How Does Language Shape the Way We Think? Cognitive Scientist Lera Boroditsky Explains

Imagine a jellyfish waltzing in a library while thinking about quantum mechanics. "If everything has gone relatively well in your life so far," cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky says in the TED Talk above, "you probably haven't had that thought before." But now you have, all thanks to language, the remarkable ability by which "we humans are able to transmit our ideas across vast reaches of space and time" and "knowledge across minds."

Though we occasionally hear about startling rates of language extinction — Boroditsky quotes some estimates as predicting half the world's languages gone in the next century — a great variety still thrive. Does that mean we have an equal variety of essentially different ways of thinking? In both this talk and an essay for Edge.org, Boroditsky presents intriguing pieces of evidence that what language we speak does affect the way we conceive of the world and our ideas about it. These include an Aboriginal tribe in Australia who always and everywhere use cardinal directions to describe space ("Oh, there's an ant on your southwest leg") and the differences in how languages label the color spectrum.




"Russian speakers have to differentiate between light blue, goluboy, and dark blue, siniy," says the Belarus-born, American-raised Boroditsky. "When we test people's ability to perceptually discriminate these colors, what we find is that Russian speakers are faster across this linguistic boundary. They're faster to be able to tell the difference between a light and dark blue." Hardly a yawning cognitive gap, you might think, but just imagine how many such differences exist between languages, and how the habits of mind they shape potentially add up.

"You don't even need to go into the lab to see these effects of language; you can see them with your own eyes in an art gallery," writes Boroditsky in her Edge essay. "How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist's native language." More Germans paint death as a man, and more Russians paint it as a woman. Personally, I'd like to see all the various ways artists speaking all the world's languages paint that waltzing jellyfish thinking about quantum mechanics in the library. We'd better hurry commissioning them, though, before too many more of those languages vanish.

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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.

What Ancient Chinese Philosophy Can Teach Us About Living the Good Life Today: Lessons from Harvard’s Popular Professor, Michael Puett

It has at times been concerning for some Buddhist scholars and teachers to watch mindfulness become an integral part of self-help programs. A casual attitude toward the practice of mindfulness meditation can make it seem accessible by making it seem relaxing and effortless, which often results in missing the point entirely. Whatever the school, lineage, or particular tradition from which they come, the source texts and sages tend to agree: the purpose of meditation is not self improvement—but to realize that there may, indeed, be no such thing as a self.

Instead, we are all epiphenomenon arising from combinations of ever-shifting elements (the aggregates, or skandhas). The self is a conventionally useful illusion. This notion in the ancient Indian texts has its echo in Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume’s so-called “bundle theory,” but Hume's thoughts about the self have mostly remained obscure footnotes in western thought, rather than central premises in its philosophies and religions. But as thinkers in India took the self apart, so too did philosophers in ancient China, before Buddhism reached the country during the Han Dynasty.




Harvard Professor Michael Puett has been lecturing on Chinese philosophy to audiences of hundreds of students—and at 21st century temples of self-actualization like TED and the School of Life. He has co-authored a book on the subject, The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, drawn from his enormously popular university courses, in which he expounds the philosophies of Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi. The book has found a ready audience, and Puett’s “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory” is the 3rd most popular class among Harvard undergraduates, behind intro to economics and computer science. What Professor Puett offers, in his distillation of ancient Chinese wisdom, is not at all to be construed as self-help.

Rather, he says, “I think of it as sort of anti-self-help. Self-help tends to be about learning to love yourself and embrace yourself for who you are. A lot of these ideas are saying precisely the opposite—no, you overcome the self, you break the self. You should not be happy with who you are.” Lest this sound like some form of violence, we must understand, Puett tells Tim Dowling at The Guardian, that in “breaking” the self, we are only doing harm to an illusion. As in the Buddhist thought that took root in China, so too in the earlier Confucianism: there is no self, just a “a messy and potentially ugly bunch of stuff.”

While our current circumstances may seem unique in world history, Puett shows his students how Chinese philosophers 2,500 years ago also experienced rapid societal change and upheaval, as his co-author Christine Gross-Loh writes at The Atlantic; they navigated and understood "a world where human relationships are challenging, narcissism and self-centeredness are on the rise, and there is disagreement on the best way for people to live harmoniously together." A majority of students at Harvard are driven to pursue "practical, predetermined" careers. By teaching them Confucian and Daoist philosophy, Puett tries to help them become more spontaneous and open to change.

Whatever we call it, the interacting phenomenon that give rise to the self cannot, we know, be observed in anything resembling an unchanging steady state. Yet Western culture (for several motivated reasons) has lagged far behind both intuitive and scientific observations of this fact. Puett's students have been told, “’Find your true self, especially during these four years of college,’” and “try and be sincere and authentic to who you really are” in making choices about careers, partners, passions, and consumer products. They take to his class because “they’ve spent 20 years looking for this true self and not finding it.”

In the two lectures above—a shorter one at the top from TEDx Nashville and a longer talk above for Ivy, “The Social University”—you can get a taste of Puett’s enthusiastic style. Chinese philosophy, “in its strong form,” he says above, “can truly change one’s life.” Not by making us more empowered, personally-fulfilled agents who re-create reality to better meet our narrow specs. But rather, as he tells Dowling, by training us “to become incredibly good at dealing with this capricious world.”

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

Depression & Melancholy: Animated Videos Explain the Crucial Difference Between Everyday Sadness and Clinical Depression

“Depression,” the TED-Ed video above informs us, “is the leading cause of disability in the world.” This may be a hard fact to swallow, the product, we might think, of pharmaceutical advertising. We all feel down from time to time, we think. “Then circumstances change, and those sad feelings disappear.” Isn’t it like this for everyone? It is not. “Clinical depression is different. It’s a medical disorder, and it won’t go away just because you want it to.”

Depression can linger for up to two weeks, and become so debilitating that sufferers cannot work or play. It interferes with important relationships and “can have a lot of different symptoms: a low mood, loss of interest in things you’d normally enjoy, changes in appetite, feeling worthless or excessively guilty,” restlessness and insomnia, or extreme lethargy, poor concentration, and possible thoughts of suicide. But surely we can hear a paid promotional voice when the narrator states, “If you have at least 5 of those symptoms, according to psychiatric guidelines, you qualify for a diagnosis of depression.”




What we don’t typically hear about in pharmaceutical ads are the measurable physiological changes depression writes in the brain, including decreased brain matter in the frontal lobe and atrophy of the hippocampus. These effects are measurable in humans and rats, in study after study after study. But while most of us know the names of a neurotransmitter or two these days, not even neuroscientists fully understand the biology of depression. They do know that some combination of medication, therapy, and, in extreme cases electroconvulsive treatment, can allow people to more fully experience life.

People in treatment will still feel “down” on occasion, just like everyone does. But depression, the explainer wants us to understand, should never be compared to ordinary sadness. Its effects on behavior and brain health are too wide-ranging, pervasive, persistent, and detrimental. These effects can be invisible, which adds to an unfortunate social stigma that dissuades people from seeking treatment. The more we talk about depression openly, rather than treating as it as a shameful secret, the more likely people at risk will be to seek help.

Just as depression cannot be alleviated by trivializing or ignoring it, the condition does not respond to being romanticized. While, indeed, many a famous painter, poet, actor, etc. has suffered from clinical depression—and made it a part of their art—their examples should not suggest to us that artists shouldn’t get treatment. Sadness is never trivial.

Unlike physical pain, it is difficult, for example, to pinpoint the direct causes of sadness. As the short video above demonstrates, the assumption that sadness is caused by external events arose relatively recently. The humoral system of the ancient Greeks treated all sadness as a biological phenomenon. Greek physicians believed it was an expression of black bile, or “melaina kole,” from which we derive the word "melancholy." It seems we’ve come full circle, in a way. Ancient humoral theorists recommended nutrition, medical treatment, and physical exercise as treatments for melancholia, just as doctors do today for depression.

But melancholy is a much broader term, not a scientific designation; it is a collection of ideas about sadness that span thousands of years. Nearly all of those ideas include some sense that sadness is an essential experience. “If you’ve never felt melancholy,” the narrator says, “you’ve missed out on part of what it means to be human.” Thinkers have described melancholia as a precursor to, or inevitable result of, acquiring wisdom. One key example, Robert Burton’s 1621 text The Anatomy of Melancholy, "the apogee of Renaissance scholarship," set the tone for discussions of melancholy for the next few centuries.

The scientific/philosophical/literary text argues, “he that increaseth wisdom, increaseth sorrow,” a sentiment the Romantic poets turned on its head. Before them came John Milton, whose 1645 poem Il Penseroso addresses melancholy as “thou Goddes, sage and holy… Sober, stedfast, and demure.” The deity Melancholy oversees the contemplative life and reveals essential truths through “Gorgeous Tragedy.”

One of the poem’s loftiest themes showed the way forward for the Romantics: “The poet who seeks to attain the highest level of creative expression must embrace the divine,” write Milton scholars Katherine Lynch and Thomas H. Luxon, "which can only be accomplished by following the path set out in Il Penseroso.” The divine, in this case, takes the form of sadness personified. Yet this poem cannot be read in isolation: its companion, L’Allegro, praises Mirth, and of sadness says, “Hence loathed Melancholy / Of Cerberus, and blackest midnight born, in Stygian Cave forlorn / ‘Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy.”

Rather than contradict each other, these two characterizations speak to the ambivalent attitudes, and vastly different experiences, humans have about sadness. Fleeting bouts of melancholy can be sweet, touching, and beautiful, inspiring art, music, and poetry. Sadness can force us to reckon with life’s unpleasantness rather than deny or avoid it. On the other hand, in its most extreme, chronically intractable forms, such as what we now call clinical depression, sadness can destroy our capacity to act, to appreciate beauty and learn important lessons, marking the critical difference between a universal existential condition and a, thankfully, treatable physical disease.

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

Why Incompetent People Think They’re Amazing: An Animated Lesson from David Dunning (of the Famous “Dunning-Kruger Effect”)

The business world has long had special jargon for the Kafkaesque incompetence bedeviling the ranks of upper management. There is “the Peter principle,” first described in a satirical book of the same name in 1968. More recently, we have the positive notion of “failing upward.” The concept has inspired a mantra, “fail harder, fail faster,” as well as popular books like The Gift of Failure. Famed research professor, author, and TED talker Brené Brown has called TED “the failure conference," and indeed, a “FailCon” does exist, “in over a dozen cities on 6 continents around the globe.”

The candor about this most unavoidable of human phenomena may prove a boon to public health, lowering levels of hypertension by a significant margin. But is there a danger in praising failure too fervently? (Samuel Beckett’s quote on the matter, beloved by many a 21st century thought leader, proves decidedly more ambiguous in context.) Might it present an even greater opportunity for people to “rise to their level of incompetence”? Given the prevalence of the “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” a cognitive bias explained by John Cleese in a previous post, we may not be well-placed to know whether our efforts constitute success or failure, or whether we actually have the skills we think we do.




First described by social psychologists David Dunning (University of Michigan) and Justin Kruger (N.Y.U.) in 1999, the effect “suggests that we’re not very good at evaluating ourselves accurately.” So says the narrator of the TED-Ed lesson above, scripted by Dunning and offering a sober reminder of the human propensity for self-delusion. “We frequently overestimate our own abilities,” resulting in widespread “illusory superiority” that makes “incompetent people think they’re amazing.” The effect greatly intensifies at the lower end of the scale; it is often “those with the least ability who are most likely to overrate their skills to the greatest extent.” Or as Cleese plainly puts it, some people “are so stupid, they have no idea how stupid they are.”

Combine this with the converse effect—the tendency of skilled individuals to underrate themselves—and we have the preconditions for an epidemic of mismatched skill sets and positions. But while imposter syndrome can produce tragic personal results and deprive the world of talent, the Dunning-Kruger effect’s worst casualties affect us all adversely. People “measurably poor at logical reasoning, grammar, financial knowledge, math, emotional intelligence, running medical lab tests, and chess all tend to rate their expertise almost as favorably as actual experts do.” When such people get promoted up the chain, they can unwittingly do a great deal of harm.

While arrogant self-importance plays its role in fostering delusions of expertise, Dunning and Kruger found that most of us are subject to the effect in some area of our lives simply because we lack the skills to understand how bad we are at certain things. We don't know the rules well enough to successfully, creatively break them. Until we have some basic understanding of what constitutes competence in a particular endeavor, we cannot even understand that we’ve failed.

Real experts, on the other hand, tend to assume their skills are ordinary and unremarkable. “The result is that people, whether they’re inept or highly skilled, are often caught in a bubble of inaccurate self-perception." How can we get out? The answers won’t surprise you. Listen to constructive feedback and never stop learning, behavior that can require a good deal of vulnerability and humility.

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

What Are the Most Effective Strategies for Learning a Foreign Language?: Six TED Talks Provide the Answers

Earlier this week we featured the Foreign Service Institute's list of languages ranked by how long they take to learn. Now that you have a sense of the relative life investment required to learn the tongue or tongues of your choice, how about a few words of advice on how to start? Or perhaps we'd do better, before the how, to consider the why. "A lot of us start with the wrong motivation to learn a language," says Benny Lewis in his TED Talk "Hacking Language Learning." Those motivations include "just to pass an exam, to improve our career prospects, or in my case for superficial reasons, to impress people."

Real language learning, on the other hand, comes from passion for a language, for "the literature and the movies and being able to read in the language, and of course, to use it with people." But Lewis, who now brands himself as "The Irish Polyglot," says he got a late start on language-learning, convinced up until his early twenties that he simply couldn't do it.




He cites five flimsy defenses he once used, and so many others still do, for their monolingualism: lack of a "language gene or talent," being "too old to learn a second language," not having the resources to "travel to the country right now," and not wanting to "frustrate native speakers" by using the language before attaining fluency.

None of these, however, seem to have occurred to Tim Doner, who went viral at sixteen years with a video wherein he spoke twenty languages that he taught himself. He discusses that experience, and the fascinations and techniques that got him to that point and now well past it, in his talk "Breaking the Language Barrier." At first put off by the drudgery of French classes in school, he only began to grasp the nature of language itself, as a kind of system breakable into masterable rules, when he began studying Latin.

Wanting to understand more about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Doner decided to find his way into the subject through Hebrew, and specifically through rap music recorded in it. Using language study as a means of dealing with his insomnia, he discovered techniques to expand into other linguistic realms, such as the method of loci (i.e., remembering words by associating them with places), learning vocabulary in batches of similar sounds rather than similar meanings, and seeking out the foreign-language learners and speakers all around him — a relatively easy task for a New Yorker like Doner, but applicable nearly everywhere.

In "How to Learn Any Language in Six Months," Chris Lonsdale delivers, and with a passion bordering on fury, a set of useful principles like "Focus on language content that is relevant to you," "Use your new language as a tool to communicate from day one," "When you first understand the message, you will unconsciously acquire the language." This resonates with the advice offered by the much more laid-back Sid Efromovich in "Five Techniques to Speak any Language," including an encouragement to "get things wrong and make mistakes," a suggestion to "find a stickler" to help you identify and correct those mistakes, and a strategy for overcoming the pronunciation-hindering limitations of the "database" of sounds long established in your brain by your native language.

Your native language, in fact, will play the role of your most aggressive and persistent enemy in the struggle to learn a foreign one — especially if your native language is as widely used, to one degree or another, as English. And so Scott Young and Vat Jaiswal, in their talk "One Simple Method to Learn Any Language," propose an absolute "no-English rule." You can get results using it with a conversation partner in your homeland, while traveling for the purpose of language-learning, and especially if you've relocated to another country permanently.

With the rule in place, you'll avoid the sorry fate of one fellow Young and Jaiswal know, "an American businessman who went to Korea, married a Korean women, had children in Korea, lived in Korea for twenty years, and still couldn't have a decent conversation in Korean." As an American living in Korea myself, I had to laugh at that: I could name at least three dozen long-term Western expatriates I've met in that very same situation. In my case, I spent a few years developing self-study habits for Korean and a couple other languages while still in America, and so didn't have to implement them on the fly after moving here.

Even so, I still must constantly refine my language-learning strategy, incorporating routines like those laid out by English polyglot Matthew Youlden in "How to Speak any Language Easily": seeking out exploitable similarities between the languages I know and the ones I want to know better, say, or finding sources of constant "passive" linguistic input. Personally, I like to listen to podcasts not just in foreign languages, but that teach one foreign language through another. And just as English-learners get good listening practice out of TED Talks like these, I seek them out in other languages: Korean, Japanese, Spanish, or wherever good old linguistic passion leads me next.

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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.

The Power of Introverts: Author Susan Cain Explains Why We Need to Appreciate the Talents & Abilities of the Quiet Ones

Ours is a loud culture of nonstop personal sharing, endless chatter, and 24-hour news, opinion, and entertainment. Even those people who prefer reading alone to the overstimulating carnival of social media feel pressured to participate. How else can you keep up with your family—whose Facebook posts you’d rather see die than have to read? How else to build a profile for employers—whom you desperately hope won’t check your Twitter feed?

For the introvert, maintaining an always-on façade can be profoundly enervating—and the problem goes far beyond the personal, argues author Susan Cain, reaching into every area of our lives.

“If you take a group of people and put them into a meeting,” says Cain in the short RSA video above, “the opinions of the loudest person, or the most charismatic person, or the most assertive person—those are the opinions that the group tends to follow.” This despite the fact that research shows “zero correlation” between being the loudest voice in the room and having the best ideas. Don’t we know this all too well.




Cain is the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a book about leadership for introverts, the group least likely to want the social demands leadership requires. And yet, she argues, we nonetheless need introverts as leaders. “We’re living in a society now that is so overly extroverted,” she says. Cain identifies the phenomenon as a symptom of corporate capitalism overcoming predominantly agricultural ways of life. Aside from the significant question of whether we can change the culture without changing the economy, Cain makes a timely and compelling argument for a society that values different personality types equally.

But can there be a “world where it’s yin and yang” between introverts and extroverts? That depends, perhaps on how much credence we lend these well-worn Jungian categories, or whether we think of them as existing in binary opposition rather than on a spectrum, a circle, a hexagram, or whatever. Cain is not a psychologist but a former corporate lawyer who at least seems to believe the balancing act between extroverted and introverted can be achieved in the corporate world. She has given talks on “Networking for Introverts,” addressed the engineers at Google, and taken to the TED stage, the thought leader arena that accommodates all kinds of personalities, for better or worse.

Cain's TED talk above may be one of the better ones. Opening with a moving and funny personal narrative, she walks us through the barrage of messages introverts receive condemning their desire for quietude as somehow perverse and selfish. Naturally solitary people are taught to think of their introversion as "a second-class personality trait," Cain writes in her book, "somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology." Introverts must swim against the tide to be themselves. “Our most important institutions," she says above, "our schools and our workplaces, they are designed mostly for extroverts, and for extroverts' need for stimulation.”

The bias is deep, reaching into the classrooms of young children, who are now forced to do most of their work by committee. But when introverts give in to the social pressure that forces them into awkward extroverted roles, the loss affects everyone. “At the risk of sounding grandiose,” Cain says, “when it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best.” Paradoxically, that can look like introverts taking the helm, but out of a genuine sense of duty rather than a desire for the spotlight.

Introverted leaders are more likely to share power and give others space to express ideas, Cain argues. Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks exemplify such introverted leadership, and a quieter, more balanced and thoughtful culture would produce more leaders like them. Maybe this is a proposition anyone can endorse, whether they prefer Friday nights with hot tea and a novel or in the crush and bustle of the crowds.

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

Kintsugi: The Centuries-Old Japanese Craft of Repairing Pottery with Gold & Finding Beauty in Broken Things

We all grow up believing we should emphasize the inherent positives about ourselves. But what if we also emphasized the negatives, the parts we've had to work to fix or improve? If we did it just right, would the negatives still look so negative after all? These kinds of questions come to mind when one ponders the traditional Japanese craft of kintsugi, a means of repairing broken pottery that aims not for perfection, a return to "as good as new," but for a kind of post-breakage reinvention that dares not to hide the cracks.

"Translated to 'golden joinery,' Kintsugi (or Kintsukuroi, which means 'golden repair') is the centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver, or platinum" says My Modern Met.




"Beautiful seams of gold glint in the cracks of ceramic ware, giving a unique appearance to the piece. This repair method celebrates each artifact's unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing it with new life."

Kintsugi originates, so one theory has it, in the late 15th century under the culturally inclined shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, during whose reign the sensibilities of traditional Japanese art as we known them emerged. When Ashikaga sent one of his damaged Chinese tea bowls back to his motherland for repairs, it came back reassembled with ungainly metal staples. This prompted his craftsmen to find a better way: why not use that gilded lacquer to emphasize the cracks instead of hiding them? The technique was said to have won the admiration of famed (and not easily impressed) tea master Sen no Rikyū, major proponent of the imperfection-appreciating aesthetic wabi sabi.

You can hear and see these stories of kintsugi's origins in the videos from Nerdwriter and Alain de Botton's School of Life at the top of the post. The clip just above offers a closer look at the painstaking techniques of modern kintsugi, which not only survives but thrives today, having expanded to include other materials, repairing glassware as well as ceramics, for example, or filling the cracks with silver instead of gold. And what could underscore the current global relevance of kintsugi more than the fact that the craft has inspired not one but two TEDTalks, the first by Audrey Harris in Kyoto in 2015 and the second by Maddie Kelly in Adelaide last year. We all, it seems, want to repair our cracks; kintsugi shows the way to do it not just honestly but artfully.

h/t the nugget

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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.

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