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Why We Love Violence In Fiction
“How do Americans spend their leisure time?” That question was posed by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom in his 2010 book How Pleasure Works. The answer, Bloom says, is “participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want we retreat to the imagination.” Of course, Bloom is referring to our propensity to daydream, our default state whenever the mind is not absorbed in a mentally demanding task.
Exactly how much time does our mind spend in Neverland? One study published in 2007 puts it at about 30 percent. More recently, Dan Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth created an iPhone app that sent notifications to over two thousand participants asking about their feelings, thoughts and behaviors as they occurred in the moment. One question, for instance, was: “Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?” Gilbert and Matthew analyzed the results and found that people’s minds wandered about 47 percent of the time.
Such a percentage begs the question: what are the contents of our mental musings? The short answer is nearly everything. We recall events from the past, maybe something we forgot to do or the last restaurant we ate at. We also daydream about the boring stuff: what we should make for dinner or how much time it will take to get home. But a closer look at our cognitive vacations reveals some peculiarities.
Many times our thoughts gravitate towards the extremes. For one, we riff on the pleasures of life: winning MVP trophies, giving commencements speeches, saving the world and making love. Although we know the difference between real life and fiction, we can’t help hijacking the emotional states that such events evoke. We know that we won’t give the next commencement speech at Harvard, but it feels good thinking about what it would be like.
We also imagine horrible things: airplane crashes, being embarrassed in front of scores of people, death of a loved one. Is thinking about these things pleasurable too? Paul Bloom points out the irony at work: what we fear most in life is what we look forward too in the world of fiction. Shakespearean plots are full of tragedy and the Theban plays make most readers cringe, but the misfortunes of Hamlet and Oedipus are what make these classics, classics. On the big screen there are thrillers like Deep Impact and Armageddon, where at stake is nothing less than the end of the world. And then there is the video game Grand Theft Auto, which regularly features the murdering of innocent bystanders and prostitutes. As the literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall puts it: if fiction is an escape, it is a bizarre sort of escape.
Bloom argues - along with other brain scientists including Keith Oatley - that we make up imaginary horrors to prepare us for real ones much like a flight simulator prepares a pilot for flight. Bloom puts it this way:
It’s not that we enjoy zombie films because we need to prepare for the zombie uprising. We don’t have to plan for what to do if we accidentally kill our fathers or marry our mothers. But even these exotic cases serve as useful practice for bad times, exercising our psyches for when life goes to hell. From this perspective, it’s not the zombies that make film so compelling, it is that the theme of zombies is a clever way to frame stories about being attacked by strangers and betrayed by those we love. This is what attracts us; the brain eating is an optional extra.
Bloom’s theory is that violence and tragedy in fiction are helpful because they deliver a moral or truism useful for real life. A few examples from my childhood easily come to mind: Mufasa reminded me to listen to my father; in Aladdin Jafar demonstrated the consequences of greed; and then there’s Beauty and the Beast, which was probably my first encounter with the idea that real beauty comes from the inside. These films certainly aren't as violent as a Quentin Tarantino movie, but the violence Disney movies do contain produce the crux of the message.
In other words, what use is a movie about an average person living an average life in an average place? Not much, unless one day the Average Joe wakes up to extraordinary circumstances, manages to fight through adversity and, by learning an important lesson along the way, ends up better off in the end. This, of course, is the premise for such films as Groundhog Day, Bruce Almighty and The Matrix.
The vital role conflict plays in stories might help explain why death, the end of the world, torture, incest and the like is pleasurable to watch or read. If the human mind was shaped for stories, as many cognitive scientists believe, then our obsession with conflict might be natural selection’s way of influencing us to rehearse dangerous scenarios. Whereas there’s no value in mentally running through the mundane events of daily life, simulating a lion attack that results in a triumphant victory would have been helpful for our hunter-gatherer ancestors (and even for some people living today).
One final thought. So far I’ve suggested that our ability to daydream is a good thing because like a flight simulator, it gives us a means to rehearse real-life challenges without the consequences. However, it’s worth noting that the study done by Gilbert and Killingsworth, which is unrelated to most of what’s been discusses thus far, reaches a different conclusion. Their study examined the relationship between happiness and daydreaming. Specifically, they wanted to know if all the ancient wisdom about living in the moment was true. Is it really better to “Be Here Now?”
The answer, it turns out, is yes. Here’s a bit from their findings:
People were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not, and this was true during all activities, including the least enjoyable. Although people’s minds were more likely to wander to pleasant topics (42.5% of samples) than to unpleasant topics (26.5% of samples) or neutral topics (31% of samples), people were no happier when thinking about pleasant topics than about their current activity and were considerably unhappier when thinking about neutral topics or unpleasant than about their current activity. Although negative moods are known to cause mind wandering, time-lag analyses strongly suggested that mind wandering in our sample was generally the cause, and not merely the consequence, of unhappiness… In conclusion, a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.
So while the ability to invent fictions helps us simulate real-world events, our mental abstractions often get caught up on things that drag our mood down. Part of this might be a consequence of culture. In the age of Facebook and instant messaging, there is a lot to worry about. However, our craving for gossip is a deeply rooted aspect of our social brains that evolved over many millions of years. That, however, is a whole other post.
Image via Shuttershock
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.