“I took a speed reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” ~Woody Allen
BOREDOM: What if boredom is a meaningful experience—one that propels us to states of deeper thoughtfulness or creativity? Boredom might spark creativity because a restless mind hungers for stimulation.
Bored subjects came up with more ideas than a nonbored control group, and their ideas were often more creative. Subjects who took an “associative thought” word test came up with more answers when they’d been forced to watch a dull screensaver.
The problem is that these days we don’t wrestle with these slow moments. We eliminate them. “We try to extinguish every moment of boredom in our lives with mobile devices.” This might relieve us temporarily, but it shuts down the deeper thinking that can come from staring down the doldrums.
Credit: Wayne Miller/Magnum USA, 1955
SPEED READING: Skilled readers know more about language, including many words and structures that occur in print but not in speech. They also have greater “background knowledge,” familiarity with the structure and content of what is being read. We acquire this information in the act of reading itself—not by training our eyes to rotate in opposite directions, playing brain exercise games, or breathing diaphragmatically. Just reading.
Boustrophedon (Ancient Greek method): Texts were written bidirectionally, left to right on one line, then right to left on the next. This method would seem to allow reading to proceed continuously, uninterrupted by line sweeps. Try it.
Here we have a nice normal first line.
.siht ekil nettirw eb dluoc enil txen ehT
Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP): A text is presented at a single location on a screen, one word (or sometimes a few) at a time. It was developed for research purposes in the 1960s. College students could read with RSVP at up to 700 words per minute with good comprehension, about triple their normal speeds. Alas, the experiments also found that subjects could only sustain reading at high speeds with good comprehension for short bursts.
SURPRISING COINCIDENCES: We tend to fail to understand how the basic laws of probability work and our selective attention, which lead to great surprise at many coincidences. Stunning coincidences are only natural — like stumbling into a close friend halfway around the world or meeting someone with the same birthday can be explained by simple mathematics.
In a group of 366 people, there’s 100 percent probability that two people will have the same birthday — since there are only 365 days in a year, excluding leap year. In a group of 23 people, there’s >50% two people in the room have the same birthday
We also have selective attention — we notice and remember coincidences, but we hardly ever heed their absence.
Credits: Guillaume Jacquenot (Wikimedia Commons)
FAT TEMPTATION: Drop a bunch of kale into your cart and you’re more likely to head next to the ice cream or beer section. The more “virtuous” products you have in your basket, the stronger your temptation to succumb to vice. When shown a burger, their average guess was 734 calories; when shown the same burger alongside three celery sticks, the average guess dropped to 619. These are not rational calculations; they betray the shortcuts your brain takes in its running tally of vice and virtue.
LIFE EXPECTANCY OF MUSICIANS BY GENRE: Musicians from the older genres – blues, jazz (including bebop and dixieland), country (including country and western, boogie woogie, honky tonk and bluegrass), and gospel (including spiritual and Christian rock) – enjoyed, on average, similar lifespans as those from the U.S. population with the same year of birth and gender.
The next group – R&B (including doo wop and soul), pop, folk (including ballad and polka) and world music – had lower life expectancies compared with the U.S. population.
Thereafter, the gap between population lifespans and average age of death for the more recent genres – rock (including rockabilly), electronic (including experimental, techno, disco, and funk), punk, metal, rap and hip hop – widens.
NAME YOUR EMOTIONS: It’s also true that we can’t change what we don’t notice. Denying or avoiding feelings doesn’t make them go away, nor does it lessen their impact on us, even if it’s unconscious. Noticing and naming emotions gives us the chance to take a step back and make choices about what to do with them.
Emotions are just a form of energy, forever seeking expression. Paradoxically, sharing what we’re feeling in simple terms helps us to better contain and manage even the most difficult emotions. By naming them out loud, we are effectively taking responsibility for them, making it less likely that they will spill out at the expense of others over the course of a day.
FAKE LAUGHING: A fake laugh is an imitation of a real laugh, but produced with a slightly different set of vocal muscles controlled by a different part of our brain. The result is that there are subtle features of the laughs that sound like speech
If you slow down a “real” laugh 2.5 times, the result is strangely animal-like. It sounds like an ape of some kind, and while it’s hard to identify, it definitely sounds like an animal. But when you slow down human speech, or a “fake” laugh, it doesn’t sound like a nonhuman animal at all—it sounds like human speech slowed down.
When we asked people whether a slowed laugh recording was a human or nonhuman animal, they couldn’t tell with the real/spontaneous laughs, but they could tell that the recordings of fake/volitional laughs were of people.
WHEAT V. RICE PEOPLE: Americans and Europeans stand out from the rest of the world for our sense of ourselves as individuals. We like to think of ourselves as unique, autonomous, self-motivated, self-made.
Because rice paddies need standing water, a community of rice farmers needs to work together in tightly integrated ways.
Not wheat farmers – wheat needs only rainfall and requires substantially less coordination and cooperation. And historically, Europeans have been wheat farmers and Asians have grown rice.
LEAFING OF NEW YORK: over the last 50 or 75 or 100 years, the more developed parts of the nation’s densest big city have grown greener.
Manhattan, East Side: the Queensboro Bridge from East 59th Street. Older photo, 1912.
FAVORITE CHILD: We all know which kid Mom and Dad liked best, and odds are you’re thinking it’s not you. But does that really make a difference?
Many if not most parents do have a favorite child. And though parents usually strive to hide that, it’s not always successful. That differential treatment has been linked to problems with family relationships and risky behavior in teens.
But what matters is not how the parents actually treat the children, but how the kids perceive it.
In families that weren’t particularly close, the child who felt less favored was more likely to be a substance abuser. The more dramatic the difference they perceived in preferential treatment, the more likely they were to be using.
But when family members were more engaged with each other, the perceived favoritism had less impact, at least when it came to substance abuse.
After people learned to sort words while awake, their brains were able to do the same task while asleep. (Current Biology, Kouider et al.)
THINGS YOU DO IN YOUR SLEEP: For those who find themselves sleeping through work — you may one day find yourself working through sleep. People who are fast asleep can correctly respond to simple verbal instructions. This may explain why you might wake if someone calls your name or why your alarm clock is more likely to rouse you than any other noise.