The World According to Whorf

A member of the Hopi tribe (Robert Alexander, Archive Photos, Getty Images)

In 1938 a chemical engineer and amateur linguist named Benjamin Whorf visited a Hopi reservation in Arizona and concluded that the residents there had no words for time. No “was” or “will”; only “is.” For Whorf, and for many descriptive linguists who followed him, the supposed lack of past and future tenses in the Hopi language was more than just a grammatical curiosity. It revealed something deep and meaning…


The Science of Going Viral

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Just one in every 20 Facebook photos is shared. Most Twitter hashtags vanish into oblivion. Researchers want to understand the exceptions. Can you predict what content will go viral? That could be handy in many contexts—marketing, elections, revolutions.

This week two new papers are proclaiming advances in the science of virality.

“We have a method that allows us to predict the future on Twitter,” says James H. Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at University of C…


What’s Driving Human Evolution Now?

Sterling Hayden as Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper (left), with Peter Sellers as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake in Dr. Strangelove (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last year, when Sir David Attenborough, the British naturalist and broadcaster, speculated that human beings had ended natural selection through cultural and technological innovations, he got a deserved amount of blowback. The criticism started with his toy-model view of evolution, and went from there. But beneath it all, there was one lingering…


The Evolution of Aww

Zooey Deschanel (Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images)

We live in the golden age of cute. As one scholar recently put it, cuteness has become a “dominant aesthetic category in digital culture.” Hard to argue with that. Even if you steer clear of toddler pics on Facebook, even if you’ve never clicked on Reddit’s popular “aww” category, your elderly former neighbor will still email you a random photo of, say, three adorable piglets peeking out of a coffee mug.

That last one may be specific to me, but…


Here Come the Neurothugs! Run!

One of Francis Bacon's self portraits

In this New Atlantis essay about art and science, Roger Scruton coins a word: neurothugs.

Neurothugs are researchers who believe that, when it comes to beauty, there is “such a thing as the fMRI of the beholder, and this does contain the secret of the image in the frame.”

As thugs go, the neuro-variety are among the least threatening. At most they might try to convince you that a brain scan means more than it does. They probably won’t rough you up in an alley.

Scruton, a visiting professor of p…


The Sweet Kisses of Embodied Cognition

Best lollipops
I wandered into a session on embodied cognition at last week’s Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference, and I walked away thinking what I heard can’t possibly be true.

I mean, it just can’t be. Can it?

Research on embodied cognition—the idea, basically, that the body strongly influences the mind in multiple ways we’re not aware of (though not everyone agrees with that definition)—is a fairly new field, and in the last few years it has produced a number of head-scratching resu…


Gaming vs. God



Whether violent video games make you more aggressive has been much debated. Much less discussed is whether video games make you an atheist.

OK, not make you an atheist—that’s too strong. But a new study in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion does find that playing video games reduces a sense of the numinous, i.e., the feeling that there is a force out there beyond ourselves and the physical world.

In the study, two Canadian researchers first had 56 undergraduates ta…


Wait, So Does Meditation Actually Work or Not?

Depending on which news account you read, a recently published meta-analysis of meditation studies either confirmed the therapeutic value of the practice or proved that it’s not so great after all. For example, Time reported that the studies reviewed showed we need to take meditation “more seriously as medicine,” while an Australian news site emphasized that meditation “lacked evidence of leading to better health.”

So should we all assume the lotus position or what?

First, some context. The an…


A Deaf Linguist Explores Black American Sign Language


Students were required to wear hearing-assistance devices in schools like the Southern School for the Colored Deaf and Blind, in Scotlandville, La. The school was established in 1938. (Image courtesy of Joseph Hill, Black ASL Project)

Joseph Hill, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, believes he is the only black, deaf, Ph.D. linguist in America, and maybe in the world. “Just me,” he told an audience of about 40 people on Sunday at the Linguistic Society …


Does Familiarity Breed Contempt or Fondness?

Two Male FriendsYou meet someone new. You have lunch, maybe see a movie. Along the way you discover things about the other person. It’s not as if you’re keeping a list of this person’s habits and traits—that would be weird—but you’re accumulating information nonetheless.

So here’s the question: As you get to know each other, will you generally like this other person more or less?

Assuming that you don’t discover something unexpectedly awful, like a fondness for hurling bricks at squirrels, the answer is proba…