Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty: A Free Course from the University of Pennsylvania

Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty. Who could use a course on resilience these days? To get you through this winter of discontent, the University of Pennsylvania has created a free version of Dr. Karen Reivich’s “Resilience Skills” course. (It’s part of the Foundations of Positive Psychology Specialization offered through Coursera.) This course teaches students to 1.) understand the protective factors that make one resilient, 2.) make use of non-cognitive strategies that decrease anxiety, 3.) recognize thinking traps and how they undercut resilience, and 4.) create a buffer of positivity that boosts resilience in stressful situations.

The course technically runs four weeks, but it can be binge-watched at whatever rate you like. The course draws on the instructor’s book, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. To take the course for free, select the “Audit” option during the registration process.

Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty will be added to our collection, 1,500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Energy Accumulator Was Beloved by William S. Burroughs and Banned by the FDA: Find Plans to Build the Controversial Device Online

Was Austrian Marxist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich a trenchant socio-political thinker or a total crank? A fraud or a prophet? Maybe a little from each column, at different times during the course of his bizarre career. An enthusiastic student of Sigmund Freud, Reich applied his teacher’s theories of repressed libido to the frightening political theater of the 1930s, writing against the spread of Nazism in his prescient 1933 book The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Here, Reich brought Marx and Freud together to argue that sexual inhibition and fear led to arrested development and submission to authoritarianism.

Reich was “a sexual evangelist,” Christoper Turner writes at The Guardian, “who held that satisfactory orgasm made the difference between sickness and health.” His work was banned and burned by the Nazis, and he fled to a succession of Scandinavian countries, then to the U.S. in 1939, “by which time his former psychoanalytic colleagues were questioning his sanity.” The primary reason for their suspicion: Reich’s devotion to what he called “orgone,” an all-pervasive sexual energy that permeates the universe… according to Reich. Orgone and related concepts appear in his early work, but by the end of the 1930s, they came to entirely dominate his thinking.




“In the strange and colorful history of pseudoscience, Wilhelm Reich’s ‘discovery’ of orgone—a substance that’s not only a life force, but indeed makes up the very fabric of space—must surely be a watershed,” writes Matt Simon at Wired. Reich intensified his belief in the glowing blue energy of orgone with the invention of the Orgone Energy Accumulator, an isolation box that supposedly charged those who sat inside it with the power of orgone. The device went through a few iterations (see the use of the “orgone blanket, above), until its final form of a metal-lined box roughly the size of a wardrobe or telephone booth.

Reich’s influence on 20th century culture goes far beyond the creation of this weird device. He might be said to have predicted and precipitated what he himself called the “sexual revolution.” (“No power on earth will stop it,” Reich wrote in the 30s.) Critics dismissed his belief in the liberating potential of free love as a “genitial utopia.” Their scorn mattered little to the countercultural figures who picked up and disseminated his work. “Almost a century” after Reich’s invention of orgone, writes Simon, “his bonkers ideas live on,” including the notion that nearly every health condition can be traced to an imbalance of orgone energy.

The Orgone Accumulator was popularized by William S. Burroughs, a true believer—as he was in many things, from Scientology to Shamanism—and an enthusiastic promoter of “life in orgone boxes.” (Jack Kerouac called Burroughs’ accumulator a “mystical outhouse” in On the Road.) Burroughs swore by the accumulator and wrote a 1977 article for Oui magazine in which he defended Reich’s claims that time spent in the sealed box might cure cancer—a claim that prompted the FDA to file an injunction against Reich in 1954 to stop use of the device and literature pertaining to it.

“Reich continued profiting from the accumulators,” writes Simon, “and the court found him in contempt of the injunction. He was sentenced to federal prison, where he died in 1957.” Devotees of his work have defended him ever since. (“Who is the FDA,” wrote Burroughs indignantly, “to deprive cancer patients of any treatment that could be efficacious?”). James DeMeo, Ph.D., director of the Orgone Biophysical Research Laboratory in Ashland Oregon, has recently released the 3rd, revised and expanded, edition of his Orgone Accumulator Handbook, a thorough reference guide, “with construction plans.”

Should you have the desire to build your own “mystical outhouse,” DeMeo’s text would seem to be a definitive reference. Proceed at your own risk. Wilhelm Reich’s orgone therapy remains squarely on a list of treatments unapproved by the FDA. The FBI, on the other hand, who “have a whole section on their website dedicated to Wilhelm Reich,” notes Mary Bellis, found no cause to prosecute the Austrian psychologist. “In 1947,” they note, “a security investigation concluded that neither the Orgone Project nor any of its staff were engaged in subversive activities.” But what could have been more subversive to the post-war U.S. establishment than maintaining the world’s ills could be cured by really good sex? Download a free copy of DeMeo’s book here.

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

What Can You Do About QAnon?: A Short Take from Documentary Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson

You know that QAnon supporters figured prominently in the Capitol insurrection. Two QAnon conspiracy theorists now hold seats in Congress. And perhaps you read the disturbing profile this weekend about the QAnon supporter who attended the elite Dalton School in Manhattan and then Harvard. So–you’re maybe thinking–it’s finally worth understanding what QAnon is, and what we can do about it. Above, watch a 10 minute Op-Doc from filmmaker Kirby Ferguson, whose work we’ve featured here before. As you’ll see, his recommendations (from late October) align with expert advice found in our recent post, How to Talk with a Conspiracy Theorist: What the Experts Recommend. After the violence of January 6, however, it’s reasonable to ask whether we need something more than coddling and patience.

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How to Talk with a Conspiracy Theorist: What the Experts Recommend

Why do people pledge allegiance to views that seem fundamentally hostile to reality? Maybe believers in shadowy, evil forces and secret cabals fall prey to motivated reasoning. Truth for them is what they need to believe in order to get what they want. Their certainty in the justness of a cause can feel as comforting as a warm blanket on a winter’s night. But conspiracy theories go farther than private delusions of grandeur. They have spilled into the streets, into the halls of the U.S. Capitol building and various statehouses. Conspiracy theories about a “stolen” 2020 election are out for blood.

As distressing as such recent public spectacles seem at present, they hardly come near the harm accomplished by propaganda like Plandemic—a short film that claims the COVID-19 crisis is a sinister plot—part of a wave of disinformation that has sent infection and death rates soaring into the hundreds of thousands.




We may never know the numbers of people who have infected others by refusing to take precautions for themselves, but we do know that the number of people in the U.S. who believe conspiracy theories is alarmingly high.

A Pew Research survey of adults in the U.S. “found that 36% thought that these conspiracy theories” about the election and the pandemic “were probably or definitely true,” Tanya Basu writes at the MIT Technology Review. “Perhaps some of these people are your family, your friends, your neighbors.” Maybe you are conspiracy theorist yourself. After all, “it’s very human and normal to believe in conspiracy theories…. No one is above [them]—not even you.” We all resist facts, as Cass Sunstein (author of Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas) says in the Vox video above, that contradict cherished beliefs and the communities of people who hold them.

So how do we distinguish between reality-based views and conspiracy theories if we’re all so prone to the latter? Standards of logical reasoning and evidence still help separate truth from falsehood in laboratories. When it comes to the human mind, emotions are just as important as data. “Conspiracy theories make people feel as though they have some sort of control over the world,” says Daniel Romer, a psychologist and research director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. They’re airtight, as Wired shows below, and it can be useless to argue.

Basu spoke with experts like Romer and the moderators of Reddit’s r/ChangeMyView community to find out how to approach others who hold beliefs that cause harm and have no basis in fact. The consensus recommends proceeding with kindness, finding some common ground, and applying a degree of restraint, which includes dropping or pausing the conversation if things get heated. We need to recognize competing motivations: “some people don’t want to change, no matter the facts.”

Unregulated emotions can and do undermine our ability to reason all the time. We cannot ignore or dismiss them; they can be clear indications something has gone wrong with our thinking and perhaps with our mental and physical health. We are all subjected, though not equally, to incredible amounts of heightened stress under our current conditions, which allows bad actors like the still-current U.S. President to more easily exploit universal human vulnerabilities and “weaponize motivated reasoning,” as University of California, Irvine social psychologist Peter Ditto observes.

To help counter these tendencies in some small way, we present the resources above. In Bill Nye’s Big Think answer to a video question from a viewer named Daniel, the longtime science communicator talks about the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. “The way to overcome that,” he says, is with the attitude, “we’re all in this together. Let’s learn about this together.”

We can perhaps best approach those who embrace harmful conspiracy theories by not immediately telling them that we know more than they do. It’s a conversation that requires some intellectual humility and acknowledgement that change is hard and it feels really scary not to know what’s going on. Below, see an abridged version of MIT Technology Review’s ten tips for reasoning with a conspiracy theorist, and read Basu’s full article here.

  1. Always, always speak respectfully: “Without respect, compassion, and empathy, no one will open their mind or heart to you. No one will listen.”
  2. Go private: Using direct messages when online “prevents discussion from getting embarrassing for the poster, and it implies a genuine compassion and interest in conversation rather than a desire for public shaming.”
  3. Test the waters first: “You can ask what it would take to change their mind, and if they say they will never change their mind, then you should take them at their word and not bother engaging.”
  4. Agree: “Conspiracy theories often feature elements that everyone can agree on.”
  5. Try the “truth sandwich”: “Use the fact-fallacy-fact approach, a method first proposed by linguist George Lakoff.”
  6. Or use the Socratic method: This “challenges people to come up with sources and defend their position themselves.”
  7. Be very careful with loved ones: “Biting your tongue and picking your battles can help your mental health.”
  8. Realize that some people don’t want to change, no matter the facts.
  9. If it gets bad, stop: “One r/ChangeMyView moderator suggested ‘IRL calming down’: shutting off your phone or computer and going for a walk.”
  10. Every little bit helps. “One conversation will probably not change a person’s mind, and that’s okay.”

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

Social Psychologist Erich Fromm Diagnoses Why People Wear a Mask of Happiness in Modern Society (1977)

Modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine. —Erich Fromm

There are more think pieces published every day than any one person can read about our current moment of social disintegration. But we seem to have lost touch with the insights of social psychology, a field that dominated popular intellectual discourse in the post-war 20th century, largely due to the influential work of German exiles like Erich Fromm. The humanist philosopher and psychologist’s “prescient 1941 treasure Escape from Freedom,writes Maria Popova, serves as what he called “‘a diagnosis rather than a prognosis,’ written during humanity’s grimmest descent into madness in WWII, laying out the foundational ideas on which Fromm would later draw in considering the basis of a sane society,” the title of his 1955 study of alienation, conformity, and authoritarianism.

Fromm “is an unjustly neglected figure,” Kieran Durkin argues at Jacobin, “certainly when compared with his erstwhile Frankfurt School colleagues, such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.” But he has much to offer as a “grounded alternative” to their critical theory, and his work “reveals a distinctly more optimistic and hopeful engagement with the question of radical social change.” Nonetheless, Fromm well understood that social diseases must be identified before they can be treated, and he did not sugarcoat his diagnoses. Had society become more “sane” thirty-plus years after the war? Fromm didn’t think so.




In the 1977 interview clip above, Fromm defends his claim that “We live in a society of notoriously unhappy people,” which the interviewer calls an “incredible statement.” Fromm replies:

For me it isn’t incredible at all, but if you just open your eyes, you see it. That is, most people pretend that they are happy, even to themselves, because if you are unhappy, you are considered a failure, so you must wear the mask of being satisfied, of happy.

Contrast this observation with Albert Camus’ 1959 statement, “Today happiness is like a crimenever admit it. Don’t say ‘I’m happy’ otherwise you will hear condemnation all around.” Were Fromm and Camus observing vastly different cultural worlds? Or is it possible that in the intervening years, forced happinessakin to the socially coerced emotions Camus depicted in The Strangerhad become normalized, a screen of denial stretched over existential dread, economic exploitation, and social decay?

Fromm’s diagnosis of forced happiness resonates strongly with The Stranger (and Billie Holiday), and with the image-obsessed society in which we live most of our lives now, presenting various curated personae on social media and videoconferencing apps. Unhappiness may be a byproduct of depression, violence, poverty, physical illness, social alienation… but its manifestations produce even more of the same: “Them that’s got shall get / Them that’s not shall lose.” If you’re unhappy, says Fromm, “you lose credit on the market, you’re no longer a normal person or a capable person. But you just have to look at people. You only have to see how behind the mask there is unrest.”

Have we learned how to look at people behind the mask? Is it possible to do so when we mostly interact with them from behind a screen? These are the kinds of questions Fromm’s work can help us grapple with, if we’re willing to accept his diagnosis and truly reckon with our unhappiness.

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

Don’t Think Twice: A Poignant Film Documents How Bob Dylan & The Beatles Bring Joy to a Dementia Patient

It’s often said the sense of smell is most closely connected to long-term memory. The news offers little comfort to us forgetful people with a diminished sense of smell. But increasingly, neuroscientists are discovering how sound can also tap directly into our deepest memories. Patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia seem to come alive, becoming their old selves when they hear music they recognize, especially if they were musicians or dancers in a former life.

“Sound is evolutionarily ancient,” Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, tells NPR. “It is deeply, deeply rooted in our nervous system. So the memories that we make, the sound-to-meaning connections that we have and that we’ve made throughout our lives are always there. And it’s a matter of being able to access them.” The earworms we find ourselves humming all day; the songs we never forget how to sing… these are keys to a storehouse of memory.




Stories documenting dementia patients in the presence of music usually focus, understandably, on those who have lost brain function due to old age. In “Don’t Think Twice,” the short documentary above, we meet John Fudge, who sustained a traumatic brain injury when he fell from the white cliffs of Dover and split his head open at 24 years old. “The extent of his injuries weren’t revealed,” writes Aeon, “until decades later, when doctors decided to perform a brain scan after John slipped into a deep depression.”

He was found to have extensive brain damage, “including a progressive form of dementia” called Semantic Dementia that leaves sufferers aware of their deterioration while being unable to express themselves. John’s wife Geraldine “compares his brain to an oak tree, its limbs of knowledge being slowly trimmed away, causing John great mental anguish.” In the short film, however, we see how “his musical abilities” are one “as-yet untrimmed branch.”

John himself explains how he “nearly died three times” and Geraldine assists with her observations of his experience. “It’s all there,” she says, “it’s just bits of it have sort of been blanked out…. Over the years, John’s semantic understanding of the world will deteriorate.” When a young volunteer named Jon from the Hackney Befriending Service stops by, the gloom lifts as John engages his old passion for playing songs by the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Follow the moving story of how John and Jon became fast friends and excellent harmonizers and see more inspiring stories of how music can change Alzheimer’s and dementia patients’ lives for the better at the links below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

Marina Abramović’s Method for Overcoming Trauma: Go to a Park, Hug a Tree Tight, and Tell It Your Complaints for 15 Minutes

One of the most renowned of Chinese poets, Du Fu, survived the devastating An Lushan rebellion that nearly brought down the Tang Dynasty and resulted in an incredible loss of life around the country. His poems are full of grief, as translator David Hinton notes. The opening of “Spring Landscape” contains “possibly the most famous line in Chinese poetry,” and a painful comment on humanity’s place in the natural world.

The country in ruins, rivers and mountains
continue. The city grows lush with spring.

Blossoms scatter tears for us, and all these
separations in a bird’s cry startle the heart.

The poem presents a tragic irony. Nature invites us in, seems to promise comfort and refuge. “Du Fu tells us that birds seem to cry for us, and blossoms weep,” writes Madeleine Thien at The New York Review of Books. But “of course, this is a fairy-tale view, and ‘in the knowledge of its falsity, heartbreaking.’”




Is nature indifferent to human suffering? It would seem so to the broken-hearted Confucian poet. But nature is not devoid of fellow feeling. Trees talk to each other, create social worlds and families, and communicate with the other plants and animals around them. Japanese researchers have shown that the oils trees secrete can measurably lower stress levels, reduce hostility and depression, and boost immunity. Trees may not weep, but they care.

Trees are also, says performance artist Marina Abramović in the short video above, “perfectly silent listeners”—a rare and valuable quality in times of stress. “They have intelligence. They have feelings.” And for this reason, a tree is the ideal companion when we need an ear.

You can complain to them. And I started this a long time ago when I was in the Amazon with the native Indians. You know, they will go to the Sequoia tree, which is one of the oldest on the planet. And they will make a dance for the tree. These dances for the tree are so incredibly moving an emotional. So I thought, Wow! Why don’t I create an exercise that really works for me?

Abramović’s tree therapy is one part of her “Abramović Method,” notes Paper, “a set of techniques that enables artists to get to higher states of consciousness.” She recommends it for anyone who’s reeling from the traumas of this year. In our own age of devastation and isolation, it certainly couldn’t hurt, and perhaps we know more than Du Fu did about how nature supports our emotional lives.

So “please, go to the park near you,” the artist implores. “Pick the tree you like. Hold the tree tight. Really tight. And just pour your heart into it. Complain to the tree for a minimum of 15 minutes. It’s the best healing that you can do.” Included in the video is a testimonial from an ex-rugby player, who found the Complaining to Trees method transformative. “There is something in it,” he says. “It’s almost like you become part of the tree as well.” Trees are not people. They don’t dispense advice. They listen and console in their own mysteriously ancient, silent way.

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The Secret Language of Trees: A Charming Animated Lesson Explains How Trees Share Information with Each Other

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

The Power of Empathy: A Quick Animated Lesson from Brené Brown

Several years back, the RSA (Royal Society of the Arts) created a series of distinctive animated shorts where well-known intellectuals presented big ideas, and a talented artist rapidly illustrated them on a whiteboard. Some of those talks featured the likes of Slavoj Zizek, Carol Dweck, Steven Pinker and Barbara Ehrenreich. Now RSA presents a video series created in an entirely different aesthetic. Above, you can watch the first of many “espresso shots for the mind.” This clip features Dr. Brené Brown, a well-known research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, providing some quick insights into the difference between sympathy and empathy, and explaining why empathy is much more meaningful. To learn more about The Power of Empathy, you can watch Brown’s complete RSA lecture below . You can also watch her very popular TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability here.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in December, 2013.

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