Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Virtue of Blogging

I've been a long-time blogger and advocate of blogging at least at the high school level. so it comes as no surprise to me that the virtues of blogging are getting recognized by the scientific community.

In a recent article in Scientific American entitled Blogging -- It's Good for You by Jessica Wapner the therapeutic value of blogging is explored.
Self-medication may be the reason the blogosphere has taken off. Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. But besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism, expressive writing produces many physiological benefits. Research shows that it improves memory and sleep, boosts immune cell activity and reduces viral load in AIDS patients, and even speeds healing after surgery. A study in the February issue of the Oncologist reports that cancer patients who engaged in expressive writing just before treatment felt markedly better, mentally and physically, as compared with patients who did not.

Scientists now hope to explore the neurological underpinnings at play, especially considering the explosion of blogs. According to Alice Flaherty, a neuroscientist at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, the placebo theory of suffering is one window through which to view blogging. As social creatures, humans have a range of pain-related behaviors, such as complaining, which acts as a “placebo for getting satisfied,” Flaherty says. Blogging about stressful experiences might work similarly.

Flaherty, who studies conditions such as hypergraphia (an uncontrollable urge to write) and writer’s block, also looks to disease models to explain the drive behind this mode of communication. For example, people with mania often talk too much. “We believe something in the brain’s limbic system is boosting their desire to communicate,” Flaherty explains. Located mainly in the midbrain, the limbic system controls our drives, whether they are related to food, sex, appetite, or problem solving. “You know that drives are involved [in blogging] because a lot of people do it compulsively,” Flaherty notes. Also, blogging might trigger dopamine release, similar to stimulants like music, running and looking at art.


And recently, the New York Times in an article called M.I.T. Taking Student Blogs to Nth Degree by Tamar Lewin reported that MIT and many other prestigious undergrad and graduate schools are embracing blogging.
Dozens of colleges — including Amherst, Bates, Carleton, Colby, Vassar, Wellesley and Yale — are embracing student blogs on their Web sites, seeing them as a powerful marketing tool for high school students, who these days are less interested in official messages and statistics than in first-hand narratives and direct interaction with current students.

But so far, none of the blogs match the interactivity and creativity of those of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they are posted prominently on the admissions homepage, along with hundreds of responses from prospective applicants — all unedited.

Not every admissions office has been so ready to welcome uncensored student writing.

“A lot of people in admissions have not been eager for bloggers, mostly based on fears that we can’t control what people are saying,” said Jess Lord, dean of admissions at Haverford College, which posted student bloggers’ accounts of their summer activities this year, and plans to add bloggers this spring to help admitted students hear about campus life. “We’re learning, slowly, that this is how the world works, especially for high school students.”

M.I.T.’s bloggers, who are paid $10 an hour for up to four hours a week, offer thoughts on anything that might interest a prospective student. Some offer advice on the application process and the institute’s intense workload; others write about quirkier topics, like warm apple pie topped with bacon and hot caramel sauce, falling down the stairs or trying to set a world record in the game of Mattress Dominos.

Posting untouched student writing — and comments reacting to that writing — does carry some risks. Boring, sloppily written posts do nothing to burnish an institutional image, college admissions officials say, and there is always the possibility of an inflammatory or wildly negative posting.


The MIT Bloggers page link.

A college blogger site called CollegeBlender aggregates the blogs of college students from around the world.

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