'Tis the Season: Be Nice to Others
Losang Samten: Be Mindful. Be Kind. Be Patient.
The Venerable Losang Samten, a renowned Tibetan scholar and a former Buddhist monk, stresses the virtues of being mindful, kind, and patient.
Sheryl WuDunn: Helping Others Is Good for You
Sheryl WuDunn explains the complex worlds of charitable giving, volunteering, and altruism. WuDunn is the co-author of "A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunities."
Why You Should Be Nice, with Stephen Post
Stephen Post discusses the mental and physical benefits of altruistic behavior. Post is the author of Is Ultimate Reality Unlimited Love? (http://goo.gl/T6Qjdx)
Robert Thurman: Love Your Enemy
Lovingkindness, Thurman says, is not an abstract idea but rater a practice that allows us to appreciate that everyone, including our enemies, want to be happy. And so instead of reflexively categorizing people as bad and wasting our energy by fighting them, we can elevate kindness and compassion "as the strengths they really are."
Thurman explains how the concept of "love your enemies" is sometimes difficult to understand in a modern setting. "People get nervous about it because they think if you love your enemies it means you're going to cave to them, you're going to be a martyr, you're going to invite them to come and destroy you and just be a masochist and so forth," he says.
However, that is not what love means.
"You can have fierce compassion," Thurman says, pointing to the example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who told his followers during a Civil Rights march in Birmingham that hatred was "a ridiculous waste of our energy."
"If you go around nursing hatred and vindictiveness" and how to get back at your enemy, Thurman says, "you're hurting yourself."
Tony Robbins: The Secret to Living is Giving
The acclaimed self-help expert recently visited Big Think to discuss his new book and share stories about what wealth and generosity mean to him.
- Two recently discovered radio galaxies are among the largest objects in the cosmos.
- The discovery implies that radio galaxies are more common than previously thought.
- The discovery was made while creating a radio map of the sky with a small part of a new radio array.
The universe is vast, and a lot of the stuff in it is massive. In a new study published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, researchers have added to the list of nearly unfathomably large objects with two giant radio galaxies, each much, much larger than the Milky Way galaxy we call home.
An extremely active galaxy
Radio galaxies are galaxies with extremely active central regions, known as nuclei, which shine incredibly brightly in some part of the electromagnetic spectrum. They are known for emitting large jets of ionized matter into intergalactic space at speeds approaching that of light. They are related to quasars and blazars. It is thought that supermassive black holes are the energy source that make these galaxies shine so brightly.
What makes these two galaxies (known as MGTC J095959.63+024608.6 and MGTC J100016.84+015133.0) so interesting is their size. Only 831 similar, "giant radio galaxies" are known to exist. As study co-author Dr. Matthew Prescott explains, these are particularly large even for giants:
"These two galaxies are special because they are amongst the largest giants known, and in the top 10 percent of all giant radio galaxies. They are more than two mega-parsecs across, which is around 6.5 million light-years or about 62 times the size of the Milky Way. Yet they are fainter than others of the same size."
The smaller of the two is just over two megaparsecs across, roughly six and a half million light-years. The larger is almost another half megaparsec larger than that.
Exactly how these things get to be so massive remains a mystery. Some have proposed that they are ejecting matter into unusually empty space, allowing for the jet to expand further, though some evidence contradicts this. The most commonly suggested idea is that they are simply much, much older than the previously observed radio galaxies, allowing more time for expansion to occur.
How does this change our understanding of the universe?
While exciting and impressive on their own, the findings also suggest that there are very many more of these giant galaxies than previously supposed. If you were going off the previous estimates for how typical these galaxies are, then the odds of finding these two would be 1 in 2.7×106. This suggests that there must be more, given that the alternative is that the scientists were impossibly lucky.
In the study, the researchers also apply this reasoning to smaller versions of these galaxies, saying:
"While our analysis has considered only enormous (>2 Mpc) objects, if radio galaxies must grow to reach this size, then we may expect to similarly uncover in our data previously undetected GRGs with smaller sizes."
Exactly how common radio galaxies and turn out to be remains to be seen. Still, it will undoubtedly be an exciting time for radio astronomy as new telescopes are turned skywards to search for them.
How did they find them?
The new galaxies were discovered by the amusingly named MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa during the creation of a new radio map of the sky. The MeerKAT is the first of what will soon be the Square Kilometre Array of telescopes, which will span several countries in the southern hemisphere and make even more impressive discoveries in radio astronomy possible.
James Thurber's short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" follows its mild-mannered protagonist through another mundane day of thankless chores. But Mitty is a daydreamer. He spices up his humdrum existence—and, thankfully, the story itself—through fantasies. Real-world events cause Mitty to imagine he's an ace hydroplane pilot, a brilliant surgeon, and an assassin on trial.
Thurber's character fits many readers like a driving glove because, as science has discovered, we all have a little Walter Mitty in us.
Research suggests that our minds wander close to 50 percent of the time, and we use these mental getaways to imagine our lives in all manner of fun and fanciful scenarios. We fantasize about the perfect meet-cute, or starting an exciting new career, or what we'd do with superpowers, or unbridled sexual encounters. Mostly it's sex.
And despite admonishments from our Victorian-styled teachers and supervisors, a mind in the clouds comes associated with a bevy of cognitive benefits. These include greater creativity, improved productivity, better problem-solving, and progress toward goals. Daydreaming is, in short, a virtue.
Except when it isn't, and here the darker undertones of Thurber's story come into play. It's hinted that Mitty may not be enjoying playful escapism but suffering from an uncontrollable urge to disassociate from his life, his responsibilities, and his relationships. Today, psychologists are researching whether such a Mittyesque existence may be the result of a new disorder known as maladaptive daydreaming.
One maladaptive dreamer spent hours a day dreaming he was a powerful man who could solve the world's problems.
Daydreaming is an indulgence of the mind and imagination, one provided courtesy of the default mode network, a network of interacting brain regions that is active even when the conscious mind is not. But like so many of life's indulgences—wine, steak dinners, video games, and even exercise—too much daydreaming can be harmful to our well-being. When daydreaming crosses that threshold, it can be considered maladaptive.
This disorder was first identified by Eli Somer, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Haifa, School of Social Work, in a 2002 paper. That paper looked to six patients in a trauma center whose daydreaming habits replaced human interactions or interfered with their standard life functions, such as going to school or holding down a job.
Since then, other case studies have looked at maladaptive daydreamers and compiled a list of potential symptoms. These include vivid, richly-detailed daydreams; abnormally long daydreaming sessions; daydreams triggered by real-life events; daydreaming sessions that interrupt sleep; and repetitive motions or whisperings while daydreaming. On average, one study reported, maladaptive daydreamers spend four hours a day housed in their imaginations.
"This is not like rehearsing a conversation that you might have with a boss," Somer told CNN. "This is fanciful, weaving of stories. It produces an intense sense of presence."
While such symptoms are common, though not comprehensive or guaranteed, how maladaptive daydreams manifest are naturally individual to the dreamers. In one case study, researchers analyzed the diary of a man codenamed "Peter." Peter described investing as many as 14 hours a day online. The news and images he happened upon would trigger related fantasies. For example, he may envision himself as a multimillionaire genius who could prevent bad news from occurring or self-insert himself into the power fantasies of superhero movies or police procedurals for hours at a time.
"When I felt this pain as a child, I started imagining how things could be different. I created stories which never happened. To suppress that pain I would hug my pillow or quilt, thinking I was being comforted by someone else," Peter wrote.
In an interview with CNN, Cordellia Rose described her maladaptive daydreaming like a drug and noted that her daydreams developed into intricate storylines that could last for years. These stories proved so distracted that she was unable to complete everyday tasks such as driving lessons.
"You get hooked on it, because it can be like an action movie in your head that's so gripping that you cannot turn off," Rose told CNN. "This [condition] needs to be public, because these are people suffering, and badly."
To be clear, maladaptive dreaming is not a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. Daydreamers such as Peter and Rose are aware that their fantasies are as unreal as they may be unrealistic. Because of this, many maladaptive dreamers understand the difficulties they face and the real-life losses they have endured for the sake of their fantasies.
More research needed
Researchers don't have a standard diagnosis or treatment for maladaptive daydreaming because they aren't yet sure it's a unique psychological condition. Maladaptive daydreaming has not been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition—blessedly abbreviated as the DMS-5—the definitive book on mental disorders. To date, there isn't enough evidence to determine if maladaptive daydreaming is a separate condition or a manifestation of an already listed disorder.
Somer has developed a 14-point scale to help people determine whether they are experiencing maladaptive-daydreaming symptoms, but the results only indicate whether an individual should seek help. They provide no formal diagnosis.
Also, maladaptive daydreaming is often expressed alongside other conditions, such as anxiety disorders, dissociative disorders, attention deficit disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. And the researchers of Peter's case study noticed a striking similarity between his condition and those with behavioral addition response—including analogous responses with preoccupation, mood modification, tolerance, and withdrawal. It may be that maladaptive daydreaming is an expression of these, or other, disorders.
It's worth noting that similar empirical hurdles exist for other well-known, though not formalized, disorders. Orthorexia, sex addiction, misophonia, internet addiction, and parental alienation syndrome are all likewise absent from the DSM-5. For maladaptive daydreaming and these other conditions, it's simply a case of more evidence and research needed before a determination can be made.
A growing understanding of maladaptive daydreaming
The question of labeling is a tricky one—not only from a medical point-of-view but also a prosocial one. Some people find having a recognized condition validating; they feel it promotes social acceptance and makes seeking treatment easier. Others find such labels stigmatizing and restricting.
But the question of how to label something is an academic one. It isn't to say that the experience doesn't exist. It does, and whether maladaptive daydreaming ultimately enters the DSM-5 or not, awareness is growing. Online communities now exist to give support and spread awareness. And regardless of a condition's presence in the medical literature, if symptoms disrupt work, school, or social lives, help should be sought.
Thanks to the efforts of psychologists and the community, maladaptive daydreaming, unlike Thurber's literary creation, is no longer "inscrutable to the last." And those who suffer it are no longer relegated to a firing-squad of their own mind but can find they help the need.
- Admitting mistakes can be very difficult for our ego and self-image, say psychologists.
- Refusing to own up to guilt boosts the ego and can feel more satisfying.
- Not acknowledging you are wrong can lead to psychological issues and ruined relationships.
We've all done something which might have seemed good at the time but turned out to be flat wrong. And then came the dread of admitting the mistake. Why is that part always so challenging? We never want to be the one who didn't get it right, who needs to grovel in defeat and suffer the ignominy of apologizing. Psychologists think that while hard, learning to deal with admitting fault is extremely important to sustaining relationships and personal growth.
What are some reactions you can have to a mistake? For one, you first need to become aware of it. Some people, you might have noticed, do not possess the self-awareness necessary to know they have wronged people or have misjudged a situation in a key way.
Another impediment to admitting mistakes – when their self-image is at stake, when they are afraid of looking weak and vulnerable, people often tend to double down. Their confirmation bias may make them overcompensate, refusing to acknowledge fault and consider only the evidence that supports their beliefs.
What happens next is cognitive dissonance. That's the psychological stress experienced by a person who gets confronted by having two contradictory ideas or beliefs. They get very confused upon having their world views and values challenged by actions going against them. Let's say you bet hard on a political horse and one sad day came to see clearly your trust was a mistake of gigantic proportions. While politicians generally always tend to disappoint, you may be feeling quite lost. Or you argued up a storm with your spouse over an infraction they see in a much worse light than you. In order to cope, you might protest and refuse to acknowledge the truth, coming up with excuses.
In an interview with the New York Times, social psychologist Carol Tavris, who wrote the aptly-named book "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)," said that the problem comes when our sense of self is under attack. "Cognitive dissonance is what we feel when the self-concept — I'm smart, I'm kind, I'm convinced this belief is true — is threatened by evidence that we did something that wasn't smart, that we did something that hurt another person, that the belief isn't true."
How would you reduce the cognitive dissonance? You need to alter your concept of self, start coming to grips with the evidence presented, or you try to justify your mistake. We all know which approaches we tend to take. Learning to incorporate the dissonance can be quite painful to your ego.
In an interview with NBC News, neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez defined ego as a "person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance." And our ego likes to win, no matter what argument it finds itself in.
The ego's control extends to something experts call psychological reactance – not many are big fans of being told what to do. Behavioral health therapist Jane Permoto Ehrman of the Cleveland Clinic explained that "resistance is engrained into our culture and brains from a young age. Everyone has some form of inner rebel that likes to question or do the opposite of what we're told."
Persisting in your obstinance, on the other hand, can feel pretty satisfying. A 2012 study found that refusing to apologize can boost your self-esteem and lead to "increased feelings of power/control and value integrity." This may be due to the fact that apologies give extra power to those who receive them, explained the authors. This ego boost from refusal can be short-lived, however, and can ruin your relationships and cause backlash.
Why Your Self-Image Might Be Wrong: Ego, Buddhism, and Freud
Likewise, persisting in going against norms and those who you feel are telling you what to do may also ruin your life. "As adults, it's important to recognize when our rebellious self is acting out in a way that's not in our best interest or if it might be harmful to those around us," said Ehrman. "When we feel a powerful surge of resistance, it's usually us trying to protect our ego because we don't want to look vulnerable."
Not admitting mistakes also obviously makes you less prone to self-improvement. Of course, some don't have the will for becoming better and know it. Studies have shown that it's important for a person to feel like they can change their behavior before they will own up to what they did wrong.
You may think that some people get away with never admitting their mistakes, seemingly coasting through life like unrepentant bulldozers. But psychologists believe even such people tend to accumulate subconscious feelings of guilt and shame, a mental gnawing that eventually can turn into anxiety and depression.
Admitting you messed up may not always feel good, but can show to others that "we are compassionate, empathetic, sympathetic, and good listeners," shared Dr. Hafeez, adding "It also shows that we are capable of being objective about ourselves and that we not 'perfect' or always right."
So if you did something you aren't proud of, go ahead and say it – you were wrong. It can feel liberating and put you and everyone in your life on a path towards a better future.
- Work addiction is a growing public health risk in industrialized nations, with some research showing that 5–10% of the United States population meet the criteria.
- Workaholism comes with a variety of serious mental and physical health concerns such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, lowered immunity, substance abuse, or even chronic fatigue.
- Employees at the highest risk for stress-related disorders are those in what researchers call the "tense" group category where job demand is high but job control is low, such as healthcare workers.
You may have noticed, from cultural trends ranging from productivity tracking apps to the rising use of prescription amphetamines, that our society is a bit work-obsessed. The glamorization of hustle culture is unavoidable, permeating our language: "Hard worker" and "go-getter" are offered as the highest of praises, "busyness" is worn as a badge of honor, while laziness is a mortal sin.
But this collective worship for work and productivity come with psychological and physical health risks. One being putting an increasing number of individuals at risk of work addiction, or workaholism — an increasing public health concern in industrialized nations. In fact, research indicates that around 5–10% of the United States population meet the criteria for a work addiction. And while we've turned workaholism into a sort of joke, it is an addiction, and like other addictions it comes with a variety of serious mental and physical health concerns such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, or even chronic fatigue.This relationship between work addiction and health-related outcomes was the subject of a paper recently published by an international group of researchers in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. They also looked at what types of occupations are more likely to put someone at risk for work addiction.
Who are 'workaholics'?
Workaholism is a behavioral disorder in which someone who typically works seven or more hours extra than others per week. Financial instability, marital problems, or pressure from a company or supervisor could all be reasons for working more hours than average. The difference is that workaholics are excessively involved in work when their employer doesn't require or expect as much time as the individual is putting into the job.
Symptoms of work addiction include:
- Putting in long hours at work, even when not needed
- Losing sleep to engage in work projects or finish tasks
- Obsessiveness with work-related success
- Feelings of intense fear of failure at work
- Sacrificing personal relationships because of work or using work as a way of avoiding relationships
- Working to cope with feelings of guilt, depression, or shame
- Working to avoid dealing with personal crises like death, divorce, or financial trouble.
Four types of work environments
The researchers wanted to demonstrate the extent to which risk of workaholism is associated with the perception of work, i.e. job demands and job control, and mental health in four job categories frameworked in the Job Demand-Control-Support model (JDCS).
This model assumes four work environments broken into four quadrants in which employees likely experience different levels of job demands and job control, control being the extent to which an employee feels agency and control over their work. They are:
- Passive (low job control, low job demand)
- Low-strain (high job control, low job demand)
- Active (high job demands, high job control)
- Tense or Job Strain (high job demands, low job control)
People with "passive" jobs may find satisfaction as long as the worker reaches a set of goals. Those in the "low strain" job group are not at high risk for mental health problems as the category typically corresponds to creative or imaginative jobs such as researchers. "Active" are usually highly skilled professionals with a high amount of responsibilities, such as directors of companies. Though they have demanding tasks, they usually have high levels of decision making to solve problems. Employees at the highest risk for stress-related disorders are those in the final "tense" group where demand is high but control is low. Examples include healthcare workers from emergency departments who cannot control the huge workload or flux.
The study was conducted in France, an industrial country with a growing number of occupations. The scientists collected data from 187 out of 1580 French employees who volunteered to participate in a cross-sectional study, which was conducted using the online platform WittyFit software. Participants were self-administered four questionnaires: the Job Content Questionnaire by Karasek, the Work Addiction Risk Test, the Hospital Anxiety and Depression scale, and socio-demographics. The researchers in the study divided all the participants on the basis of their occupational quadrants to investigate the relationship between work addiction risk and mental and physical health.
"One of the novelties of this research was to introduce vulnerable occupational groups to organizations or job holders. For example, if we find that work addiction risk can be found more in some occupations and may result in negative outcomes for the health situation then we can give this information to decision makers in this organization or, for example, to the ministry of health. And they could intervene to prevent this problem," explained Morteza Charkhabi, associate professor at the Institute of Education at the HSE University, in a press release.
Results: Who is at risk?
The research results found that jobs with high demands are the most strongly associated with work addiction risk, however the level of job control doesn't play as influential of a role.
Individuals in active and high strain job categories are more likely to be at risk for work addiction than the other job groups. These workers appeared to be more vulnerable and, thus, suffer more, from the negative results of work addiction risk such as depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and other health issues such as a weakened immune system and increased risk of disease."We found that job demands could be the most important factor that can develop work addiction risk," Charkhabi pointed out. "So this factor should be controlled or should be investigated by the organization's manager, for example, HR staff, psychologists. Also another conclusion could be the job climate like job demands of each job category can influence the rate of work addiction risk. Thus in this study we actually focused on external factors like job demands not internal factors like the personal characteristics."
Side-effects of work addiction
The scientists found that those with higher work addiction risk have twice the risk of developing depression as compared to people with low work addiction risk. Additionally, sleep quality was lower in workers with high risk of work addiction compared to workers with low risk of work addiction. Interestingly, women had almost twice the work addiction risk than men.
Work addiction can be difficult to treat in a culture that accepts and rewards workaholic behaviors. The most common approach for treating work addiction typically involves outpatient treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or Motivational Interviewing (MI). You can learn more here.
- Artificial intelligence that's smarter than us could potentially solve problems beyond our grasp.
- AI that are self-learning can absorb whatever information they need from the internet, a Pandora's Box if ever there was one.
- The nature of computing itself prevents us from limiting the actions of a super-intelligent AI if it gets out of control.
There have been a fair number of voices—Stephen Hawking among them—raised in warning that a super-intelligent artificial intelligence could one day turn on us and that we shouldn't be in such a hot, unquestioning hurry to develop true AI. Others say, naw, don't worry. Now a new white paper from scientists at the Center for Humans and Machines at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development presents a series of theoretical tests that confirm the threat: Due to the basic concepts underlying computing, we would be utterly unable to control a super-intelligent AI.
"We argue that total containment is, in principle, impossible, due to fundamental limits inherent to computing itself," write the paper's authors.
The white paper is published in the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research.
Credit: @nt/Adobe Stock
"A super-intelligent machine that controls the world sounds like science fiction," says paper co-author Manuel Cebrian in a press release. "But there are already machines that perform certain important tasks independently without programmers fully understanding how they learned it. The question therefore arises whether this could at some point become uncontrollable and dangerous for humanity."
The lure of AI is clear. Its ability to "see" the patterns in data make it a promising agent for solving problems too complex for us to wrap our minds around. Could it cure cancer? Solve the climate crisis? The possibilities are nearly endless.
Connected to the internet, AI can grab whatever information it needs to achieve its task, and therein lies a big part of the danger. With access to every bit of human data—and responsible for its own education—who knows what lessons it would learn regardless of any ethical constraints built into its programming? Who knows what goals it would embrace and what it might do to achieve them?
Even assuming benevolence, there's danger. Suppose that an AI is confronted by an either/or choice akin to the Trolley Dilemma, maybe even on a grand scale: Might an AI decide to annihilate millions of people if it decided the remaining billions would stand a better chance of survival?
A pair of flawed options
Credit: Maxim_Kazmin/Adobe Stock
The most obvious way to keep a super intelligent AI from getting ahead of us is to limit its access to information by preventing it from connecting to the internet. The problem with limiting access to information, though, is that it would make any problem we assign the AI more difficult for it to solve. We would be weakening its problem-solving promise possibly to a point of uselessness.
The second approach that might be taken is to limit what a super-intelligent AI is capable of doing by programming into it certain boundaries. This might be akin to writer Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robotics, the first of which goes: "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."
Unfortunately, says the study, a series of logical tests reveal that it's impossible to create such limits. Any such a containment algorithm, it turns out, would be self-defeating.
Containment is impossible
Credit: UncleFredDesign/Adobe Stock
"If you break the problem down to basic rules from theoretical computer science, it turns out that an algorithm that would command an AI not to destroy the world could inadvertently halt its own operations. If this happened, you would not know whether the containment algorithm is still analyzing the threat, or whether it has stopped to contain the harmful AI. In effect, this makes the containment algorithm unusable."
The team investigated stacking containment algorithms, with each monitoring the behavior of the previous one, but eventually the same problem arises: The final check halts itself, rendering it unreliable.
The Planck researchers also concluded that a similar bit of logic makes it impossible for us to know when a self-learning computer's intelligence has come to exceed our own. Essentially, we're not smart enough to be able to develop tests for intelligence superior to ours.
"Machines take me by surprise with great frequency. This is largely because I do not do sufficient calculation to decide what to expect them to do." — Alan Turing
This means that it's entirely conceivable that an AI capable of self-learning may well quietly ascend to super-intelligence without our even knowing it — a scary reason all by itself to slow down our hurly-burley race to artificial intelligence.
In the end, we're left with a dangerous bargain to make or not make: Do we risk our safety in exchange for the possibility that AI will solve problems we can't?