Here it is: You can visualize things in your mind.
If I tell you to imagine a beach, you can picture the golden sand and turquoise waves. If I ask for a red triangle, your mind gets to drawing. And mom’s face? Of course. You experience this differently, sure. Some of you see a photorealistic beach, others a shadowy cartoon. Some of you can make it up, others only “see” a beach they’ve visited. Some of you have to work harder to paint the canvas. Some of you can’t hang onto the canvas for long. But nearly all of you have a canvas.
I don’t. I have never visualized anything in my entire life. I can’t “see” my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought “counting sheep” was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind.
If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the “concept” of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself.
But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time—or whether I’m standing on the beach itself.
And I grew up in Miami.
This is how it’s always been for me, and this is how I thought it was for you. Then a “Related Article” link on Facebook led me to this bombshell in The New York Times. The piece unearths, with great curiosity, the mystery of a 65 year-old man who lost his ability to form mental images after a surgery.
What do you mean “lost” his ability? I thought. Shouldn’t we be amazed he ever that ability?
Neurologists at the University at Exeter in England showed the man a photo. Who is that? Tony Blair, of course. Brain scans showed the visual sectors of his brain lighting up.
Then they removed the photo and asked him to imagine Tony Blair. The man knew characteristics—his eye color, his hair—but he could not “see” the image in his mind’s eye. Brain scans showed the visual sectors didn’t activate this time. In fMRIs of other men, many of the same sectors activated whether the subjects were looking at a photo or simply imagining one.”
One of the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” Bonanno told me, in December. “To call something a ‘traumatic event’ belies that fact.” He has coined a different term: PTE, or potentially traumatic event, which he argues is more accurate. The theory is straightforward. Every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it. (Bonanno focusses on acute negative events, where we may be seriously harmed; others who study resilience, including Garmezy and Werner, look more broadly.) Take something as terrible as the surprising death of a close friend: you might be sad, but if you can find a way to construe that event as filled with meaning—perhaps it leads to greater awareness of a certain disease, say, or to closer ties with the community—then it may not be seen as a trauma. (Indeed, Werner found that resilient individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual and religious support than those who weren’t.) The experience isn’t inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological construal.
It’s for this reason, Bonanno told me, that “stressful” or “traumatic” events in and of themselves don’t have much predictive power when it comes to life outcomes. “The prospective epidemiological data shows that exposure to potentially traumatic events does not predict later functioning,” he said. “It’s only predictive if there’s a negative response.” In other words, living through adversity, be it endemic to your environment or an acute negative event, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll suffer going forward. What matters is whether that adversity becomes traumatizing.
The good news is that positive construal can be taught. “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” Bonanno said. In research at Columbia, the neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner has shown that teaching people to think of stimuli in different ways—to reframe them in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally “hot”—changes how they experience and react to the stimulus. You can train people to better regulate their emotions, and the training seems to have lasting effects.
The “reductive seduction” is not malicious, but it can be reckless. For two reasons. First, it’s dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve mistakenly diagnosed as easily solvable. There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity.
There are so many examples. As David Bornstein wrote in The New York Times, over four decades of Westerners working on clean water has led to “billions of dollars worth of broken wells and pumps. Many of them functioned for less than two years.”
One classic example: in 2006, the U.S. government, The Clinton Foundation, The Case Foundation, and others pledged $16.4 million to PlayPump, essentially a merry-go-round pump that produced safe drinking water. Despite being touted as the (fun!) answer to the developing world’s water woes, by 2007, one-quarter of the pumps in Zambia alone were in disrepair. It was later estimated that children would need to “play” for 27 hours a day to produce the water PlayPump promised.
We are easily seduced by aid projects that promise play. The SOCCKET, an energy-generating soccer ball, made a splash in 2011 when it raised $92,296 on Kickstarter. Three short years later, the company that created it wrote to its backers: “Most of you received an incredibly underwhelming product with a slew of manufacturing and quality control errors… In summary, we totally f*#ked up this Kickstarter campaign.”
Reading their surprisingly candid mea culpa, I couldn’t help but wonder where the equivalent message was to the kids in energy-starved areas whose high hopes were darkened by a defunct ball.
In some cases, the reductive seduction can actively cause harm. In its early years, TOMS Shoes — which has become infamous for its “buy one give one” business model, wherein they give a pair of shoes for every one sold — donated American-made shoes, which put local shoe factory workers out of jobs (they’ve since changed their supply chain).
Some development workers even have an acronym that they use to describe these initiatives: SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want). AIDWATCH, a watchdog development blog, created a handy flow chart that helps do gooders reality check their altruistic instincts. It begins with the simplest of questions — “Is the stuff needed?” — and flows down to more sophisticated questions like, “Will buying locally cause shortages or other disruptions?”
Many academic journals are extremely expensive. Want to read just one article? That could cost you around $30. The best way to access academic papers is through universities or libraries. But those institutions can pay millions of dollars a year to subscribe to a comprehensive collection.
Alexandra Elbakyan has had enough.
Elbakyan is a Russia-based neuroscientist turned academic Robin Hood. In 2011 she founded the website Sci-Hub, which has grown to host some 50 million academic papers — Elbakyan claims this is nearly all the paywalled scientific knowledge that exists in the world. These papers are free for anyone to view and download.
For students and researchers around the globe who can’t afford academic journals, Elbakyan is a hero. For academic publishers that have historically been shielded from competition, she’s a villain.
Either way, what she’s doing is most definitely illegal.
Last year, leading journal publisher Elsevier took action against Sci-Hub, claiming it violated US copyright laws and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which prohibits the fraudulent access of computer systems. In October, a New York district court orderedthat the site be taken down. Elbakyan was unfazed. Soon after, in November Sci-Hubreemerged with a new overseas domain.
This story is bigger than a single court ruling. It’s a new front in the academic publishing wars. What’s at stake is the question of who has access to scientific knowledge: wealthy institutions, or anyone with an internet connection?
If Sci-Hub wins, the age of academic paywalls may effectively be over.
No man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking.
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