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I haven’t heard the term  “existential crisis” used lately. I don’t think that is because they don’t occur any more. I suspect they occur more today than they did in earlier times.

An existential crisis is defined as a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life.

Despite having no proof to point to, I believe this questioning is as old as mankind.

Existentialism was a term that come into being in the late 19th- and 20th-century via a group of diverse European philosophers. It may seem odd that this “crisis” is attached to philosophical thinking whose predominant value is commonly acknowledged to be freedom.

Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher, though he did not use the term existentialism. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it “authentically.”

I came to know the term in my teen years through literature. Reading books by Jean-Paul Sartre (such as Nausea) and works by Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Eliot and Herman Hesse, and then reading about them, existentialism kept being referenced.

I started to see it in many things I was reading. That “crazy cliff” that Holden Caulfield wanted to save people from falling off by being a “catcher in the rye” seemed existential to me. I started to see my own life that way. I can’t imagine getting through your teen years without an existential crisis.

Existentialism came into popular use after World War II in philosophy but also in theology, drama, art, literature, and psychology.

I’m sure that when I learned about an existential crisis I thought I was going through one. Mental health hypochondria is pretty common.

An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life. Does life have any meaning, purpose, or value? It is commonly wrapped up in anxiety and depression.

I have a vivid memory of seeing the film The Graduate for the first time and then again in college and when Ben was floating in his parents’ pool and feeling of a lack of purpose in life, I was floating right there with him.

But a true existential crisis is big. Questioning Life means questioning relationships, decisions, and your motivations. It is an illness. A serious one.

Currently I hear the term being used on more temporary states of mind. I did some searching online and found it in an article about spending too much time on social media. It was referenced in an article about suddenly not wanting to spend time with people and wanting to be alone. I found in searching this blog that I have used “existential” in several posts.

If an existential crisis is really a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life, it doesn’t seem like ending a relationship qualifies. Or does it?

An article that I read but won’t link to suggested that some warning signs of the crisis include drinking lots of coffee and using alcohol and cigarettes as a crutch and solution instead of coffee.

Very few of us have not felt a lack of motivation, unable to be productive to the point of depression. Mental fatigue can transform into physical fatigue, which drags you down further.

Is that an existential crisis?

Or is when it when you start to think about death, talk about death and live in the shadow of death?

When I went through a bad depression (which I and my therapist never called an existential crisis) one of the signs was that I began to cry easily for not very “valid” reasons. Movies, abandoned dogs on the drive to work, leaves falling from trees, a sad-looking woman drinking coffee at a nearby table, seeing homeless people or just sitting in the car at a red light would start me off.

Obviously, someone in a real crisis needs professional help and the support of those around them. I found that one treatment known as existential-humanistic focuses on your personalized concerns for your future. It is an approach that asks about the meaning of life.

I have probably written more about solitude than loneliness and I now view solitude – that choice to be alone – as a gift.

We all have our “dark nights of the soul” but when the night carries in the daylight and for more days and nights, I think it is a crisis.

I titled this piece “Just Another Existential Crisis” not because I trivialize the term, but ironically because I think we too often toss off depressions of other people and ourselves too lightly.

When I taught Romeo and Juliet to middle school students I became very sensitive to teen suicide. Of course, I didn’t want the play to be seen as saying that suicide was a solution, but in my research I found that it is very dangerous to not take seriously teen crises. As an adult, it is easy to dismiss the end of a seventh grader’s romantic relationship that lasted only two weeks as not being anything serious. That is a mistake. It is the same mistake that the Capulets and Montagues made. Call it existential or not, a crisis is real.

Holden Caulfield may have remembered the Robert Burns poem incorrectly, but his wish to save others in the midst of his own crisis was correct.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,'” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
– from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye

The massive Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is rapidly retreating. In this photo a developing forest can be seen above the glacier illustrating how the Mendenhall landscape is being dramatically altered by climate change. Photo courtesy of The National Science Foundation. Durelle Scott.

The Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is rapidly retreating and the landscape is being dramatically altered by climate change. Photo: National Science Foundation -Durelle Scott via Flickr

The election is over. Lots of talk about immigration and personal digs about the candidates. Not much talk about climate change other than saying superficially that we need to stop it or that it’s a Chinese hoax.

Part of the problem is that it is at least partially a social science issue. Of course, there is a lot of scientific research, but research on why people believe that research or reject it is a whole other area of research. That is because climate change is not only a scientific issue but one that is political, social and cultural.

Why did “global warming” fall out of favor and get replaced by “climate change” if the main problem is that the Earth’s atmosphere land and water is warming due to manmade changes?  That’s all political, social and cultural.

How many times have you heard someone say (jokingly or seriously) on a very cold or snowy day “So much for global warming!” That is because we are hardwired to focus on the short-term. That is the position of George Marshall, Director of Projects at Climate Outreach and author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.  “We tend to discount […] things happening in the future the further away they are,” says Marshall.

George Marshall founded the Climate Outreach and Information Network and has worked for twenty-five years in the environmental movement. I heard him on an episode of NPR’s podcast Hidden BrainOn that episode, “Losing Alaska”, they visited the shrinking Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska to consider why it is so hard for people to come to terms with explore why it’s so difficult for us to wrap our heads around climate change.

I agree with Marshall’s take on why some people ignore our changing environment and the explanation for it. It’s not the science. It’s more about confirmation bias, present-time focus, social conformity, group think, procrastination and valuing the messenger over the message. It’s rational versus emotional brains.



Would you bully this nice little driverless car?

The news has been filled with bullying and cyberbullying stories for several decades. This election season has certainly brought up many examples too. But would anyone bully a car?

We have all heard of –  and probably experienced – “road rage.” That rage is directed at other drivers. What is the other car is driverless? No road rage, right?

Every car company is testing self-driving cars. They are working to make those driverless vehicles obey the rules of the road and avoid accidents. Sounds good.

But Swedish automaker Volvo has expressed concern that human drivers will try to bully driverless cars on the road. Your rage is with the car’s “brain” (AI) that actually goes 25 mph in a 25 mph zone. They are programmed to err on the side of caution. They follow rules. They don’t give or get road rage.

Volvo plans to use unmarked cars in upcoming London tests so that they don’t stand out from the crowd. Their concern is that more aggressive human drivers might find it tempting to bully driverless cars that behave mildly.

There has already been surveys to see how human drivers might behave toward self-driving cars in a survey of 12,000 respondents in 11 European countries. Knowing that an autonomous vehicle is going to stop if you cut it off may lead to aggressive drivers taking advantage and deliberately doing it.

Something lost in a driverless car (although it probably will still have a human passenger) is that wordless communication between drivers and pedestrians – that hand wave to go ahead and cross the street or pull out before me. Semcon, a technology company, came up with the idea of  giving self-driving cars a front-end display that allows them to “smile” at pedestrians as a way of saying “Go ahead. I’ll wait.”

Trusting that driverless cars will do the right thing is key to their acceptance, but it could also lead to problems on a hybrid roadway of driverless and human-driven vehicles.

I’ll trust the driverless car when all the other cars are also driverless. Let the robots take over the roads.

“A safe traffic environment is dependent on interactions between people. Today, eight out of ten people seek eye contact with the driver before they cross a busy road (Semcon/Inizio). But what happens when there is no longer a driver behind the wheel? We decided to find out how people react to self-driving cars.”
Sisyphus - Maybe too much grit?

Sisyphus – Maybe too much grit?

There have been several recent books about, and an increase in the use of the word “grit.” The biggest of those books is probably Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, a bestseller by psychologist Angela Duckworth. She doesn’t see the secret to achievement as talent, but as a blend of passion and persistence towards long-term goals that she calls “grit.”

Grit is a term in psychology that describes a positive, but non-cognitive trait. It is an individual’s passion for a goal and the motivation that allows you to achieve the objective.

Perseverance in overcoming of obstacles and challenges is certainly a good thing when one is faced with a gritty path ahead.

Let’s look at the grit thesaurus entry: perseverance, hardiness, resilience, ambition and conscientiousness.

Some searching turned up that the usage may be on the upswing lately, but the idea of  some individual differences rather than God-given ability goes back to 1907 and William James. (Although I also found that virtues were admired by Aristotle.)

Duckworth looks at leaders in history, researchers and scientists who also propose the idea of grit leading towards high achievement.

I guess what is new is the idea of  passion or zeal and that persistence.

I often hear educators bemoan the lack of what I suppose is “grit” among students. Those with grit don’t require immediate positive feedback. Today’s students are often described as demanding immediate feedback.

Delayed gratification, or deferred gratification, is that ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward and wait for a later reward. Of course, that means resisting a smaller but more immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later.

People with true grit keep going despite failure and adversity and maintain their passion and commitment. Very admirable, this “staying the course.”

I’m sorry that another association that immediately comes to mind when I hear “grit” is gritting or clenching teeth. That action is something I think of happening when faced with an unpleasant or painful duty.

I found Duckworth’s book a tough read. I admit to skimming, but her four key psychological assets of grit are interest, practice, purpose, and hope.

I sought out the book after hearing an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain. That reminded me of that idea about the “10,000 hour rule.” That’s supposedly the average number of hours it takes an expert to become an expert. Research by K. Anders Ericsson found that experts do an intensive kind of practice called “deliberate practice.”

I’m glad that gritty people also have hope. Besides that passion and perseverance, they are optimistic. They believe in their ability to improve and affect change.

I am glad that Duckworth and others believe that intelligence isn’t fixed but can change over time. There’s hope for those not-gritty students.

It sounds great. But all is not perfect in the land of grit. Grit can also cause someone to stick to goals, ideas, or relationships that should be abandoned. People also need to know when to quit.

I can identify with Angela Duckworth who might be a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania now, but was a middle school math teacher. As a former middle school English teacher who also went “up” to higher education, I also was surprised in those first years that my “smartest” students didn’t always get the “A” while others that clearly were struggling did get A’s.

“The thing that was revelatory to me was not that effort matters—everybody knows that effort matters,” Angela told the show host, “What was revelatory to me was how much it matters.”

In a piece by Jeff Selingo in the Washington Post, he asked “Is ‘grit’ overrated in explaining student success?” It talks about a project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to figure out what individual attributes lead to success. rather than just grit, they are finding that pathways to success are much more individualized.

How can we teach kids grit? Can we teach it? Paul Tough’s book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why is an example of trying to apply the theories. (Read an excerpt)

Maybe Tough is right that rather than trying to teach skills like grit, we should focus on creating the kinds of environments, both at home and at school, in which those qualities are most likely to flourish.



Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions. – Pablo Picasso

Colors often have different meanings in various cultures. Several ancient cultures, including the Egyptians and Chinese, practiced chromotherapy, or using colors to heal. Chromotherapy is also known as light therapy and is still used today as a holistic or alternative treatment.

  • Red is used to stimulate the body and mind and to increase circulation.
  • Yellow is thought to stimulate the nerves and purify the body.
  • Orange is used to heal the lungs and to increase energy levels.
  • Indigo shades are thought to alleviate skin problems.

Most traditional doctors view color therapy with great skepticism. I view it with skepticism. But some research has shown that colors can alter feelings and most people will admit to some colors affecting them. A blue room can have a calming effect, but weightlifters perform better in a blue room.  Students exposed to the color red prior to testing has been shown to have a negative impact on test performance but athletes shown red before activities can causes people to react with greater speed and force.

Artists and interior designers have used color to affect moods and emotions. But some of these associations are personal and cultural. The color white in many Western countries to represent purity and innocence, but it is seen as a symbol of mourning in many Eastern countries.

Picasso went through his “blue period.”  That is the period of paintings in which the color blue dominates which occurred between 1901 and 1904. The blue period paintings are melancholy and coincide with the suicide of his close friend Carlos Casagemas, so the paintings do express his emotional state.

Black is the color of authority and power from priestly robes to villains, but it is  popular in fashion because it makes people appear thinner.

Brides wear white to symbolize innocence and purity and doctors and nurses commonly wear white to imply sterility.

Pantone Inc. is known for its Pantone Matching System which is used in printing, colored paint, fabric, and plastics. Every year they pick a Color of the Year, trying to anticipate what the color trend of the year will be.

Tangerine Tango was their 2012 Color of the Year which they described on their website as “sophisticated, dramatic and seductive, Tangerine Tango marries the vivaciousness and adrenalin rush of red with the friendliness and warmth of yellow, to form a high-visibility, magnetic hue that emanates heat and energy.”

“Radiant Orchid” was picked as the Color of the Year for 2014.

Are you seeing more of orchid this year? Are you having an orchid year?


Further studies confirm that most adults can not remember anything that happened before the age of 3 and that it may be because infants don’t have the neural capabilities needed to retain an autobiographical memory. The new study shows we start forgetting our earliest memories around age 7, a phenomenon termed by Sigmund Freud “childhood amnesia.”

Scientists are pretty sure that our prefrontal cortex uses all our sensory input (eyes, ears, nose and mouth) to process experiences, sorts and tags the pieces and connects them by specific associations.  You see grandpa’s house, smell those grandpa smells, hear his voice and taste that cake that he always gives you.

Cue up that memory later – maybe when you see grandpa’s photo – and your brain searches related fragments and assembles them into the memory.

Of course, when you find that cake years later at a little bakery in Prague,  a new memory is connected to the old one. Bringing  up that old memory again refreshes those related bits and the connecting circuits become stronger.

I was reading today about some researchers in Canada that have demonstrated that some young children can remember events from even before age 2 — but those memories are fragile, with many vanishing by about age 10, according to a study in the journal Child Development this month.

I can’t remember anything clearly from before I attended school at age 5. My sons always maintained that after age 10, they couldn’t remember any early childhood memories except for ones that were triggered by looking at photos or videos. That was a revelation.

Their lives were so recorded by me – from the hospital birthing room on – that they had plenty of help with their memories. In fact, they maintain that they can’t really remember those moments and events. They remember the photo and the story that we have told them about it.  “Oh, this is you when you were three and we went to visit Grandpa in Florida.  Remember seeing the alligator in his backyard?”  He does remember. Well, maybe.

The researchers asked children (ages 4-13) to describe their three earliest memories. Then they repeated the exercise two years later with the same children.

Generally, the youngest children (50 aged 4 to 6) were able to remember in the first interview events from when they were barely 2 years old. Their parents verified the events.

But 2 years later, only 5 kids recalled the same earliest memory. The older kids (1o – 13 at the first interview) mentioned the same earliest memory when they were interviewed two years later. Does that mean the older kids memories were better?

Probably not. The memories that remained of those early years when they were 10 were “crystallized” and so were retained.

There are several related theories.  Maybe storing and retrieving memories might require language skills that don’t develop until age 3 or 4.  Maybe children can recall fragments of their early life, but they can’t true autobiographical memories because they don’t have a firm concept of “self” until they are a few years older.

There definitely appears to be different kinds of memories, and they are stored in different place (neural circuits).

The generic memories (your childhood street, the backyard) are background the sets of a movie.  Then you have semantic memories for facts and other information.  Finally, you have episodic memory for the events that occurred.

So why are those earliest memories so weak or unreliable?  The fragments are there. But the neural traces are weak.

Lesson: The memories we revisit as we get older lay down stronger traces.

Caveat: The brain keeps reassembling the fragments and attaching them to new ones, so they do get distorted.

So, unfortunately, most of us will suffer from “infantile amnesia” – the inability to recall those earliest memories.

Read the article on that got me started on this.

illustration via WSJ

Click for larger illustration

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