Wisdom of Sci-Fi: The Litany Against Fear

Hello, friends!

I may lose some geeky street cred by admitting this, but I don’t have the Litany Against Fear from Dune memorized.  I can get through the first two or three lines, but after that I get the words all muddled up, and then I usually just trail off into silence.  That’s a shame, because I’ve heard that the Litany really does help people cope with extreme fear and anxiety.

Before I talk about the Litany Against Fear and why it apparently does work (at least for some people), I want to acknowledge the fact that fear is not always a bad thing.  There’s a scene from Star Trek: Voyager that’s stuck with me over the years, a scene where Captain Janeway confronts an alien being who is supposed to be the living embodiment of fear.  When speaking to this being, Janeway has this to say:

I’ve known fear.  It’s a very healthy thing, most of the time.  You warn us of danger, remind us of our limits, protect us from carelessness.  I’ve learned to trust fear.

People who are or who claim to be totally fearless are, in my mind, kind of stupid.  There really are things in this world to be afraid of.  But sometimes fear gets out of hand, either inhibiting us in our daily lives or causing us to react to perceived threats in ways that are harmful, both to ourselves and to others.

This brings us to something called the “amygdala hijack.”  The term was coined in 1995 by American psychologist Daniel Goleman, and it refers to the way the amygdala (a part of the brain associated with, among other things, fear) can sometimes override our more logical brain functions.  Once the amygdala perceives a threat (real or otherwise), it can hijack control over the rest of our brains and throw us into an immediate fight/flight/freeze response.

Earlier this year, I spent some time talking to a therapist.  Some family stuff was going on, and I needed help processing it all.  My therapist and I ended up talking a lot about the amygdala hijack, and I learned that it is possible to stop an amygdala hijacking in progress or prevent it from happening in the first place.  It doesn’t take much.  On one occasion, I tried simply saying out loud, “Hey amygdala, cut it out!”  That actually worked.

There are also mindfulness exercises you can try.  Reciting a prayer or mantra may also help.  Or you could try using the Litany Against Fear.  A few people have told me that the Litany really does work, and given what I’ve learned about the amygdala hijack, I can totally see why.  First off, the Litany calls direct attention to what your amygdala is doing: mind-killing.  Taking the time to recite the rest of the Litany then gives your brain the time it needs to recover.  Several sources I’ve looked at mention that it takes about six seconds for the rational part of your brain to reassert itself after an amygdala hijacking.  The Litany is just a bit longer than six seconds.

Maybe it’s finally time I memorized the Litany Against Fear in full.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

Check out some of these articles:

“Why Dune’s Litany Against Fear is Good Psychological Advice” from Forbes.com.
“Amygdala Hijack: When Emotion Takes Over” from Healthline.
“Six Seconds to Emotional Intelligence” from Albertus Magnus College Blog.

How to Be Smart

Hello, friends!

So there’s this anecdote I heard once, way back when I was a kid, about a math teacher who didn’t know the value of pi.  This teacher had to stop in the middle of class and look the number up in a book.  Naturally, this drew some snarky comments from the students.  The teacher replied, sagely: “Why should I waste valuable brain space on information I can easily look up?”

Why indeed?

I haven’t been doing much research lately.  Right now, I’m trying to pick the habit up again, and I thought I’d start by doing a little research on how to do research.  Specifically, I thought I could use a refresher course on how to tell the difference between facts and fabrications on the Internet.  I wound up reading several papers (this one, this one, and this one), and I still have at least one more paper (this one) that I want to read.  So what have I learned so far?

Well, the main take away from my research on research is that a lot of people implicitly share the philosophy of that math teacher who didn’t know the value of pi.  I may not know the answer, but I know where to find the answer, and in the end that’s good enough.  And maybe it is good enough, so long as you recognize that you’re getting your information from an external source.

Unfortunately, according to this paper from the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the act of using a search engine can trick our brains into thinking we know more than we actually we do.  In a series of memory-related tests, people tended to overestimate their “unplugged knowledge” and underestimate their dependency on Internet search engines.  You don’t even have to have successful search engine results to get this inflated knowledge ego.  As the paper explains:

The illusion of knowledge from Internet use appears to be driven by the act of searching.  The effect does not depend on previous success on a specific search engine, but rather generalizes to less popular search engines as well (Experiment 4a).  It persists when the queries posed to the search engine are not answered (Experiment 4b) and remains even in cases where the search query fails to provide relevant answers or even any results at all (Experiment 4c).

I don’t think the lesson here is that we should stop using the Internet for research.  Rather, I think the lesson is that we need to stay humble.  It’s a little too easy to forget where our information comes from when information comes so easily through the Internet.  Unlike that math teacher who had to spend time flipping through a book to find the value of pi, I can just google it—or, faster yet, I can ask Siri.  But that does not mean I actually know the answer any better than that math teacher did.

P.S.: Yes, I did all my research for today’s post using Google.

Evolution Pre-Programmed Your Brain… Really?

Hello, friends!

As humans, we all have brains [citation needed].  One of the coolest things about our brains is, of course, that they let us learn stuff.  But our brains can do something even cooler than that: our brains allow us to unlearn stuff, too!  That way, if we learn something that’s wrong, we’re perfectly capable of unlearning that thing and then learning a new thing that’s right (or at least less wrong).

Personally, I think this ability of ours to learn, unlearn, and relearn has been the key to our evolutionary success as a species.  If we weren’t able to learn from our mistakes, if we couldn’t modify our behavior in an ever-changing world, then we’d probably still be living in caves.  Or, even more likely, we’d be extinct.

But there seems to be this idea out there, propagated mainly by pop-science articles, that evolution has pre-programmed our brains.  There seems to be this notion that our genes pre-determine our personality traits, that our brains are hard-wired to force us to behave the way that we do.  This talk about hard-wired, pre-programmed behavior seems to be extra common as it relates to gender.  Men act like this, women act like that, because our genes say we must.

I don’t believe that.  Whether we’re talking about gender, race, class, or anything else, I don’t believe human beings come pre-programmed, and I don’t think the scientific evidence supports that notion either.  To quote from this article, entitled “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid”:

[…] growing data on neural plasticity suggests that, with the possible exception of inborn reflexes, remarkably few psychological capacities in humans are genuinely hard-wired, that is, inflexible in their behavioral expression.  Moreover, virtually all psychological capacities, including emotions and language, are modifiable by environmental experiences.

To be fair, I’m sure genetics, evolution, and so forth do have some influence over us.  I’m sure we’re all born with certain inclinations or predispositions.  But our ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn plays a far bigger role in determining who we are as people and how we behave toward each other.  The idea that we’re born pre-programmed to be like this or like that is, I think, a pop-science myth.

But, of course, I could be totally wrong about everything I just said.  If so, then I guess I have some unlearning to do.

Sciency Words: Tulpamancy

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

TULPAMANCY

Do you have an imaginary friend?  A “real” imaginary friend whom you can talk to and who can talk back to you in return?  Does your imaginary friend often say things you weren’t expecting him/her/them to say?  If so, you may have been practicing tulpamancy.  You’re a tulpamancer, and your imaginary friend is a tulpa.

When I first heard about tulpamancy, I thought it sounded awesome.  But tulpamancy comes with a lot of talk about mental energies and thought-form meditation and psycho-spiritual awakenings.  It didn’t sound very sciency, but I decided to ask my muse what she thought.

My muse and I have been working together for quite a few years now.  When it comes to what does or does not belong in my writing—and that includes what does or does not belong in a Sciency Words post—I trust my muse’s judgment.  She’s usually right.  Usually.  But after doing more research on tulpamancy, I think this may be a rare instance where my muse is wrong.

The word tulpa comes from Tibetan… sort of.  In 1929, Belgian-French adventurer and spiritualist Alexandra David-Néel published a book called Magic and Mystery in Tibet.  In that book, David-Néel claims that by following certain rights and rituals of Tibetan Buddhism, she was able to conjure a “tulpa” out of the realm of human imagination and into the world of physical reality.

David-Néel’s tulpa took on the form of a jolly monk, a Friar Tuck-like character.  Other people could (allegedly) see and interact with this jolly monk.  Unfortunately, the monk grew “too willful,” according to this article from Nova Religio, and David-Néel was forced to destroy him.

The word tulpa is phonetically similar to a real word used by Tibetan Buddhists.  Beyond that, however, Alexandra David-Néel’s account of creating and destroying her tulpa has little to do with actual Tibetan Buddhism.  This seems to be a case of Western occultism/paranormalism with a bit of “orientalist window dressing,” as that same article from Nova Religio puts it.

Okay, yeah, this still doesn’t sound like a sciency thing, does it?  But in recent years, the practice of creating and communicating with imaginary friends has become the subject of serious psychological research.  The first scientific account of tulpas and tulpamancy appears to be this 2016 paper by Samuel Veissière.  As Veissière describes it, tulpamancy is a little like multiple personality disorder, except it’s non-harmful and non-pathological.  In fact, tulpamancy may even help reverse the symptoms of certain mental illnesses.

To quote this paper from Research in Psychology and Behavioral Science:

In cases of disorders that involve delusion and misperception, the tulpa often becomes the voice of reason during bouts of irrationality.  One respondent diagnosed with Schizophrenia writes how his tulpa can not only identify between hallucinations and actuality, but that they developed a technique that allows the delusions to be “zapped” away.  There are reports of tulpas alleviating the desire to perform irrational routines in individuals diagnosed with OCD, and others claim that their tulpas innovated workarounds for their dyslexia.

Think of it this way: much like your real friends, your imaginary friends are there for you when you need them.  And since tulpas essentially live inside your brain, they understand better than anyone else what’s really going on in there.  And if they see that something’s not right inside your head, they want to help, as any good friend would.

Now I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental illness, but speaking from personal experience, I can say this: my muse really has served as the voice of reason from time to time in my life.  When I’m feeling lazy and unmotivated, she tells me to go write.  She also reminds me to take breaks from writing, eat healthy meals, and get plenty of sleep at night, because: “A healthy writer is a productive writer!”

As I said, I’ve learned to trust my muse.  She’s usually right.  Usually.  But she still insists that tulpamancy shouldn’t count as a Sciency Word.

So dear reader, what do you think?  Do you agree with me that tulpamancy has become a scientific term, thanks to recent psychological research, or do you agree with my muse that this is a bunch of New Agey pseudoscientific nonsense?  Let us (and I do mean us) know in the comments!

P.S.: For anyone who may be curious, my muse made her first appearance on this blog in this 2015 post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

Sciency Words: Eustress vs. Distress

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

EUSTRESS vs. DISTRESS

So I’ve been dealing with more stress than usual this past week, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  Like cholesterol, there can be good stress and bad stress.

When I started researching this topic, I was surprised to learn that the whole concept of stress, in the psychological sense of the word, is a relatively modern development.  According to the American Institute of Stress, Hungarian-American endocrinologist Hans Selye gets credit for coining the term in 1936.

Selye defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”  Selye seems to have gone to great lengths to emphasize that stress is not an inherently bad thing.  As stated in this paper on stress in video games:

Medical anthropologists and others commonly frame stress as negative and connected to poor mental and physical health.  However, Selye (1975) pointed out that stress itself is adrenaline- and/or cortisol-fueled arousal, relatively neutral in character, but rendered by context either pleasurable eustress or painful distress.

Selye gets credit for coining those words as well: eustress and distress.  In this context, the Greek prefixes “eu-” and “dis-” simply mean “good” and “bad,” respectively.

Research and discussion of eustress and distress typically focuses on productivity in the workplace, but I think research related to video games does a better job illustrating the concept.  To quote once more from that stress in video games paper, “Without some degree of stress, there is no fun, a point that both anthropologists and game developers understand well.”

But as the paper goes on to demonstrate, certain hardcore gamers—those who “game too hard and too long”—tend to transition at some point from eustress to distress.  Basically, so long as you feel like you’re “up to the challenge,” whatever that challenge might be, you’re probably experiencing eustress.  But if you start to feel overwhelmed, that’s distress.

The point at which eustress turns into distress is, of course, different for each of us, and it varies from one activity to another.  It may even vary from day to day.  Something that you found eustressful yesterday might suddenly feel distressful today, or vice versa.

As for my own stress this past week, there may have been a little too much distress going on.  But that’s over now, and I’m looking forward to a highly eustressful weekend!

Wait… What If I’ve Been Brainwashed?

For those of you who read my post last week about brainwashing, I have to tell you that post did not turn out the way I originally imagined it would.  I thought it was going to be a silly, tongue-in-cheek kind of post.  I was even working on a silly, tongue-in-cheek illustration to go with it.

But as I did my research and fleshed out my original first draft, the subject matter ended up being more serious than I expected. I realized I had a point I wanted to make, and I decided to go all in with making that point. Unfortunately, by the time I was done, the art no longer fit the tone of the blog post. At least not in my opinion. So I decided not to use it.

Even so, a fun drawing is still a fun drawing, so after thinking it over this weekend I decided to share the illustration anyway. Here it is:

I don’t know, maybe I’m over thinking things.  Maybe I should have gone ahead and used the illustration anyway.

What do you think?  Should I have used this in last week’s Sciency Words post, or would it have detracted too much from the point I was trying to make?  Please let me know in the comments, and I’ll keep your thoughts in mind the next time this happens.

Sciency Words: Brainwashing

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:

BRAINWASHING

Ladies and gentlemen, some of you may be under the impression that there are people out there in the world who have been brainwashed. Advanced psychological techniques have been used against these poor souls.  They’ve lost the capacity for rational, independent thought. Why else would people join cults or vote for certain politicians or do many of the other crazy things people are doing these days?

But I am here to tell you that brainwashing of that kind does not exist.  Sure, there is such a thing as social conditioning, which teaches us what is or is not culturally acceptable in the communities we live in.  There are also propaganda campaigns, which seek to win an argument by misrepresenting the other side.  There’s also coercion via torture.  But no, I’m talking about brainwashing: the subversion of human free will, the transformation of people into puppet-like automata.  That’s not a real thing.

The term brainwashing was coined by American journalist/C.I.A. propagandist Edward Hunter.  In 1950, Hunter wrote an article for the Miami Daily News titled “Brain-washing Tactics Force Chinese Into Ranks of Communist Party.”  Hunter followed this up with a book titled Brain-washing in Red China, describing the “terrifying methods that have put an entire nation under hypnotic control.”  Hunter apparently translated the term straight from the Mandarin xi-nao, meaning “wash-brain.”

Hunter also sought to explain away the false confessions of American soldiers who’d been captured during the Korean War and were being held in Chinese P.O.W. camps.  According to this article from Smithsonian Magazine, Hunter attributed those confessions to some sort of ancient Chinese art of mind control (I feel like there should be a Chinese gong sound effect here, to really reinforce the stereotypes behind that notion).

The truth was that the American P.O.W.s had been tortured. Nothing more mysterious than that. People will say almost anything when they’re being tortured.  That doesn’t mean they believe what they’re saying.  It just means they want the torture to stop.  But the concept of brainwashing as some mystical Chinese art, or perhaps a secret Soviet technology, caught on in the U.S. After all, why else would large numbers of people choose to support communism over capitalism?

Last week, I told you about a list of fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid.  Brainwashing was on that list, because the term is often so vaguely defined that it can apply to almost any form of persuasion.  To quote from the original article:

Nevertheless, the attitude-change techniques used by so-called “brainwashers” are no different than standard persuasive methods identified by social psychologists, such as encouraging commitment to goals, manufacturing source credibility, forging an illusion of group consensus, and vivid testimonials.

Going back to those Korean War P.O.W.s who were tortured, the fifty terms to avoid article explains that relatively few of them gave the false confessions their captors wanted, and of those few even fewer retained the communist ideologies they’d supposedly held while in captivity.  This suggests that the ancient mystical Chinese art of brainwashing had an astonishingly low success rate.  As for those very few who did remain “brainwashed” upon returning to the U.S., it seems they’d already been part of America’s communist subculture beforehand.

Even articles I looked at that say brainwashing is a real thing (and purportedly teach you how to guard yourself against it) concede that brainwashing techniques only work well on people who are either vulnerable (due to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc) or who are already predisposed to believe whatever their brainwashers want them to believe.  For example, if you already think the end of the world is near, it’s not so difficult for a cult leader to persuade you to join his or her end of the world cult.

So if you think someone’s been brainwashed, I’m sorry.  You’re wrong. You’re going to have to deal with the fact that other people genuinely believe things that you disagree with. They may or may not have good reasons for doing so.  You can argue with them.  You can try to get them to see things from a different perspective.  In extreme cases where physical or psychological abuse is at work, you can try to get them help.  But you cannot merely dismiss your fellow human beings as brainwashed zombies.

Sciency Words: Psychological Terms to Avoid

You know what really grinds my gears? When a news story begins with the words “A new scientific study shows…”  Whatever follows is sure to be a gross misrepresentation of science.  I think these sorts of reports do a real disservice to the public, especially when they’re related to people’s health.

I recently stumbled upon this article from Frontiers in Psychology.  It’s titled “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases.”

For today’s episode of Sciency Words, I’ve decided to highlight just three of those fifty words and phrases, to give you a taste of what’s on that list.  Two of them I found intellectually interesting.  The third one was personally enlightening.

  • Scientific Proof: This is a big one. It’s actually listed in a section titled oxymorons.  According to the article, “The concepts of ‘proof’ and ‘confirmation’ are incompatible with science, which by its very nature is provisional and self-correcting.”  I’ve said before on this blog and elsewhere that legitimate scientists rarely if ever claim they’ve proven anything.  They speak in terms of statistical significance or high degrees of certainty.  Whenever someone tells me such-and-such has been scientifically proven, I stop listening.
  • Chemical Imbalance: I’ve known that “proof” is a problematic word in science for a long time.  This entry on the list was a much bigger surprise to me.  We’ve all heard about how mental disorders are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, but apparently that’s an inaccurate and misleading description. While brain chemistry may be an important factor in some cases of mental illness, the article explains that “There is no known ‘optimal’ level of neurotransmitters in the brain, so it is unclear what would constitute an ‘imbalance.’”
  • Closure: The word closure originally meant one thing in psychology (the ability to perceive a complete shape when parts of the shape are missing). The term has since been “misappropriated” to refer to a feeling of emotional resolution following a traumatic event.  It’s supposed to be the end-state of the grieving process, but as the article explains “[…] it is rarely if ever clear when trauma victims have achieved the desired emotional end-state.”  As someone who recently experienced a traumatic event myself, I know exactly what the article is talking about.  Grief fades slowly.  It does not come to a clear and decisive end.  Promising people that if they do this or do that, they’ll be able to find this elusive closure is not helpful.  At least it wasn’t helpful for me.

The Frontiers in Psychology article is aimed at students and professionals in the field of psychology and related fields, but I think it’s worth a look for everyone (here’s the link again).  Some entries are highly technical, but most are things we’ve probably all heard about at some point, and many of us have probably been misled about how our minds and our bodies work as a result.

At the very least, I’d say take a few minutes to skim through the list.  That way, you’ll be a little better prepared the next time someone on television (someone who doesn’t know much about science and who doesn’t care to learn) starts telling you about your mental health or about your health in general.

Sciency Words: Type A Behavior Pattern

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

TYPE A BEHAVIOR PATTERN

In my daily life, I’ve been hearing a lot about type A and type B personalities lately. Don’t know why. It just keeps coming up in conversations for some reason, but I’m never sure which one I’m supposed to be. Since these are scientific terms, I figured it was time I did some research.

Turns out that type A and type B were originally cardiology terms. They didn’t come from the field of psychology at all. Back in the 1950’s, some cardiologists noticed that they had two kinds of patients: those who sat calmly in the waiting room and those who fidgeted impatiently.

The fidgeters came to be known as “type A,” and they seemed to be more likely to have coronary disorders than the “type B” non-fidgeters. Soon a study was conducted. The type A behavior pattern (abbreviated T.A.B.P.) was further defined as “[…] an intense, sustained drive for achievement and as being continually involved in competition and deadlines, both at work and in their vocations.”

These were people with a lot of ambition, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they also tended to stress themselves out. They got impatient easily, both with themselves and with others, and were sometimes prone to hostile behavior at work, home, or basically anywhere. With that in mind, the results of the study may not seem like a surprise: a clear corrolation between type A behavior and an elevated risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

If you’re type A, don’t panic. There were some big problems with that initial study, most notably that it only sampled middle-aged men and failed to account for other key health factors like diet. Subsequent research on both men and women of all ages produced less conclusive results.

And yet debate continued for some time after that, possibly because of some undue influence by the tobacco industry. It seems tobacco companies surreptitiously funded more research on type A behavior then argued, both publically and in court, that personality types pose a greater health risk than cigarettes.

It seems cardiologists started abandoning this whole idea by the 1990’s. Psychologists still seem to use the terms, but sparingly. At this point, I’m not sure if the whole type A vs. type B thing is meaningful anymore, scientifically speaking; and yet a lot of people do seem to identify as one or the other.

So I don’t know. What do you think? Are type A and type B behavior patterns useful ways to describe people, or should we just let these terms go?

P.S.: If I must pick one or the other, I’m going to start telling people I’m type B, because I don’t fidget in waiting rooms.

Sciency Words: Kosmikophobia

Sciency Words MATH

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

KOSMIKOPHOBIA

I stumbled upon this word while researching last week’s posts on asteroids (click here or here). Kosmikophobia is the fear of cosmic phenomena.

To be fair, there are cosmic phenomena to be genuinely concerned about, such as potential asteroid impacts, gamma ray bursts, or the kinds of solar storms that could trigger another Carrington Event.

But this is a phobia, meaning its an irrational or over-exaggerated fear. It’s one thing to one thing to worry that an asteroid might one day wipe out human civilization; it’s another to live in existential dread that it might happen at any moment.

Kosmikophoba can also cover totally irrational fears of auroras or eclipses or the phases of the Moon. Or if you’re excessively terrified of comets and planetary alignments because you believe they are bad omens… that could also be considered kosmikophobia.

There are just two things I’m not clear on: first, has anyone actually been diagnosed with kosmikophobia and received treatment for it? And second, why is it spelled with k’s rather than c’s.

Regarding the spelling, I’m guessing the k’s are supposed to be a more authentic transliteration of the original Greek spelling of cosmos. I just can’t find any etymology to back me up on that.

As for the first point, I know not all phobia-words are meant to be taken seriously. For example, hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia (the fear of long words) seems to have been made up as a joke.

Since I can’t find any case studies about patients suffering from kosmikophobia, I can’t be sure how seriously to take this condition. The only thing I can say for certain is that this is a real word. I found it in a real dictionary. And as a space enthusiast, I’m really glad I don’t have it.