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You’re simply not that big a deal: now isn’t that a relief?
Learn how to practice "self-indifference."
Perhaps you've seen it; it goes something like this: 'Brain: “I see you are trying to sleep. May I offer you a selection of your most embarrassing memories from the past 10 years?"'
At first, it seems odd to think that this meme is so popular among those of us whom you would call 'millennials', who grew up steeped in the self-esteem movement of the 1990s. We were raised, after all, to love ourselves, not to quietly torture ourselves with decade-old memories. We were taught in classroom exercises how special we were, the prevailing pop-psych theory of the day being that high self-esteem would carry us to success.
And yet this turns out to be poor preparation for dealing with the everyday embarrassments of being human. Instead of single-mindedly trying to love yourself, may I suggest a self-directed attitude that has been famously called the opposite of love: indifference.
In the 2000s, as the self-esteem movement was ageing, psychology researchers began publishing a series of papers on something called self-compassion, which Kristin Neff at the University of Texas at Austin in 2003 defined this way:
[B]eing open to and moved by one's own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one's inadequacies and failures, and recognising that one's own experience is part of the common human experience.
Back then, much of this work sought to contrast self-compassion with self-esteem. Consider one study that relates to the aforementioned meme, in which researchers asked college students to recall an embarrassing high-school memory. Some of the students were then given writing prompts meant to bring out their self-compassionate side; they were told to 'list ways in which other people also experience similar events', and to express 'understanding, kindness, and concern to themselves in the same way that they might express concern to a friend'. In contrast, other students were given writing prompts intended to stoke their self-esteem: they were told to 'write down [their] positive characteristics' and to describe why an incident wasn't really their fault – and that, anyhow, the event 'does not really indicate anything about the kind of person [they] are'.
The point, the researchers go on to argue in that paper, subtitled 'The Implications of Treating Oneself Kindly', is that the tenets of self-esteem will tell you to try to convince yourself that the stupid thing you did wasn't really all that stupid – or if it was, that it was someone else's fault. Self-esteem tells you to focus on all your wonderful, positive qualities. In contrast, self-compassion says it's best to acknowledge your own role in an unflattering moment; when the memories come back at night, a self-compassionate person will say to herself: 'Huh, yeah – that really was pretty embarrassing.'
But she'll also say: 'So what?' Plenty of other people have embarrassed themselves in similar ways. In the end, this study showed that those who'd been prodded toward the direction of self-esteem felt worse about themselves after remembering the high-school embarrassment than those who'd been led toward self-compassion.
Self-esteem has fallen out of favour, and it is starting to seem these days as if self-compassion is taking its place. The headlines that keep popping up are: 'Why Self-love Is Important And How To Cultivate It' (Medical News Today, 23 March 2018); '8 Powerful Steps To Self-Love' (Psychology Today, 29 June 2017); 'The Not-So-Secret Secret To Happiness: Be Kinder To Yourself, Okay?' (The Cut, 22 April 2016). (Fine: I wrote the last one.) The focus in these pop-psych stories tends to stay squarely on the first part of Neff's 15-year-old definition: 'experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one's inadequacies and failures'. From reading many of these pieces, self-compassion seems like self-kindness, and nothing more.
But it's the second part of that definition that has proven the most helpful for me: 'recognising that one's own experience is part of the common human experience'. It's the idea of taking a zoomed-out look at yourself, and realising that you are more similar to others than you are different, even (maybe especially) considering how ridiculous you often are. As Neff herself said in an interview with The Atlantic in 2016: '[W]hen we fail, it's not "poor me," it's "well, everyone fails." Everyone struggles. This is what it means to be human.'
In fact, it's this part of the definition of self-compassion that makes me question whether it should be called self-compassion at all. Neff's concept isn't really about adoring yourself, or not entirely, anyway; this piece of it isn't actually about you. Rather, it's about the importance of recalling that you are but one small part of an interconnected whole.
For me, the term 'self-indifference' communicates this part of Neff's message better than her own term does: when it comes to embarrassing moments, it means considering your own highlight reel of flaws, acknowledging that, yes, maybe the moment really was that bad – but then responding with a shrug. It is, to come back to my earlier point, something you could call self-indifference, by which I mean the comfort of realising that you are not all that unique.
Really, though, self-indifference and self-compassion are just new-fangled terms for an ancient concept: humility. We tend to think of humility as if it means putting yourself down, a mischaracterisation that a recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology seems to buy into in its examination of 'humble leaders'. Humility in a manager, according to these researchers, is defined as 'being open to admitting one's limitations, shortcomings and mistakes'. To be humble, in these researchers' view, is to focus on your flaws.
But modern scholars who study humility see it differently. Humble people don't focus on their flaws – not exactly, anyway. It's more that humble people don't focus on themselves very much at all. 'This is not to say that a humble person fails to care about her own welfare or pursue her own interests – it is simply that she sees these as being deeply intertwined with the welfare and interests of others,' write the authors of a 2017 paper in The Journal of Positive Psychology. You are important, and you are worthy of love, just like we millennials were taught in school – but that's true only because everyone is important, and everyone is worthy of love. You matter because everyone else matters. It reminds me again of the way in which Neff defines what she would call self-compassion, and I would call self-indifference: 'recognising that one's own experience is part of the common human experience'. Maybe the most compassionate attitude you can take toward yourself is to stop obsessing over yourself.
This is the great relief of self-indifference, especially for those of us raised in the self-esteem movement. The truth is that you aren't that big of a deal. And isn't that great?
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
To understand ourselves and our place in the universe, "we should have humility but also self-respect," Frank Wilczek writes in a new book.