We’re not going to ask which line appears longer. We already know – depending on where you’re from. That’s right: For the famous Müller-Lyer illusion (image via rollingalpha.com), Americans see the line to the right with ends feathered outward (B) as longer than the line with arrow tips (A). But guess what? Born a hunter-gatherer in the Kalahari, you’d see the lines as they are (equal). Myth-busting anthropologists Joe Heinrich and crew at the University of British Columbia suggest if you grew up in box-shaped rooms with carpentered corners, you unconsciously estimate distance based on degree of the angles. If you grew up in the bush (read: organic shapes vs. 2x4s and carpenters), you see these dimensions accurately. Fasten your seatbelts, people. What else that we think of as a universal actually may not be?
Think of a time you did something to the utmost! Gave it everything you had, just for the pure pleasure. David Graeber brings to our attention that this just may be the driving force of the universe. Let’s call it play. It exists across the animal kingdom, not just in the usual suspects – monkeys, dolphins, puppies and the like – but in ants, fiddler crabs, inch worms… Why do animals play (like in this image at left by Rick Ortiz on Flickr)? Well, as Graeber points out, why shouldn’t they? What does it tell us about ourselves that action for the pure pleasure of acting seems so… unlikely, even weird? Perhaps without realizing it, we’ve been thinking about the biological world in economic terms – competition for resources, survival of the fittest – since Darwin (who, by the way, was influenced by Herbert Spencer, a sociologist who hung out with robber barons in the 19th century). A group of scientists are now stepping outside that paradigm for a new take on the force behind evolution, self-organizing systems, and emergence – a candidate which exists even at the atomic level. Free movement, just for the sake of it. Play. So… We triple-dog dare you to give your atoms free reign and take the next three minutes and do something just for the enjoyment of doing it. Play. See what happens.
In this short and beautiful video exploring Ira Glass’ theory of “The Gap”, Glass explains that when you first start creating, there’s a chasm between what you want to create and what you’re capable of creating. In order to close the gap, he argues, you have to create volumes and volumes of work. “You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” What do you want to create that’s worth fighting for right now?
With humans, come crows. Around the planet, they’re found breeding within 5 kilometers of us. (Slim exceptions: the Arctic, and the tip of South America.) The more we try to discourage them from scavenging our stuff, they craftier they become. Crows grab bait off fishermen’s hooks. They crack nuts on busy streets (true story: they use the crosswalk for safety). Betty, pictured here, is using wire accidentally left behind by researchers to get food out of a tube. Joshua Klein trained crows to use a vending machine. If crows can do that, he asks, why not clean up a post-game stadium, or extract electronics from discarded devices? And then…?
5.5 million years ago, the Movile cave in Romania collapsed. The creatures trapped inside evolved into 33 species found nowhere else on earth. If they hadn’t been isolated from the evolutionary trends on the surface, we wouldn’t have these unique species.
Isolation breeds innovation in business, as well as nature. Teams like Apple and Tesla are renowned for isolating themselves from the groupthink of their competitors and choosing not to adapt to outside trends.
What would happen if your team unplugged themselves from the market trends in the news and social media for a day? How about a week? What ideas might evolve if you sealed off your cave?
Geopolitical controversy gone… corporate team building? In a small Mexican border town, the “Caminata Nocturna” has become a tourist attraction via a simulated illegal border crossing replete with fake border agents, drug smugglers, and a grueling hike through the darkness. A surprising yet superb example of adaptation, it’s the brainchild of the indigenous Hnahnu tribe. With un-farmable land and no local jobs, the Hnahnu became expert at border crossings. Now, tribal elders hope to sustain their people by monetizing this expertise to upper middle class Mexicans – including as team building, like for the group of Mexican salespeople who did the “night hike” recently (at only $16 a head). (Writer James Spring joined them; hear his story on “This American Life.”) (Image via Johnathan McIntosh on Flickr).
Moken sea gypsy children, living in the waters between Burma and Thailand, swim before they can walk. Their eyesight is more than 50% better than other children’s; they voluntarily control their pupils to fish along the ocean floor. Can European children learn this? Yup, showed Swedish researcher Anna Gislen in 2006. (Moken children also stay underwater 2x as long, by lowering their heart rates. Perhaps Gislen could train a few business leaders to do that next.) (Image via Andrew Testa.)
How do you design a university library to lure in procrastinating students? Dong Woo architects decided that all the students at South Korea’s Hoseo University needed was a little nudge…down a slide. This two-story metal slide installed in the middle of the library is a shining reminder that work and play belong together. What “two story slide” is missing from the work you know is important, but sometimes avoid?
Try this: Put your hands into fists and hold them above your head as high as you can for 5 seconds. Next, snap your fingers exactly 50 times (yeah, do all 50). Now, do a quick Google image search for your favorite baby animal. Finally, send someone a quick thank you. Game theorist Jane McGonigal (image via Wikipedia) has taken the science showing that people who regularly boost their physical, mental, emotional and social resilience live 10 years longer, and made it into a game. In her viral Ted Talk, she calculates this simple exercise as being worth 7.5 minutes of added life. NOW: What will you do with yours?
What do Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant have in common besides their fistfulls of championship rings? They’ve all studied meditation with George Mumford, featured left. Kobe Bryant says of Mumford; “George helped me understand the art of mindfulness. To be neither distracted or focused, rigid or flexible, passive or aggressive. I learned just to be.” It turns out mindfulness is an asset even to those who rely most heavily on brawn. At what times of day are you least expected to practice mindfulness, and what would happen if you did?
Feared for their ability to capsize a boat, gray whales in Mexico’s Baja California had been hunted nearly to extinction. Fisherman Pachico Mayoral, seeing one in San Ignacio Lagoon one day in 1972, prepared to beat his boat with a stick to scare it away. But Mayoral hesitated, instead nervously reaching out to stroke the whale’s face. Today, as many as 10% of grey whales migrating between Mexico and the Arctic qualify as “friendlies,” seeming to seek touch by swimming up alongside small boats to gently nuzzle humans (a touch that’s illegal in the US, btw). And initiating contact with humans doesn’t seem to be restricted to grey whales, as this article about a 50-foot humpback suggests. In the mean time, here’s a grey “spy hopping” (image by Joe McKenna)… peering into the boat to see who’s ready to play?
When Greenpeace asked the internet to name a whale they were tracking, they were appalled that the winning name was…” Mr. Splashy Pants.” They extended voting in the hopes that more a “mature” name would win, but “Mr. Splashy Pants” supporters rallied their friends and won again. At first glance, this is a tale about losing control of the narrative. Greenpeace realized, though, that this silly name had brought free publicity to a very serious issue. Mr. Splashy Pants was thusly named, awareness was raised, and their cause gained momentum.
Mr. Splashy Pants raises a question: What “terrible” ideas might be in your best interest?
People warn against “reinventing the wheel.” But what if a new kind of wheel is exactly what you need? What if the wheel is the solution to an eons-old problem of transporting potable water into remote villages? Two South Africans quadrupled the amount of water that a single woman can carry by turning the containers into a wheel-and-axle that can be pushed or dragged.
What wheel in your life might need reinventing?
You may know this famous psychology experiment. As a research subject, you get a $100 windfall, but you must share it with a stranger. You have the power to decide how much… with a caveat. If he accepts, you both walk away more flush. If your offer is refused, no one gets anything. What to do? We used to think the response was universal across humans: you offer something close to a 50/50 split, afraid of incurring a stranger’s wrath. Turns out, that’s a WEIRD response. WEIRDos—members of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies—are in the minority in their reactions to dilemmas of fairness. For example, if you’re one of the indigenous Machiguenga in Peru (pictured here by Asier Solana Bermejo on Flickr) studied by Joseph Henrich, you offer a much smaller split and your partner accepts happily. After all, he’s better off, and why should he be snarky just because you had the good fortune to be the decider? Who’s weird here?
If you’re charmed by kids and their sidewalk chalk messages, check this: the 500-year-old tradition of giant sidewalk murals that deceive the eye (before they’re existentially washed away by rain). Former South Park Lead Technical Director Melanie Stimmell became so enamoured of the art she quit her lucrative Hollywood post and took to the streets globally. Her work includes a staggering rendition of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a UFO with a baby inside, a femme fatale in the open mouth of a rhino… The only woman to earn the title “maestra madonnara,” or “Master Street Painter,” in Italy and Germany, Stimmell is known for interactive art you can get right inside.
What happens if you leave computers in the slums of New Delhi, India? Renegade Sugata Mitra was curious, so he tried it. The stuff of legend: Children taught themselves not just computer literacy, but English – totally untutored, driven by curiosity. Mitra took it to the next level with the “Granny Cloud,” an army of retired, female schoolteachers in the UK who Skyped with kids in Columbia and India to support learning English. A $1 million TED prize helped. The secret sauce? That special kind of non-pushy, non-judgmental encouragement only a grandmother can give. (Million-dollar question: Who needs yours today?)
You may have heard about this study, but we think it’s worth repeating (think vitamins for your relationship): in his landmark 1992 study of 700 couples, Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington learned to predict with 93.6% accuracy – after only 15 minutes of observation (and in later studies, less than 3) – who’d be together in 10 years, and who would not. The big differentiator? How they deal with conflict. Those who have even small, everyday arguments in a productive way, communicating mutual respect, will make it. The #1 predictor of divorce is contempt and the negative spiral of criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling that goes with it. “…We grow in our relationships by reconciling our differences,” says Gottman. “That’s how we become more loving people and truly experience the fruits of marriage.” (Image via tvtropes.org.)
Here’s the deal: Taking frequent, swift breaks makes your focus – and your results – a whole lot better. Scientists think it’s because the brain’s built to detect and respond to change. It’s hard, we know, to give your mind a palate cleanser – we want to grind through breaks and lunch so we can get to the bottom of our inboxes. But you get less, not more, done when you do. Try a 50/10 split – 50 minutes working, then 10 minutes of mental sorbet. Every so often, we’ll add one here that’s filled us with awe or energy. Enjoy.
Dalton Ghetti calls his sculptures, most of which are carved into the graphite at the core of pencils he finds on the ground, a form of meditation. You’d have to be in an enlightened state of mind to make these tiny miracles (a 23-link chain connects the two ends of the pencil shown above). Ghetti uses a sewing needle, a small blade, and a very bright light to make impossible shapes out of rough workaday pencils. Ghetti’s 9-11 Memorial features 3,000 tears – each the size of a grain of rice – arranged into one giant teardrop. Take a look and we promise you’ll never see your pencil the same way again.
What do you do if you’re the prison warden at a high-security prison plagued by gang violence, where resumes feature crimes from shoplifting to murder? Prison chief Byron F. Garcia of the Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Phillipines showed the world the power of thinking differently. You may remember this (we do, and think it’s well-worth a revival): 1,500 inmates created a choreographed music video of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, complete with zombies and the girlfriend role played by an openly gay prisoner. Take a look at 1,500 people in orange jumpsuits, effectively exiled from society, working in ensemble. (Image via Wapster on Flickr.)