Category Archives: Modern life

Wellbeing enhanced more by places than objects

Cabin

What poets and mystics have taught for centuries has been confirmed in a study at Surrey University: We experience deep connections to beloved physical spaces that cannot be replaced by abstractions or symbols. From The Guardian:

The poet WH Auden is credited with first coining the word “topophilia” to describe a strong emotional pull to a special place.

Now scientific research, using cutting-edge brain imaging, suggests Auden was on to something. According to a study commissioned by the National Trust, people experience intense feelings of wellbeing, contentment and belonging from places that evoke positive memories far more than treasured objects such as photographs or wedding rings.

A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study commissioned by the NT set out to “understand this visceral but intangible feeling more deeply”.

The power of special places exerts a magnetic pull on us. What would motivate people to labor for generations to construct Stonehenge, or the Cahokia Indian Mound? What strange fire spurs warriors to defend their homeland against invaders against impossible odds? Even in this age of global mobility, there burns in all of us a need to connect with the sacred and the sentimental. It’s basic to our identity.

Ecology activist and writer Charlene Spretnak has this to say about the vital role natural places play in the human psyche:

Even children who have been schooled in modernity’s radical discontinuity between humans and nature often have a profound engagement with a natural place — a summer camp, a grandparent’s farm, or a hideaway spot near home. Throughout their lives they carry in their minds that sense of place, a place they came to know with a child’s deep capacity for personal response …

In the modern worldview, the sense of place was no longer to be important. After all, modern society lives on top of nature. Modern furniture and modern architecture (the International style) are liberated from any “constraining” references to community, tradition, or place. Yet the importance of place, both for its subtle influences on the human and for its relevance as an ecosocial frame of reference, is now making itself felt. The resurgence of place is also behind hundreds of thousands of community-based alternatives to the dominance of the global economy. p. 27, The Resurgence of the Real

Certain locales acquire meaning from our cherished memories of the people and events of which we were once a part. No wonder we’re able to rediscover contentment, a sense of belonging, and wellbeing from them — those memories are an essential part of who we are. MRI scans reveal that returning to these places affects the same part of the brain that processes deep emotions. This research confirms old truths we have too long denied or ignored.

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How Reading Rewires Your Brain

Reading

There is no doubt in my mind that modern society traps its subjects in an unhealthy and unsuitable environment. That stark realization motivates many of my stories (see here and here, for example). The most disturbing symptom of how toxic our culture has become is the increasingly acerbic mutual distrust evident in current politics. Little wonder so many feel depressed, powerless, and alienated.

Rather than utilizing technology to better our lives, we let it rule us. Distracted by smart phones, buffeted by inescapable sensory overload, and hobbling our discourse in 140-character outbursts at each other, we’re incapable of understanding our own inner selves, much less that of others.

Fortunately, the tonic for the condition we find ourselves in is close at hand — if only we would use it, as this eye-opening piece in big think proclaims:

Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with reading comprehension and emotional intelligence as well. You make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you.

All of these benefits require actually reading, which leads to the formation of a philosophy rather than the regurgitation of an agenda, so prevalent in reposts and online trolling. Recognizing the intentions of another human also plays a role in constructing an ideology. Novels are especially well-suited for this task. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology found overlap in brain regions used to comprehend stories and networks dedicated to interactions with others.

The beauty of it all is that when you read, you gain more than just the knowledge contained in the text. The very act of reading builds “white matter” in the brain, thereby boosting the brain’s interconnectivity and ability to function more efficiently.

In the United States — yes, the United States1 out of 4 children grow up without learning to read. That’s intolerable. Want to do your part to make the world a better and happier place? Read, and do what you can to help others read.

And if you really get ambitious, and have the nerve to try it, write something beautiful.

Fate’s Daughters

SciFan

SciFan Magazine has published my latest story, “Fate’s Daughters.” It’s available in paperback on Amazon.

The protagonist, Dr. Thomas Lear, delves into Scottish mysticism to master the secrets of da-sheallahd, or second sight, and uses that knowledge to prove the existence of spin-off “daughter” universes, the most profound and disturbing theory in quantum mechanics. Lear discovers how to find and observe alternate versions of his life, and learns what would have happened if he hadn’t made choices he has long regretted.

He also learns all choices, good or bad, have repercussions — and that even what we think are good choices can have shocking consequences.

An instructor leading an improv workshop I attended at Queen City Comedy in Charlotte inspired this story. E.B. urged everyone to “let go” and react honestly to the scenes they were acting out. At one point she said, “We’ve forgotten how to focus! The only thing that matters is happening in the place and moment you’re living in right now.” Her words hit me, and I kept thinking about them after the workshop was done. That advice is just the medicine we need in our distracted age.

BTW, if you want to know more about daughter universes and quantum mechanics, Space.com has this short, helpful article, one of the pieces I read researching the science behind the story.

I am indebted to several beta readers for their invaluable insights as this piece evolved, including the Dark & Stormy Plotters League, which is the sci-fi/fantasy critique group of the Charlotte Writers’ Club. But I want to give special thanks to Cathleen Townsend for her inspired suggestions, all of which I incorporated into the manuscript. I salute l’artista migliore!

Quote of the day

Flannery O'Connor

“Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong even though this is the first generation to face total extinction because of these advances.” – Flannery O’Connor

Thomas Bowdler’s Revenge!

Shakespeare censored

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had a happy ending. In Hamlet, Ophelia accidentally drowned. And when Lady Macbeth gazed upon her guilty hand, she cried, “Out, crimson spot!”

Doesn’t sound quite right, does it? But those are some of the edits Thomas Bowdler made to render Shakespeare less violent and less frightening. Bowdler’s 1818 The Family Shakespeare removed what Bowdler called “those words and expressions… which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”

In fact, Bowdler’s work was appreciated in Victorian times, and poet Algernon Charles Swinburne credited Bowdler for making Shakespeare approachable for children. But today, the word “Bowdlerize” signifies the reworking of a piece to make it less offensive, but also weaker and less effective.

Before we start feeling superior to those stuffy old Victorians, we need to pay attention to a growing neo-Bowdler campaign to tone down text that could offend. Sadly, some publishers are resorting to “sensitivity readers” whose explicit job is to Bowdlerize manuscripts:

Before a book is published and released to the public, it’s passed through the hands (and eyes) of many people: an author’s friends and family, an agent and, of course, an editor.

These days, though, a book may get an additional check from an unusual source: a sensitivity reader, a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as “dealing with terminal illness,” “racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families” or “transgender issues.”

The Chicago Tribune story cites the case of author Veronica Roth, whose novel Carve the Mark was denounced “for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.”

That’s sad. It’s a rough-and-tumble world out there, and if you can’t handle viewpoints that challenge your sensibilities, you’re in for some rude shocks.

I see this as yet another symptom of a society that’s self-segregated itself into prickly, snarling little dens of conformity. Too many people see the world through a pre-fabricated lens and as a result, cannot cope with views from outside their cocoons. If all you know of the world comes from Fox News or Huffington Post, you feel you must condemn all who fail to uphold the One True Way.

Get away from that computer. Go outside. Talk to real people. At the very least, dare to consider ideas from outside your “Favorites” list.