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Joseph Campbell and the Continual Relevance of Mythology

One of the reasons Joseph Campbell’s work in comparative mythology continues to resonate—some, myself included, would argue grow—is due to his ability to synthesize religious and spiritual traditions from around the planet and show consistencies that occurred between cultures that had no possibility of interaction with one another.

One of his most meaningful sentiments, from his book The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, today remains contested by orthodoxies the world over, though makes for a perfect rallying cry for those who wish to show the absurdity of thinking yourself ‘chosen’ due to your birthright or religious affiliation:

‘Black Elk’s word, ‘The center is everywhere,’ is matched by a statement from a hermetic, early medieval text, The Book of the Twenty-four Philosophers: ‘God is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.’ The idea, it seems to me, is in a most appropriate way illustrated in that stunning photograph taken from the moon, and now frequently reproduced, of an earthrise, the earth rising as a radiant celestial orb, strewing light over a lunar landscape. Is the center the earth? Is the center the moon? The center is anywhere you like. Moreover, in that photograph from its own satellite, the rising earth shows none of those divisive territorial lines that on our maps are so conspicuous and important. The chosen center may be anywhere. The Holy Land is no special place. It is every place that has ever been recognized and mythologized by any people as home.’

While today the term ‘holy land’ usually conjures Israel—we have to wonder if Jewish nationalism would be so great if the originally intended settlement of Uganda had panned out instead of Jerusalem—we could just as easily replace the term with ‘Manifest Destiny.’

Campbell’s work did not lack integrity—contrast is as important as comparison. Blindly assigning values to ideas without any basis in reality is a dangerous habit. You can’t make disparate pieces fit into different puzzles. Yet what Campbell recognized was that, as a constantly changing and evolving species, there was a need for synthesis, regardless of what our histories told. As he wrote in Myths to Live By,

The old differences separating one system from another now are becoming less and less important, less and less easy to define. And what, on the contrary, is become more and more important is that we should learn to see through all the differences to the common themes that have been there all the while.

The value of mythological studies is always in its application to the world in which we live now. While this might be a rapidly shifting society, human patterns are old and sometimes we stubbornly refuse to face who we are becoming, fixed in a holding pattern of who we believe we once were. Evidence can be seen daily: in the ridiculous quibbling over immigration reform and insane restrictions of abortion rights in the states to the ruling and social responses to the Trayvon Martin murder and the unending ‘debate’ of climate change.

What other reason for a case about Americans having ‘incredible DNA’ as the basis for not instituting comprehensive immigration reform could we invoke than a refusal to understand how this country is shifting? For the most part, such blatant racism is not a general consensus, but that it exists, and that enough people subscribe to it to vote politicians into office who will back such sentiments is a strong indicator that we still value contrast over comparison.

I notice this trend in my own discipline of yoga. Certain styles are founded on the basis that they have the most ‘pure’ intent, which really translates as most ‘Indian’ and most ‘ancient.’ Nothing historical backs this up, of course—the fantasy of purity is enough for their imagination. This type of thinking is toxic. It inevitably leads to exclusion and separation, practices Campbell consistently warned against.

Campbell would not live to see his life’s work influence so many people around the world. His most popular work, The Power of Myth, an interview and subsequent PBS series with Billy Moyers, was published months after his passing. In that masterful work he discussed the beauty of marriage and romantic love, the passionate call to live a creative life, and, as always, the importance of comparison.

He also urged listeners not to look too far into history to understand who we are today, and more importantly, who we want to become. Evolution—social, psychological and spiritual—was always at the forefront of his lectures and books. As he said in those final moments of his life, 

It doesn’t help to try to change [an imposed system] to accord with your system of thought. The momentum of history behind it is too great for anything really significant to evolve from that kind of action. The thing to do is learn to live in your period of history as a human being. That’s something else, and it can be done. 

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
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Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health

Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.

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