Thursday, December 29, 2016

Whatever You Think, You Don’t Necessarily Know Your Own Mind

David Blackwell/Flickr
David Blackwell/Flickr
by Keith Frankish, Aeon:
Keith is an English philosopher and writer. He is a visiting research fellow with the Open University in the UK and an adjunct professor with the Brain and Mind Programme at the University of Crete. He lives in Greece.

Brought to you by, an Aeon partner.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Neuro-Linguistic Programming: The 1970s Neurobollocks that Just Refuses to Die
on Neurobollocks:

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) was invented in the mid-70s by Richard Bandler (a psychology and philosophy graduate) and John Grinder (a linguist). It originally grew out of observations made in therapy, and a metaphorical extension of some of the concepts of Chomsky’s transformational grammar.

In the fertile grounds of the 70s Californian therapy and self-help movement, it soon blossomed into a multi-faceted set of techniques and philosophies. By the 80s it was being widely touted as a novel therapy technique and attracted some serious attention from researchers. However it was relatively quickly understood that there was no empirical basis for its key claims, and as its practitioners began to make ever more outlandish claims, serious interest from professionals waned.

This didn’t stop the NLP-faithful though. People like Tony Robbins (who studied with Bandler) made incredibly successful careers out of the motivational speaking/books circuit.  Despite this undeniable popular appeal, NLP is nowadays widely-regarded as pseudo-scientific bollocks of a particularly refined and rarefied strain.

It’s actually quite hard to pin down exactly what the key principles of NLP are. This is partly because its founders and practitioners use such vague and amorphous language, full of metaphors and pointless jargon, but also because of the diversity of its supposed applications; from ‘traditional’ therapeutic settings, to sports coaching, to corporate training seminars, to (creepily) seduction. It aspires to include something for everyone; the best way to maximise the market and therefore the potential profit.

One relatively common theme is focused on teaching communication skills in order to facilitate the learner’s personal and professional relationships. On the surface this sounds reasonable, but the communication theory that its based on has absolutely zero empirical support. The wackier variants incorporate all kinds of other bollocks like hypnosis, and many NLP-whackos talk about being able to ‘reprogram’ their own (and other’s) brain, often by claiming to influence the subconscious mind in some way.

Despite being nearly 40 years old, and a ridiculous, facile hodge-podge of concepts from psychology, philosophy, linguistics and new-age twaddle with absolutely no support from any reputable sources, amazingly, NLP is still very much alive and kicking. Bandler has kept on developing (and ruthlessly trademarking) a load of new techniques including ‘Design Human Engineering™’, or ‘Charisma Enhancement™’.

A lot of his recent work also appears to include hypnosis. His website is essentially one big advertisement for his books, CDs and speaking gigs; and there are literally thousands of individuals, businesses, and ‘institutes’ offering NLP training for a bewildering variety of purposes and people. Bandler has even latterly jumped on the ‘Brain training’ trend with a new company called ‘QDreams‘ (‘Quantum brain training!’; ‘Success at the speed of thought!’ FFS…).

Searching on Twitter turns up many, many people earnestly tweeting away about the benefits of NLP. Why is it so persistent? Partly this is because of Bandler’s clear talent for slick marketing, re-invention and dedication to innovative bull-shittery, and partly because NLP was never really clearly defined in the first place, which makes it highly malleable and adaptable to any pseudo-scientific new-age trends that come along. Despite a hiccup in the mid-90s (when Bandler tried to sue Grinder for ninety million dollars) it seems to be as popular as ever, and to be attracting new adherents all the time.

In my opinion the real stroke of genius in NLP, and perhaps the reason why it’s been so successful, is simply the name. These days we’re used to putting the ‘neuro-‘ prefix in front of everything, but back in the ’70s, this was way ahead of its time. Obviously there’s nothing remotely ‘neuro’ about it, though. Plus the ‘programming’ bit has a deliciously Orwellian appeal; promising the potential to effect change in oneself or others, if you just know the right techniques.

But effecting genuinely meaningful behavioural change in yourself is hard work. NLP derives from the quick-fix mentality of the self-help movement and is doomed to failure because of it. Does it actually help people? Perhaps, on some level, but any anecdotal results are almost certainly derived from a version of the placebo effect. Because of its vague nature, it’s not even really clear how its effectiveness would be meaningfully assessed anyway. Until we discover the genuine low-level programming language of the human brain we’ll probably always have to put up with this kind of bollocks being peddled.

There’s another really good article on NLP at the Skeptics Dictionary.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Here’s to the Lost Art of Lying Down

<em>The Sleeping Gypsy</em> 1897, by Henri Rousseau. <em>Courtesy Wikimedia</em>
The Sleeping Gypsy 1897 by Henri Rousseau (Wikimedia)
by Bernd Brunner, Aeon:

Bernd is a travel and history writer whose work has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Wall Street Journal and Die Zeit. He has written books on a variety of subjects, such as The Art of Lying Down - A Guide to Horizontal Living (2013) and Birdmania: Remarkable Lives With Birds (publishing in 2017), among others. He lives in Istanbul and Berlin.

The legendary Roman dining couch, known as the klinai, was made from wood or stone, covered with cloth, and designed for lying down. I sometimes wonder how comfortable it really was. Then again, since people 2,000 years ago weren’t acquainted with comfort in the modern, well-cushioned sense, they probably enjoyed it much more than we would today. The klinai was perfectly adequate for the purpose of munching grapes, drinking wine, exchanging philosophical opinions, and meeting potential lovers.

As a sophisticated art form, however, lying down was perfected much later. Take the divan. The word means different things under different circumstances: a Turkish divan consists of a mat on the floor or a flat ledge that can run along an entire wall. In a French boudoir, a divan means an upholstered bench, often decorated with tassels and fringe, in the middle of the room. The term can even be used for a row of chairs clustered around a raised platform.

Ultimately, divans and couches came to be associated with ‘oriental’ behaviour and a kind of literary dilettantism - thanks to the likes of Thomas De Quincey, the 19th-century English essayist and wastrel, who succumbed to opium while reclining on a chaise. Later, writers ranging from Truman Capote to the former US poet laureate Charles Simic would confess to producing their best work while horizontal.

Until recently, lying down was seen as the horizontal counterpart to the dreamy rambling of the melancholy flâneur, walking about without pursuing any goal in particular. When we lie on our backs and direct our gaze up toward the ceiling or sky, we lose our physical grasp of things. We relax our state of hyper-vigilance, and our thoughts soar.

The Chinese author Lin Yutang wrote in 1937 that ‘our senses are the keenest in that moment’ when we are lying down, and added that ‘all good music should be listened to in the lying condition’. Our mental makeup and even the structure of our perception can change with a shift of posture. Responses that seemed perfectly natural a few minutes earlier, when we were standing upright or sitting, become inexplicable. Questions that were so important appear in a different light when we view them horizontally. Voices and even the ringing of a telephone might no longer reach us with the same urgency as when we were standing.

Yet, these days, the art of repose is under assault. With the advent of smartphones, hardly any vertical or horizontal position is safe from the disturbances of the outside world. We ruin our sleep by exposing our retinas to the bright blue light of our screens just before bed. We put our phones next to our pillows or on the bedside table, and our first action in the morning is to reach over to check the messages that have arrived overnight.

The concern about the scarcity of our attention is not without precedent - or at least it can be seen as the latest chapter in a long-running story. With the rise of the novel in the 18th century, long reading sessions became common practice among the educated classes. Paintings abound of women lolling on couches, sometimes in states of undress, as if absorption in a book would bring about the dissolution of the social body. A reclined pose was seen as both a marker of indulgent over-stimulation and proof of indolence in a fast-changing world.

Now that idleness is harder and harder to find, even sleeping might soon be regarded as a mere necessity, a way of simply making yourself ready to be productive the next day. With the rise of sleep-tracking apps - and technologies to radically reduce how much shut-eye we need - the instrumental and quantifying logic of the market has finally conquered one of the last domains that was reasonably free from economic concerns.

‘There will be sleeping enough in the grave,’ said Benjamin Franklin, the wakeful polymath and a founding father of the United States. If both dreaming and daydreaming are under attack, will lying around be reserved for late age and, perhaps, death?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Why ‘Green Cities’ Need to Become a Deeply Lived Experience

Urban greening (M Cornock/flickr, CC BY-NC)
by Benjamin Cooke, RMIT University and Brian Coffey, RMIT University, The Conversation: 

Australian cities are inherently diverse places, but that diversity can lead to conflict between different values about what cities should and can be. 

Our series, Conflict in the City, brings together urban researchers to examine some of these tensions and consider how cities are governed and for whom.

Enthusiasm for urban greening is at a high point, and rightly so.

Ecological studies highlight the contribution urban nature makes to the conservation of biodiversity. For example, research shows cities support a greater proportion of threatened species than non-urban areas. Green space is increasingly recognised as useful for moderating the heat island effect. Hence, this helps cities adapt to, and reduce the consequences of, climate change.

Reducing urban heat stress is the main objective behind the federal government’s plan to set tree canopy targets for Australian cities. Trees are cooler than concrete. Trees take the sting out of heatwaves and reduce heat-related deaths.

The “healthy parks healthy people” agenda emphasises the health benefits of trees, parks and gardens. Urban greenery provides a pleasant place for recreation. By enhancing liveability, green spaces make cities more desirable places to live and work. The increased interest in urban greening presents exciting opportunities for urban communities long starved of green space.

Unpacking the green city agenda

This enthusiasm for “green cities” stands in stark contrast to traditional views about nature as the antithesis of culture, and so having no place in the city. The traditional view was that the only ecosystems worthy of protection were to be found beyond the city, in national parks and wilderness areas.

We embrace the new agenda wholeheartedly, but also believe it’s important not to focus solely on instrumental measures like canopy cover targets to reduce heat stress. We should not forget about experiential encounters. The risk with instrumental (and arguably exclusionary) approaches is these fail to challenge the divide between people and nature. This limits people’s connection to the places in which they live and to broader ecological processes that are essential for life.

Instrumental targets in isolation also risk presenting urban greening as an “apolitical” endeavour. But we know this is not the case, as we see with the rise of green gentrification associated with iconic greening projects like New York’s High Line. Wealthy suburbs consistently have the most green space in cities. Bringing nature into the city is one thing. Bringing it into our culture and everyday lives is another.

Understanding ecology in a lived sense

Urban greening provides an opportunity to recast the relationship between people and environment - one of the critical challenges associated with the Anthropocene. To break down nature-culture divides in our cities, and in ourselves, we argue for the importance of embracing experiential engagements that develop a more deeply felt connection with the city places in which we live, work and play.

We are advocating a focus that does more than just encourage people to interact tangibly in and with urban nature, by drawing attention to the way humans and non-humans (including plants) are active co-habitants of cities. Such an approach works by recognising that human understanding of the environment is intricately wrapped up in our experiences of that environment.

Put simply, green cities can’t just be about area, tree cover and proximity (though they are important). We need to foster intimate, active and ongoing encounters that position people “in” ecologies. And we need to understand that those ecologies exist beyond the hard boundaries of urban green space.

Without fostering a more holistic relationship with non-humans in cities, we risk an urban greening agenda that misses the chance to unravel some of the nature-culture separation that contributes to our long-term sustainability challenges as a society. Active interactions with nature in the spaces of everyday life are vital for advancing a form of environmental stewardship that will persist beyond individual (and sometimes short-lived) policy settings.

Green city citizens need to see themselves as part of, not separate from, the ecologies that exist beyond the hard boundaries of urban green space. PINKE/flickr, CC BY-NC

No getting away from the politics

It is important to consider the policy and governance dimensions of urban greening. If the instrumental orientation prevails, our cities might be “more liveable” (at least for some, at particular locations and points in time), but our societies may not be more socially and environmentally just, or more sustainable.

We therefore emphasise the need to understand and critique the dimensions of the renewed interest in urban ecology. We have to consider whether this interest is associated with existing political economies, which embrace technocratic expertise to the exclusion of other voices, or whether urban greening can foster the emergence of a more transformative form of decision-making.

We also ask how we can enhance the prospects for more deliberative and place-based responses. An experiential turn for urban greening may be one way to make green space planning and practice more democratic. By questioning who we might be greening for and how, we can open the way for the much-needed acknowledgment of Indigenous histories and participation in the making of urban space.

Giving urban greening an experiential focus might also help open our eyes to the needs of the more-than-human. Rather than simply cultivating green spaces for a narrow set of anthropocentric benefits, we pose the question: who are the participants in urban greening? It’s a way of acknowledging that we inhabit cities with plants and other non-human lifeforms.

An interesting area of policy development that may be productive for urban greening is the idea of the playful commons. This is an example of a governance approach that is more open to affective and experiential interaction - the community participates in negotiating, licensing and designing the use of public space. Applying this approach to urban greening might encourage more deliberative forms of governance that can deliver more environmentally just and sustainable cities for the long term, for both humans and non-humans.

You can read other Conflict in the City articles here.

Benjamin Cooke, Lecturer, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University and Brian Coffey, Lecturer, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Memory Code: How Oral Cultures Memorise So Much Information

Australian Aboriginal rock painting of "T...
Australian Aboriginal rock painting (M O'Neil, Wikipedia)
by Duane W. Hamacher, Monash University, The Conversation:

Ancient Celtic bards were famous for the sheer quantity of information they could memorise. This included thousands of songs, stories, chants and poems that could take hours to recite in full.

Today we are pretty spoiled. Practically the whole of human knowledge is conveniently available at our fingertips. Why worry about memorising something when we can simply Google it? The answer seems pretty evident when we go into a panic after losing our smartphones!

Long before the ancient Celts, Aboriginal Australians were recording vast scores of knowledge to memory and passing it to successive generations. Aboriginal people demonstrate that their oral traditions are not only highly detailed and complex, but they can survive - accurately - for thousands, even tens of thousands, of years. Yet I struggle to remember what I did last Tuesday. So how did they do it?

Researcher Lynne Kelly was drawn to this question while investigating Aboriginal knowledge about animals for her PhD. It was evident to Kelly that Aboriginal people catalogued huge scores of information about animals - including species types, physical features, behaviour, links to food and plants - and wondered how they do it.

A memorable thing

Aboriginal elders explained to her how they encode knowledge in song, dance, story and place. This led to a theory that may revolutionise archaeology.

It has long been known that the human brain has evolved to associate memory with place, referred to as the method of loci. This means that we associate memory with a location. How often do memories come flooding back to us when we visit our childhood haunt? 

Loci (Latin for “place”), can refer to landscape features, ceremonial sites, abstract designs - anything with distinct features where information can be linked to memory.

Stonehenge evolved from a simpler structure to the complex megalith we see today over the course of thousands of years. Was it an evolving memory space? Duane Hamacher, Author provided

Kelly developed this into a framework that may explain the purpose of famous sites such as Stonehenge, the Nasca lines and the Moai of Easter Island. The meanings of these sites have been a topic of controversy for decades. What Kelly proposes in her new book The Memory Code is that sites such as Stonehenge and the Nasca lines are actually memory spaces.

Knowledge is power

In oral cultures, knowledge is power. It is imperative that the most important knowledge be maintained and preserved by a few select custodians who have proven their worth. In Indigenous cultures, elders who have passed the highest levels of initiation hold the deepest levels of knowledge. This is reflected in ceremonial sites where knowledge is passed down. Aboriginal initiation sites include a secret area where the most sacred knowledge is discussed.

We also see this at Stonehenge, where the perimeter of standing stones shields the centre of the ring, where the most important aspects knowledge are passed on through ceremony. These sites include features that are unique in shape and form. At Uluru, the Anangu elders associate every crevice, bump, and notch around the perimeter of the mountain with knowledge that is stored to memory.

Uluru close up reveals a very textured environment. Shutterstock/Peter Zurek

Star maps and memory

But loci is not only linked to places you can touch or visit. Indigenous people also use the stars as memory spaces. For example, groups of stars can represent features on the landscape. Aboriginal Law Man Ghillar Michael Anderson explains how the Euahlayi people were able to travel long distances for trade and ceremony.

The Euahlayi would memorise star maps at night and learn the songs that talk about their relationship to the land. Each star was associated with a landscape feature, such as a waterhole. Later in the year, they would sing the song as they travelled across country by day. These songline routes became the foundation of some of our highway networks that criss-cross the country. Rather than navigating by the stars, the stars themselves serve as a memory space.

Landscape features and songlines represented by stars in the Milky Way also correspond to modern highways. Robert Fuller and Google Maps, Author provided

In The Memory Code, Kelly provides new insights into how oral societies are able to store vast quantities of knowledge to memory without it degrading over time. It may explain how Aboriginal memories of land that existed before it was flooded by rising sea levels during the last Ice Age survived in oral tradition for more than 7,000 years.

To test it herself, Kelly used the technique to memorise all of the world’s countries in order of population by linking them with features around her neighbourhood, including buildings and gardens - making up her own stories for each one. And she can now recite them flawlessly. You might be surprised how easy it is to do yourself.

Duane W. Hamacher, Senior ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Why Danger is Exciting but Only to Some People

BASE jumping the Perrine Bridge, Idaho, USA
BASE jumping the Perrine Bridge, Idaho, USA (Wikipedia)
by Valerie Voon, University of Cambridge, The Conversation:

It has been the most deadly summer for wingsuit flying to date. But what makes some people want to base jump off a cliff, binge drink to oblivion or hitchhike with strangers while others don’t even enjoy a rollercoaster ride?

Is there such a thing as scaredy-cat gene or a daredevil brain structure? Or is our level of attraction to danger down to how protective our parents were?

Whether our weakness is extreme sports, speeding, drugs or other dangerous behaviours, it is typically a mix of risk and novelty that draw us in. What psychologists call “novelty seeking” is the preference for the unexpected or new. People with this trait are often impulsive and easily bored - but new experiences release a surge of pleasure chemicals in their brains. A rat or human with preferences for novelty will be more likely to do drugs and binge drink.

The concepts of risk and novelty are to some extent linked: a new stimulus is inherently more risky in that any associated consequence is unknown. However, we can dissociate these two in the laboratory.

It’s (always) about dopamine

Dopamine, used by neurons to transmit messages to other neurons, is often described as the brain’s “pleasure chemical”. Dopamine cells lie in the mid-brain, deep in the base of the brain, and send “projections” to brain regions where the dopamine molecule is released - such as those involved in the control of action, cognition and reward. Studies have shown that the dopamine system can be activated by rewarding experiences, such as eating, having sex or taking drugs.

In a study of patients with Parkinson’s disease, who were on drugs that stimulated dopamine receptors used to treat their movement symptoms, 17% developed highly unexpected behavioural addictions to gambling or compulsive sexual, shopping or eating behaviours. These patients also sought out risks more, and showed a preference for novelty on lab tests. So it seems that an active dopamine system can make us take more risks.

A study on anticipating risk showed that expecting a win is associated with an increase in brain activity in dopamine regions, whereas expecting a loss is associated with a decrease in such activity. Both drive us to take risk. Wingsuit flying or roller coaster riding are motivated by our expectation of reward - a thrill - but wingsuit flying may also driven by an urge to avoid loss (in this case death). The likelihood of a thrill from base jumping or a roller coaster is close to 100%. But while the likelihood of death from a rollercoaster ride is close to 0%, the chances of dying from basejumping are considerably higher. The closer to the extremes, 0% or 100%, the more certain, whereas the closer to 50%, the more uncertain.

Dopamine reward pathways in the human brain. Oscar Arias-Carrión1, Maria Stamelou, Eric Murillo-Rodríguez, Manuel Menéndez-González and Ernst Pöppel. - Oscar Arias-Carrión1, Maria Stamelou, Eric Murillo-Rodríguez, Manuel Menéndez-González and Ernst Pöppel., CC BY-SA

Many, but not all, studies have found that people with a certain dopamine receptor are more likely to be thrill seeking. This gene variant is also associated with greater responses to unexpected rewards in the brain, making the unexpected thrill more thrilling. Genetic hardwiring might therefore explain the tendency towards base jumping, linking the preference for novelty and also possibly for risk and reward. But how we are brought up also has an impact. And adolescents are known to be more risk taking, partly because their brains are still developing and they are more susceptible to peer pressure.

And, of course, there may be other reasons why we enjoy bungee jumping or binge drinking than an attraction to risk and novelty. For example, this can happen in social situations where there’s peer pressure for us to conform, or if we are feeling down or stressed.

Why are we inconsistent?

But if our genes can influence whether we’re brave or fearful, how come we are so inconsistent in our behaviour? For example, we may sky dive on holiday yet buy travel insurance.

Have we all got an inner piglet? wikimedia

We act differently based on whether the risk is perceived to gain reward or avoid loss - an effect known as framing. Most of us tend to avoid risky rewards - we’d rather not go sky diving - but in the case of an unlikely event with a high payout such as a lottery ticket, we’re happy to take a risk. We also normally seek risk in order to avoid huge losses. This is affected by how likely it is that the outcome might occur. In the case of an unlikely but possibly very bad outcome, such as the risk of incurring massive debt while hospitalised in a foreign country, we become risk averse and buy travel insurance.

People who enjoy danger or suffer from disorders of addiction have different risk tendencies. Pathological users of illegal drugs, alcohol or food all seek risk in the face of rewards - by going after the high. But those who use illegal drugs are driven by more risky high rewards whereas those that pathologically use alcohol or food are driven by less risky lower rewards.

How likely we are to take risks can also be manipulated. A study in rats showed that risk taking can be reduced by mimicking the dopamine signal providing information about the negative outcomes from previous risky choices - such as a shock to the foot or not receiving food. Risk taking in binge drinkers can also be reduced when they are explicitly exposed to a loss outcome - such as experiencing a loss of money rather than just expecting it. A night in an emergency room may therefore be enough to change their behaviour.

Also, a new and unexpected context can increase risk-taking behaviours, which could explain why we are more likely to take risks on holiday. In a recent study, my colleagues and I showed participants a series of faces - familiar or unknown ones - and asked them to choose between a risky gamble or a safe choice.

When shown a new face, subjects were more likely to take the risky gamble. The study showed that those with greater brain activity in the striatum, a region involved in dopamine release, to the new face made greater risky choices. These findings suggest that novelty increases dopamine release in this area of the brain, which then possibly enhances the expectation of reward.

But being drawn to danger isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our society needs both risk takers and risk avoiders to function. We need those that push boundaries - to set up camp on Mars or rescue people from fires - and we need those that write the rules and enforce regulations to keep society functioning.

Valerie Voon, Honorary Consultant Neuropsychiatrist and Senior Clinical Research Associate, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Stop Reading Business Books and Start Reading History: The Stories Behind Great Human Achievements are More Inspiring and More Useful Than the Management Fad du Jour

by Michael Troiano, venture storyteller, lyrical gangsta. Actifio CMO, thoughts are my own,, Be Yourself:

Just finished The Great Bridge, the story of the design and building of the Brooklyn Bridge, by the Equally Great David McCullough.

It’s a detailed and artfully told human story behind one of the great works of modern construction, built at a time of remarkable social and technological change.

McCullough’s The Wright Brothers is another recent favorite in the same vein, as were 1776, John Adams, Brave Companions, and all the rest. Other authors have produced wonderful books in recent years like Founding Brothers, about the often complex and surprising relationships among America’s “Founding Fathers;” In The Garden of Beasts, about the role of the American ambassador in Berlin during the lead-up to World War II; and Over The Edge of the World, detailing Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe.

It occurred to me listening to Hamilton with my kids in the car the other day that we’re in a kind of golden age of history right now, a time where deeply researched, sensitively informed, and beautifully crafted stories of human struggle and achievement are more numerous and readily available than ever before.

Reading a few pages of these books at night helps me pull out of the harness of my day. They provide some context for whatever I’m up against right now, and help me connect to people from not so long ago - in some cases truly great, in others just like you and me - who did amazing things in places not so far away.

There was a time when I read nothing but business books, as I know many of my fellow entrepreneurs prefer to do. Each had something to offer, to be sure, though usually not much more than a single new idea or two, and often surrounded by an under-satisfying mix of data, analysis, anecdote, and fluff.

But why do that? Don’t you spend enough time in that world during the day? Might it not be better to connect to something a little bigger, a little more significant, in the narrow window of time you have to yourself?

Give it a shot. Here’s a list of my favorites … scan for one that looks interesting to you, and check it out.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Reclaiming Friendship: A Visual Taxonomy of Platonic Relationships to Counter the Commodification of the Word 'Friend'

by M Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by J M Udry
by Maria Popova, syndicated from, Daily Good:

What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies - Aristotle

Friendship, C.S. Lewis believed, “like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

But the poetic beauty of this sentiment crumbles into untruth for anyone who has ever been buoyed from the pit of despair by the unrelenting kindness of a friend, or whose joys have been amplified by a friend’s warm willingness to bear witness.

I often puzzle over the nature, structure, and function of friendship in human life - a function I have found to be indispensable to my own spiritual survival and, I suspect, to that of most human beings. But during a recent interview on Think Again, I found myself concerned with the commodification of the word “friend” in our culture.

We call “friends” peers we barely know beyond the shallow roots of the professional connection, we mistake mere mutual admiration for friendship, we name-drop as “friends” acquaintances associating with whom we feel reflects favorably on us in the eyes of others, thus rendering true friendship vacant of Emerson’s exacting definition. We have perpetrated a corrosion of meaning by overusing the word and overextending its connotation, compressing into an imperceptible difference the vast existential expanse between mere acquaintanceship and friendship in the proper Aristotelian sense.

In countering this conflation, I was reminded of philosopher Amelie Rorty’s fantastic 1976 taxonomy of the levels of personhood and wondered what a similar taxonomy of interpersonhood might look like. I envisioned a conception of friendship as concentric circles of human connection, intimacy, and emotional truthfulness, each larger circle a necessary but insufficient condition for the smaller circle it embraces.“I live my life in widening circles,” Rilke wrote.

Friendship_BrainPickingsWithin the ether of strangers - all the humans who inhabit the world at the same time as we do, but whom we have not yet met - there exists a large outermost circle of acquaintances.

Inside it resides the class of people most frequently conflated with “friend” in our culture, to whom I’ve been referring by the rather inelegant but necessarily descriptive term person I know and like.

These are people of whom we have limited impressions, based on shared interests, experiences, or circumstances, on the basis of which we have inferred the rough outlines of a personhood we regard positively.

Even closer to the core is the kindred spirit - a person whose values are closely akin to our own, one who is animated by similar core principles and stands for a sufficient number of the same things we ourselves stand for in the world. These are the magnifiers of spirit to whom we are bound by mutual goodwill, sympathy, and respect, but we infer this resonance from one another’s polished public selves - our ideal selves - rather than from intimate knowledge of one another’s interior lives, personal struggles, inner contradictions, and most vulnerable crevices of character.

Some kindred spirits become friends in the fullest sense - people with whom we are willing to share, not without embarrassment but without fear of judgment, our gravest imperfections and the most anguishing instances of falling short of our own ideals and values. The concentrating and consecrating force that transmutes a kinship of spirit into a friendship is emotional and psychological intimacy.

A friend is a person before whom we can strip our ideal self in order to reveal the real self, vulnerable and imperfect, and yet trust that it wouldn’t diminish the friend’s admiration and sincere affection for the whole self, comprising both the ideal and the real.

It is important to clarify here that the ideal self is not a counterpoint to the real self in the sense of being inauthentic. Unlike the seeming self, which springs from our impulse for self-display and which serves as a kind of deliberate mask, the ideal self arises from our authentic values and ideals.

Although it represents an aspirational personhood, who we wish to be is invariably part of who we are - even if we aren’t always able to enact those ideals. In this sense, the gap between the ideal self and the real self is not one of insincerity but of human fallibility. The friend is one who embraces both and has generous patience for the rift between the two.

A true friend holds us lovingly accountable to our own ideals, but is also able to forgive, over and over, the ways in which we fall short of them and can assure us that we are more than our stumbles, that we are shaped by them but not defined by them, that we will survive them with our personhood and the friendship intact.

For a complementary perspective, see poet and philosopher David Whyte on the true meaning of friendship and John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic notion of “soul-friend.”

Maria Popova is a cultural curator and curious mind at large, who also writes for Wired UK, The Atlantic and Design Observer, andis the founder and editor in chief of Brain Pickings (which offers a free weekly newsletter).

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Is the Economists' View of People as Rational Still Credible?

Tenterhooks Gustav Deghilage, CC BY-SA
by Nicholas Hanley, University of St Andrews, The Conversation:

For years, economists and psychologists have argued about whether the standard model that economists use to explain how people make decisions is correct.

It says that people make rational choices: they weigh all the options against a well-defined set of preferences to choose the one which makes them happiest, or is the most valuable to them.

These preferences - and what a person can afford - define what they are willing to pay for goods and services. Businesses and governments around the world use this view of human behaviour as the basis for weighing the benefits and costs of decisions affecting trillions of pounds every year.

Psychologists are also interested in people’s choices, particularly the effect of emotions. Much of this complements economists' standard view of us. Take emotions related to the object of choice, for instance. If I choose to watch my local football team, part of the attraction might be knowing I will be nervous but excited. I’m making a rational choice to experience the emotion as part of the “pay-off”.

You can say the same about emotions that occur at the moment of decision and are directly related - we call these integral emotions. Suppose you sign up to retrain as a driving instructor. Because of the risk in changing careers, the act of signing up can evoke feelings of fear and even pleasure that help explain the choice.

Where the previous example was about choosing in anticipation of excitement to come, here you experience it immediately. Again, however, it is a rational choice to experience the feeling as part of the decision.

But there’s a third category of emotions that should play no part in a rational choice - incidental emotions. For instance, I am very happy because my football team has won the cup and now I am choosing what to have for dinner. An economist who believes purely in rational actors would say this happiness should not affect what I eat.

Yet behavioural scientists have produced plenty of evidence to the contrary in recent years. They have shown that incidental emotions affect our judgement, decision making and reasoning. They have also shown that changes in people’s happiness can affect the stock market.

This has not been the only challenge to economists' standard model. Behavioural scientists and psychologists have also demonstrated that context can affect decisions - for instance, that people can view choices differently over time - and that we perceive gains and losses differently. Yet these insights are not inconsistent with rational choices. Economists have used them to refine their theories and data analysis.

Incidental emotions are more of a problem. If our choices can be governed by unrelated emotions, we are not always rational after all and economists' tools based on rational choice are undermined. Perhaps for this reason, economists have never to my knowledge taken these findings any further.

Not so rational now … JMaks

Choice and the environment

While the lifeblood of micro economics is consumer behaviour, rational choice has also been used to explain other kinds of human choices and values. For example economists have been using it since the 1970s in relation to how we value environmental “goods” such as cutting air pollution or protecting wilderness.

One method is to ask people to state a maximum they would be willing to pay for a certain product if it were the only way of securing a particular environmental goal. Policy developers and environmental managers have adopted this to provide evidence about the economic benefits of such goals. For example the UK Environment Agency values improvements to river quality in this way.

But is it right to assume people will choose rationally here? Since incidental emotions appear capable of interfering with our purchasing choices, won’t they affect our environmental “choices”, too? My new co-authored paper sought to find out.

We used a laboratory setting at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, where I was a visiting professor. Our 284 student participants first viewed one of three film clips, since films are a good way of inducing particular emotional states. One group watched a happy clip from Love Actually; another group watched a sad clip from Born on the Fourth of July; while a third group watched a neutral clip of stock market reports and golf instructions.

All students then took part in a choice experiment about New Zealand beaches. They had to choose between different packages of environmental attributes related to water quality, sediment levels and fish populations. Some packages were environmentally better overall, while some were a mixed bag. They might choose a package with rising fish populations, high sediment and medium water quality or one with decreasing fish, low sediment and high quality - and so on.

The “price” for each package was to live a certain distance from the beach. Securing better environmental attributes meant choosing to live further away, and hence accepting higher travel costs. The question for each student was how much they were willing to pay and whether they prioritised some benefits over others.

Deal or no deal? Duncan Andison

To our surprise, the participants' emotional state had no significant effect on their choice. Having ruled out the possibility that the films had not worked, our results appear to go against psychologists' findings about incidental emotions and instead endorse rational choice. Why?

It might be because people were being asked to make choices over a public good where many people would benefit. Emotions may have a different effect on our choices over public goods than private goods. Or it could be because our participants were making choices about intentions. There’s a well-developed body of theory that questions the link between what we intend and what we do.

In short, more work is required to understand how our findings fit into the developing picture about people’s choices. The difference between public and private goods looks a particularly worthwhile avenue. If economists' view of behaviour is to remain credible, it is time they examined this area.

In the meantime, we are looking into another area where insights from behavioural science and psychology are ripe for consideration by economists: how choices are affected by your personality type.

Nicholas Hanley, Professor of Environmental Economics, University of St Andrews

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

How to be Loving in a Cynical World

by umair haque, coach, lover, vampire: 

Rebel Against the Three Kinds of Cynicism

How much of your day is spent at the behest of cynics? Or, worse, being one? I’m betting: probably the majority.

It’s what we do now, right? Vent our bitter frustration to perfect strangers about the leaders and institutions who’ve left us twisting in the bitter wind. Bitch, whine, moan, a third of your life a day at the screen. A third of your life. Hey, I’m as guilty as you. But it doesn’t help.

Help us be more loving. Which is, we learn too late, all that really matters, the moment the doctor regretfully says: “Sorry. Your time’s up”. The true enemy of love isn’t suffering. It’s cynicism. Cynicism is the assassin of love. It poisons its possibility, steals its gifts, attacks its innocence.

It’s understandable. Cynicism’s got a razors’ edge. We’re looking for one, to cut ourselves with, to relieve the pain a little. Yet I’m not suggesting you go collect the assorted works of Barry Manilow, retreat to the yurt, and live a saccharine existence of doe-eyed dopey hopeless idealism.

This is an age in desperate search of rebellion. But cynicism is a cheap rebellion. True rebellion has always been the fierce strength of love. Not giving up on all that’s great, worthy, improbable, whole in you. But standing up for it.

There are three kinds of cynics: 1) people who want to make money without giving anything to the world; 2) people who want power over people, not possibility for them; and 3) people who believe they can lift themselves up by pulling everyone else down. Each is just the same idea in disguise: giving up on human possibility. 

Erase the three kinds of cynicism from your life. Starting with you. Then move on to the people around you. If you can’t cut them out of your life, then at least ignore them when they tell you how, what, why to live. And you’ll be a little, my guess is a lot, more loving now. Love is sharper than cynicism. Really want to be cut open, so your beating heart is naked in the light? 

Be the other person. Reverse the three kinds of cynicism. Do it because it matters, not just for the approval, mentions, fans, money. Do things that give people possibility, not take away their power. And most importantly, lift everyone - yes, everyone, no matter how much they’re trying to pull you down - up. Not for a sense of smug moral superiority. But because … 

Embrace the Struggle To

Why do we want to be loving, anyways? The reason is simple. There is no reason. Love is the end of reasons. Not just in a trivial “hey man, love is craaazy” sense. Love is the end, not the means. The end of what? Of us.

We love what we do, who we are, where we go, in order to be more creative, true, happy, fulfilled, productive, efficient. That’s the conventional wisdom. It’s right, in the sense that “that happens”. But it’s not really true.

We don’t love “in order to be” anything. We struggle so that love can be. Love is the single great reason each and every one of us works, suffers, toils, fights. We don’t love to struggle, we struggle to love. Love is the struggle. And we find purpose, meaning, destiny, not just temporary relief from the constant soul-crushing pain of a pointless life, only when we really see why.

Sure, maybe I’m the last of the romantics. But that’s not why it’s true. Don’t believe me? OK, imagine I gave you everything you ever wanted. Or even better, ever could want. All the cars, houses, objects, trophies, boobs, pecs, fans, designer gold plated VIP room “experiences”. But there was a price. You’d never really love any of them. And so they’d never love you. Would you take my deal?

Any human not desperately running away from the midnight of their demons shouldn’t. There is everything to be lost, and nothing worthy to be gained. We don’t love so that things can happen. We exist so that love can happen. Can what? Unfurl, create, imagine, defy, build, give, endow, connect, breathe, move, happen. When we experience those moments, which are better called movements, because they happen without words, between people, that’s when we really feel deeply alive, abidingly present, bursting with joy. 

Embrace the right struggle. Not in a childish way. Not the struggle for having, owning, wining, dominating, and so on. Just the struggle to let love be the end, not the means, of whatever is happening in you, through you, with you, by you. Embrace it in every moment and not an instant of this precious and beautiful life will be wasted. 

Get Over Yourself

And yet. When “we do” things that are really worthy, loving, great into our memories, it’s not really the “self” in us acting, is it? If it was the self, we’d never do them at all, because there’s no self serving reason. They are self destructive. They blow apart who we think we are. So who is the actor? 

Get over yourself. I mean this in a zen way. Like a koan. So literally that if you really think about it, it should implode your mind. Good. Let’s take each word in my little koan one by one. Get. Obtain, move, flow, release, surrender. Over. Upwards, ascend, beyond. Yourself. The little idea of “I” being the only self there is. Get over it. Ascend beyond it. Climb through it. Let go of the rope.

Who is acting when we do anything really worthy in this life? Not the self. Something beyond self. If you really want to be a little more loving, step back. Just be still. Sit in silence. And see that the actor whenever there has been real beauty, truth, connection, grace, fulfillment, nobility, rebellion in your life was never you at all. It was the self beyond selves. I say that not in a poetic way, but again, in a zen way. Hyperliterally, so clear it should break your mind wide open.

The you in you and the me in me is not the actor of anything worthy. So who is it? The me in you, and the you in me.

Let us go one tiny step further. I know your brain hurts. If there is a me in you, and a you in me, what is that self ? It is the pure self in all of us, which is common to us. It is unchanging, inalienable, ever present, not “me and you”, but “me in you”. Loving is the action, and the pure self is the actor. Making contact with that true and pure self, not ego, and letting it act, without effort, hesitation, with ease, grace, is all being loving is.

This is what true non-judgement really is. Making contact with the me in you, and the you in me. Really experiencing it. Anything less, and you’re still a judgmental dick. Wait, did I just contradict myself? Yup, to make a point. That was the I in me, not the you in me, the pure self, speaking.

All this, letting go until we can get to the pure self, where no judgment and compassion reside. That is perfect movement in an imperfect world. It is discovering the strength in your fragility and the heartstopping beauty in your brokenness.

Now you are understanding what being loving in a cynical world really is. Rebelling for struggling to get over yourself. It’s the simplest thing in the world. And that is why it’s so beautifully hard.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Resources on Developing Resilience, Grit, and Growth Mindset


Photo of adult and child sitting side by side Nurturing Resilience

The ability to bounce back from adversity is associated with a variety of skills. Learn more about the resilience research and supports and strategies to develop resilience in young people. (10+ Resources)

Photo of school children leaving building Fostering Grit

Explore an array of resources about understanding and building student perseverance, and consider questions raised by the research on grit. (15+ Resources)

Photo of adult talking with child Teaching Growth Mindset

Find information about growth mindset, discover how learning mindsets can affect student performance, and explore strategies that support student confidence. (20+ Resources)

Photo of a student with a hand under his chin Learning From Failure

Prevent fear of failure from holding students back by targeting strategies that normalize struggle and help children view mistakes as opportunities. (10+ Resources)

Photo of a girl holding a folder Managing Stress

Learn about types of stress, discover how stress can affect the learning brain, and find ways to help young people understand and better manage stress and its effects. (10+ Resources)

Photo of an eye Responding to Trauma and Tragedy

Review approaches to support students who have experienced trauma, learn how to help grieving students, and find guidance on coping with violence and disaster. (15+ Resources)

Sunday, August 28, 2016

How Does LSD Induce Short-Term Psychosis But Long-Term Optimism?

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Alexander Mueller/Flickr
by Rachel Jonas, Aeon:

Rachel Jonas is a PhD candidate in neuroscience at UCLA, where she studies brain-behaviour relationships in individuals with an ultra-high genetic risk for developing psychiatric disorders. 

When most people think of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­the image that comes to mind is hallucinating hippies at Woodstock, but the drug’s original use was psychotherapeutic.

As early as the 1960s, researchers showed that LSD reduces depression, anxiety and pain in patients with advanced cancer, and recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the drug’s beneficial effects. In 2014, Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser published the results of a study showing that LSD could alleviate the symptoms of severe anxiety disorder. And a 2016 study from Imperial College London showed that LSD could increase levels of optimism and openness for extended periods of time.

The LSD story goes back to Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist who first synthesised the compound in 1938. Hofmann accidentally discovered its hallucinogenic effects after ingesting 250 μg (a very large dose!) before his evening commute home. Being the good scientist that he was, he recorded a detailed account of his experience in his notebook. His initial, paranoia-filled reaction was followed the next day by a blissful experience, in which ‘everything glistened, and sparkled in a fresh light’.

It was this final, uplifting insight that the researchers at Imperial set out to re-explore in rigorous fashion, starting with 20 participants recruited by word-of-mouth. These subjects were all over the age of 21, had no history of psychiatric illness, and reported at least one previous experience with a hallucinogen like magic mushrooms or LSD - the last requirement implemented to minimise adverse responses to the drug. Each subject visited the testing centre twice: once to receive LSD (75 μg lower than the dose taken by recreational users) and once to receive a placebo, though the order in which these individuals received the LSD was random.

Much like Hofmann himself, test subjects reported feeling the effect of the LSD as quickly as ten minutes after the infusion, with the experience lasting for nearly eight hours in all. Several hours into the dosing, they were asked to answer a series of questions regarding their psychological well-being. Participants remained in the research centre for the remainder of the day with a psychiatrist present until they were functioning normally. In order to determine longer-term effects, they filled out the same questionnaires two weeks later.

Shortly after taking the drug, participants who received LSD reported an increase in psychosis-like symptoms, including visual hallucinations, spiritual experiences and paranoia. It was an outcome the researchers had expected. But interestingly, those given LSD were more likely to feel positive, and even ‘blissful’ emotions, as opposed to the negative and ‘anxious’ feelings sometimes associated with psychedelic drugs. What was even more striking was that two weeks after taking LSD, these individuals reported increased optimism and openness, making them more creative and curious, as compared with those who received the placebo.

How can a drug that creates a temporary psychosis lead to such pronounced long-term optimism?

This is a mostly unanswered question, but researchers think it has something to do with the serotonin 2A receptor (5-HT2AR). This receptor is expressed all over the brain, particularly in regions associated with cognitive functions and social interactions. Stimulation of this receptor has been directly linked to cognitive flexibility, enhanced imagination and creative thinking.

Disorders associated with variants of the 5-HT2AR include schizophrenia, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - in other words, a panoply of psychiatric illness. It turns out that LSD functions by binding to and stimulating 5-HT2AR in the cerebral cortex, which is thought to regulate an enzyme called phospholipase C, and eventually leads to psychoactive effects. In fact, blockage of this receptor has been linked to a remediation of the hallucinatory effects of LSD in rats.

The precise biology behind LSD’s transformational potential remains a mystery. But researchers at Imperial suggest that once LSD binds to the receptor, it’s possible that the initial ‘blast’ of stimulation results in more intense, acute psychotic-like symptoms, whereas the longer-term effects produce a ‘loosening’ of network dynamics, and a general increase in optimism and well-being.

No-one is suggesting that you illegally consume LSD to increase long-term optimism, but the study raises important questions. Could LSD one day be used to treat maladies such as major depressive disorder? Would the short-term psychological discomfort of giving an individual therapeutic LSD be worth the potential long-term benefits? Would the positive effects of LSD persist longer than two weeks? What is the physiological cascade that begins with LSD binding to 5-HT2AR activation and ends with psychological effects such as increased optimism? Is there a way to synthesise a compound that would take advantage of the beneficial aspects of LSD, while minimising the negative effects? There’s only one way to find out - more scientific experiments!