, pain and neurological symptoms can persist for years. In communities throughout the Northeast, the fear of ticks has changed the nature of summer itself—few parents these days would permit a child to run barefoot through the grass or wander blithely into the woods.
“What if we could wave our hands and make this problem go away?” Esvelt asked the two dozen officials and members of the public who had assembled at the island’s police station for his presentation. He explained that white-footed mice are the principal reservoir of Lyme disease, which they pass, through ticks, to humans. “This is an ecological problem,” Esvelt said. “And we want to enact an ecological solution so that we break the transmission cycle that keeps ticks in the environment infected with these pathogens.”
There is currently no approved Lyme vaccine for humans, but there is one for dogs, which also works on mice. Esvelt and his team would begin by vaccinating their mice and sequencing the DNA of the most protective antibodies. They would then implant the genes required to make those antibodies into the cells of mouse eggs. Those mice would be born immune to Lyme. Ultimately, if enough of them are released to mate with wild mice, the entire population would become resistant. Just as critically, the antibodies in the mice would kill the Lyme bacterium in any ticks that bite them. Without infected ticks, there would be no infected people. “Take out the mice,” Esvelt told me, “and the entire transmission cycle collapses.”
Esvelt has spoken about Lyme dozens of times in the past year, not just on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard but at forums around the world, from a synthetic-biology symposium in Chile to President Obama’s White House Frontiers Conference, in Pittsburgh. At every appearance, Esvelt tells the audience that he wants his two young children—he has a three-year-old son and a daughter who is almost one—to grow up in a Lyme-free world. But that’s not really why he speaks at infectious-disease meetings, entomology conventions, and international conservation workshops. He has embarked on a mission that he thinks is far more important.
Esvelt and his colleagues were the first to describe, in 2014, how the revolutionary gene-editing tool CRISPR could combine with a natural phenomenon known as a gene drive to alter the genetic destiny of a species. Gene drives work by overriding the traditional rules of Mendelian inheritance. Normally, the progeny of any sexually reproductive organism receives half its genome from each parent. But since the nineteen-forties biologists have been aware that some genetic elements are “selfish”: evolution has bestowed on them a better than fifty-per-cent chance of being inherited. That peculiarity makes it possible for certain characteristics to spread with unusual speed.
Until CRISPR came along, biologists lacked the tools to force specific genetic changes across an entire population. But the system, which is essentially a molecular scalpel, makes it possible to alter or delete any sequence in a genome of billions of nucleotides. By placing it in an organism’s DNA, scientists can insure that the new gene will copy itself in every successive generation. A mutation that blocked the parasite responsible for malaria, for instance, could be engineered into a mosquito and passed down every time the mosquito reproduced. Each future generation would have more offspring with the trait until, at some point, the entire species would have it.
There has never been a more powerful biological tool, or one with more potential to both improve the world and endanger it. Esvelt hopes to use the technology as a lever to pry open what he sees as the often secretive and needlessly duplicative process of scientific research. “The only way to conduct an experiment that could wipe an entire species from the Earth is with complete transparency,” he told me. “For both moral and practical reasons, gene drive is most likely to succeed if all the research is done openly. And if we can do it for gene drive we can do it for the rest of science.”
At the meeting on Nantucket, Esvelt assured residents that he and his team fully understood the implications of manipulating the basic elements of life. He said that he regards himself not just as a biologist but as the residents’ agent; if they stop showing interest in the research, he will stop the experiments. He also insists that he will work with absolute openness: every e-mail, grant application, data set, and meeting record will be available for anyone to see. Intellectual property is often the most coveted aspect of scientific research, and Esvelt’s would be posted on a Web site. And no experiment would be conducted unless it was approved in advance—not just by scientists but by the people it is most likely to affect. “By open, I mean all of it,” Esvelt said, to murmurs of approval. “If Monsanto”—which, fairly or not, has become a symbol of excessive corporate control of agricultural biotechnology—“did something one way,” he said, “we will do it the opposite way.”
There are fewer than a million white-footed mice on Nantucket, so a gene drive won’t even be necessary to insure the spread of Lyme-resistant genes. Esvelt plans to release enough genetically modified mice, tens of thousands of them, to overwhelm the wild population. (Since he could never house that many mice in his lab at M.I.T., he recently mentioned the idea of breeding them on a container ship.) That approach, however, would never work for Lyme on the mainland, where there are more than a billion white-footed mice scattered up and down the Eastern seaboard.
The battle against Lyme disease is just an early stage in an unprecedented effort to conquer some of mankind’s most pervasive afflictions, such as malaria and dengue fever. Despite a significant decline in deaths from these diseases over the past decade, they still threaten more than half the world’s population and, together, kill nearly three-quarters of a million people each year. Malaria alone kills a thousand children every day.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested tens of millions of dollars in the research of a team called Target Malaria led by Austin Burt, at Imperial College, in London. In laboratory tests, the group has already succeeded in using CRISPR to edit the genes of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, which carry the parasite that causes malaria, so as to prevent females from producing fertile eggs. In theory, as those mosquitoes spread across the countries of sub-Saharan Africa and mate, the population will begin to shrink. A few weeks ago, the Tata Trusts of Mumbai announced that it would fund a similar project in India.
Gene drives could also be used to help wipe out schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease, carried by blood flukes, that affects hundreds of millions of people each year and kills as many as two hundred thousand. In addition, the new technology could eliminate a variety of invasive species—from pests that eat up thousands of acres of crops to the mosquitoes spreading avian malaria so rapidly among the native birds on Hawaii that the Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy routinely refer to the state as “the bird-extinction capital of the world.”
For Esvelt, though, those achievements seem almost like secondary benefits. “For a lot of people, the goal is to eradicate malaria, and I am behind that a hundred per cent,” he said. “The agricultural people have the New World screwworm”—a particularly destructive pest also known as the blowfly—“they’d love to get rid of in South America. Everyone has a thing he really wants to do. And it makes sense. But I would submit that the single most important application of gene drive is not to eradicate malaria or schistosomiasis or Lyme or any other specific project. It is to change the way we do science.”
That is the message that Esvelt has been selling in his talks throughout the world, and the initial response, on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard—even from people who attended the meetings in order to object to the proposal—has been overwhelmingly positive. “I came here thinking I would say, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” Danica Connors, an herbalist and shamanic practitioner who opposes genetically modified products, said at the Nantucket meeting. “I am the first person to say that, tinker with Mother Nature, we are going to break it.” But she told Esvelt that she loved “the fact that you are a young scientist saying, ‘I want this to be a non-corporate thing and I want this to be about the people.’ ” Seeming to surprise even herself, she said, “You know, I want to see where you go with this. I am actually very excited.”
Many children grow up enamored of dinosaurs. Most move on, but Kevin Esvelt became transfixed at a young age by the idea that these extinct creatures were somehow related to us. As a boy, in Seattle, he read Michael Crichton’s book “Jurassic Park,” which sparked his interest in biotechnology. “The real conversion came when I was ten or eleven,” he told me last year, the first time we met, in his office at M.I.T. “My parents took me to the Galápagos. After that trip, I knew what I wanted to do.”
The Galápagos trip led him, inevitably, to read the works of Charles Darwin. “I became fascinated with the idea that you have these complex systems that constantly evolve, and all in the language of DNA,” he said. “I decided I wanted to spend my life learning how to rewrite the genes of organisms to make some extremely useful and interesting things. When you’re a kid, of course, you might be more excited about the interesting than the useful.”
Esvelt’s father was an executive with the Bonneville Power Administration, and his mother taught elementary school. When Kevin was twelve, his family moved from Seattle to Portland, where he attended a small private school. “They thought it would provide a better environment for me,” he said. “I wasn’t the most socially connected child. I was reasonably athletic, and got along well enough with other kids, so I wasn’t quite on the nerd outer limits. But I certainly preferred books to people.”
After graduating from Harvey Mudd College, an engineering school with a strong humanities program, Esvelt moved to Harvard, to the laboratory of David Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology who is best known for his work on the directed evolution of biological and synthetic molecules. Graduate students normally try to publish in professional journals as often as possible, as it is essential for landing prestigious jobs. Yet Esvelt produced no papers in the first five and a half of the six years he spent at Harvard. “Kevin told me on the day we met that he wanted to forgo smaller projects to accomplish something of genuine impact,” Liu told me this summer, when I visited him in his office at Harvard. “I had never heard anything like this from a first-year graduate student.” Liu, who is also a senior faculty member at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard, said, “It stunned me. Kevin struck me as somebody who had all the skills and all the ambition he needed, but he also had just the right amount of naïve fearlessness.”
For his doctoral thesis, Esvelt tackled one of synthetic biology’s most significant constraints. Evolution unfolds over millions of years, and it can take a thousand generations before even the slightest genetic change becomes permanent. Scientists who want to redesign or augment nature need a much shorter time frame. With Liu’s supervision, Esvelt developed a technique to trick certain viruses into evolving proteins so rapidly in the laboratory that researchers could observe dozens of rounds of molecular evolution in a single day. The work earned him the Harold M. Weintraub Award, one of the country’s most coveted prizes for graduate research in the biological sciences.
In 2012, Esvelt assumed a postdoctoral position at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. He began to work with George Church, who is among the world’s most renowned—and outspoken—geneticists, and runs one of the largest academic laboratories in the country. Esvelt and Church established an unusual rapport, and they went on to collaborate on a number of studies, including the seminal 2014 paper that described the way CRISPR could combine with gene drives to alter many types of wild populations.
Despite his awards, publications, and influential mentors, Esvelt struggled to find a job that would help him achieve his goals as a scientist and as a public educator. To many institutions, he seemed like a strange hybrid. He had certainly demonstrated great talent as a researcher, but he had also decided to become a sort of proselytizer. He long ago concluded that telling the story of science, and the choices it presents, is just as valuable as anything he might accomplish in a lab. Élite scientists often look down on that kind of advocacy and see it as sanctimonious. “Carl Sagan, to this day, has a reputation in the science community as someone who was obviously a great science communicator,” Esvelt said. “But people will say he wasn’t that important a scientist. That is insane. Look at his publication record. He was a fabulous scientist.”
Many universities were discouraging, in large part because they weren’t sure what to do with him. “Most places told me, ‘We are fine with you speaking out about open science, but not on our time,’ ” Esvelt said. This meant that, when it came to tenure decisions and professional evaluations, he would be judged solely on his work in the lab. “I just didn’t fit into any of their normal silos,” he said.
I first met Esvelt when he was still working in Church’s laboratory. He is intensely focussed and rail thin, even though his exercise routine seems limited to fidgeting, which he does constantly. He regards meals, particularly lunch, as a distraction, and often downs some Soylent-like mixture at his desk. Like many of his scientific colleagues, Esvelt is not burdened by a lack of self-regard. Earlier this year, I heard one of his colleagues describe a well-known but particularly shy scientist as extremely arrogant. Esvelt burst out laughing when I told him about the conversation. “I am a thousand times more arrogant than he is,” he said, not entirely without pride. Nonetheless, Esvelt’s goals are essentially those of an effective altruist. One of his favorite Web sites, scienceheroes.com, ranks scientists by the number of lives that were saved by their invention. Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, the inventors of synthetic fertilizer, which has helped feed the world for more than a century, rank first, having together saved 2.72 billion lives. Louis Pasteur, who developed the germ theory of disease, doesn’t even make the top ten. “It’s an impossible list to crack,” Esvelt said, the first time he showed me the site.
Last year, Esvelt took a position at M.I.T.’s Media Lab, which seemed to me an odd fit. Although the lab is influential, I had always assumed that it was more focussed on technology, art, design, and computer learning than on biology or genetics. “You have a dated view of this place,” Joi Ito, who has been the lab’s director since 2011, told me.
“Kevin fits here perfectly,” he said. We were sitting in his office, which looks out on the Charles River. The day was so muggy that there wasn’t a single jogger on the street or a scull crew on the river. Ito sees CRISPR as a logical step in the rapid march of digital progress. “It is a part of a long-term democratic trend where diminishing costs drive innovation,” he said. “Cheaper prices drove computers out of the walls of these big companies—because you suddenly didn’t need all that money anymore. When you take away money, you take away the requirement for permission.” He compared what was going on in biotechnology with the emergence of e-mail. “Suddenly, a janitor had the ability to communicate with the chairman of the board,” he said. “The filters disappeared. We are seeing the same thing today with CRISPR and biotechnology.”
It may be years before animals or plants with CRISPR gene drives are released into natural environments. There will be many regulatory, political, and social hurdles to negotiate along the way. Esvelt predicts that it will be nearly a decade, if all goes well, before Lyme-resistant mice appear on Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard. But the scientific obstacles are disappearing rapidly. That makes it at least possible to envisage a day when gene-drive technology will be deployed to vanquish diseases that have killed billions of people, deter devastating pests, and protect endangered species like the black-footed ferret. (Plague has brought the ferrets to the edge of extinction, but it should now be possible to edit their genes to make them immune.) To consider implementing such fundamental scientific changes, though, will require a tectonic shift in public attitudes about the natural world.
One of Esvelt’s goals at M.I.T. is to facilitate that shift. Part of his job, as he sees it, is to challenge what he describes as “the ridiculous notion that natural and good are the same thing.” Instead, he told me, we ought to think about intelligent design as an instrument of genetics. He smiled because the phrase “intelligent design” usually refers to the anti-Darwinian theory that the universe, with all its intricacies and variations, is too complex to have arisen by chance—that there had to be a guiding hand. The truth is more prosaic, and also more remarkable: for four billion years, evolution, driven by natural selection and random mutation, has insured that the most efficient genes would survive and the weakest would disappear. But, propelled by CRISPR and other tools of synthetic biology, intelligent design has taken on an entirely new meaning, one that threatens to transcend Darwin—because evolution may soon be guided by us.
For Esvelt, that moment can’t come soon enough. “Natural selection is heinously immoral,” he said, invoking Tennyson’s view that nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Unlike Rousseau, Esvelt sees nothing “blessed” about man in his natural state. In fact, romantic notions of a natural world defined by innocence and harmony repel him. “The idea that nature is the essence of goodness, is purity and truth, is so foreign to my perception of the world that I can’t even conceive of how people can think that way,” he said. “There is such a fantastic degree of suffering out there.”
He went on to say that humans no longer need to be governed by nature, or rely on brutal and ruinous methods to control it. “When nature does something that hurts us, we respond with chemistry and physics,” he said. “We spread toxic pesticides that kill problematic pests, and often kill most of the other insects in the area as well. To get rid of mosquitoes, we use bulldozers to drain swamps. It works. But it also destroys wetlands and many other species. Imagine that an insect is eating your crops. If you have a gene drive and you understand how olfaction works in that pest, you could just reprogram it to go on its merry way. The pest would still be in the ecosystem, but it would just dislike the taste of your crop. That is a much more elegant way of interacting with nature than anything we do now.”
Virtually any technology that can serve a species can also harm it, however, either by accident or by design. A scientist capable of rewiring a mosquito to prevent it from spreading malaria, dengue, Zika, or any other infectious disease would almost certainly have the skill to turn that insect into a weapon. Earlier this year, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, listed gene editing as a potential weapon of mass destruction. Some scientists felt that he was being hyperbolic, but the authors of a report on gene drives issued this year by the National Academy of Sciences wrote, “It is not inconceivable that rather than developing a resistant mosquito, one could develop a more susceptible mosquito capable of transmitting a specific pathogen.” In other words, terrorists might be able to add to the saliva of a mosquito a gene that makes toxins, which it would transmit along with malaria. Just before Thanksgiving, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology warned the White House directly that it is no longer difficult to imagine how somebody might, simply by editing a gene, transform a common virus into a biological weapon. “My greatest fear,” Esvelt told me one day, “is that something terrible will happen before something wonderful happens. It keeps me up at night more than I would like to admit.”
Until recently, the tools of molecular biology were expensive, and few people had access to them—not to mention the ability to resurrect dead viruses or build new ones. CRISPR has already begun to change that, and will undoubtedly speed progress in many fields. But with accessibility comes a growing risk of accidents, and of sabotage. These days, sequences of DNA can be ordered on the Internet for pennies. For under a thousand dollars, any eager amateur—no matter his level of skill or training—could acquire a virus and everything needed to edit it at his kitchen table.
For centuries—from Goethe’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Faust” to “Frankenstein,” “Jurassic Park,” and beyond—people have harbored a persistent fear that some powerful form of life, manufactured by man with good intentions but excessive hubris, might one day slip beyond our control. No previous scientific advance, not even splitting the atom, has made this fear more palpable. Yet the research community often regards itself as the only acceptable arbiter of the way new inventions should be used. That puts Esvelt in an unusual position, because, while he is a compelling advocate for gene-drive technology, he is also its most insistent voice of alarm. “This is where my problem begins,” he told an audience earlier this year, at a forum in Cambridge. “Because, as a single scientist, I can alter an organism in a laboratory that will have more of an effect on all your lives than anything the legislature across the river can do.
“What does that mean for our democratic ideals?” he asked.
In order to flourish, Esvelt argues, the field will require a radical new approach to scientific experiments. “In medicine, we demand informed consent before we do research,” he says. “That has become standard. But in the laboratory we don’t even tell each other what we’re doing. There is very little openness. That is going to have to change.”
Laboratory research in the United States is hardly ungoverned. Experiments must be approved by institutional review boards, and researchers routinely exchange data—there are conferences every week in nearly every scientific discipline for that very purpose.
And yet the system of incentives that drives academic advancement—grants, publications, and tenure decisions—rarely rewards openness. “If you are in academia, you are constantly reinforced for maintaining some level of secrecy,” Dan Hartman told me recently, when I visited him at the Gates Foundation, where he leads the team that provides technical support for clinical trials and quantitative research. “That is the way the incentive system works. You are supposed to keep your research to yourself until you publish. Even then, you decide what to publish—what to reveal and what to keep secret.” Beginning in January, the Gates Foundation will require the data from all studies it funds to be published in journals that are open and freely available to anyone who wants to read them. “To do anything less is crazy,” Hartman said. “Seeing data from studies that didn’t work can often be as useful as seeing data from those that did.”
Esvelt believes that we will have to go much further before scientists understand how to communicate with the societies they serve. To illustrate that point, he often cites one of modern science’s most chilling statements. “When you see something that is technically sweet,” J. Robert Oppenheimer testified in his own defense at a security hearing in 1954, “you go ahead and do it, and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” Esvelt says that, in a world where schoolchildren will soon be editing genes in biology class, this is exactly what needs to change. “We really need to think about the world we are entering,” he said. “To an appalling degree, not that much has changed. Scientists still really don’t care very much about what others think of their work.”
An hour or so before Esvelt’s meeting on Nantucket, we joined one of his graduate students, Joanna Buchthal, and Sam Telford, an infectious-disease and global-health professor at Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine, for a sandwich and some reconnaisance on Alter Rock. (At a hundred feet above sea level, it is the island’s highest point.) Telford, who is one of the world’s foremost tick biologists, has been studying deer, mice, and the ticks that feed on them for more than thirty years.
With wire-rimmed glasses that nearly obscure his face, Telford looks like an academic Clark Kent. He was dressed in a green felt shirt, khakis, and Wellingtons. To ride with him to the meeting, I had to wedge into the back seat of his car between two mouse cages, both of which were, thankfully, empty. As we peered across the moors and the cranberry bogs, out toward the Atlantic, Telford talked about the rising incidence of tick-borne illness. “I have been trying for years to convince people on this island that if you get rid of the deer you get rid of Lyme,” he said. “That will never happen.”
Story Editing to Prevent a Downward Spiral
by Susan Gregory Thomas
My oldest daughter was usually quiet and exhausted on the hour-long ride home from seventh grade. Not this day. She slammed the car door shut and spat that a classmate had been "incredibly rude" to her. She veered into a rant on hypocritical teachers and finally inventoried the despicable qualities of nearly every girl in her class.
I asked her what was really going on, and she answered truthfully: For the past six months, my daughter, who is mixed-race, had been viciously bullied in racist attacks by girls at her Philadelphia school, often in classrooms, while teachers seemingly took no notice.
I pulled over and began calling every teacher and administrator involved. They would hear every detail of my daughter's story, and then this story was going to end because she needed to know that it was over.
The next morning, as we met with school officials who pressed her for specific names and incidents, I asked them to withdraw so I could talk to my daughter alone for a moment. There she sat, crumpled, shaking, terrified of retribution. But if she did or said nothing, those past few months would stay forever lodged, ruinously, in her psyche. She needed a victory, to feel her own power. So I put it to her: Today, she, an ordinary girl, could decide to be a hero and change the story for every nonwhite student at that school forever. And she did.
Now 15, my oldest is back to her charismatic, hilarious, sparkly self (and we are living in Brooklyn). The experience is melded to her core, and she's tougher, but also more compassionate. She changed her story.
The experience was an exercise in narrative identity theory, a model for understanding human thought and behavior so flexible that its applications extend across disciplines from psychological and social science to medicine, therapy, and beyond. The premise: We are the stories we tell—and we are compelled to create stories to understand ourselves.
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan Didion famously observed in The White Album, and we live "by the imposition of a narrative line, upon disparate images" because of a critical need "to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience."
There is something intrinsic in our drive to explain, order, and extract meaning from the chaos of our lives. Storytelling is, after all, an adaptive behavior dating back as far as 40,000 years. The stories we tell ourselves don't get fact-checked, but they do have to feel authentic to our personal experience. Our ability to make sense of, and create meaning from, memories defines how we feel about ourselves and shapes the identity we create throughout our lives.
"There is a very powerful impulse for us to take those stories of being shamed, of loss, of rejection, and figure out a way to give them a spin that allows us to see them as wisdom-building," says Connecticut College professor of psychology Jefferson Singer. "We want to be able to say, 'In a way, I'm glad that experience happened because it's taught me something about how I want to live my life.'"
How do we go about converting those experiences to life stories, ideally positive ones? University of Virginia social psychologist Tim Wilson conducted landmark research in rapid, positive reframing. He devised what he calls "story editing" and "story prompting" techniques, which have been shown to produce surprisingly effective changes in perspective and behavior. He found my daughter's story to be a prime example of taking a U-turn on a difficult stretch of one's life.
The objective of story editing is to defuse harmful, possibly self-defining experiences that can cue defeating, destructive thinking or behavior. The technique can actually be most powerful as a strategy for dealing with broad social experiences, Wilson says—teenage pregnancy, violence, and substance abuse; racial prejudice in schools; PTSD—and can dismantle destructive cultural views, often surprisingly quickly. "It's not so much designed to address personal distress," he says. "It deals with issues psychotherapy isn't geared to."
Studies at Stanford and the University of Virginia, for example, have shown that simple, subtle story "prompting" can help minority and economically disadvantaged students at risk of dropping out turn their mindset around. Just dislodging pessimistic thinking has the potential to produce positive change in self-esteem, and, in turn, academic performance. One experiment involved students who had shared a group narrative identity along the lines of, "We're too different from these rich kids—we'll never catch up, and we're probably not smart enough anyway." Researchers showed them seemingly professionally produced videos citing evidence that many kids enter school believing they don't belong or aren't smart enough to handle the work—but that after a few months the majority adjust socially, get help from faculty, work diligently, and go on to succeed. Students who watched the videos experienced marked improvements in grades, graduation rates, and self-confidence.
There is nothing magical about the approach, Wilson says. It's just a question of properly framing the "story prompt" in a social context to change group thinking. "The idea is to change kids' idea that intelligence is this fixed thing we have," he says, and instead help them realize that "achievement is about seeking the right help and overcoming obstacles."
The experiment with students represents just one application of prompting. But the approach may be less helpful healing long-engrained traumatic narratives. "I like to think of story editing as catching people at the early stage of the game, before psychotherapy is called for," Wilson says. "If we're dealing with someone who's been living with a negative story for years, these tweaks might not work."
What if my daughter had decided against ever standing up to the bullying she experienced? What if she had kept the racist taunts a secret? What would have happened if she instead internalized it and folded it into her sense of self and identity? Potentially, very bad things.
Our formative life stories become entrenched, whether we like it or not, by adolescence, as we begin to orient our psyches around powerful memories, though we can't necessarily control which will affect us the most. These "self-defining memories" come to reflect our most persistent psychological bêtes noires. We understand our internal selves and public identities through our interpretation of their value and significance.
"Life stories do not simply reflectpersonality," according to psychologist Dan McAdams of Northwestern University. "They are personality." By early adulthood, we've developed narrative scripts that we follow to predict, evaluate, respond to, and control our lives. We continue to update the narrative and refer to it for guidance when we encounter challenges: How do I respond to something like this? If our stories tell us we are resilient, we will be. If they tell us we're not up to the fight, we likely won't be.
A new approach to improving our outlook, then, literally asks us to rewrite our stories. A growing body of research finds that, on paper or out loud, reviewing setbacks with the fresh eyes of distance can help people come to terms with who they've been, better envision who they want to be, and find a way to make a course correction. Reframing helps people see events as opportunities or waypoints instead of the end of the road. And the psychologists who have developed such techniques argue that, in many cases, change can come far faster than we might expect.
We can't change the past, but we can change how it affects us and who it makes us. When we tweak what we tell ourselves about the past , we can redirect our future. In our relationships, through our life choices, or at our jobs, we can recognize our mistakes, move on, and start to embody a different story.
Susan Gregory Thomas is a writer whose books inlcude In Spite of Everything: A Memoir.
Rewriting Your Present No Matter Your Past
by Sherry Hamby
The results were remarkable, even hard to believe. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas had assigned half of a group of students to write about a traumatic experience and half to write about a neutral topic—specifically, time management. In total, the students wrote for only an hour, spread out over a few days. But months later, those who had written about a traumatic event not only reported better psychological health but also had fewer visits to the student health center.
Was it a fluke? No. The benefits of rewriting—from improved mood and well-being to boosts in the immune system—have since been demonstrated in dozens of studies, including my own. Rewriting helps you organize your thoughts and feelings and put them into words. This, in turn, helps you gain perspective, sort out your emotions, and increase narrative coherence—your understanding of who you are, how you became that person, and where you are going.
Prompting a Reckoning
Some psychologists suggest that you write about the most traumatic experience you have been through, but that's not the only type of writing that has helped individuals. Other prompts that have been successful include:
"I am thankful for all the experiences
in my life. However, what shaped me into who I am today was..."
"I will never forget the lesson I learned when..."
Think about an upsetting experience and replay it in your mind, trying to see it as
an observer. Try to understand the thoughts and feelings you had.
Think about a wonderful experience you had. Write about its impact on you.
Rewriting Your Wrongs
1. Very short writing times are helpful—as brief as two minutes at a sitting—and, in total, around two or three hours appears to be the most beneficial. More than that may not be better, as too much "navel-gazing" creates its own problems.
2. If you have an encouraging person in your life, ask him or her to give you feedback. If you do not, seek out someone, such as a therapist or counselor.
3. Share your story, perhaps with people who might be helped by hearing it. In my own research, sharing added to participants' benefits.
4. Make sure your writing is grounded in your life. Writing about abstract principles does not appear to deliver the same benefits.
5. Avoid rewriting when you are in the middle of a crisis. Let some time pass so you can step back and reflect.
6. Focus on post-traumatic growth—the fact that you can often learn something from bad experiences, such as increasing empathy for others, realizing that you have more inner strength than you thought, and identifying your true priorities.
Sherry Hamby, Ph.D., is a research professor of psychology at the University of the South and director of the Appalachian Center for Resilience Research. She is also founding editor of the journal Psychology of Violence.
Updating Your Fable After the Glory Days Pass
by Susan Krauss Whitbourne
Seeing oneself as the hero or heroine of the grand drama that is your life is an almost universal feature of adolescent egocentrism. Preoccupied with issues of identity, and emotionally if not cognitively unable to see things from other people's point of view, young adults are prone to adopt a mindset that they are always at center stage and that an imaginary audience follows their every move.
Just as prominent in adolescence is the myth of invincibility. Not only do many young people see themselves as the stars of their own reality shows, but they also believe they can do no wrong in pursuit of their (momentary) goals, whether it's achieving a skateboard trick or winning a science fair.
Over time, most jettison the invincibility myth, and their personal fables evolve, as experience pokes holes in the belief that nothing but fame and fortune awaits. We realize we can actually fall off that skateboard, be bested by peers, or get into trouble by staying out too late or drinking too much. As we learn these lessons, most of us start to regulate our behavior accordingly. It's a healthy way to develop realistic expectations about life.
Some people, however, struggle to surrender their fable. According to research by University of Virginia psychologist Joseph Allen and colleagues, these "pseudomature" individuals—"the cool kids"—are likely to fall much harder when their narrative develops cracks. In a long-term study spanning the critical years between ages 13 and 23, Allen's team tracked early-adulthood outcomes for 175 males and females. The individuals within this group labeled "pseudomature," based on early assumption of adult-like qualities in a variety of areas, were most prone to hang onto the myth of invincibility. And why not? At 13 and 14, they were the most popular, the most likely to engage in acts of minor delinquency, and the earliest to experiment sexually. They were also the most likely to prioritize popularity and looks and to choose friends based on appearance.
When we're young, our personal fable is a scenario of projected accomplishment. As we age, we constantly revise our story to incorporate bouts with failure. Our vision of our lives—what I call our life span construct—is a direct outgrowth of our identity projected into the future and recalled from the past. Ideally, we each adapt it to take into account both success and failure. But for many of the pseudomature, fable remains fantasy. By their early 20s, their promise fails to materialize, and many start to backslide. They are more likely than their peers to use alcohol and marijuana and have problems related to substance use; to engage in criminal behavior; and to have poorer relationships with others.
This pattern of early promise followed by a downward spiral into adulthood is consistent with the findings of my own study of adults followed from college through their mid-50s. Some of the brightest and most talented of the 182 participants were less fulfilled in late middle age, and more embittered, than their "average" counterparts. They peaked too early and locked themselves into a story of expected success that their future efforts could not sustain. In part, this was because they rested on their laurels. But they also built into their identities an image of early stardom, and so everything occurring after that seemed like a letdown. Being successful early is fine as long as you remain willing to accept the realities of later accomplishments or failures.
For most healthy, well-adapted individuals on what I call the authentic road, setbacks don't become derailments. Life happens, and we realize that there will be times that experiences don't meet expectations. Bringing your personal fable and life span construct more into sync requires incorporating the knowledge you gain from disappointments into a more balanced sense of who you are and what you're capable of. The ability to make the adjustments allows you to adapt to, and enjoy, your life's ups and downs.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts and the author of The Search for Fulfillment.
Reinventing Yourself in Your Relationship
by Hal Shorey
At the beginning of a relationship, most of us feel happy, confident, excited, and hopeful. We are our best selves. As the relationship progresses, however, we sometimes lose that energy and become mired in older behavior patterns that leave us feeling unfulfilled, disappointed, irritable, or downright hopeless. I often hear clients exclaim that they don't like who they are in their primary relationship—they don't like how they feel or how they behave. (If they are insightful, they accept that the problem does not entirely reside in the behaviors and attitudes of their partner.) So the question is how to remain, or return to being, the person we want to be.
Philosophers and cognitive scientists agree that the world, including yourself, can only be known to you in terms of how you think about it. Your reality, including who you are, is a story you tell yourself—and you can change it.
To begin, accept that your conscious thoughts are words going through your head, but they are not you. Think about yourself in relation to your partner through a series of "I" statements. Now ask yourself, "Who or what is this 'I'? My thoughts? Something that exists before my thoughts? Or something that I get to influence and create?" Thinking is a behavior, something you do. By extension, then, you should be able to choose to "do" your thinking differently. This notion is consistent with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which suggests that by altering your thoughts, and changing your life story, you can intentionally change the way you feel and behave, on your own and with your partner.
The common misperception is that you have to "figure things out" or change your attitude before you can change your behavior. Research shows, however, that changing your behavior first can influence your thinking. Sometimes, for example, the best thing to do after a spat or a testy exchange is to greet your partner warmly on your next encounter, as if nothing ever happened. This can break a cycle of negative interactions.
Know Your Pattern
You can choose the words that you say to yourself in your head, but a great deal of brain activity relating to perception and emotion happens below the level of conscious awareness, some of which gets wired into our personalities through interaction with our social environment (notably, our family) in childhood.
You can understand your pattern of detecting threats, reacting emotionally, and behaving defensively (or supportively) in part via your attachment style. When you feel scared or threatened in your relationship, the emotional centers of your brain might trigger an anxiety response, or lead you to emotionally "shut down"—even before you have a chance to figure out rationally what is really going on. When you know that this is your automatic reaction, you can work to change who you are in your relationship by learning to intentionally reengage with your partner if you've shut down, or to observe and accept your emotions without acting on them if your narrative leads you to express an anxiety response. Techniques include mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy.
Challenge Your Assumptions
We all have basic thoughts about ourselves, the world, and the people we are in relationships with—thoughts we've held so long, and repeated so often, that we forget that they're just thoughts. They have become our story—a narrative we've locked ourselves into living. The problem is that these "core beliefs," as we call them in CBT, may be irrational. And yet we still rely on them as roadmaps for navigating relationships, unknowingly eliciting behaviors from our partner that support these beliefs in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fear of rejection, for example, leads us to behave in ways that increase, not decrease, the possibility of rejection.
Your Partner is Not Just a Character in Your Story
Even when you think that your partner's behavior is in error, remember that you get to choose your response. When you accept that you have the freedom to change how you behave in the relationship, you should be prepared to see corresponding changes in the attitude and behavior of your partner.
Relationships are like small ecosystems: Everything is in balance, even if that balance is characterized by conflict and chaos. When you change your role in the system, it can go out of balance, and the other person, in an attempt to restore balance, might unconsciously try to pull you back into your old role, even if it's a role they have not always embraced. But if you stay the course and choose to think, feel, and behave as the person who you want to be, rather than who you have always been, the resulting shift should be a positive one for both of you and lead to a truer and more rewarding relationship.
Hal Shorey, Ph.D., is a professor of clinical psychology at Widener University's Institute of Graduate Clinical Psychology.
Rewriting Your Career
by Jean Twenge
Career fulfillment has taken a hit lately. Many Americans, especially those under 35, struggle to find work that pays enough and fits with their skills and talents, not to mention their perception of who they believe they are and how they should be seen. Even those who have a "good" job often wonder, "Is this all?"
Perhaps as a result, young people are increasingly cynical about work. In 1976, one in four high-school seniors agreed with the statement, "To me, work is nothing more than making a living." In 2014, one in three high-school seniors shared that view. Millennials are also less likely to take pleasure in work than are previous generations, less likely to say it's important to have a job that's interesting, and less likely to aspire to make friends at work.
It's a serious problem, because the intrinsic rewards of work—how our careers support our life stories— are among the best predictors of performance. Studies find that workers who fundamentally enjoy what they do perform much better than those who focus primarily on extrinsic rewards like money. Valuing intrinsic rewards is also linked to greater happiness and better mental health overall. To rewrite your career story, buck the trend and focus more on what work gives you while you're doing it.
Social media doesn't help us live the career stories we want. We constantly judge ourselves via comparison to others, and social media fuels this fire. Seeing posts from friends about their seemingly glamorous, high-profile work can make us question our focus on intrinsic rewards. It helps to remember that every job has its downside, or at least its dull side, which few share on Facebook.
Keeping that in mind, begin to reframe your workday in ways that better fit your story. Knock off your mundane tasks as quickly as possible, at the times when you're naturally least engaged (waiting for a train, sitting in the car during your kids' sports practices, or waiting for a conference call to start). And when you get to the part of your job you really like, that most lets you be yourself, savor it. Put your phone on vibrate, don't look at your email, and let yourself become immersed in what you're doing. Aim for a flow state—the smooth passage of time that surrounds you when you are truly engaged.
Opportunities to be intrinsically engaged are harder to come by in distraction-filled workplaces, which is why it's so important to direct yourself to them. Do it enough, and your performance will also improve. In the end, focusing on intrinsic fulfillment should lead to extrinsic rewards, too.
And if work offers you none of this? It might be time for a change. If your job really is just making a living, you probably deserve a better story—and can still create it. Intrinsic rewards abound in other spheres. Enjoying friends and family, helping the community, and engaging in activities you love outside of the office are all deep sources of intrinsic rewards.
Jean Twenge, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic.
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Illustration by GUYCO
Illustration by GUYCO
Illustration by GUYCO
Illustration by GUYCO
Illustration by GUYCO