Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

25 JULY, 2013

How We Got “Please” and “Thank You”


Why the line between politeness and bossiness is a linguistic mirage.

“A good thing to think about is what kind of face to make when you say please,” Ruth Krauss wrote in her magnificent final collaboration with Maurice Sendak. “That coat will be the last gift [your mother] gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life. Say thank you,” Cheryl Strayed counseled in her endlessly soul-stirring Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. But how did these commonest of courtesies, “please” and “thank you,” actually originate? That’s precisely what anthropologist and activist David Graeber explores in one of the most absorbing semi-asides in his altogether illuminating Debt: The First 5,000 Years (public library):

Debt … is just an exchange that has not been brought to completion.

It follows that debt is strictly a creature of reciprocity and has little to do with other sorts of morality. . . . But isn”t that just the same old story, starting with the assumption that all human interactions must be, by definitions, forms of exchange, and then performing whatever mental somersaults are required to prove it?

No. All human interactions are not forms of exchange. Only some are. Exchange encourages a particular way of conceiving human relations. This is because exchange implies equality, but it also implies separation.

Graeber goes on to offer a counterexample via the history of two of our most common cultural habits of civility:

Consider the custom, in American society, of constantly saying “please” and “thank you.” To do so is often treated as basic morality: we are constantly chiding children for forgetting to do it, just as the moral guardians of our society — teachers and ministers, for instance — do to everybody else. We often assume that the habit is universal, but … it is not. Like so many of our everyday courtesies, it is a kind of democratization of what was once a habit of feudal deference: the insistence on treating absolutely everyone the way that one used only to have to treat a lord or similar hierarchical superior.

But not all such courtesies are meaningless echoes of bygone hierarchical structures:

Imagine we are on a crowded bus, looking for a seat. A fellow passenger moves her bag aside to clear one; we smile, or nod, or make some other little gesture of acknowledgment. Or perhaps we actually say “Thank you.” Such a gesture is simply a recognition of common humanity, we are acknowledging that the woman who had been blocking the seat is not a mere physical obstacle but a human being, and that we feel genuine gratitude toward someone we will likely never see again.

'Please' by Debbie Millman (1993)

Most fascinating of all, however, is the actual etymology of the two expressions:

The English “please” is short for “if you please,” “if it pleases you to do this” — it is the same in most European languages (French si il vous plait, Spanish por favor). Its literal meaning is “you are under no obligation to do this.” “Hand me the salt. Not that I am saying that you have to!” This is not true; there is a social obligation, and it would be almost impossible not to comply. But etiquette largely consists of the exchange of polite fictions (to use less polite language, lies). When you ask someone to pass the salt, you are also giving them an order; by attaching the word “please,” you are saying that it is not an order. But, in fact, it is.

In English, “thank you” derives from “think,” it originally meant, “I will remember what you did for me” — which is usually not true either — but in other languages (the Portuguese obrigado is a good example) the standard term follows the form of the English “much obliged” — it actually does means “I am in your debt.” The French merci is even more graphic: it derives from “mercy,” as in begging for mercy; by saying it you are symbolically placing yourself in your benefactor”s power — since a debtor is, after all, a criminal. Saying “you’re welcome,” or “it’s nothing” (French de rien, Spanish de nada) — the latter has at least the advantage of often being literally true — is a way of reassuring the one to whom one has passed the salt that you are not actually inscribing a debit in your imaginary moral account book. So is saying “my pleasure” — you are saying, “No, actually, it’s a credit, not a debit — you did me a favor because in asking me to pass the salt, you gave me the opportunity to do something I found rewarding in itself!” …

Noting that “tacit calculus of debt” is “not the quintessence of morality but the quintessence of middle-class morality,” Graeber points out that the history of these exchanges, whether meaningless or meaningful, is actually a surprisingly recent development:

The habit of always saying “please” and “thank you” first began to take hold during the commercial revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries — among those very middle classes who were largely responsible for it. It is the language of bureaus, shops, and offices, and over the course of the last five hundred years it has spread across the world along with them. It is also merely one token of a much larger philosophy, a set of assumptions of what humans are and what they owe one another, that have by now become so deeply ingrained that we cannot see them.

Complement with Lord Chesterfield on the art of pleasing and the art of finding happiness in everyday gratitude.

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24 JULY, 2013

Amelia Earhart on Drive, Education, Religion, and Human Nature in Letters to Her Mother


“The more one does the more one can do.”

When Amelia Earhart, born on July 24, 1897, disappeared over the Pacific on July 2, 1937, she left behind a legacy shrouded in legend, glory, and modern-day mythmaking. But whatever Amelia the public icon may have imparted, Amelia the private person brimmed with far more dimensional insight on life — on determination, on education, on religion, on human nature — which spills open in Letters from Amelia: An Intimate Portrait of Amelia Earhart (public library), the same fantastic volume that gave us her remarkably forward-thinking views on marriage.

Though she grew up in a troubled home, financially strained and with an alcoholic father, Amelia’s determination and independence were evident from an early age: In March of 1914, aged 17, she wrote in a letter to a school friend:

Of course I’m going to [Bryn Mawr] if I have to drive a grocery wagon to accumulate the cash.

Amelia Earhart, St. Paul, 1914.

Though she didn’t end up going to Bryn Mawr, Amelia was firmly set on getting an education and entered the Ogontz School, a junior college in Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1916. In October the following year, twenty-year-old Amelia writes her mother about having taken on an extraordinary amount of academic and extracurricular work — something she found stimulating rather than stressful, per her already typical determination:

I am taking Modern Drama Literature, German and German Literature outside. French three and five in which latter we are reading Eugénie Grandet. And Senior arithmetic and logic if I can. Besides reading a good deal and art, Bible, etc. etc.

I am elected to write the senior song, but you know the more one does the more one can do.

A few days later, she adds in another letter:

Despite my unusual activity I am very well organized to do more the more I do. You know what I mean. … I am not overdoing and all that is needed to bouncing health is plenty to eat and happiness. Consider me bursting, please.

In the fall of 1919, Amelia enrolled in Columbia University as a premed student. In a letter to her mother she sent from New York that year, Amelia expresses her views on the disconnect between religion and spirituality in a simple yet enormously eloquent way:

Don’t think for an instant I would ever become an atheist or even a doubter nor lose faith in the [Episcopalian] church’s teachings as a whole. That is impossible. But you must admit there is a great deal radically wrong in methods and teachings and results to-day. Probably no more than yesterday, but the present stands up and waves its paws at me and I see — can’t help it. It is not the clergy nor the church itself nor the people that are narrow, but the outside pressure that squeezes them into a routine.

But Amelia soon found her faith in the skies. In 1920, she fell in love with flying and the rest, as they say, is history. Eight years later, in June of 1928, as she was about to make her first transatlantic flight as a passenger, she wrote her mother in a telegram:


Orville Wright and Amelia Earhart at Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, 1936

But despite her passion for the skies, Amelia always kept education, especially the education of women, a primary focus of her relentless dedication, lecturing in universities around the world and even inspiring a course in “household engineering” at Purdue University, where 1,000 of the 6,000 students were women. She also counseled young women on their careers. At Purdue, she advised graduating girls to try a certain job but not be afraid to make a change if they found something better, adding:

And if you should find that you are the first woman to feel an urge in that direction, what does it matter? Feel it and act on it just the same. It may turn out to be fun. And to me fun is the indispensable part of work.

(Appropriately, she titled her memoir The Fun of It: Random Records of My Own Flying and of Women in Aviation.)

Arrival after solo transatlantic flight, Culmore, Ireland, 1932

A few months later, during her second attempt to fly around the world, Amelia disappeared over Howland Island in the central Pacific, never to be seen again.

Amelia Earhart. Self-portrait. Date uncertain.

In the afterword to Letters from Amelia, which is sadly out-of-print but luckily still available used and an absolute treasure in its entirety, editor Jean L. Backus captures the singular expansiveness of Amelia’s spirit with a few brilliantly chosen words:

Amelia Earhart was clear as glass and cloudy as milk at the same time, and she was marked for greatness. She rarely failed either in public or in private to live up to what she demanded of herself. She would not compromise with integrity, she did not quail before danger, and she brought honor by word and deed to her sex, her country, her kin, and herself.

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19 JULY, 2013

Richard Feynman on Good, Evil, and the Zen of Science, Plus His Prose Poem for the Glory of Evolution


“I . . . a universe of atoms . . . an atom in the universe.”

“Everyone’s moral behavior is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted,” psychology researchers David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo wrote in their fascinating exploration of the good and evil in all of us, and hardly is this variability more critical than in matters that profoundly affect not merely the fate of the individual but also the future of society at large. In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the same indispensable anthology that gave us The Great Explainer’s insights on the universal responsibility of scientists and the role of scientific culture in modern society, titled after the famous film of the same name — Richard Feynman explores the capacity of science to be a catalyst for both good and evil, and the moral choices steering the direction of the dial:

The first way in which science is of value is familiar to everyone. It is that scientific knowledge enables us to do all kinds of things and to make all kinds of things. Of course if we make good things, it is not only to the credit of science; it is also to the credit of the moral choice which led us to good work. Scientific knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad — but it does not carry instructions on how to use it. Such power has evident value — even though the power may be negated by what one does.

I learned a way of expressing this common human problem on a trip to Honolulu. In a Buddhist temple there, the man in charge explained a little bit about the Buddhist religion for tourists, and then ended his talk by telling them he had something to say to them that they would never forget — and I have never forgotten it. It was a proverb of the Buddhist religion:

“To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.”

What, then, is the value of the key to heaven? It is true that if we lack clear instructions that determine which is the gate to heaven and which the gate to hell, the key may be a dangerous object to use, but it obviously has value. How can we enter heaven without it?

The instructions, also, would be of no value without the key. So it is evident that, in spite of the fact that science could produce enormous horror in the world, it is of value because it can produce something.

But, for Feynman, science has another value, an entirely personal one, captured in the famous Feynmanism after which this very book is titled. This glorious intellectual enjoyment, he argues, is far too frequently dismissed by those who stress scientists’ moral obligations to society, but it is of equal importance:

Is this mere personal enjoyment of value to society as a whole? No! But it is also a responsibility to consider the value of society itself. Is it, in the last analysis, to arrange things so that people can enjoy things? If so, the enjoyment of science is as important as anything else.

But I would like not to underestimate the value of the worldview which is the result of scientific effort. We have been led to imagine all sorts of things infinitely more marvelous than the imaginings of poets and dreamers of the past. It shows that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. For instance, how much more remarkable it is for us all to be stuck-half of us upside down — by a mysterious attraction, to a spinning ball that has been swinging in space for billions of years, than to be carried on the back of an elephant supported on a tortoise swimming in a bottomless sea.

He concludes by illustrating his point with what could be best described as a prose poem about the magnificence of evolution, what Richard Dawkins termed “the magic of reality”, Einstein extolled as the ineffable spirit of the universe, and Carl Sagan celebrated as the reverence of nature. The poetic eloquence for which Feynman remains known, which hardly anyone has mastered since, except perhaps Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox, makes for a beautiful read on par with Diane Ackerman’s Cosmic Pastoral. Feynman writes:

I have thought about these things so many times alone that I hope you will excuse me if I remind you of some thoughts that I am sure you have all had — or this type of thought — which no one could ever have had in the past, because people then didn’t have the information we have about the world today.

For instance, I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think. There are the rushing waves . . . mountains of molecules, each stupidly minding its own business . . . trillions apart . . . yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages . . . before any eyes could see . . . year after year . . . thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom, for what? . . . on a dead planet, with no life to entertain.

Never at rest . . . tortured by energy . . . wasted prodigiously by the sun . . . poured into space. A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves . . . and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity . . . living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein . . . dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle onto the dry land . . . here it is standing . . . atoms with consciousness . . . matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea . . . wonders at wondering . . . I . . . a universe of atoms . . . an atom in the universe.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is absolutely fantastic in its entirety. Complement it with Feynman’s little-known sketches and drawings and his graphic-novel biography.

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17 JULY, 2013

Sleep and the Teenage Brain


How a seemingly simple change can have a profound effect on everything from academic performance to bullying.

“Sleep is the greatest creative aphrodisiac,” Debbie Millman asserted in her advice on breaking through your creative block. “Sleep deprivation will profoundly affect your creativity, your productivity, and your decision-making,” Arianna Huffington cautioned graduating seniors in her Smith College commencement address on redefining success. And yet, as German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg argued in his fantastic Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired — one of the best science books of 2012, and undoubtedly among the best you’ll ever read — teenagers have already endured years of institutionally inflicted sleep deprivation by the time they get to college: there is a tragic disconnect between teens’ circadian givens and our social expectations of them, encapsulated in what is known as the disco hypothesis.

In Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep (public library) — the fascinating exploration of what happens while you sleep and how it affects your every waking moment, and also among the best science books of 2012David K. Randall makes an empirically striking case for just how profound the impact of sleep-cycle misalignment is on teenagers, not only academically but also socially, psychologically, and emotionally:

Biology’s cruel joke goes something like this: As a teenage body goes through puberty, its circadian rhythm essentially shifts three hours backward. Suddenly, going to bed at nine or ten o’clock at night isn’t just a drag, but close to a biological impossibility. Studies of teenagers around the globe have found that adolescent brains do not start releasing melatonin until around eleven o’clock at night and keep pumping out the hormone well past sunrise. Adults, meanwhile, have little-to-no melatonin in their bodies when they wake up. With all that melatonin surging through their bloodstream, teenagers who are forced to be awake before eight in the morning are often barely alert and want nothing more than to give in to their body’s demands and fall back asleep. Because of the shift in their circadian rhythm, asking a teenager to perform well in a classroom during the early morning is like asking him or her to fly across the country and instantly adjust to the new time zone — and then do the same thing every night, for four years.

Randall points out that those early school start times originated in an era when youths either had a job after school or had to complete chores on the farm, so the schedule was designed to fit everything in; thus, the teenage circadian rhythm has only become problematic in the past century or so. (Even the very term “teenager” was only coined in the 1930s.) But despite dramatic cultural shifts that have since significantly reduced, if not eliminated, those labor-intensive after-school responsibilities and replaced them with recreational activities like athletics, band practice, and art extracurriculars, the biologically unreasonable early class start times have failed to evolve accordingly. The consequences, it turns out, are far graver than mere teen angst directed at the alarm clock or the unfortunate awakening parent:

The lack of sleep affects the teenage brain in similar ways to the adult brain, only more so. Chronic sleep deprivation in adolescents diminishes the brain’s ability to learn new information, and can lead to emotional issues like depression and aggression. Researchers now see sleep problems as a cause, and not a side effect, of teenage depression. In one study by researchers at Columbia University, teens who went to bed at 10 p.m. or earlier were less likely to suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts than those who regularly stayed awake well after midnight.

Randall highlights a radically simple solution proposed by a school in Edina, Minnesota, in the mid-1990s:

Since students who were awake were more likely to learn something than those who were asleep, the board decided to push the high school’s starting time an hour and five minutes later, to 8:30. It was the first time in the nation that a school district changed its schedule to accommodate teenagers’ sleeping habits.

But the response, bespeaking a questionable hierarchy of priorities, wasn’t what the educators expected:

Some parents complained that the new schedule would take time away from after-school sports and school clubs. Others said that they needed their children home to babysit their siblings. Yet the most persistent complaint was that pushing the start time back wouldn’t result in better-rested kids, but the opposite. Critics argued that teenagers would simply use the time to stay up later, compounding the problem and making their parents’ lives yet more difficult.

The school, however, stuck with the plan for the academic year. A researcher assigned to assess how school policies affect students set out to explore the impact of the experiment through extensive interviews with students, parents, coaches, and teachers. A year later, she presented her unambiguous findings:

Despite the fears of some parents, teenagers did in fact spend their extra hour sleeping, and reported that they came to school feeling rested and alert. At the same time, the number of on-campus fights fell, fewer students reported feeling depressed to their counselors, and the dropout rate slowed. Coaches pushed back practice times until later in the afternoon, and participation didn’t suffer.

The results were also quantifiable: The average SAT score for the top 10% of Edina’s students rose from 1288 to 1500 out of 1600 following the implementation of the new schedule. Even the head of the College Board, that institution behind the ominously familiar standardized test, proclaimed the results “truly flabbergasting.”

But perhaps most remarkable of all is the privilege-blindness of the results: After the success in Edina — a wealthy, mostly white suburban school — Minneapolis, where the majority of students come from minority families with income low enough to qualify them for government-subsidized school lunches, pushed its high school start times from 7:15 to 8:40. The results didn’t flounder: Like their suburban counterparts, Minneapolis students’ grades improved, their drop-out rates fell, and they attended first-period classes more regularly. Achieving the same unflinching results despite enormously different socioeconomic variables demonstrated that sleep habits aren’t culturally primed but are deeply biological. The implications of this, Randall writes, extend far beyond the merely academic:

Other districts followed suit, and found effects that sometimes went beyond scholastics. In Lexington, Kentucky, for instance, pushing the starting time back led to a 16 percent reduction in the number of teenage car accidents during a year in which teenage accident rates rose 9 percent for the state as a whole. In Rhode Island, pushing starting times back a half hour resulted in a forty-five-minute increase in the average amount of time that the average student spent sleeping. ‘Our mornings are a whole lot nicer now,’ the lead researcher of the study, whose daughter was a high school student, said at the time.

Allowing children to get additional sleep may help solve the problem of school bullying as well. A 2011 University of Michigan study tracked nearly 350 elementary school children. About a third of the students regularly bullied their classmates. Researchers found that the children with behavioral issues were twice as likely to have excessive daytime sleepiness or to snore, two symptoms of a persistent sleep disorder. Louise O’Brien, an assistant professor of sleep medicine University of Michigan who was part of the research team, argued that “the hypothesis impaired sleep does affect areas of the brain. If that’s disrupted, then emotional regulation and decision-making capabilities are impaired.”

Dreamland is fantastic in its entirety — peruse more of it here and pair it with this indispensable read on how REM sleep helps regulate our negative emotions.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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