Positive Technology: Controlling the Vacuum Cleaner…with your Mind

This week, I had the chance to do something remarkable (at least in my book): I controlled a computer with my mind. I attended a talk given by Sven Gabor Janszky who is one of Germany´s eminent futurologists. During his presentation, I volunteered for an experiment: he put a device (a kind of headset) on my head (see photo below) that serves to detect my brainwaves (electroencephalography; EEG). The data is then fed into a laptop that is able to identify individual patterns of brain activity. Basically, an algorithm learns what your brain does when you think a specific thought.


First, the algorithm needs a baseline. For about 20 seconds, it registers what you do when you don´t think of anything at all (what neuroscientists now call the default network). Then, you´re given a task. For example, you see a cube on the screen and the goal is to move that shape from the center to the left of the screen. So, there are two trials of just 8 seconds. In that time, the algorithm learns what your brain does when you think/imagine “Cube, please move to the left!”. After that, you´re able to move the cube just with mind – as long as you are pretty consistent with regard to your mode of thinking while trying to move the shape.

In a second experiment, my goal was to make the cube disappear – which is harder because basically our brain is not made to think about things that are not there. But I also managed to that after just two trial runs. It was really easy. You can have a look at the exact same procedure via this TED talk by Tan Le:

There are a couple of really good news in this story: First, I do have a brain. I could watch it on the screen and see it do its magic. Hey, I mean you can never be sure until you see it. Second, making that cube move around was really easy. The whole procedure only took about three minutes. And finally, the technology behind it all isn’t that expensive any more.

So for me, the question is: will this be a piece of positive technology in the near future? We´ll see. I´m very sure the military are all over it already, trying to fly jets or tanks that way. I mean, if you can move an image on a screen, you can also move a vehicle. Which brings us back to the post´s title. Maybe, in the near future, we will be able to operate the vacuum cleaner sitting in an armchair watching reruns of the X Files.

But then, there might be use cases that are far more beneficial. If there´s a distinct brain pattern for “Cube, please move left!” – then there could also be a distinct brain pattern for, e.g., “I feel like my life has a meaning”, or “I feel grateful and at peace with myself and others”. And if that were the case (and the technique became so cheap as to make it a mass-market product) then it could become a powerful tool to prevent people from slipping into depression or other psychological disorders.

I´ll stay tuned…

Grapes of Wrath: On Morality and Fairness in the Monkey House

One of the guest speakers at the recent MAPP onsite has been Isaac Prilleltensky, who is the Dean of Education at the University of Miami. His research focus is on community well-being and its antecedents. In his lecture, he elaborated on the notion of well-being as a consequence (or at least: side-effect) of perceived fairness and justice in our lives. There is now considerable scientific evidence that these issues can have a major influence on our satisfaction with life and other important measures of psychological functioning. E.g., there´s a substantial statistical connection between a nations´ overall well-being and those countries´ Gini coefficient which, roughly speaking, measures the level of inequality in the wealth distribution of a country. I do not want to take a deep-dive into this here. If you want to know more, I would like to direct you to one of Prilleltensky´s recent papers by the name of Wellness as Fairness.

What really caught my attention is just how deeply the notion of fairness is rooted in our mammalian, tribal nature. I´ve already written a post on Paul Bloom´s research on the intuitive moral judgments of babies. But that´s by far not the end of the (moral) story. In the following video clip, you´ll see a snippet from a TED talk given by Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist a Emory University. He shows footage of an experiment involving capuchin monkeys. Bascially, two of them are “paid” for repeatedly carrying out a certain task by receiving cucumbers. Everything is OK. But then, the researcher starts to give one of the animals grapes instead – which (very obviously…) is considered to be a higher paycheck in the capuchin society. Watch what happens…

Can you feel that little monkey´s rage? And just for a moment: Transfer this to the realm of human emotion, multiply it by 10,000,000 (or so) – and try to understand what´s going on in countries like Egypt, Syria, and the Ukraine over the last years?



If you´d like to learn even more on Prilleltensky´s work on community well-being, you might want to watch his TED talk on that subject…

Positive Psychology Researcher Todd Kashdan´s 5 Tips to becoming a “killer” Scientist

Todd Kashdan is Associate Professor of Psychology at George Mason University. He conducts research on anxiety, positive emotions, purpose in life, mindfulness, gratitude, how personal strengths operate in everyday life, social relationships, self-regulation, and how to foster and sustain happiness and meaning in life.

Via Psychology Today, he published his recipe for becoming a “killer scientist”. It´s a great piece to read. Here, you´ll find the short version:

Let passions and curiosity be your compass

Don’t look at public opinion polls about what people are studying. Focus on activities that ignite your passion. Don’t study areas because they are hot and sexy. Ask questions that ignite your passion.

Impact is Everything

It is more impactful to get your work featured in an article in Parade magazine than the top journal in your field. Hang around scientists who understand this principle.

Be James Bond (impact part II)

Show your stuff in a way that can be understood by teenagers. Think like a human. Be an exceptional presenter. How? Concrete. Sticky. Stories.

Create Strong Partnerships

Retain people that ensure you stay humble. Be generous by always giving more than you take. Complementarity is righteous.

Create Meaningful Time

Think of work in 15-minute intervals. It´s not complicated. Discipline slowly accumulates into major accomplishments.

Also, you might want to watch his TEDx talk on “Becoming a mad scientist with your life”:

Rational Optimism: Check out Bill Gates Annual Letter

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post in which I argue that our world is in better shape than ever before – despite everything that´s undeniably wrong with it. And I posted some links to TED talks by people who are a lot smarter than I am to support my thesis with (their) data.

If you´d like to see more evidence on why it´s good to be a rational optimist, please have a look Bill Gates´ recently published annual letter

Bill Gates - Annual Letter

Heavy. Metal. Heart. Finding Happiness in Angry Music…

The second and final semester of the 2013/14 MAPP program is under way. The first onsite period is history already. While the first semester has (more or less) focused on the theoretical underpinnings of positive psychology, the second semester focuses on the practical application of that knowledge in different contexts. One of this semester´s course is reserved exclusively for the connection between positive psychology and the humanities. We will systematically explore how “the good life” can be found in art, poetry/novels, and music (among other things).

Therefore, last Friday, the whole course went to see a concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra, an evening that focused on Russian composers, especially Tchaikovsky´s 4th Symphony. While I enjoyed this evening tremendously, it is unlikely that I will go to another classical concert in the near future – because for more than 20 years now, my heart has been captured by a different kind of music: Heavy Metal!

Mano Cornuta

By Heini Hansen (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

It started out around age 12 with “soft” stuff like German superheroes The Scorpions, moving over to (the at that time inevitable) Guns n’ Roses, than progressively getting heavier with classics such as Iron Maiden or Savatage, and German Speed Metal à la Helloween, Gamma Ray, and Blind Guardian. Later I moved on to neo-classical sounds such as Stratovarius, guitar heroes like Yngwie Malmsteen, and Symphonic Metal as played by Rhapsody (of Fire).

During my adolescent years, I´ve also had a long-term affair with some Dark/Gothic Metal bands such as Amorphis and Tiamat – but I never really embraced those growling or screaming vocals. As a consequence, I stayed clear of really heavy Thrash and Black Metal. Around 23, I got rid of most of the typical clothing – but the love for the sound of heavily distorted guitars and a solid double bass drum remained – and probably will do so until the end of this life.

Now where´s the connection to (positive) psychology here? The thing is: there´s not too much official (psychological) research on heavy metal. And the few studies that do exist typically deal with (supposed) negative consequences of listening to heavy music, such as aggression, suicidal risk, and drug abuse. At the same time, there´s no doubt about the fact that most people use music to control (dampen or amplify) and even create certain moods and emotions.

Heavy Metal concerts are distinctly peaceful and non-violent places – if you manage to avoid the mosh pit, that is…

I´m really trying not to be lopsided here – but to me there always seemed to be something wrong about these studies. Heavy Metal is – for the most part – aggressive music, agreed. But this does not automatically imply Heavy Metal fans are aggressive people. I´ve been to hundreds of concerts in my lifetime. From these experiences, I can say that Heavy Metal concerts are distinctly peaceful and non-violent places – if you manage to avoid those inevitable mosh pits, that is. 🙂

Most of us are truly amicable and fun-loving guys (and girls of course). It just so happens that some of us are also a little burly – and not to fond of shaving or going the hairdresser.

I did not choose it. It chose me. Listening to the arpeggios in the first solo of Yngwie Malmsteen´s Mad Dog elicits feelings in me that otherwise can only be aroused by sex and really really good dark chocolate.

Quite obviously, different people have different “internal energy levels” and therefore react to “different vibrations” when exposed to music (please excuse the esoteric language…). What I mean is: my favorite TV series of all times is Ally McBeal. I love shopping and romantic comedies starring Hugh Grant. And I happen to LOVE Heavy Metal. I did not choose it. It chose me. Listening to the arpeggios in the first solo of Yngwie Malmsteen´s Mad Dog (starts approx. at 1:42) elicits feelings in me that otherwise can only be aroused by having sex or eating really really good dark chocolate.

My esoteric hunch is echoed in one of those rarer studies that finds headbangers are just regular people that happen to feel good while listening to high-intensity music. It´s not a coincidence that a lot of metalheads are also very fond of Wagner. The study concludes by stating that the

“most widely accepted conclusion is that heavy metal fans are in general angrier, more agitated, and more aroused than fans of other musical styles. The results of this study do not support this speculation. No pretest differences were found among subjects’ levels of state arousal, state anger, or trait anger.”

In addition, the researchers find what is called an interaction affect. To cut a long story short: there actually are people who become angry when listening to Heavy Metal. Precisely, people who do not like Heavy Metal. Surpriiiise! Happens to me when I have to listen to Miley Cyrus. I mean, I love to watch Miley Cyrus – but only when the TV is muted. Wrecking Ball is a great piece of visual art when accompanied by Manowar´s Heavy Metal Daze.

Heavy Metal WheelchairI was inspired to write this post (and stole the second part of the title…) by a piece on The Atlantic magazine. The author elaborates on the potential uplifting effect of getting in touch with our innate animal-aggressive nature when listening to Heavy Metal: “There’s something cleansing about engaging with emotions we might not usually let ourselves feel.”

Closing remarks: While doing some research for this article, I was quite amused to find out that the Mano Cornuta (Sign of the Horns; as displayed in both pictures) is also an ancient Buddhist mudra by the name of Karana – which is used to fight off evil spirits. There you have it! We´re the good ones, really…


Source for picture of wheelchair headbanger

The Edge of Moral Reasons: Why Liberals and Conservatives can´t get along

Why is it that liberals and conservatives cannot get along? We´re all human after all, aren´t we? Well…yes. But as you know, there are people who speak different languages which might lead to not being able to understand each other. Turns out, (far) right and left wing supporters may have the same problem – even if they all speak plain English.

One guest lecturer of MAPP´s fourth onsite was Stern School of Business´ Jonathan Haidt. Among other most interesting topics, he conducts research on moral reasoning. What he found has a lot to say on the state of current U.S. politics: Haidt has identified a kind of moral taxonomy, a set of five dimensions that all our moral judgments are based on (see diagram below). The problem is: conservatives tend to use all five dimensions to just about the same amount when making moral judgments. Liberals tend to use only two of them – the other are seen as not relevant. The result: liberals perceive conservatives as being uptight, while the latter perceive the aforementioned to be ‘morally loose’.

Both sides are literally ‘worlds apart’ – and building bridges is a tough task when the differences are engraved deep into your mind…

If you´d like to know more about your personal moral reasoning, please vitit Jonathan Haidt´s site www.yourmorals.org.

Haidt - Moral Judgment

Source for diagram

A book a Day (or at least: a Month or so…) keeps mental Enfeeblement away


By Johannes Jansson (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

Sorry for this mediocre headline…

I don´t know what your home looks like – but mine is crammed with books. I have several book shelves that are way to small to harbor them all. So I just put them everywhere. There are books in my study, in the living room, in the bedroom, in the kitchen, … , you get the picture. That´s why I really enjoyed reading about this study I came across a couple days ago:

A team of researchers investigated the connection of availability of books in a household and education of the inhabitants. They collected data from representative samples in 27 countries and basically looked at the educational attainment of the children, comparing those that come from families with a lot of books (>500) versus not so many books. What they found:

Children that grow up with many books stay in school three years longer on average – which obviously has something to say on their success in later life. This finding applies across all the countries investigated. What I find most interesting: the finding is independent of parental occupation, education, and social class.

Now go and buy a book. Or ten. Or a hundred. Do it. Now!

Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house.

(Henry Ward Beecher)

What is normal?

Now, I know this is a little off-topic, but as you may know, research methods and statistics is a really important part of the MAPP program. If you´ve ever had classes in statistics, you´ll surely have heard of the Normal/Gaussian distribution. It was named after German mathematician Carl-Friedrich Gauss. You can see the guy and the distribution on the ’10 Deutsche Mark Schein’ – which unfortunately is not in use any more since the advent of the EURO.

The nice thing about the normal distribution is: it displays what´s normal. That´s how it has gotten its name. Basically, it shows that most things and people are ‘somewhere in the middle’ pertaining to most properties. That´s why the cusp of the curve in the middle. So most people are of average height, intelligence, beauty… you name it. The Brad Pitts and Stephen Hawkings of this world are the outliers. They do exist, but they are much scarcer than the John and Jane Does. Isn´t that reassuring? 🙂


If you would like to see the Gaussian function (and the underlying probability theory) in action, just have a look at this amazing Youtube video:



Maybe this post isn´t that off-topic after all. Below, you can see a chart taken from a presentation by Charlie Scudamore. It explains the overarching goal of Positive Psychology in terms of the Gaussian distribution. Basically, we´d like to give the whole human population a little nudge. We´d like everybody to be move a little bit into the direction of flourishing, shifting the mean of the distribution just a little to the right. Now who says statistics is just a waste of time…?!

The Goal of Positive Psychology

Ever had a McPeace with Cheese? How Fastfood helps to prevent War

There are a lot of people out there that like to rant about free market economy – and of course it does have its downsides when getting out of control, e.g., in the chain of events that lead to the global financial crisis of 2007/08. But then again, there obviously are also many upsides – and some of them are not that straight-forward. E.g., in what came to be known as the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention‘, in a book from 1999 economist Thomas L. Friedman posits that:


No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.


There are a few exceptions to that rule – but not many. Of course, Friedman alludes to a more general phenomenon: countries that have made strong economic ties with one another have too much to lose to go to war with one another. Fair enough!

Anybody hungry now?

‘Politikverdrossenheit’ and the German Bundestag Elections – a Case of ‘Learned Helplessness’?

On September 22, the ‘Bundestag elections’ will take place. The Germans are to decide which political party (or rather, coalition of parties) is to govern the ‘nation of poets and thinkers’ over the upcoming four years. Pollsters are very sure that the Christian Democratic Union (CDU, lead by Angela Merkel) will be victorious – but that does not necessarily mean Merkel will be able stay in the chancellery. The Free Democratic Party (FDP), Merkel´s ‘natural’ coalition partner, may turn out to be too weak to go on with the reigning coalition. Apart from the results per se, I´m really curious to see what the voter turnout is going to be. The following graph (© Wahlschlepper) shows this figure for every Bundestag election since 1949:entwicklung_wahlbeteiligung09

Obviously, there is a steep decline of voter turnout (or rather: a notable increase in the numbers of nonvoters) since the 1998 election that lead to the voting out of Helmut Kohl. Before that, a decline is observable as well, beginning after 1983, the year, Kohl was re-elected for the first time. I guess, all throughout the 80ies, a lot of people (his supporters as well as his opponents) thought Kohl was going to win anyway – so there was no need to show up.

But I feel it´s something else when looking at the years after Kohl´s dismissal. I wonder if this increase in nonvoting behavior can be explained by the theory of Learned Helplessness (LH). Martin Seligman spent most of his career prior to becoming one of the founding fathers of Positive Psychology in the not-so-positive realm, e.g., studying the nature of depression – which eventually led to his formulation of the theory of LH. In an nutshell, this is a psychological state that leads to behaviors such as passiveness and apathy. It can be elicited by exposing subjects to conditions where they repeatedly experience that their actions have no effect on the outcome of future events (e.g., avoiding a painful electric shock). A lack of control with regard to future events makes people impassive – and oftentimes, miserable. So where is the link to the upcoming elections?

Put simply: since Helmut Kohl´s dismissal, in Germany you can pretty much not be sure any more about getting those politics you´ve voted for. And I´m not talking about silly voting pledges here. I´m talking about the fundamentals of what it (supposedly) means to be a ‘conservative’ as opposed to being a ‘liberal’. Lets put aside for the time being that the political landscape in Germany may be a bit more complicated that its U.S. counterpart – mainly due to the existence of several smaller parties in addition to the ‘big two’: the Christian Democrats and the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Now suppose you vote for the Republican party in the U.S., they win – and a certain time after the election, they cut down on the military budget, start to mess with the nuclear power lobby, or think out loud about a financial transaction tax. Or, on the other hand, you vote for the Democrats, they win, and shortly after the election, they lower the top income tax rate, pass a bill that severely cuts the welfare budget, and becomes immensely popular among the nations corporate top executives. Sounds strange? But basically, that is what has happened in Germany over the last decade.

Gerhard Schröder, social-democratic chancellor from 1998 – 2005 (in a coalition with the Greens) has…


By Armin Linnartz via Wikimedia Commons

Angela Merkel, with her ‘conservative’ coalition, on the other hand, since 2005 has:

So is this the reason for the German ‘Politikverdrossenheit’ (disenchantment with politics)? Because we cannot be sure we´ll get what we vote for? Anyway, pollsters say there´s a considerable likelihood for a new edition of the ‘Grand Coalition‘ (a coalition of CDU & SPD). Both Merkel and her opponent, Peer Steinbrück do not grow tired of saying that this would be the worst outcome. But I guess, in secret, that´s a wrap already…