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Month September 2014

{ 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.

coffee

[ 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.

photo

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?

{ Thoughts on Travel } the people and the lightness

Elsa recently posted about her desires to travel light and then left to do just that. While she is gone, I’d like to reflect a bit on my own recent travels, the people I’ve meet, and thoughts on materialism and the joys of having nothing but a backpack and your passport.

I love to travel. I’ve spoken in the past about my trips to [ The Grand Canyon ] and [ Israel ]. In total, I’ve been to about 26 different countries for varying amounts of time. Of course, traveling is amazing for the beautiful places you see and the cultures and differences you are exposed to.  But for me, backpacking is as much about the local people, the fellow backpackers, and the feelings of minimalism that I get when I arrive in a hostel with nothing but my 50 liter Gregory pack.

The Locals

Meeting locals takes skill and luck and willingness to leave your comfort zone. It can be near impossible in countries where the locals don’t speak your language and dangerous (especially as an American woman) in certain countries. But when I look back on my trips, some of my most salient memories are of conversations and experiences with locals. In Sapa, Vietnam, I arranged a two day trek through a local female-owned and run company that has local women escort tourists through their towns. These women became fast friends as we talked about different cultural norms about femininity, marriage, and dating as well as the portrayal of “America” in their community.

vietnam sapa

In Cape Town, South Africa, we met local college students in a bar that ended up becoming friends I keep in touch with to this very day. A few were from Johannesburg and when we flew there later in our trip, they picked us up from the airport and had a full day planned to show us everything they loved about their city, from the touristic (Nelson Mandela’s home) to the not-so-touristic (their favorite fro-yo place in town). Recently in Morocco, we chanced upon meeting a Moroccan-Canadian who spent two full days showing us his city and introducing us to his neighbors and friends.

I’ve learned far more about other cultures and cities from locals than from any other experiences in my life. Navigating differences in culture and language and learning from one another, we all left with amazing feelings of how both similar and different we all truly are.

Fellow Backpackers

I also have a soft spot for fellow backpackers. The types of people who venture out of their home countries to travel for months or years are generally more open-minded, friendly, and interesting than most people I’ve met in life. They also have plenty to share about and from their home countries, and at this point I have an international group of friends that I would not trade for anything. From a psychology perspective, there is something extraordinarily bonding about having new, exhilarating experiences with someone. I’ve become friends with people from very different walks of life that I likely would never encounter or think I could have something in common with had we both been in NYC. I’ve also learned from my fellow travelers who often have different values and philosophies on life than my own.

Lightness

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After a month backpacking Europe with WAY too much stuff, I’ve been packing increasingly less stuff each time I go somewhere. THIS is a post from my 2012 Southeast Asia trip where I listed everything I decided to bring. I don’t have a more recent packing list, but I definitely packed almost half of that for my recent month in Portugal and Morocco.

I’ll admit that I am far more materialistic than I’d like to be. I love my apartment and all of the things that I’ve accumulated over the years that adorn it. Many of these items are attached to important memories, others I enjoy for aesthetic or functional purposes. That being said, there is something indescribably freeing about venturing into the world with so few possessions. A lighter backpack makes my burden feel literally lighter. I feel reduced down to the core of who I am. It’s also very liberating and satisfying to live successfully with so few items and to realize how little we actually need to thrive and function in everyday life.

In response to Elsa’s query about how others live with the contradictions and tensions of materialism and minimalism, my answer is that I do both. I come home to my possessions but I leave with very little on my back. I prefer to alternate between these lifestyles and am thankful that I am currently able to.

Relating this back to rethinkED, I believe that travel is an integral part of my personal growth and wonder. Without these journeys outside of my everyday life, I would not be able to appreciate and enjoy the daily grind that I return to. Meeting new people reinvigorates my interests in human behavior, seeing those less fortunate reaffirms my decision to work in education research, and thrusting myself into new and sometimes scarily foreign environments forces me to rethink my values, my strengths, and myself.

 

This is your brain on metaphors.

 

Hello rethinkED..* !!! I’m back from my annual summer hiatus and excited to keep this blog in motion while Elsa explores the universe. I can’t wait to share the exciting new breakthroughs in my research, ideas from the courses I’m taking this semester, and stories from the trips I took this summer.

Today I’d like to talk about this interesting article a colleague sent me: Your Brain on Metaphors. The article provides some neurological evidence for embodied cognition – a hot new topic that we’ve mentioned HERE and HERE.  As a reminder, embodiment is the idea that our thoughts are integrally connected to our bodies and their movement and experiences in space.

The article discusses studies where people read sentences that are either literal, metaphorical, or idiomatic in an fMRI machine and researches see whether the motor cortex is activated. Research has shown that metaphor deeply affects the way we think. For literal phrases, such as “The player kicked the ball”, the brain reacts as if it were carrying out the described action, igniting memories of kicking.  For metaphorical phrases, such as “The patient kicked the habit”,  the brain’s motor cortex similarly lights up, giving evidence that metaphor is not abstracted from our sensory-motor brain regions.

Idioms are “dead metaphors” or phrases that are so commonplace as to become cliches. For these, such as “The villain kicked the bucket”, researchers have found that the more idiomatic a phrase, the less the motor system became involved, suggesting that how familiar one is with the metaphor can affect how the motor neurons fire.

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Beyond providing interesting evidence for embodied cognition, I love what this says about reading and metaphor. When we include metaphors in our writing, we are activating all sorts of parts of our readers’ brains. I told you I would keep this blog in “motion” earlier and according to this research, your brain activated the actual idea of motion. This research could support how a good metaphor can really provide depth and substance to one’s writing, and why certain types of sentences evoke such passionate emotions from a reader.

It also can explain how metaphor increases learning, by connecting an unknown or unexperienced fact to something one has experience and memory of seeing or doing. If I tell you that getting back into reading research articles this semester feels  “like riding a bike,” you can infer that its a skill that you never really lose and can pick up again quickly.

RoadNotTaken

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite classic poems, which uses the long-standing metaphor of roads representing choices in life:

The Road Not Taken

BY ROBERT FROST

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

 

 

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