Nautilus15 min readTech
Reason Won’t Save Us: It’s time to accept the limits of how we think.
In wondering what can be done to steer civilization away from the abyss, I confess to being increasingly puzzled by the central enigma of contemporary cognitive psychology: To what degree are we consciously capable of changing our minds? I don’t mean
Nautilus10 min readTech
The Implant That Can Control Your Brain: This nanoscale device meshes seamlessly with your neurons.
Shaun Patel has such a tranquil voice that it’s easy to see how he convinces patients to let him experiment in the depth of their brains. On the phone, in his office at Massachusetts General Hospital (he is also on faculty at Harvard Medical School),
Nautilus8 min readSelf-Improvement
Why You Keep Dreaming About Being Naked: Are the common elements in our dreams the result of basic biology, or something deeper?
I was naked. So was Laura,” begins one dream of the more than 20,000 collected in G. William Domhoff’s DreamBank. “I was re-stringing an unvarnished electric bass, so I guess it was naked, too. At one point I put a screw in to secure a string, but th
Nautilus6 min read
The Problem with the Frozen Poop Knife Study
When, some weeks ago, I was first contacted by an online scientific publication asking me to review a submission on the subject of “shit knives”, I initially thought it was a hoax or some kind of practical joke. I had in mind the deliberately nonsens
Nautilus9 min read
Is The Search For Dark Matter An Act Of Faith?: In an underground laboratory, the talk turns to religion.
The young physicist sits at his computer, watching for signals from Cygnus. His name is Christopher Toth, and his white lab coat is too big for him. Christopher speaks with calm clarity. His manner is modest, gracefully gentle, and I wonder if this c
Nautilus4 min read
The Lightning Beneath Our Feet: The strange lights that occur before earthquakes may originate underground.
An earthquake shook the central Italian city of L’Aquila in the early morning of April 6, 2009. In the months that followed, scientists collected dozens of accounts from people who claimed to have seen “luminous phenomena” both before and after the s
Nautilus7 min read
Why We’re Drawn Into Darkness: Author Robert MacFarlane on the awe and horror of subterranean places.
Robert Macfarlane grew up obsessed twith climbing mountains and nearly died on several occasions as he scaled some of the world’s high peaks. He found a safer way to indulge his alpine passions, writing about the mystique of mountains. As someone dra
Nautilus5 min read
Why Campaigns to Change Language Often Backfire
In the first decades of the 20th century, people around the world began succumbing to an entirely new cause of mortality. These new deaths, due to the dangers of the automobile, soon became accepted as a lamentable but normal part of modern life. A h
Nautilus10 min readTech
Would You Survive a Merger with AI?: The cost of brain enhancement may be your identity.
The idea that humans should merge with AI is very much in the air these days. It is offered both as a way for humans to avoid being outmoded by AI in the workplace, and as a path to superintelligence and immortality. For instance, Elon Musk recently
Nautilus6 min readSociety
How Freedom Divides: An expert on animal societies on what sets human societies apart.
As a biologist who studies animal behavior, particularly the long-term stability of the societies of different species, our own included, I’ve traveled through diverse cultures around the world. The word I hear everywhere I go, a badge of honor to al
Nautilus10 min read
Why Red Means Red in Almost Every Language: The confounding consistency of color categories.
When Paul Kay, then an anthropology graduate student at Harvard University, arrived in Tahiti in 1959 to study island life, he expected to have a hard time learning the local words for colors. His field had long espoused a theory called linguistic re
Nautilus3 min read
Making a Future Among the Stars
In Boca Chica, Texas, presenting SpaceX’s latest prototype vehicle, Starship, Elon Musk remembered how, 11 years ago, he got mad at his parachute supplier. His young rocket company seemed doomed: The Falcon 1 rocket had to reach orbit or else SpaceX,
Nautilus9 min read
Consciousness Doesn’t Depend on Language: We share the basic experience of life with all mammals.
The contrast could not have been starker—here was one of the world’s most revered figures, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, expressing his belief that all life is sentient, while I, as a card-carrying neuroscientist, presented the contemporary
Nautilus6 min read
Language Is The Scaffold Of The Mind: Once we acquire language, we can live without it.
Can you imagine a mind without language? More specifically, can you imagine your mind without language? Can you think, plan, or relate to other people if you lack words to help structure your experiences? Many great thinkers have drawn a strong conne
Nautilus7 min read
Why Symbols Aren’t Forever: The removal of cultural emblems is not the erasure of history but part of it.
In November 2016, a swastika was painted on an elementary school in my Denver, Colorado, neighborhood of Stapleton. As an archaeologist who specializes in identifying the remains of animals hunted by early humans, my work doesn’t often involve symbol
Nautilus3 min readScience
How to Get Evangelicals to Care About Climate Change
Last year was among the four warmest years ever recorded, 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average. The three years prior were warmer (2016 the warmest). “The six warmest years on record for the planet have all occurred since 2010,” the
Nautilus10 min read
Talking Is Throwing Fictional Worlds at One Another: A linguist exposes the inner truths about language.
A few years ago, David Adger was in his office at Queen Mary University of London, where he is a professor of linguistics, when the phone rang. It was a British TV company that wanted him to invent a language for monsters with no lips, just big teeth
Nautilus4 min read
Angst And The Empty Set: We can experience nothingness, but does it actually exist?
Suppose you open your handbag one day expecting to find your wallet there, but don’t. Do you literally see the absence of your wallet in your handbag? If you do, it means something important: Absences have a positive presence in your perception that
Nautilus9 min read
This Simple Structure Unites All Human Languages: Language builds meaning through self-similarity.
Take a deep breath. As you breathe in, your lungs fill with air. The air is carried through every part of your lungs by tubes. These tubes are organized in a particular way. They branch off, one into the left lung, one into the right. The tubes fill
Nautilus5 min readPolitics
What Trump’s Simplified Language Means
Acouple years ago, I was surprised that a panel called “The Press and President Trump,” held at the Columbia Journalism School, didn’t broach the subject of mental illness. Just over a week earlier, at a psychiatry conference at Yale, a group of the
Nautilus4 min readScience
Mind the Gap Between Science and Religion
Have you heard that we may be living in a computer simulation? Or that our universe is only one of infinitely many parallel worlds in which you live every possible variation of your life? Or that the laws of nature derive from a beautiful, higher-dim
Nautilus14 min read
Language Both Enraptures and Deceives Us: An interview with linguist and writer Julie Sedivy.
The purpose of language is to reveal the contents of our minds, says Julie Sedivy. It’s a simple and profound insight. We are social animals and language is what springs us from our isolated selves and connects us with others. Sedivy has taught lingu
Nautilus5 min read
The Communication We Share with Apes: Hand gestures signal the emergence of human language.
There are few one-offs in life on Earth—rarely can a single species boast a trait or ability that no other possesses. But human language is one such oddity. Our ability to use subtle combinations of sounds produced by our vocal cords to create words
Nautilus14 min read
The Strange Persistence of First Languages: After my father died, my journey of rediscovery began with the Czech language.
Several years ago, my father died as he had done most things throughout his life: without preparation and without consulting anyone. He simply went to bed one night, yielded his brain to a monstrous blood clot, and was found the next morning lying am
Nautilus9 min read
When Words Fail: Where our minds go when words let us down.
In Samuel Beckett’s novel, The Unnamable, the anonymous narrator laments, “I’m all these words, all these strangers, this dust of words, with no ground for their setting, no sky for their dispersing.” For Beckett’s narrator, words have become unmoore
Nautilus8 min read
Can New Species Evolve From Cancers? Maybe.
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. Aggressive cancers can spread so fiercely that they seem less like tissues gone wrong and more like invasive parasites looking to consume and then break free of their host. If a wild
Nautilus4 min read
A Hologram Shows How Space Could Pop Into Existence: The holographic principle—with a real hologram.
I remember buying my first hologram as a college student in the mid-1980s. It showed a bed of nails. I came across it at a gallery in what was then the world’s capital of spacey trinkets, Haight Street in San Francisco. When I picked it up, the holog
Nautilus15 min read
How American Tycoons Created the Dinosaur: The story of dinosaurs is also the story of capitalism.
The dinosaur is a chimera. Some parts of this complex assemblage are the result of biological evolution. But others are products of human ingenuity, constructed by artists, scientists, and technicians in a laborious process that stretches from the di
Nautilus9 min read
Metaphors Are Us: War, murder, music, art. We would have none without metaphor.
The other day I fixed something—a rarity for me. The flotation device in the toilet water tank was rubbing against the side, getting stuck halfway up so that the tank didn’t fill completely. I own a hammer and know how to operate it. But I couldn’t f
Nautilus8 min readSelf-Improvement
Why Monster Stories Captivate Us: Our brains are compelled by category violations.
I was 13 years old when the movie Alien was released. It scared me into a month-long spell of anxiety. The hair on the back of my neck was perpetually up and I had the jittery demeanor of a combat veteran. While the full-grown xenomorph alien was chi
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