Was caffeine the fuel that enlightened the European Age of Reason (17th–18th centuries) after the alcohol-fueled haze of the Dark Ages? Christopher Columbus’ 1502 encounter with a Mayan trading canoe in the New World led to the introduction of cocoa into Europe on a large scale. Tea arrived in Portugal, and coffee through Italy, in mass scales later in the century. The coffee bean, tea leaf, cocoa bean, and kola nut are naturally bitter, but the lure of their psychoactive properties encouraged their recombination with fat (often milk) and sugar to render more palatable foods and drinks such as coffee and chocolate. To trace the introduction of psycho-stimulants such as coffee, tea, cocoa, and sugar into Europeans is to trace the history of colonialism and imperialism. I don’t remember this being mentioned in history class.
Without the six pots of coffee a day that filled his mental tank, would the world today still remember Voltaire (1694–1778), a key figure of the French Enlightenment who anchored the greater European Enlightenment?
The English word “empathy” — a word similar to, yet distinct from, the word “sympathy” — was coined by E.B. Titchener in 1909 as the translation of the German term “Einfühlung” (or “feeling into”). How did such a fundamental human emotion elude the English language for so long?
Often, we see or hear what we construct in our minds, rather than what is actually before us. Our perceptions of others’ emotions may operate similarly. Empathy forms a cornerstone of intellectual movements such as Design Thinking and Social Emotional Learning, which suggests that thought leaders have found that humans can improve the ways in which they get in touch with the emotions of others. Conversational tools (such as “what I heard you say is”) augment empathy by enabling the listener to tune into the intended message of the speaker, as well as enabling the speaker to tune into how the listener may feel. Similarly, replacing statements such as “you excluded me” with “I felt excluded” enables conversationalists to calibrate their perceptions of each other’s emotions.
In a monastery in New Hampshire in 1981, two groups of men in their seventies and eighties relived the 1950s. The men talked about the launch of the first United States satellite and Castro’s victory. They watched Anatomy of a Murder and black and white television and read back-issues of magazines. They engaged in discussions of sports figures of the 1950s. The first group pretended they were really experiencing the 1950s for the first time, whereas the second group simply remembered what it was like to live in that time period.
Afterward, the men’s minds and bodies were tested — both groups performed better physically and mentally. However, the men who pretended they were youthful again, as opposed to those who reminisced, demonstrated a dramatic improvement in performance. The youth had awakened within them.
Most people believe that aging is inevitable, that our bodies decay, a process that culminates in death. Through the study of the two groups of men, psychology professor Ellen Langer found that ideas internalized in childhood can shape the aging process. In fact, research shows that finding the Fountain of Youth is not as far-fetched as it may seem and the potential for immortality lies within our own bodies.
Why Teach Humor?
“The most wasted of all days is one without laughter,” said the poet E.E. Cummings. Those who trigger our laughter with their humor are the people we want to spend time with, work with, or date. Humor opens our eyes to unexpected possibilities in the world, relieves our stress, improves our health, ameliorates an awkward situation, and increases our influence on others. It is widely assumed that people who are funny were born that way and so the development of a sense of humor and an ability to be humorous is left largely to the luck of the draw — your family circumstances or the television shows you watch.
Those of us who grew up in a mainstream educational system were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic in school. Anyone cracking jokes in the back of the room was fined with twenty-thirty minutes in a minimum-security afterschool detention center. Now, we know that the humor that institutions failed to appreciate when we were children can help us tremendously in professional, romantic, and social settings. So, what can we learn from the kid in the back of the room? What if we approach to humor as a skill that carries as much weight in our daily lives as reading, writing, and arithmetic? Certainly more than algebra!
Children are trained to count linearly: one, two, three, four, five, etc. Long before mathematics was invented, however, a subjective process of estimation was used to quantify and make decisions. If the ability to appreciate quantities in linear terms confers fitness advantage, that edge appears to have eluded Darwinian selection. Studies of the Amazonian Mundurucu indigenous tribe and preschool American children all suggest that humans are innately wired to use a compressed scale to understand magnitude – not unlike those depicted by logarithmic, exponential, or power-law functions. A compressed scale is biased toward achieving higher resolution at the lower end of the spectrum where smaller numbers reside, where discriminating subtleties in degrees of scarcity can provide the greatest benefit. Psychophysical studies assessing the magnitude of subjective estimation of sensory inputs such as light intensity and sound intensity also reveal innate mapping of signals on compressed scales. From an adaptive perspective, a compressed scale of subjective estimation enables a wider dynamic range of sensory processing which is valuable in environmental signal interpretation. The hypothesis that selective pressures favored the cognitive adoption of a compressed scale for subjective estimation is consistent with the reality that natural phenomena generally unfold through iteration, yielding patterns of development that are best understood through the prism of compounding rather than the lens of linearity. Like an intellectual slide rule, modern mathematics reprograms children. It obligates them to abandon their natural cognitive tendencies, which rely on compressed scales and estimation and coerces them into adopting linear scales that provide uniform resolution along the entire scale. It resigns them to participate in a wholesale exercise of indiscriminate precision with respect to all things. This force-fed mental framework may help individuals thrive in the artificiality of our modern socio-cultural-economic landscape, replete with man-made straight lines and standardized tests. However, we believe that the conflict between our innate instinct to estimate on a compressed scale and our learned ability to quantify on a linear scale is a source of profound decision dysfunction in the modern world, particularly impairing the ability to assess the possibilities of outlier outcomes.
The concept of the importance of eating a balanced diet took on major cultural significance in this country when the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its first Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 1980 — a response to an increase in heart disease amongst Americans in the 1960’s. The Guidelines are updated every five years to incorporate the latest advances in medical and scientific research, based on the recommendations of the 11-member Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a group of widely recognized nutrition and medical experts. The U.S. government directly or indirectly feeds approximately 54 million people daily according to these guidelines — including over 25 million school children. These numbers are not lost on those in the food, agriculture, and diet industries, who are all busy promoting their particular points of view. They work to install members to the committee whose support they can count on, ostensibly in order to ensure that the committee itself has a ‘balanced’ view of diet and nutrition. In such a politically charged environment, what do we end up with? A ‘balanced’ diet indeed, with a little something on everyone’s plate.
While the experts disagree on what constitutes a diet balanced for optimal health, most presume the need for ‘balance’, and the importance of consuming a wide variety of different foods. The guidelines have changed over time, with the recent addition of an emphasis on physical activity to offset caloric consumption. The debate remains largely centered, however, over which foods reside at the top and which languish at the bottom of the food pyramid, rather than the validity of the approach itself.
Milton Friedman famously claimed, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” Does this relationship also hold in reverse?
Decades ago, when everything and everyone from unions to cartels were blamed for inflation, Friedman rejected the conventional wisdom and posited on the basis of empirical data that money supply drives price levels. He argued that prices increased not due to price and wage increases, but because the federal government made the supply of money grow faster than the real economy created value. This groundbreaking theory, while highly controversial and almost revolutionary at the time, appeared to be vindicated by the “Great Inflation” of the 1970’s, and has since become the core tenet of monetarism and modern policymaking. However, in a mark-to-market world, a price may act insidiously to drive money supply and amplify boom-bust cycles.