Category Imagination

On Emotions, Cognition, and Comedy: An Introduction

Hello everyone! My name is Melissa Cesarano, and I am a new member of the rethinkED team for the 2015-2016 school year. To introduce myself, I’d like to begin by stating that I’m quite an eccentric human with eclectic tastes and talents. I’m a yogi, actress, comedian/improviser, poet, and cognitive scientist! I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (Quakersssss!!!) with a Bachelor’s Degree in Cognitive Studies and Philosophy of Mind, and a minor in Poetics. Currently, I’m a PhD student at Columbia University in Cognitive Studies in Education. I also work at a biotech company, Evoke Neuroscience, where I serve as the company’s science writer, lecturer, and research associate. At Evoke, I’m also training to receive a certification in biofeedback and neurofeedback, which will help me acquire a more holistic approach to emotional and psychological wellness, in addition to my more academic brain expertise. Additionally, I’m attending comedy school at The Peoples Improv Theater and The Upright Citizens Brigade. I’ve co-founded my own NYC sketch comedy group, Laundry Day Comedy, and believe strongly that humor, play, and creativity are essential to our epistemic growth and self-realization as life long students; as Ludwig Wittgenstein so elegantly stated, “If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.”

My research as a Doctoral Candidate focuses on emotions. In undergrad, I felt that the cognitive realm was academically interesting, yet lacked the poetry, color, and humanity that I yearned for as an artist and creative. Admittedly, there seemed to be a lack of understanding as to where/how to fit emotions into a cognitive framework. Therefore, about two years into graduate school education, I resolved to undertake the task of understanding emotions from a cognitive perspective.

Emotions are difficult to comprehend intellectually even though they’re an integral part of our everyday lives. Nevertheless, they certainly color our interactions with others, motivate our behaviors, elucidate our passions, and are essential to our experience as humans. To clarify, they are a phenomenological manifestation of the things that matter to us. For a brief introduction to emotions (What Emotions Are (and Aren’t)) I recommend reading this riveting article in The New York Times by Lisa Feldman Barrett, the head honcho in Emotion Research (I like to call her ‘The Big LFB’):

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/opinion/sunday/what-emotions-are-and-arent.html?_r=0

Specifically, the research that I’ve been conducting at Columbia, along with my research partner Ilya, relates to teaching people abstract models of the Human Emotion System (HES). Creating accurate mental models of our own emotional functioning and grounding these principles in tangible real-life emotional situations, seems to increase self-regulation through increased self-awareness of emotional functioning in a variety of different experiential contexts. The topic of my dissertation, however, deals with the ‘naïve’ mental models that people acquire intuitively through everyday life experience prior to explicit learning of the HES. Arriving at a deeper understanding of people’s HES intuitions and misconceptions (and the cognitive processes that underlie them) through careful epistemological inquiry, should thus allow for a more effective teaching of the HES model and other social-emotional learning (SEL) concepts.

Basically, I think it’s really insane that students are taught things like ‘the laws of physics’ in school, but are never taught the ‘laws of emotions’, the causal relations and principles of our own emotional functioning. Instead, we are left with the difficult and daunting task of pretty blindly dealing with these powerful and mysterious forces. Interestingly, emotionality is delegated to ‘higher learning’, a Psych 101 lecture in the hallowed spaces of America’s college halls.

Finally, I would like to join Ali in saying that it is an absolute privilege to be a part of such an inspiring community here at Riverdale. We hope to enlighten you and to contribute to the ever-evolving educational landscape at this prestigious school. Keep a lookout for upcoming posts from the rethinkED team!

With gratitude and an abundance of smiles,

Mel

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco …*

Dear rethinkers,

An apology is in order as we’ve gone rather silent on the blog these past two weeks! We’re back to our regular posting schedule and you can look forward to our daily posts. To jazz up our apology, thought I’d share a “lost and found” poem I’ve made from assembled graffiti spotted around San Francisco. Excuse the dubious image quality, all photographs were snapped on the go with my aging and tired phone.

Enjoy & rethink …* 


Kill your TV and read

Dream

Ask questions

Listen

Comfort kills

Travel this young moment in pursuit of magic

Create a glory ride

Expect a miracle

Why?

I hope

Love can outlast everything


A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

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A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

. . .

Dedicated to Grateful Greg & Pierre, whoever and wherever you are, and rethinkers …* everywhere

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

A Poem Lost & Found in San Francisco ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman Randolph

the power of [ awe…* ]

The Power of Awe…for altruism*

The NY Times published a great Op Ed this past Friday called Why Do We Experience Awe? In it, psychologist professors’ Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner cite studies that demonstrate the power of experiencing awe, “that often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.” Experiences of awe are those that give you goosebumps.

In a series of studies, the authors found that awe is a “collective” emotion that motivates us to be altruistic – to act in collaborative ways and care more for the greater good than for ourselves. In one study, people were either given a few minutes to look at awe-inspiring Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees or to look at the facade of a science building nearby. Afterwards, an experimenter “dropped” a handful of pens. Those who spent the previous few minutes staring at the trees picked up more pens to help the other person.

Photo Credit: Institute of Paper Science & Technology (http://www.rbi.gatech.edu/)

Photo Credit: Institute of Paper Science & Technology (http://www.rbi.gatech.edu/)

In another experiment, participants who wrote about past experiences of awe or watched nature scenes for five minutes cooperated more and shared more resources.

The authors explain that

…awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger… fleeting experiences pf awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.

The Power of Awe…for your health*

Other research has indicated that awe is also beneficial for your health. One study found a strong correlation between experiencing positive emotions and low IL-6 levels, a molecule that promotes inflammation in the body. The stronger correlation was between levels of inflammation and having felt awe-struck.

The college students in their study reported feeling this “awe-struck” emotion 3 or more times a week, which is good news. Awe-inspiring experiences are out there if you look for them.

My Awe-filled Weekend…*

Piff and Keltner worry that today’s culture is awe deprived. The cite art, nature, and simple quotidian acts of humanity as places to find this awe and suggest that we more actively pursue awe-inspiring moments.

In a place like NYC, there are ample opportunities to find awe, if you take the time to look for it. Over the weekend I noted my own experiences of awe.

On Friday I visited the MoMA – a wonderful place to appreciate the beauty and wonder expressed upon a canvas. While there, I discovered a painting I had never seen before, entitled Hide-and-Seek by Pavel Tchelitchew (1942). This image is a game of hide and seek on its own, and the longer you stare the more images you find hidden in the canvas.

Hide-and-Seek (1942)

Hide-and-Seek (1942)

I spent Sunday at Coney Island, where the old school amusement park, giant busy boardwalk, and aquarium provided countless experiences of awe. Luna Park is a place out of an earlier time, with old wooden roller coasters and traditional carnival games. It was a wonderful break from the modern-day technological world to co-experience the joy of more simple entertainment.

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On the Coney Island Boardwalk, the colliding of cultures and experiences make for an awe-inspiring experience. There were dance parties, snake-charmers, and people of all ages, races, and cultures coming together to enjoy the beautiful weather (and Nathan’s hotdogs from its original location).

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At the New York Aquarium, we were mesmerized by tropical fish, sharks, and sting rays. I saw a sea lion show sitting beside two young children and together we delighted in the sea lions’ tricks.

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I hope you all had a similarly awe-inspiring weekend! Until next week…*

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{ Delightful Visual Resource To Engage More Deeply With Ancient History } Panoply: Animating the Ancient World …*

Shout out to the ever fantastic Open Culture, where I discovered the delightful Panoply project which focuses on animating ancient pottery.

Panoply is run by Steve K. Simons and Sonya Nevin, combining Steve’s animation skills with Sonya’s expertise in ancient Greek culture.

We make animations from real ancient Greek vases. This site puts them together with a wealth of resources that give you reliable info on ancient culture and fresh ideas for teaching sessions on classical civilisation, art, and creative writing.

Panoply, like all good chance encounters aims to help us take another, deeper look at that which we might all too easily overlook. By creating stunning animations, Panoply gives us an opportunity to stop and really look and engage with fragments of ancient vases that we might have otherwise missed in the endless treasures of large museums. They have an entire page on their website dedicated to ideas for how you can use the animations to liven up discussions about ancient Greece and as a springboard into creative activities:

You can use these animations to spark all sorts of teaching and learning activities. They’re particularly good for sessions on classical civilisation, art, and creative writing. They can be used with learners of all ages and levels, from primary through to higher education as well as community, home-school, and lifelong learning. If you don’t have a group to teach, do the activities yourself or with your friends.  

From storyboarding, to writing, to film and animations studies, Panoply provides a wealth of resources to help you and your students engage with ancient civilizations and the craft of animation. Head over to their website to explore all their resources and blog which features discussions of vases and iconography as well as interviews with leading academics, and of course to watch their brilliant animations.

Watch the interview below to hear Dr. Sonya Nevin talk about how the project started and how it has been used as a teaching aid in schools.

. . . *

On a somewhat related note, I just read a fascinating origin legend about the beginnings of art related to Ancient Greece as told by Victoria Finlay in her book, Color: A Natural History of the Palette (which I previously mentioned in a post about cultivating a craftsman mindset). As recorded by Pliny the Elder in Natural History, the origins of painting came from a young Corinthian woman, who while embracing her lover good-bye before he set out on a long voyage, saw his shadow cast on the wall and decided to outline it in charcoal to hold on to his image while he was away:

According to one Western classical legend, the first paint was black and the first artist female. When Pliny the Elder was writing his Natural History–a summary of everything available in the Roman Marketplace and quite a few other things besides–he told a story of how the origin of art was found in epic love. After all, what better inspiration for art is there than passion? According to Pliny one of the first artists was a young woman in the town of Corinth in Greece who one evening was weepily saying good-bye to her lover before he set out on a long journey. Suddenly, between impassioned embraces, she noticed his shadow on the wall, cast by the light of a candle. So, spontaneously, she reached out for a piece of charcoal from the fire and filled in the pattern. 

I loved this little story and thought you might too.

look, create & rethink …*

{ Wondrous Wednesdays } Using Painting to Keep Zoo Animals Happy & Healthy …*

{ Wondrous Wednesdays } Using Painting to Keep Zoo Animals Happy & Healthy ...* | rethinked.org

Artist: Jack, Western Lowland Gorilla | Source: BioParkSociety.org

The abstract masterpieces of such unlikely artists as Prehensile Tail Porcupines, goats, hissing cockroaches and vinegaroons (had to Google that one) are sure to infuse your Wednesday with a hefty dose of wonder and delight. This budding art collective is the result of an enrichment program from the ABQ BioPark Zoo. The therapeutic and enriching benefits of painting, it would seem, extend to animals. “Getting them to use their brains and to figure things out keeps them happier and healthier,” says zoo manager, Lynn Tupa.

The animals at the ABQ BioPark Zoo have learned to paint as an enrichment activity, purely for their own pleasure and mental stimulation. To ensure that painting remains enjoyable for the animals, the opportunity to paint is an occasional treat, not part of their daily routine.

From primate Picassos to buggy Botticellis, our stable of talented animal artists has increased this year to provide an even greater variety of original masterpieces that will thrill collectors and animal enthusiasts alike. Choose from a number of genres and styles that include (but not limited to) elephants, gorillas, parrots, marsupials, alligators, insects and more!

Head over to the Bio Park Society website to view (and perhaps purchase) the paintings (all done with non-toxic tempera paint) by this unlikely band of artists. All proceeds from the paintings directly support that animal’s program at the ABQ BioPark. You can also ‘meet’ some of the artists through their endearing online bios. From Shona the Warthog, who has found the activity “very therapeutic since her mate, Chip, recently passed away,” to Sarah the Orangutan who, “reserves her favorite colors, like silver, to paint her hands and feet and uses her least favorite colors on the canvas,” (a girl’s gotta have her favorite things), you’ll learn about the unique manner in which each artist approaches his or her craft and some intriguing facts about their species. Some of the animals, like Crocket the Raccoon, have instantly taken to the activity while others, like Tonka the Orangutan, are more reticent. “His appearance is very important to him. He will pick up his very long hair as he tries to avoid mud puddles. This is why we are still working on his painting. He goes to great lengths to avoid getting his hands dirty and will continuously wipe the paint off them.”

delight, wonder & rethink …* 

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Artist: Calloway – Banded Armadillo | Source: BioParkSociety.org

{ storytelling…* }

Lately I’ve been noticing the power and the artistry behind storytelling. As we’ve blogged about before (here and here), stories can lead to empathy and social activism.  Storytelling can also be a method of self-empowerment. Earlier this year I talked about how  multimedia storytelling can be an amazing tool when put in the hands of our students. For example, Humans of New York is a current phenomenal short-form multimedia story project that both empowers the subjects and increases empathy and connectedness throughout the community.

hony

Storytelling is also an art, and nothing is worse than listening to a 30 minute story that seems to have no arc or theme. There are actual courses in storytelling that one can take in NYC. However, there are so many ways to tell a good story. While storytelling seems to be a human universal, each culture has its own deep-rooted traditions around the art form.

A recent TED blog discusses how stories are told around the world. For example, hawaiian hula dancing is actually done to a song with a story. On my recent trip to Portugal, I heard traditional Fado music, which is a Portuguese musical storytelling form that began in the 1800s and often tells the story of a woman longing for a man out at sea.

Storytelling, particularly the culturally-specific forms, is an amazing way to connect with students. Allowing students to express themselves in a variety of ways — rather than privileging text — is a prime opportunity to increase empowerment and cultural relevance in education.

{ Empathy & The Dramatic Arc } How Stories Can Change Our Behavior By Changing Our Brain Chemistry …*

“It seems like there may be a universal kind of story structure. So stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but in doing that they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry. And that’s what it means to be a social creature–is to connect to others, to care about others–even complete strangers. And it’s so interesting that dramatic stories cause us to do this.” – Paul Zak  

In this short animated video, Paul Zak, a founding pioneer in the nascent field of neuroeconomics, shares results from his lab where he and his colleagues found that stories that follow Gustav Freytag’s Dramatic Arc could “change behavior by changing our brain chemistry.”

Monitoring the brain activity of hundreds of study subjects watching a video with a simple narrative, Zak found increases in the levels of the neurochemicals oxytocin and cortisol, which are associated with empathic responses. Most remarkable, however, was the discovery that this response also resulted in study subjects taking action, in this case through donating money they had just earned to a charitable cause related to the story they watched and even to fellow subjects. Zak’s conclusion that there could be a universal story structure that functions to connect us to each other might not be surprising to storytellers, but seeing it supported by neuroscience is a tale worth repeating. 

Source: Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc via Aeon

The Wisdom of 6.5-Year-Olds: What Cannibalistic Cocoons & Jumping Through Fire Can Teach Us About Change & Empathy …*

The Wisdom of 6.5-Year-Olds: What Cannibalistic Cocoons & Jumping Through Fire Can Teach Us About Change & Empathy ...* | rethinked.org

Hola rethinkers* Elsa here, back from my camino! Had a truly splendid time and made it all the way to Santiago. Walking 800 km has given me plenty of time to think (a really really good combination and ancient tradition this walking and thinking business). I’m excited to share with you some of the insights and discoveries I made on my trip but as I’ve only just got back and barely had time to digest my experience, I’m going to write about something completely unrelated which happened this past weekend: I got to hang out with a six-year-old—correction, a six-and-a-half-year-old— and I was struck by how much adults, especially those interested in challenging the status quo and developing their capacity for empathy, stand to learn from young children.

MEET MY NEW FRIEND MATHIEU & HIS LEGO HERO FACTORY TOYS–BULK & STORMER

I met Mathieu at his parents’ house where I was having a long Sunday lunch. He sat at the table with us to eat a bit and then disappeared around the garden to play. When dessert was served, Mathieu came back for some ice cream, holding in his hand a Christmas catalogue. I asked him if he had started making his list for Santa and if he’d show me what it was he wanted. We went over the catalogue together and he explained the various delights of each toy he had circled. I then asked him what was the one toy he most hoped Santa would bring him, to which he answered Lego’s Hero Factory before disappearing to his room to bring back two specimens.

I spent over an hour talking with Mathieu about his Lego Hero Factory toys and playing with him. I could hardly say which of us had the most fun. But the reason I wanted to write about my encounter with Mathieu, goes beyond wanting to brag about my awesome new tiny friend or my love of all things Lego. Having no children of my own, I rarely get the chance to hang out with the six-and-a-half-year-old crowd and that’s a real shame. I’m passionate about storytelling, empathy and the architecture of change and as my time with Mathieu showed me, we (the part of the population who no longer values half years in our age) have much to learn in all three of these interrelated domains from children.
STORYTELLING 101 – WHY THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A CANNIBALISTIC JUMPER & CANNIBALISTIC COCOON MATTERS
 
What quickly became apparent to me as Mathieu and I played with Bulk and Stormer is that the toys were artifacts from an incredibly rich imaginary world, one which Mathieu inhabits very comfortably. Mathieu painstakingly explained the origin story of the Hero Factory world, the main hero, (Evo, for the uninitiated) the good guys and the bad. When I tried to rephrase what he had said to make sure I had understood, I confused the cocoons and the planters several times and each time, Mathieu patiently corrected me. Once I had gotten the full back story, we started playing and caught up in the excitement of the game, I started making what can best be described as attack noises – “Grrrrrrrrr,” “pooowww,” “watch out!” Mathieu looked at me a bit embarrassed and then said, as nicely as he could, “It’s a machine, it doesn’t talk.”

 

I think the fact that Mathieu corrected me each time I confused the cocoons and the jumpers or when I got carried away with battle sounds was critically important. He sensed my genuine interest in entering the Lego Hero Factory world and took it upon himself to guide me in. Each imaginary world operates according to a specific set of rules (so while vegetal cocoons attack robots in the Hero Factory world, machines do not speak or make battle calls) and it is these shared laws that keep the world bounded together and allow it to be a shared imaginary space. Creating these rules and then exploring the possibilities of the worlds created within them is what fiction writers, dreamers, and rethinkers * of all type do. It is no secret that soft skills are becoming increasingly important as the pace of change accelerates and the collective problems we face become increasingly wicked. We need people who can craft solid, inhabitable alternatives–“what ifs” that offer better, more sustainable futures for more people. And that starts with storytelling and storytellers. We need to cultivate and amplify children’s natural capacity for creating imaginary worlds and we need to learn from them how we ourselves might regain that wonderful and critical ability to ask “what if?” and run with it.

 

EMPATHY & PLAY – JUMPING THROUGH FIRE REGULARLY WILL HELP KEEP YOU NIMBLE IN YOUR ABILITY TO ENTER OTHERS’ INTERNAL WORLDS
Not only are children naturally adept storytellers, they are also able to grasp with ease the nuances of others’ stories (I think the proper buzzword to describe this aptitude, these days, would be creative listeners). In many ways, each of us, carries and inhabits his or her own world. Our reality is constantly mediated by our perception; our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to others is shaped by a mix of past experiences, character traits, hopes, neuroses, tensions and dreams. In essence, empathy is about being able to experience what an exterior situation might feel like when viewed from the particular lens of another (an Other’s internal world). Children do this extremely often when they are at play, seemingly without any effort. Just a few weeks ago, I was having a drink with a friend on a rather deserted village town square while two little girls played nearby. The girls were running around and jumping, taking turns yelling, “now water, now fire.” Evidently, they were on an epic journey through the elements and shared a common imaginary space, worlds away from the physical environment, that had them running around panting with excitement. They were able to take turns designing the world and could seamlessly go from their own internal reality to that of their friend’s, experiencing with equal ease and immediacy what was in their friend’s mind’s eye as what was inside their own.

 

It’s interesting to note this link between play and empathy, how they seem to go hand in hand naturally. Perhaps it is because we try to stamp out our own playfulness as we age that we become more and more stuck within our own world and less able (or willing?) to enter into those of others. My advice? Go play with a tiny human.
play & rethink …*

{ Re Experiencing } NYC Through New Eyes

This week I’ve offered up my couch to a backpacker (actually, my air mattress), and it’s been wonderful to re-experience NYC through a foreigner’s eyes. An Australian I met in Portugal this summer asked if his buddy could crash at my place while visiting NYC, and I happily obliged. So last Tuesday night, Lulu arrived at my doorstep for his first experience of the USA.

This experience provided me with an opportunity to really think deeply about what I felt represented NYC, and what somebody should do if they only have one week here. We went to a lot of the main tourist attractions — Times Square, the Staten Island Ferry, Empire State Building, High Line, Central Park, WTC memorial — to name a few. This was actually fun and interesting because I grew up in New York and had never even been inside the Empire State Building before. I also got to explain the events of 9/11 as somebody who was here, to somebody who was halfway across the world.

We ate iconic and delicious food, including real New York pizza, bagels (everything with scallion cream cheese, tomato, and lox), burgers (chipotle, Jackson Hole, Umami), and Chipotle.

View from the Staten Island Ferry

View from the Staten Island Ferry

Umami Burger

Umami Burger

 

I also let him see slices of my everyday life. We commuted up to Columbia and walked through the campus. We went to an arcade bar on the Lower East Side and drank PBR and played Miss Pac-man. We met up with my friends for nachos and craft beer. I got to experience my own day-to-day through the eyes of a person who up until this week had never been in a building with more than 6 stories. I re-appreciated the wonders of 1am Chinese food delivery from Seamless, 24/7 public transportation, amazingly tall sky scrapers and unbeatable waterfront sunsets. He heightened my sensitivity to things I had never noticed about my own life, like how it almost always smells like delicious food everywhere in Manhattan or how random strangers can shout super rude things at you (it barely registers to me).

View from the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building

View from the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building

Ultimately, I think the experience cultivated reflection about my own life and gratefulness for this dynamic, crazy place I call home. This speaks to the importance of changing perspectives, re-experiencing something with fresh eyes, and appreciation of what is all around us. Is there something in your own daily practice that could use a fresh perspective?

{ Coffee Culture } and the value of Face-to-Face Communication

In celebration of International Coffee Day, I’d like to talk about how we can rethink one of America’s most coveted beverages. Many Americans love their daily morning cup of coffee. For me, it’s all about the coffeehouse. It is a place where a buck entitles you to stay for as long as you like, and it’s a cornerstone of communication and connection that holds something vital for our disconnected generation.

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[ A History ]

The coffeehouse has been a social hub of public discourse since its introduction into British society in the 1650s. The concept of the coffeehouse immediately resonated with the British bourgeoisie; by 1700 there were two thousand coffeehouses in London, and they were considered “the site for the public life of the eighteenth century middle class”. Initially, these places took on many communal functions, characterized by civil discourse and intellectualism and home to the first modern newspapers and ballot box.  Some go as far as to suggest coffeehouses are the birthplace of modern democracy. Coffeehouse culture quickly caught on in colonial America and became a defining aspect of American culture dating back to 1689.

One aspect of coffee culture that has been retained over time is that of “bourgeois sociability.” Many coffeehouses in 18th century London began to represent community, harmony, and civility.  The coffeehouse was a crucial institution in the development of the public sphere of society because it embodied the “civilized self.”

The modern-day coffeehouse experience, mass-marketed by Starbucks, is one of relaxation, leisure, community, and enjoyment.  It is a respite from the stresses of political and economic life. This redefined purpose of the coffeehouse is, best described by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place, a cure to the more “jangled and fragmented” American lifestyle.   Oldenburg’s research concerned the specialness of commercial places that served as a location to unwind, relax, and talk.  This social space was coined the “third place” because it was neither home nor work, but rather a place where people simply felt comfortable.  Oldenburg felt that this place would facilitate conversation, both between friends and strangers.  This place has become a necessary solution to America’s interactional ills.  The disconnection in a world of technology and constant work can be offset by the civil engagement produced in the coffeehouse. The public nature of a coffeehouse interaction enables the physical and psychology intimacy of face to face conversation.

[ The Ignition Initiative ]

For the most part, NYC is full of strangers. It’s one of those weird places where you can be surrounded by people but feel completely lonely. Coffeehouse culture here is mostly people conversing with their own friends or students and the self-employed staring intently at their Macbook screens.

However, my favorite coffee shop, Birch, has something called the Ignition Initiative. The initiative presents a new twist on American coffee culture, and it’s one that could really show promise for promoting human connections in a place where connection has traditionally thrived. As can be seen below, the shop has little placards with thought-provoking conversation starters. To participate, one simply places a placard on her table and waits for some one to approach.

Participants in the Ignition Initiative receive an extra free hour of WIFI (Birch provides 1 hour per customer), and it also resolves the issue of crowding, where one person has commandeered an entire table.

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I have to admit that I haven’t yet tried this out yet, since I’m usually there to do schoolwork, but I’d love to give it a shot. Would you?

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