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Trigger warnings are often warnings that a work (book, movie, TV program etc.) contains writing, images, or concepts that may be distressing to some people. The term and concept appeared in the 1990s. Now, you will find feminist websites discussing violence against women posting these warnings.

I really became aware of them when I was teaching at a university and heard about courses at other colleges that had started putting advisory labels on syllabi and course outlines. They were meant to alert students to material that might provoke painful memories.

Years before, when I was teaching younger students, I had parents who wanted trigger warnings (though we didn’t have that term) for novels I was going to teach. I taught a middle school novel called Where the Red Fern Grows which is about a boy and his hunting dogs. I could see a spoiler alert – the dogs die – but a parent was upset because her daughter had a pet dog and she didn’t want her to read the book because the dogs die. Reality alert: pets die.

I saw articles about such instances at colleges, including one student at my own alma mater (Rutgers) who wanted The Great Gatsby to come with this advisory: “suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence.”

Really?

Obviously, almost any sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, feeling or sensation could be a trigger to someone. But trigger warnings are most commonly used for content about sexual abuse and mental illness (suicide, eating disorders, and self-injury are typical reasons).

Few people would question that some material will disturb some people, but critics of trigger warnings feel that they are more indications of a new form of political correctness. Some have called trigger warning creators as “the language police.”

Reporter Jenny Jarvie, writing for The New Republic, says that “What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off.” She also sees the warnings as part of a “wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense” that goes beyond classrooms.

Beyond warnings, she criticized a “safe space” for rape survivors at Brown University. That sounds like dangerous territory to be critical about in this #metoo age. But she described that space as having a childish décor consisting of “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies.”

Another article in The New Republic about the origins of the term questions not the warnings but the efficacy of them. Do they actually do anything positive?

“Trigger warnings aren’t much help in actually overcoming trauma,” Jonathan Chait rightly notes in his essay “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” published earlier this year in New York magazine. “An analysis by the Institute of Medicine has found that the best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering.” Safe spaces and the larger trend toward hypersensitivity encourage students to “self-infantilize” and become more “insular,” writes Judith Shulevitz in a piece for The New York Times titled “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas.”

The authors of a new book also believe that the culture of safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses is limiting students’ intellectual development.

In “Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that by purging campuses of ideas, subjects or even people who they may not agree with and make students uncomfortable is doing them a disservice.

I listened to the authors on the CBS This Morning podcast. They feel that parents should do less sheltering of their children at a young age. They also make the case for why we need to be more intellectually humble.

I think the original intent of these warning was good, but it has gone a bit beyond. It is not unusual to hear that a speaker on a college campus has been shouted down or maybe even cancelled from speaking because of protests.

But the rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide on campuses are rising, so don’t we need these warnings?

—on campus as well as nationally. How did this happen?

Does a culture of “safetyism” stunt young people’s social, emotional, and intellectual development? Someone compared this to the overprotection of babies and kids to dirt and germs with antibiotics, anti-germ gels and wipes. A lot of research has shown that children need to be exposed to dirt and germs in order to build natural immunities.

Will children raised in this way have a harder time becoming autonomous adults who are able to self-navigate life?

 

add friend button

I read this post on Why Making New Friends Gets More Difficult as You Grow Older and had to stop and consider whether I felt it was true for myself.

Some of the reasons given are pretty depressing.

“As you grow more mature, your morals and standards start to change and solidify. As a young adult, you may have been more flexible and open-minded about some things, but time has worn grooves into your soul.”  Grooves in my soul sounds really bad. Am I less flexible in my views than when I was 22?

I believe my friend-making changed when I stopped being a student and started being an employee. Though I met many more people in my working years than in my student years, the vast majority (probably 90%) of them are better described as acquaintances than friends.

Another article states that “Marriage changes a lot, but kids change everything,” and I would agree with that when it comes to making new friends. Like my working life, getting married and having kids opened up many new vectors to meeting people. Some of them have remained true friends. Most have dropped down on the friend scale. Some people I socialized with a lot when our kids shared mutual activities (school and sports especially), have disappeared from my life now that my children are adults away on their own. Were they really ever friends?  Yes, they were. But friendships, like all relationships, change, evolve, devolve.

The author of that first article says that “Social media is ruining making friends.” I think social media has tried to redefine “friend” (as used on Facebook) to mean someone who we have a very thin virtual relationship with. I have “Facebook friends” that I have never met, never will meet and that I only connect with through an interest. Might we be real life friends if we met in person? Possibly.

A good example is the list of people on Facebook that are listed as my friends because of poetry. A very few of them are people know and see and talk with about poetry (and other topics) regularly. There is a larger group within that list of poets that I have met or at least heard read their poetry in person. I doubt that many of them would recognize me or know my name if we were in a social situation. And there are an even larger group of poetry people who I have never met and will likely never meet in real life. Friends? No.

I prefer when social networks use terms like “follow.” I follow some celebrities on Instagram because I like seeing their images, but we have no friendship at all – and that is fine.

The author of that article is 43, so I have a few decades on her, but I certainly hope this is not true of me.

“Maybe, as we grow older, we just get rusty at making new friends. Think about it. Many of us get married and have children, and for decades of our lives, we see our children as our best friends. No, we don’t tell them this, but we hold this feeling in our hearts, now don’t we… Well, when our children leave the nest, we are left with our mate, or we are left alone. When this happens, we have forgotten how to socialize correctly.”

I haven’t sat down to make a list of who I would consider actual friends versus acquaintances or any other label. It would probably be somewhat painful. I do know that my closest friends tend to be ones I have known for the most years and with whom I still have face-to-face contact, even if that part only happens once a year. I can’t think of any “virtual friend” that would make the Friend list. And that has less to do with me getting older than it has to do with the world getting older.

I had never even seen the term “embodied cognition” before this past week. It is a topic that is generally part of psychology and philosophy and is one of the new sexy topics in cognitive science. Unfortunately, that makes the topic sound academic, i.e. “boring.” But I don’t think it has to be.

Embodied cognition ties into our social interactions and decision-making. In somewhat fancier terms, embodied cognition argues that the motor system influences our cognition. People pretty much accept the opposite, which in simpler terms would be: the mind influences the body.

A simple example of embodied cognition that has been studied: when you hold a pencil in your teeth, you engage the muscles of a smile. In experiments, participants doing that comprehend pleasant sentences faster than unpleasant ones. A smile effect. But if they are holding a pencil between their nose and upper lip (which engages the muscles of a frown) it has the reverse effect. Body influences mind.

This has psychologists and philosophers paying more attention to the physical aspects of scientific
models and the idea that cognition (the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses) is more distributed than we once believed.

Any parent or teacher who has worked with children or adults knows that a physical model helps learning (cognition). Writing down your ideas and taking notes on a lecture is more effective that just “thinking about it.” Building a model with plastic bricks or drawing it on paper changes how we think about something. Seeing physical models of a building or a landscape or even looking at plans and maps changes how we visualize what they represent.

These ideas are not new, but the formal study of what is being called embodied cognition is new.

NYY Matsui catching fly ball

I read a paper about this (if you want to go deeper it’s online). One simple example of this is known as “the outfielder problem.’

This is a study looking at how a baseball outfielder catches a fly ball. It’s not that easy, so how does someone put themselves in the right place at the right time? Too easy to explain it as lots of practice, talent, or muscle memory.

This is an overly simplified look at this topic, but my interest in this topic is simple: the body and the physical world influences the mind.

Take a look at why you are not your brain:

  “… our cognition isn’t confined to our cortices. That is, our cognition is influenced, perhaps determined by, our experiences in the physical world. This is why we say that something is “over our heads” to express the idea that we do not understand; we are drawing upon the physical inability to not see something over our heads and the mental feeling of uncertainty. Or why we understand warmth with affection; as infants and children the subjective judgment of affection almost always corresponded with the sensation of warmth, thus giving way to metaphors such as “I’m warming up to her.”

Daniel Eizans asks I”f you try to recall your earliest memory, what comes to mind?” he has his own answer (a pleasant one that is connected to sitting on a washing machine in his first home as his parents painted the walls listening to Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill. Hearing that album gets him right back to that time and place.

He says that “No matter what your earliest recollection is, chances are it’s not a memory that’s tied to language. We’re wired to recognize movement and sound before we ever start to process language: anyone who watches an infant’s interactions with the world can see they are guided largely by embedded behaviors and sensory inputs, which in turn become part of an individual’s embodied cognition.”

 

 

Flamel home

The home of the Flamels in Paris.

Nicholas Flamel was born outside Paris in 1300. Though he family was poor, he received a good education.

For a time, he worked as a scrivener copying texts, writing letters, and selling manuscripts, he also wrote some poetry.

He married late in life an intelligent and attractive widow named Perenelle. Like Nicholas, his wife supposedly had explored alchemy, the science of the age.

The most interesting part of Flamel’s life may not have been part of his life. We can find out about his marriage contract and his will by seeing them in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The legends are much more interesting.

That story says that Flamel came to own an odd book via a two florins purchase he made from someone who came to his bookstall in need of money. The manuscript volume was bound in worked copper and it was engraved with curious symbols and characters. It had only twenty-one leaves/pages that were not paper but made of young tree bark and written/inscribed with a sharp stylus.

It was illustrated on some pages with serpents. The serpents are swallowing swords, crucified on a cross, and trailing from a bubbling fountain in the middle of a treeless desert. It is said that this was the Book of Abraham the Jew, but it was not a religious text. It is supposed to contain a complete exposition on the art of transmuting base metals to gold – alchemy.

To use the book as an alchemist, you would also need to create the “philosopher’s stone” (AKA the Sorcerer’s Stone) Using the stone and book one could distill the Elixir of Life which can give eternal life.

The only historical evidence we can point to for this possible ownership is that the Flamels did become suddenly rich at one point. They had no children and used the money to help the poor, establishing low-income housing, free hospitals, and endowing Catholic churches to do good works.

tombstone

We believe the couple lived quiet scholarly lives studying and writing about alchemy. Perenelle and then Nicholas died while they were in their eighties and were buried in the Cemetery of the Innocents. Nicholas designed their tombstone which has the Sun above a key, a book, Christ, St. Peter, St. Paul. and curious engravings. The tombstone was located in the church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, but is now at the Cluny Museum in Paris.

Obtaining the book is the first part of the legend. The next part comes shortly after Nicholas’s death, when their tomb was opened by vandals. Were they searching for the philosopher’s stone, gold, or the book? Well, not only did they not find those things, but they did not find the bodies of the Flamels.

Amongst devotees of the Flamels’ work, it was said that Nicholas and Perenelle had distilled the Elixir of Life and had staged their own deaths. They then took the book and stone and went on to the rest of their eternal life.

What I had not heard before was a story recounted by Garrison Keillor on his Writers’ Almanac podcast recently. An 18th-century archaeologist working in Turkey met a “philosopher” who seemed able to speak almost every known language and also knew a very detailed history of the Flamels. He did not claim to be Nicholas, but told the archaeologist that Nicholas and Perenelle were in fact still alive.

This philosopher said that after they left France the couple went to India and there sought out adepts and mystics with abilities that exceeded the known science.

So, how did I meet Nicholas? Like millions of others, I met he and his wife as friends of Albus Dumbledore, wizard and headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

In the tales of Harry Potter, the Flamels live on. In the first book, Harry Potter and the The Sorcerer’s Stone (British title: The Philosopher’s Stone), Nicholas is 690 years old.

The couple lives in Devon, England. Their immortality continues through infusions of the Elixir of Life (in this version, one drink is not give eternal life – it is more of a Fountain of Youth). In the Potter version, their Philosopher’s Stone had to be destroyed to keep it from the dark wizard Voldemort. They made enough Elixir to set their affairs in order. Flamel and his wife were assumed to have died when the Elixir ran out. Harry thought this was terrible, but Dumbledore told him that their deaths would be like “going to bed after a very, very long day.”

But did they die? That is fiction. What about the real Flamels? Nicholas created a Philosopher’s Stone once. Might he have created another?

Dark matter bothers me. It also bothers scientists.

Galaxies don’t rotate by the same physics that we know and understand. Scientists noticed that stars at a galaxy’s edge rotate faster than expected. How can we explain that? There must be matter that is invisible to us that is there.

In 1998 and the Hubble Space Telescope observations of a very distant supernovae showed that a long time ago the universe was actually expanding more slowly than it is today. We once believed that gravity was causing the slowing expansion of the universe, but this showed that it was accelerating.

expansion of universe

A diagram reveals showing the rate of expansion since the universe’s birth 15 billion years ago. The curve changes noticeably about 7.5 billion years ago, when objects in the universe began flying apart at a faster rate. Astronomers theorize that the faster expansion rate is due to a mysterious, dark force that is pulling galaxies apart. Credit: NASA/STSci/Ann Feild

Astronomers know more about what dark matter is not than what it actually is. Roughly 68% of the universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 27%. The rest is, well, everything on Earth. This “normal matter” is less than 5% of the universe. Actually, that hardly makes it qualify as the”norm.”

Most of the universe is made up of dark energy, and that mysterious force drives the accelerating expansion of the universe. The next largest ingredient is dark matter, and that only interacts with the rest of the universe through its gravity.

At one time, the theory was that MACHOs (Massive Compact Halo Objects) was the cause.  A MACHO, such as a brown dwarf, would be so massive that it would bend light around them. We know they exist, and we know they are out there, even though they are too dark for us to see. But this theory fell out of favor because there are not enough of them to make the galaxy-rotation math work.

Astrophysicists next came up with the WIMP (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles – the scientists do have a sense of humor). Maybe the universe is full of very small things we can’t see.

And maybe dark matter is made up of a different object we have never observed. One candidate is the neutralino.

We keep looking. The Large Hadron Collider, one of the most expensive science experiments ever built, is looking, but hasn’t found them.

But we do know that the universe is “heavier” than what we can see.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
– Hamlet (1.5.167-8)

Dark matter doesn’t keep me up at night. But it did bother Alvy in the film Annie Hall.

While cleaning out my basement and attic this month and boxing up books to give away, I came across my long-unread copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It is a paperback that I bought when I was in high school, but never read until I was in college.

In this classic scripture of Tibetan Buddhism— A friend recommended it. She was far ahead of me in spirituality. She told me it was traditionally read aloud to the dying to help them attain liberation. I bought it more to impress her than with any intent to prepare for my own death.

It wasn’t until college that I really recognized that it was a classic book of Tibetan Buddhism. I came to understand that death and rebirth are seen as a process and understanding that process helps one recognize the true nature of mind.

At least that is the intent. Reading the book didn’t bring me there. I doubt that any book can bring you to understand the nature of mind.

Most modern translation come a bit closer to the psychology of death and dying. Those are still topics I would prefer not to consider, but I am much closer to them than when I did my first reading of the book.

The book and my college experiences in the 1970s also introduced me to writers such as Aldous Huxley who wrote about the inner journey and mixed Western thought and Eastern spirituality. The path I wais pointed down also had stops with indigenous religious practices, and psychotropic drugs.

I was a seeker and experimenter, but also a bit too frightened to go all the way down the psychotropic rabbit hole. Huxley’s own first psychedelic experience in the 1950s “was in no sense revolutionary.” He was disappointed, as I was, at not experiencing the visions he had read about in the Bardo or the writings of William Blake.

Still, Huxley felt a shift in consciousness and that continued for the rest of his life, as did his experiments with psychedelic drugs.

When Huxley was on his deathbed, he requested that his wife inject him with 100 micrograms of LSD. In the short video up top, Laura remembers the day, the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. And in the letter above, which you can read in full at Letters of Note, she describes Huxley’s last days in vivid detail to Huxley’s brother Julian and his wife Juliette.

A book that connected The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Huxley was another paperback on the same shelf that I was sorting through. It is a book I bought around the same time titled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead  This book – which I think of as being “very 1960s” – is an “instruction manual” intended for use during sessions involving psychedelic drugs.

It was published in 1964 when this kind of experimentation by people such as Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert were mixing the therapeutic and religious/spiritual possibilities of drugs such as mescaline, psilocybin and LSD.

I knew back then that the band The Doors had gotten their name from Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, and I had read that the Beatles (or at least John Lennon) were aware of the book (and LSD) and used a bit of the text in the lyrics of their song “Tomorrow Never Knows” from their 1966 album Revolver.

Turn off your mind relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing
And ignorance and hate mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing

Huxley’s wife Laura read to her husband The Tibetan Book of the Dead. as seen through the psychedelic experiences of Leary and others. Her husband did not want to die and fought his cancer. But in his last days, he came to terms with death and decided he wanted her to give him two 100 microgram doses of LSD. People who were there reported that Huxley left without pain and without struggle.

I hope that is true. Today, we often drug those who are dying to free them from pain, but the drugs generally dull the senses and mind.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding in the Between is another translation of the original done by Robert Thurman. The edition’s foreword is by the Dalai Lama, which should not be surprising since it is still a cornerstone of Tibetan Buddhist wisdom and religious thought.

I’m surprised that The Tibetan Book of the Dead hasn’t had more of a resurgence lately, not only because of what it might teach us about death and dying and how to live our life, but because psychedelics have seen a resurgence. A few years after Huxley’s death, the US and UK governments banned almost all psychedelic research But it has recently become once again an object of scientific study once again, and thanks to the reporting, and experimenting, of writers like Michael Pollan’s latest book, How to Change Your Mind. that I read and wrote about earlier this year. Westerners may soon once again use psychedelics to take the inner journeys our culture does its best to discourage and denigrate.


You may also want to explore Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics by Nicholas Knowles Bromell and The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows: A Biography by James L Desper Jr.  I discovered that the phrase “tomorrow never knows” was a line that Ringo came up with when the song was being written. Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence is an easier read than The Book of the Dead, if you are so inclined.

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