How might neuroergonomics help us deal with mental overload? | Aeon Essays


Just about every parent will have a personal version of this scenario, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic: it is evening after a long workday. You are getting dinner started, but it’s like trying to cook in a blizzard. The children are crying, the spaghetti’s boiling over on the stove, your phone starts buzzing with a long-awaited call after a job interview, the doorbell just rang, and you’re the only adult in the house.

Now imagine someone came up to you in the middle of all of this and said: ‘Hey, I have some chocolate here. I can give you this chocolate right now with five bucks or, if you wait a half hour, I will give you the chocolate and 10 bucks.’ As you gently try to peel a toddler from your lower leg while reaching to turn off the stove burner, you say: ‘Put the chocolate and the $5 on the counter and go away.’ Making this quick decision means you have one less thing to think about – and one person less in the kitchen. You don’t have time to make what looks like the better choice of just as much chocolate but twice as much money, if only you could wait.

Source: How might neuroergonomics help us deal with mental overload? | Aeon Essays

Scepticism is a way of life that allows democracy to flourish | Aeon Essays


Think about a time when you changed your mind. Maybe you heard about a crime, and rushed to judgment about the guilt or innocence of the accused. Perhaps you wanted your country to go to war, and realize now that maybe that was a bad idea. Or possibly you grew up in a religious or partisan household, and switched allegiances when you got older. Part of maturing is developing intellectual humility. You’ve been wrong before; you could be wrong now.

We all are familiar, I take it, with people who refuse to admit mistakes. What do you think about such people? Do you admire their tenacity? Or do you wish that they would acknowledge that they jumped to conclusions, misread the evidence, or saw what they wanted to see? Stubborn people are not just wrong about facts. They can also be mean. Living in society means making compromises and tolerating people with whom you disagree.

Source: Scepticism is a way of life that allows democracy to flourish | Aeon Essays

How the enigmatic Nefertiti came to be locked away in Germany | Aeon Essays


Almost 3,400 years ago, the sculptor Thutmose said goodbye to the extensive compound – a warren of workshops, courtyards and living accommodation for artists and apprentices – that had been both his home and his workplace for more than a decade. He had once managed a highly prestigious business, creating many of the stone images of the royal family that decorated Egypt’s newest royal city, Amarna. But now King Akhenaten was dead and his young successor, Tutankhamen, had decided to relocate the royal court back to Thebes. On the verge of becoming a ghost city, Amarna no longer had any need for royal statues, so Thutmose – the king’s chief of works, and entirely dependent on royal patronage – had no choice but to seek employment elsewhere. Packing his goods and chattels, he sailed away, abandoning objects that he did not want or could not move. Among this heap of castoffs was an uninscribed bust of a woman whose distinctive tall, flat-topped crown identified her as Akhenaten’s consort: Nefertiti.

Source: How the enigmatic Nefertiti came to be locked away in Germany | Aeon Essays

What a spiritual high shares with a mental breakdown | Aeon Essays


We have all heard stories of sudden self-transformation, or what the US psychologists William Miller and Janet C’de Baca call ‘quantum change’, whether it’s the religious conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus, the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, addicts at rock-bottom finding God, or near-death experiences that give people a new outlook on life. But not all sudden – or seemingly sudden – changes of outlook and personality are beneficial. The onset of psychosis in particular involves a strikingly similar transformation of reality, but one that precedes a frightening descent into mental illness. Consider this experience of psychosis, described in The Exploration of the Inner World (1936):

Source: What a spiritual high shares with a mental breakdown | Aeon Essays

Why the great books still speak for themselves, and for us | Aeon Essays


My point is simple: give the ‘underprivileged’ access to the cultural wealth that has long been the exclusive purview of the elite, and you will have given them the tools with which to subvert the social hierarchies that have kept them down. Beyond equipping them with marketable skills and the means for economic self-advancement, this deeper work of education is the most valuable gift that colleges and universities can give to young people. It is also the most valuable contribution they can make to a democratic society

Source: Why the great books still speak for themselves, and for us | Aeon Essays

Horse-human cooperation is a neurobiological miracle | Aeon Essays


Horse-and-human teams perform complex manoeuvres in competitions of all sorts. Together, we can gallop up to obstacles standing 8 feet (2.4 metres) high, leave the ground, and fly blind – neither party able to see over the top until after the leap has been initiated. Adopting a flatter trajectory with greater speed, horse and human sail over broad jumps up to 27 feet (more than 8 metres) long. We run as one at speeds of 44 miles per hour (nearly 70 km/h), the fastest velocity any land mammal carrying a rider can achieve. In freestyle dressage events, we dance in place to the rhythm of music, trot sideways across the centre of an arena with huge leg-crossing steps, and canter in pirouettes with the horse’s front feet circling her hindquarters. Galloping again, the best horse-and-human teams can slide 65 feet (nearly 20 metres) to a halt while resting all their combined weight on the horse’s hind legs. Endurance races over extremely rugged terrain test horses and riders in journeys that traverse up to 500 miles (805 km) of high-risk adventure.

Source: Horse-human cooperation is a neurobiological miracle | Aeon Essays

How to fulfil the need for transcendence after the death of God | Aeon Essays


Eight years before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and three decades before Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-5) with its thunderclap pronouncement that ‘God is dead’ – Arnold already heard religion’s retreat. Darwin’s theory was only one of many challenges to traditional faith, including the radical philosophies of the previous century, the discoveries of geology, and the Higher Criticism of German scholars who proved that scripture was composed by multiple, fallible people over several centuries. While in previous eras a full-throated scepticism concerning religion was an impossibility, even among freethinkers, by the 19th century it suddenly became intellectually possible to countenance agnosticism or atheism. The tide going out in Arnold’s ‘sea of faith’ was a paradigm shift in human consciousness.

Source: How to fulfil the need for transcendence after the death of God | Aeon Essays

We should be wary about what Big History overlooks in its myth | Aeon Essays


Big History burst on to the scene 30 years ago, promising to reinvigorate a stale and overspecialized academic discipline by situating the human past within a holistic account at a cosmic scale. The goal was to produce a story of life that could be discerned by synthesizing cosmology, geology, evolutionary biology, archaeology and anthropology. This universal story, in turn, would provide students with a basic framework for their subsequent studies – and for life itself. Big History also promised to fill the existential void left by the ostensible erosion of religious beliefs. Three decades later, it’s time to take a look at how Big History has fared.

David Christian first made the case for what he called ‘Big History’ in an article in the Journal of World History in 1991. He based it on an interdisciplinary course that he had been teaching at Macquarie University in Sydney that brought together faculty members from the sciences and the humanities. The idea for the course was to situate human history within a grand historical narrative that stretched backwards in time to the origins of the cosmos in the Big Bang and forwards to include the present and future development of the human species. The course promised to transform the way students were taught history by focusing on the big picture and what united all humans rather than what divided them.

Source: We should be wary about what Big History overlooks in its myth | Aeon Essays

Dreams are a precious resource. Don’t let advertisers hack them | Aeon Essays


Advertisers have begun invading our sleep in an attempt to place their products in our dreams. This is neither metaphor nor fiction; it’s a fact. The night before Super Bowl LV, the beverage company Molson Coors ran what they called the ‘world’s largest dream study’. They explicitly aimed to place images of Coors beer, along with positive imagery (of refreshing alpine rivers, for instance), into dreamers’ minds. They hired a Harvard psychologist to design dream-incubation stimuli, incentivised participation with offers of free drinks, and, in a marketing coup, had the pop star Zayn Malik agree to sleep on Instagram Live while having an incubated Coors dream – though he did mention the whole project was ‘kinda messed up’.

Source: Dreams are a precious resource. Don’t let advertisers hack them | Aeon Essays

Mass extinctions don’t drive evolutionary change: life does | Aeon Essays


Of all the species that have ever lived on our planet, more than 99 per cent are extinct. Most of these organisms disappeared through the constant shuffle of ecological and evolutionary change. But not all. Many species have vanished in a geological snap during mass extinctions – truly catastrophic events where the rate of extinction vastly outpaces the origin of new species. For a time, these ecological disasters were thought to drive a great flourish of new lifeforms in the aftermath. It turns out that supposition is wrong.

Source: Mass extinctions don’t drive evolutionary change: life does | Aeon Essays