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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.
- The 'Monkeydactly', or Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, was a species of pterosaur, a group of flying reptiles that were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability of powered flight.
- In a recent study, a team of researchers used microcomputed tomography scanning to analyze the anatomy of the newly discovered species, finding that it was the first known species to develop opposable thumbs.
- As highly specialized dinosaurs, pterosaurs boasted unusual anatomy that gave them special advantages as aerial predators in the Mesozoic Era.
A newly discovered flying dinosaur nicknamed "Monkeydactyl" is the oldest known creature that evolved opposable thumbs, according to new research published in Current Biology.
The 160-million-year-old reptile is officially named Kunpengopterus antipollicatus. Discovered in China, the dinosaur was a darwinopteran pterosaur, a subgroup of pterosaurs, which first appeared 215 million years ago during the Triassic Period. Pterosaurs, like the pterodactyl, were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability of powered flight.
But unlike other pterosaurs, the Monkeydactyl was the only species in its group known to have opposable thumbs. It's a rare adaptation for non-mammals: The only extant examples are chameleons and some species of tree frogs. (Most birds have at least one opposable digit, though that digit is usually classified as a hallux, not a pollex, which means "thumb" in Latin.)
To analyze the anatomy of K. antipollicatus, an international team of researchers used microcomputed tomography scanning, which generates images of the inside of the body.
"The fingers of 'Monkeydactyl' are tiny and partly embedded in the slab," study co-author Fion Waisum Ma said in a press release. "Thanks to micro-CT scanning, we could see through the rocks, create digital models, and tell how the opposed thumb articulates with the other finger bones."
"This is an interesting discovery. It provides the earliest evidence of a true opposed thumb, and it is from a pterosaur — which wasn't known for having an opposed thumb."
As a tree-dwelling reptile, the Monkeydactyl probably evolved opposable thumbs so it could grasp tree branches, which would have helped it hang, avoid falls, and obtain food. This arboreal (tree-dwelling) locomotion would help the Monkeydactyl adapt to its home ecosystem, the subtropical forests of the Tiaojishan Formation in China during the Jurassic Period.
The researchers noted that the forests of the Tiaojishan Formation were likely warm and humid, thriving with "a rich and complex" diversity of tree-dwelling animals. But while the forests were home to multiple pterosaur species, the Monkeydactyl was likely the only one that was arboreal, spending most of its time in the treetops, while other pterosaurs occupied different levels of the forest.
K. antipollicatus and its phylogenetic position. (A and B) Holotype specimen BPMC 0042 (A) and a schematic skeletal drawing (B). Scale bars, 50 mm.Credit: Zhou et al.
This process — in which competing species manage to coexist by using the environment in different ways — is called "niche partitioning."
"Tiaojishan palaeoforest is home to many organisms, including three genera of darwinopteran pterosaurs," study author Xuanyu Zhou said in the press release. "Our results show that K. antipollicatus has occupied a different niche from Darwinopterus and Wukongopterus, which has likely minimized competition among these pterosaurs."
In general, pterosaurs are a prime example of how animals can evolve remarkably specialized adaptations. As pioneers of vertebrate flight, pterosaurs had strong and lightweight skeletons that ranged widely in size, with some boasting wingspans of more than 30 feet. The largest pterosaurs weighed more than 650 pounds and had jaws twice the length of Tyrannosaurus rex.
Unlike birds, which jump into the air using only their hind limbs, pterosaurs used their exceptionally strong hind limbs and forelimbs to push off the ground and gain enough launch power for flight. That these massive dinosaurs managed to fly, and did so successfully for about 80 million years, has long fascinated and puzzled scientists.The recent discovery shows that pterosaurs developed even more remarkable adaptations than previously thought, suggesting there's still more to learn about the "monsters of the Mesozoic skies."
Dancing, fot Nietzsche, was another way of saying Yes! to life.
He introduced idiosyncratic concepts such as the free spirit, the Übermensch, eternal recurrence, ressentiment, the ascetic ideal, the revaluation of values, and the affirmation of life. He shifted allegiances: writing books, for example, in support of the composer Richard Wagner and the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, but later delivering blistering critiques of both. Not surprisingly, scholars range widely in their interpretations of Nietzsche: was he a poet or a philosopher? A nihilist, moral relativist, or Nazi sympathiser? A critic or a system builder? Anti-Christian or Christian? Answers frequently depend on which portions of Nietzsche's work a reader deems most important.
In the face of this complexity, Nietzsche offers an interpretive key: his references to dance (Tanz). Taken together, these references light a path that begins in Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), and wends through every major work into his final book, the posthumous Ecce Homo (1908). These references not only link his ideas and styles, they also shed light on Nietzsche's enduring motivation: to teach readers how to affirm life here and now on Earth as human bodily selves. Nietzsche's dance references call attention to the sensory education that he insists is necessary for creating values that 'remain faithful to the Earth'.
When Nietzsche wrote his first book, he was unaware of the significance that dance would have for his philosophy, in part because he was deeply enamoured with Wagner. The musician had begun composing a cycle of four operas – his now-famous Ring – intending to revive the tradition of Ancient Greek tragedies. In so doing, Wagner hoped to realise the power of music that Schopenhauer described: to save humans from the cravings and suffering of Will.
During visits paid by Nietzsche, Wagner and his wife Cosima encouraged the younger man to write a scholarly book to justify these claims. Yet, as Nietzsche later admits, in his rush to laud Wagner (and Schopenhauer), he shortchanged one of his own insights – namely, that, in the tragedies of Ancient Greece, the dancing of the chorus was essential for ensuring that stories of madness, suffering and death nonetheless produce in spectators a rousing affirmation of life.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche analyses this paradoxical experience. He explains that the dancing and singing of the chorus move spectators to identify viscerally with what the chorus represents: elemental rhythms of an endlessly creative Nature. As they are moved by these rhythms, spectators feel joy. They know their bodily selves as members of an endlessly generative whole. And from this sensory vantage point, they are not devastated by the tragic death of their hero, god or ideal; instead, they perceive this death as a mere moment in an ongoing flow of appearances. Nietzsche calls the effect a 'magic transformation': spectators' sensations of suffering and terror yield to feelings of 'metaphysical comfort' and the notion that 'life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable'.
Later, in Human, All Too Human (1878), Nietzsche elaborates that all human symbolism – even music – is rooted in the 'imitation of gesture' at work in ancient tragedy. He writes that the human impulse to move with others 'is older than language, and goes on involuntarily … [even] when the language of gesture is universally suppressed,' as he observed among Christians of his day. When humans don't learn how to move their bodily selves, Nietzsche insists, their senses grow dull and they lose the capacity to discern what is good for them. He asks: where are the 'Books that teach us to dance'? Here, dance assumes a role it will play throughout Nietzsche's writing as a litmus test for any value, idea, practice or person. Does it dance? Does it catalyse a joyful affirmation of life?
On the heels of Human, Nietzsche's poor health forced him to retire from teaching, and he began to conceive plans for writing his own tragedy – a book designed to awaken in his readers a sensory vantage point from which they might experience the death of a god – in this case, the Christian God – as good for them, and a reason to love life. A book that would teach us to dance.
Nietzsche began writing his tragedy only after breaking off relations with his friends, the psychologist Paul Rée and Lou Andreas-Salomé, the woman they both loved. Nietzsche believed that he had found in Andreas-Salomé the one person who understood his quest for a radical affirmation of life. He made plans with her and Rée to live together in an intellectual society that she called their 'Unholy Trinity'. However, due primarily to suspicions planted by Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth, the trio's plans did not materialise. A despondent Nietzsche wrote to his dear friend Franz Overbeck: 'Unless I can discover the alchemical trick of turning this – muck into gold, I am lost.'
Nietzsche's own 'magic transformation' appeared a month later: Part One of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883). Three more parts soon followed. In this story, Zarathustra is a man who has lived alone on a mountaintop for 10 years, and comes down to teach people how to love themselves and their humanity. All four parts are saturated with references to dance, dancers and dancing. Zarathustra is a dancer, and dance is what he admonishes others to do. As Zarathustra exhorts: 'You higher men, the worst about you is that you have not learned to dance as one must dance – dancing away over yourselves! What does it matter that you are failures? How much is still possible!' And when Zarathustra states: 'I would only believe in a god that knows how to dance,' he confirms that even our highest ideals must encourage us to affirm bodily life.
After Zarathustra, Nietzsche continued to evoke dance as a touchstone for life-affirming values. In his critique of western European Christian morality, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), dance appears as an activity practised by the strong to preserve their ability to digest their experiences; those who dance are not burdened by ressentiment, or need for revenge. They have the sensory discernment needed to resist pernicious applications of the ascetic ideal. In Twilight of the Idols (1889) and The Antichrist (1895), dance appears as a discipline for training sensory awareness and cultivating skills of perception and responsibility, so that one is able to participate responsibly in the creation of values, conscious of what one's movements are making.
Nietzsche's ubiquitous references to dance are ever-present reminders that the work of overcoming oneself – of freeing oneself enough from anger, bitterness and despair to say 'Yes!' to life – is not just an intellectual or scientific task. An ability to affirm life demands bodily practices that discipline our minds to elemental rhythms, to the creativity of our senses, and to the 'great reason', our body, 'that does not say “I" but does 'I".' Only when we engage in such practices will we have the sensory awareness we need in order to discern whether the values we create and the movements we make express love for ourselves and the Earth.
Sometimes, moral lessons can be learned from blowing away zombies.
- Most video games are happily escapist entertainment, but some are much more.
- One of these is The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2), which takes place in a post-apocalyptic pandemic world.
- Through the innovative use of game play technology TLOU2, radically changes your perspective and elevates this game from entertainment to true art.
There are basically two kinds of people in the world: those who play (or played) video games and those who don't get video games at all.
Okay, I admit this might be an oversimplification. But for a 58-year-old guy who didn't start playing until about ten years ago, this bifurcation explains why so many people miss what is truly revolutionary in these revolutionary technologies. I find myself spending a lot of time explaining to my non-gamer friends (both young and old) that in the midst of all the alien shooters, battle royales, and side-scrolling melee fighters — FYI, these are game genres — there lies a radically potent new method for storytelling. And it's storytelling that provides one path by which a great video game can become great art. To illustrate this point, let me introduce The Last of Us Part II.
Released during COVID-19, The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) tells a story in a world fallen to a pandemic. The subject matter certainly seems timely, but by itself, that doesn't mean much. Post-apocalyptic pandemic video games are a dime a dozen. There are a zillion titles out there that will let you spend 20 or 30 hours of game time mowing down zombies of one form or another while upgrading your weapons, health, and skills.
The sublime art of TLOU2
Now, don't get me wrong. The mowing down of zombies and the upgrading of skills common to many video games are just fine. Not every game has to be great art, just like not every movie you watch or novel you read has to be great art. There is, most definitely, a place in this world for mindless escape, entertainment, and fun. That's because — if you are into it — sneaking around some last-outpost-of-humanity while trying to take out dangerous zombies can be a delicious waste of time at the end of a hard day. But with TLOU2, there is all that and more.
The creators of TLOU2 take players on a difficult, exhausting journey through the consequences of violence.
Given the "Part II" in its title, TLOU2 is obviously the continuation of a story laid down in The Last of Us. That game followed Joel, a survival-hardened middle-aged smuggler who's been tasked with shepherding teenaged Ellie across the country 20 years after the pandemic outbreak. Ellie is immune to the infection that turns people into zombies. Joel is given his mission by a resistance group that hopes to use Ellie to find a final cure. The journey of Ellie and Joel (who lost his own teenaged daughter two decades earlier in the outbreak) is harrowing and makes The Last of Us almost universally recognized as one of the greatest video games ever made. I've written before about how TLOU's innovative use of game-playing mechanics redefined what was possible for storytelling. In TLOU2, creator Naughty Dog Studio manages to make lightning strike twice, finding an entirely new path to transformative innovation.
Warning! From here on there are serious spoilers. If you think you want to play these games STOP.
The Last of Us Part IICredit: Naughty Dog
You've been warned
TLOU2 takes place four years after the end of the original game. The story is set in motion with the brutal murder of Joel as Ellie is forced to watch. It's an act of vengeance, a retribution for Joel's own choices at the end of the first game. So, what does TLOU2 do to make this game rise above a thousand other stories of vengeance and retribution? The answer lies in the most basic mechanics of game play: perspective.
When you play a video game like TLOU2, you take on the role of the character. This means you literally take control of their actions, seeing through their eyes (or over their shoulder) as you navigate them through the world and the story. This is where the digital technologies of video games take storytelling into new domains. In the hands of lesser creators, the possibilities of that power are lost, and you just get another ho-hum shooter with a weak story. That's not what happens in TLOU2.
The first half of the game follows Ellie as she tracks down Joel's killer and seeks her own vengeance. Her quarry is Abby, the daughter of a doctor that Joel killed at the end of the first game. Abby is now part of a paramilitary group in Seattle, and you, playing as Ellie, must work your way through the city to find her over the course of three days. Using stealth and combat, fighting both the infected (really terrifying zombies) and Abby's compatriots, the effort is unnerving and exhausting. Unlike most games, TLOU2 does not let you off the hook in its depiction of violence. The brutality of what you are doing cannot be avoided. Characters struggle for their lives and call to each other by name if you take one down. They are friends, and you are the one ending that friendship forever.
The big plot twist
Which you are doing because, in a stunning design choice, TLOU2 switches that all-important perspective on you right in the middle of the game. With an impressive narrative mechanism, the clock gets reset to three days earlier, and you are now Abby, greeting one friend after another at the stadium that serves as the paramilitary group's base of operations. You get breakfast at the commissary and chat with folks in the line. You check out gear for the upcoming patrol and take responsibility for a playful guard dog named Alice.
As you move Abby through these often intimate interactions, you come to realize that these are all the people that you just murdered (including the dog) in the first half of the game when you were Ellie. It's a terrible, harrowing shift that colors the rest of the game as it goes on to unpack deeper issues about the strictures of our tribalism, our capacities for choice, and the possibilities of forgiveness. In the end, I was just blown away.
What matters for our discussion today is that the immense power of TLOU2 — namely, its ability to haunt me months after I finished the game — is due to the medium. Yes, a novel or film can force a change in perspective and that can be arresting. But it's the immersion, the agency, and the appearance of choice (even if limited) in video games that radically shifts the experience of perspective in a story. And in that shift comes a transcendence, a reframing, and a learning that are all the reasons why we turn to art. Ultimately, one reason we create art, one reason we participate in art, is an effort to learn something. Through it, we hope to find something deeper, something more about this mystery of being human.
That is what TLOU2 accomplishes. Through the medium of video games, the creators of TLOU2 take players on a difficult, exhausting journey through the consequences of violence. Given that medium's usual careless treatment of violence, making such a journey possible was not a small thing. It was revealing, and that is what we can, and should, ask from true art.
The most mental game in existence no longer requires fingers.
- A brain-controlled interface implements a two-step process: Identify the chess piece, then place it on the board.
- The program was 96 percent accurate at correctly moving chess pieces.
- This research opens up opportunities for physically impaired people to express themselves in new ways.
By November 2020, The Queen's Gambit had been watched in over 62 million households, making it the most-watched scripted limited series in Netflix history. The thoughtful, stylized show on the patient pursuit of chess was perfectly timed for a world in lockdown. Viewers were enamored with Elizabeth Harmon's mental prowess as she envisioned dozens of potential moves on the ceiling in order to evade capture and declare victory.
Chess is one of the most intellectually stimulating games in existence. What if you could play it purely with your mind? Given how immersive chess is, can you imagine leaving the physical world behind and truly entering a mind palace?
A game of the mind
It turns out a number of researchers have had such a vision. In a paper published in IEEE Xplore, German professors David Hubner, Albrecht Schall, and Michael Tangermann discuss the evolution of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) as applied to two-player chess games. Incredibly, 96 percent of moves were correct — and most errors were technical issues that they believe can be fixed.
Chess is played by an estimated 605 million people around the world. While face-to-face interactions will always be an integral component of the intimacy of chess, the game was adopted early on the internet. The ability to play at a distance increased its popularity and accessibility as players found suitable opponents across the planet.
Photo: Anusorn / Adobe Stock
The BCI is based on a two-step process: first, identifying the piece a player wants to move, then moving it on the board. In this study, six players used a BCI chess application (which was based on an open-source Java app) along with an electroencephalogram (EEG) equipped with 31 passive electrodes that detected the chess piece and board position in the player's mind.
Before the game, each player performed predefined chess moves to calibrate the BCI. During play, they also had a predefined amount of time for thinking about their next move. Specifically, they were given 15 seconds to consider the piece that they were going to move and five seconds to "move" the piece. If the player only had one possible move, the BCI automatically executed it.
Hands-free chess has real-world applications
Beyond the excitement of controlling a computer with your mind, the researchers recognize a variety of potential applications. For instance, BCI games aid in cognitive training and help motor-impaired people express themselves.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."