How Do You Help a Grieving Friend? Acknowledge Their Pain and Skip the Platitudes & Facile Advice

“What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?” writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of OthersAcknowledgment, the recognition of unimaginable pain and loss, is central, it turns out, to healing. Grief expert Alan Wolfelt lists “acknowledging the full reality of the loss” as the first in his “Six Needs of Mourning.” But he also notes what so many in his field are quick to point out about contemporary culture: “Normal thoughts and feelings connected to loss are typically seen as unnecessary and even shameful.”

The important work of grieving gets bypassed not only by our own internalized shame, but by the unhelpful interventions of others. Megan Devine—author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand—explains the central role of acknowledgment, simply being with others in the full scope of their pain, in the short animated video above. Many of us are taught to do anything but, to throw out advice and platitudes instead. (Illustrated here by an animated bunny tossing out rainbows.)




Our motives may not be “nefarious,” she says, but—to use Sontag’s phrase—trying to fix someone’s suffering amounts to a form of protest against it. And it only makes things worse. Devine is a psychotherapist and bereaved person herself. Her book, notes Jane Brody at The New York Times, “grew out of the tragic loss of her beloved partner, who drowned at age 39 while the couple was on vacation.” She speaks not in the jargon of a clinician but in the frank language of a fellow sufferer and survivor.

“You don’t need platitudes,” she writes on her website, “You don’t need cheerleading. You don’t need to be told this all happened for a reason. You certainly don’t need to be told that you needed your pain in order to learn something about life. Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”

Being with someone in their grief is “a radical act,” says Devine. “In order to really support you, I have to acknowledge that things really are as bad as they feel to you.” Offers of cheer or advice create defensive barriers. Turning toward someone’s suffering gives them what they need the most: “Being heard helps. It’s the best medicine we have. It makes things better, even when they can’t be made right.”

via Laughing Squid

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

You’re Only As Old As You Feel: Harvard Psychologist Ellen Langer Shows How Mental Attitude Can Potentially Reverse the Effects of Aging

You’re only as old as you feel, right? The platitude may be true. In a scientifically verifiable sense, “feeling”—a state of mind—may not only determine psychological well-being but physical health as well, including the natural aging processes of the body.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has spent decades testing the hypothesis, and has come to some interesting conclusions about the relationship between mental processes and bodily aging. In order to do the kind of work she has for decades, she has had to put aside the thorny “mind-body” problem—a longstanding philosophical and practical impasse in figuring out how the two interact. “Let’s forget about how you get from one to the other,” she tells CBS This Morning in a 2014 interview above, “and in fact see those as just words…. Wherever you’re putting the mind, you’re necessarily putting the body.”




What happens to the one, she theorized, will necessarily affect the other. In a 1981 experiment, which she called the “counterclockwise study,” she and her research team placed eight men in their late 70s in a monastery in New Hampshire, converted to transport them all to 1959 when they were in their prime. Furniture, décor, news, sports, music, TV, movies: every cultural reference dated from the period. There were no mirrors, only photos of the men in their 20s. They spoke and acted as though they had traveled back in time and gotten younger.

The results were extraordinary, almost too good to be true, she felt. “On several measures,” The New York Times reported in 2014, “they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce." The "counterclockwise" participants "were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller…. Perhaps most improbably, their sight improved” as well as their hearing.  Given the seemingly miraculous outcomes, tiny sample size, and the unorthodoxy of the experiment, Langer decided not to publish at the time but continued to work on similar studies looking at how the mind affects the body.

Then, almost thirty years later, the BBC contacted her about staging a televised recreation of the monastery experiment, “with six aging former celebrities as guinea pigs,” who were transported back to 1975 by similar means. The stars “emerged after a week as apparently rejuvenated as Langer’s septuagenarians in New Hampshire.” These experiments and several others Langer has conducted over the years strongly suggest that chronological age is not a linear clock pushing us inexorably toward decline. It is, rather, a collection of variables that include psychological well-being and something called an “epigenetic clock,” a mechanism that UCLA geneticist Steve Horvath has discovered directly correlates with the aging process, and may show us how to change it.

But while Horvath has yet to answer several pressing questions about how certain genetic mechanisms interact, Langer has put such questions aside in favor of testing the mind-body connection in a series of experiments, which engage the aging—or people with specific conditions—in studies that stretch their minds. By creating illusions like the monastery time machine, Langer has found that perception has a significant effect on aging. If we perceive ourselves to be younger, healthier, more capable, more vibrant, despite the messages about how we should look and act at our chronological age, then our cells and tissues get the message. Not only can a change in perception affect aging, but also, Langer theorizes, obesity, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic or life-threatening conditions. Much of her research here gets spelled out in her book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.

“Whether it’s about aging or anything else,” says Lager, “if you are surrounded by people who have certain expectations for you, you tend to meet those expectations, positive or negative.” The social expectation for the aging is that they will get weaker, less capable, and more prone to deterioration and illness. Ignoring these expectations and changing our perception of what chronological age means—and doesn’t mean—Langer says, seems to actually slow or partially reverse the decline and to ward off disease. Those psychological changes can come about through interventions like caring for children, plants, or animals and using mindfulness practices to learn how to be attentive to change.

You can read more about Langer and Horvath’s specific findings on aging, psychology, and epigenetics at Nautilus.

Note: you can get Langer's book--Counterclockwise Mindful Health and the Transformative Power of Possibility--as a free audiobook through Audible.com's free trial program. Get more details on the free trial here.

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

How Meditation Can Change Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Buddhist Practice

Nirvana is a place on earth. Popularly thought of a Buddhist “heaven,” religious scholars discuss the concept not as an arrival at someplace other than the physical place we are, but as the extinction of suffering in the mind, achieved in large part through intensive meditation. If this state of enlightenment exists in the here and now—the scientific inquirer is justified in asking—shouldn’t it be something we can measure?

Maybe it is. Psychologist Daniel Goleman and neuroscientist Richard Davidson set out to do just that when they flew several “Olympic level meditators” from Nepal, India, and France to Davidson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin. Once they put the meditators under Davidson's scanners, researchers found that “their brain waves are really different,” as Goleman says in the Big Think video above.

Perhaps the most remarkable findings in the Olympic level meditators has to do with what’s called a gamma wave. All of us get gamma for a very short period when we solve a problem we’ve been grappling with, even if it’s something that’s vexed us for months. We get about half second of gamma; it’s the strongest wave in the EEG spectrum….

What was stunning was that the Olympic level meditators, these are people who have done up to 62,000 lifetime hours of meditation, their brainwave shows gamma very strong all the time as a lasting trait just no matter what they’re doing. It’s not a state effect, it’s not during their meditation alone, but it’s just their every day state of mind. We actually have no idea what that means experientially. Science has never seen it before.

The meditators themselves describe the state of mind in terms consistent with thousands of years of literature on the subject; “it’s very spacious and you’re wide open, you’re prepared for whatever may come.” Goleman and Davidson have elaborated their findings for the public in the book Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. For more on Davidson’s work on the subject, see his talk at Google, “Transform Your Mind, Change Your Brain.”

The bar to enlightenment seems high. Goleman and Davidson’s “Olympic level” test subjects spent a minimum of 62,000 hours in meditation, which amounts to something like 20 years of eight-hour days, seven days a week (and maybe explains why the path to enlightenment is often spread out over several lifetimes in the tradition). But that doesn’t mean meditation in lesser doses does not have significant effects on the brain as well.

As Goleman explains in the video above, meditation induces a state of hyper-focus, or “flow,” that acts as a gym for your brain: lowering stress, raising the level of resilience under stress, and increasing focus “in the midst of distractions.” As some point, he says, these temporary “altered states” become permanent “altered traits." Along the way, as with any consistent, long-term workout program, meditators develop strength, stamina, and flexibility the longer they stick with the practice. Find resources to get you started in the Relateds below.

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

Why We Say “OK”: The History of the Most Widely Spoken Word in the World

Ok, not to be contrary, but anyone else worry that we may be getting punked here?

Is Coleman Lowndes' clever collage-style video on the ubiquity and origins of the word “ok” a bit too clever for its own good?

His assertion that the word “ok” was the invention of waggish Bostonian hipsters in the late 1830s sounds like an Onion headline.

It’s hard to believe that clever young adults once amused themselves by bandying about deliberately misspelled abbreviations.

Also does anyone else remember hearing that “OK” could be traced to the 1840 reelection campaign of President Martin “Old Kinderhook” Van Buren?

Or folksinger Pete Seeger’s salute to the linguistic melting pot, “All Mixed Up,” which perpetuated the notion of OK as a corruption of the Choctaw word “okeh.”

Both of those explanations sound a lot more probable than a jokey bastardization of “all correct.”

Aka “oll korrect.”

As in OK, pal, whatever you say.

(That was the wittiest jape of the season?)

Etymologist Dr. Allen Walker Read’s considerable research supported “ok” as the lone survivor of 19th-century smart set wordplay, to the point where it was the lede in his obituary.

(The writer noted, as Lowndes does, how “ok” was among the first words out of astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s mouth when he set foot on the moon.)

Oookay…

If you’d like to know more, you can always delve into English professor Allan Metcalf”s book, OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, which cites the telegraph’s role in the popularization of everyone’s favorite neutral affirmative, as well as our powerful psychological attraction to the letter “k.”

(Kare for a Krispy Kreme with that Kool-Aid? ... The answer is an emphatic yes, I mean, OK, in any language.)

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 24 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Sigmund Freud Speaks: Hear the Only Known Recording of His Voice, 1938

On December 7, 1938, a BBC radio crew visited Sigmund Freud at his new home at Hampstead, North London. Freud had moved to England only a few months earlier to escape the Nazi annexation of Austria. He was 81 years old and suffering from incurable jaw cancer. Every word was an agony to speak.

Less than a year later, when the pain became unbearable, Freud asked his doctor to administer a lethal dose of morphine. The BBC recording is the only known audio recording of Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and one of the towering intellectual figures of the 20th century. (Find works by Freud in our collection of 800 Free eBooks.) In heavily accented English, he says:

I started my professional activity as a neurologist trying to bring relief to my neurotic patients. Under the influence of an older friend and by my own efforts, I discovered some important new facts about the unconscious in psychic life, the role of instinctual urges, and so on. Out of these findings grew a new science, psychoanalysis, a part of psychology, and a new method of treatment of the neuroses. I had to pay heavily for this bit of good luck. People did not believe in my facts and thought my theories unsavory. Resistance was strong and unrelenting. In the end I succeeded in acquiring pupils and building up an International Psychoanalytic Association. But the struggle is not yet over.  --Sigmund Freud.


Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site back in May, 2012.

via The Library of Congress

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The Surprising Pattern Behind the Names of Colors Around the World

People in South Korea, where I live, often ask if I don't find the Korean language awfully hard. I reply by asking them what they imagine the most difficult part might be. Almost everyone has the same answer: "There are so many words for colors." (Many add, with a strangely consistent specificity, that there are so many words for yellow.) Though each new language one learns presents a unique set of challenges, that set does invariably include memorizing the names of the colors all over again. And as with any element of grammar or vocabulary, some languages do make this more difficult than others, dividing the visible spectrum up with a set of more numerous, subtler distinctions than those made by one's native tongue.

But then any language, no matter where it originated, ultimately has to describe the very same colors present in the physical world. The Vox video above shows what the ways in which they vary in so doing, and more so the ways in which they don't, reveal about language itself. English has eleven "basic color categories," the video's narrator says, while Russian, for example, has twelve. But some languages, like Wobé of Côte d'Ivoire, have as few as three.




In those cases, language researchers have found that they can predict what those few color categories will be. In the late 1960s, UC Berkeley's Paul Kay and Brent Berlin found that "if a language had six basic color words, they were always for black or dark, white or light, red, green, yellow, and blue. If it had four terms, they were for black, white, red, and then either green or yellow. If it had only three, they were always for black, white, and red." See their book, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution.

So it appears that, though specifics varied, languages tended to come up with their color terms in the same basic order. But "why would a word for red come before a word for blue? Some have speculated that the stages correspond to the salience of the color in the natural environment. Red is in blood and in dirt. Blue, on the other hand, was fairly scarce before manufacturing." Cognitive science and artificial intelligence research further support this hierarchy with red at the top, green and yellow lower down, and blue lower still. This tells us that "despite our many differences across cultures and societies, there is something universal about how humans try to make sense of the world." Something universal, certainly, but an infinitude of small differences as well: therein lies both the challenge and the fascination of not just language but human interaction itself.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear Freddie Mercury & Queen’s Isolated Vocals on Their Enduring Classic Song, “We Are The Champions”

In the age of Auto-Tune, it’s a pleasure to have proof that certain greats had no need of pitch correction.

Queen front man Freddie Mercury’s legendarily angelic, five octave-range pipes deliver extra chills on the isolated vocal track for "We Are the Champions."

Playback.fm, a free online radio app, stripped the beloved Queen hit of everything but the vocal wave form, then synched it to footage from four concert films and a rare recording session, above.




You’ll also hear backing vocals courtesy of guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor, and Mercury himself.

Their practice was to record two takes of each background part—high, medium and low—in unison, yielding an eighteen voice backing choir. Bassist John Deacon, inventor of the Deacy amp, left the singing to his bandmates, though he did compose several of their top ten hits including "You're My Best Friend" and "Another One Bites the Dust."

Cowing though it may be, don’t let these accomplished musicians’ abundance of talent keep you from singing along. Remember that in 2011, a team of scientific researchers voted “We Are the Champions” the catchiest song in pop music history, thanks in part to Mercury’s “high effort” vocals. As participant and music psychologist Daniel Müllensiefen observed:

Every musical hit is reliant on maths, science, engineering and technology; from the physics and frequencies of sound that determine pitch and harmony, to the hi-tech digital processors and synthesisers which can add effects to make a song more catchier. We’ve discovered that there’s a science behind the sing-along and a special combination of neuroscience, math and cognitive psychology that can produce the elusive elixir of the perfect sing-along song.

When the audience is allowed in at the three minute mark, you can pretend that that thunderous applause is partly due to you.

Enjoy more Freddie Mercury isolated vocal tracks here and here.

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

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