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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

"Strength without a sense of direction leads to violence. Strength with a sense of direction is grace." —Matthew Sanford
For an unusual take on the mind-body connection, listen to our interview with Matthew Sanford, who has been a paraplegic since the age of 13. He shares his wisdom for us all on knowing the strength and grace of our bodies even in the face of illness, aging, and death.
About the photo: A former patient of a Red Cross orthopedic center in Kabul, Afghanistan constructs a prosthetic leg as part of an effort to assist those affected by mobility disabilities, including hundreds of mine victims.
Photo by Kanishka Afshari/FCO/DFID

"Strength without a sense of direction leads to violence. Strength with a sense of direction is grace." —Matthew Sanford

For an unusual take on the mind-body connection, listen to our interview with Matthew Sanford, who has been a paraplegic since the age of 13. He shares his wisdom for us all on knowing the strength and grace of our bodies even in the face of illness, aging, and death.

About the photo: A former patient of a Red Cross orthopedic center in Kabul, Afghanistan constructs a prosthetic leg as part of an effort to assist those affected by mobility disabilities, including hundreds of mine victims.

Photo by Kanishka Afshari/FCO/DFID

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Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection ― or compassionate action.
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Daniel Goleman, from Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

(via trentgilliss)

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The Drawbacks of Putting a Price on Time

by Susan Leem, associate producer

RIMG0032 Photo by Ofer Deshe/Flickr, cc by 2.0

The saying “time is money” may ask us to think carefully about the quality of our experiences, but the association of “time” with “money” can also diminish your ability to feel pleasure.

Researchers from the University of Toronto showed that, if participants thought about their income as an hourly wage, they felt as if they were wasting time while surfing the internet or listening to a pleasant song. The reasoning behind it? When there is no money to be made, we feel impatient doing leisure activities knowing that there is a price on our time. And when the scientists paid the participants for their leisure activity (for example listening to music), they didn’t feel as impatient about the experience, and thus enjoyed it more.

The authors conclude, “thinking about time in terms of money is poised to affect our ability to smell the proverbial roses.” And even the roses smell sweeter when we’re getting paid to do it.

How can we keep the urgency of the phrase “time is money” without losing our ability to value our (non-monetary) life experiences?

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Our Twitterscript of Jean Berko Gleason Interview

by Susan Leem, associate producer

this is a wugWug graffitti on the street. (photo: Adam Albright/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This week we interviewed Jean Berko Gleason, a psycholinguist who is now a professor emerita at Boston University, about how we learn and use the most valuable of skills: human language. She’s best known for her wug test experiment, revealing that children develop general systems to learn language.

We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets and this Thursday, October 6th, look for the produced show via our podcast our on your local public radio station:

  1. For the next 90 minutes we’ll be live-tweeting Krista’s interview with psycholinguistics superstar Jean Berko Gleason. Join us! 1:27 PM Sep 27th
  2. Dr. Gleason’s famous “Wug” test forever changed our understanding of how humans learn language. 1:28 PM Sep 27th
  3. Professor Gleason settling in at the mic, asking Krista if it’s ok that she “doesn’t do religion.” 1:37 PM Sep 27th
  4. Dr. Gleason says her early experience translating her older brother’s speech (he had cerebral palsy) sparked her love for linguistics. 1:44 PM Sep 27th
  5. "Charles Darwin wrote notebooks of one of his sons and outlined how he acquired language." -Dr. Berko Gleason1:45 PM Sep 27th
  6. "Literacy, written language is a very late acquisition in terms of human evolution."-Jean Berko Gleason1:50 PM Sep 27th
  7. "It isn’t that kids learn language in bits and pieces, the children abstract the rules of the language in the same order." -Dr. Berko Gleason 1:55 PM Sep 27th
  8. "There’s a broad spectrum of belief of how kids come to, say, two wugs." -Jean Berko Gleason 1:56 PM Sep 27th
  9. "Your brain is not formed when you’re born, you have to build your brain." -Jean Berko Gleason 1:58 PM Sep 27th
  10. "Language develops by interacting with other people talking to you." -Jean Berko Gleason. 1:59 PM Sep 27th
  11. "Language development is a cooperative event, it happens between children and the people around them." -J. Berko Gleason 2:01 PM Sep 27th
  12. RT @GreggGraham: @Beingtweets But storytelling appears to be a human universal from the beginning. 2:02 PM Sep 27th
  13. "(to learn language) You need not just the cognitive stuff, but emotional underpinnings, you have to care about other people." -J.B. Gleason 2:02 PM Sep 27th
  14. "In the beginning language is there so we can say ‘mommy I want you.’" -Jean Berko Gleason 2:03 PM Sep 27th
  15. "Kids will use their own system at the stage that they are, they’re not (learning merely by) imitating you." -Jean Berko Gleason. 2:08 PM Sep 27th
  16. "A whole lot of creatures have complex and meaningful lives." J. Berko Gleason on sentience. 2:12 PM Sep 27th
  17. "We have this enormous connection to the living world that is reflected in our language." -Jean Berko Gleason 2:14 PM Sep 27th
  18. "Of the top 30 words that parents are calling kids’ attention to (‘look at the…’), 12 are animals." -Jean Berko Gleason. 2:18 PM Sep 27th
  19. "Undergrads should not just take business classes, but business classes plus Sansrkit. It has an affect on your for all your life." -Gleason 2:25 PM Sep 27th
  20. @WDET? @FightersDay: shoot I took Chinese Saturday School as a kid. How do I learn Sanskrit - where is a good school near Detroit (my city)? 2:28 PM Sep 27th
  21. "Different languages cut the world into different slices." -Jean Berko Gleason 2:52 PM Sep 27th
  22. "They are not talking, it is called jargon babbling" - Gleason on the viral twins video - http://bit.ly/gaojdQ 2:52 PM Sep 27th
  23. "It’s not just children who carry innate things. We come with a long history of being attached to other living creatures." -Gleason 2:53 PM Sep 27th
  24. "We’re innately predisposed to pay attention to little children. We’re not just watching babies unfold. We’re unfolding with them." -Gleason 2:55 PM Sep 27th
  25. "Human beings are able to reflect on their existence…for now that distinguishes us from other creatures." -Jean Berko Gleason 2:57 PM Sep 27th
  26. "I think people should be brave and take a chance and do what excites them." -Jean Berko Gleason’s advice to young people 2:59 PM Sep 27th
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The Stuff of Our Lives

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Clutter to save Photo by Robert Francis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The A&E television show Hoarders is hugely popular for so many reasons. Maybe we see our inner hoarder in their characters, or just want to be shocked at the sight of extreme stuff. But when writer Amy Gutman decided to declutter her storage space, she developed a fascinating idea about why our stuff is so important to us.

For decades, she paid nearly ten thousand dollars for a storage unit to avoid letting go of her things, and recently came to see much of it as worthless. In trying to comprehend how she could have kept these things for so long, she suggests that for some people our stuff is tied to our character, our being. Gutman pulls from her memory banks (but not her vast repository of stuff), Margaret Jane Radin’s paper on Property and Personhood:

"Most people possess certain objects they feel are almost part of themselves. These objects are closely bound up with personhood because they are part of the way we constitute ourselves as continuing personal entities in the world. They may be as different as people are different, but some common examples might be a wedding ring, a portrait, an heirloom, or a house.

One may gauge the strength or significance of someone’s relationship with an object by the kind of pain that would be occasioned by its loss. On this view, an object is closely related to one’s personhood if its loss causes pain that cannot be relieved by the object’s replacement. If so, that particular object is bound up with the holder. For instance, if a wedding ring is stole from a jeweler, insurance proceeds can reimburse the jeweler, but if a wedding ring is stolen from a loving wearer, the price of a replacement will not restore the status quo — perhaps no amount of money can do so.”

Clearly there is no end to what kinds of objects can be imbued with this kind of meaning. One question that has not only legal but philosophical implications is how much of personhood is the culmination of experiences. And maybe those experiences are deeply tied to property, where some may find the necessity and pain of attachment. The one thing I wished Gutman had revealed in the article was how she released her attachment to her stuff.

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Taking Another Person’s Perspective: A Spatial and Social Skill

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Amy Shelton in her lab with tools of her experimentAmy Shelton with the tools of her work. (photo: Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins)

Psychologists who study learning and memory have a special interest in how people navigate reality in a three-dimensional world. There is a huge variation in abilities for spatial learning among adults, and some of these skills don’t even appear until adolescence. How you interact with other people has a lot to do with how well you are able to literally take their perspective.

Johns Hopkins scientist Amy Shelton has found that strong social skills may be an important factor in your spatial skills. That is, people who are very good at taking on the visual perspective of another person also test well on social abilities. And these abilities only appear when the participant is asked to take the perspective of a person — not that of an object.

The paper’s authors suggest this ability to take another perspective is important because it requires Theory of Mind, something that is often found lacking in persons on the autism spectrum. Simon Baron-Cohen describes Theory of Mind as “being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.” Of course the author notes that there are a number of factors that influence social ability like “interest, comfort, and savvy in social situations.”

For this experiment, researchers focused on the question of perspective. They asked participants to describe the perspective of different objects placed near 22 Lego buildings. The variable that changed: one of the objects was person-like, a faceless doll, and the other two were not (a toy camera, colored plastic triangles). Participants were asked which figure had the view of the building displayed on the computer screen and tried to match them.

Tools to test perspectivephoto courtesy of Amy Shelton/Johns Hopkins

What they found was that one group of participants were much better at correctly identifying the views from the perspective of the faceless doll only. This group also scored low on “the Autism Quotient,” a questionnaire designed to assess the degree to which adults of normal intelligence show five different traits associated with autism spectrum disorders: social skill (higher score = poorer social skills), perseveration (higher score = more difficulty shifting attention), attention to detail (higher score = greater focus on details), communication (higher score = poorer communication), imagination (higher score = less imaginative).”

Amy Shelton says there are some interesting implications for thinking about empathy and viewpoints of an “other”:

“Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this research is that it emphasizes a ‘whole person’ approach. We tend to think of ourselves as being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at certain skills, but these results suggest that different skills really do interact and have an impact on each other. For instance, I might be good at giving directions to another person because I have good spatial skills, but I might be even better at it if I can also empathize or embody the other person’s perspective.”
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The better we understand human psychology and neurology, the more we will uncover the underpinnings of religion. Some of them, like the attachment system, push us toward a belief in gods and make departing from it extraordinarily difficult. But it is possible.

We can be better as a species if we recognize religion as a man-made construct. We owe it to ourselves to at least consider the real roots of religious belief, so we can deal with life as it is, taking advantage of perhaps our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason.

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J. Anderson Thomson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia and a trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Clare Aukofer, a medical writer, have struck a nerve with their op-ed "Science and Religion: God Didn’t Make Man; Man Made Gods" in Monday’s Los Angeles Times.

Like the authors, I marvel at the advances and insights brought about by recent DNA research and neuro-imaging studies. How these findings help us better understand the psychological and physiological underpinnings of our predilections of religious belief is of great value. Perhaps this could help us understand people of other cultures and religious traditions better.

But, I thought we were past the “God is dead” argument. So why do the authors insist that people can “make departing” from innate religious impulses “possible” rather than embracing our physical and mental adaptions. Our ability to use reason may be a wonderful complement to ask the spiritual questions that elevate our transcendent natures rather than ground them all the time in practicality.

And, perhaps, Thomson and Aukofer’s use of divisive statements such as “religion hijacks these traits” makes religious believers the “out-group” and atheists who rely on reason the “in group.” Even as this non-believer writes this post, I sense that the dichotomy of the two poles is a false one that ignores all the other wonderful adaptations that may make us mere mortals and extravagant beings. Let’s have a more inclusive conversation that uses science as an instrument of understanding rather than a blunt object to make others wrong.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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New research reports a key part of the brain apparently atrophies more rapidly in Catholics and born-again Protestants, the result of the cumulative stress that comes with being a member of a religious minority.
- from the Miller-McCune article "Religious Affiliation and Brain Shrinkage" explaining a recent Duke University study on hippocampal atrophy.
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When Choice Means Different Things to Different People: Sheena Iyengar on Sources of Control

by Shubha Bala, associate producer

Sheena Iyengar"It depends on how you define control. If you define control as ‘I will entirely write my script,’ that could be one way of thinking of having control. Another way to think about having control is to say ‘Look I was given this script, and I executed it with great aplomb.’ And there’s nothing to say that that means you don’t have control, it’s just a different kind of control."

Sheena Iyengar, a business professor at Columbia University and author of The Art of Choosing, has come to view cultural and religious rules as “life scripts.” She says they are empowering rather than stifling. In Krista’s interview with her earlier this year, Sheena Iyengar describes her journey to this revelation.

The Art of Choosing by Sheena IyengarIn the audio above (download mp3), she starts by describing a study that shows that religious followers are less depressed than atheists. Sheena Iyengar then talks about another study that demonstrates most Asian children are more motivated and performed tasks better when their mothers made choices for them, whereas the converse is true for most Anglo-American children: they were more motivated if they were able to choose the task themselves.

And, she explains that her interest in examining culture’s role in choice was especially informed by her own Sikh background.

Here, for example, she discusses whether an arranged marriage, such as that of her parents, is in fact devoid of choice. You can listen to the clip to the left (or download the mp3) of this portion of their conversation as well, and then share with us examples of how your culture has influenced your view of choice.

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Krista Tippett Chats with Cognitive Neuroscientist Adele Diamond
(photo: Trent Gilliss)

Live Interview with Professor Adele Diamond
Time: 2:00 pm CST
Location: Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada)

On the heels of Krista’s morning interview with Matthieu Ricard, we’re going to live stream video of her conversation with cognitive researcher Adele Diamond. The live video will only appear real-time and then we will substitute it with higher-resolution produced video at a later date.

Update: The live video stream only aired during the period of the interview and is currently not available. I’ve substituted a photo until I can replace it with a full produced video taken with our HD cameras!

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Cleanliness Is Next To …Andy Dayton, associate web producer

Editor’s note [9.5.2009, 2:21pm]: a link was removed from the stricken language below and a link to a more  in-depth article by Rivkah Slonim explaining the family purification ritual was added. We regret the error.

I find myself fascinated by this story from a few years ago about some Jewish feminists’ renewed interest in the 3,500-year-old tradition of the mikvah. The mikvah is a purification ritual involving immersion in water (a precursor to Christian baptism), and was mandatory for Jewish women at the end of their menstrual cycle. What was once considered an anachronistic and even demeaning ritual, as NPR’s Tovia Smith reports, has been adapted for contemporary life:
"…the mikvah is also being used today as a kind of spiritual therapy, for everything from getting over a miscarriage, to completing a round of chemotherapy, finishing a doctoral degree or breaking up with a boyfriend."
Of course, Judaism doesn’t have a monopoly on cleansing and purification rituals. Islam has the practice of ablution, or ritualized cleansing, in preparation for prayer; and many Hindus gather during the 2,000-year-old Kumbh Mela pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges river and absolve their sins. To list all of the world’s cleansing rituals here would be unwieldy, but they seem to be common throughout many faiths, cultures, and nations.Within the last few years there has been a bit of scientific research on the psychological relationship between cleanliness and morality, which has revealed what’s been called "The Lady Macbeth Effect" — in reference to the fifth act of Shakespeare’s play, when Lady Macbeth obsessively washes her hands in an attempt to ease her conscience. One study showed a tendency to seek physical cleanliness when thinking guilty thoughts, while another demonstrated how thinking about physical cleanliness can cause one to be less judgmental.
I find this interesting not just in the context of larger spiritual traditions, but also in day-to-day life. For me, sometimes simple pedestrian rituals like taking a shower can serve as a point of transition and reflection. How does cleanliness play a role in your spiritual and moral life?
(image: detail of John Singer Sargent’s Ellen Tarry as Lady Macbeth, via freeparking/Flickr)

Cleanliness Is Next To …
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

Editor’s note [9.5.2009, 2:21pm]: a link was removed from the stricken language below and a link to a more in-depth article by Rivkah Slonim explaining the family purification ritual was added. We regret the error.

I find myself fascinated by this story from a few years ago about some Jewish feminists’ renewed interest in the 3,500-year-old tradition of the mikvah. The mikvah is a purification ritual involving immersion in water (a precursor to Christian baptism), and was mandatory for Jewish women at the end of their menstrual cycle. What was once considered an anachronistic and even demeaning ritual, as NPR’s Tovia Smith reports, has been adapted for contemporary life:

"…the mikvah is also being used today as a kind of spiritual therapy, for everything from getting over a miscarriage, to completing a round of chemotherapy, finishing a doctoral degree or breaking up with a boyfriend."

A demonstration of the Muslim tradition of WuduOf course, Judaism doesn’t have a monopoly on cleansing and purification rituals. Islam has the practice of ablution, or ritualized cleansing, in preparation for prayer; and many Hindus gather during the 2,000-year-old Kumbh Mela pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges river and absolve their sins. To list all of the world’s cleansing rituals here would be unwieldy, but they seem to be common throughout many faiths, cultures, and nations.

Within the last few years there has been a bit of scientific research on the psychological relationship between cleanliness and morality, which has revealed what’s been called "The Lady Macbeth Effect" — in reference to the fifth act of Shakespeare’s play, when Lady Macbeth obsessively washes her hands in an attempt to ease her conscience. One study showed a tendency to seek physical cleanliness when thinking guilty thoughts, while another demonstrated how thinking about physical cleanliness can cause one to be less judgmental.

I find this interesting not just in the context of larger spiritual traditions, but also in day-to-day life. For me, sometimes simple pedestrian rituals like taking a shower can serve as a point of transition and reflection. How does cleanliness play a role in your spiritual and moral life?

(image: detail of John Singer Sargent’s Ellen Tarry as Lady Macbeth, via freeparking/Flickr)

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