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Wed, 29 Jan 2020
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


How much does our language determine behavior?

© Fabio Santaniello Bruun/Unsplash
In the early twentieth century, anthropologists and linguists including Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf (his student) developed a provocative hypothesis: that the language we speak impacts the way we see the world, and our behavior in it. Since then, scholars have been debating the validity of what became known (some say inaccurately) as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and researching the boundaries of language's influence on our cognition. In the following excerpt of the recently published Don't Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language, Guardian writer and editor David Shariatmadari explores the latest research in the debate — and the questions it continues to raise about the links between language and behavior.

— Elizabeth Weingarten, Managing Editor
It's easier to prove or disprove a hypothesis in a well-defined area of experience that can be readily compared across languages. That's why a lot of scholars interested in Benjamin Lee Whorf's ideas focused their research on color. Because color is a physical property, determined by the wavelengths of light that are reflected or absorbed by an object, you might assume that all languages have just as many words for colors as there are colors in the world. But the human eye can distinguish around 1,000,000 different shades, and I'd be surprised if you could quickly name more than ten. Choices are evidently made about how we divide up the spectrum of visible light — and languages make those choices differently.

The exact manner in which languages slice up the spectrum — the way they happen to label colors — can have a measurable effect on our perception. Not exactly shocking. But there are more mind-boggling examples of Whorfian effects out there. Could the language you speak, for example, make you more likely to injure yourself, or even die?

Swedish is a north-Germanic language, very closely related to Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic. It sits within the larger Indo-European language family, meaning it shares ancestors with English, French, Greek, Russian, and so on. Finnish, on the other hand, is part of the Finno-Ugric language family, which includes Hungarian and Estonian. The grammar and native vocabulary of these languages are completely different, despite the geographical proximity. The Swedish for "father" is far. In Finnish it's isä. In Swedish "eye" is öga, in Finnish silmä.

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People 2

How therapy works and the role that real rapport has in its success

Therapeutic relationship
In therapy, psychological healing is delivered via a healing relationship.

How does talk therapy work? What are its active ingredients, the central mechanisms by which clients improve in therapy? The truth is that we don't quite know. We do know that therapy works, and that some therapies work better than others for some disorders. Yet research has tended to show that, overall, mainstream therapies are remarkably similar in their effects. This has become known as the "dodo bird verdict."

Given this, researchers have focused much attention on identifying the so-called "common factors" in therapy — those nonspecific aspects of the therapeutic encounter that may shape outcomes across techniques and theoretical perspectives. Over the years, research has identified several such factors, including the client's expectations (placebo effect), the therapist's empathy and positive regard, and client-therapist goal consensus.

While the debate over common factors continues, and while various common factor approaches differ among themselves, a broad agreement has emerged that first among the potentially potent common factors is client-therapist rapport — a trusting "therapeutic alliance." Without rapport, technical skill or theoretical coherence tend to matter little in terms of affecting change. Strong rapport, on the other hand, predicts success quite reliably, often regardless of (or over and above) the therapist's specific technique, training, theoretical orientation, or experience.

Comment: For those who may be seeking additional modalities for the healing of emotional and psychological wounds:

Light Saber

How to be a mentally sovereign human

yoda unlearn
We all showed up naked, slimy and clueless in a world of inexplicable sensory input we couldn't make head or tail out of. We were then taught what's what by people who showed up under the exact same circumstances a blink of an eye earlier.

The amniotic fluid is barely washed from our tiny naked bodies before we find ourselves in a marriage and a day job, staring down at a small pair of eyes looking up to us for guidance.

This is not a good environment for developing mental sovereignty, the ownership and authorship of your own cognitive relationship with life.


Who wants to play the status game?

seventh seal chess with death
When you first meet someone, you "feel each other out" to see where your lives might connect — where are you from, what do you do, what music/art/books do you like, etc. You are looking for common ground on the basis of which your conversation might proceed. Call this the Basic Game; I'd like to contrast it with two more advanced games that can be played in its stead, or alongside it.

In the Importance Game, participants jockey for position. This usually works by way of casual references to wealth, talent, accomplishment or connections, but there are many variants. I can, for instance, play this game by pretending to eschew it: "Let's get straight down to business" can telegraph my being much too important to waste time with such games; or your being so unimportant as to render the game otiose.

The other game is the Leveling Game, and it uses empathy to equalize the players. So I might performatively share feelings of stress, inadequacy or weakness; or express discontent with the Powers that Be; or home in on a source of communal outrage, frustration or oppression.

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SOTT Logo Radio

MindMatters: Living the Good Life - The Stoic Way

What good is philosophy? For the Stoics, among other schools, philosophy is dead if it is not fully lived. That's why the Stoics presented not just a system of logic and cosmology, but also a way of living - to put into practice the principles on which the system is built. But while the Stoic schools that taught this way of life died out many years ago, that doesn't mean that Stoicism is no longer an option for people today. Stoicism has experienced a revival in recent years.

Today on MindMatters we take a look at one modern presentation of practical Stoicism, laid out in William B. Irvine's Guide to the Good Life, as well as complementary methods and practices from other systems, like G. I. Gurdjieff's "Fourth Way." Whether you go "full Stoic", like Irvine, or merely adopt some of their practices to integrate into your daily life, there's a lot to learn from the Stoic sages of old, and their modern interpreters.

Running Time: 00:59:16

Download: MP3 — 54.3 MB


Writing science fiction not reports provided greater understanding of concepts - study

Understanding scientific papers 4
© Unknown
Abstract: Students in an introductory college geology course engaged in one of two exercises to learn more about the concept of cross cutting relationships, a major principle in stratigraphy. One exercise involved writing a report on the concept, the other involved writing a science fiction story based on the concept. Preliminary results suggest that students who engaged with the material within the context of science fiction writing gained a deeper understanding.
As a professor of geology and a science fiction writer, I became curious this past academic term about how science fiction writing might influence students' perceptions of science or their understanding of science ideas. Science fiction is fiction of course, and not intended to be real science. However I thought that science fiction writing might engage students in thinking about science concepts and perhaps provide an educational tool comparable to other science learning methods.

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Learning is consolation for sorrow: What to do when the world gets you down

A Velocity of Being
© Cindy Derby
Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
In his wonderful contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, Yo-Yo Ma tells children about how books helped him survive his own childhood, listing King Arthur among his three great heroes; as a young boy born in France to Chinese parents, trying to find his mooring as an immigrant in America, he reaped great consolation and inspiration from the tales of the legendary medieval leader — stories of "adventure, heroism, human frailty and accidental destiny" that emboldened him to believe in the power of the quest for holy grails and improbable dreams — dreams as improbable as a small boy with no homeland growing up to be the world's greatest cellist.

And, indeed, buried inside the adventure-thrill of these Arthurian tales are treasure troves of wisdom on fortitude, courage, and the art of honorable living, nowhere richer than in the novels by T.H. White (May 29, 1906-January 17, 1964), one particular passage in which offers a meta-testament to the potency of reading in the character-formation of King Arthur himself.


The Power of Bad: How to overcome your brain's 'negativity bias'

negativity bias
Why can't we pull our attention away from a traffic accident or stop watching news about the latest viral outbreak? Why are we waylaid by criticism or unable to get past a minor snub from our best friend?

That's our negativity bias. We humans have a propensity to give more weight in our minds to things that go wrong than to things that go right — so much so that just one negative event can hijack our minds in ways that can be detrimental to our work, relationships, health, and happiness.

Overcoming our negativity bias is not easy to do. But a new book, The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It, coauthored by social psychologist Roy Baumeister and New York Times writer John Tierney, inspires hope. The book not only covers the fascinating science behind this stubborn bias, but also gives readers practical tips to work around it in effective — and sometimes counterintuitive — ways. If we know that "bad" is stronger than "good," the authors argue, we can use that knowledge to improve not only our own lives, but society at large.

Recently, I spoke with the authors about their book and what we can learn from it. Below is an edited version of our interview.

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Mysteries of the human heart: The communication between heart and brain

Heart and Brain fields

“The human heart has hidden treasures, in secret kept, in silence sealed.” — Charlotte Brontë
The human heart, the size of two adult fists, is mysterious, intelligent, powerful, and sometimes inexplicable. The Egyptians believed that Anubis, the god of the underworld and judge of the dead, weighed the hearts of the recently deceased against a feather — if the two balanced, the heart would be returned to owner. If the heart was heavier, it was weighted by bad deeds and fed to a monster.

Heart as Ruler of the Brain

Aristotle considered the heart as the center of reason, thought, and emotion, senior to the brain in importance. Ninth century Arabic philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi believed that, "The ruling organ in the human body is the heart; the brain is a secondary ruling organ subordinated to the heart." Auguste Comte, a 19th century French philosopher declared that the brain should be servant to the heart.

"The most common denominator in all religions is that the heart is the seat of wisdom," said Rollin McCraty Ph.D, director of research at the groundbreaking HeartMath Institute in Santa Cruz, CA. Twelfth century Christian mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, would agree. She wrote, "The soul sits at the center of the heart, as though in a house."

Comment: As with all the findings coming out of the HeartMath Institute, it's difficult to assess where the science stops and the wild speculation begins. That the work they are doing is very interesting isn't really at question. But one has to wonder what their methods and techniques are trying to accomplish.

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Question everything: The one habit that changed my life

hidden iceberg
© Darius Foroux
It's 2020, you don't need a blogger, YouTuber, or social media person to tell you that reading, exercising, meditating, eating nutrient-dense food, journaling, and drinking enough water are good habits.

I've written those types of articles as well. But society is slowly changing. People are waking up. We're more aware of what we do, what we put in our bodies, and how we live.

There's a lot of personal growth advice everywhere you go. For the past few years, it seems like everyone is obsessed with self-improvement. You can tell that by the amount of self-help advice that you can get from mainstream media.

Even traditional outlets like The WSJ feature articles about overcoming procrastination, personal finance, and healthy living. It's everywhere. You can't open Netflix without being bombarded with the latest health documentaries.

But while this advice might look good on the surface, there are a few issues if you think about it more deeply:
  • What advice is true? There's a lot of contradicting advice out there.
  • Why do people defend their beliefs so firmly? Have you ever had a discussion with a vegan? You can't. They are not open to other ideas.
  • Why do give people advice? What are people's interests? Why do they invest time and resources in convincing people that certain things are true?

Comment: More food for thought: