What’s really out there?

How we know what we know seems such a hazardous topic.

Anil Seth on why our senses are fine-tuned for utility, not for ‘reality’Aeon Videos
It’s easy to mistake our conscious experience for an ongoing, accurate account of reality. After all, the information we recover from our senses is, of course, the only window we’ll ever have into the outside world. And for most people most of the time, our perception certainly feels real. […]

Seth argues that it’s not just that our perceptions provide flawed accounts of the outside world, but that our brains aren’t in the business of recovering the outside world to begin with. So it’s more accurate to think of our conscious experience as a series of predictions that we’re incessantly and subconsciously fine-tuning – a world we build from the inside out, rather than the outside in.

And here, with plenty of visual illusions to illustrate the point, is another take on the same issue.

“Reality” is constructed by your brain. Here’s what that means, and why it matters.Vox
“The dirty little secret about sensory systems is that they’re slow, they’re lagged, they’re not about what’s happening right now but what’s happening 50 milliseconds ago, or, in the case for vision, hundreds of milliseconds ago,” says Adam Hantman, a neuroscientist at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus.

If we relied solely on this outdated information, though, we wouldn’t be able to hit baseballs with bats, or swat annoying flies away from our faces. We’d be less coordinated, and possibly get hurt more often.

So the brain predicts the path of motion before it happens. It tells us a story about where the object is heading, and this story becomes our reality. […]

In Hantman’s view, what we experience as consciousness is primarily the prediction, not the real-time feed. The actual sensory information, he explains, just serves as error correction. “If you were always using sensory information, errors would accumulate in ways that would lead to quite catastrophic effects on your motor control,” Hantman says. Our brains like to predict as much as possible, then use our senses to course-correct when the predictions go wrong.

Image Victoria Skye, via Gavin Buckingham

Sweet dreams?

‘Edith Piaf sneezed on my cheesecake’ and other coronavirus dreamsThe Washington Post
The thing about dreams is, they’re so silly and so poignant. We have them alone in our beds and then we wake up — still safe in our beds, only now we’re thinking about what safety really means, and what we would do if a witch came around licking all of our windows (actual dream from a journalist who covers the military), or if the covid vaccine only worked when taken with milk and we’re lactose intolerant (actual dream from a Bostonian who works in tech sales), or we had a bar of soap that wouldn’t lather (actual dream from an Alberta-based artist), no matter how many times we sang Happy Birthday, and all we could do is scrub and scrub and feel the solid thing dissolve in our hands.

Having weird dreams in quarantine? You’re not alone.Vox
There is not a grand unified theory of dreams among researchers, but there are several different theories with some validity to them. You’ve probably heard of the continuity theory of dreams, which hypothesizes that people dream about the stuff they’re thinking about and doing while they’re awake. If we feel some degree of stress about the pandemic, or about work or family, then it’s normal for those types of themes to appear in our dream content.

Deleting the micro-plastics of the mind

I know that most of the articles about social media that I share are more negative than positive these days. But is this confirmation bias in action? To find out, I’m giving Twitter another go, and will actively look for the positives this time.

micro-plastics

Perhaps I should run all my tweets through Botnet first, to see how well they’ll do?

Welcome to Botnet, where everyone’s an influencerWired
Botnet looks like a stripped-down Facebook Newsfeed, where the only posts you can see are your own. It’s just you and the bots, who like and comment on your posts with reckless abandon. Botnet is designed to simulate the experience of mega-fame on the internet, Chasen told me—not just a microcelebrity or nano-influencer, but someone on the order of Kylie Jenner or Cristiano Ronaldo. Every post on Botnet receives hundreds of thousands of likes, no matter how banal the subject matter.

Or maybe not. Anyway, we’ll see how long it lasts; I’ve lost track of how many accounts I’ve set up and deleted over the years. But is that such a bad thing? We don’t keep transcripts of our phone calls normally, so why not be as relaxed with other forms of communication? I never realised I was in such good company.

Deleting all your tweetsRoden Explorers Archive
I am a full-blown born-again Tweet Deleter. I delete most everything older than seven days. I have a cron job running on a server that deletes for me, it’s called langoliers.rb and was written by Robin Sloan. He’s also a tweet deleter. There are many of us. And I think, having now deleted tweets regularly — and this is a bold claim, backed up only by gut feelings and zero data — that the world would be a better place if tweet deleting was on by default, and if, generally, we deleted more of our social media bloviations.

Twitter can be seen as a generator of micro-plastics of the mind. And the entirety of it as a sea of these largely nutrition-free bits. That doesn’t mean a tweet can’t be valuable for a second, but it’s unlikely they’re valuable for, say, years (or hours or even minutes). Applying a tweet-delete mindset to Twitter (that is: a mindset of ephemerality, what you could perversely call Buddhist Twitter) makes it lighter, a little more fun, and a lot less serious. You can ask a question, get some responses, and then just delete your question.

Isn’t that ephemerality implied in the name, even, to simply twitter on, saying very little of importance or interest, “short bursts of inconsequential information.”

Speaking of witch, here’s Callie Beusman sharing her thoughts online on how to avoid getting distracted by all the crap out there that it’s not worth thinking about.

My mind is a palace stuffed with exquisite garbageThe Cut
A few months ago, I came up with a metaphoric framework that felt uniquely suited to my problem, one that has brought me some degree of serenity: the mind palace. Simply put, a mind palace is a repository for all the thoughts, memories, and observations that bring you joy, fortified against whatever you deem needlessly irritating, depressingly banal, or just a waste of your time.

Is #mindfulbrowsing a thing?

This is not to urge non-engagement with issues that are genuinely pressing and compelling, if unpleasant; it’s more about determining which things you truly need and want to devote your time to, and recognizing that not everything warrants your attention.

We’re all under no obligation to read everything on the web. Some things just aren’t worth the time. And that’s OK, just raise your drawbridge.

All change?

We can learn new facts, master new skills, grow and develop to become ‘better’, but can we really change? A few people recently have tried to find out.

Glass half-full: how I learned to be an optimist in a weekThe Guardian
Day three: One of the simplest strategies for increasing optimism is avoiding the company of other pessimistic people. I figure that I have a headstart here, in that I already avoid the company of most people.

The doorbell rings. I think: this can’t be good. Then I think: stop that. The man at the door has a package for me. My wife passes through the kitchen as I’m opening it.

“What’s that?” she says.

“It’s my gratitude journal,” I say, holding up a slim notebook with the words “Start with gratitude” written on the cover in a self-helpy calligraphic font.

“Stupid,” my wife says.

“If you’re not going to be positive about my journey,” I say, “then you and I might have to stop hanging out.”

“That can be arranged,” she says.

Ok, so perhaps the Guardian columnist Tim Dowling wasn’t taking the venture too seriously. Let’s see how Jessica Pan, author of Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come, gets on over the course of a year, rather than just a week.

Can you fake being an extrovert?Sydney Morning Herald
I had a lot of time to ponder: what did I want from life? I wanted a job, new friends I felt truly connected to, and more confidence. So what were other people out there with jobs and close friends and rich, fulfilling lives doing that I wasn’t? Eventually, and with mounting fear, I realised: they were having new experiences, taking risks, making new connections. I knew what I had to do.

I would talk to new people. I would travel alone and make new friends on the road. I would say yes to social invitations. I would go along to parties and not be the first to leave. It would be like jogging: sweaty and uncomfortable but possibly good for me in the long term. In other words, I would become an extrovert. I gave myself a year.

So how did she get on?

It was fear that if I never changed I would never know what it was like to live a bigger life that propelled me. I’d spent most of my life telling myself I was one kind of person, not believing I could do things that I saw other people doing. Then I spent a year doing all of those things that petrified me. A small part of me thought I’d undertake all these challenges and emerge as a socially savvy, articulate, gregarious social butterfly. Or wind up hiding in a ditch. But I am still who I was at the beginning of this year. Only I know more now.

I feel like co-opting a Stonewall slogan — Some of us are introverts. Get over it!

It’s okay if you’re not resilientElemental
“This story has emerged that if you fail or are struggling, it’s because you lack this characteristic that other people possess,” says Mark Seidenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Not only is this an unhelpful form of “victim blaming,” but it also confuses effect for cause, he says. People don’t fail because they lack resilience; they lack resilience because circumstances have set them up for failure. “Success is very motivating, and failure is discouraging,” Seidenberg explains.

There’s a balance to be had here, though.

While pointing to a lack of resilience as the cause of a person’s problems is both unhelpful and unfair, teaching a person how to be more resilient in certain contexts is beneficial and, according to some research, achievable. “I think both sides of this debate have a point,” Tabibnia says. “Just as we shouldn’t oversell the potential of behavioral and psychosocial strategies for boosting resilience, lest it should lead to further feelings of disappointment and failure, nor should we take a completely passive and helpless approach.”

She says the research so far points to three broad categories of intervention that seem to bolster resilience. The first involves downregulating negative thought patterns through approaches like exposure therapy and cognitive reappraisal. (Basically, these teach your brain to think about sources of stress in new and less-troubling ways.) The second category involves taking steps to improve optimism and social connectedness, both of which encourage positive feelings. And the third involves mindfulness, religious engagement, and other practices that help people “transcend the self,” Tabibnia says.

Update 27/12/2019

On a related note.

Introvert? You may just be bad at recognising facesThe Conversation
We do not yet understand the importance and reason for these findings, however. It may be that extroversion causes superior face recognition or that people who are better at identifying faces become more extroverted as a result.

If so, then a person’s inability to learn and recognise faces may lead them to become more introverted, to avoid potentially embarrassing social situations. Alternatively, introverted people may meet fewer people and therefore never develop good face recognition skills.

It may also work both ways. If you are slightly worse at recognising faces to start with you may end up meeting fewer people, and therefore becoming even worse at it over time. It could also be that both extroversion and face recognition are related to yet another factor that we still don’t know about.

Thanks!

This video struck a chord recently. It was shown to us as part of a Wellbeing Day at work a few weeks ago and—as well as being quite funny—I thought its practical, down-to-earth steps to a more positive mindset made a lot of sense.

The happy secret to better work | Shawn AchorYouTube
We believe that we should work to be happy, but could that be backwards? In this fast-moving and entertaining talk from TEDxBloomington, psychologist Shawn Achor argues that actually happiness inspires productivity.

One of his slides summarises the ways you can train your brain to become more positive.

thanks

I’ve been following these steps for a few weeks now, and writing down three new things I’m grateful for and a positive experience I’ve had that day does help me focus on looking for the positives.

That video was published in 2012, but one that contained a very similar message coincidentally appeared just a few days ago, from Kurzgesagt.

An antidote to dissatisfactionYouTube
Everybody is familiar with the feeling that things are not as they should be. That you are not successful enough, your relationships not satisfying enough. That you don’t have the things you crave. In this video we want to talk about one of the strongest predictors of how happy people are, how easily they make friends and how good they are at dealing with hardship. An antidote against dissatisfaction so to speak: Gratitude.

This video, too, discussed the benefits of a simple gratitude journal, “sitting down for a few minutes, one to three times a week, and writing down five to ten things you’re grateful for.”

thanks-2

In the end, how you experience life is a representation of what you believe about it. If you attack your core beliefs about your self and your life, you can change your thoughts and feelings, which automatically changes your behaviour. It’s pretty mind-blowing that something as simple as self-reflection can hack the pathways in our brain to fight dissatisfaction. And if this is no reason to be optimistic, what is?

So thanks, Shawn Achor and the folks behind Kurzgesagt, for highlighting the importance of gratitude!

Peak wellness

Another Monday has rolled around. We all feeling well?

We’ve reached peak wellness. Most of it is nonsense.
Nourishing these interrelated dimensions of health, however, does not require that you buy any lotions, potions, or pills. Wellness—the kind that actually works—is simple: it’s about committing to basic practices, day in and day out, as individuals and communities.

Unfortunately, these basics tend to get overlooked in favor of easy-to-market nonsense. That’s because, as many marketers (including in the self-help space) are fond of saying, “You can’t sell the basics.” I think that’s naive. We’d be much better off if we stopped obsessing over hacks and instead focused on evidence-based stuff that works.

Mindfulness has been reduced to a ‘hack’ these days.

The problem of mindfulness
A third line of attack can be summed up in the epithet ‘McMindfulness’. Critics such as the author David Forbes and the management professor Ronald Purser argue that, as mindfulness has moved from therapy to the mainstream, commodification and marketing have produced watered-down, corrupted versions – available via apps such as Headspace and Calm, and taught as courses in schools, universities and offices.

My own gripes with mindfulness are of a different, though related, order. In claiming to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself. It fits oh-so-neatly into a culture of techno-fixes, easy answers and self-hacks, where we can all just tinker with the contents of our heads to solve problems, instead of probing why we’re so dissatisfied with our lives in the first place.

Maybe we just need to cheer up! Let’s put on a happy face and fake it till we make it.

Against cheerfulness
Whistling while you work might be worth defending, but forcing yourself to smile when you don’t feel like it amounts to lying to the people around you. ‘Fake it till you make it’ has brutal consequences when applied to the emotions. When conceived as the attempt to trick others into thinking that you feel cheery, cheerfulness is far from a virtue. It’s a vice. […]

Giving up a commitment to cheerfulness would mean risking judgment for being ordinary, human, mortal. If, however, we could learn to share in the misery of others without trying to cheer them up and send them packing, and if they could do the same for us, then we’d have a shot at true fraternity, the kind that Aristotle prescribed when he said we should live with our friends. … Profound human connection and communion – in other words, love – has no use for forced cheer, and is often sabotaged by false faces. If we want to love better and seek true happiness and friendship, it’s time to cultivate honesty instead of cheer.

Want a better holiday?

Time away from work is great, but is a break from your phone even better?

Leave your phone at home this holiday and you’ll feel better (after you feel worse)
Travellers at this stage were forced to travel in an old-fashion manner, navigating using a printed map, talking to strangers, and reading printed bus timetables. Two of our participants even gave up at this stage as they found the emotional experience unbearable.

Those that stuck it out were glad they did.

Our participants overcame the initial emotions and then started to enjoy the digital-free experience. They found themselves more immersed in the destination, created more valuable moments with their travel companions, and had many more memorable and authentic encounters with locals.

They felt free, happy, excited, and relieved. One participant said: “I feel quite good that I made it this far without technology. I feel quite liberated.” Without the disruptions of digital technologies, they were fully engaged with their holiday experience, demonstrating that a digital-free holiday can contribute to wellbeing.

But if it’s a relaxing holiday you’re after, why not take a trip to Battle Creek Sanitarium, John Kellogg’s medical spa and birthplace of the corn flake?

Dr. John Kellogg invented cereal. Some of his other wellness ideas were much weirder
Kellogg’s interest in the therapeutic powers of electricity didn’t end with light baths. With a device he cobbled together from telephone parts, he began to administer mild doses of electrical current directly to his patients’ skin. Kellogg claimed these “sinusoidal current” treatments were painless and wrote that he’d tested them in “many thousands of therapeutic applications.” While electrical stimulation is used to this day for certain medical purposes, the ever-optimistic Kellogg maintained that it could treat lead poisoning, tuberculosis, obesity and, when applied directly to the patient’s eyeballs, a variety of vision disorders.

Happy metal

Did you know that music has the power to affect us physiologically, as well as just emotionally?

Here’s what happens in your brain when you listen to music, according to science
Music can also have a strong effect on your emotions by, in a sense, manipulating your body. For example, a 2009 study published in the scientific journal Circulation found that autonomic responses, such as your heart rate, can synchronize with the music you’re listening to, especially if it includes a number of crescendos.

But how about something more two-way?

Our brain-computer interfacing technology uses music to make people happy
For instance, imagine a device that can detect when you are falling into a state of depression (as evidenced by, for example, an unusual spiking activity in the EEG), and use this information to trigger an algorithm that generates bespoke music to make you feel happier. This approach is likely to be effective. Indeed, recent research has shown, in a large meta-analysis of 1,810 music therapy patients, that music can reduce depression levels.

You wouldn’t think something as aggressive-sounding as metal could help here, but you’d be surprised.

Heavy metal
When fans of metal listen to the music, they don’t feel rage, anger, or despair, but “power, joy, peace, and wonder,” according to research published last year. In fact, a huge survey in 2010 sought to categorize people by their musical tastes, and found a significant overlap between metal and opera fans, who shared “similarly creative and gentle personalities.”

Heavy metal music can have health benefits for fans
Despite the often violent lyrical content in some heavy metal songs, recently published research has shown that fans do not become sensitized to violence, which casts doubt on the previously assumed negative effects of long-term exposure to such music. Indeed, studies have shown long-terms fans were happier in their youth and better adjusted in middle age compared to their non-fan counterparts. Another finding that fans who were made angry and then listened to heavy metal music did not increase their anger but increased their positive emotions suggests that listening to extreme music represents a healthy and functional way of processing anger.

I used to listen to a lot of metal when I was younger. This quick summary of the genre brought all the good vibes back.

20 iconic metal riffs

Want to learn more? You can get a PhD in it now (kind of).

University offers PhD scholarship in heavy metal
The University of Newcastle in Australia is offering a scholarship of $27,596 per annum (assumedly that’s AUS dollars, meaning $19,232 USD or £15,139) to two domestic students and one International student, to study social geographies across a series of cultures. The subjects being studied are Homelessness and Mutual Aid, Vegan Geographies, Unschooling and The Possibilities of Childhood, and of course, Heavy Metal Geographies.

Any study of heavy metal geography is bound to look at Finland…

Finland’s Heavy Metal knitting championship is the real purl jam
While combining heavy metal music with knitting might not seem an obvious match, the organizers say it’s similar to other unusual events in Finland, such as world championships in air guitar, swamp soccer, and wife carrying — Finnish ways of goofing around and making the most of the long summer nights in these northern latitudes.

“We have such dark and long winters,” said Mari Karjalainen, one of the founders of the event. “This really gives us lots of time to plan for our short summers and come up with silly ideas.”

Purl jam: Finland hosts heavy metal knitting championship

Well that’s not something I remember seeing Lemmy do!

Playing to your strengths

Being at school can be stressful, as this study from Ireland shows, and students’ well-being seems to steadily decline as they make their way to their final exams. But are some children better at maintaining good mental health than others? The key might lie with whether students are in touch with their character strengths.

Well-being of students starts to decline from the moment they enter secondary school
But our study also found that the biggest predictor of lower levels of well-being was when students did not regularly use their greatest strengths of character. Strengths of character can be measured using a survey like this one by VIA. The survey identifies teenagers’ top strengths that they can use during their daily lives.

But just because someone’s top strengths might be honesty, prudence and perseverance, does not mean that they use these strengths frequently. Those who scored the highest for using their strengths daily, also had the highest scores on their levels of well-being. Therefore, using character strengths every day could help secondary school pupils to maintain higher levels of well-being.

You can learn about your character strengths through questionnaires like this one, from the VIA Institute on Character.

Bring your character strengths to life & live more fully – VIA Institute
When you discover your greatest strengths, you learn to use them to handle stress and life challenges, become happier, and develop relationships with those who matter most to you. What are your strengths?

I worry sometimes that I’m too cynical with such things. Is the secret to better emotional health and well-being really as straightforward as completing a 10-minute questionnaire, being told what your strengths are (or rather, what you want them to be), and acting on them?

Maybe I should give this a go. This emphasis on strengths of character does chime with what I’ve been learning about Stoicism, after all.

Happy Monday everyone!

Mondays, eh? The Book of Life is here to help again.

The true cause of dread and anxiety
It therefore follows that the first step towards breaking the cycle of alarm is to notice that we are behaving like self-hating people convinced that we deserve misery and that this self-assessment is in the process of heavily colouring all our assessments of the future.

Then, very gently, we should start to wonder how a self-loving person might behave and look at matters if they were in our shoes. When panic descends, we should try to reassure ourselves not with logical arguments about the grounds for hope but by wondering what a person who didn’t loathe themselves might be thinking now. If we could reduce the element of internal punishment and attack, how would the situation appear?

And, to help gain a little perspective, try this from Quartz.

To get better at life, try this modern mantra
The word mantra comes from Sanskrit and literally means “mind tool” or instrument of thought. People have used these tools for thousands of years to quiet thinking, cultivate focus, and induce spiritual states. In truth, anyone can use them, and there is scientific proof they work, whether or not you are spiritually inclined. …

“Right now, it’s like this” is an invitation to explore what is present. At the same time, it clearly reassures us that impermanence is hard at work. So even though the mind threatens me with the idea that “it’s going to be like this forever,” this phrase helps me call bullshit on that. It helps me let go of the main message from the mind, “that something has to be done.

Let’s see if this helps.

happy-monday-everyone-1

Just thinking about coffee can improve your focus, researchers say
Future research, with larger sample sizes, is needed to confirm these effects and to parse the stimulating consequences of say, black diner coffee and a milky espresso drink, or various strains of tea, the authors note in their paper. One day, they propose, it might be possible to match the task at hand with the appropriate level of mind-generated arousal.

For now, Chan believes that “[we] need to better understand the ‘meanings’ and ‘beliefs’ we assign to foods and beverages,” he writes. What we feed our minds has a lot to do with what it feeds us in return.

happy-monday-everyone-2

Let’s try it: coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee

Looking for connections

As this video from Kurzgesagt explains, “We are living in the most connected time in human history, and yet an unprecedented number of us feel isolated.”

Loneliness
Everybody feels lonely sometimes. But only few of us are aware how important this feeling was for our ancestors – and that our modern world can turn it into something that really hurts us. Why do we feel this way and what can we do about it?

I mentioned last year the steps being taken by the government and others to tackle loneliness. Help might be at hand, though. Literally.

Loneliness is bad for your health. An app may help.
Little changed for those in either the control group or the one taught attention-only mindfulness. But the subjects whose training included acceptance and equanimity were measurably more sociable. Their daily routines, after using the app for two weeks, typically included several more interactions with people that lasted at least a few minutes, and their questionnaires showed a decline in their feelings of loneliness.

Because loneliness, like mindfulness, is a subjective state, it’s difficult to make definitive conclusions about why and how a focus on acceptance prompted greater sociability. But David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon who conducted the study with the lead author, Emily Lindsay, believes that “the equanimity piece is key.” The poise it teaches, he says, may help people become less self-judgmental, less self-conscious, more amenable to interacting with others.

Here’s another write-up of the research, from Reuters this time.

Smartphone mindfulness app may help curb loneliness
“Perhaps by practicing monitoring and acceptance daily, even though for a short period of time, we can feel more at peace and free, more centered, and less affected by the possible negative thoughts and feelings generated in our mind,” Zhang said. “So we are closer to who we really are – we are social beings and we inherently need to connect to others.”

A theme which kicks off this stand-up routine from Simon Amstell, from 2010. This is how he starts, once the applause as he walks on stage dies down.

“Hello. Thank you. How are you? Are you all right? Well, this is fun, isn’t it? This is sort of a fun thing to be doing. This is fun, right? I’m quite lonely, let’s start with that.”

Simon Amstell – Do Nothing Live

Don’t worry, though. He ends it on quite a positive, inspirational note. It’s all about letting go.

Thinking errors?

School’s tough. Maths is especially tough.

‘Maths anxiety’ causing fear and despair in children as young as six
Children as young as six feel fear, rage and despair as a result of “mathematics anxiety”, a condition which can cause physical symptoms and behaviour problems in class, according to a study.

Report examines origins and nature of ‘math anxiety’
A report out today examines the factors that influence ‘maths anxiety’ among primary and secondary school students, showing that teachers and parents may inadvertently play a role in a child’s development of the condition, and that girls tend to be more affected than boys.

More info on the research from the Nuffield Foundation…

Understanding mathematics anxiety
Learning mathematics can be challenging; however, not all mathematics difficulties result from cognitive difficulties. Some children and adults have mathematics anxiety (MA) which severely disrupts their performance.

… and from University of Cambridge’s Centre for Neuroscience in Education.

What is Mathematics Anxiety?
Does mathematics anxiety affect mathematics performance? When trying to figure out how Mathematics Anxiety relates to mathematics performance, we are faced with a problem similar to that of the chicken and the egg … which comes first? What we know is that people with higher levels of mathematics anxiety tend to perform more poorly on assessments of mathematics skills whilst those with better performance in mathematics tend to report lower levels of mathematics anxiety. What we don’t know is which causes which.

And here’s a link to the report itself.

Understanding Mathematics Anxiety: Investigating the experiences of UK primary and secondary school students
Abstract: The project investigated individuals’ attitudes towards mathematics because of what could be referred to as a “mathematics crisis” in the UK. Evidence suggests that functional literacy skills amongst working-age adults are steadily increasing but the proportion of adults with functional maths skills equivalent to a GCSE grade C has dropped from 26% in 2003 to only 22% in 2011 (National Numeracy, 2014). This number is strikingly low compared with the 57% who achieved the equivalent in functional literacy skills (National Numeracy, 2014).

This all looks far from straightforward. Here’s a very interesting, critical look at what seems to me to be a overly simplistic response to these issues — the growth mindset theory.

thinking-errors-1

The growth mindset problem
According to the theory, if students believe that their ability is fixed, they will not want to do anything to reveal that, so a major focus of the growth mindset in schools is shifting students away from seeing failure as an indication of their ability, to seeing failure as a chance to improve that ability. As Jeff Howard noted almost 30 years ago: ‘Smart is not something that you just are, smart is something that you can get.’

Despite extraordinary claims for the efficacy of a growth mindset, however, it’s increasingly unclear whether attempts to change students’ mindsets about their abilities have any positive effect on their learning at all. And the story of the growth mindset is a cautionary tale about what happens when psychological theories are translated into the reality of the classroom, no matter how well-intentioned. …

Growth mindset theory has had a profound impact on the ground. It is difficult to think of a school today that is not in thrall to the idea that beliefs about one’s ability affect subsequent performance, and that it’s crucial to teach students that failure is merely a stepping stone to success. Implementing these ideas has been much harder, however, and attempts to replicate the original findings have not been smooth, to say the least. A recent national survey in the United States showed that 98 per cent of teachers feel that growth mindset approaches should be adopted in schools, but only 50 per cent said that they knew of strategies to effectively change a pupil’s mindset.

The truth is we simply haven’t been able to translate the research on the benefits of a growth mindset into any sort of effective, consistent practice that makes an appreciable difference in student academic attainment. In many cases, growth mindset theory has been misrepresented and miscast as simply a means of motivating the unmotivated through pithy slogans and posters. A general truth about education is that the more vague and platitudinous the statement, the less practical use it has on the ground. ‘Making a difference’ rarely makes any difference at all. …

All of this indicates that using time and resources to improve students’ academic achievement directly might well be a better agent of psychological change than psychological interventions themselves. In their book Effective Teaching (2011), the UK education scholars Daniel Muijs and David Reynolds note: ‘At the end of the day, the research reviewed has shown that the effect of achievement on self-concept is stronger that the effect of self-concept on achievement.’

Many interventions in education have the causal arrow pointed the wrong way round. Motivational posters and talks are often a waste of time, and might well give students a deluded notion of what success actually means. Teaching students concrete skills such as how to write an effective introduction to an essay through close instruction, specific feedback, worked examples and careful scaffolding, and then praising their effort in getting there, is probably a far more effective way of improving confidence than giving an assembly about how unique they are, or indeed how capable they are of changing their own brains. The best way to achieve a growth mindset might just be not to mention the growth mindset at all.

Money ≠ happiness

Wired’s review of a new book has a somewhat click-baity headline.

Social media has totally warped how you think about happiness
That higher-status jobs lead to more happiness is only one of the social narratives that Dolan’s book surgically dismantles. Happy Ever After may sound like a cheap self-improvement guide to positive thinking; in reality, it is a pragmatic inspection by an LSE-qualified behavioural scientist.

And it’s not just about securing a good job. Dolan also tears apart the myth of monogamous marriage and of long-lasting marriage; the myth of having children, of going to university or of earning a lot of money. Of owning your own property. Of donating to charity (and not bragging about it). Even of being healthy.

It may sound like a blow to what you have always been taught – but the link between all of these things and happiness is, according to research, extremely loose.

He’s done his research, so has the numbers to back that up, but he talks about social narratives being to blame for our unrealistic expectations and harsh judgements of ourselves and others, not social media. That’s just the mechanism by which these narratives are being magnified.

It all sounds a little Stoic.

Tetris: blocks and balalaikas

Recently, I accepted defeat and replaced my Windows phone with an Android one. Going through Google’s app store I came across Tetris (the older one, not the trippy new one), a game I’ve not played in ages. I was never any good at it, but that’s not the point, I guess.

Why are humans suddenly getting better at Tetris
As John Green explains in this video, a few people are actually getting much better at the NES version of Tetris than anyone was back in the 90s. One of the reasons for this is that a smaller dedicated group working together can be more effective than a massive group of people working alone on a problem.

The video ends on an uplifting note about the state of the internet—don’t worry about the dire state of the internet, just try to improve your internet. A new take on the ‘be the change you wish to see’ idea.

Study: Tetris is a great distraction for easing an anxious mind
The best distracting activities are those that can induce a sense of “flow … It’s something that fully captures your attention and engages you,” says Sweeny. “I often describe it as the kind of thing you can’t start doing if you only have ten minutes, because you know you’ll lose track of time.” Video games are perfect for this, provided they hit that sweet spot of being easy enough to learn while still pushing the skill level of the player, without becoming so challenging that the player becomes frustrated.

The psychology of Tetris
Tetris holds our attention by continually creating unfinished tasks. Each action in the game allows us to solve part of the puzzle, filling up a row or rows completely so that they disappear, but is also just as likely to create new, unfinished work. A chain of these partial-solutions and newly triggered unsolved tasks can easily stretch to hours, each moment full of the same kind of satisfaction as scratching an itch.

I like the line in that article about the game taking advantage of the mind’s basic pleasure in tidying up.

How Tetris became the world’s favourite computer game
With the iron curtain still firmly in place, Moscow did not have anything resembling a computer industry and software was not for sale. “The idea of receiving money for the programme seemed really strange and ridiculous at that time. So somehow Tetris was copied from my computer and from floppy disk to floppy disk – it just spread like wildfire,” says Mr Pajitnov.

These days, we can’t imagine anything spreading quickly that has to use floppy disks to get around, but you get the idea.

Tetris was passed between computer users the length and breadth of the Soviet Union and before long the government noticed that it had begun affecting productivity in the workplace. In order to combat the problem they created an early form of spyware, which was installed on state computers to corrupt both Tetris and the floppy disk it originated from the moment the game was opened.

Well, that’s one way to manage your workforce.

But never mind all that, let’s talk about the music!

Korobeiniki
“Korobeiniki” is a nineteenth-century Russian folk song that tells the story of a meeting between a peddler and a girl, describing their hajggling over goods in a veiled metaphor for courtship. Outside Russia, “Korobeiniki” is widely known as the Tetris theme (titled “A-Type” in the game), from its appearance in Nintendo’s 1989 version of the game.

tetris-sounding-good-1

Ready to follow along?

Korobeiniki – Piano Tutorial

Now let’s bring on the balalaikas and sing along with the Red Army Choir.

Red Army Choir – Korobushka song (Korobeiniki)

That clip led me to this one, with some crazy fingerpicking skills on show.

Red Army Ensemble – Kamarinskaya

Here’s another version of that piece, Kamarinskaya, from the Osipov Orchestra in 1953.

“Kamarinskaya” – The Osipov Orchestra of the Russian Folk Instruments (1953)

A version of that, by the same orchestra I think, makes an appearance on the soundtrack to The Grand Budapest Hotel, and is immediately followed by an arrangement of Moonshine, or Светит месяц – another corker.

Here’s a version featuring Jeffery Archer.

Балалайка Михаил Рожков Светит месяц

(Ok, that’s not Jeffery Archer but Mikhail Rozhkov, the ‘Paganini of the Russian balalaika’.)

And here’s an orchestral version, though without the chorus that’s used in Alexandre Desplat’s arrangement.

В Андреев “Светит месяц” / АОРНИ имени Н.Некрасова

I wonder if Wes Anderson was a fan of Tetris.

Pushing buttons

I’ve linked to this kind of thing before, back in 2015. It’s still quite interesting, though.

Why the world is full of buttons that don’t work
According to Langer, placebo buttons have a net positive effect on our lives, because they give us the illusion of control — and something to do in situations where the alternative would be doing nothing (which explains why people press the elevator call button when it’s already lit).

pushing-buttons-2

“Thermal comfort research demonstrates that when people have perceived temperature control over their spaces, some may tolerate higher levels of discomfort,” said Bean.

“If a non-functioning (placebo) thermostat or limited function thermostat is installed, just having the option to manipulate it can affect one’s perception.”

Dummy thermostats — those not wired into the system at all — can also be found in offices, according to Donald Prather of Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

“(They) were placed there to quiet a constant complainer by giving them control,” he said in an email. “As an engineering trainee I was sent to calibrate one. When I asked why they had me calibrate a thermostat that was not hooked up, they panicked and asked if I told the occupant it wasn’t hooked up.

“After assuring them I hadn’t spilled the beans, they admitted that, by not telling me it was disconnected, they thought I would put on a more realistic calibration show.”

We’re getting bigger and smaller

George Monbiot dispels some of the myths that try to explain why we’re so much fatter than we were in previous generations.

We’re in a new age of obesity. How did it happen? You’d be surprised
So what has happened? The light begins to dawn when you look at the nutrition figures in more detail. Yes, we ate more in 1976, but differently. Today, we buy half as much fresh milk per person, but five times more yoghurt, three times more ice cream and – wait for it – 39 times as many dairy desserts. We buy half as many eggs as in 1976, but a third more breakfast cereals and twice the cereal snacks; half the total potatoes, but three times the crisps. While our direct purchases of sugar have sharply declined, the sugar we consume in drinks and confectionery is likely to have rocketed. … In other words, the opportunities to load our food with sugar have boomed.

We can’t simply put this change in society’s shape down to a lack of willpower, there’s a whole industry out there working against us.

[F]ood companies have invested heavily in designing products that use sugar to bypass our natural appetite control mechanisms, and in packaging and promoting these products to break down what remains of our defences, including through the use of subliminal scents. They employ an army of food scientists and psychologists to trick us into eating more than we need, while their advertisers use the latest findings in neuroscience to overcome our resistance.

They hire biddable scientists and thinktanks to confuse us about the causes of obesity. Above all, just as the tobacco companies did with smoking, they promote the idea that weight is a question of “personal responsibility”. After spending billions on overriding our willpower, they blame us for failing to exercise it.

Whilst some people are getting larger, this piece argues that our culture, institutions and even our gadgets (“high-tech pacifiers”) are reducing us and treating us like children.

The infantilization of Western culture
While we might find it trivial or amusing, the infantilist ethos becomes especially seductive in times of social crises and fear. And its favoring of simple, easy and fast betrays natural affinities for certain political solutions over others.

And typically not intelligent ones.

Democratic policymaking requires debate, demands compromise and involves critical thinking. It entails considering different viewpoints, anticipating the future, and composing thoughtful legislation.

What’s a fast, easy and simple alternative to this political process? It’s not difficult to imagine an infantile society being attracted to authoritarian rule.

Indeed.

Is there such a thing as geographical psychology?

I’d never heard of this comic before, but I can certainly relate a little to it.

Finnish nightmares
Meet Matti, a stereotypical Finn who appreciates peace, quiet and personal space. Matti tries his best to do unto others as he wishes to be done unto him: to give space, be polite and not bother with unnecessary chit chat. As you might’ve guessed, it can’t always go that way.

Perhaps I’m slightly Finnish?

Are you socially awkward, or just “spiritually Finnish?”
If you find it awkward to make small talk, you may be “jingfen” (精芬) or “spiritually Finnish.” That’s the newly coined Chinese buzzword for a burgeoning identity taking hold among millennials.

Or a little Chinese?

Why do millions of Chinese people want to be ‘spiritually Finnish’?
Matti’s fear of crowds and small talk and his tendency to be easily embarrassed has struck a chord with many Chinese readers, who seem relieved that their longing for privacy has finally been voiced – via the medium of a stick figure from a faraway country. But it’s Finnish culture itself – of which privacy and personal space have long been part – that has also struck a chord.

Behavioural tricks within Japanese train stations

An interesting look at some of the behavioural tricks and nudges that have been designed into Japan’s train stations. The millions of commuters that move through them aren’t just helped by things like reliable trains or better signage, but by their own unconscious actions triggered by light and sound.

The amazing psychology of Japanese train stations
Compounding the stressful nature of the commute in years past was the nerve-grating tone—a harsh buzzer used to signal a train’s imminent departure. The departing train buzzer was punctuated by sharp blasts of station attendants’ whistles, as harried salarymen raced down stairs and across platforms to beat the train’s closing doors.

To calm this stressful audio environment, in 1989 the major rail operator JR East commissioned Yamaha and composer Hiroaki Ide to create hassha melodies—short, ear-pleasing jingles to replace the traditional departure buzzer.

Not all of the aural additions are as melodic, though.

To address the Japanese fear of loitering and vandalism by young riders, some train stations deploy ultrasonic deterrents—small, unobtrusive devices that emit a high-frequency tone. The particular frequency used—17 kilohertz—can generally only be heard by those under the age of 25. (Older people can’t detect such frequencies, thanks to the age-related hearing loss known as presbycusis.) These devices—the brainchild of a Welsh inventor and also used to fend off loitering teens in the U.S. and Europe—have been enthusiastically adopted in Japan.

Standing outside one of Tokyo Station’s numerous exits on a recent summer day, it was easy to see the effectiveness of this deterrent in action. Weary salarymen and aged obaachan passed under the sonic deterrent without changing pace. Among uniform-clad students, however, the reactions were evident—a suddenly quickened pace, a look of confusion or discomfort, and often a cry of urusai! (Loud!) None appeared to connect the noise to the deterrents placed almost flush in the ceiling panels above.

Strange to contemplate a sound that I’ll never hear. The article links to a YouTube video of the hassha melodies, but there’s nothing about that 17 kilohertz one, unfortunately. (Or maybe there is and I just can’t hear it.)

But it’s not just the built environment that uses these behavioural tricks. The train conductors, drivers and platform attendants do too.

Why Japan’s rail workers can’t stop pointing at things
Known in Japanese as shisa kanko, pointing-and-calling works on the principle of associating one’s tasks with physical movements and vocalizations to prevent errors by “raising the consciousness levels of workers”—according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Japan. Rather than rely on a worker’s eyes or habit alone, each step in a given task is reinforced physically and audibly to ensure the step is both complete and accurate.

キレキレ指差呼称で安全確認キレキレ車掌The conductor of metro who to confirm safety by a splendid pointing and calling.

Something I should try myself, perhaps?

*points to keyboard, mumbles something about email*

Everything is out to get us

Following on from that post about how technology is deliberately addictive and seemingly out to get us, here’s a wider view of the problems we face and “the price we have to pay for being born in modern times”.

How the modern world makes us mentally ill
The modern world is wonderful in many ways (dentistry is good, cars are reliable, we can so easily keep in touch from Mexico with our grandmother in Scotland) – but it’s also powerfully and tragically geared to causing a high background level of anxiety and widespread low-level depression.

Thankfully, for each area of concern there’s a solution of sorts. For instance:

The media has immense prestige and a huge place in our lives – but routinely directs our attention to things that scare, worry, panic and enrage us, while denying us agency or any chance for effective personal action. It typically attends to the least admirable sides of human nature, without a balancing exposure to normal good intentions, responsibility and decency. At its worst, it edges us towards mob justice.

The cure would be news that concentrated on presenting solutions rather than generating outrage, that was alive to systemic problems rather than gleefully emphasizing scapegoats and emblematic monsters – and that would regularly remind us that the news we most need to focus on comes from our own lives and direct experiences.

It can all seem quite overwhelming, but we need to stay positive.

The forces of psychological distress in our world are – currently – much wealthier and more active than the needed cures. We deserve tender pity for the price we have to pay for being born in modern times. But more hopefully, cures are now open to us individually and collectively if only we recognise, with sufficient clarity, the sources of our true anxieties and sorrows.

The trick is remembering all this when we’re caught up in the moment and wrapped up in our day-to-day troubles. They ought to produce and sell a little cheatsheet we can carry around in our wallets or something.

Autism and the male brain

The Psychology Book – Packed with everything you’d ever study in a Psych 101 class
The Psychology Book is packed with everything you’d ever study in a Psych 101 class, and, as the subtitle suggests, it’s all explained in a clear, simple way. Flip to any page and you’ll find engaging graphics, charts, sidebars, and timelines that compliment every topic, from Pavlovian conditioning, to Jean Piaget’s four stages of child development, to Timothy Leary’s real meaning behind “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

But what’s that about autism being an extreme form of the male brain on page 298?

In 2003, Baron-Cohen developed the empathizing-systematizing theory of “female” and “male” brains, which assigns a particular “brain type” to every person, regardless of gender, depending on ability to empathize or systematize. His research suggests that the female brain is largely hard-wired for empathy, with females usually showing more sympathy for others, and greater sensitivity to facial expressions and non-verbal communication. The male brain, by contrast, appears to be geared toward understanding and building systems; it is mostly interested in how things work, as well as their structure, and organization. Is it therefore often better at tasks requiring decoding skills, such as map reading.

[Autistic people] are unable to assess another’s stage of mind or intentions. Also, they have obsessive interests that are centered on some form of system, such as an intense preoccupation with light switches. They focus on tiny details in the system, working out the underlying rules that govern it, or home in on a specific topic, learning everything about it with great accuracy. This mix of little or no empathy and an obsession with systems, along with the higher rate of autism in males, led Baron-Cohen to conclude that autistic people have an extreme “male” brain.

The BBC reported an aspect of that back in 2005 so I guess it’s old news. And here’s a link to Baron-Cohen’s paper that started it off.