The Healing Power of a Well-Placed Curse

My feet seem to have an uncanny ability to always find the one missing lego or the edge of the table leg I wasn’t paying enough attention to. I am not exactly what you would call a delicate flower; I am clumsy and uncoordinated, and when I hurt myself I can have the mouth of a sailor. If you see me in my regular daily life I seem pleasant enough, but watch me stub my toe once and you’ll hear a string of curse words you didn’t even know existed, laid out in colorful combinations you never would have thought to try. They usually don’t make sense, and my face will probably turn beet red after I realize what exactly I said in front of you; but you will walk away feeling thoroughly educated.

I never put much thought into this knee-jerk reaction, I just knew that yelling my obscenities and jumping up and down on my good leg made me feel better. But as it turns out, there is actual science behind this little fluke of humanity (studies like this make me kick myself internally for not joining the scientific community as my own career path). It is no secret that words have power; they can evoke tearful compassion, blood boiling anger, they can inspire uprisings and tear down governments. Words have the ability to lift the spirit or break the soul. Swearing itself evokes an emotional response; if you have ever been yelled at by a parent or glared at by a co-worker after allowed a particularly colorful four-letter beauty slip from your lips, then you have witnessed the response firsthand. We have created our own taboo language and imbued it with power, determining on a whim what is socially acceptable and what is not. If our response to mere words is so strong that we have created our own form of self-censorship, then what else can they do? Once again, science swoops in with the answers.

Researchers at Keele University’s School of Psychology were curious about the potential physical effects of swearing, and so they conducted their own experiment. This little test has been repeatedly replicated, and even found its way onto the TV show Mythbusters. They took 64 lucky undergrad volunteers and had them all partake in the ice water test. Each participant was asked to submerge their hand in a tub of ice water for as long as they possibly could while repeating a single word. For a control, participants were asked to do this while repeating a fairly innocuous word describing a table. And then we got to the good part; those involved in the study were then told to do the exact same thing, only this time they choose whatever curse word their heart desired. As it turns out, when repeating their favorite swear word, participants were able to hold their hand in the ice water for substantially longer than they could with a regular mundane word. In fact, they were able to tack on an average of 40 additional seconds to their time. As we all may know from plunging our hand into a slightly-melted cooler looking for the perfect beverage during the summer months: an additional 40 seconds in once water is a long time. After repeated experiments, they were able to confidently declare that, yes, the act of cursing actually did have a pain-lessening effect.

Scientists aren’t sure why this link exists, but they suspect that the act of cursing triggers our natural ‘fight or flight’ response. The heart rate of volunteers accelerated, which suggests that the amygdala was being activated (this part of the brain is responsible for the fight or flight reaction). It might account for a slight increase in aggression; and anytime we physically experience an increase like this, our body is internally preparing for a fight- which means it is bracing itself for possible pain to be inflicted on us. As a measure of self-protection, it dampens the pain receptors so you can focus on what you need to do to get out of your sticky situation.

But why curse words specifically? Why couldn’t you just scream ‘pop tart, French fry, monkey , handlebar, potato’ at the top of your lungs instead? It’s interesting to note that curses themselves work differently than traditional language. Studies suggest that they originate in a different, older part of our brains. They are more closely tied to the emotional centers in the right side of the brain, whereas most language production takes place in the left cerebral hemisphere. This is something that can be seen in certain cases of brain damage where most language function deteriorates, and yet the patient can still scream the f-word quite clearly and at regular intervals. Pretty crazy, isn’t it?

Now, before you foul-mouthed fiends start jumping for joy, there is a little bit of fine print here. As it turns out, the more frequently we curse, the less emotionally potent these words become. This translates into your physical reaction as well. Which means if you curse like a sailor all damn day, then when you drop a slew of f-bombs after stubbing your toe, their pain-dampening effect won’t be nearly as strong as the girl who sits 3 desks down from you at the office and only says ‘snickerdoodles’ when she gets a paper cut. When she finally lets a good four-letter friend fall from her lips, the effect will be stronger. If you over-use your curse words, you are left with just plain words. You’ll be like Tony Stark without the Iron Man suite- it might do something, but it won’t be enough. So please, swear responsibly my friends.

Lush-Us Lessons: The Coldest Village on Earth

Today all of us here at Tipsy Typer are thrilled to announce the return of an old segment that accidentally slipped through the cracks a few months ago. And by ‘all of us’ I mean me and my cat, who is currently snoring on my lap- but don’t let that fool you, Oreo is still very excited. That’s right the segment is coming back with a vengeance and a new name: Lush-Us Lessons. Get it? Lush-Us, since this is Tipsy Typer, it seemed fitting to me. Anyway, the name is different, but the intent is the same. Once a week I will be picking a random topic and start dropping knowledge like The Walking Dead drops cast members (RIP my friends, you will be missed). Perhaps you will find some inspiration in these pages, or, at the very least, you will be entertained for a little while.

I am one of those annoying creatures that loves when it’s cold, but hates actually being cold. Which means when the winter weather hits I am bundled up like the little boy in ‘A Christmas Story’- I’ll  put my arms down when I get to work, thank you very much.

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But there is a village out there where no amount of bundling will keep that chill from seeping into your bones, that’s right, even Elsa herself wouldn’t be able to keep up with this place. Let me introduce you to Oymyakon, a little village located in a valley of northeastern Russia, not far from the Arctic Circle along the Indigirka River. It is a remote village, the nearest town is a 3-day drive away. It’s name is a bit misleading- ‘Omyakon’ actually means ‘non-freezing water,’ and was taken due to the close proximity of a hot spring. But the area is also known as the ‘Pole of the Cold,’ it is the coldest permanently inhabited settlement in the entire world. In January this little ice haven averages at -50º Celsius (-58º F for those of you who were taught the same system as I was). Although they did set a new record in February of 2013 by dropping all the way down to -71º C ( this translates to an astonishing -95.8º F, according to google, because I don’t really remember how to convert temperatures on my own). To put that number into perspective, jet fuel will free at -40º C. And sadly, if you were planning on warming yourself up with a dash of some 80 proof vodka, it would have turned into a vod-cycle at a lowly -26.95º C. And don’t think about going streaking after visiting what has been called ‘the loneliest bar in the world’ because you wont survive long enough to say ‘maybe this was a bad idea.’ Although you might make a lovely ice statue.

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If you have ever had a desire to go cold-turkey (no pun intended) to get off the grid- this is the place that you need to go. Most modern conveniences that we take for granted wont even work in an environment this cold. Locals have to either keep their cars parked in heated garages (unlikely, given the economic conditions), or keep them running because leaving them off for even a short period of time could result in some serious mechanic bills coming out of your pocket, usually due to frozen grease or fuel tanks, and any unused pipes will freeze within 5 hours.

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Want to take some selfies as you walk through town on your Frozen adventure? Unfortunately, there will be a good possibility that your phone will be dead, as they cannot function in those temperatures. Batteries are not designed to work under such extreme conditions and will lose their charge at an astounding rate. To the people who live there full time- this really isn’t that big of a deal because they are in such a remote area that they aren’t eligible for cell service anyways. Most electronics, especially any that run off of batteries, will have to fight for their life out here. Spoiler: they’ll lose. Even the ink in your pen isn’t safe- that has been known to freeze solid. And, if you happen to require glasses like I do- you will be warned against wearing them because they will actually freeze to your face in this climate. Yes, you heard me right, though it bears repeating: your glasses will freeze to your face. Personally, I am a bit terrified to ask what would happen if you opted for contact lenses.

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Another problem faced by these inhabitants: burying their dead. This already difficult time becomes compounded, as it can take up to three days to dig the grave. Bonfires must be lit for several hours and then the hot coals are pushed to the side so that the people can begin to dig while it is relatively soft. They are usually only able to make it down a few inches before the process has to be started again. This is repeated over and over until the hole is large enough to accommodate a coffin (or your frozen streaker friend).

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Most modern conveniences are rare, and in many homes, you will still see people trekking to an outhouse to relieve themselves. The solitary school itself didn’t even possess an indoor toilet until 2008. Homes and buildings are still heated with coal and wood burning. If power ceases, the town will shut down in about five hours and pipes will begin to freeze and crack. The people survive primarily on reindeer and horse meat because- well, good luck getting anything to grow. The length of the days will vary from a scant 3 hours in December, but will stretch to 21 hours in the summer. While winters are, by all accounts, awful, summers can get a bit warmer, even attracting tourists to the surrounding forest. Their record ‘heat wave’ once brought them all the way up to 65.7º F, although the land itself technically remains permanently frozen year round.

There is a current population of about 500 people, with one solitary store to supply all of their needs and one school to teach their children. Now, as a comfort-seeker myself, I can’t help but wonder what brought these people out there to this land that is believed to belong to ‘Stalin’s Death Ring,’ named such because it was the region where political exiles were sent. Back in the 1920’s and 30’s, this little area was a stop-over for reindeer herders who would water their flocks from the thermal springs the village is now named after. At some point, the Soviet government was making an effort to settle their nomadic populations. They believed that the people of this area were difficult to control and were culturally and technologically backwards. So they came up with a quick fix, they allowed the people to stay and made the site a permanent settlement. To this day the residents still make a living with reindeer breeding, hunting and ice fishing.

Tourists make their way to the village with a deep desire to experience this record setting environment for themselves. There are no hotels, but you will find several families who are willing to house guests, in fact, they traditionally love to have visitors. If you wish, you can be invited to partake in many of their daily activities, which include reindeer hunting, ice-fishing, and there is even a possibility of going to the hot spring (please sign me up for that one, I will never leave). The mayor himself will give any guest a certificate to celebrate their visit to the ‘Pole of the Cold.’

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While the prospect sounds intimidating (like I said, I am a complete and total baby in the cold), the experience sounds like a once in a lifetime adventure. And while I don’t know if I will ever be brave enough to don piles of fur (which is the only way to stay warm- not strictly a fashion choice) to brave the outdoors and discover this beautifully hidden gem, I can’t help but find myself amazed that we live in a world where this is possible. And I can’t help but be thankful that I live in a place where I can indulge myself in the creature comforts that I so often take for granted.

 

So an Astrophysicist and a Writer walk into a Movie Theater…Nerd Night with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Last night I got to check something new off of my bucket list: watch Neil deGrasse Tyson lecture live! For any of you belonging to the race of the nebula-searching, battle-bot watching, Bill Nye adoring geekdom- you are probably bouncing in your seat as you read this, filled with anticipatory excitement. Those of you who don’t get your kicks with astrophysics are probably hearing crickets right now and are tempted to click on to the next writer’s post. but here is why you shouldn’t: you will find the most rewarding of lessons in the most unexpected places. The spark that ignites your destiny could be hidden in the words written on this page- or maybe not. The only way to know: dive in, my friends.

Like I said: I’m a bit of a nerd, and, in spite of the career direction I chose, I have always had a soft spot for the sciences. Why else would I have paid a pretty penny to sit in a hot theater with a few hundred other people and listen to a lecture given by an astrophysicist on a Monday night? And, whats more: I had a phenominal time. Nerdy science humor, the man I have watched give countless speeches on YouTube, who narrated the Cosmos series (and guest starred on the Big Bang Theory), who can take a seemingly dry subject and tease it just enough so that even the novice is hanging off of every word. Shoot- he has even graced the pages of comic books! This is why I found myself in that auditorium, this is why I loved every minute of it, and this is why I’m writing about it right now.

The subject: An astrophysicist goes to the movies- what the movies got right and got wrong. From The Breakfast Club to super bowl beer commercials all the way to The Martian and Gravity. I laughed the entire time, and (gasp) I was learning as we went. Movies and science? Oh heck yes, I am on board, let’s get this train moving.

Now, I could go on and on about all of the different things that I learned, but lets face it- the entertainment value I can spin on this wont be nearly as spectacular. Instead, I’m going to flip this into something we could all learn from. You see, there was an underlying theme to his anecdotes: know your work. As a writer, my research is vitally important to all of my projects. Even through my fiction I delve deeply into the different facets of my subject matters. Vampire story? No problem- lets peruse the history of their myths. Zombies? How about a neuroscience book that explains the causes of the ‘symptoms’ the undead are faced with. Future dystopian society? Perhaps a few papers on political and scientific developments projected in the next century- yes, that ought to do the trick. I could make an exhaustive list here, but you get the point.

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I am a bit ashamed to admit that I had never heard this quote until last night. But the moment Neil deGrasse Tyson quoted it, I could practically feel the electricity shooting through my brain to illuminate that lightbulb above my head. You see, the true mark of an artist is in the distorted truths. There is nothing more challenging than working within the parameters of the truth and finding a solution to your problems anyway.

Let’s take an example that was mentioned in the lecture. In the movie Gravity (this is not a major spoiler, but I warn you to proceed at your own risk if you still want to watch the movie). In the movie there is a scene where Sandra Bullock and George Cloony are out in space with a tether between the two of them. Sandra Bullock is about to run out of oxygen, but she wants to pull Goerge Cloony in. But he knows what the risks are, and in a sweepingly chivalrous gesture, he lets go of the tether and drifts out into space, effectively killing himself and forcing her to go back to the ship because she has no hope of getting him back.

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From a creative and elemental standpoint: this is pure theatrical gold. But here’s the problem. In space there is no gravity, in zero G’s there are no opposing forces pulling them in different directions, no chaotic swinging of bodies. Out in space all she would have to do to reel him back in- gently tug on the tether and he would slowly float back to her, no harm, no foul. And if he decided to let go of the tether- it would simply just sit there, floating right in front of him because there are no forces pulling it in any particular direction.

So, I ask you, what is the greater challenge for a writer? To take the easy way out and wreak havoc in space? Or find another possible way to separate your two characters? As artists, aren’t we always looking for the next greatest challenge? (Side note: the rest of that movie is surprisingly accurate. In fact, the theory of one satellite going down and taking out dozens of others is a big enough fear that NASA has an entire office dedicated to the problem). (Side-side note: if you are looking for some good inspirations for a sci-fi story or art piece, do a search online about the ‘orbiting junk’ around the earth. There is a map that shows all of the satellites and other debris circling our world, and it is astounding. There are even potential issues of accessibility in our future- want to go to Mars? Well good luck dodging all of the ‘trash’ we have littering the orbital field of our planet).

There is one other unavoidable risk you run when you choose to ignore the ‘rules’ of your world: alienation. Your readers (or viewers, as the case may be, depending on your chosen art form) come to your work with their own set of life experiences and knowledge. This cannot be ignored. For example, I work in the legal field, and when I am reading legal dramas or crime novels- I can give a fair amount of leeway for creative license. But sometimes the errors, intentional or not, become so glaring that they distract me from the real work. At times I have even gone so far as to put a book down because the inaccuracies were so blindingly brutal, I just couldn’t handle it anymore.

You see, my friends, we have so many potential fountains of knowledge at our disposal in our world now that we have no reason to ignore the facts. Take the time to learn something new- your craft and your audience will thank you for the extra effort. It is the difference between a mediocre work and something timeless. Respect the art. What do you have to lose? At the very least, you will avoid any potential factual call-outs on twitter from those who could have answered your questions all along.

 

The Neuroscience of Negativity (if you cant say anything nice…)

Last night I was at happy hour with a group of friends, there were nine of us total, carrying on a myriad of different conversations over yummy food and good drinks at our favorite Irish pub. By the end of the night, our numbers had whittled down to four. We were telling stories and venting a bit to one another when a man walked by our table and started talking to us. When he got us all to smile he clinked glasses and went on his way. When he came back through about fifteen minutes later he made a comment along the lines of ‘now what do I want to see?’ until we were all laughing and giving him the smile he asked for. While it was a fairly insignificant moment, it got me thinking about perception that others receive of us. It is all too common for us to spend a night gossiping and sharing stories of our weekly frustrations while laughing over a few drinks, and while I have never actually viewed this activity in a negative way (after all, we are usually laughing and making jokes the entire time), I couldn’t help but stop and think about the underlying stories: mainly, the weekly frustrations that life will bring and how we deal with those.

I generally try to be a positive person; I do my best to put on an optimistic front even when I don’t feel it inside because worrying others wont do anyone any good. Some days I have the fire burning inside already and nothing is going to get in the way of my good mood; but other days I have to remind myself, I have to build myself up to it. I’ve noticed that I have a harder time doing this with those that I am close to. I vent, I complain, I occasionally gossip- I do a lot of things that I’m not necessarily proud of. I fall into the negativity pit and all of the typical reasoning that comes with it. I tell myself that getting these negative feelings off of my chest will make me feel better. But, as it turns out, that is a bit of flawed thinking on my part. The truth is, the only thing that negative thinking will get you is more negative thinking. Don’t believe me? Just ask science.

Let me get my lab coat on (I don’t know why you want me to do this, I’m really not qualified to be teaching this class. Although last year I did read ‘Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep’- neuroscience explained through the afflictions of the zombie-kind). But, I’m dressed for the part and I wear glasses- that must make me a reputable teacher. Lesson one of neuroscience: synapses that fire together wire together. Let’s start off by explaining how this whole process works; now, the brain is a complicated creation that I wont even pretend to understand. So this overview isn’t going to be particularly technical.

Nerve cells make connections with one another in circuits that we refer to as neural pathways. These nerve cells, however, never actually touch, they just get very close together. If you have siblings, then the best example of this is when you would sit in the back of the car and they would hover their finger right over your face saying ‘but I’m not touching you’ whenever you tried to shoo them away. Unless that was just my childhood? Anyway, back to the lesson: So you have two very close neurons that cannot make physical contact. So how to they pass messages from one to the other?  (Fifty points to Gryffindor if you get it right before reading ahead). Answer: Through the synapse! Ah sure, but what the heck is that? Well, I’m glad you asked. A synapse is a structure that allows one neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron over a gap known as the synaptic cleft. They are vitally important, essentially acting as the pathway for your thoughts. Now, the body is an amazing example of efficiency. Whenever you have a thought (like you are right now), a synapse will shoot a chemical across the cleft to another synapse (think Spiderman slinging string to the building across the street), which effectively ‘builds a bridge’ that an electrical signal can then cross over. This signal carries the information that is pertinent to your thought. (I don’t know why, but I always picture a super secret FBI agent with a briefcase full of top secret documents.)

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Now, as I said before, the body is nothing if not economical. You see, every time an electric signal gets triggered, the synapses involved start to grow closer together in an effort to make their job easier. Their goal is to decrease the distance that the signal has to pass over to get from Point A to Point B. To keep the FBI analogy; its much easier to transport your top secret information from one room to another, as opposed to hopping in a car and driving across town. Isn’t that amazing? The brain will literally rewire its own circuitry to make it easier for you. It physically changes its internal map to line up the proper synapses together, effectively making it easier for that particular thought to trigger.

To put this in perspective of your daily life: think of some of those recurring habits you have: do you compulsively check your phone or social media? I bet it started with you getting bored and poking on your phone once or twice. But over time this compulsion grew, and pretty soon you are opening it and poking around on Facebook with virtually no thought behind it. You didn’t even realize you were doing it, but you were literally programming yourself to follow these habits. The shorter distance between the synapses makes these recurring thoughts more likely to occur. You are conditioning yourself for specific behaviors and thoughts- and you don’t even know you are doing it. Starts to make a bit more sense, doesn’t it?

This process can be a phenomenal asset- if you use it correctly. When you fall into the trap of bad thinking though; it is a dangerous weapon. You see, when you start thinking negatively or listening to negative speech- your brain is programming itself to follow this trend, those synapses are getting closer together and making it easier for that negative thought to reappear again. These close synapses not only make negative thoughts easier to come by, they also make it more likely for other negative thoughts to just randomly occur throughout your day, like when you are walking down the street without anything in particular on your mind (Scary, isn’t it?). Basically, by sinking into this thought pattern you are changing your personality to a gloomier outlook. As Steven Parton explains, “Through repetition of thought, you’ve brought the pair of synapses that represent your [negative] proclivities closer and closer together, and when the moment arises for you to form a thought…the thought that wins is the one that has less distance to travel, the one that will create a bridge between synapses fastest.” It is literally a race for thoughts.

This is not just an internal dilemma; suddenly it becomes very important who you surround yourself with. Humans are notoriously empathetic creatures (though it doesn’t always seem that way).During our evolution our survival hinged on the connections we could make with others. We are a species that thrive in small groups. What is the easiest way to make a connection? Through shared experiences and emotions. It’s in our wiring; when we see someone in an emotional state- good or bad, our own brains try that feeling on for size; by that, I mean that it tries to imagine what the other person is experiencing. Have you ever watched a video of people laughing? Something so simple- try not to smile yourself when you watch it. The reason why it’s so hard: your brain wants to relate to them, it wants to mirror their emotions to find common ground. How does it delve into this imagined world? Well, it fires those synapses, of course- attempting to emulate what it is seeing in the other person, effectively allowing you to ‘relate’ to them. Ever hear of ‘mob mentality’? Well, this is where that comes from- good or bad, we want to have common ground with other people. This explains the hype we all collectively begin to feel at a concert or sporting event- or the way we vent exhaustively at happy hour with our best friends.

You follow the same thought patterns as those around you; that’s why toxic relationships can be so potent and drag you down so quickly. That is also why you feel so refreshed and energized by that ‘happy friend’ you have who doesn’t seem to be effected by the negativity of life. I have a friend from high school who I only get to see a few times a year because we both live busy lives on opposite sides of the state. But every time I see her, I feel like a better person, I admire her outlook on life, it is contagious. My advice- hold onto these friends, do not lose touch. Find people that you want to be like and embrace their outlook. Look at yourself and decide which person you want to be- do you want people to walk away refreshed because of your attitude, or do you want to complain about the daunting trivialities of your daily life. You have a choice- the brain is an amazing creation; if it is capable of wiring itself one way, it is also capable of going in the other direction.

My fiancé has a trick that he learned a while ago; you write your goals or positive thoughts on a notecard. You read it in the morning when you first wake up and right before you go to bed. You carry it with you in your wallet and read it whenever you need to remind yourself. Why does this work? Because you are actively reminding yourself to think these thoughts, effectively forcing your brain to rewire itself to promote this new way of thinking. It moves those synapses closer together so that it becomes your default thinking, eventually weeding out those negative thoughts you once fought with.

At the end of the day, it is up to you how you will see the world. You get to determine which synapses fire together. You get the colors to shade your world in. Bright or dreary- the world is your canvas. At least now you understand why you may fall into these ruts, and you know how to get out of them. You can also understand why your outlook will not just change overnight. It takes a conscious effort to rewire a new way of thinking. Knowledge is power, as they say. Use it wisely, my friends.