Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Who Owns the Media? An Infographic

The following infographic created by Jason at Frugal Dad shows that almost all media that citizens of the United States are exposed to comes from the same six sources. And when a few of the world’s wealthiest corporations control all of the news and commentary, only limited political perspectives will be disseminated. The United States, according to the 2016 World Press Freedom Report Index of Reporters Without Borders, ranks as only the 41st freest press in the world. The US ranks behind Namibia, Surinam, Tonga, and Slovenia and just ahead of Botswana, Niger, Romania, and Haiti. Here is the infographic:

Media Consolidation Infographic

 

 

The Positive Effect of Nature on People

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 18, 2016.)

A colleague recently sent me a link to an article which claims that having nature in your surroundings extends life and increases happiness. The article titled, “Having a nice garden could save your life, study suggests,” notes the strong association between exposure to greenness and vegetation and lower mortality rates. Nature also has a positive effect on mental health according to the article. In addition, people living in places with beautiful natural scenery have better health as reported in “Scenery not just greenery has an impact on health.” For those in urban environments, getting as much nature in it as possible is beneficial too, according to the research.

A large part of what underlies all this is Attention Restoration Theory which “asserts that people concentrate better after spending time in nature, or even looking at scenes of nature.” Moreover, the researchers Atchley and Strayer argue in “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings,” that creativity is positively affected also.

All of the seems reasonable, with the caveat that social science research is particularly provisional. But as anyone who has been fortunate to walk in the woods or feasted their gaze on mountains or oceans know, the beauty of nature restores and inspires.

Western or Philosophical Meditation

“Philosopher in Meditation” Rembrandt, 1632, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, October 23, 2015.)

We all know how difficult it is to control our minds. Obsessive, unclear, unwanted, and destructive thought continually invade our minds causing fear, anxiety, indecision, anger and depression. Sometimes we seem powerless to prevent this  invasion.

In response, the practice of meditation has become increasingly popular in the West as a way of dealing with this problem. These practices, which have their origins in Buddhism, take many forms, but generally refer to the attempt to get beyond the thinking, discursive or logical mind into a more attentive, aware, and relaxed state.1, 2 By sitting quietly we can learn to empty our minds of its confusing, anxiety, anger, and depressive-inducing content, leaving behind a serene state of mind. Many people have found this practice successful, and scientific research supports its causal efficacy. 3

But there is another path to peace of mind that derives from the Western philosophical tradition—what we might call philosophical meditation. The goal of philosophical meditation is also to minimize the troubling effects of unwanted thoughts and to bring inner peace, but the method is not so much an emptying or ridding the mind of its negative content as much as clarifying and understanding the mind.

To do this the School of Life has proposed instructions for philosophical meditation, just as there are instructions for Buddhist Meditation.  The basic idea is to set aside some time each day to write about our troubles, anxieties, regrets, fears, desires, etc. The idea is to then intellectually reflect on these things in order to understand them and thereby remove much of the anxiety that accompanies them. This process of sorting out the mind can be comforting in itself. Furthermore it keeps us from making mistakes. For example we might be excited by something that upon reflection we can’t achieve; or we might be anxious about something that really doesn’t matter much. Countless psychic pain results from not analyzing and organizing the contents of our minds. 

This isn’t to say that clarifying the content of our minds is necessarily better than emptying the mind of turbulent thoughts; this isn’t to say the Western approach is better than the Eastern approach. It is to say that sometimes our problem is one of too little thinking rather than too much thinking. Sometimes we have not thought deeply enough about the causes of agitated minds.  These thoughts swirling within our minds are not useless clutter but deserve to be examined in the hope that clarity of mind may bring peace of mind.

( If I had to choose a group of Western philosophers to emulate in this regard it would be the Stoics. I have written about them many times on this blog.)

Notes

  1. “[M]editation refers to a family of self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calm, clarity, and concentration. Roger Walsh & Shauna L. Shapiro (2006). “The meeting of meditative disciplines and western psychology: A mutually enriching dialogue”. American Psychologist (American Psychological Association) 61 (3): 227–239. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.61.3.227.ISSN 0003-066X. PMID 16594839.
  2. “[M]editation is used to describe practices that self-regulate the body and mind, thereby affecting mental events by engaging a specific attentional set…. regulation of attention is the central commonality across the many divergent methods.” B. Rael Cahn & John Polich (2006). “Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies”. Psychological Bulletin(American Psychological Association) 132 (2): 180–211.doi:10.1037/0033-2909.132.2.180. ISSN 0033-2909.PMID 16536641
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_on_meditation#Systematic_reviews_and_meta-analyses

Hospitals and Bodies

In the last few weeks I have spent a lot of time visiting hospitals. There is something about being in a hospital, even as a mere visitor, which transports you to a different world. Of course you could say the same of churches, casinos, sports stadiums, or jails. Churches are filled with both hope and absurdity, casinos and stadiums with mindless distractions, jails with utter hopelessness and despair. Perhaps where they take you to is better or worse than where you came from.

But hospitals are unique; they smell of death, disease and dysfunction. Within their walls you encounter the consequences of being bodies; you encounter the earthiness and the ugliness of human bodies and their generated minds. You encounter humanity. Let no one deceive you; the encounter is, at once, both humbling and distasteful. Imagine then what it must be like to be a patient. Yes, there are good people trying to help you, but eventually they will fail. You have, perhaps for the first time, noticed mortality. As a patient, you have literally been transported from the world of the living, to the world of the dying.

It is easy to see then why our culture idolizes youthful, vital bodies and minds. They glow, they seem immortal. Their skin has no wrinkles, their backs are not hunched, their hair has not thinned, their brains work quickly. But those youthful bodies and brains are decaying before our eyes, and even some wisdom and patience do come to them, they will ultimately fail. The process is not pretty; aging is not for sissies.

Being in a hospital makes me wonder why people are so attached to their bodies.  Tell them you are a transhumanist, who looks forward to a genetically engineered or robotic body, or a life without a body in a computer generated reality, and they retreat in horror. I think if they spent more time in hospitals, they might change their minds. There is nothing noble about having the bodies and brains of modified monkeys; nothing much good about being controlled by bodies and brains forged in the Pleistocene. Perhaps that’s why human being deceive themselves, they don’t want to know what they really are, they want to believe they are angels. But they are not. As Shakespeare put it:

But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.

The world should make us weep; it would make the gods and angels weep if there were any. But there are not. There are only modified apes, with the authority over the survival of an entire planet. I want to be more than a modified monkey. How I wish we could all be more. Let us not pause then, let us go forward. I’ll let Walt Whitman have the last word.

This day before dawn I ascended a hill,
and look’d at the  crowded heaven,
And I said to my Spirit,
When we become the enfolders of those orbs,
and the pleasure and knowledge of everything in them,
shall we be fill’d and satisfied then?
And my Spirit said:
No, we but level that lift,
to pass and continue beyond.

“Transcendence for Realists”

My friend Lawrence Rifkin published another great piece the other day in the Huffington Post “Transcendence for Realists.” His basic point is that transcendent experiences—by which he means experiences beyond the ordinary—don’t need to be interpreted as supernatural. He concludes:

Those having such experiences need not discount reason, and need not interpret a profound experience or emotion as being part of a supernatural explanation. Numinous is not synonymous with miraculous. Transcendence properly understood—a naturalistic transcendence—embraces the non-rational, not the irrational. Non-rational transcendent emotions are harmonious with reason, evidence, and naturalism. They can be cherished as supreme human experiences.

 As usual, I agree with my friend. One need not, and should not, posit supernatural explanations for anything, as the supernatural is just the imaginary and irrational. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t non-rational experiences. Being moved by Beethoven is neither irrational or supernatural, but listening might evoke an experience of non-rational transcendence.