Category Archives: Science

Christmas tree stars

Haiku Prayers:
Christmas Tree lights that look like stars.
Christmas tree lights look like stars.

“Each of us is raised with a sense of ‘us and them.’ Initially the ‘us’ is just family, and everyone else is ‘them.’ As we get older and more experienced, more and more people join the ‘us’ but there is usually still a ‘them.’ …

Once in orbit, though, with time to not only work but to gaze at the world over a period of months, I noticed my perception shifting. As I sent pictures to the ground and commented on them, I found myself unthinkingly referring to everyone as ‘us.’ …

I would see a city that I knew well and just 30 minutes later, see that exact same pattern of settlement in a city I had never heard of. It forced me to face the commonality of the human experience, and our shared hopes and desires.”

Chris Hadfield in An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

2 secrets to lasting relationships: Kindness and generosity

shared-joyEver wonder why some relationships stick and others peel away? Scientific research might have some insights into this.

An article by Emily Esfahani Smith published in The Atlantic and Business Insider outlined the research of John Gottman and Robert Levenson at “The Love Lab” at the University of Washington. Gottman and Levenson watched newlyweds interact with each other and then checked in with them six years later to see where the relationships ended up.

Gottman and Levenson divided the pairs into two groups: masters and disasters. After six years, the masters still maintained stable relationships but the disasters were separated, divorced or struggling.

When observing the two groups, Gottman and Levenson noted the physiological responses. The disaster couples’ hearts beat quickly and their sweat glands activated, but the masters stayed calm. They affectionately behaved kindly to one another, even in disagreement.

The physiological reactions can be explained by the kind of “scanning” couples choose. Partners either scan their environment and their partner seeking things to appreciate and say thank you for, or they can scan looking for partners’ mistakes. Disaster couples’ bodies reacted in a way that prepared them “to attack or be attacked.”

Wanting to know more, Gottman invited 130 couples to a retreat to watch them interact. Esfahani Smith writes:

Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband . . ..

Turning toward or turning away from partners affects the relationship. Disaster couples turn toward only 33 percent of the time. Masters show the kindness of turning toward 87 percent of the time.

Generosity comes into play around “shared joy.” Master couples actively celebrated the joyful news of partners. Disaster couples either ignored it or diminished it. Apparently it is just as important to be present for our partners when things are going right.

What frequency is your scanner set to? 


Read more:

Why you should smile at strangers

connectSmiles, or nods, or simple acknowledgements of presence—they do make a difference.

Live Science reported on research out of Purdue University that showed how small gestures of acknowledgement make people feel connected, and when people feel connected, they feel better about themselves. Conversely, when ignored by a stranger, people felt socially disconnected and not so good about themselves.

I work in downtown Ottawa, Canada. Every day I walk by countless strangers without acknowledging them in any way. They are busy, rushing to meetings, or chatting with companions. They already thrive in social connections. But I do smile, nod or say hello to some people. When I see homeless or disenfranchised members of society standing on street corners, I acknowledge them. I can’t solve all their problems, but I can do some small thing to make them feel connected.

You might have heard of Dr. Masaru Emoto’s famous work with water crystals. His experiments  show that positive thoughts affect water crystals in a positive way. His controversial results stretch the imagination and skeptics claim they are pseudo-science, but no matter how you feel about it, his work prompted many people to try home experiments on the same theme.

One family prepared three jars of rice: one with a label that read, “Thank you,” a second with a label that read “You fool,” and a third that they ignored. After a month, the rice in the jar with “Thank you” began to turn to ferment with a mellow malty smell, and the jar with “You fool” turned black and rotten. And the jar they ignored? It rotted and turned black fastest of all. It seems that ignoring something is the most damaging form of behaviour.

Smiles, nods, or simple acknowledgements of presence—they do make a difference.

Cursive writing: Who needs it anyway?

In the news this week: teachers are no longer required to teach kids cursive writing. Kids still learn out to print; they just don’t learn the weird letter formations looped together. And if they don’t learn how to write bs and rs in the cursive way, they won’t be able to read them either.

Media reports predicted doom and gloom—our children will no longer be able to read handwritten thank you letters from great-aunts. Horrors.

When I heard the news, I thought to myself, “Well, at least my kids know how.” They are 18 and 15 years old, and cursive writing was part of their curriculum. When the topic came up in conversation at dinner though, my son said, “I can’t read cursive.”

“What?” I said, shocked. “I remember watching you practice writing.”

“Yeah, for about two weeks in Grade 3.” He shrugged. “When the teachers write cursive on the board, I can read it better than some, but . . .”

Shocking to think that in 100 years our handwriting will be like hieroglyphics to next generations, or that university courses will teach how to read cursive.

But maybe it’s not as bad as all that. After all, most cursive letters mirror the printed version. Kids decipher the meaning from the letters that match and the context. And handwriting in the last generation has deteriorated anyway as people reject strict form for creativity and individuality. When I look at my aunts’ handwriting, theirs could be used as part of “How to Write Cursive” instruction manuals: perfect letters lined up in perfect rows. Mine? Not so much. My bs and rs look like the printed version, and many letters don’t get looped together at all. I did two writing samples: one of my usual handwriting and one in proper cursive. I had to struggle to get cursive right. I had to look up how to write the z. The bs were particularly hard. I guess I’m part of the crossover generation.


Kids don’t learn to write and read cursive because they don’t need to—societal evolution at play. That’s not the only way they are different. Ask teenagers the time, and they won’t look at a watch. They don’t even have watches. They look at cell phones.

I wonder what will shock my kids in another 30 or 40 years? Maybe keyboards will become obsolete, and my kids will be shocked to discover my grandchildren don’t know how to touch-type. Who knows?

In the meantime, if you need to communicate on paper with a teenager, might be a good idea to print.

A Weeping Yogi

During our March Break ski trip to Whistler, BC, while my family frolicked in thigh-deep Pacific Powder and I did—not, I visited The Oracle (More than just a store . . . an experience!). While there, I made a purchase which I tucked away in my suitcase to take home to put in my office.

On the day we returned home, within hours—before we even had a chance to unpack—we learned that our close friend, Lynn, had died that morning.

Laden with grief, I unpacked my suitcase and came upon my purchase: a Weeping Yogi.

His card reads:

“The yogi weeps because the world is profoundly sad, they say, and someone has to always be weeping for its sorrows, so that you can be joyful. Hand-carved in Bali, these yogis take your pain so that you can enjoy life. Known for their gentle, joyful spirit, the Balinese believe that sharing your sorrows lessens the load and sharing your joys helps you grow: so share your sadness with the yogi and share your joys with those you love. Holding his head in his hands, the yogi seems to be saying, ‘If it’s too much for you, please share it with me. It’s why I’m here. It’s what I do.’ Some feel that the yogi has either just moved into his pose of sadness and sorrow, or is about to stand up in happiness and joy.”

That day, I held the little wood carving in my hands, and damned if I didn’t feel a little better.

I’m not sure what compelled me to pick up the yogi, but in the past three years I’ve lost two of my best friends (ages 46 and 47, for Pete’s sake), my brother, my mother-in-law, and my dog. To add insult to injury, we even lost the Dairy Queen in our neighbourhood, so I can’t even inappropriately self-medicate with hot fudge sundaes anymore.

My cynical friends will say that it’s just a piece of wood. They’ll say its effects are the result of a psychological mind game.

Yep. It’s a piece of wood. Yep, it’s effects are a psychological mind game. (But then, isn’t everything?) All I know is that, this past week, I picked up that piece of wood and held it for a while, and then I wrapped my dog’s collar around it.

Damned if I didn’t feel a little better.

Darwin’s survival of the kindest

Could it be that, in natural selection, kindness trumps fast runners with big  muscles?

Some of today’s scientists are taking a new look at Charles Darwin‘s findings. They are exploring the flip side of what earlier scientists gleaned from his work. In the attached video link, Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley addresses The Centre for Compassion and Altruism and Research and Education on this topic.

According to Keltner, Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (it was not Darwin as many believe), and others of his time focused on the mercenary competitive self-interest part of natural selection. But Darwin’s work was about much more than which animals could run fastest, pro-create most often or grow the biggest muscles.

Darwin considered the role that compassion played in societies that succeed. He wrote that sympathy ” . . . will have increased through natural selection, for those communities, which include the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

Could it be that kindness accelerates prolific pro-creation?

Keltner also argues that scientific studies show that compassion is part of our DNA. We pass it on to our children and our children’s children.

Studies involving the human voice in communities around the world find that there is a common “vocal burst,” or sound, used to portray compassion. If you want to portray compassion, what sound do you make? I think you will find that it is the same sound that the audience for Keltner’s lecture made when spontaneously invited to do so.

Human touch also builds trust and compassion. The more a team of basketball players touch each other, the better they play.

But we are now in a “crisis of compassion”

Studies show that we are less empathetic, more materialistic and more self-involved than thirty years ago. Keltner says that we are a “touch-deprived” culture. We need more mindfulness, more contemplation, and more gentle reassuring holding of hands.

The survival of the kindest depends on it.