What is this thing we call time?

What is this thing we call time?
In English it sits on a line.
How do we know?
Our gestures, they show
Future in front, past behind.

But this is not true for everyone
For Mayans’, word time same as sun
Time revolves like a turn
From which we did learn
Studying time is even more fun!

Image from Walker, E. & Cooperrider, K. (2015). The continuity of metaphor: Evidence from temporal Gestures.

Image from Walker, E. & Cooperrider, K. (2015). The continuity of metaphor: Evidence from temporal Gestures.


Inspired by Le Guen, O. & Pool Balam, L.I. (2012). No metaphorical timeline in gesture and cognition among Yucatec Maya. Frontiers in Psychology, 3: 271. doi:  10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00271

Getting people to think about the next 10,000 years

Thinking about tomorrow is hard enough for some of us. Not to mention thinking about one year from now, or, oh gosh, retirement.

There are a few explanations for why we sometimes screw over our future selves. One research-backed idea is that the more we conceptualize our future selves as someone distinct from ourselves, the less inclined we are to do things now that will help that person. It even seems possible that nuances in a language’s grammar – specifically, whether it requires a future tense to talk about events in the future – might encourage this sense of disconnect between the current and future selves. For example, in English it’s standard to say “it will rain tomorrow,” but that exact same sentiment, in other languages like German, can (and often must) be expressed without any future tense marker. Keith Chen has found that speakers of languages that do grammatically distinguish the present and future tend to save less money, are more obese, and engage in more behaviors that will probably hurt their future selves, like having risky sex and smoking (for more on this, I’ve blogged about it!).

This research on conceptualizing our future selves came to mind when I read a Nautilus piece today called Living in the Long. The author, Heather Sparks, gives readers a peek into some projects by the Long Now Foundation. The name intrigued me, so I checked them out. Here’s sentence that greets the site’s visitors: “The Long Now Foundation was established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years. Read more…” Don’t mind if I do, Long Now. That’s a hefty goal.


There are lots of cool things about Long Now that I won’t touch on in this post, but one thing that really left an impression on me is its perfect name. By and large, research on why people don’t do enough for their future selves is that those future people are not here now. If I want to spend money on a new computer right now or I want to call in sick even though I’m healthy right now, these desires might outweigh the quiet voice coming from a future self who really seems to be a different person than I am today anyway. The name Long Now encourages us to think of the long-term consequences of our actions not as events in the future, but events that are now – we just need to tweak our definition of now.

What would happen if we got rid of the word future? I don’t think everyone everywhere would just stop polluting, squandering money, or doing drugs. But if it encouraged every one of us to shift our idea of the future just a little closer to right now, could all these micro-shifts add up to some world-changing behaviors?

What should we call the terrorists?

A little over a year ago, The Boston Globe published a piece by Zaba Khan on why we shouldn’t use the name ISIS. For obvious reasons, it’s now circulating again, bringing a really important issue to the fore. For one, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham is exactly what we refuse to see the group as: Khan quotes President Obama as saying, “ISIL is not Islamic . . . and [is] certainly not a state.” Referring to it as such gives it it unwarranted legitimacy.

The term Islamic State probably has other unintended consequences for the anti-ISIS cause as well. When we use the same word Islam to refer to a group of terrorists and to completely innocent and unrelated Muslims, it’s so easy to mentally conflate the two. This happens way too much.

What’s a better alternative to ISIS? Khan writes that in 2014, the French government announced that it would refer to the group as Daesh, which drastically abbreviates the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. John Kerry and President Obama have reportedly begun using the term as wellDaesh is also a bit of a stab at the group though, since its Arabic translation can mean “to trample down and crush” or “a bigot who imposes his view on others.” Not surprisingly, the term Daesh is not popular with its members.

The Globe article also mentions that we know much about language’s influence on thought. Khan cites research demonstrating that while speaking a second language, our automatic cognitive processes are slightly more inhibited, allowing us to deliberate a little more (at least in the context of a controlled lab setting using standardize gain/loss decision making tasks). She brings this research up to suggest that if policymakers used the Arabic word Daesh, instead of the English translation, ISIS, they would effectively be “thinking” in a second language, and might therefore be freed from some of the native-language irrationality. This seems a bit of a stretch. The policymakers would not be learning Arabic; they would be using a single Arabic word in an English context. Effects of single words on cognition are usually minimal, if measurable at all. Although there’s no evidence that using Daesh will encourage us to think less impulsively about the group, it may still be an effective name. There’s only one way to find out.



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The problem with things that “cause” cancer

Causation is a tough concept to wrap our heads around. In its simplest sense, we say that one thing causes another when the first made that second thing happen. This is usually a 1:1 relationship. A leads to B, regardless of whether some other things do or don’t happen, and without A, B would not happen.

One common error is to attribute causality when there is none. It’s this type of thinking that leads us to believe that we need a lucky pencil to take tests – with it, we’ll ace the test; without it, we’ll bomb. When two things are correlated (for example, losing fifteen pounds and getting asked on more dates), it’s easy to make a causal inference, even when it’s not warranted. This is the reason that science teachers drill the phrase CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION into students’ heads.


Image: xkcd

We can also make the reverse inferential mistake; that is, when one thing does actually cause another, we can interpret it as a correlation. This is especially true when ascribing to causation would require that we change our behavior. For example, we might be less likely to really buy into the idea that obesity leads to heart disease if it suggests that we should change our habits, instead diluting the relationship to a more correlational one in our minds, acknowledging that, yeah, people who are obese tend to have more heart disease, but there are plenty of obese people who don’t, so maybe there’s no need to cut out the Big Macs just yet. This is commonly referred to as cognitive dissonance: having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

To further complicate causal thinking, many things don’t have 1:1 causes. A might cause B, but only in the presence of C, D, and E, or only in the absence of F and G. And sometimes one of those factors that mediates whether A causes B is pure randomness. This is another concept that is really difficult for humans to wrap our heads around, but randomness has played a huge role in making us the creatures we are and making the world the place it is today.

This week the World Health Organization (WHO) made a splash by releasing guidelines that placed processed meats in the same “cause” category for cancer as smoking and asbestos. What does this mean? It means that the WHO is confident that processed meats increases our likelihood of developing cancer. It does not mean that they increase our chances of getting cancer as much as asbestos or smoking do, but that they are equally confident that all of these things do in fact increase cancer risk. This is not one of those straightforward A causes B types of causation, though. We know that there are some people who eat lots of processed meats and never develop cancer. The causation is one of the more complicated types, most notably involving randomness. If someone eats a lot of these meats and then the right randomness (genetic mutations) take place, that person is more likely to end up with cancer than someone who didn’t eat any processed meat but experienced the same randomness (though that second person could very well get the disease too, as we know).

So the word “cause” is not a lie, or even an exaggeration. It’s true. But how do we interpret it? This week, it seems that most people interpreted it as the 1:1 relationship cause, accounting for much of the media hype. It might seem, then, that we should avoid this chaos-inducing word, and instead go for something less anxiety-provoking: maybe “linked to” or “associated with” would get the job done.

These weaker phrases have their own drawbacks, though, precisely because they induce less alarm. They are likely to encourage more cognitive dissonance, more of the reasoning that this is not something that affects me personally and I therefore shouldn’t feel as compelled to overhaul my sausage-filled diet.

There is probably no single verb that can be used in a headline to capture the relationship between certain behaviors and cancer risk, one that will encourage the right amount of alarm. Our best bet is to be aware that there are no perfect words to talk about complex ideas, and that means we will inevitably use imperfect words, words that mislead in different ways. Sometimes it takes some media chaos for an issue to get the attention it needs so that people can understand a situation and make informed decisions. Hopefully this is one of those times.


PS: There is a very cool study of science blogs and blog readers going on! I’ll also be receiving information about survey results from my blog readers, so your responses will be helpful to me as well as the researchers looking to learn more about science blogging more generally. To participate, take this survey: http://lsu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_0dIyegEdCzOFNxr

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Cog Sci for a High School Student

One class I’m taking this quarter is called “Communicating Science.” The fact that this class exists is exciting because it says that scientists recognize the importance of communicating beyond just to further their own careers (which also certainly requires top-notch communication, in order to receive funding to do research and in order to get that research published).

One assignment we have is to summarize an article in our field for a high school student. This was a fun task, and I’m posting my attempt here. High school students (and non-high school students), have at it – tell me how I did!

The paper is called “Swearing, Euphemisms, and Linguistic Relativity,” and is by Jeffrey Bowers and Christopher Pleydell-Pearce:

Have you ever said a swear and then felt a little amped up after? Maybe your heart started beating a little faster, or you felt your cheeks flush red. It seems that we have a physical reaction to swearing. Is this true? And if so, is it the swear word itself that we react to, or is it the meaning behind the swear word that we’re reacting to? An experiment by researchers named Bowers and Pleydell-Pearce set out to answer these questions.

The researchers measured participants’ skin conductance, which is a measure for how mentally or physically aroused a person is. When we become very aroused (for example if a teacher calls on us in class while we’re not paying attention or we receive a grade that’s much better or worse than we expected), our skin temporarily conducts more electricity. More arousal leads to more skin conductivity. The participants came into a lab and were looking at a computer that flashed different words at them, which they had to repeat. Sometimes those words were swears. Other times, they were neutral words (like glue).

The researchers found that after people said swears, their skin conductance was greater than after they said neutral words. In other words, saying a swear aroused them, even though the context in which they said it was exactly the same as the context in which they said the neutral words. This finding still does not address whether there’s something special about the swear words themselves, or whether their meanings are what arouse people. For example, it could be that thinking about poop (the meaning behind the “swear” shit) is what arouses people, as opposed to the word shit itself.

To answer this question, the researchers included an extra word type in their experiment. In addition to saying the swear words and the neutral non-swear words, sometimes people had to say a swear word euphemism (like f-word). The logic was that if the swear word itself led to the increased skin conductance, these euphemisms would not also do so. But if thinking of the meanings of the swear words was what increased skin conductance, these euphemisms should also do so.

They found that people’s skin conductance was greater to swear words than to their euphemistic counterparts, suggesting that we have a strong physical response to the actual words. This is probably because those words have been closely associated throughout our lives to emotional situations. Euphemisms, on the other hand, are less tied with emotional contexts, and produced a smaller skin response. However, these words still produced more arousal as measured on the skin than the completely neutral words did. These findings suggest that euphemisms that take the place of swears are still somewhat emotionally linked, but not as strongly as the swear words themselves are. Worth considering next time you swear or hear someone swear – your body is probably reacting to saying this word, whether you realize it or not!


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Hints for Sacks-like Success from On the Move

Oliver Sacks was a neurologist, professor, writer, and role model for many in medicine and other scientific fields. He had a unique ability to view patients in context, a refreshing opposition to the common tendency to treat each symptom in isolation. He wrote prolifically about his patients and what they could teach us about the mind, brain, and body. And his books were widely accessible – no M.D. needed to understand their contents.

When he died recently, many people wrote moving tributes to Dr. Sacks and his life. As I read some of these, I realized that I had read startlingly little of his writing, so I decided to read his memoir, On the Move. Sacks doesn’t seem to have much of an agenda with this book besides to share his life story. We learn about everything that was most important to him – people, places, jobs, and interests. In many ways, this book reminds us that even this revered doctor is still a person like the rest of us. There’s tension in his family, people who criticize his work, and he has his heart broken. At the same time, though, I often found myself thinking, he’s really not just like the rest of us – there’s something special here. I think that many of those unique traits contributed to his success, so I’ve tried to compile a few here.

Oliver Sacks spent a lot of time alone. He writes quite a bit about how much he loved his motorcycles and his time on them. Although this is something he did do with others at times, he refers to himself as a lone rider. Sacks seemed to be at peace with being alone. He writes that “by disposition I am solitary and venture to believe that the best, at least the most creative, part of me is solitary.”

He passionately pursued things that were far from his work. One of these activities was weightlifting. Lifting didn’t seem to be a just hobby for Sacks, but instead became a central part of his life at times. This quote hilariously sums up his commitment: “Rationing myself to five double cheeseburgers and half a dozen milkshakes per evening and training hard, I bulked up swiftly…” He did end up setting a lifting record in the state of California, further proof that this was not a half-hearted diversion for him.

On a related note, he threw himself fully into everything he did – especially his work. When he had a goal, it seems that nothing could stop him from achieving it. “It was the first of September, and I said to myself, ‘If I do not have the finished manuscript in Faber’s hands by September 10, I shall have to kill myself.’ And under that thread, I started writing.” That’s certainly one approach to getting your writing done on time.

He embraced writing. He explains that “It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing.” Although it seems that he was sometimes able to sit down and write prolifically for hours (at one point he refers to an “explosion of writing”), he also shares his lulls. His book A Leg to Stand On gave him prolonged trouble, taking almost 10 years to complete.

These are not necessarily traits that we can force ourselves to have. Oliver Sacks was a truly unique person who produced insightful and inspiring work. But knowing a little more about the person behind this phenomenal physician and writer may help us to embrace our own oddities and see the ways that they contribute to our unique successes as well.


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Can there be an end to language?

A couple of days ago, The Atlantic published a provocative piece by William Davies, Facebook, Smart Tech, and The End of Language. I call it provocative because even though the writing was top-notch, my inner monologue while reading went something like: “What? No… But how…?!” (repeat, repeat, repeat).

The article is about a comment that Mark Zuckerberg recently made about augmented reality, devices that will allow us to transmit thoughts directly from one mind to another. He refers to this as the “ultimate communication technology.”

Davies explores what Zuckerberg meant by this comment. There are already technologies that allow people to communicate to play a game, albeit about very simple things like “shoot now.” The article continues to talk about people’s “growing suspicion in language” as a motive for developing the technologies that Zuckerberg referred to. This suspicion is epitomized in a quote that Davies includes by a neuromarketing guru – “People lie; brains don’t.” (As a picky side note, isn’t a brain a necessary component of a person generating a lie?)

The logic is this: we have a pure thought, and we have no way of sharing it other than by using words. Once we use words, our pure thought becomes tainted, skewed by those words we’ve chosen to express it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could cut out the pesky linguistic middle man?

Actually, this sounds like a terrible idea to me. For one, there’s really no such thing as a pure thought – the language that we use to express thoughts makes those thoughts exactly what they are. Using words to express ideas can be fun. It can help us clarify them. It generates conversation – which in turn encourages us to reevaluate our ideas, to expand on them, to see connections to other people’s thoughts. We would miss out on so much richness if we were to ever eliminate our precious linguistic middle man. Davies points out another crucial flaw in the end-of-language logic: any AR needs to be created by a human, so it can never be created without the bias that language has instilled in its human creator. Instead, that one creator’s bias would be disseminated to all users of the technology.

Granted, there are some uses for augmented reality (AR) that would be cool and useful. For example, it could help people who experience brain damage and are unable to speak communicate practical needs. But could it ever allow for the end of language? Let me just sit here and think about that.