Fighting back emotion, Tony Dorsett, the former Dallas Cowboys’ running back, told ESPN last fall: “It’s painful, man, for my daughters to say they’re scared of me…it’s painful.” Dorsett said he suffers from memory problems, depression and difficulty controlling his emotions. He said he has even thought about suicide.
The likely cause of Dorsett’s distress is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), neurodegenerative condition resulting form repeated blows to the head. In his 12 years in the National Football League (NFL), Dorsett suffered many such impacts. Although players may appear to recover each time they are hit in the head, the trauma can set off a cascade of biological events that wreak havoc on brain cells. The process is progressive, and over time, can seriously disrupt brain function.
Numerous former football players have reported symptoms similar to Dorsett’s, a problem that recently led the NFL to agree to compensate former players for concussion-related brain injuries in a tentative $765 million settlement. A few players have sought medical confirmation of CTE by undergoing a new type of brain scan developed at the University of California, Los Angeles designed to detect the condition in the living, as Jacqueline C. Tanaka and Gregg B. Wells report in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind (see “How Football Destroys the Brain”). The test uses a radioactive tracer that binds to a protein called tau that, in CTE, leaks out of neurons and shows up where it shouldn’t, Tanaka and Wells explain. The only way to definitively diagnose CTE is at autopsy; examiners look for atrophy, for example, and tangles of tau around blood vessels. Such analysis showed that former Pittsburgh Steelers’ star Mike Webster (who died of a heart attack in 2002) had CTE, as did Chicago Bears’ Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in 2011.
Treatment and protection are of primary importance not only for football players but also for society at large. The problem isn’t unique to football. CTE is a danger for any athlete who is likely to experience blows to the head; military veterans who were exposed to explosive blasts; and victims of car crashes, to name a few. At least one drug under development is designed to combat the disorder by stimulating neuronal growth. But protecting people through safer practices, neck strengthening exercises and high-tech helmets is likely to have the largest effect in the short term. I hope that people will come up with other ingenious solutions soon. Meanwhile, I am buying cleats for my shoes so I don’t slip on the ice.
But no matter how much safety gear you buy, it is impossible to eliminate risk. And those who set minimizing danger as their primary goal will likely lead an uninspiring life. This fact seems true in friendship as well as sports. Friendship is risky after all. People can hurt you and let you down. In some cases, you might even encounter a little unwanted…attraction.
Cross-gender friendships are becoming increasingly common—and yet are still often regarded with suspicion, writes Carlin Flora in the current cover story (see “Can Men and Women Be Just Friends?”). But before you decide these relationships are doomed, dastardly or plain foolish, realize that no friendship is perfect or free of complications. Flora doesn’t deny that attraction in such friendships can motivate certain behaviors that may be designed to curry favor or impress, but she points out that such motivations color many types of relationships. That is, people often try to get on the good side of our same-sex friends for a variety of reasons, not all of which are “pure.”
And male-female friendships can offer significant benefits, Flora points out. For one, people gravitate toward others with similar personalities. “Masculine” women or “feminine” men may thus be most likely to find best buddies among members of the other gender. Being friends with someone of the opposite sex also may offer insights into how the other gender thinks, which can be useful in a variety of contexts. But to me, the most important reason not to dismiss male-female alliances is simply that having friends is important. A lot of research shows that friendship is vital for mental as well as physical health. In that light, to rule out half the population as potential pals seems unwise.
Talk to Yourself
When friends are not around, we may chat with ourselves. I remember being caught, at least once, as a child saying something to myself out loud when I was alone. Someone heard nonetheless and teased me about it, so I vowed to mute my internal deliberations from then on. But it turns out that far from marking someone an oddball, talking to yourself—silently or otherwise—is universal. It occupies one quarter of our waking lives and serves many important purposes.
Inner speech is simply thought described in words, as opposed to thinking in scenes or images. As children, we talk ourselves through new experiences, reason with ourselves and tell ourselves to calm down. As adults, we also rely on self-talk, using it to solve problems, motivate ourselves, plan, and learn from our mistakes, Ferris Jabr writes (see “Getting to Know the Voices in Your Head”). What is more, we can all learn how to talk to ourselves to the greatest effect. We can give ourselves specific pep talks before a game or performance, or instructions on how to perform a maneuver or a task. We can think through difficult social or conceptual problems. And we can deliberately edit our negative musings to improve our mood or quell anxiety. It is not necessary to make such speeches audible in most cases, but as Jabr makes clear, talking to yourself is a habit you might think about harnessing more than hiding.