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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.

On Being at the World Science Festival

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Today the 2012 World Science Festival kicks off in venues across New York City. Two memories that jump out at me from past events are Bobby McFerrin’s demonstration of the universality of the pentatonic scale and string theorist Jim Gates’ story about encountering “God” on an Icelandic mountaintop.

And, in attendance will be our former senior producer Colleen Scheck will be doing a bit of moonlighting forOn Being. During the next several days, she and Peter Clowney will be scouting potential voices for future interviews with Krista and blogging + tweeting some of the highlights and provocative ideas.

Here are the events they’ll be attending. If you have any suggestions or ideas about what to think about or ask, please drop us a line in the comments section:

THUR, MAY 31 
8:00pm – 10:00pm “The Creator: Alan Turing & the Future of Thinking Machines”
8:00pm – 9:30pm “Madness Redefined: Creativity, Intelligence and the Dark Side of the Mind”
 
FRI, JUN 1 
9:00am – 10:00am “Pioneers in Science: Featuring Elaine Fuchs”
7:30pm – 9:00pm “The Elusive Neutrino and the Nature of the Cosmos”
8:00pm “Quantum Biology and the Hidden Nature of Nature”
 
SAT, JUN 2 
1:00pm – 2:00pm “On the Shoulders of Giants: A Special Address by Edward O. Wilson”
1:00 – 2:30pm “Internet Everywhere”
3:30pm – 5:00pm “Exoplanets : The Search for New Worlds”
3:30pm – 4:30pm “Einstein, Time, and the Coldest Stuff in the Universe
6:00pm – 7:30pm “Why We Prevailed: Evolution and the Battle for Dominance”
8:00pm “Why We Tell Stories: The Science of Narrative”
8:00pm – 9:30pm “Spooky Action: The Drama of Quantum Mechanics”

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Getting Revenge and Forgiveness: Science That Liberates Us from Reductive Analyses

by Krista Tippett, host

I first began to gain a kind of respect for the revenge impulse in human life when we worked, in the early days of this program, on a show about the death penalty. I came to understand that revenge was the original “criminal justice system.” For most of human history, prior to the rule of law, prior to structures of justice that transcend the messiness of human interaction, the threat of retaliation has been a primary tool humans possessed to pursue justice and also to deter cycles of violence. I’ll never forget Sister Helen Prejean, a great campaigner against the death penalty, The Last Words of Texas' Death Row Inmatsdescribing anger as a moral response. The question, of course, is where we let that anger take us.

Now, as Michael McCullough lays out passionately, science is able to document how normal, and purposeful, our instinct for revenge is. In the brain, the instinct for revenge looks like a “craving,” a felt need that begs for satiation. We do range into the realms of global geopolitics in this conversation — to the world around Joseph Kony in Uganda no less — Michael McCullough is just as interested in the mundane forms this craving takes: in our reactions to neighbors and irritating co-workers or to our political opposites.

The good news is that Michael McCullough’s research is also revealing that forgiveness is hard-wired in us — purposeful and normal. He says that to think of forgiveness as a trait of the weak and the vulnerable reflects a simplistic imagination about evolutionary biology. We tolerate and excuse the deficits and mistakes of those we know and love and work with — Grocery store parking lotand even those we don’t love but need to work with — many times each day. Forgiveness doesn’t work in real life as it too often works in media portrayals of dramatic stories of conversion and high emotion. It happens constantly, and we rarely stop to glorify it with the lofty word “forgiveness.”

This science, in other words, liberates us from reductive analyses of ourselves and the world around us. If we accept the normalcy of our instincts both to revenge and forgive, and can see what triggers them both, we have more control over both.

On its cautionary side, it offers lucid explanation of why human societies remain vulnerable — physiologically, not merely politically — to falling back on retaliation and violence as a form of justice. When we cease to see our own well-being as linked to that of others, when we feel threatened by their very existence and are only able to see them amorphously as part of an opposing group, the forgiveness instinct becomes less possible and violence more likely.

This conversation with Michael McCullough heightens my sense of what is at stake in the present global and national moment. One the one hand, the interactivity of the globalized world should make it possible — even necessary — for us to know people far beyond our families and “tribes” as necessary to our survival and even our flourishing.

I am also deeply concerned, as we roll through another toxic election year, at how complete the chasms in American society have become. We have divided ourselves in countless ways — between red and blue, between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. Such distinctions are surely inevitable. But the utter lack of communication, courtesy, and curiosity across these divides seems new to me. Alarmingly, the religious traditions that have been humanity’s moral respositories are also implicated in some of these divisions. How intriguing to imagine that we might harness lessons of science towards a more reconciliatory, peaceable future.

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The preference for symmetry was the product of non-differential conditioning.
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Alighting on EchinaceaPhoto by Mark Round/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0

Researchers at the University of Ottawa discovered that bumblebees don’t have a natural preference for symmetry in nature. In the journal Learning and Motivation, the Canadian scientists’ found that once bees learn to distinguish bilateral symmetry by rewards for symmetry, they begin to strive for the perfect flower.

~Susan Leem, associate producer

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Black Holes and the Sonic Song of the Universe

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

As Gordon Hempton points out, silence isn’t necessarily an absence of sound but a presence all its own. And, in much the same way, physicist Janna Levin says, space isn’t necessarily quiet either. Working at her lab at Columbia University, she projects that the universe creates an aural footprint that “will be music to our ears because it will be the quiet echo of that moment of our creation of our observable universe.” If we can only pick it up…

In this presentation at TED 2011, she plays her projections of the sounds the universe makes — black holes merging and falling into one another, the “white noise of the Big Bang. It’ll make you wonder about the biggest questions at the core of what it means to be a sentient being in this universe or the next.

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On the Universality of Creativity in the Liberal Arts and in the Sciences

by S. James Gates

S. James GatesIn this lecture for Westmont College’s series titled “Beyond Two Cultures: The Sciences as Liberal Arts,” string theorist Jim Gates offers his thoughts on the complementary natures of science and the liberal arts — and how the human mind formulates “systems of belief” in both disciplines. 

This is the first time, in a formal structured way, I’ve been asked to speak before a group of academicians on this set of issues. It is a great honor to be invited to speak on behalf of one of the two “cultures” mentioned in the commentary by C.P. Snow (1905-1980) in New Statesman. It is also a great challenge to be so called upon to speak for an entire “culture.” Of necessity, my comments were created from the vantage point of thirty or so years of working embedded within the academic/scientific culture, and specifically within the field of physics. My views have been molded by this experience.

In preparing for this conversation, I have given much thought to how I, as a scientist, could make a valuable contribution to this tradition established at Westmont College. I believe this is best accomplished by spending most of my presentation describing the attributes of the culture of science as I have experienced them and reflected upon this experience. I claim no special abilities or qualifications to be making this presentation. I am most certainly and woefully uninformed on what I am sure must be a vast liberal arts literature on science and culture. I am, however, a theoretical physicist who has made an effort to think on such matters.

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Shoah: A Table of Elements

by Dov Abramson, guest contributor

Shoah: a Table of Elements

"The trade of chemist (fortified, in my case, by the experience of Auschwitz), teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary nor congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever. Nitrogen is nitrogen, it passes miraculously from the air into plants, from these into animals, and from animals into us; when its function in our body is exhausted, we eliminate it, but it still remains nitrogen, aseptic, innocent."
—Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

The Holocaust represented a contradiction in perception: ordered, regimented evil and unrestrained, billowing pain. For decades, artists have sought to capture the ineffable destruction that befell the Jewish people.

"Shoah: A Table of Elements" describes the task of making order of the ungraspable. In so doing, it works to release some of the emotional charge of our most raw subjects, while evoking the more prominent associations of the Holocaust: the gases, the smoke, the debris.

"Shoah: A Table of Elements" is a meditation on how we commit to memory, how we use symbols, and how we represent that which we cannot behold.

שואה: לוח יסודות


Dov AbramsonDov Abramson is founder and creative director of an art and design studio in Jerusalem, Israel. His work combines classic graphic design and branding with independent artistic work that deals with Jewish and Israeli identity. His projects have been featured in Zeek, Forward, Maariv, Haaretz, and the Chicago Tribune, and his art has been exhibited at The Jewish Museum in New York and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Tumblr. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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Symbols of Power: Adinkras and the Nature of Reality

by S. James Gates

Physicists have long sought to describe the universe in terms of equations. Now, James Gates explains how research on a class of geometric symbols known as adinkras could lead to fresh insights into the theory of supersymmetry — and perhaps even the very nature of reality.

Adinkra by Mat WardComplex ideas, complex shapes Adinkras — geometric objects that encode mathematical relationships between supersymmetric particles — are named after symbols that represent wise sayings in West African culture. This adinkra is called “nea onnim no sua a, ohu,” which translates as “he who does not know can become knowledgeable through learning.”

In the land of theoretical physics, equations have always been king. Indeed, it would probably be fair to caricature theoretical physicists as members of a company called “Equations-R-Us”, since we tend to view new equations as markers of progress.

The modern era of equation prediction began with Maxwell in 1861, continued through the development of Einstein’s equations of general relativity in 1916, and reached its first peak in the 1920s with the Schrödinger and Dirac equations. Then a second, postwar surge saw the development of equations describing the strong force and the electroweak force, culminating in the creation of the Standard Model of particle physics in about 1973. The equations trend continues today, with the ongoing struggle to create comprehensive equations to describe superstring theory. This effort — which aims to incorporate the force of gravity into physical models in a way that the Standard Model does not — marks the extant boundary of a long tradition.

Yet equations are not the only story. To an extent, geometrical representations of physical theories have also been useful when correctly applied. The most famous incorrect geometrical representation in physics is probably Johannes Kepler’s model of planetary orbits; initially, Kepler believed the orbits could be described by five regular polygons successively embedded within each other, but he abandoned this proposition when more accurate data became available.

A less well known but much more successful example of geometry applied to physics is Murray Gell-Mann’s “eightfold way”, which is a means of organizing subatomic particles. This organization has an underlying explanation using triangles with quarks located at the vertices.

For the past five years, I and a group of my colleagues (including Charles Doran, Michael Faux, Tristan Hubsch, Kevin Iga, Greg Landweber and others) have been following the geometric-physics path pioneered by Kepler and Gell-Mann. The geometric objects that interest us are not triangles or octagons, but more complicated figures known as “adinkras”, a name Faux suggested.

The word “adinkra” is of West African etymology, and it originally referred to visual symbols created by the Akan people of Ghana and the Gyamen of Côte d’Ivoire to represent concepts or aphorisms. However, the mathematical adinkras we study are really only linked to those African symbols by name. Even so, it must be acknowledged that, like their forebears, mathematical adinkras also represent concepts that are difficult to express in words. Most intriguingly, they may even contain hints of something more profound — including the idea that our universe could be a computer simulation, as in the Matrix films.

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Beautiful Minds: The Creative Brain Across Time and Cultures

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

World Science Festival with Julie Taymor, Rex Jung, and Douglas FieldsThere’s little doubt, most brain researchers agree, that genius looked much different thousands of years ago. With new tools and improving technologies, scientists are able to see traces of this evolution and observe how our brains are reshaping themselves. But, how are our ideas and commonly held assumptions about intelligence and the creative process being informed by these technologies?

In our most recent show, "Creativity and the Everyday Brain" with neuropsychologist Rex Jung, we featured this video from the World Science Festival. Here, uber-director Julie Taymor (a force of nature and creativity in her own right) and neuroscientists Rex Jung and Douglas Fields wrestle with the notions of genius over time and the possible effects of new technology on attention and creativity. It’s been one of our most popular pieces online, and I hope you’ll add your ideas to the mix.

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A Heightened Potential for Creativity Even While Our Brains Slow Down

by Krista Tippett, host

Tribute To Guitarist Pat Martino - Scan/Edit 03 07MRI of brain (image courtesy of Dr. Robert Zatorre/McGill University)

Few features of humanity are more fascinating than creativity; and few fields right now are more fascinating than neuroscience. Rex Jung puts the two together.

He spends half of his time working with people living with brain illness or injury. In this role, he says, he’s something like an “existential neuropsychologist.” And what he learns there informs the other half of his working life, in the laboratory applying the newest technologies of brain imaging to the interplay between creativity, intelligence, and personality.

What I like about this interview is the humanity Rex Jung brings to his science. This is a quality of all the scientists we bring on this program, I suppose — whether it’s James Gates on supersymmetry, Jean Berko Gleason on linguistics, or Mario Livio on astrophysics. I’m fascinated by the richness of this exchange between humanity and science when you simply shine a light on it. Rex Jung, for example, got interested in studying brains as a volunteer for the Special Olympics. He came to love and revere the participants with supposedly “imperfect” brains.

Rex JungRex Jung first made a mark in the field of deciphering the brain networks involved in intelligence. But he was always aware that there is something more than intelligence involved in lives of beauty and integrity and vigor.

Now he’s working on the emerging frontier of the study of creativity — and how it is different from, as well as related to, intelligence. He and his colleagues have notably helped identify a phenomenon they’ve called “transient hypofrontality.” That’s a daunting name for an experience many of us will recognize. Simply put, Rex Jung says that intelligence works like a “superhighway,” with massive numbers of connections being made between the different parts of the brain with speed and directness. When we become more creative, our powerful, organizing frontal lobes downregulate a bit. The creative brain is a “meandering" brain. The superhighways give way to "side roads and dirt roads," making possible the new and unexpected connections we associate with artistry, discovery, and humor.

One of the most helpful things about this conversation is the commonsense way Rex Jung describes the implications of his research. He says to take those famous stories we have of moments of great creative discovery — like Archimedes wallowing in his bath when he had his eureka moment — and be attentive to how we all prime our brains to be less directed, more creative. Some of us take a bath, some take a walk, some take a drink.

This cutting-edge research is a resounding affirmation of something we know we need in the 21st century but struggle to create: downtime. It’s a call to make this possible for our children too. Again, I think we all know this. For science to demonstrate it as a necessary precondition for creativity is bracing and helpful.

I appreciate the way this research validates the creativity of the everyday: of humor, of relationships, of social as well as personal, scientific, or artistic innovation. Rex Jung is also part of an emerging discipline called “positive neuroscience” — studying what the brain does well and, by implication I think, how what we are learning about our brains can be of benefit to our common life. He even believes that while there is loss in an aging brain — the phase many of our baby boomer brains have now entered — there is also a potential for heightened creativity in that very slowing down.

There are intriguing echoes between this research and neuroscientist Richard Davidson’s discoveries at the University of Wisconsin about how it is possible through behaviors — and with practice — to keep changing our brains across the lifespan. After listening to Rex Jung, I’ve become more aware of how I sometimes get myself into agonizing moments, when I need to be creative (on deadline, of course) but haven’t made the space for my frontal lobes to downregulate and let it happen.

I like feeling more in touch with my frontal lobes. I also like the way Rex Jung questions whether there is a necessary connection between creativity and difficult personalities (e.g. Steve Jobs). From my vantage point, I also feel we may be on the cusp of realizing new creative potentials in ourselves — again, in the everyday. I’ll let my brain meander here awhile to consider that. Talk about having your cake and eating it too; I get to delight in the purposefulness of meandering.

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Brain Researcher Rex Jung: A Twitterscript

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Rex JungNeuropsychologist Rex Jung is asking important questions about the origin and purpose of human creativity. He’s using the latest laboratory techniques to peek inside our mental process with brain imaging. What he has found along the way “unsettles some old assumptions” about intelligence, creativity, personality, and even how we perceive ourselves as aging creatures.

On February 23rd, we live-tweeted highlights of his interview with Krista Tippett and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets.

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Imagination Is More Important Than Knowledge

by Krista Tippett, host

I interviewed James Gates once before, a few years ago, when we were creating our show on Einstein’s ethics. We talked then about Einstein’s little-remembered passion for racial equality. James Gates spent part of his childhood in segregated schools — experiences he does not take for granted now that he is a preeminent, African-American physicist. But what I was so taken by in that conversation years ago was how he explained Einstein’s social activism in terms of the values and virtues of scientific pursuit. He spoke of empathy as a potential byproduct of the process of discovery. A scientist’s “What if…” questions can evolve into human “What if…” questions.

S. James GatesJames Gates’ capacity to share both from his humanity and his life in science strikes me again, and comes through even more forcefully during our more recent conversation in “Uncovering the Codes for Reality.” This time, I spoke with him about his particular passions. He is a string theorist, with a special emphasis on supersymmetry — a quality in the universe which, if demonstrated, might help support string theory as a way to reconcile the greatest puzzle modern physics has tried to solve since Einstein. Simply put, the universe seems to follow different rules at the highest and the smallest levels of reality. String theory imagines that deeper than atoms, deeper than electrons, behind quarks, all of reality is brought into being by filaments of energy. These “strings” might span the whole of reality, and possibly explain why gravity behaves so differently from varying vantage points. Some leading string theorists posit that there are at least eleven dimensions — far more than the three or four dimensions we are equipped to experience.

That is about how far I comprehend the idea behind string theory. The lovely thing about a conversation with James Gates is that my incomprehension does not matter. He gives me much to chew on, and be enriched by.

For starters, he is just the latest voice — others include the astrophysicist Mario Livio, and the astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — to let me in to the secrets and power of science’s language of mathematics. He calls mathematics a kind of sixth sense — an organ of “extrasensory perception” — for scientists. By way of mathematics, scientists perceived and described the atom years before microscopes sophisticated enough to view them could be invented. Now, with mathematics, he and his colleagues are tracing clues and cosmic hints that may never be provable with our five senses — but that may shift our very sense of the nature of reality.

One of the things James Gates and some of his colleagues have “seen,” for example, are underlying codes embedded in the cosmos — error-correcting codes, like those that drive computer programs. (Full disclosure: he’s a fan of The Matrix — so am I — and we hear a little bit of that iconic movie in our one-hour podcast.) This is just one of many observations he makes that raises questions, he says, that physics alone can neither answer nor probe.

Cover of Physics World June 2010He is also working on an interesting frontier of expanding science’s own imagination about mathematical equations in describing reality. He and his colleagues have recently employed something called adinkras, visual symbols that may be able to unlock truths that equations alone cannot capture, just as there are truths that only poetry can convey.

There’s also a lot of fodder for one of my fascinations with the realm of science — the creative, playful, even spiritual act of naming things, especially in physics: beauty quarks and anti-beauty quarks, sizzling black holes, and superstrings, for example. The term adinkras, which comes from West Africa tradition and connotes pictures having hidden meaning, carries on this tradition.

James Gates’ own delight is infectious and illuminating, as much when he is letting us in on mysteries of the cosmos as when he shares the human lessons of his life in science. I’ll leave you with this, for example, as an enticement. When I asked him what he thought of Einstein’s statement that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” he said he had puzzled over this for many years:

"For a long time in my life, imagination was the world of play. It was reading about astronauts, and monsters, and traveling in galaxies, all of that kind of stuff, invaders from outer space on earth. That was all in the world of the imagination. On the other hand, reality is all about us. And it’s constraining, and it can be painful. But the knowledge we gain is critical for our species to survive.

So how could it be that play is more important than knowledge? It took me years to figure out an answer. And the answer turns out [to be] rather strange… Imagination is more important than knowledge because imagination turns out to be the vehicle by which we increase knowledge. And so, if you don’t have imagination, you’re not going to get more knowledgeable.”
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String Theorist S. James Gates: A Twitterscript

by Susan Leem, associate producer

S. James GatesS. James Gates is known for pioneering supersymmetry, a theory that could “explain some of the greatest mysteries of the universe, such as how elementary particles got their mass.” There’s actually a symmetry between these two fundamental entities that compose the universe, invisible partners with names like selectrons (partner of electrons) and photinos (partner of photons). Gates shares with us a scientist’s rich, connected way of looking at the universe, “where we become essential to the universe.”

We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Look for our show with him in the coming weeks, and follow us next time at @BeingTweets.

  1. "My understanding of the word ‘space’ is so different than my understanding of space at age 4 or age 8." -Professor James Gates 1:10 PM, 25 Jan 

  2. “I ended up at MIT which itself was a dream…a school where you studied the good stuff.” -Professor James Gates 1:14 PM, 25 Jan 

  3. "It’s about balance…we humans, it seems like we’re coded to look for symmetry." - Professor James Gates 1:19 PM, 25 Jan 

  4. "It shows up in our art and music, but if the world were perfectly symmetrical we could not exist." -Professor James Gates 1:25 PM, 25 Jan 

  5. "The Higgs particle we believe is responsible for the creation of mass for everything else in the universe." -James Gates 1:26 PM, 25 Jan 

  6. "With string theory we have a view of the universe where we become essential to the universe." -Professor James Gates 1:30 PM, 25 Jan 

  7. "We become part and parcel of what our universe is in a way I’ve never seen done in science before." -Professor James Gates 1:31 PM, 25 Jan 

  8. “In many cultures the act of naming is regarded as a very powerful thing.” –Professor James Gates 1:33 PM, 25 Jan 

  9. “If science conjures, it’s when we get a clear picture of something we didn’t know and give it a name.” -Professor James Gates 1:35 PM, 25 Jan 

  10. "Math is an extrasensory organ for those who learn to use it that way." -Professor James Gates 1:36 PM, 25 Jan 

  11.  “I’m a hidden-dimensional refusenik.” -Professor James Gates 1:38 PM, 25 Jan 

  12. "It’s almost like the equations are trying to tell you a story." -Professor James Gates 1:40 PM, 25 Jan

  13. "When you do the calculations, it seems there’s an imperative to follow the path." -Professor James Gates 1:41 PM, 25 Jan

  14. "We’re not trying to find solutions, we’re looking at the structures of the equations…like DNA." -Professor James Gates 1:47 PM, 25 Jan

  15. “Adinkras have existed in West African cultures for a very long time. They are symbols that have hidden meaning.” -James Gates 1:54 PM, 25 Jan

  16. An Adinkra: “He who does not know can become knowing by education.”
    -Professor James Gates 1:56 PM, 25 Jan


  17. “A large fraction of the fundamental science done at this point has been inward-looking.” -Professor James Gates 2:01 PM, 25 Jan

  18. "Science in my experience does not permit us the illusion of certainty." -Professor S. James Gates 2:10 PM, 25 Jan

  19. "We are forced by the structure of science to recognize human fallibility, human limits." -Professor S. James Gates 2:12 PM, 25 Jan

  20. "By embracing our limits, by embracing our fallibility we become more knowledgeable." -Professor and physicist S. James Gates 2:14 PM, 25 Jan

Photo of S. James Gates by John Consoli/University of Maryland

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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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