Sign of the times: Can hugging machines solve the touch crisis?

As the American loneliness epidemic reaches alarming new heights, one artist theorizes on what connection might look like in the future.

  • The Compression Carpet is a machine created by Los Angeles-based artist Lucy McRae that simulates a hug to a person craving intimacy.
  • Research indicates that nearly half of Americans lack daily meaningful interpersonal interactions with a friend or family member. This loneliness epidemic is accompanied by a touch crisis.
  • McRae's art and neuroscience suggest is that it is affectionate touch that we are deprived of in our increasingly touch-phobic society. New sensory technology seeks to solve this problem.
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If America's education system is outdated, how can we evolve?

Specialization in education is just one way of optimizing the system for the future.

Sponsored by yes. every kid.
  • The current education system wasn't designed to accommodate the dynamism required today.
  • Derrell Bradford of 50CAN points out that, while education reform in the past has done some great things for many students in America, there is a definite need to evolve. That evolution involves maintaining the positive aspects of the education system and overcoming the negative.
  • This video is supported by yes. every kid., an initiative that aims to rethink education from the ground up by connecting innovators in a shared mission to conquer "one size fits all" education reform.
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Why should you always assume you're wrong? Science.

When it comes to scientific theory, (or your personal life) be sure to question everything.

  • The theories we build to navigate the world, both scientifically and in our personal lives, all contain assumptions. They're a critical part of scientific theory.
  • Cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman urges us to always question those assumptions. In this way, by challenging ourselves, we come to a deeper understanding of the task at hand.
  • Historically, humans have come to some of our greatest discoveries by simply questioning assumed information.
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The most undervalued skill? Lateral thinking.

Our society mostly emphasizes developing logical, procedural thinking skills, but this isn't the only way to come up with great ideas. Forgetting to develop our lateral thinking skills may mean missing out on unexpected innovations.

  • Lateral thinking is a way of approaching problems. It deliberately forgoes obvious approaches in favor of oblique or unexpected ones.
  • Deliberately ignoring perfectly good but straightforward solutions enables us to find hidden innovations we would otherwise miss.
  • Edward de Bono, who developed the concept of lateral thinking, lays out 4 specific lateral thinking techniques: awareness, random stimulation, alternatives, and alteration.

Here's a puzzle: A man walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a glass of water, who instead pulls out a gun, cocks it, and points it at the man. The man thanks the bartender and walks out. Why did the man thank the bartender?

There's no way to arrive at the answer (which appears at the end* of this article) without asking questions, testing the different elements of the story to see what missing information hasn't been provided. It's an example of a lateral thinking puzzle, a type of puzzle that requires creative, sometimes oblique thinking to arrive at the answer. In essence, lateral thinking is a method of approaching a problem by deliberately forgoing obvious methods of reasoning. It requires one to consider a given issue from unlikely angles, uncovering innovative solutions as a result.

Traditional thinking is vertical, moving step-by-step to a logical conclusion based off of the available data. Lateral thinking, however, is horizontal, putting the emphasis on generating many ideas while de-emphasizing the details of how those ideas could be implemented. Both vertical and lateral thinking are complementary: Without lateral thinking, vertical thinking would be too narrow-minded; without vertical thinking, lateral thinking would produce many possible solutions but no plans to implement them.

Despite their complementary nature, our society really values and focuses on improving vertical thinking. We believe that adequate training on specific techniques and systems will produce a talented engineer, lawyer, or doctor. But when it comes to professions that rely on creative, generative, lateral skills, we tend to assume that only those born with innate talent can excel in them. Even when it comes to the more vertically minded professions like engineering, creativity is seen as a desirable bonus that great engineers are born with.

Two stages of thinking

Psychologist Edward de Bono, who developed the concept of lateral thinking, argued that the brain thinks in two stages: The first is a perceiving stage, where the brain chooses to frame its environment in a certain way, identifying a particular pattern. The second stage uses that pattern, that particular way of looking at the environment, and builds upon it to reach a conclusion. No matter how effective we are at the vertical thinking of the second stage, better vertical thinking can never correct errors that have arisen in the first stage. In order to more accurately perceive patterns in our environment, we have to develop our lateral thinking skills.

In the video below, author David Epstein illustrates this principal through the case of Japanese repairman Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi wasn't a particularly gifted engineer, but he perceived his environment in a way that his more talented and specialized peers were not able to. Because they had specialized so much, these more traditionally talented engineers could only frame their environment in terms of the specific technologies they specialized in. Yokoi, on the other hand, saw how various older — and therefore overlooked — pieces of technology could work together. The result was the Nintendo Game Boy.

Lateral thinking: The reason you’ve heard of Nintendo and Marvel

Learning to think laterally is, almost by definition, counterintuitive. Fortunately, de Bono developed some practical techniques for developing this overlooked capability. In his paper, "Information Processing and New Ideas — Lateral and Vertical Thinking," de Bono described four such techniques. Here they are:

  1. Awareness: Being aware of the way the brain processes information is the first step to improving the lateral thinking process. It's important to recognize the brain's tendency to rely on established patterns of thinking before starting to work on a new problem.
  2. Random stimulation: Often when we're trying to think about some issue, we shut out all outside stimuli so we can focus. However, allowing unplanned, outside stimuli can disrupt our reliance on imperfect frameworks. Paying attention to randomness can propel our thinking to new insights.
  3. Alternatives: de Bono argued that even if there is an apparently suitable solution to a problem, it can be useful to set it aside and deliberately consider alternative approaches, regardless of how ridiculous they might seem. Doing so will help you to consider a problem from all possible angles.
  4. Alteration: This technique consists of the deliberate alteration of available options, like doing the opposite of an implied direction or reversing any relationship between elements of the problem. This can include denying elements that are taken for granted, breaking large patterns down into tiny fragments, or translating a relationship to an analogy and then translating it back again just to see what changed. Arbitrarily altering elements of the problem space can produce novel tools to build a solution with.

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*The man has the hiccups and was hoping to cure it with a glass of water. Seeing this, the bartender decided to scare the man to cure his hiccups. Realizing he no longer had the hiccups, the man thanked the bartender and left.

Not enough sleep throws your circadian rhythm off, leading to potential cognitive problems

Sleep deprivation leads to a shutdown in the production of essential proteins.

Photo by Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Two new studies indicate what happens when your natural circadian rhythm is disrupted by not enough sleep.
  • The production of essential proteins is disrupted by a lack of sleep, which could result in cognitive decline.
  • From dementia to an uptick in obesity, sleep deprivation wreaks havoc in your physiology.
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Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie: the cognitive segregation of America

A talented young programmer, Christopher Wylie found himself at the center of a complex plot to overturn the cultural order in the United States and Europe—one that most likely tipped the scales on Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election.

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Bored to death: What is boreout syndrome?

The under-recognized condition affects workers in offices across the globe.

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Mind & Brain
  • Boreout syndrome is akin to burnout syndrome, but rather than arising from an excess of challenging work, it arises from a surfeit of it.
  • Many would scoff at the idea that not having enough work to do would be anything to complain about, but boreout can have some serious impacts on your physical and mental health.
  • One man was so distressed about his boreout that he sued his employer, claiming that he had been deliberately put in a meaningless position.

You've been refreshing Reddit for the past hour, mindlessly scrolling through images of dogs and cats apparently having a significantly more engaging time than you are. You finished your tasks for the day in the first hour, and now you've got to figure out how to kill seven more. You could ask your manager for more tasks, but this happens so often, what if they start thinking that they don't need a full-time employee in your position? No, better to just wait for somebody to give you something to do. But having nothing to do is intolerable, because buzzing underneath the pervasive sense of boredom you're feeling is a low-level anxiety over whether somebody is going to discover your lack of activity.

This experience was what caused Frédéric Desnard to sue his former employer for €360,000 (roughly $400,000) after he had been mis au placard, or "put in the cupboard." The English equivalent of this term is to send an undesirable employee to the so-called "banishment room," a department so meaningless and unpleasant that the employee eventually quits, saving the manager from having to fire them. Desnard claimed that the stress of having no work to do sent him into an epileptic fit once while driving. He described it as "a descent into hell."

"I was ashamed of being paid for doing nothing," he said.

Desnard lost his suit, as it became apparent that the lawsuit was borne more out of spite than for any actual damages his employer had caused, but the suit alluded to a very real condition: boreout syndrome.

Bored out of your mind at work? Your brain is trying to tell you something. | Dan Cable

Where burnout syndrome results from overwork and an inability to manage excessive workplace stress, boreout comes about due to a lack of an adequate number of tasks or adequately challenging tasks. While complaining about not having enough work to do may inspire envy in some overworked employees, boreout can be equally distressing as burnout. And both conditions hurt employer and employee alike.

Bored-out individuals also tend to have lower job satisfaction. One study found that employees with monotonous jobs had significantly greater risk for heart attacks. Another conducted on over 7,500 British civil servants found that frequently bored individuals were between two and three times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease. While the stress associated with boredom may play a role, the researchers believe this is more due to the unhealthy habits that the chronically bored turn to as a means of making their life more interesting, like drinking and smoking.

One might think that a worker bored to tears would jump at the opportunity to get a task done and done well, but bored-out individuals actually have worse job performance and make more errors. And of course, in order to avoid engaging with the source of their boredom, bored-out individuals have higher absenteeism.

Clearly, boreout is something that we want to avoid, both as employees and employers. In Diagnose Boreout, the book which first described the syndrome, Swiss business consultants Peter Werdner and Philippe Rothin laid out methods for avoiding the condition. Employers can make an effort to distribute challenging, non-repetitive tasks to their employees. They can also ensure that their employees can talk to them about needing a new task or role without the fear of being laid off. Ultimately, however, the responsibility of ending boreout lies with the employee — they have to find a way to make their work meaningful or, failing that, find a new job that has a better chance of keeping them satisfied. Often, the risk and potential loss of income prevents dissatisfied employees from switching jobs. But it's important to remember that not switching your job when it's boring you to tears doesn't actually avoid any costs; it just transforms a financial cost into a cost to your mental and physical health.