The Case for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valuable “Deep Work” Instead, According to Prof. Cal Newport

A familiar ding comes from your pocket, you look up from what you’re doing and reach for the smartphone. Before you can think, "it can wait," you’ve disappeared into the screen like little Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist. Taken by a ghostly presence with designs upon your soul—your time, emotional well-being, creativity—Facebook. Someone has requested my friendship! You like my video? I like you! Why, I’ve got an opinion about that, and that, and that, and that…. All the little performative gestures, imprinted in the fingers and the thumbs.

Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, WhatsApp, VKontact, Sina Weibo…. Just maybe, social media addiction is a global epidemic, a collection of mentally, and politically, toxic behaviors. As Suren Ramasubbu reports, “social media engagement has been found to trigger three key networks in the brain” that make us think intensely about our self-image and public perception, create new neural pathways, and release dopamine and oxytocin, which keep us coming back for more thumbs-ups, little hearts, and gold stars (good job!).




While the nature of addiction is a controversial topic, it will arouse little disagreement to say that we live—as Georgetown University Computer Science Professor Calvin Newport writes in the subtitle of his book Deep Work—in a “distracted world.” Newport’s prescription will go down less easily. Quit, drop out, tune out, opt out, get out of the Matrix, Newport argues, more or less, in his book and his TEDx talk above. He acknowledges the oddity of being a “millennial computer scientist book author, standing on a TED stage” who never had a social media account and urges others to give up theirs.

Any one of his overlapping demographics is likely to have a significant web presence. Put all of them together and we expect Newport to be pitching a startup network to an audience of venture capitalists. Even the story about why he first abstained could have made him a minor character in The Social Network. But feelings of professional jealousy soon turned to wariness and alarm. “This seems dangerous,” he says, then lets us know—because we surely wondered—that he’s okay. “I still have friends. I still know what’s going on in the world.” Whether you’re convinced he’s happier than the rest of us poor saps is up to you.

As for the claim that we should join him in the wilderness of the real—his argument is persuasive. Social media, says Newport, is not a “fundamental technology.” It is akin to the slot machine, an “entertainment machine,” with an insidious added dimension—the soul stealing. Paraphrasing tech guru and iconoclast Jaron Lanier, Newport says, “these companies offer you shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bytes of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold.” But like the slot machine, the social media network is a “somewhat unsavory source of entertainment” given the express intent of its engineers to make their product “as addictive as possible,” comparable to what dietitians now call “ultra-processed foods.”

Newport names another objection to quitting—the necessity of social media as an essential business tool—then pivots to his book and his commitment to what he calls “deep work.” What is this? You can read the book to find out, or get a Cliff’s Notes version in Brian Johnson’s video above. Johnson begins by contrasting deep work with “shallow work,” where we spend most of our time, “constantly responding to the latest and loudest email and push notification for social media, or text messages or phone ringing, whatever.”

While we may get little endorphin boosts from all of this heavily mediated social activity, we pay a high price in stress, anxiety, and lost time in our personal, professional, and creative lives. The research on overwork and distraction supports Newport's conclusions. The real rewards come from deep work, he argues, that which we do when we have total focus and emotional investment in a project. Without getting too specific, such work, Newport says, is not only personally fulfilling, but valuable “in a 21st century economy” for its rarity.

Social media, on the other hand, he claims, contributes little to our work lives. And as you (or maybe it’s me) scan the open social media tabs in your overloaded browser, and tune in to the cluttered state of your mind, you might find yourself agreeing with his heretical proposition. You might even share his talk on social media. Or decide to follow us on Facebook and/or Twitter.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Artist Draws 9 Portraits While on LSD: Inside the 1950s Experiments to Turn LSD into a “Creativity Pill”

LSD was first synthesized in 1938 by chemist Albert Hoffman in a Swiss laboratory but only attained infamy almost two decades later, when it became part of a series of government experiments. At the same time, a UC Irvine psychiatrist, Oscar Janiger (“Oz” to his friends), conducted his own studies under very different circumstances. “Unlike most researchers, Janiger wanted to create a ‘natural’ setting,” writes Brandy Doyle for MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies). He reasoned that “there was nothing especially neutral about a laboratory or hospital room,” so he “rented a house outside of LA, in which his subjects could have a relatively non-directed experience in a supportive environment.”

Janiger wanted his subjects to make creative discoveries in a state of heightened consciousness. The study sought, he wrote, to “illuminate the phenomenological nature of the LSD experience,” to see whether the drug could effectively be turned into a creativity pill. He found, over a period lasting from 1954 to 1962 (when the experiments were terminated), that among his approximately 900 subjects, those who were in therapy “had a high rate of positive response,” but those not in therapy “found the experience much less pleasant.” Janiger’s findings have contributed to the research that organizations like MAPS have done on psychoactive drugs in therapeutic settings. The experiments also produced a body of artwork made by study participants on acid.

Janiger invited over 100 professional artists into the study and had them produce over 250 paintings and drawings. The series of eight drawings you see here most likely came from one of those artists (though “the records of the identity of the principle researcher have been lost,” writes LiveScience). In the psych-rock-scored video at the top see the progression of increasingly abstract drawings the artist made over the course of his 8-hour trip. He reported on his perceptions and sensations throughout the experience, noting, at what seems to be the drug’s peak moment at 2.5 and 3 hours in, “I feel that my consciousness is situated in the part of my body that’s active—my hand, my elbow, my tongue…. I am… everything is… changed… they’re calling… your face… interwoven… who is….”

Trippy, but there’s much more to the experiment than its immediate effects on artists’ brains and sketches. As Janiger’s colleague Marlene Dobkin de Rios writes in her definitive book on his work, “all of the artists who participated in Janiger’s project said that LSD not only radically changed their style but also gave them new depths to understand the use of color, form, light, or the way these things are viewed in a frame of reference. Their art, they claimed, changed its essential character as a consequence of their experiences.” Psychologist Stanley Krippner made similar discoveries, and “defined the term psychedelic artist” to describe those who, as in Janiger’s studies “gained a far greater insight into the nature of art and the aesthetic idea,” Dobkin de Rios writes.

Artistic productions—paintings, poems, sketches, and writings that stemmed from the experience—often show a radical departure from the artist’s customary mode of expression… the artists’ general opinion was that their work became more expressionistic and demonstrated a vastly greater degree of freedom and originality.

The work of the unknown artist here takes on an almost mystical quality after a while. The project began “serendipitously” when one of Janiger’s volunteers in 1954 insisted on being able to draw during the dosing. “After his LSD experience,” writes Dobkin de Rios, “the artist was very emphatic that it would be most revealing to allow other artists to go through this process of perceptual change.” Janiger was convinced, as were many of his more famous test subjects.

Janiger reportedly introduced LSD to Cary Grant, Anais Nin, Jack Nicholson, and Aldous Huxley during guided therapy sessions. Still, he is not nearly as well-known as other LSD pioneers like Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, in part because, writes the psychoactive research site Erowid, “his data remained largely unpublished during his lifetime," and he was not himself an artist or media personality (though he was a cousin of Allen Ginsberg).

Janiger not only changed the consciousness of unnamed and famous artists with LSD, but also experimented with DMT with Alan Watts and fellow psychiatrist Humphry Osmond (who coined the word “psychedelic”), and conducted research on peyote with Dobkin de Rios. To a great degree, we have him to thank (or blame) for the explosion of psychedelic art and philosophy that flowed out of the early sixties and indelibly changed the culture. At LiveScience, you can see a slideshow of these drawings with commentary from Yale physician Andrew Sewell on what might be happening in the tripping artist's brain.

Note: IAI Academy has just released a short course called The Science of Psychedelics. You can enroll in it here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Harvard Course on Positive Psychology: Watch 30 Lectures from the University’s Extremely Popular Course

Several years back Tal Ben-Shahar taught a course on Positive Psychology at Harvard, which became, at least for a while, the most popular course at the university. About the course NPR wrote: "Twice a week, some 900 students attend Tal Ben-Shahar's class on what he calls 'how to get happy.' ... His class offers research from the relatively new field of positive psychology, which focuses on what makes people happy, rather than just their pathologies."

Available in an admittedly grainy format, you can watch the 30 lectures from that course above, or over on YouTube. According to the original syllabus, topics discussed include "happiness, self-esteem, empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, music, spirituality, and humor."

If you're interested in delving deeper into Positive Psychology, we'd recommend reading the works of Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania professor who effectively invented the field. Or better yet, you can sign up for a Coursera course that Seligman helped create--Positive Psychology: Well-Being for Life. The next round of that course starts on August 21st.

For related subjects visit our collection of Free Psychology Courses, a subset of our meta collection, 1,250 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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36 Abstract Covers of Vintage Psychology, Philosophy & Science Books Come to Life in a Mesmerizing Animation

Animated ebook covers are the wave of the future.

Graphic and motion designer Henning M. Lederer surfs that wave on the most unexpected of boards—a collection of abstract mid-century covers drawn from the Instagram feed of artist Julian Montague, who shares his enthusiasm for vintage minimalism.

Lederer first came to our attention in 2015, when we covered the first installment of what seems destined to become an ongoing project.




His latest effort, above, continues his explorations in the subjects which most frequently traded in these sorts of geometric covers—science, psychotherapy, philosophy and sociology.

No word on what inspired him to toss in the first cover, which features a cheerful, Playmobil-esque mushroom gatherer. It's endearing, but—to quote Sesame Street—is not like the others. Those of us who can’t decipher Cyrillic script get the fun of imagining what sort of text this is—a mycology manual? A children’s tale? A psychological examination—and ultimately rejection—of midcentury publishers’ fascination for spirals, diagonal bars, and other non-narrative graphics?

Whether or not you’d be inclined to pick up any of these titles, you may find yourself wanting to dance to them, compliments of musician Jörg Stierle’s trippy electronics.

Or take your cue from yet another cover  contained therein: I. P. Pavlov’s Essays in Psychology and Psychiatry with a Special Section on Sleep and Hypnosis.

Here’s the one that started it all:

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

Flickr Commons photo by J Stimp

Everyone used to read Samuel Johnson. Now it seems hardly anyone does. That’s a shame. Johnson understood the human mind, its sadly amusing frailties and its double-blind alleys. He understood the nature of that mysterious act we casually refer to as “creativity." It is not the kind of thing one lucks into or masters after a seminar or lecture series. It requires discipline and a mind free of distraction. “My dear friend,” said Johnson in 1783, according to his biographer and secretary Boswell, “clear your mind of cant.”

There’s no missing apostrophe in his advice. Inspiring as it may sound, Johnson did not mean to say “you can do it!” He meant “cant,” an old word for cheap deception, bias, hypocrisy, insincere expression. “It is a mode of talking in Society,” he conceded, “but don’t think foolishly.” Johnson’s injunction resonated through a couple centuries, became garbled into a banal affirmation, and was lost in a graveyard of image macros. Let us endeavor to retrieve it, and ruminate on its wisdom.




We may even do so with our favorite modern brief in hand, the scientific study. There are many we could turn to. For example, notes Derek Beres, in a 2014 book, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin brought his research to bear in arguing that “information overload keeps us mired in noise.... This saps us of not only willpower (of which we have a limited store) but creativity as well.” "We sure think we're accomplishing a lot," Levitin told Susan Page on The Diane Rehm Show in 2015, "but that's an illusion... as a neuroscientist, I can tell you one thing the brain is very good at is self-delusion."

Johnson’s age had its own version of information overload, as did that of another curmudgeonly voice from the past, T.S. Eliot, who wondered, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” The question leaves Eliot’s readers asking whether what we take for knowledge or information really are such? Maybe they’re just as often forms of needless busyness, distraction, and overthinking. Stanford researcher Emma Seppälä suggests as much in her work on “the science of happiness.” At Quartz, she writes,

We need to find ways to give our brains a break.... At work, we’re intensely analyzing problems, organizing data, writing—all activities that require focus. During downtime, we immerse ourselves in our phones while standing in line at the store or lose ourselves in Netflix after hours.

Seppälä exhorts us to relax and let go of the constant need for stimulation, to take longs walks without the phone, get out of our comfort zones, make time for fun and games, and generally build in time for leisure. How does this work? Let's look at some additional research. Bar-Ilan University’s Moshe Bar and Shira Baror undertook a study to measure the effects of distraction, or what they call “mental load,” the “stray thoughts” and “obsessive ruminations” that clutter the mind with information and loose ends. Our “capacity for original and creative thinking,” Bar writes at The New York Times, “is markedly stymied” by a busy mind. "The cluttered mind," writes Jessica Stillman, "is a creativity killer."

In a paper published in Psychological Science, Bar and Baror describe how “conditions of high load” foster unoriginal thinking. Participants in their experiment were asked to remember strings of arbitrary numbers, then to play word association games. “Participants with seven digits to recall resorted to the most statistically common responses,” writes Bar, “(e.g., white/black), whereas participants with two digits gave less typical, more varied pairings (e.g. white/cloud).” Our brains have limited resources. When constrained and overwhelmed with thoughts, they pursue well-trod paths of least resistance, trying to efficiently bring order to chaos.

“Imagination," on the other had, wrote Dr. Johnson elsewhere, “a licentious and vagrant faculty, unsusceptible of limitations and impatient of restraint, has always endeavored to baffle the logician, to perplex the confines of distinction, and burst the enclosures of regularity.” Bar describes the contrast between the imaginative mind and the information processing mind as “a tension in our brains between exploration and exploitation.” Gorging on information makes our brains “’exploit’ what we already know," or think we know, "leaning on our expectation, trusting the comfort of a predictable environment.” When our minds are “unloaded,” on the other hand, such as can occur during a hike or a long, relaxing shower, we can shed fixed patterns of thinking, and explore creative insights that might otherwise get buried or discarded.

As Drake Baer succinctly puts in at New York Magazine’s Science of Us, “When you have nothing to think about, you can do your best thinking.” Getting to that state in a climate of perpetual, unsleeping distraction, opinion, and alarm, requires another kind of discipline: the discipline to unplug, wander off, and clear your mind.

For another angle on this, you might want to check out Cal Newport's 2016 book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

People Who Swear Are More Honest Than Those Who Don’t, Finds a New University Study

I’ve heard it said many times: “I don’t trust people who don’t swear.” It’s not an empirical statement. Just an intuition, that people who shy away from salty language might also shy away from certain truths—may even be, perhaps, a little delusional. Few people characterize teetotalers of swearing with more bite than Stephen Fry, who believes “the sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or of a lack of verbal interest is just a fucking lunatic.” George Carlin would approve. A comically exaggerated view. No, swearing isn't necessarily a sign of mental illness. But it does correlate strongly with truthtelling.

It seems all the suspicious salts out there may have happened upon a measurable phenomenon. A study published last year with the cheeky title “Frankly, We Do Give a Damn: The Relationship Between Profanity and Honesty,” notes, “the consistent findings across the studies suggest that the positive relation between profanity and honesty is robust, and that relationship found at the individual level indeed translates to the society level.” It’s true, some research shows that people who swear may be likely to violate other social norms, god bless ‘em, but they are also less likely to lie during police interrogations.




After reviewing the literature, the researchers, led by Maastricht University Psychologist Gilad Feldman, describe the results of their own experiments. They asked 276 people to report on their swearing habits (or not) in detail. Those people then took a psychological test that measured their levels of honesty. Next, the team analyzed 70,000 social media interactions, and reported that “profanity and honesty were found to be significantly and positively correlated, indicating that those who used more profanity were more honest in their Facebook status updates.” They did not say whether high levels of honesty on Facebook is desirable.

Finally, Feldman and his colleagues widened their scope to 48 U.S. states, and were able to correlate social media data with measures of government accountability. States with higher levels of swearing had a higher integrity score according to a 2012 index published by the Center for Public Integrity. (Believe or not, New Jersey had some of the highest scores.) All three of their studies yielded similar results. “At both the individual and society level,” they conclude, “we found that a higher rate of profanity use was associated with more honesty.” This does not mean, as Ephrat Livni writes at Quartz, that “people who curse like sailors” won’t “commit serious ethical crimes—but they won’t pretend all’s well online.”

As to the question of whether swearing betrays a lack of education and an impoverished vocabulary, we might turn to linguist, psychologist, and neuroscientist Steven Pinker, who has made a learned defense of foul language, in drily humorous talks, books, and essays. “When used judiciously,” he writes in a 2008 Harvard Brain article, “swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive.” His is an argument that relies not only on data but on philosophical reflection and literary appreciation. “It’s a fact of life that people swear,” he says, and so, it’s a fact of art. Shakespeare invented dozens of swears and was never afraid to work blue. Perhaps that’s why we find his representations of humanity so perennially honest.

You can read “Frankly, We Do Give a Damn: The Relationship Between Profanity and Honesty" here. In addition to Gilad Feldman, the research paper was also written by Huiwen Lian (The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology,) Michal Kosinski (Stanford), and David Stillwell (Cambridge).

via Cambridge University

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stephen Fry Identifies the Cognitive Biases That Make Trump Tick

Months after the election, much of the electorate is still trying to figure out what makes Trump/Trumpism tick. Everyone has a theory--frankly too many theories to rehearse right here. But we'll give you the take of Stephen Fry, a regular presence on our site.

In the animated clip above from Pindex, Fry attributes the Trump's political ascendance and style to three cognitive biases, or three deviations from rational judgment, which lead people to draw illogical conclusions about other people or situations. They are, as follows:

At minimum, Fry's primer offers a quick introduction to the world of cognitive biases and their social impact. At most, it makes some sense of America's unexpected detour into Trumpism. I suspect that Fry's speculations only scratch the surface of a much more complicated answer--an answer that historians can sort out in the decades to come. And Fry's solutions--the ways he suggests combatting these cognitive biases--will need some more expert analysis too.

For anyone interested, the video below highlights 12 cognitive biases we regularly encounter in our daily lives:

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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