October 20, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationDoes Everything Happen for a Reason?
Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom: Where does this belief come from? One theory is that it reflects religious teachings—we think that events have meaning because we believe in a God that plans for us, sends us messages, rewards the good and punishes the bad. But research from the Yale Mind and Development Lab, where we work, suggests that this can’t be the whole story. (The New York Times)

Voodoo Death
Scientists are just beginning to understand how cultural beliefs can lead to psychological stress, illness, and even death. American physiologist Walter Cannon was one of the first people to write about the potentially fatal consequences of these intense beliefs. In 1942, reports were streaming in from around the world about “voodoo” death: South American Tupinamba men, condemned by medicine men, died of fright. Hausa people in Niger withered away after being told they were bewitched. Aboriginal tribesmen in Australia, upon seeing an enemy pointing a hexed bone at them, went into convulsions and passed away. (Daphne Chen, Pacific Standard)

Mindful Commuters
As harried commuters filed aboard a Metro Red Line train at Cleveland Park—jockeying for seats, hoisting bulging tote bags—Denise Keyes gazed straight ahead, took deep breaths, and searched for inner peace. There were no lit candles, no incense, no chanting of “om.” But Keyes was meditating. Finding stillness on a subway during rush hour might sound impossible. But those who practice “mindful commuting” swear it brings tranquility to the daily misery of crowded trains, late buses, honking horns, and traffic jams. (Katherine Shaver, The Washington Post)

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Atul Gawande: This is a book about the modern experience of mortality—about what it’s like to be creatures who age and die, how medicine has changed the experience and how it hasn’t, where our ideas about how to deal with our finitude have got the reality wrong. As I pass a decade in surgical practice and become middle aged myself, I find that neither I nor my patients find our current state tolerable. But I have also found it unclear what the answers should be, or even whether any adequate ones are possible. I have the writer’s and scientist’s faith, however, that by pulling back the veil and peering in close, a person can make sense of what is most confusing or strange or disturbing. (Science of Us, New York Magazine)

How Do Astronomers Find Exoplanets?

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has discovered nearly 3,000 possible exoplanets by tracking slight fluctuations in starlight to reveal their orbits. This is one of several methods employed in the hunt for the next habitable world. John Matson explains. (Scientific American)

October 17, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationYoga Can Decrease PTSD Symptoms in Military Veterans
The new study is the first of its kind to provide scientific support for the benefits of yoga’s breathing techniques for PTSD patients in a randomized and controlled (though small) long-term study which monitored effects of yoga over the course of the year. The study focused on the effects of sudarshan kriya yoga, a practice of breathing-based meditation which has a balancing effect on the autonomic nervous system. (Flora Lisica, The Conversation)

Do Teams Have a Superstar Saturation Point?
They’re talking about sports teams, but their finding can be extrapolated to include any unit that needs to function as a well-integrated whole. Or, as the researchers explain it: “Just as a colony of high performance chickens competing for dominance suffers decrements in overall egg production and increases in bird mortality, teams with too much talent appear to divert attention away from coordination as team members peck at each other in their attempts to establish intragroup standing.” (Laura Entis, Entrepreneur.com)

Buddha Pears
Nowadays we can produce pears that look exactly like fat little buddhas, complete with folded arms, plump tummies, and meditative smiles. The secret is a plastic mold made by China’s Fruit Mould Company. (Rebecca Rupp, The Plate, National Geographic)

David Weintraub

Now that researchers have discovered more than 1,500 exoplanets beyond the solar system, the day when scientists detect signs of life on one of them may be near at hand. Given this new urgency, Vanderbilt University astronomer David Weintraub decided to find out what the world’s religions had to say on the question of aliens. In his new book, Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?, Weintraub investigates the implications of life beyond Earth on more than two dozen faiths. Scientific American spoke to him about his findings, including whether Jesus saved the Klingons as well as humanity. (Clara Moskowitz, Scientific American)

Fight Church

Can you love your neighbor as you punch him in the face? That’s one question posed by Fight Church, a documentary that will be screened at 6:30 p.m. Monday during an event hosted by the Science, Religion, and Culture Program at Harvard Divinity School. The film, directed by Academy Award-winner Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel, is about the confluence of Christianity and mixed martial arts. It follows several pastors in a quest to reconcile their faith with a sport that some consider barbaric. HDS reached out to Storkel, who will participate in a Q&A session after the screening, with some questions about the movie and the rise of martial arts ministries. (Michael Naughton, Harvard Gazette)

October 15, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationExtreme Altruism and Intuition
A new study in PLOS ONE by David Rand and Ziv Epstein of Yale, based on interviews with Carnegie Hero medal recipients, found that the decision to save someone else’s life in an emergency is typically an intuitive, split-second process, rather than the result of careful deliberation. The life-savers repeatedly said they didn’t even think—they just acted. (Joseph Stromberg, Vox)

Awe in Nature
Jake Abrahamson: Scientifically speaking, the storm brought me into a state of awe, an emotion that, psychologists are coming to understand, can have profoundly positive effects on people. It happens when people encounter a vast and unexpected stimulus, something that makes them feel small and forces them to revise their mental models of what’s possible in the world. In its wake, people act more generously and ethically, think more critically when encountering persuasive stimuli, like arguments or advertisements, and often feel a deeper connection to others and the world in general. Awe prompts people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else. And about three-quarters of the time, it’s elicited by nature. (Sierra)

Why the Mundane Can Be Terrifying
Social anxiety is commonplace, we’ve established that. But WHY is this the case? Why would our brains suddenly decide that an ordinary social occurrence is something akin to facing down a predator? A surprising amount of research has gone into this. One main theory is that it stems from an intrinsic motivation to make a good impression on an audience (be the audience members real or imagined). (Dean Burnett, theguardian.com)

Gratitude at Work
This study highlights the benefits of gratitude in shaping positive social behavior and could have significant implications for the workplace. Although we are often focused on our own projects and responsibilities, the findings indicate that fostering a collaborative and supportive environment could lead to a self-reinforcing cycle, driving engagement, performance, and a sense of community. (Craig Dowden, Financial Post)

Your Personality on Facebook
It’s not just what you post on the social networking site, but how you post it that reveals what kind of person you are. That’s the contention of researchers at the University of Missouri who have developed a new scale that judges people’s personality based on how they use the popular social media site. The scale reveals that those who like high-risk activity tend to update their status, upload photos, and interact with friends frequently. While conversely, those who are more reserved tend to merely scroll through Facebook’s “news feed,” and don’t upload photos or actively engage with their friends. (Chad Brooks, BusinessNewsDaily)

October 15, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationCan We Learn Self-Control?
Walter Mischel conducted one of the most famous experiments in 20th-century psychology. In the late 1960s, he oversaw a test at Stanford University using a group of preschoolers. These studies gave him access to children whom he subsequently tracked for decades, collecting data on each child’s education, health, and other factors. Now, more than 40 years later, he’s published a book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control, about the experiments. (Anna Altman, Op-Talk, The New York Times)

The Benefits—and Surprising Costs—of Extraordinary Experiences
Skydiving, winning a sexy sports car, or scaling Mt. Everest sure sound like extraordinary experiences that would fill us with boundless joy to last a lifetime. But a new study finds that’s not always so: extraordinary experiences can actually generate unhappy feelings as well, because others in your ordinary social group are unable to relate to your stories. (Carl Engelking, D-brief, Discover)

Group Selection in Spiders
A new study of Anelosimus studiosus, a species of tangle-web spiders, published this week in Nature, suggests that evolution does indeed work at the level of the group. If certain groups of animals are more productive than others—that is, if they produce more progeny—then evolution will tend to favor the traits that make such fecundity possible. According to Jonathan Pruitt, the findings are the first to provide direct evidence that natural selection can drive the evolution of a group trait in the wild. (Emily Singer, Quanta Magazine)

Online Activism
In France, the company behind some of the country’s biggest banks is rolling out a new service that will let people send money over Twitter, providing an avenue to turn hashtag slacktivism into actual change. By downloading an app and linking your credit card to your Twitter account, the service, known as S-Money, will let you send money to other Twitter users even if you don’t know their banking information. Though the service could theoretically be used for any number of things, discretion is the key as the payment messages will all be publicly displayed. But this openness, Venture Beat points out, could be a boon for fundraising campaigns. (Colin Schultz, Smithsonian.com)

Gary Gutting

Gary Gutting: This is a concluding reflection on my series of 12 interviews with philosophers on religion. I’m grateful to all of them for the intelligence, clarity, and honesty with which they responded to my questions, and to the readers, who posted hundred of comments on each interview. It seemed natural to keep to the interview format, even though I (G.G.) had no one to interview except myself (g.g.). (The Stone, Opinionator, The New York Times)

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