- A fascinating look at how women were treated in the media this year #representationproject upworthy.com/a-glimpse-at-h… 2 hours ago
- Tatler straight into pole position for the office Christmas card competition with this cracking vid vimeo.com/81059329 via @MRSRUBBISH 3 hours ago
- Richard Feynmann - the pleasure of finding things out wp.me/pITIw-1Bo 4 hours ago
- A wonderful Ask Me Anything from Reddit, with inspirational moustachioed astronaut Colonel Chris Hadfield: reddit.com/r/IAmA/comment… 6 hours ago
- "A poem of cowboys" by Jack Dyson, c.1983 #cowboys #poetry instagram.com/p/hhJL8tx0et/ 19 hours ago
- Richard Feynmann – the pleasure of finding things out
- Your search for the perfect Christmas angel ends here!
- Magic morphing SuperContainer is the table top (and hospital bed?) of the future
- Sign of the Times: Look Out, It’s Instagram Envy
- Hasselhoff Supercut: David sings the theme to ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’
- Lewandowskis of note: Naked, late and pointless
- Photomicography – it’s a small world after all. Best viewed large.
- Vissi d’arte
- Since EVERYONE seems to either have a cold or be talking about having a cold…
- Blade Runner – Film Noir
- Excerpts from the Collected Letters of Julian Assange (The New Yorker)
- What fun this must have been to make
- Most insane batshit crazy video I’ve seen ALL DAY!
- Best reaction ever
- Atlas Update (yeah I’ve seen Elysium) – C3POMG
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- The Guy Quote - Robert Mitchum
- 56 best/worst similes used in high school exams...
- The Guy Quote - Richard Harris
- There are men too gentle to live among wolves
- Spring Breakers monologue - is this 2013's answer to The Breakfast Club?
- The guy quote - Henri Cartier-Bresson
- Starvation, cannibalism and madness - The Raft of the Medusa
- Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 21, Andante ("Elvira Madigan")
- Harrison Ford, in Polaroid, on Blade Runner
- A real love letter. Heart breaking.
Tag Archives: science
Colonial plankton organism, Chaetoceros debilis (marine diatom), magnified 250x by Wim van Egmond, of the Micropolitan Museum, Berkel en Rodenrijs, Zuid Holland, Netherlands.
The Atlantic always finds the best pictures. Here it shows the winners of the 2013 Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition. Started back in 1974, the contest invites photographers and scientists to submit images of all things visible under a microscope.
First place this year went to a 250x view of a marine diatom by Wim van Egmond (above), showing the complexity and stunning detail of its fragile helical chain. Other entries included close-up views of ladybug feet, mollusc radula, dinosaur bones, nerve structures in embryos, and much more. Enjoy a journey into mini things by clicking here. Needless to say, best viewed large!
Well, this is fascinating. Especially since I’ve been looking at a lot of shopper marketing recently, as well as talking to insurance people about how AJP region differs from, say, EMEA. Companies get astonishingly detailed info about people’s habits, but having read the article below and seen the brilliant video that summarises Keith Chen’s hypothesis, I wonder if they already look at what languages we speak to work out likelihood to X or Y.
Article below by Derek Thompson, originally from Atlantic. The original article also has a chart you might find interesting, but the whole thing is summed up nicely in this video. Though I’ve got to say, the last bit about death and so on seems like latched-on stats. The link there is wooly, which is a shame, as I loved the rest of it. Anyway, make up your own mind:
Can Your Language Influence Your Spending, Eating, and Smoking Habits?
An absurd-sounding claim leads to a surprising finding
Yes, I know. That headline. It looks like the most egregious form of causal inference. Americans don’t save money because of … our grammar? How utterly absurd. But bear with me.
In the 1930s, linguists proposed that the way we read, write, and talk helped to determine the way we see the world. Speakers of languages that had the same word for orange and yellow had a harder time actually distinguishing the colors. Speakers of the Kook Thaayorre language, which has no words for left and right, must orient themselves by north, south, east, and west at all time, which enhances their awareness of geographical and astronomical markers.
Last year, economist Keith Chen released a working paper (now published) suggesting speakers of languages without strong future tenses tended to be more responsible about planning for the future. Quick example. In English, we say “I will go to the play tomorrow.” That’s strong future tense. In Mandarin or Finnish, which have weaker future tenses, it might be more appropriate to say, “I go to the play tomorrow.”
Chen wondered whether languages with weak future tenses would be more thoughtful about the future because they consider it, grammatically, equivalent to the present. He mapped stronger and weak future-tense languages across Europe and correlated the data with future-oriented behaviors like saving, smoking, and using condoms.
Remarkably, he discovered that speakers with weak future tenses (e.g. German, Finnish and Estonian) were 30 percent more likely to save money, 24 percent more likely to avoid smoking, 29 percent more likely to exercise regularly, and 13 percent less likely to be obese, than speakers of languages with strong future tenses, like English.
If your B.S. antennae are standing straight up (as mine were), you might be more interested in this next part. Chen next compared speakers born and raised within the same countries, as well, controlling for factors like age and number of children. He found the same results: Speakers with weak future tenses demonstrated dramatically, and statistically significantly, more responsible future-oriented behaviors — even within countries like Switzerland, which are a motley blend of strong-future languages (like French) and weak-future languages (like German).
The correlation was savaged by some economists and linguists as facile or worse. But others re-ran the data and found, to their astonishment, that Chen seemed to be right. His paper was published (along with thanks to some of his fiercest critics) in the American Economic Review this year.
“One important issue in interpreting these results is the possibility that language is not causing but rather reﬂecting deeper diﬀerences that drive savings behavior,” Chen concluded. Languages map to large groups of people, but so does religion, culture, family values, and a common history. Are Germans frugal because their language protects them from hyperbolic discounting, or is it just that, well, they’re Germans?
That question doesn’t have a satisfying answer, but this paper, as wild as it seems, isn’t a radical departure from the literature. ”Overall, my ﬁndings are largely consistent with the hypothesis that languages with obligatory future-time reference lead their speakers to engage in less future-oriented behavior,” Chen wrote.
What does it mean? I have no idea, and Chen himself has responded to the criticism of his work with an honorable blend of erudition and shrugging disbelief. But I suppose that if you suffer from issues like crippling procrastination, as I do, it couldn’t hurt to learn Estonian — or, perhaps more simply, to write inspirational notes to yourself exclusively in the present tense. The future might be a different country, but it doesn’t have to feel that way.
In ancient Rome, the architectural feature called a vomitorium was the entranceway through which crowds entered and exited a stadium, not a special room used for purging food during meals. Vomiting was not a regular part of Roman dining customs.
It is true that mean life expectancy in the Middle Ages and earlier was low; however, many take this to mean that people usually died around the age of 30. In fact, the low life expectancy is an average very strongly influenced by high infant mortality, and the life expectancy of people who lived to adulthood was much higher. A 21-year-old man in medieval England, for example, could by one estimate expect to live to the age of 64.
Some people believe that food items cooked with wine or liquor will be totally non-alcoholic, because alcohol’s low boiling point causes it to evaporate quickly when heated. However, a study found that some of the alcohol remains: 25% after 1 hour of baking or simmering, and 10% after 2 hours.
Meteorites are not necessarily hot when they reach the Earth. In fact, many meteorites are found with frost on them. As they enter the atmosphere, having been warmed only by the sun, meteors have a temperature below freezing. The intense heat produced during passage through the upper atmosphere at very high speed then melts a meteor’s outside layer, but molten material is blown off and the interior does not have time to warm appreciably. Most meteorites fall through the relatively cool lower atmosphere for as long as several minutes at subsonic velocity before reaching the ground, giving plenty of time for their exterior to cool off again.
There is a legend that Marco Polo imported pasta from China which originated with the Macaroni Journal, published by an association of food industries with the goal of promoting the use of pasta in the United States. Marco Polo describes a food similar to “lagana” in his Travels, but he uses a term with which he was already familiar. Durum wheat, and thus pasta as it is known today, was introduced by Arabs from Libya, during their conquest of Sicilyin the late 7th century, according to the newsletter of the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association, thus predating Marco Polo’s travels to China by about six centuries.
It is rarely necessary to wait 24 hours before filing a missing person’s report; in instances where there is evidence of violence or of an unusual absence, law enforcement agencies in the United States often stress the importance of beginning an investigation promptly. The UK government Web site says explicitly in large type “You don’t have to wait 24 hours before contacting the police”.
Searing meat does not “seal in” moisture, and in fact may actually cause meat to lose moisture. Generally, the value in searing meat is that it creates a brown crust with a rich flavor via the Maillard reaction.
All different tastes can be detected on all parts of the tongue by taste buds, with slightly increased sensitivities in different locations depending on the person, contrary to the popular belief that specific tastes only correspond to specific mapped sites on the tongue. The original tongue map was based on a mistranslation of a 1901 German thesis by Edwin Boring. In addition, there are not 4 but 5 primary tastes. In addition to bitter, sour, salty, and sweet, humans have taste receptors for umami, which is a savory or meaty taste.
Humans have more than the commonly cited five senses. Although definitions vary, the actual number ranges from 9 to more than 20. In addition to sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing, which were the senses identified by Aristotle, humans can sense balance and acceleration (equilibrioception), pain (nociception), body and limb position (proprioception or kinesthetic sense), and relative temperature (thermoception). Other senses sometimes identified are the sense of time, itching, pressure, hunger, thirst, fullness of the stomach, need to urinate, need to defecate, and blood carbon dioxide levels.
Toilet waste is never intentionally jettisoned from an aircraft. All waste is collected in tanks which are emptied on the ground by toilet waste vehicles. Blue ice is caused by accidental leakage from the waste tank. Passenger trains, on the other hand, have historicallyflushed onto the tracks; however, modern trains usually have retention tanks on board.
(An excellent list, no? Full list here)
On April 12, 2013, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) reached its final orbit, 705 kilometers (438 miles) above Earth. One week later, the satellite’s natural-color imager scanned a swath of land 185-kilometers wide and 9,000 kilometers long (120 by 6,000 miles)—an unusual, unbroken distance considering 70 percent of Earth is covered with water. That flight path—depicted on the globe below—afforded us the chance to assemble 56 still images into a seamless, flyover view of what LDCM saw on April 19, 2013. Stretching from northern Russia to South Africa, the full mosaic from the Operational Land Imager can be viewed in this video. Read and view more at http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Feat…
You’ll probably want to stick it on full screen. Make sure you’ve got some suitable music to hand.
This excellent YouTube comment by “nhstorrs” puts it in perspective:
No way. This is amazing! Landsat flew right over the spine of the birthplace of the human species, and at the same time the birthplace of agriculture. This is where we came from, and the environment which might be said to have had the biggest impact on what made us. . . us. There could almost be no other landscape so interesting to see in one large glimpse as this one.
A roller derby tournament seems like a brutal research environment: women crash around a rink in short skirts and skates, slamming their shoulders into members of the opposing team so that their own team’s “jammer” can lap them and score. But it’s perfect for researchers investigating how, through skin-to-skin contact, we might colonize other people with the microorganisms that colonize us.
When curious researchers armed with cotton swabs and strong stomachs sequence DNA from microorganisms gathered from our armpits, belly buttons, and various other locales, both inside and outside us, they find miniature versions of ecosystems like those in rain forests and meadows, composed of trillions of microbes. In aggregate, this invisible mass of organisms is our “microbiome,” and it makes up as much as three pounds of our body weight.
Although the bacteria that make up most of our microbiome (which also includes archaea and fungi) have likely evolved with us since the beginning of humanity, it is only since the advent of cheap, fast DNA sequencing that we’ve been able to study them in depth and begun to wonder what, exactly, they are doing here. There is growing evidence that our microbiomes can protect us from certain kinds of disease, or, if the balance between certain strains is disturbed, contribute to them.
The scientists at the roller derby tournament were investigating whether these microbiome bacteria spread from person to person when people touch—in this case, during a contact sport. To begin, they swabbed the upper arms of skaters on teams from three different cities before the competition started. The researchers found that each team had its own unique set of bacterial species thriving on players’ skin. The differences between them were so great that it was possible to tell just from a glance at a player’s skin bacteria which team she was from, recalls James Meadow, a microbial ecologist at the University of Oregon who is an author of the paper. Then the researchers took another set of samples after the teams had played each other.
They found that the complements of skin bacteria grew more similar, blurring the distinctions between the teams. The players were colonizing each other, it seems.
At first glance, it’s not such a surprising finding: after all, bacteria that make us sick are known to spread from person to person. But the study marks the first time that microbiome bacteria, not thought to be infectious, have been observed making the leap, and the implications reach beyond whether we swap benign bugs when standing close to strangers on the subway.
Even though the study focusses on the skin microbiome, it may have implications for other important microbial communities, like the ones in our guts. Gut bacteria, it turns out, are on everything. They are happiest when buried deep in our intestines, but they seem to leak out and have been found on our skin, in our chairs, in our beds—all over the place. “We think of clothes and things as being this really strong barrier, but all human microbiome studies to date have found that there’s a lot of overlap between these things, that these barriers that we think are nice and clean in our heads just don’t exist,” Meadow says. These bacteria don’t live for very long on skin and other surfaces—a matter of minutes—but they are constantly washing up there. Meadow says it would be odd if these bacteria from other people weren’t somehow making their way into our mouths. From there, they might head down to our guts.
Although it’s not clear whether other people’s gut bacteria can make it intact through the gauntlet of the alimentary tract, and whether they can establish themselves in our guts, it would help explain certain things. After a press conference two years ago, I had a long conversation with Balfour Sartor, a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who specializes in inflammatory bowel diseases, like Crohn’s. These autoimmune conditions are thought to be caused in part by an imbalance of bacteria in the gut—too much of one kind, too little of another—and the genetic factors that abet this lopsided growth. Sartor told me that there was a growing stack of evidence, some published, some not, that people who had lived with inflammatory bowel disease sufferers for long periods of time had higher rates of it themselves than people in the general population. Since genetics aren’t contagious—at least not within a generation—this led him to wonder whether it was possible that the healthy roommates or spouses were being colonized, over time, by the malevolent bacteria.
While neither Sartor nor Meadow were aware of each other’s observations when I contacted them, according to Meadow, it would be only too easy for the spread of bacteria, at least, to take place. “People who live together, who are roommates, or spouses, have a more similar microbiome to their own housemates than they do to other people, say, in the same town,” he says. Sartor, for his part, notes a “concerning” 2007 study in which deliberately transmitting the gut bacteria of mice genetically predisposed to develop intestinal inflammation to healthy mice caused the healthy mice, in turn, to develop the condition.
These studies, taken together, raise the question of whether there is an infectious component in disease previously thought to be unspreadable, but it bears repeating that it is not clear whether bacteria added to our microbiomes from the environment establish themselves on or in our bodies for any length of time—and, if they do, whether they have any appreciable effect on our well-being. “When you do share microbes, we have no idea how important that is,” Meadow says. “We don’t know if they matter for your health at all.”
Eruptive events on the sun can be wildly different. Some come just with a solar flare, some with an additional ejection of solar material called a coronal mass ejection (CME), and some with complex moving structures in association with changes in magnetic field lines that loop up into the sun’s atmosphere, the corona.
On July 19, 2012, an eruption occurred on the sun that produced all three. A moderately powerful solar flare exploded on the sun’s lower right hand limb, sending out light and radiation. Next came a CME, which shot off to the right out into space. And then, the sun treated viewers to one of its dazzling magnetic displays — a phenomenon known as coronal rain.
Over the course of the next day, hot plasma in the corona cooled and condensed along strong magnetic fields in the region. Magnetic fields, themselves, are invisible, but the charged plasma is forced to move along the lines, showing up brightly in the extreme ultraviolet wavelength of 304 Angstroms, which highlights material at a temperature of about 50,000 Kelvin. This plasma acts as a tracer, helping scientists watch the dance of magnetic fields on the sun, outlining the fields as it slowly falls back to the solar surface.
The footage in this video was collected by the Solar Dynamics Observatory’s AIA instrument. SDO collected one frame every 12 seconds, and the movie plays at 30 frames per second, so each second in this video corresponds to 6 minutes of real time. The video covers 12:30 a.m. EDT to 10:00 p.m. EDT on July 19, 2012.
Music: “Thunderbolt” by Lars Leonhard, courtesy of artist.
Colossal says: “Filmmaker Neels Castillon was on a commercial shoot a few days ago, waiting to catch a helicopter flying into a sunset, when suddenly tens of thousands of starlings unexpectedly swarmed the sky in an enormous dance known as a murmuration. With his director of photography, Mathias Touzeris, the two filmed for several minutes capturing some pretty magnificent footage. You might recall a similar murmuration video from last year shot extremely up close and personal using a camera phone that went viral. How do thousands of birds simultaneously make such dramatic changes in their flight patterns? After tons of research, scientists still aren’t sure. The music is Hand-Made by Alt-J.”
Until recently, it was hard to say what made the murmurations possible. Scientists had to wait for the tools of high-powered video analysis and computational modeling. And when these were finally applied to starlings, they revealed patterns known less from biology than cutting-edge physics. As Brandon Keim puts it on Wired.com:
Starling flocks, it turns out, are best described with equations of “critical transitions” — systems that are poised to tip, to be almost instantly and completely transformed, like metals becoming magnetized or liquid turning to gas. Each starling in a flock is connected to every other. When a flock turns in unison, it’s a phase transition.
At the individual level, the rules guiding this are relatively simple. When a neighbor moves, so do you. Depending on the flock’s size and speed and its members’ flight physiologies, the large-scale pattern changes. What’s complicated, or at least unknown, is how criticality is created and maintained.
It’s easy for a starling to turn when its neighbor turns — but what physiological mechanisms allow it to happen almost simultaneously in two birds separated by hundreds of feet and hundreds of other birds? That remains to be discovered, and the implications extend beyond birds. Starlings may simply be the most visible and beautiful example of a biological criticality that also seems to operate in proteins and neurons, hinting at universal principles yet to be understood.
This year’s question to Edge is “what should we be worried about?” Here are some of the best answers:
We Don’t Do Politics
Artist; Composer; Recording Producer: U2, Coldplay, Talking Heads, Paul Simon; Recording Artist
Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. We avoid it like the plague—like Edge avoids it, in fact. Is this because we feel that politics isn’t where anything significant happens? Or because we’re too taken up with what we’re doing, be it Quantum Physics or Statistical Genomics or Generative Music? Or because we’re too polite to get into arguments with people? Or because we just think that things will work out fine if we let them be—that The Invisible Hand or The Technosphere will mysteriously sort them out?
Whatever the reasons for our quiescence, politics is still being done—just not by us. It’s politics that gave us Iraq and Afghanistan and a few hundred thousand casualties. It’s politics that’s bleeding the poorer nations for the debts of their former dictators. It’s politics that allows special interests to run the country. It’s politics that helped the banks wreck the economy. It’s politics that prohibits gay marriage and stem cell research but nurtures Gaza and Guantanamo.
But we don’t do politics. We expect other people to do it for us, and grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that we’re as laissez-faire as we can get away with.
What worries me is that while we’re laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing.
I’ve Given Up Asking Questions
Acreenwriter, Film director, Animator, Actor; Member, Monty Python Comedy Troupe; Director, Brazil; Fear And Loathing In Las Vega
I’ve given up asking questions. l merely float on a tsunami of acceptance of anything life throws at me… and marvel stupidly.
The Loss Of Death
Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience, Head, Dept. of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences, University College, London
Every generation our species distils the best of itself, packages it up and passes it on, shedding the dross and creating a fresher, newer, shinier generation. We have been doing this now for four billion years, and in doing so have transmogrified from unicellular microorganisms that do little more than cling to rocks and photosynthesize, to creatures of boundless energy and imagination who write poetry, make music, love each other and work hard to decipher the secrets of themselves and their universe.
And then they die.
Death is what makes this cyclical renewal and steady advance in organisms possible. Discovered by living things millions of years ago, aging and death permit a species to grow and flourish. Because natural selection ensures that the child-who-survives-to-reproduce is better than the parent (albeit infinitesimally so, for that is how evolution works), it is better for many species that the parent step out of the way and allow its (superior) child to succeed in its place. Put more simply, death stops a parent from competing with its children and grandchildren for the same limited resources. So important is death that we have, wired into our genes, a self-destruct senescence program that shuts down operations once we have successfully reproduced, so that we eventually die, leaving our children—the fresher, newer, shinier versions of ourselves—to carry on with the best of what we have given them: the best genes, the best art, and the best ideas. Four billion years of death has served us well.
Now, all this may be coming to an end, for one of the things we humans, with our evolved intelligence, are working hard at is trying to eradicate death. This is an understandable enterprise, for nobody wants to die—genes for wanting to die rarely last long in a species. For millennia, human thinkers have dreamed of conquering old age and death: the fight against it permeates our art and culture, and much of our science. We personify death as a spectre and loathe it, fear it and associate it with all that is bad in the world. If we could conquer it, how much better life would become.
Half a century ago that millennia-old dream began to take form, for we humans discovered genes, and within the genes we discovered that there are mechanisms for regulating aging and death, and we also discovered that we can engineer these genes—make them do things differently. We can add them, subtract them, alter their function, swap them between species—the possibilities are exciting and boundless. Having discovered the molecular mechanisms that regulate senescence and lifespan, we have begun to contemplate the possibility that we can alter the life course itself. We may be able to extend life, and possibly quite soon—it has recently been estimated that due to medical and technical advances, the first person to reach 150 years has already been born. Once we have eradicated cancer, heart disease, and dementia, our biggest killers, we can turn next to the body clock—the mechanism for winding-up operations that limits our lifespans—and alter that too. Why stop at 150? If a person is kept disease-free and the aging clock is halted, why could a person not reach 200? 300? 500?
What a wonderful idea. Few people seem to doubt that this is a wonderful idea and so research into aging and lifespan is a funding priority in every wealthy, technologically advanced society. Termed “healthy aging”, this research really means prolonging life, for aging is by definition progressive time-dependent loss of health and function, and if we prevent that, we prevent death itself. Who wouldn’t want to live to 500? To live a life free of decrepitude and pain, to be able to spend so much more time enjoying favourite activities, achieving so much, wringing every drop from mysterious but wonderful existence, seeing the growing up not just of one’s children and grandchildren but also their children and grandchildren. Oh, yes please!
But wait. Our lifespan is our lifespan for a reason. Lifespans vary enormously in the biological world, from barely a day in the mayfly to more than 100 years in the Galapagos tortoise and an estimated 1500 years in the Antarctic sponge. These spans have been imprinted by natural selection because they are those that serve the species best—that maximise the trade-off between caring for and competing with one’s offspring.
Most of us love our parents but imagine a world inhabited not only by your own parents but also everyone else’s, and also your and their grandparents, and your and their great-grandparents… a society run by people whose ideas and attitudes date back four centuries. Imagine a world in which your boss might be in the post you covet for the next 100 years. Truly, would the generations be competing with each other: for food, housing, jobs, space. As it is, the young complain about how their elders, with their already rapidly increasing lifespans, are driving up house prices by refusing to downsize in middle age, and driving up unemployment by refusing to retire. Imagine four centuries of people ahead of you in the housing and job queues.
The prolonging of the human lifespan is often lauded in the media but it is almost never questioned. Nobody seems to doubt that we should push forward with aging research, identify those genes, tinker with them, make them work for us. For nobody wants to die, and so we all want this research to succeed. We want it for ourselves, and our families. We want ourselves and our loved ones to live as long as possible—forever, if we can.
But is it the best thing for our species? Have four billion years of evolution been wrong? We are not Antarctic sponges or blue-green algae—we die for a reason. We die so that our youth—those better versions of ourselves—can flourish. We should worry about the loss of death.
(click here for the full list, it’s worth it)
Are you more honest than a banker? Under what circumstances would you lie, or cheat, and what effect does your deception have on society at large? Dan Ariely, one of the world’s leading voices on human motivation and behaviour is the latest big thinker to get the RSA Animate treatment.
Taken from a lecture given at the RSA in July 2012 . Watch the longer talk here.
LAST month, in San Jose, Calif., 21 people were treated for burns after walking barefoot over hot coals as part of an event called Unleash the Power Within, starring the motivational speaker Tony Robbins. If you’re anything like me, a cynical retort might suggest itself: What, exactly, did they expect would happen? In fact, there’s a simple secret to “firewalking”: coal is a poor conductor of heat to surrounding surfaces, including human flesh, so with quick, light steps, you’ll usually be fine.
But Mr. Robbins and his acolytes have little time for physics. To them, it’s all a matter of mind-set: cultivate the belief that success is guaranteed, and anything is possible. One singed but undeterred participant told The San Jose Mercury News: “I wasn’t at my peak state.” What if all this positivity is part of the problem? What if we’re trying too hard to think positive and might do better to reconsider our relationship to “negative” emotions and situations?
Consider the technique of positive visualization, a staple not only of Robbins-style seminars but also of corporate team-building retreats and business best sellers. According to research by the psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues, visualizing a successful outcome, under certain conditions, can make people less likely to achieve it. She rendered her experimental participants dehydrated, then asked some of them to picture a refreshing glass of water. The water-visualizers experienced a marked decline in energy levels, compared with those participants who engaged in negative or neutral fantasies. Imagining their goal seemed to deprive the water-visualizers of their get-up-and-go, as if they’d already achieved their objective.
Or take affirmations, those cheery slogans intended to lift the user’s mood by repeating them: “I am a lovable person!” “My life is filled with joy!” Psychologists at the University of Waterloo concluded that such statements make people with low self-esteem feel worse — not least because telling yourself you’re lovable is liable to provoke the grouchy internal counterargument that, really, you’re not.
Even goal setting, the ubiquitous motivational technique of managers everywhere, isn’t an undisputed boon. Fixating too vigorously on goals can distort an organization’s overall mission in a desperate effort to meet some overly narrow target, and research by several business-school professors suggests that employees consumed with goals are likelier to cut ethical corners.
Though much of this research is new, the essential insight isn’t. Ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, optimism with pessimism, a striving for success and security with an openness to failure and uncertainty. The Stoics recommended “the premeditation of evils,” or deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario. This tends to reduce anxiety about the future: when you soberly picture how badly things could go in reality, you usually conclude that you could cope. Besides, they noted, imagining that you might lose the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy increases your gratitude for having them now. Positive thinking, by contrast, always leans into the future, ignoring present pleasures.
Buddhist meditation, too, is arguably all about learning to resist the urge to think positively — to let emotions and sensations arise and pass, regardless of their content. It might even have helped those agonized firewalkers. Very brief training in meditation, according to a 2009 article in The Journal of Pain, brought significant reductions in pain — not by ignoring unpleasant sensations, or refusing to feel them, but by turning nonjudgmentally toward them.
From this perspective, the relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity. Mr. Robbins’s trademark smile starts to resemble a rictus. A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t. You can try, if you insist, to follow the famous self-help advice to eliminate the word “failure” from your vocabulary — but then you’ll just have an inadequate vocabulary when failure strikes.
The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has persuasively argued that the all-positive approach, with its rejection of the possibility of failure, helped bring on our present financial crises. The psychological evidence, backed by ancient wisdom, certainly suggests that it is not the recipe for success that it purports to be.
Mr. Robbins reportedly encourages firewalkers to think of the hot coals as “cool moss.” Here’s a better idea: think of them as hot coals. And as a San Jose fire captain, himself a wise philosopher, told The Mercury News: “We discourage people from walking over hot coals.”
[by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker]
Humans are a daydreaming species. According to a recent study led by the Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew A. Killingsworth, people let their minds wander forty-seven per cent of the time they are awake. (The scientists demonstrated this by developing an iPhone app that contacted twenty-two hundred and fifty volunteers at random intervals during the day.) In fact, the only activity during which we report that our minds are not constantly wandering is “love making.” We’re able to focus for that.
At first glance, such data seems like a confirmation of our inherent laziness. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, mind-wandering is often derided as useless—the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think. Freud, for instance, described daydreams as “infantile” and a means of escaping from the necessary chores of the world into fantasies of “wish-fulfillment.”
In recent years, however, psychologists and neuroscientists have redeemed this mental state, revealing the ways in which mind-wandering is an essential cognitive tool. It turns out that whenever we are slightly bored—when reality isn’t quite enough for us—we begin exploring our own associations, contemplating counterfactuals and fictive scenarios that only exist within the head.
Virginia Woolf, in her novel “To The Lighthouse,” eloquently describes this form of thinking as it unfolds inside the mind of a character named Lily:
Certainly she was losing consciousness of the outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, her mind kept throwing things up from its depths, scenes and names, sayings, memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting.
A daydream is that fountain spurting, spilling strange new thoughts into the stream of consciousness. And these spurts turn out to be surprisingly useful. A forthcoming paper in Psychological Science led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara helps explain why. The experiment itself was simple: a hundred and forty-five undergraduate students were given a standard test of creativity known as an “unusual use” task, in which they had two minutes to list as many uses as possible for mundane objects such as toothpicks, bricks, and clothes hangers.
Subjects were then given a twelve-minute break. During this time, they were randomly assigned to three different conditions: resting in a quiet room, performing a difficult short-term memory task, or doing something so boring that it would elicit mind-wandering. Following this interlude, the subjects were given another round of creative tests, including the unusual-use tasks they had worked on only a few minutes before.
Here’s where things get interesting: those students assigned to the boring task performed far better when asked to come up with additional uses for everyday items to which they had already been exposed. Given new items, all the groups did the same. Given repeated items, the daydreamers came up with forty-one per cent more possibilities than students in the other conditions.
What does this mean? Schooler argues that it’s clear evidence that those twelve minutes of daydreaming allowed the subjects to invent additional possibilities, as their unconscious minds pondered new ways to make use of toothpicks. This is why the effect was limited to those items that the subjects had previously been asked about—the question needed to marinate in the mind, “incubating” in those subterranean parts of the brain we can barely control.
On a more practical note, the scientists argue that their data show why “creative solutions may be facilitated specifically by simple external tasks that maximize mind-wandering.” The benefit of these simple tasks is that they consume just enough attention to keep us occupied, while leaving plenty of mental resources left over for errant daydreams. (When people are left alone, such as those subjects forced to sit by themselves, they tend to perseverate on their problems. Unfortunately, all this focus backfires.) Consider the ping-pong tables that now seem to exist in the lobby of every Silicon Valley startup. While it’s easy to dismiss such interior decorations as mere whimsy, the game turns out to be an ideal mind-wandering activity, at least when played casually. Another task that consistently leads to extended bouts of daydreaming is reading Tolstoy. In Schooler’s earlier work on mind-wandering, he gave subjects a boring passage from “War and Peace.” The undergraduates began zoning out within seconds.
Although Schooler has previously demonstrated a correlation between daydreaming and creativity—those who are more prone to mind-wandering tend to be better at generating new ideas, at least in the lab—this new paper shows that our daydreams seem to serve a similar function as night dreams, facilitating bursts of creative insight. Take a 2004 paper published in Nature by the neuroscientists Ullrich Wagner and Jan Born. The researchers gave a group of students a tedious task that involved transforming a long list of number strings into a new set of number strings. Wagner and Born designed the task so that there was an elegant shortcut, but it could only be uncovered if the subject had an insight about the problem. When people were left to their own devices, less than twenty per cent of them found the shortcut, even when given several hours to mull over the task. The act of dreaming, however, changed everything: after people were allowed to lapse into R.E.M. sleep, nearly sixty per cent of them discovered the secret pattern. Kierkegaard was right: sleeping is the height of genius.
If this all sounds like scientific justification for afternoon naps, long showers, and Russian literature, you’re right. “We always assume that you get more done when you’re consciously paying attention to a problem,” Schooler told me. “That’s what it means, after all, to be ‘working on something.’ But this is often a mistake. If you’re trying to solve a complex problem, then you need to give yourself a real break, to let the mind incubate the problem all by itself. We shouldn’t be so afraid to actually take some time off.”
Schooler has tried to apply this hypothesis to his own life. Although he used to take piles of work with him on vacation—he’d read papers and grant proposals on the beach—he now finds that he has better ideas when he lets himself really get away. “The good news is that there’s no reason to feel guilty when taking a break or not checking your e-mail,” he says. “Because it turns out that even when you’re on vacation, the unconscious is probably still working on the problem.”
A daydream, in this sense, is just a means of eavesdropping on those novel thoughts generated by the unconscious. We think we’re wasting time, but, actually, an intellectual fountain really is spurting.
“If you’re supremely confident of your skills, and if you’re certain that what you’re doing is for the good of your patients,” says Dr. Robert A. Burton, “it can be very difficult to know on your own when you’re veering into dangerous territory.”
The author of “On Being Certain” and the coming “A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind,” Dr. Burton is a contributor to a scholarly yet surprisingly sprightly volume called “Pathological Altruism,” to be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
As the new book makes clear, pathological altruism is not limited to showcase acts of self-sacrifice, like donating a kidney or a part of one’s liver to a total stranger. The book is the first comprehensive treatment of the idea that when ostensibly generous “how can I help you?” behaviour is taken to extremes, misapplied or stridently rhapsodised, it can become unhelpful, unproductive and even destructive.
Selflessness gone awry may play a role in a broad variety of disorders, including anorexia and animal hoarding, women who put up with abusive partners and men who abide alcoholic ones.
Because a certain degree of selfless behaviour is essential to the smooth performance of any human group, selflessness run amok can crop up in political contexts. It fosters the exhilarating sensation of righteous indignation, the belief in the purity of your team and your cause and the perfidiousness of all competing teams and causes.
David Brin, a physicist and science fiction writer, argues in one chapter that sanctimony can be as physically addictive as any recreational drug, and as destabilising. “A relentless addiction to indignation may be one of the chief drivers of obstinate dogmatism,” he writes. “It may be the ultimate propellant behind the current ‘culture war.’ ” Not to mention an epidemic of blogorrhea, newspaper-induced hypertension and the use of a hot, steeped beverage as one’s political mascot.
Barbara Oakley, an associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan and an editor of the new volume, said in an interview that when she first began talking about its theme at medical or social science conferences, “people looked at me as though I’d just grown goat horns. They said, ‘But altruism by definition can never be pathological.’ ”
To Dr. Oakley, the resistance was telling. “It epitomised the idea ‘I know how to do the right thing, and when I decide to do the right thing it can never be called pathological,’ ” she said.
Indeed, the study of altruism, generosity and other affiliative behaviours has lately been quite fashionable in academia, partly as a counterweight to the harsher, selfish-gene renderings of Darwinism, and partly on the financing bounty of organisations like the John Templeton Foundation. Many researchers point out that human beings are a spectacularly cooperative species, far surpassing other animals in the willingness to work closely and amicably with non-kin. Our altruistic impulse, they say, is no mere crown jewel of humanity; it is the bedrock on which we stand.
Yet given her professional background, Dr. Oakley couldn’t help doubting altruism’s exalted reputation. “I’m not looking at altruism as a sacred thing from on high,” she said. “I’m looking at it as an engineer.”
And by the first rule of engineering, she said, “there is no such thing as a free lunch; there are always trade-offs.” If you increase order in one place, you must decrease it somewhere else.
Moreover, the laws of thermodynamics dictate that the transfer of energy will itself exact a tax, which means that the overall disorder churned up by the transaction will be slightly greater than the new orderliness created. None of which is to argue against good deeds, Dr. Oakley said, but rather to adopt a bit of an engineer’s mind-set, and be prepared for energy losses and your own limitations.
Train nurses to be highly empathetic and, yes, their patients will love them. But studies show that empathetic nurses burn out and leave the profession more quickly than do their peers who remain aloof. Give generously to Child A, and Child B will immediately howl foul, while quiet Child C will grow up and write nasty novels about you. “Pathologies of altruism,” as Dr. Oakley put it, “are bound to arise.”
Rachel Bachner-Melman, a clinical psychologist at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem who specialises in eating disorders, has seen the impact of extreme selflessness on the anorexic young women who populate her ward.
“They are terribly sensitive to the needs of those around them,” she said in an interview. “They know who needs to be pushed in a wheelchair, who needs a word of encouragement, who needs to be fed.”
Yet the spectral empaths will express no desires of their own. “They try to hide their needs or deny their needs or pretend their needs don’t exist,” Dr. Bachner-Melman went on. “They barely feel they have the right to exist themselves.” They apologize for themselves, for the hated, hollow self, by giving, ceaselessly giving.
In therapy they are reminded that to give requires that first one must have. “It’s like in an airplane,” Dr. Bachner-Melman said. “The parents must put on the oxygen mask first, not because they’re more important, but if the parents can’t breathe, they can’t help the child.”
Denial and mental compartmentalisation also characterise people who stay in abusive relationships, who persuade themselves that with enough self-sacrifice and fluttering indulgence their beloved batterer or drunken spouse will reform. Extreme sensory denial defines the practice of animal hoarding, in which people keep far more pets than they can care for — dozens, scores, hundreds of cats, rodents, ferrets, turtles.
The hoarders may otherwise be high-functioning individuals, says Dr. Gary J. Patronek, a clinical assistant professor at the veterinary school of Tufts University and founder of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium. “We’ve seen teachers, nurses, public officials, even veterinarians,” he said in an interview. “They live a double life.”
At work, they behave responsibly and know the importance of good hygiene. They go home and enter another world, one of squalor and chaos, of overwhelming stench and undernourished animals, of pets that have died for lack of care.
Yet the hoarders notice none of this. “You walk in, you can’t breathe, there are dead and dying animals present, but the person is unable to see it,” Dr. Patronek said. Cat carcasses may alternate with food in the refrigerator, “but in the person’s mind it’s happy and wonderful, it’s a peaceable kingdom.”
Hoarders may think of themselves as animal saviours, rescuing pets from the jaws of the pound; yet they are not remotely capable of caring for the animal throngs, and they soon give up trying. “It’s a very focal, delusional behaviour,” Dr. Patronek said. And it can be all the more difficult to treat for wearing the trappings of selflessness and love.
(the comments are all here)
“The world becomes more beautiful as you explore it” – Richard Feynman on the pleasure of finding things out…
Do drugs stop working if you know they are little better than a sugar pill? And do cultural factors, like our collective faith in a treatment, have a measurable effect on the benefits?
The response to placebo has increased significantly in recent years (as has the response to medication): perhaps our expectations of those drugs have increased.
The Wikipedia page on Placebos is pretty excellent too.
“Our minds create the medicine, and that is pretty freakin’ weird.”
Escher was a Dutch graphic artist known for mathematically-inspired woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints. These were often impossible constructions, explorations of infinity, architecture, and tessellations.
The great thing about them is that they’re impossible constructions. Or at least, they were until Andrew Lipson and Daniel Shiu built them out of Lego. I like that in the top one, the lamp is resting on a Linux book. Rather heartening.
About halfway through watching this, I began to find it a little disturbing. Still, chain mail fetish shoes aside, it’s pretty cool…
(I definitely do find the gimp in the background upsetting though)