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Hello, good people of the newsletter!
First of all, just thank you so so much to everyone who sent lovely and supportive messages re: my last issue. Obviously break ended up longer than I intended/expected, but it was good for my brain and only possible because everyone was so nice about it. Bless you all.
So (new topic), one of the things this intro section secretly is, is "things I wish I'd said in the last podcast I was on" (l'esprit de podcast). Or in this case, article I wrote for the upcoming New Escapologist. It was basically on the use of ritual and woo as an open-label* placebo.
* Open-label is when you give someone placebo medication and tell them it's a placebo. Weirdly, it still works.
I think this is my summarising or organising idea that should have been in the article:
I am increasingly of the belief that your brain doesn't really understand that you have taken an action unless you move your body and/or other objects around in physical space. So if you prepare for a job interview by reading through your notes on a screen, that helps you in the actual "know what you're going to say" sense, but because you didn't do anything your brain registers as activity, it still thinks you're unprepared and ramps up its anxiety. I suspect you would feel much less anxious if you had a text-to-voice app read out your notes while you folded laundry or something.
(This is based partly on my own experience, but also on stuff we know about how physical movement interacts with the brain. Like, the cliche of people solving problems by going for a walk has a neurological bases. Plus stuff about PTSD - "the body keeps score" - etc, and research into ritual specifically.)
In that light, you could view something like ancestor offerings as a physicalised gratitude practice – not one that requires the existence of actual ancestor spirits to have benefits.
(I've been thinking about ancestors a lot because of this genetic heart defect. My sister and I inherited the faulty gene from our father, but how far back does it go? A hundred years? Sive hundred years? I get a sort of existential vertigo just thinking about it.)
So anyway, maybe that's something you want to play around with, finding ways to physicalise / tangible-ise your mental and screen-based practices.
Three generations of Godzilla suit actors
Extremely charming 10-minute clip from the documentary "Bringing Godzilla Down to Size". Delightful mix of taking their job seriously but also like, not THAT seriously, they know they're in a pulp.
Heaps of cute anecdotes. Godzilla 2000 accidentally broke a section of the miniature city before he was meant to. "I wanted to apologise, but it takes 20 minutes to get out of the suit." I love the idea of this apologetic Godzilla standing around embarrassed in the ruins of a city.
Narrator only annoying for first 30 seconds, don't be put off.
Who is "Joe Bloggs" in non-English languages?
Source: Adam Sharp on twitter, including the names in their original language/letters
A list of names for Joe Bloggses (just normal men) in other languages:
7. Joe Little Carrot (Slovak)
6. Average Svensson (Swedish)
5. Wang Number Five (Mandarin)
4. Otto Normalconsumer (German)
3. Name Nameson (Danish)
2. Mid-range Vasya (Russian)
1. Statistical Kowalski (Polish)
“Tom, Dick, and Harry” equivalents from other languages
5. Zhang Number Three, Lee Number Four, Wang Number Five (Mandarin)
4. Ionescu, Popescu, Georgescu (Romanian)
3. Suzuki, Yamada, Tanaka (Japanese)
2. Andersson, Pettersson, Lundström (Swedish)
1. Hinz und Kunz (German)
An unknown or unidentified man in different languages:
5. John Doe (English)
4. Jean Dupont (French)
3. Hong Gildong (Korean)
2. Israel Israeli (Hebrew)
1. Mr Mehmet with the yellow boots (Turkish)
Tumbleweeds but make it an Alfred Hitchcock movie
This is in Montana in the US. Due to the movies, I always thought tumbleweeds were a native species (and travelled solo), but apparently they're invasive and a menace. Most terrifyingly, they're a wildfire hazard. We're just coming into bushfire season in my part of Australia, and the the thought of creating a firebreak and then having a rolling mass of kindling just drift into the breach - argh!
Speaking of invasive species, apparently there's now a breeding population of feral wallabies in the UK, from zoo escapees. (Wallabies are like kangaroos but a bit smaller and softer looking.) My partner's immediate response was "payback for the rabbits".
Interesting findings on "aha moments"
So aha! is an emotion – "a sudden feeling of pleasure and certainty that accompanies a new idea". The/An evolutionary purpose of emotions is to quickly give you information to help you make a good decision. The "aha" feeling makes you feel more sure about an idea you've just heard.
And it seems like it's correct to do that: people solving problems who reported a stronger sense of "aha" were more likely to have come up with the correct solution. It is actually an indicator that you're right. It's a pretty rough guide though. Much like, say, fear. Fear helps you make a decision, has been very helpful for our survival, and is worth paying attention to, but we also know it misfires (incorrectly identifies threats) and suggests unhelpful actions ("running away" from a deadline).
My theory on how aha-moments correlate to accuracy is that you usually get that feeling when you're connecting two or more different facts. "It all fits together!" And a fact that has more than one source backing it up is more likely to be correct. A tribe member tells you those berries are poisonous, you're like, okay good note. But if you saw a dead possum next to the berries yesterday, you'd be like "aha! that explains it!"
Like other emotions, "aha" can be hijacked.
So you know how, if you got mauled by a dog while at the beach, you might become scared of dogs, but you also might feel a bit anxious and uncomfortable at beaches from then on. Your brain isn't great at spotting what generated the fear, it just connects all the sensory things it noticed with the emotion you felt.
The same with aha-moments.
So in this study, some participants were asked to read "worldview" statements, such as:
- Free will is a powerful illusion.
- Ants are capable of thinking.
- The key to lasting happiness is discipline.
While other participants were given:
- Free will is a powerful oinliusl.
- Ants are capable of hgniiknt.
- The key to lasting happiness is cdeispnili.
and asked to solve the anagram.
Then they were all asked to rate how true they thought each of the worldview statements were. (The anagram solvers were given the complete statements, otherwise people who are bad at anagrams wouldn't even know what they were rating.)
People who correctly solved the anagrams found the statements to be more true. Within that group, people who reported a strong "aha" feeling when they solved the anagram also ranked them as more truthful.
Their brains tied up the "aha" feeling with the statements, even though the cause of the aha had nothing to do with the truth of the statement.
Here's the full study with specifics on methodology: "Irrelevant insights make worldviews ring true"
So if you wanted to spread a conspiracy theory, instead of stating it directly, you might be wiser to dispense it in the form of puzzles that have to be solved.
If you are familiar with Qanon, you will be going "aha!" right now.
That is literally their M.O. An anonymous person (Q) leaves these cryptic puzzles on messageboards, and believers decode them.
When they tell someone "do your own research" – they're basically getting them to generate aha-moments (especially if they give them the search terms to use). The red-string thing is a cliche, but it really is how conspiracy theorists think; they're connecting ideas together on the basis of superficial similarities (an eye = the illuminati) and self-generating this rewarding chemical response that makes them more and more sure of themselves.
Much less sinisterly, I think that's probably some of what makes things like tarot, astrology and qabalah appealing – they're very complex systems with a lot of interacting elements and correspondences that are hard to get your head around, and when you do, it feels like insight. Brandon Sanderson, possibly the world's wealthiest fantasy writer, writes magic systems like that, too.
Don't go too far with this line of thinking though. I'm also describing the normal process of learning about a new topic. Remember that "aha" does typically correlate with more likelihood of truth. You could start getting paranoid that every time you feel insight, that means it's false.
What I would look out for: is the thing generating the aha emotion actually the fact itself, or was there some puzzle or complexity involved in getting to the fact? Are the pieces of the puzzle you're connecting all in the same self-enclosed system or do they connect to the solid world? Also suspicious: anything that seems to be generating a LOT of aha moments very rapidly.
I'm really describing how you check in whether any emotion is being externally hijacked. Am I being pushed to feel fear by the phrasing and imagery of this media report, or is there a genuine and proportionate threat here? Am I getting swept up in an emotion without being given time to analyse or sense-check? Did a cartoon lightbulb just appear over my head? etc.
This paper is cited in the study above – it's dense reading but interesting, it includes diary entries from his own psychotic episodes, with his retroactive analysis of them. But I'm mainly sharing for the delightful academic title:
Worrying about what to say when someone has lost a loved one
Possibly we all worry about this, yes? You don't want to say the wrong thing, and you agonise about how exactly to phrase your condolence message? Possibly you put it off too long because of the worrying, and end up not saying anything?
So I have spoken to a few people recently who have lost loved ones, and they have told me stories about how some people have reacted.
And friends, what some people say to bereaved people is fucking wild. As in: speculating idly on the forensic details of the death like it's a true crime podcast. Dead baby jokes. Perhaps if you had fed your child a different diet, this wouldn't have happened? You can always have another baby.
These are the "insensitive comments" grieving people are talking about.
Like, this is not in the ballpark of things you were considering saying, right? You were probably worrying about something like "Is it sexist to say she was beautiful? Would I say that about a boy who died?" (real example of a thing I have worried about saying).
Once I found that out, I relaxed a lot. So long as you don't say something bizarre about how the death is their fault or actually a good thing, you're fine. Bland and "empty" and stilted is fine.
There's probably nothing anyone can say that will make the death noticeably better, and recently bereaved people often don't WANT to feel better, they want to mourn. I suspect the impact of condolence messages is mostly in aggregate ("I feel like the death of my loved one mattered to people, that I wasn't the only one who cared, that it didn't go unremarked"). You can just be part of the aggregate, not coming up with anything transcendent or memorably horrendous.
(I will just say by the way, that some portion of the people who say crazy things are not heartless – they're desperately uncomfortable and blurt out the wrong thing in a panic. Statistically, some of you reading this have panic-blurted something dumb to a bereaved person. I am pretty sure I have said at least one questionable thing to someone. It's not great! But also, people mess up, who among us doesn't have a handful of awful "things I wish I hadn't said" memories. It is what it is.)
Another real possibility is that you're paranoid because you once said something innocuous ("I'm so sorry") and the bereaved person snapped at you ("Why are YOU sorry, you didn't do it") and I would say, like - that is unsurprising? Grieving people do sometimes get "unfairly" mad at the wrong person. It doesn't mean you said the wrong thing. You could just see it as an opportunity to (silently, secretly) give them the gift of taking it with grace and not holding on to a grudge about it, or blaming yourself for it, or making it mean anything except "they were having a tough time"
Journalists from the Globe and Mail, please consider yourself exempt from the above button. You're free! I release you!
[Remembering I shouldn't do in-jokes directed at literally a single reader: Someone wrote a column on newsletter-writers' money asks, and the stress of choosing when you can't support everyone that you'd like to. It quoted one of my asks, making me feel COMPLETELY NORMAL AND NOT SELF-CONSCIOUS ABOUT IT AT ALL.]
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