This category contains 10 posts

“Living life forward” may require looking back

Memory’s contribution to knowledge seems fairly straightforward. To know something, you need to remember it, right? But the purposes of memory go far deeper than that. Not only does memory help understand our past, but it seems to play a vital role in how we understand, construct and cope with our present. This recent article in the New York Times focusses specifically on nostalgia, that bittersweet longing we all feel now and then for a past moment, period or place in our lives. Far from being self-indulgent or simply “living in the past,” nostalgia seems to provoke a number of positive physiological and psychological responses.… Read the rest

So how do you explain that… the science of Ouija boards

In the summer of 1990 I visited the Avebury stone circle in Britain. It’s a wonderful place, infused with an atmosphere of prehistoric mystery and inspiring no small amount of wonder at the ingenuity, persistence and perhaps bloody-mindedness of our ancient ancestors. While there I was given the opportunity to try dowsing rods. I had seen people perform this simple trick looking for water – supposedly the rods turn downwards when over a water source – and now was being told that the ‘energy’ in the standing stones would push back against these two metal rods, bent at a 90 degree angle, when someone approached the stones.… Read the rest

The limits of science

Science has given us almost everything we take for granted in our modern world; one could argue that science as method and outlook defines modernity. But can science answer all valid questions? Scientism – the view that science can answer all questions – is something of a dirty word for most, a term used more often as an accusation than as a philosophy. But while most people seem to feel that science cannot answer all questions – or, as I would qualify, cannot answer all questions in a way that is fundamentally useful in the living of our lives – philosophers of science differ in their ideas of where exactly the limits of science can be found.… Read the rest

Where literature and history intersect

History is written by the victors, and it wasn’t terribly kind to Richard III. Thomas More vilified him in his history of the king’s reign, and Shakespeare immortalized the story in his famous play. Their politically expedient retellings of Richard’s life (both written to please Tudor monarchs) met with varying success – Shakespeare was honoured by Elizabeth I, where More managed to get himself beheaded by Henry VIII.

The arts seem a suspect source for history, and yet there are glimmers of truth to be had. Just as Schliemann uncovered the supposedly mythical city of Troy and demonstrated that the Iliad wasn’t entirely fantasy, archeologists have recently confirmed that the skeleton they have unearthed in a car park in Leicester really is that of the long-maligned Richard III, complete with his (in)famous hunchback in the form of advanced scoliosis.… Read the rest

Synthesizing happiness (without a prescription)

Of all the primary emotions, happiness is the one we’re all aching for more of. And how do we get more? We go out and grab it, right? If we’re lucky enough to have a sufficient degree of freedom, we make our choices, act carefully, get what we want and happiness follows.

Or maybe not. The following talk by Dan Gilbert questions not only our ideas of where happiness comes from, but even the role freedom plays in acquiring it. Is happiness – I mean the lasting kind – more about making the best of our lot in life than about getting what we want?… Read the rest

Knowledge under siege, and those who protect it

In Timbuktu, Mali’s famous caravan stop and medieval center of learning, an ancient tradition of hiding manuscripts has preserved a priceless collection of ancient knowledge from destruction at the hands of extremists. While we usually focus our attention on the expansion and transmission of knowledge, let’s spare a moment to think of the brave men and women of Timbuktu who risk their lives to save the priceless knowledge in their care. Read the recent story in the New York Times.

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Poetry lights up the brain

As an English teacher, I occasionally get asked by demotivated students why we should bother studying poetry. I find myself tempted to rant ineffectually about the appreciation of beauty and creativity as essential parts of what it means to be human, about the central role language decoding plays in critical thinking, and about the importance of common cultural reference points in building a sense of community and common purpose. However, there’s a simpler answer, less satisfying perhaps, but more motivating to the young. Poetry makes you less stupid.

Reading poetry – particularly challenging poetry – enhances brain activity and can have lasting cognitive effects, Julie Henry reports in The Telegraph.Read the rest

Fake it until you become it

It is estimated that well over half of face to face communication is non-verbal, ie body language. The usual breakdown is 55% body language, 38% tone of voice and 7% the actual words. Much of the information being communicated is emotional; we look to someone’s body language to judge if they are sexually attracted, frightened, shy or aggressive. If you’re prone to evolutionary speculations as I am, it makes sense that as pack animals one of the first things we need to establish is hierarchy, and that our body language is a good indication of where we think we should be in the pecking order.… Read the rest

Seeing is believing. Almost.

Of all our senses, vision is the one we tend to trust most. Ask any group of people which of the five senses (accepting for a moment the conventional categorization of our sense perception into five categories), almost none will choose to give up their sense of sight. “Seeing is believing,” as the old saying goes. In this TED talk by Beau Lotto, however, we get a slightly different idea of the reliability of visual perception. Our senses, Lotto observes, evolved for specific adaptive reasons. And truth wasn’t necessarily one of them.… Read the rest

Metaphor and cognitive dissonance

Metaphor is everywhere – in fact, you can hardly string two sentences together without without including at least one metaphor. In this video, James Geary elaborates on how metaphor functions not only to adorn language but as a means of creating meaning.

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