These days, psychedelic research is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. And Matt Johnson, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, is leading the way. One of “the world’s most published scientists on the human effects of psychedelics,” his research focuses on “unraveling the scientific underpinnings of psychedelic substances, moving beyond their historical and cultural context to shed light on their role in modern therapeutic applications.” Like some other researchers before him, he believes that psychedelics ultimately have the “potential to bring about a paradigm shift in psychiatry, neuroscience, and pharmacology.” In the Big Think video above, the professor answers 24 big questions about psychedelics, from “What are the main effects of psychedelics?,” to “How do psychedelics work in the brain?” and “What are the biggest risks of psychedelics?,” to “Will psychedelics answer the hard problem of consciousness?” Johnson covers a lot of ground here. Settle in. The video runs 2+ hours.
One needs hardly state that human beings desire things like wealth, power, and love. But it does bear repeating that, on a deeper level, we all desire flow. To say this is to repeat, in one form or another, the theories of the late psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. When we enter a flow state, Csikszentmihalyi once said in an interview, “the ego falls away,” and it is those words that open the animated TED-Ed lesson above. “A unique mental state of effortless engagement,” says its narrator, flow has been defined as “an altered state of consciousness,” and those who enter it “feel so effortlessly engaged in a task that time seems to fly by.”
If you’re a normal twenty-first-century person, this may not sound like an especially familiar experience. In fact, you may well think of your working life as more characterized by “cycles of procrastination, when it can feel impossible to start an activity.”
During flow, by contrast, “it can feel difficult to stop”; “feelings of worry or self-judgment” are diminished; a “sense of oneness” can arise between yourself and your activity. This state occurs when you do “intrinsically motivating” work, and even more so when the difficulty of that work matches or just slightly exceeds your skill level: “If a task is too easy, you may get distracted or feel bored. If it’s too challenging, you may become discouraged.”
To maximize your own chances of finding flow, engage in “activities that have clear goals and allow you to assess your progress along the way.” If possible, do it in “a quiet environment, free from distracting noises or devices.” Before you start, “break your tasks into small, specific segments that are easy to track and learn from,” and also “set clear end goals that are challenging, but not frustratingly so.” Above all, “don’t focus too much on reaching flow; that sort of distraction might just prevent you from finding it.” The talks by Flow Research Collective founder Steven Kotler and by Cskizentmihalyi himself previously featured here on Open Culture can supplement the TED-Ed lesson — and, perhaps, reassure you that the strange puckered expressions on the face of its characters are not, in fact, a requirement for entering the flow state.
“In the criminal justice system,” the evergreen Law & Order‘s opening credits remind us, “the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important, groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.”
They fail to mention the life-sized skeleton with ghastly glowing eyes and a camera tucked away inside its skull.
Ms. Shelby’s proposed apparatus consisted of a “structure divided into two chambers:”
…one chamber of which is darkened to provide quarters in which the suspect is confined while being subjected to examination, the other chamber being provided for the examiner, the two chambers being separated from each other by a partition which is provided with a panel upon one side of which is mounted a figure in the form of a skeleton, the said skeleton having the rear J portion of the skull removed and the recording apparatus inserted therein.
The examiner was also tasked with voicing the skeleton, using appropriately spooky tones and a well-positioned megaphone.
As silly as Ms. Shelby’s invention seems nearly a hundred years after the patent was filed, it’s impressive for its robust embrace of technology, particularly as it pertains to capturing the presumably spooked suspect’s reaction:
The rear portion of the skull of the skeleton is removed and a camera casing is mounted in the panel extending into the skull, said camera being preferable of the continuously-moving film-type an having provisions for simultaneously recording pictures and sound waves, or reproducing these, as may be desired or required, the said camera impression upon the having an objective adapted to register with the nose, or other opening, in the skull. The eye-sockets are provided with bulbs adapted to impress different light intensities on the marginsof the film, the central section of the film being arranged to receive the pictures, the variations in the light intensities of the bulbs being governed by means of the microphones, and selenium cells (not shown), which are included in the light circuit and tend to cause the fluctuations of the current to vary the intensity of the light for sound recording purposes, the density of the light film varying with the intensity of the light thus transmitted.
Ms. Shelby believed that a suspect whose confession had been recorded by the skeleton would have difficulty making a retraction stick, especially if photographs taken during the big reveal caught them with a guilty-looking countenance.
Writing on officer.com, Jonathan Kozlowski applauds Ms. Shelby’s impulse to innovate, even as he questions if “scaring a confession out of a guy by being really really creepy (should) be considered coercion:”
Shelby doesn’t seem to have gotten any credit for it and nor am I sure that Shelby was even the first to think of the idea, BUT if you remove the skeleton figure and the red lightbulbs staring into the criminal’s soul was this the inspiration of a mounted surveillance camera?
Allow me to push it even further … imagine your department’s interview room. If you’ve got the camera in the corner (or multiple) let that be. Instead of the skeleton figure just put an officer standing in the corner with a recording body camera. The officer is just standing there. Staring. Sure that’s a MASSIVE waste of time and money – of course. I may be wrong, but if I’m being honest this seems like intimidation.
It also strikes us that the element of surprise would be a challenge to keep under wraps. All it would take is one freaked-out crook (innocent or guilty) blabbing to an underworld connection, “You wouldn’t believe the crazy thing that happened when they hauled me down to the station the other night…”
What sort of horrific special effect could force a guilty party to confess in the 21st century? Something way more dreadful than a skeleton with glowing red eyes, comedian Tom Scott‘s experiment below suggests.
Having enlisted creative technologist Charles Yarnold to build Ms. Shelby’s apparatus, he invited fellow YouTubers Chloe Dungate, Tom Ridgewell, and Daniel J Layton to step inside one at a time, hoping to identify which of them had nicked the cookie with which he had baited his crime-catching hook.
The participants’ reactions at the critical moment ranged from delighted giggles to a satisfying yelp, but the results were utterly inconclusive. Nobody ‘fessed up to stealing the cookies.
We’ve all, at one time or another, been asked to say the first thing that pops into our heads in response to a certain word or phrase. It may have happened to us in school, in a market research group, or perhaps in a job interview at a company that regards itself as somewhat outside-the-box. Most such exercises, and the theories supporting their efficacy as a tool for revealing the speaker’s inner self, originate with the work of the Swiss psychiatrist-psychoanalyst and then-protégé of Sigmund Freud Carl Jung.
Jung published his description of this “association method” in the American Journal of Psychology in 1910, and you can see the story of its creation — animated in the usual Monty Python-esque paper-cutout style — told in the new School of Life video above. In his word-association test, says narrator Alain de Botton, “doctor and patient were to sit facing one another, and the doctor would read out a list of one hundred words. On hearing each of these, the patient was to say the first thing that came into their head.” The patient must “try never to delay speaking and that they strive to be extremely honest in reporting whatever they were thinking of, however embarrassing, strange, or random it might seem.”
Trial runs convinced Jung and his colleagues that “they had hit upon an extremely simple yet highly effective method for revealing parts of the mind that were normally relegated to the unconscious. Patients who in ordinary conversation would make no allusions to certain topics or concerns would, in a word association session, quickly let slip critical aspects of their true selves.” The idea is that, under pressure to respond as quickly and “unthinkingly” as possible, the patient would deliver up contents from the instinct-driven subconscious mind rather than the more deliberate conscious mind.
Jung used 100 words in particular to provoke these deep-seated reactions, the full list of which you can see below. While some of these words may sound fairly charged — angry, abuse, dead — most could hardly seem more ordinary, even innocuous: salt, window, head. “When the experiment is finished I first look over the general course of the reaction times,” Jung writes in the original paper. “Prolonged times” mean that “the patient can only adjust himself with difficulty, that his psychological functions proceed with marked internal frictions, with resistances.” He found, as de Botton puts it, that “it was precisely where there were the longest silences that the deepest conflicts and neuroses lay.” In Jung’s worldview, there were the quick, and there were the neurotic: a drastic simplification, to be sure, but as he showed us, sometimes the simplest language goes straight to the heart of the matter.
That we spend much, if not most, of our lives working is, in itself, not necessarily a bad thing — unless, that is, we’re bored doing it. In the Big Think video above, London Business School Professor of Organizational Behavior Dan Cable cites Gallup polls showing that “about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about eighteen percent of people are repulsed.” This may sound normal enough, but Cable calls these perceptions of work as “a thing that we have to get through on the way to the weekend” a “humanistic sickness”: a bad condition for people, of course, but also for the “organizations who get lackluster performance.”
Cable traces the civilizational roots of this at-work boredom back to the decades after the Industrial Revolution. In the mid-nineteenth century, a shoe-shopper would go to the local cobbler. “Each of the people in the store would watch the customer walk in, and then they’d make a shoe for that customer.” But toward the end of the century, “we got this different idea, as a species, where we should not sell two pairs of shoes each day, but two million.”
This vast increase of productivity entailed “breaking the work into extremely small tasks, where most of the people don’t meet the customer. Most of the people don’t invent the shoe. Most of the people don’t actually see the shoe made from beginning to end.”
It entailed, in other words, “removing the meaning from work” in the name of ever-greater scale and efficiency. The nature of the tasks that result don’t sit well with a part of our brain called the ventral striatum. Always “urging us to explore the boundaries of what we know, urging us to be curious,” it sends our minds right out of jobs that no longer offer us the chance to learn anything new. One solution is to work for smaller organizations, whose members tend to play multiple roles in closer proximity to the customer; another is to engage in big-picture thinking by staying aware of what Cable calls “the why of the work,” its larger impact on the world, as well as how it fits in with your own purpose. But then, boredom at work isn’t all bad: a bout of it may well, after all, have led you to read this post in the first place.
Monty Python icon John Cleese had this to say about Marjorie Taylor Greene yesterday: “She is the perfect example of someone who is not intelligent enough to realise that she’s not very intelligent. Hence her enormous self-confidence. Sadly, her supporters are even less intelligent than she is. Hence their confidence in her.” It turns out that, as Cleese further explains in the video above, there’s a scientific term for MTG’s condition–the Dunning–Kruger effect, “a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate” owing to “a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude” (and, by the same token, of “highly skilled individuals to underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others”). This condition gets its name from Cornell University researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning, the latter of whom Cleese–who has spent time at Cornell as a long-term visiting professor–counts as a friend. You can learn more about the Dunning–Kruger effect here.
A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times published an article headlined “How to Stop Ruminating.” If your social media feeds are anything like mine, you’ve seen it pop up with some frequency since then. “Perhaps you spend hours replaying a tense conversation you had with your boss over and over in your head,” writes its author Hannah Seo. “Maybe you can’t stop thinking about where things went wrong with an ex during the weeks and months after a breakup.” The piece’s popularity speaks to the commonness of these tendencies.
But if “your thoughts are so excessive and overwhelming that you can’t seem to stop them,” leading to distraction and disorganization at work and at home, “you’re probably experiencing rumination.” For this broader phenomenon University of Michigan psychology professor Ethan Kross has a more evocative name: chatter.
“Your inner voice is your ability to silently use language to reflect on your life,” he explains in the Big Think video above. “Chatter refers to the dark side of the inner voice. When we turn our attention inward to make sense of our problems, we don’t end up finding solutions. We end up ruminating, worrying, catastrophizing.”
Despite being an invaluable tool for planning, memory, and self-control, our inner voice also has a way of turning against us. “It makes it incredibly hard for us to focus,” Kross says, and it can also have “severe negative physical health effects” when it keeps us perpetually stressing out over long-passed events. “We experience a stressor in our life. It then ends, but in our minds, our chatter perpetuates it. We keep thinking about that event over and over again.” When you’re inside them, such mental loops can feel infinite, and they could result in perpetually dire consequences in our personal and professional lives. To those in need of a way to break free, Kross emphasizes the power of rituals.
“When you experience chatter, you often feel like your thoughts are in control of you,” he says. But “we can compensate for this feeling out of control by creating order around us. Rituals are one way to do that.” Performing certain actions exactly the same way every single time gives you “a sense of order and control that can feel really good when you’re mired in chatter.” Kross goes into greater depth on the range of chatter-controlling tools available to us (“distanced-self talk,” for example, which involves perceiving and addressing the self as if it were someone) in his book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It. His interview with Chase Jarvis above offers a preview of its content — and a reminder that, as means of silencing chatter go, sometimes a podcast works as well as anything.
Most casual viewers of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings must acknowledge his artistic skill, and many must also wonder whether he was completely out of his mind. But insanity, however vividly suggested by his imagery, isn’t an especially compelling explanation for that imagery. Bosch painted in a particular place and time — the Netherlands of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, to be specific — but he also painted within a dominant worldview.”He grew up in a time of deep religious anxiety,” says Youtuber Hochelaga in the video essay above. “Ideas about sin, death, and the devil were becoming more sophisticated,” and “there was a genuine fear that demonic forces lived amongst the population.”
Hence the analyses like that of Great Art Explained, which frames Bosch’s best-known painting The Garden of Earthly Delights as an expression of “hardcore Christianity.” But something about the triptych’s sheer elaborateness and grotesquerie demands further inquiry. Hochelaga explores the possibility that Bosch worked in a condition of not just fearful piety, but psychological affliction.
“There is a disease called St. Anthony’s fire,” he says, contracted “by eating a poisonous black fungus called ergots that grow on rye crops. Symptoms include sores, convulsions, and a fierce burning sensation in limbs and extremities,” as well as “frightening and overpowering hallucinations that can last for hours at a time.”
This psychoactive power is now “believed to be behind the many Dancing Plagues recorded throughout the Middle Ages.” This explanation came together when, “in the mid-twentieth century, it was discovered that when ergots are baked in an oven, they transform into a form of lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as LSD.” Did Bosch himself receive the bizarre visions he painted from inadvertently consuming that now well-known hallucinogenic substance? The many paintings he made of St. Anthony “may have been a form of devotional prayer, done so in the hopes that the saint would rid him of his debilitating illness.” Look at The Garden of Earthly Delights even today, and you’ll feel that if you saw these murderous bird-human hybrids around you, you’d try whatever you could to get rid of them, too.
Open Culture scours the web for the best educational media. We find the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & educational videos you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.