World Meteorological Day – 23 March 2017

Clouds play a pivotal role in weather forecasts and warnings. They help to drive the water cycle and the entire climate system. Throughout history, they have inspired artists, poets, musicians, photographers and countless other enthusiasts.

Understanding Clouds is the theme of World Meteorological Day 2017 to highlight the enormous importance of clouds for weather climate and water. Clouds are central to weather observations and forecasts. Clouds are one of the key uncertainties in the study of climate change:  we need to better understand how clouds affect the climate and how a changing climate will affect clouds. Clouds play a critical role in the water cycle and shaping the global distribution of water resources.


On the lighter side, World Meteorological Day will provide an opportunity to celebrate the inherent beauty and aesthetic appeal of clouds, which has inspired artists, poets, musicians, photographers and countless other enthusiasts throughout history.

World Meteorological Day marks the launch of a new edition of the International Cloud Atlas after the most thorough and far-reaching revision in its long and distinguished history.  The new WMO Atlas is a treasure trove of hundreds of images of clouds, including a few newly classified cloud types. It also features  other meteorological phenomena such as rainbows, halos, snow devils and hailstones.   For the first time ever, the Atlas has been produced in a digital format and is accessible via both computers and mobile devices.

The International Cloud Atlas is the single authoritative and most comprehensive reference for identifying clouds. It is an essential training tool for professionals in the meteorological community and those working in aviation and shipping. Its reputation is legendary among cloud enthusiasts.

The International Cloud Atlas has its roots in the late 19th century. It was revised on several occasions in the 20th century, most recently in 1987, as a hard copy book, before the advent of the Internet.

Advances in science, technology and photography prompted WMO to undertake the ambitious and exhaustive task of revising and updating the Atlas with images contributed by meteorologists, cloud watchers and photographers from around the world.

Classifying clouds

The present international system of Latin-based cloud classification dates back to 1803, when amateur meteorologist Luc Howard wrote The Essay on the Modification of Clouds.

The International Cloud Atlas currently recognizes ten basic cloud “genera,” which are defined according to where in the sky they form and their approximate appearance.

Clouds, circulation and climate sensitivity

As one of the main modulators of heating in the atmosphere, clouds control many other aspects of the climate system. Limited understanding of clouds is the major source of uncertainty in climate sensitivity, but it also contributes substantially to persistent biases in modelled circulation systems.

“Clouds, Circulation and Climate Sensitivity” is one of seven Grand Challenges of the WMO World Climate Research Programme. Four main intiatives make up this Grand Challenge:

Message from the Secretary-General 

Today scientists understand that clouds play a vital role in regulating the Earth’s energy balance, climate and weather. They help to drive the water cycle and the entire climate system. Understanding clouds is essential for forecasting weather conditions, modelling the impacts of future climate change and predicting the availability of water resources.


Learn how to identify cloud types by using this flow chart from the International Cloud Atlas. Clouds are divided into 10 fundamental types known as genera, depending on their general form. The genera are then further subdivided based on a cloud’s particular shape, structure and transparency; the arrangement of its elements; the presence of any accessory or dependent clouds; and how it was formed.

WMO 2017 Calendar

WMO 2017 Calendar


Other resources

Related Links
Clouds in the Arts

Source: World Meteorological Day – 23 March 2017 | World Meteorological Organization

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In this talk from RSA Animate, Sir Ken Robinson lays out the link between 3 troubling trends: rising drop-out rates, schools’ dwindling stake in the arts, and ADHD. An important, timely talk for parents and teachers.

This RSA Animate was adapted from a talk given at the RSA by Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned education and creativity expert and recipient of the RSA’s Benjamin Franklin award.
The RSA is a 258 year-old charity devoted to driving social progress and spreading world-changing ideas.

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This audio has been edited from the original event by Becca Pyne. Series produced by Abi Stephenson, RSA.

Animation by Cognitive Media. Andrew Park, the mastermind behind the Animate series and everyone’s favourite hairy hand, discusses their appeal and success in his blog post, ‘Talk to the hand’:

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Published on YouTube Jul 19, 2016

What makes you, you?

Psychologists like to talk about our traits, or defined characteristics that make us who we are. But Brian Little is more interested in moments when we transcend those traits — sometimes because our culture demands it of us, and sometimes because we demand it of ourselves. Join Little as he dissects the surprising differences between introverts and extroverts and explains why your personality may be more malleable than you think.

TEDTalks is a daily video podcast of the best talks and performances from the TED Conference, where the world’s leading thinkers and doers give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes (or less). Look for talks on Technology, Entertainment and Design — plus science, business, global issues, the arts and much more.
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A fresco inside the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, November 2013. The catacomb was used for Christian burials from the late 2nd through the 4th century CE. Photo by Reuters/Max Rossi

Christians were strangers

The Roman empire became Christian during the fifth century CE. At the century’s start, Christians were – at most – a substantial minority of the population. By its end, Christians (or nominal Christians) indisputably constituted a majority in the empire. Tellingly, at the beginning of the century, the imperial government launched the only sustained and concerted effort to suppress Christianity in ancient history – and yet by the century’s end, the emperors themselves were Christians, Christianity enjoyed exclusive support from the state and was, in principle, the only religion the state permitted.

Apart from the small and ethnically circumscribed exception of the Jews, the ancient world had never known an exclusivist faith, so the rapid success of early Christianity is a historical anomaly. Moreover, because some form of Christianity is a foundational part of so many peoples’ lives and identities, the Christianisation of the Roman empire feels perennially relevant – something that is ‘about us’ in a way a lot of ancient history simply is not. Of course, this apparent relevance also obscures as much as it reveals, especially just how strange Rome’s Christianisation really was.

That a world religion should have emerged from an oriental cult in a tiny and peculiar corner of Roman Palestine is nothing short of extraordinary. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, though an eccentric one, and here the concern is not what the historical Jesus did or did not believe. We know that he was executed for disturbing the Roman peace during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, and that some of his followers then decided that Jesus was not merely another regular prophet, common in the region. Rather, he was the son of the one true god, and he had died to bring salvation to those who would follow him.

Jesus’s disciples began to preach the virtues of their wonderworker. Quite a few people believed them, including Saul of Tarsus, who took the message on the road, changing his name to Paul as a token of his conversion. Paul ignored the hardscrabble villages of the Galilee region, looking instead to the cities full of Greeks and Greek-speaking Jews all around the eastern Mediterranean littoral. He travelled to the Levant, Asia Minor and mainland Greece, where he delivered his famous address to the Corinthians.

Some scholars now believe that Paul might have gone to Spain, not just talked about wanting to go. What matters is not whether Paul went there, or if he really was executed at Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero, but rather the person of Paul himself. When he was arrested as a threat to public order, his Jewish enemies having complained to the Romans, Paul needed only two words to change the balance of power – cives sum, ‘I am a citizen’ – a Roman citizen. The fact that he was a Roman citizen meant that, unlike Jesus, he could neither be handed over to the Jewish authorities for judgment nor summarily executed by an angry Roman governor. A Roman citizen could appeal to the emperor’s justice, and that is what Paul did.

Paul was a Christian, perhaps indeed the first Christian, but he was also a Roman. That was new. Even if the occasional Jew gained Roman citizenship, Jews weren’t Romans. As a religion, Judaism was ethnic, which gave Jews some privileged exemptions unavailable to any other Roman subjects, but it also meant they were perpetually aliens. In contrast, Christianity was not ethnic. Although Christian leaders were intent on separating themselves physically and ideologically from the Jewish communities out of which they’d grown, they also accepted newcomers to their congregations without regard for ethnic origin or social class. In the socially stratified world of antiquity, the egalitarianism of Christianity was unusual and, to many, appealing.

The promise of salvation, vouchsafed in the miracles of Jesus and/or his divine father also drew in followers. Miracles and the immanence of the supernatural abounded in the Roman world. Powerful miracles were powerfully persuasive. Stories circulated about the Christian god (or the son of god – theology was a work in progress for a very long time), far more stories than today’s canon acknowledges. It used to be said that women, slaves and the working classes took to Christianity first but, in fact, the miracle stories and the promises of salvation attracted a wide cross-section of society. Christianity offered eternal life in exchange for belief – no complex initiation rituals, no hieratic pyramid of occult revelation.

While theologians have always been able to render Christianity subtle to the point of incomprehensibility, to many it has always appeared breathtakingly simple: ‘Believe exclusively in the Christian god, who is the one and only god, and you will find eternal life.’ On earth, Christianity offered community, and it offered support – dining, celebrating, working and playing together, people who would bury you if you died. In a cosmopolitan Roman empire, where cities sucked in expendable labour from the countryside, and where artisans and craftsmen had to travel a very long way from home, that kind of community could not be taken for granted or created casually. Christians would and did look after one another, sometimes exclusively so. Stricter Christians didn’t mix with non-Christians. More importantly, they didn’t worship other gods along with their one god. Much of ancient civic life – the holidays and public festivities which were many people’s only opportunity to eat any quantity of meat – was wrapped up in sacrifice to the various deities of a flexible and syncretic Greco-Roman pantheon. Good Christians were expected to shun these celebrations, the festivals and ceremonies their fellow townsfolk kept at the centre of their social lives. That made Christians very strange.

Technically, for a time, Christianity was illegal (its god had been nailed to a cross like a common bandit after all)

The Jews had kept themselves separate for as long as anyone could remember, but Greeks and Romans were used to that. Jewish communities were concentrated, nowhere large, and they were exempt from mandatory participation in a public cult. Around the Mediterranean, people could look at Jews with a sort of tolerant, if uncomprehending, disdain. But Greeks and Romans sitting out the traditional cult of their own cities made no sense. Were these monotheist Christians pretty much the same as atheists, refusing to give the divine its due? What exactly did they get up to in their exclusive meetings? What was this business about eating their lord’s body? Were they cannibals? Probably it was all just another eccentric. The world of ancient Rome, after all, was one in which initiates of one cult bathed in the spurting blood of a freshly slaughtered bull. Those of another passed the night in temples awaiting divine revelation and sleeping with the sacred priestesses.

Of course, the eccentricity of neighbours begins to look more sinister when life gets difficult and livelihoods grow tenuous. A Christian exclusivity that was also status-blind could look suspicious – so there were occasional pogroms, though surprisingly few: the pornographic violence of martyrologies, the tormented saints of a million works of Catholic art, were the loving harvest of later centuries, not any ancient reality. Like all empires, the Roman state hated disorder more than anything, and violence that disturbed the public peace was not encouraged. Technically, for a time, Christianity was illegal (its god had been nailed to a cross like a common bandit after all). But a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy was easier on everyone, not least the emperors. As the letters of the emperor Trajan make crystal clear, Christians were not to be sought out or persecuted unless they made themselves a conspicuous nuisance, at which point they had no one but themselves to blame for their fates.

By the third century, Christian communities had grown. One would have been hard-pressed to find even a modest town without a Christian household or three. From a fringe movement, Christianity had become a central fact of urban life. Yet the religion’s normalisation made it suddenly vulnerable in the middle of the third century, when – thanks to dynastic instability, epidemic disease and military incompetence ­– imperial government went into a potentially terminal decline.

The last dynasty to have any real claim to legitimacy was that of Septimius Severus (who reigned 193-211). Its last scion was murdered in a mutiny in 235. For 50 years thereafter, no emperor could make any lasting claim to the throne. Combined with devastating military failure on the empire’s eastern front with Persia, and a plague (probably an Ebola-like haemorrhagic fever) that cut densely packed urban populations to ribbons, it seemed to many that the divine order of the universe had come undone.

The emperor Decius, with a shaky claim to a throne he’d won in an officers’ putsch, thought it prudent to assure himself of divine favour. In 249, he ordered every inhabitant of the empire to sacrifice to the gods of the state, and to prove it by producing the same sort of certificate that local magistrates issued to document the payment of annual taxes. Decius might not have actually meant to target Christians specifically, but his edict could not help but have that effect. Forbidden to worship any god but their own, many Christians refused to sacrifice. For their obduracy, some were executed. When Decius was killed on the battlefield in 251, Christians rejoiced that their god had protected them.

Imperial fortunes did not improve. A decade after Decius’s death, the emperor Valerian renewed religious persecution, this time targeting Christians explicitly. Many wondered why Valerian singled them out: the Roman senate went so far as to query whether the emperor really meant what he appeared to mean with his edict. He did. More martyrdoms followed, but then, in 260, Valerian was taken prisoner on the battlefield by the Persian king, going on to die in captivity. His son and successor Gallienus immediately ended persecution and restored the legal rights of Christian churches. That legal measure demonstrates something significant. Churches had become prosperous, socially integrated corporate entities, able to possess and dispose of property. Christianity was no longer a clandestine and minority religion.

The policing of what did and did not constitute true belief has always preoccupied Christian theologians and been a central dynamic in Christian politics

The years between 260 and 300 offered little reprieve to those who wanted to become emperor and govern, but they did amount to the first golden age for Roman Christians. Although it is likely that we’ll never have sufficient evidence to tell just how many Christians there were at any one time, or just how fast the religion spread, we can say for certain that Christian numbers grew dramatically. By the 290s, there were Christians in the senate, at court, and even in the families of emperors.

The middle and late third century also witnessed the first dramatic outpouring of Christian theological works. Some of these theological works focus on detailing heresies – wrong beliefs – of which there was already a rich variety. Because Christianity centred so much on beliefs rather than ritual behaviours, the policing of what did and did not constitute true and acceptable belief has always preoccupied Christian theologians and been a central dynamic in Christian politics.

The rulings (‘canons’) of the first council of Christian leaders to survive provide more insight into the Christianity of this period. Held in the obscure Andalusian town of Elvira, the council shows us a world in which the gathered church leaders found it necessary to legislate against a large number of mundane activities that they determined were prejudicial to Christian wellbeing. The council decided, for instance, to forbid the holding of certain kinds of public office (such as the office of duumvir, effectively the local mayor, as the role might require inflicting punishment or abusing other Christians). What this tells us is that Christians were integrated into the fabric of social and political life, serving in public office, and so forth. Clearly, both Christians and non-Christians found that integration quite normal – Christians had come a long way since the days of the last persecution.

Then, ironically, within just a couple of years of Elvira, the imperial government launched the most virulent anti-Christian persecution in the history of the ancient world. The causes were multiple. As Christianity’s appeal spread among the more educated sort of Greek and Roman, non-Christian intellectuals began to find the upstart religion more threatening. Though the third century saw a trend towards monotheism among intellectuals, the philosophical and theosophical varieties embraced by Neoplatonists and other philosophers were clearly incompatible with Christian exclusivity. So these pagans crafted sophisticated anti-Christian arguments, and their criticisms gained ground among the political class. Then, rivalry over an imperial succession provided the occasion for anti-Christian polemic to gain new political life.

Towards the end of the third century, an emperor named Diocletian (r. 284-305) had finally proved able to stabilise imperial government after 50 years of regime change and violence. In 293, he established a college of four emperors, all senior generals unrelated to one another except by marriage. The idea was to ensure that one emperor would always be on hand to deal with any outbreak of violence and to prevent rebellion or civil war. Diocletian intended for himself and his senior colleague to retire, after which their junior partners would bring two new emperors into the imperial college to replace them. The goal was to ensure a handover of power at a convenient and peaceful moment so that the framework of government would remain undisturbed. But Diocletian’s intentions were thwarted by rivalries, in which Christianity played an important role.

That is where things foundered: only two of Diocletian’s emperors had adult sons, and everyone expected them to join the college of four emperors when the two senior emperors retired. But the childless emperor Galerius was a ferocious anti-Christian, while his colleague Constantius – who had a son – was known to be sympathetic to Christians. In fact, Constantius even had Christians among his family and household, and that fact gave Galerius an opening to revise the succession plans in his own favour. By targeting Christians for renewed persecution, Galerius would damage Constantius and exclude his son from the succession. He could enhance his own power, and also gratify his hatred of Christianity.

Galerius convinced Diocletian that Christians were to blame for a series of calamities, including a mysterious fire in the palace and the silencing of famous oracles. Thus, in the year 303, the emperors began what we call the Great Persecution. The campaign against the Christians was bitterly violent in Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, more benign in the lands that Constantius controlled in the West. But it produced many heroic martyrdoms and appalling suffering among Christian communities, and left scars that would linger for centuries. The Great Persecution ultimately failed to expunge Christianity from the face of the earth. Christians were simply too numerous, and many were too stubborn to be turned away from their beliefs. Even Galerius, the most committed of persecutors, came to accept the failure of his plans, and in 311 issued an edict of toleration. By 313, persecution had ceased.

In the meantime, in 306, Constantius’s son Constantine had succeeded his father in the imperial college. Within five years, Constantine had made himself master of the western Roman empire and openly embraced Christianity. Always sympathetic to Christians, he claimed to have had a divine vision that helped lead his troops, flying Christian symbols on their standards, to victory in civil war in 312. The most reductionist reading of the evidence would say that, in 310, Constantine saw a solar halo, a rare but well-documented celestial phenomenon, in the south of France and in the company of his army, but Constantine’s account of events changed over the years and we can’t be sure. We can say with greater certainty that for several years he wavered between Christian and non-Christian interpretations of the sign. He eventually decided, to the delight of the Christian leaders in his entourage, that he had been sent a sign by the Christian God. He became a Christian, as a matter of belief and perhaps policy too.

We will never know for sure what Constantine’s true motives were in converting to Christianity. What is certain, however, is that from the moment he had sole power in the West, he ruled as a Christian. He restored Christian property seized during the Great Persecution and enacted legislation that favoured Christians. When he became sole ruler of the empire in 324, he extended similarly pro-Christian policies to the eastern empire, where he not only favoured Christians, but actively discriminated against non-Christians, restricting their ability to worship or fund their temples.

Patronage, factionalism, political advantage, social cliquishness can all play a role in the formation of intellectual positions and in continuing attachments to them

Even more momentously, though, Constantine intervened personally in conflicts among Christians over questions of discipline and right belief. In North Africa, Egypt and other parts of the Greek East, problems arose over such things as how to treat Christians who had cooperated with the authorities during persecution (the traditores, ‘handers-over’ of Christian holy books), or the correct relationship between God the Father and God the Son. Such disputes mattered, not least because Christians who believed the wrong thing would forfeit eternal life – or worse, ensure their own eternal damnation. Right belief, by contrast, opened the path to eternal salvation.

By placing the authority of the Roman state and the imperial office to police and enforce right belief, Constantine created a model that would have a long and ambiguous history. Councils of bishops, ostensibly informed by the Holy Spirit, would henceforth define what was orthodox. Those who chose to believe otherwise would find themselves branded heretics, and excluded from the communion of orthodox Christians. Bishops and theologians would find an almost limitless number of problems to debate – over the relationship of God the Father and God the Son, over the divine nature of Jesus, over what that meant for the status of his mother, and so on. Each solution opened up a whole new set of problems.

As most people know from their own experience, intellectual differences can harden into intractable convictions for all sorts of non-intellectual reasons. Patronage, factionalism, political advantage, social cliquishness can all play a role in the formation of intellectual positions and in continuing attachments to them. From the fourth century onwards, Roman history is filled with bitter religious conflicts, state persecution of heretics, and the perpetual alienation of communities whose Christian beliefs pitted them against official orthodoxy. Since the time of Constantine, in fact, Western history has been plagued by the impossibility of policing belief rather than practice. After all, how do you decide what someone really believes, or does not believe?

That problem would not have come to have its historic, and tragic, consequences had Constantine’s conversion not rapidly brought much of the imperial population with him. As social advancement came to depend on being a Christian, and as the civic calendar of non-Christian beliefs was increasingly dismantled, the majority of urban Romans actively thought of themselves as Christians by the end of the fourth century. Rejecting Christianity now stood as the marked and unusual choice that embracing it had been 200 years before. How Christianity went on to become not just a state religion, but the central fact of political life, and how Christian institutions of the Middle Ages both maintained and distorted the legacy of the ancient world, is another, different story.

Source: How an obscure oriental cult converted a vast, pagan Roman empire | Aeon Essays

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Scientists Put On Lockdown Under Trump

Published on YouTube – Jan 24, 2017

Trump doesn’t want government scientists talking to the public. Facts can be annoying when you’re trying to pillage the country. Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian, hosts of The Young Turks, discuss. Tell us what you think in the comment section below.

“The US Department of Agriculture has banned scientists and other employees in its main research division from publicly sharing everything from the summaries of scientific papers to USDA-branded tweets as it starts to adjust to life under the Trump administration, BuzzFeed News has learned.
According to an email sent Monday morning and obtained by BuzzFeed News, the department told staff — including some 2,000 scientists — at the agency’s main in-house research arm, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), to stop communicating with the public about taxpayer-funded work.

“Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents,” Sharon Drumm, chief of staff for ARS, wrote in a department-wide email shared with BuzzFeed News.

“This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content,” she added.

Indeed, the last tweet from ARS’s official account was sent the day before Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20.”*

Read more here:…

Hosts: Cenk Uygur, Ana Kasparian
Cast: Cenk Uygur, Ana Kasparian


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Anonymous – Chasing Edward Snowden (Full Documentary)

Published on Jul 24, 2016

This movie briefly covers the story of NSA analyst-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden and his escape from American authorities to Hong Kong and later to Russia in 2013. Snowden had leaked classified information about global surveillance programs used by the American government to spy on people around the world as well as other nations. The movie also presents the journalists who had exclusive access to Snowden, and also members of WikiLeaks, who helped him in his escape.

Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden IMDb:

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Published on YouTube – May 17, 2016

‘Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for ‘fair use’ for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favour of fair use’

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Sparky feels impelled to reshare this movie speech from Charlie Chaplin – one of the most stirring ‘calls to action’ that relates directly to our current condition.
Brilliant, timeless and moving.

Greatest Speech Ever Made Charlie Chaplin….The Great Dictator

In 1940, a movie was released starring Charlie Chaplin (who also wrote and directed) about a poor Jewish barber who is mistaken for a dictator of a similar appearance and takes his place. In his rejection of the position, he ends up giving one of the most inspirational speeches ever recorded.

Plo24k –

Published on YouTube Mar 3, 2013


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As an old man, I can say this again.
Start where you are and realise you are not meant on your own to resolve all of these massive problems.

My heart leaps with joy at discovering the number of people who say “we want to make a better world”.

And you will be surprised at how it can get to be catching.

Do what you can, where you can.


Click on the Facebook icon in the video to bring you to the Book of Joy page.

Posted by Desmond Tutu to Facebook

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Gothic Revival was one of the most influential design styles of the 19th century. Revivalists adhered to the romantic notion that stuff could and should look more meaningful, with designs based on forms and patterns used in the Middle Ages.

(Part 1 of 6)
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Are you ready to get your goth on? Discover your design alter ego…

Explore qualifications in ‘Design and Innovation’ with The OU…

Published on May 8, 2013

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How An Igloo Keeps You Warm

Published on Jan 9, 2017

Building a perfect igloo takes cool science!
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If you ever find yourself stranded in the snowy Arctic (or bored in Minecraft), you’re gonna need to know how to build an igloo. But how can building a house made of ice keep you warm? The science behind building an igloo is the same reason that otters and reindeer don’t freeze to death.


There really ARE 50 Eskimo words for snow:

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Photo by Eve Arnold / Magnum

Source: Thinking positive is a surprisingly risky manoeuvre | Aeon Essays

Do you believe that positive thinking can help you achieve your goals? Many people today do. Pop psychology and the $12 billion self-help industry reinforce a widespread belief that positive thinking can improve our moods and lead to beneficial life changes. In her book The Secret Daily Teachings (2008), the self-help author Rhonda Byrne suggested that: ‘Whatever big thing you are asking for, consider having the celebration now as though you have received it.’


Yet research in psychology reveals a more complicated picture. Indulging in undirected positive flights of fancy isn’t always in our interest. Positive thinking can make us feel better in the short term, but over the long term it saps our motivation, preventing us from achieving our wishes and goals, and leaving us feeling frustrated, stymied and stuck. If we really want to move ahead in our lives, engage with the world and feel energised, we need to go beyond positive thinking and connect as well with the obstacles that stand in our way. By bringing our dreams into contact with reality, we can unleash our greatest energies and make the most progress in our lives.


Now, you might wonder if positive thinking is really as harmful as I’m suggesting. In fact, it is. In a number of studies over two decades, my colleagues and I have discovered a powerful link between positive thinking and poor performance. In one study, we asked college students who had a crush on someone from afar to tell us how likely they would be to strike up a relationship with that person. Then we asked them to complete some open-ended scenarios related to dating. ‘You are at a party,’ one scenario read. ‘While you are talking to [your crush], you see a girl/boy, whom you believe [your crush] might like, come into the room. As she/he approaches the two of you, you imagine…’

Some of the students completed the scenarios by spinning a tale of romantic success. ‘The two of us leave the party, everyone watches, especially the other girl.’ Others offered negative fantasies about love thwarted: ‘My crush and the other girl begin to converse about things which I know nothing. They seem to be much more comfortable with each other than he and I….’


We checked back with the students after five months to see if they had initiated a relationship with their crush. The more students had engaged in positive fantasies about the future, the less likely they were actually to have started up a romantic relationship.


My colleagues and I performed such studies with participants in a number of demographic groups, in different countries, and with a range of personal wishes, including health goals, academic and professional goals, and relationship goals. Consistently, we found a correlation between positive fantasies and poor performance. The more that people ‘think positive’ and imagine themselves achieving their goals, the less they actually achieve.


Positive thinking impedes performance because it relaxes us and drains the energy we need to take action. After having participants in one study positively fantasise about the future for as little as a few minutes, we observed declines in systolic blood pressure, a standard measure of a person’s energy level. These declines were significant: whereas smoking a cigarette will typically raise a person’s blood pressure by five or 10 points, engaging in positive fantasies lowers it by about half as much.


Such relaxation occurs because positive fantasies fool our minds into thinking that we’ve already achieved our goals – what psychologists call ‘mental attainment’. We achieve our goals virtually and thus feel less need to take action in the real world. As a result, we don’t do what it takes to actually succeed in achieving our goals. In multiple experiments, we found that people who positively fantasise about the future don’t, in fact, work as hard as those with more negative, questioning or factual thoughts, and this leaves them to struggle with poorer performance.


Given the relationship between positive thinking and declines in performance, does positive thinking increase a person’s chance of depression? My colleagues and I suspected as much. Researchers have shown that poor performance can give rise to symptoms of depression. In addition, psychologists have theorised that people who become depressed begin to see things in a distorted way, obsessing over negative stimuli and perceiving otherwise neutral elements in a negative way, too. Stress can trigger these cognitive biases, which otherwise lie dormant in our minds. And discovering that you have failed at achieving a goal might be all the stress you need to start seeing life in a gloomier way, thus hastening depression.


To probe the connection between positive thinking and depression, we conducted a series of studies involving adults and children. In one study, we asked 88 American undergraduates to complete a dozen open-ended scenarios, imagining themselves as the protagonists. ‘You’re working on an important project,’ one scenario read. ‘You know that you cannot meet the deadline and you have asked your client for an extension. You know that it is likely that he will grant you one… Today your client will let you know about his decision.’ Participants were asked to imagine themselves waiting in their office for the client to call, and then to write down their thoughts and rate them for perceived positivity or negativity. We also assessed the students’ current depression level using an established questionnaire called the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale.


Finally, we had the students return a month later to fill out more scenarios and undergo a second evaluation for depression. We found that the more positively the students fantasised, the less depressed they were upon initial evaluation, yet the more depressed they were a month later.


We suspected that positive thinking reduced the likelihood of depression in the moment, but increased the chances of it occurring over a longer period. To test that hypothesis, we conducted a similar study among schoolchildren, only this time we checked back after seven months. Once again, we found a correlation between positive fantasies and greater long-term levels of depression.


We wondered whether in fact poor performance was leading to these greater, longer-term depression levels, so we designed another study to find out. At the beginning of an academic semester, we had 148 college students complete similar scenarios, and we assessed them for depression. Two months later, toward the end of the semester, the students answered questions concerning their study efforts, and they filled out the depression questionnaire a second time. In addition, students told us how many hours per week they had spent preparing for class since their past exam, how hard they felt they had been studying, and whether they had done extra credit work for their class. We also recorded their official course grades for midterm and final exams.


We achieve our goals in our minds, and thus feel good in the moment. Over time, though, we put in less effort. Reality has a way of catching up to us


As we expected, the more that students fantasised about the future in positive ways, the less well they did at school. We also found statistical relationships between poor academic performance, low effort and high levels of depression. The worse the students did, the more depressed they were, to a significant extent because they weren’t trying as hard.


Other studies have found that patients who attempt suicide and who indulge in positive fantasies about themselves initially think less about suicide but over time have a greaterchance of repeating the attempt. And older people who envisioned happier futures for themselves actually wound up less happy. By envisioning an idealised future, these participants might not have prepared themselves for the potential hardships of getting older.


To be clear, our reported research doesn’t show that positive fantasies cause long-term depression, only that a link or correlation exists between dreaming about the future and a gloomier, more depressed mood. Still, a causal relationship is certainly plausible. You might also wonder why participants in these studies initially didn’t see higher depression levels, but were more depressed over time. If positive thinking corresponds to depression, why didn’t that relationship emerge the very moment someone dreamed about achieving a wish? The answer might be that we initially experience positive fantasies as quite pleasurable. We achieve our goals in our minds, and thus feel good in the moment, happier, more upbeat. Over time, though, we put in less effort and see disappointing outcomes, and as a result our views change and we become more depressed. Reality has a way of catching up to us.


You might wonder what to do or say if your friend is down in the dumps, or if you’re feeling sad, depleted, moody – depressed. If you’re thinking about telling them to ‘buck up’, ‘look on the bright side’, or ‘think positive’, as so many self-help gurus advise, you might be helping them in the moment while doing them a disservice over the long-term.


But if positive thinking isn’t the best solution, then what is? The answer, I’ve discovered, is to combine dreams and reality – to bring positive thinking up against a visualisation of the challenges that stand in our way.


During the early 1990s, when my first studies were showing that ‘thinking positive’ actually impedes people from realising their wishes, I felt disappointed. I had started out on this line of research because I wanted to help people and make a positive difference in their lives. I started to puzzle over what way of thinking might indeed allow people to remain energised, engaged and moving ahead in their lives. Recognising that positive thinking tended to relax people, I wondered if there was some way that we could mobilise these dreams about the future to do something else – empower people. I suspected that combining positive fantasies with thoughts about the realities in their path might do the trick. If we could ground positive fantasies in reality, perhaps we could negate the soothing, lulling quality of these fantasies and stir people to action.


In a number of studies, my colleagues and I found that such ‘mental contrasting’, as we called it, did in fact serve to motivate people and enhance their performance. In one study, we asked 168 female university students in Germany to indicate their most important wish or concern dealing with relationships, and also to rate how likely they thought they were to achieve this wish. Each of these students then wrote down positive outcomes associated with fulfilling the wish (for instance, having more time for each other or being loved), as well as four negative obstacles connected with something impeding the wish’s realisation (being too shy or having too much work).


We divided the students into four groups, asking those in only one group to mentally contrast. Those students fantasised about the most positive outcome that would arise if their wish came true, then about a critical obstacle preventing them from realising their wish. For each outcome and obstacle, they jotted down their thoughts.


Students in the second group fantasised only about the most positive outcomes, while students in the third group fantasised only about critical obstacles. A fourth group ‘reverse contrasted’: they performed an exercise with content identical to mental contrasting, but that first started with an obstacle and then imagined the positive outcome.


People with realistic goals apply more effort and perform better, and people with unrealistic goals pull back


Two weeks after the experiments, we queried students about what they had actually done to realise their wishes. The results were intriguing. I had expected that students who had performed mental contrasting would have received a boost and taken more action. Some of them did – the ones whose goals or wishes were realistic or attainable. Those in the mental-contrasting group whose wishes weren’t realistic or attainable significantly reduced the amount of effort they applied. In short, mental contrasting allowed people to direct more energy toward goals they had a chance of achieving, and pull back from unrealistic goals. The result was a wiser application of energy overall. Students heeding unrealistic goals could redirect their energy to other, more reasonable pursuits. Mental contrasting resulted in more people pursuing promising goals more vigorously.


Since that initial study, my colleagues and I have performed a number of experimentsprobing the link between mental contrasting and achievement. We looked at all sorts of goals and pursuits, including learning a foreign language, doing well in mathematics, succeeding in business negotiations, making more effective decisions, kicking cigarette habits, exercising more, and giving help in workplace settings. In all of these cases, we found the same pattern: obstacles led people with realistic goals to apply more effort and perform better, and people with unrealistic goals to pull back. Across many areas of life, mental contrasting seemed to be a beneficial way of regulating the effort we put in so that we stay in the game and succeed.


Why did mental contrasting work so well? As further research documented, the technique works on our minds in subtle, non-conscious ways to push us toward feasible wishes and away from unfeasible wishes. Mental contrasting enhances our awareness of obstacles in our path. It also strengthens cognitive links between the future and obstacles, as well as between obstacles and what we need to do to overcome them. All of this primes us to tackle obstacles that seem possible to overcome, and to shrink away from obstacles that we believe are insurmountable.


Mental contrasting also energises us so that we can conquer critical obstacles in our path. The extra energy shows up as rises in systolic blood pressure as well as participants’ reports about feeling energised. Finally, mental contrasting helps us process negative feedback, form constructive plans for taking action, and protects our sense of competence in the face of negative feedback, so long as our goals are realistic. We move headlong toward our objectives. If our goals aren’t realistic, it causes us to detach from them, leaving us free to direct our energies towards other, more realistic endeavours.


Yet other cognitive strategies enhance the effects of mental contrasting. The psychologist Peter M Gollwitzer and his colleagues at New York University have used a strategy called ‘implementation intentions’, in which people form plans about future action using ‘if-then’ statements: ‘If I face situation X, then I will perform goal-directed response Y.’ A person trying to lose weight might say: ‘If it’s late at night and I feel a sudden craving for chocolate, then I will eat an apple or an orange instead.’ A person trying to stay calm during a job search might craft a statement such as: ‘If I’m in a job interview and I start to freak out, then I will remind myself that I’m competent in what I do.’


Many studies have shown that people who make these kinds of plans perform better. In one study, women who wanted to exercise more spent more time walking; in another, people who felt embarrassed about going to therapy were more likely to attend their first therapy appointment.


Our research group combined this strategy with mental contrasting into a four-step mental exercise that people can apply in their everyday lives. My colleagues and I called this exercise WOOP – Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. Defining the Wish and identifying and visualising the desired Outcome and Obstacle are the mental contrasting part; forming implementation intentions represent the final step: the Plan. The exercise is simple and short, requiring as little as five or 10 minutes to complete. It can be done on your own at home, at work, in a crowded subway – anywhere.


Let’s say that you’re preparing for a job interview that you’re excited about. You’re not very comfortable in interview situations, and you really want to impress your interviewer and get the job. First you formulate your wish: ‘I want my interviewer to be impressed by my credentials, my charisma, my knowledge of the industry, and my passion for the work.’ Then you visualise the positive outcome, allowing images to float freely into and out of your mind. You think of yourself connecting with your interviewer, relaxing, joking around a little, calmly describing who you are and why you want the job. You think of your interviewer paying attention and laughing at the right moments. And you think of her signalling on the way out how happy she was to meet you and how right she feels you are for the organisation.


Children did better at school, middle-aged women ate better, couples forgave one another more easily – all because of WOOP


Then you identify the obstacle in your path: your own nervousness in interview situations, the difficulty you feel you sometimes have representing yourself well. You let your mind wander, imagining this difficulty. You think about other times when you’ve been extremely nervous before an interview, sometimes not doing as well as you might have. You ask yourself what caused the nervousness, and you might think of times when you have felt overshadowed by others, when you didn’t feel smart enough. Perhaps you think of disappointing grades you received on exams, or a previous interviewer who expressed doubts about your ability, or a colleague who more recently seemed uninterested in points you were making during a conversation. You think of a cocktail party you attended where you described some nuances of your work to a fellow guest, and she took issue with what you were saying. You realise now that the obstacle ultimately is your lack of self-confidence about your ideas, and now you vividly imagine this lack of self-confidence.


Now you formulate your plan. Based on the insight you gleaned into your obstacle, you might say something like: ‘If I start to feel lack of confidence during the speech, then I will remind myself that I am smart enough and know more about my subject than anyone else present.’


Of course, you don’t have to limit WOOP to professional wishes. Over the past decade, we have tested the method in people harbouring a variety of wishes and found that it helped them achieve more than either mental contrasting or implementation intentions alone. In one study, we found that WOOP helped low-income mothers attending a vocational programme manage their time better. In other studies, children did better at school, middle-aged women ate better and exercised more regularly, stroke patients lost weight and moved around more, couples communicated better about difficult subjects and forgave one another more easily – all because of WOOP.


These were not minor improvements. In our study of women seeking to eat better and exercise more, we found that those who had performed WOOP were exercising twice as much right after the intervention and four months later than participants in the control group. After two years, they were eating one serving a day more of fruit and vegetables. That’s a powerful difference, without the need for costly interventions like therapy, training or medication.


Given WOOP’s success, we wondered if it would help people suffering from mild to moderate depression. People with depression often suffer from a lack of motivation and energy. They become uninterested in everyday pursuits and lacklustre in their effort. They become dour, sad and unable to experience life’s pleasures. But motivation and energy are the precise things that WOOP boosts when it comes to feasible goals or wishes.


We took out a newspaper ad seeking people suffering from depression and willing to try a new, helpful technique. We ultimately divided 47 mildly or moderately depressed participants into two groups. Each participant chose an important, achievable goal: ‘I would like to become more physically active by engaging in one of my favourite activities,’ for instance, or ‘Instead of negative thinking and ruminating, I would like to develop positive thoughts about my perception of myself, the world and the future.’


In the first group, participants performed the WOOP exercise: visualising outcome and obstacle, and then forming an if-then plan. After three weeks, we checked in with the participants and asked if they’d achieved their goal. We again measured the severity of their depression.


In line with our hypothesis, about 80 per cent of the participants trained in WOOP achieved their goals, as opposed to just over 30 per cent of participants in the control group. That’s a big difference! In effect, WOOP helped ease the lack of motivation that is a key symptom of depression. We haven’t yet found a significant difference in depression levels between people who performed WOOP and the control group, but that might well be because the study’s three-week window was not long enough for a reduction in depression to take place. As the study suggests, people might engage more in life and get more done, simply by performing this short and simple mental exercise.


Find your inner obstacle and then let the images about its occurrence flow freely through your mind


If you suffer from depression, WOOP might help you become more energised, engaged and successful in your life. Performing WOOP is a process of discovery, and it is enjoyable, so why not give it a try? In a quiet and relaxing space, formulate a wish about the future. Close your eyes and spend a few minutes visualising your wish’s fulfilment, and all the happiness that it might entail. Perhaps it is getting a promotion at work, and enjoying accolades from friends and family, as well as a salary bump that allows for a better lifestyle. Perhaps it is convincing an attractive person to enter into a romantic relationship with you, and all of the wonderful experiences the two of you will have together. Let your mind visualise and indulge in all of the possibilities.


Now comes the more challenging part. What obstacle in you prevents you from fulfilling this objective? Look inward and be honest with yourself – leave behind your excuses. Are you willing to put in the gruelling hours necessary for such a promotion at work? Do you have the courage to ask an attractive and accomplished person to be your partner? This search for the critical obstacle can be an emotionally fraught part of the process, because we infrequently choose to confront unpleasant experiences so directly and honestly. Still, find your inner obstacle and then let the images about its occurrence flow freely through your mind.


Finally, formulate an if-then plan. For instance: ‘If I feel insecure around my significant others, then I will remind myself of all the things that make me a likeable person’, or ‘If I am offered dessert after 6pm on a weeknight, then I will reach for a piece of fruit instead.’


And that’s it. Go about your day, and let WOOP work its magic. Try WOOP as much as you like, with many different kinds of wishes or goals. Before too long, you’ll likely see yourself making progress in many areas of your life. If you’ve been depressed, you’ll see yourself recovering some of your old energy and vigour. And the more you do WOOP, the easier and quicker it becomes. Soon you might find yourself WOOPing in odd hours, while waiting in line at the supermarket, or before your go to bed at night.


WOOP isn’t a miracle cure for depression, and it also isn’t a replacement for positive thinking. Rather, use both WOOP and purely positive thinking, depending on the situation and your needs. If you’re in a crisis situation and you need a quick boost, fantasise about an enticing, fulfilling future. But don’t just do that. To make longer-term progress, be sure to also bring your dreams in contact with reality. Before you know it, you just might feel more entranced by life again, from your daily work and your time spent with friends to the magnificent blossoms on dogwood trees during the springtime.


For more information on this research and on WOOP, see Gabriele Oettingen’s Rethinking Positive Thinking (2014).

Gabriele Oettingen is a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg. Her latest book is Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation(2014)  

Source: Thinking positive is a surprisingly risky manoeuvre | Aeon Essays

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