40,000-Year-Old Symbols Found in Caves Worldwide May Be the Earliest Written Language

We may take it for grant­ed that the ear­li­est writ­ing sys­tems devel­oped with the Sume­ri­ans around 3400 B.C.E. The archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence so far sup­ports the the­o­ry. But it may also be pos­si­ble that the ear­li­est writ­ing sys­tems pre­date 5000-year-old cuneiform tablets by sev­er­al thou­sand years. And what’s more, it may be pos­si­ble, sug­gests pale­oan­thro­pol­o­gist Genevieve von Pet­zinger, that those pre­his­toric forms of writ­ing, which include the ear­li­est known hash­tag marks, con­sist­ed of sym­bols near­ly as uni­ver­sal as emo­ji.

The study of sym­bols carved into cave walls all over the world—including pen­ni­forms (feath­er shapes), clav­i­forms (key shapes), and hand stencils—could even­tu­al­ly push us to “aban­don the pow­er­ful nar­ra­tive,” writes Frank Jacobs at Big Think, “of his­to­ry as total dark­ness until the Sume­ri­ans flip the switch.” Though the sym­bols may nev­er be tru­ly deci­pher­able, their pur­pos­es obscured by thou­sands of years of sep­a­ra­tion in time, they clear­ly show humans “undim­ming the light many mil­len­nia ear­li­er.”

While bur­row­ing deep under­ground to make cave paint­ings of ani­mals, ear­ly humans as far back as 40,000 years ago also devel­oped a sys­tem of signs that is remark­ably con­sis­tent across and between con­ti­nents. Von Pet­zinger spent years cat­a­logu­ing these sym­bols in Europe, vis­it­ing “52 caves,” reports New Scientist’s Ali­son George, “in France, Span, Italy and Por­tu­gal. The sym­bols she found ranged from dots, lines, tri­an­gles, squares and zigza­gs to more com­plex forms like lad­der shapes, hand sten­cils, some­thing called a tec­ti­form that looks a bit like a post with a roof, and feath­er shapes called pen­ni­forms.”

She dis­cov­ered 32 signs found all over the con­ti­nent, carved and paint­ed over a very long peri­od of time. “For tens of thou­sands of years,” Jacobs points out, “our ances­tors seem to have been curi­ous­ly con­sis­tent with the sym­bols they used.” Von Pet­zinger sees this sys­tem as a car­ry­over from mod­ern humans’ migra­tion into Europe from Africa. “This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new inven­tion,” she writes in her book The First Signs: Unlock­ing the mys­ter­ies of the world’s old­est sym­bols.

In her TED Talk at the top, von Pet­zinger describes this ear­ly sys­tem of com­mu­ni­ca­tion through abstract signs as a pre­cur­sor to the “glob­al net­work of infor­ma­tion exchange” in the mod­ern world. “We’ve been build­ing on the men­tal achieve­ments of those who came before us for so long,” she says, “that it’s easy to for­get that cer­tain abil­i­ties haven’t already exist­ed,” long before the for­mal writ­ten records we rec­og­nize. These sym­bols trav­eled: they aren’t only found in caves, but also etched into deer teeth strung togeth­er in an ancient neck­lace.

Von Pet­zinger believes, writes George, that “the sim­ple shapes rep­re­sent a fun­da­men­tal shift in our ancestor’s men­tal skills,” toward using abstract sym­bols to com­mu­ni­cate. Not every­one agrees with her. As the Brad­shaw Foun­da­tion notes, when it comes to the Euro­pean sym­bols, emi­nent pre­his­to­ri­an Jean Clottes argues “the signs in the caves are always (or near­ly always) asso­ci­at­ed with ani­mal fig­ures and thus can­not be said to be the first steps toward sym­bol­ism.”

Of course, it’s also pos­si­ble that both the signs and the ani­mals were meant to con­vey ideas just as a writ­ten lan­guage does. So argues MIT lin­guist Cora Lesure and her co-authors in a paper pub­lished in Fron­tiers in Psy­chol­o­gy last year. Cave art might show ear­ly humans “con­vert­ing acoustic sounds into draw­ings,” notes Sarah Gibbens at Nation­al Geo­graph­ic. Lesure says her research “sug­gests that the cog­ni­tive mech­a­nisms nec­es­sary for the devel­op­ment of cave and rock art are like­ly to be anal­o­gous to those employed in the expres­sion of the sym­bol­ic think­ing required for lan­guage.”

In oth­er words, under her the­o­ry, “cave and rock [art] would rep­re­sent a modal­i­ty of lin­guis­tic expres­sion.” And the sym­bols sur­round­ing that art might rep­re­sent an elab­o­ra­tion on the theme. The very first sys­tem of writ­ing, shared by ear­ly humans all over the world for tens of thou­sands of years.

via Big Think

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Was a 32,000-Year-Old Cave Paint­ing the Ear­li­est Form of Cin­e­ma?

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

Dis­cov­er the Old­est Beer Recipe in His­to­ry From Ancient Sume­ria, 1800 B.C.

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

Psilocybin Could Soon Be a Legal Treatment for Depression: Johns Hopkins Professor, Roland Griffiths, Explains How Psilocybin Can Relieve Suffering

Much of the recent sci­en­tif­ic research into psy­che­delics has picked up where researchers left off in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, before LSD, psilo­cy­bin, and oth­er psy­choac­tive drugs became coun­ter­cul­tur­al means of con­scious­ness expan­sion, and then banned, ille­gal sub­stances the gov­ern­ment sought to con­trol. Sci­en­tists from sev­er­al fields stud­ied psy­che­delics as treat­ments for addic­tion, depres­sion, and anx­i­ety, and end-of-life care. These appli­ca­tions were con­ceived and test­ed sev­er­al decades ago.

Now, thanks to some seri­ous invest­ment from high-pro­file insti­tu­tions like Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty, and thanks to chang­ing gov­ern­ment atti­tudes toward psy­choac­tive drugs, it may be pos­si­ble for psilo­cy­bin, the active ingre­di­ent in “mag­ic mush­rooms,” to get legal approval for ther­a­py in a clin­i­cal set­ting by 2021. “For the first time in U.S. his­to­ry,” Shel­by Hart­man reports at Rolling Stone, “a psy­che­del­ic drug is on the fast track to get­ting approved for treat­ing depres­sion by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.”

As Michael Pol­lan has detailed in his lat­est book, How to Change Your Mind, the pos­si­bil­i­ties for psilo­cy­bin and oth­er such drugs are vast. “But before the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion can be peti­tioned to reclas­si­fy it,” Brit­tany Shoot notes at For­tune, the drug “first has to clear phase III clin­i­cal tri­als. The entire process is expect­ed to take about five years.” In the TEDMED video above, you can see Roland R. Grif­fiths, Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chi­a­try and Behav­ioral Sci­ences at Johns Hop­kins, dis­cuss the ways in which psilo­cy­bin, “under sup­port­ed con­di­tions, can occa­sion mys­ti­cal-type expe­ri­ences asso­ci­at­ed with endur­ing pos­i­tive changes in atti­tudes and behav­ior.”

The impli­ca­tions of this research span the fields of ethics and med­i­cine, psy­chol­o­gy and reli­gion, and it’s fit­ting that Dr. Grif­fiths leads off with a state­ment about the com­pat­i­bil­i­ty of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and sci­ence, sup­port­ed by a quote from Ein­stein, who said “the most beau­ti­ful and pro­found emo­tion we can expe­ri­ence is the sen­sa­tion of the mys­ti­cal. It’s the source of all true sci­ence.” But the work Grif­fiths and oth­ers have been engaged in is pri­mar­i­ly prac­ti­cal in nature—though it does not at all exclude the mystical—like find­ing effec­tive means to treat depres­sion in can­cer patients, for exam­ple.

“Six­teen mil­lion Amer­i­cans suf­fer from depres­sion and approx­i­mate­ly one-third of them are treat­ment resis­tant,” Hart­man writes. “Depres­sion is also an epi­dem­ic world­wide, affect­ing 300 mil­lion peo­ple around the world.” Psy­chotrop­ic drugs like psilo­cy­bin, LSD, and MDMA (which is not clas­si­fied as a psy­che­del­ic), have been shown for a long time to work for many peo­ple suf­fer­ing from severe men­tal ill­ness and addic­tions.

Although such drugs present some poten­tial for abuse, they are not high­ly addic­tive, espe­cial­ly rel­a­tive to the flood of opi­oids on the legal mar­ket that are cur­rent­ly dev­as­tat­ing whole com­mu­ni­ties as peo­ple use them to self-med­icate. It seems that what has most pre­vent­ed psy­che­delics from being researched and pre­scribed has as much or more to do with long-stand­ing prej­u­dice and fear as it does with a gen­uine con­cern for pub­lic health. (And that’s not even to men­tion the finan­cial inter­ests who exert tremen­dous pres­sure on drug pol­i­cy.)

But now, Hart­man writes, “it appears [researchers] have come too far to go back—and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is final­ly rec­og­niz­ing it, too.” Find out why this research mat­ters in Dr. Grif­fiths’ talk, Pollan’s book, the Mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary Asso­ci­a­tion for Psy­che­del­ic Stud­ies, and some of the posts we’ve linked to below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Use Psy­che­del­ic Drugs to Improve Men­tal Health: Michael Pollan’s New Book, How to Change Your Mind, Makes the Case

New LSD Research Pro­vides the First Images of the Brain on Acid, and Hints at Its Poten­tial to Pro­mote Cre­ativ­i­ty

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

When Aldous Hux­ley, Dying of Can­cer, Left This World Trip­ping on LSD, Expe­ri­enc­ing “the Most Serene, the Most Beau­ti­ful Death” (1963)

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

Why Read Waiting For Godot?: An Animated Case for Samuel Beckett’s Classic Absurdist Play

Iseult Gille­spie’s lat­est lit­er­a­ture themed TED-Ed les­son—Why should you read Wait­ing For Godot?—pos­es a ques­tion that’s not too dif­fi­cult to answer these days.

The mean­ing of this sur­pris­ing­ly stur­dy Absur­dist play is famous­ly open for debate.

Author Samuel Beck­ett told Roger Blin, who direct­ed and act­ed in its first pro­duc­tion at the Théâtre de Baby­lon in 1953, that all he knew for cer­tain was that the two main char­ac­ters, Vladimir and Estragon, wore bowler hats.

(Anoth­er thing he felt sure of was that they were male, and should only be brought to life by those in pos­ses­sion of a prostate gland, a spec­i­fi­ca­tion that ran­kles female the­ater artists eager to take a crack at char­ac­ters who now seem as uni­ver­sal as any in Shake­speare. The Beck­ett estate’s vig­or­ous enforce­ment of the late playwright’s wish­es is itself the sub­ject of a play, The Under­pants Godot by Dun­can Pflaster.)

A “tragi­com­e­dy in two acts,” accord­ing to Beck­ett, Wait­ing for Godot emerged dur­ing a vibrant moment for exper­i­men­tal the­ater, as play­wrights turned their backs on con­ven­tion to address the dev­as­ta­tion of WWII.

Com­e­dy got dark­er. Bore­dom, reli­gious dread, and exis­ten­tial despair were major themes.

Per­haps we are on the brink of such a peri­od our­selves?

Crit­ics, schol­ars, and direc­tors have found Godot a mean­ing­ful lens through which to con­sid­er the Cold War, the French resis­tance, England’s col­o­niza­tion of Ire­land, and var­i­ous forms of apoc­a­lyp­tic near-future.

Per­haps THAT is why we should read (and/or watch) Wait­ing for Godot.


Was I sleep­ing, while the oth­ers suf­fered? Am I sleep­ing now? Tomor­row, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I wait­ed for Godot? That Poz­zo passed, with his car­ri­er, and that he spoke to us? Prob­a­bly. But in all that what truth will there be? (Estragon, hav­ing strug­gled with his boots in vain, is doz­ing off again. Vladimir looks at him.) He’ll know noth­ing. He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a car­rot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a dif­fi­cult birth. Down in the hole, lin­ger­ing­ly, the grave dig­ger puts on the for­ceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He lis­tens.) But habit is a great dead­en­er. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too some­one is look­ing, of me too some­one is say­ing, He is sleep­ing, he knows noth­ing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can’t go on! (Pause.) What have I said?

Gillespie’s les­son, ani­mat­ed by Tomás Pichar­do-Espail­lat, above, includes a sup­ple­men­tal trove of resources and a quiz that edu­ca­tors can cus­tomize online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Samuel Beck­ett Directs His Absur­dist Play Wait­ing for Godot (1985)

Hear Wait­ing for Godot, the Acclaimed 1956 Pro­duc­tion Star­ring The Wiz­ard of Oz’s Bert Lahr

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Samuel Beck­ett, Absur­dist Play­wright, Nov­el­ist & Poet

“Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Bet­ter”: How Samuel Beck­ett Cre­at­ed the Unlike­ly Mantra That Inspires Entre­pre­neurs Today

The Books Samuel Beck­ett Read and Real­ly Liked (1941–1956)

Watch the Open­ing Cred­its of an Imag­i­nary 70s Cop Show Star­ring Samuel Beck­ett

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Her play Zam­boni Godot pre­miered in New York City in 2017. Join her in NYC on Mon­day, Octo­ber 15 for anoth­er month­ly install­ment of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

This Is Your Kids’ Brains on Internet Algorithms: A Chilling Case Study Shows What’s Wrong with the Internet Today

Mul­ti­me­dia artist and writer James Bri­dle has a new book out, and it’s terrifying—appropriately so, I would say—in its analy­sis of “the dan­gers of trust­ing com­put­ers to explain (and, increas­ing­ly, run) the world,” as Adi Robert­son writes at The Verge. Sum­ming up one of his argu­ments in his New Dark Age: Tech­nol­o­gy and the End of the Future, Bri­dle writes, “We know more and more about the world, while being less and less able to do any­thing about it.” As Bri­dle tells Robert­son in a short inter­view, he doesn’t see the prob­lems as irre­me­di­a­ble, pro­vid­ed we gain “some kind of agency with­in these sys­tems.” But he insists that we must face head-on cer­tain facts about our dystopi­an, sci-fi-like real­i­ty.

In the brief TED talk above, you can see Bri­dle do just that, begin­ning with an analy­sis of the mil­lions of pro­lif­er­at­ing videos for chil­dren, with bil­lions of views, on YouTube, a case study that quick­ly goes to some dis­turb­ing places. Videos show­ing a pair of hands unwrap­ping choco­late eggs to reveal a toy with­in “are like crack for lit­tle kids,” says Bri­dle, who watch them over and over. Auto­play fer­ries them on to weird­er and weird­er iter­a­tions, which even­tu­al­ly end up with danc­ing Hitlers and their favorite car­toon char­ac­ters per­form­ing lewd and vio­lent acts. Some of the videos seem to be made by pro­fes­sion­al ani­ma­tors and “whole­some kid’s enter­tain­ers,” some seem assem­bled by soft­ware, some by “peo­ple who clear­ly shouldn’t be around chil­dren at all.”

The algo­rithms that dri­ve the bizarre uni­verse of these videos are used to “hack the brains of very small chil­dren in return for adver­tis­ing rev­enue,” says Bri­dle. “At least that what I hope they’re doing it for.” Bri­dle soon bridges the machin­ery of kids’ YouTube with the adult ver­sion. “It’s impos­si­ble to know,” he says, who’s post­ing these mil­lions of videos, “or what their motives might be…. Real­ly it’s exact­ly the same mech­a­nism that’s hap­pen­ing across most of our dig­i­tal ser­vices, where it’s impos­si­ble to know where this infor­ma­tion is com­ing from.” The children’s videos are “basi­cal­ly fake news for kids. We’re train­ing them from birth to click on the very first link that comes along, regard­less of what the source is.”

High school and col­lege teach­ers already deal with the prob­lem of stu­dents who can­not judge good infor­ma­tion from bad—and who can­not real­ly be blamed for it, since mil­lions of adults seem unable to do so as well. In sur­vey­ing YouTube children’s videos, Bri­dle finds him­self ask­ing the same ques­tions that arise in response to so much online con­tent: “Is this a bot? Is this a per­son? Is this a troll? What does it mean that we can’t tell the dif­fer­ence between these things any­more?” The lan­guage of online con­tent is a hash of pop­u­lar tags meant to be read by machine algo­rithms, not humans. But real peo­ple per­form­ing in an “algo­rith­mi­cal­ly opti­mized sys­tem” seem forced to “act out these increas­ing­ly bizarre com­bi­na­tions of words.”

With­in this cul­ture, he says, “even if you’re human, you have to end up behav­ing like a machine just to sur­vive.” What makes the sce­nario even dark­er is that machines repli­cate the worst aspects of human behav­ior, not because they’re evil but because that’s what they’re taught to do. To think that tech­nol­o­gy is neu­tral is a dan­ger­ous­ly naïve view, Bri­dle argues. Humans encode their his­tor­i­cal bias­es into the data, then entrust to A.I. such crit­i­cal func­tions as not only children’s enter­tain­ment, but also pre­dic­tive polic­ing and rec­om­mend­ing crim­i­nal sen­tences. As Bri­dle notes in the short video above, A.I. inher­its the racism of its cre­ators, rather than act­ing as a “lev­el­ing force.”

As we’ve seen the CEOs of tech com­pa­nies tak­en to task for the use of their plat­forms for pro­pa­gan­da, dis­in­for­ma­tion, hate speech, and wild con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, we’ve also seen them respond to the prob­lem by promis­ing to solve it with more auto­mat­ed machine learn­ing algo­rithms. In oth­er words, to address the issues with the same tech­nol­o­gy that cre­at­ed them—technology that no one real­ly seems to under­stand. Let­ting “unac­count­able sys­tems” dri­ven almost sole­ly by ads con­trol glob­al net­works with ever-increas­ing influ­ence over world affairs seems wild­ly irre­spon­si­ble, and has already cre­at­ed a sit­u­a­tion, Bri­dle argues in his book, in which impe­ri­al­ism has “moved up to infra­struc­ture lev­el” and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries are the most “pow­er­ful nar­ra­tives of our time,” as he says below.

Bridle’s claims might them­selves sound like alarmist con­spir­a­cies if they weren’t so alarm­ing­ly obvi­ous to most any­one pay­ing atten­tion. In an essay on Medi­um he writes a much more in-depth analy­sis of YouTube kids’ con­tent, devel­op­ing one of the argu­ments in his book. Bri­dle is one of many writ­ers and researchers cov­er­ing this ter­rain. Some oth­er good pop­u­lar books on the sub­ject come from schol­ars and tech­nol­o­gists like Tim Wu and Jaron Lanier. They are well worth read­ing and pay­ing atten­tion to, even if we might dis­agree with some of their argu­ments and pre­scrip­tions.

As Bri­dle him­self argues in his inter­view at The Verge, the best approach to deal­ing with what seems like a night­mar­ish sit­u­a­tion is to devel­op a “sys­temic lit­er­a­cy,” learn­ing “to think clear­ly about sub­jects that seem dif­fi­cult and com­plex,” but which nonethe­less, as we can clear­ly see, have tremen­dous impact on our every­day lives and the soci­ety our kids will inher­it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

The Diderot Effect: Enlight­en­ment Philoso­pher Denis Diderot Explains the Psy­chol­o­gy of Con­sumerism & Our Waste­ful Spend­ing

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

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Learn 40+ Lan­guages for Free: Span­ish, Eng­lish, Chi­nese & More

A Col­or­ful Map Visu­al­izes the Lex­i­cal Dis­tances Between Europe’s Lan­guages: 54 Lan­guages Spo­ken by 670 Mil­lion Peo­ple

How Lan­guages Evolve: Explained in a Win­ning TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion

Speak­ing in Whis­tles: The Whis­tled Lan­guage of Oax­a­ca, Mex­i­co

Steven Pinker Explains the Neu­ro­science of Swear­ing (NSFW)

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to Con­fu­cius’ Life & Thought Through Two Ani­mat­ed Videos

The Philo­soph­i­cal Appre­ci­a­tion of Rocks in Chi­na & Japan: A Short Intro­duc­tion to an Ancient Tra­di­tion

Learn Islam­ic & Indi­an Phi­los­o­phy with 107 Episodes of the His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy With­out Any Gaps Pod­cast

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stanford’s Robert Sapol­sky Demys­ti­fies Depres­sion, Which, Like Dia­betes, Is Root­ed in Biol­o­gy

How Bak­ing, Cook­ing & Oth­er Dai­ly Activ­i­ties Help Pro­mote Hap­pi­ness and Alle­vi­ate Depres­sion and Anx­i­ety

A Uni­fied The­o­ry of Men­tal Ill­ness: How Every­thing from Addic­tion to Depres­sion Can Be Explained by the Con­cept of “Cap­ture”

Stephen Fry on Cop­ing with Depres­sion: It’s Rain­ing, But the Sun Will Come Out Again

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Cleese on How “Stu­pid Peo­ple Have No Idea How Stu­pid They Are” (a.k.a. the Dun­ning-Kruger Effect)

Research Finds That Intel­lec­tu­al Humil­i­ty Can Make Us Bet­ter Thinkers & Peo­ple; Good Thing There’s a Free Course on Intel­lec­tu­al Humil­i­ty

The Pow­er of Empa­thy: A Quick Ani­mat­ed Les­son That Can Make You a Bet­ter Per­son

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy & Neu­ro­science Cours­es

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

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