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Reclaim ‘wellness’ from the rich and famous, and restore its political radicalism, new book argues

Thu, 28/03/2024 - 06:00

Today’s wellness industry generates trillions of dollars in revenue, but in a new book, Dr James Riley (Faculty of English & Girton College), shows that 1970s wellness pioneers imagined something radically different to today’s culture of celebrity endorsements and exclusive health retreats. 

“Wellness was never about elite experiences and glossy, high-value products,” says Riley, noting that “When we think of wellness today, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and other lifestyle brands might come to mind, along with the oft-cited criticism that they only really offer quackery for the rich.” By contrast, in the 1970s, “wellness was much more practical, accessible and political.” 

The word, as it was first proposed in the late-1950s, described a holistic approach to well-being, one that attended equally to the mind (mental health), the body (physical health) and the spirit (one’s sense of purpose in life). The aim was to be more than merely ‘not ill’. Being well, according to the likes of Halbert Dunn and later in the 1970s, John Travis and Don Ardell, meant realising your potential, living with ‘energy to burn’ and putting that energy to work for the wider social good.

Riley’s Well Beings: How the Seventies Lost Its Mind and Taught Us to Find Ourselves, published by Icon Books on 28th March, is the first book to explore the background of the wellness concept in the wider political and cultural context of the 1970s. 

“Wellness in the 1970s grew out of changing attitudes to health in the post-war period – the same thinking that gave rise to the NHS,” Riley says. “When coupled with the political activism of the 1960s counterculture and the New Left, what emerged was a proactive, socially oriented approach to physical and mental well-being. This was not about buying a product off the shelf. 

“The pursuit of wellness was intended to take time, commitment and effort. It challenged you to think through every facet of your life: your diet, health, psychology, relationships, community engagement and aspirations. The aim was to change your behaviour – for the better – for the long term.”

Riley’s book also makes a case for what the 1970s wellness industry can do for us today.
 
“We’re often warned about an imminent return to ‘the seventies’, a threat that’s based on the stereotypical image of the decade as one of social decline, urban strife, and industrial discontent. It’s an over-worked comparison that tends to say more about our own social problems, our own contemporary culture of overlapping political, social and economic crises. Rather than fearing the seventies, there’s much we can learn to help us navigate current difficulties.”  

“It was in the 1970s that serious thought was given to stress and overwork to say nothing of such frequently derided ‘events’ as the mid-life crisis and the nervous breakdown. The manifold pressures of modern life - from loneliness to information overload - increasingly came under the microscope and wellness offered the tools to deal with them.” 

“Not only are these problems still with us, they’ve got much worse. To start remedying them, we need to remember what wellness used to mean. The pandemic, for all its horrors, reminded us of the importance of mutual self-care. To deal with the ongoing entanglement of physical and mental health requires more of that conviviality. Being well should be within everyone’s reach, it should not be a privilege afforded to those who have already done well.”

Mindfulness versus wellness

At the heart of Riley’s book is an analysis of the ongoing corporate and commercial tussle between ‘mindfulness’ and ‘wellness’. 

In 1979 Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where he taught ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’. For Kabat-Zinn mindfulness meant accepting the inevitable stress that comes with the ‘full catastrophe’ of life and adopting an attitude of serene resilience in the face of it. Stress could be alleviated thanks to a regular meditation routine and small changes made to the working day such as the decision to try a different, more pleasant commute. Little was said about altering the pace of the work causing the stress in the first place. 

By contrast, John Travis, a medical doctor who founded the Wellness Resource Center in California’s Marin County in 1975, talked about the health dangers of sedentary, office-based jobs while Don Ardell, author of High Level Wellness (1977), encouraged his readers to become agents of change in the workplace. Both saw work-fixated lifestyles as the problem. Work and work-related stress was thus something to fix, not to endure.     

Ardell argued that because burn-out was becoming increasingly common it was incumbent upon employers to offer paid time off to improve employee well-being. Better to be too well to come to work, reasoned Ardell, than too sick. “We tend to think that flexible hours and remote working are relatively new concepts, particularly in the digital and post-COVID eras,” adds Riley, “but Ardell was calling for this half a century ago.” 

Riley argues that the techniques of mindfulness, rather than those of wellness, have proved attractive to contemporary corporate culture because they ultimately help to maintain the status quo. Corporate mindfulness puts the onus on the employee to weather the storm of stress. It says, “there is nothing wrong with the firm, you are the problem, this is the pace, get with it or leave”.  

According to Riley this view is a far-cry from the thinking of seventies wellness advocates like Travis and Ardell who “imagined a health-oriented citizenship, a process of development in which social well-being follows on from the widespread optimistic and goal-oriented pursuit of personal health. It’s that sense of social mission that self-care has lost.”

Riley points out that this self-care mission had a very particular meaning in the 1970s among groups like The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which established clinics and ran an ambulance service for black communities in and around Oakland, California. “They were saying you’ve got to look after yourself so you can then look after your community. Such communal effort was vital because the system was seen to be so opposed to Oakland’s needs. One sees the deeply political potency of ‘self-care’ in this context. It meant radical, collective autonomy, not indulgent self-regard.”

The Bad Guru

As well as suggesting positive lessons from the past, Riley is also quick to call out the problems. “The emphasis on self-responsibility in wellness culture could easily turn into a form of patient-blame,” he argues, “the idea that if you’re ill, or rather if you fail to be well, it’s your fault, a view that neglects to consider all kinds of social and economic factors that contribute to ill-health.”

Elsewhere, Riley draws attention to the numerous claims of exploitation and abuse within the wider context of the alternative health systems, new religious movements and ‘therapy cults’ that proliferated in the 1970s. 

“It was not always a utopia of free thought. The complex and often unregulated world of New Age groups and alternative health systems could often be a minefield of toxic behaviour, aggressive salesmanship and manipulative mind games. Charismatic and very persuasive human engineers were a common presence in the scene, and one can easily see these anxieties reflected in the various ‘bad gurus’ of the period’s fiction and film. 

“There are plenty of voices who say they gained great insights as a result of being pushed to their limits in these situations,” says Riley, “but many others were deeply affected, if not traumatised, by the same experiences.”


Self-Experimentation 

In addition to exploring the literature of the period, Riley’s research for Well Beings found him trying out many of the therapeutic practices he describes. These included extended sessions in floatation tanks, guided meditation, mindfulness seminars, fire walking, primal screaming in the middle of the countryside, remote healing, yoga, meal replacement and food supplements.

 

References

J. Riley, Well Beings: How the Seventies Lost Its Mind and Taught Us to Find Ourselves. Published by Icon Books on 28th March 2024. ISBN: 9781785787898.

A new cultural history of the 1970s wellness industry offers urgent lessons for today. It reveals that in the seventies, wellness was neither narcissistic nor self-indulgent, and nor did its practice involve buying expensive, on-trend luxury products. Instead, wellness emphasised social well-being just as much as it focused on the needs of the individual. Wellness practitioners thought of self-care as a way of empowering people to prioritise their health so that they could also enhance the well-being of those around them.

Wellness was much more practical, accessible and politicalJames RileyEli Christman via Flikr under a cc licensePeople doing yoga together outdoors in Richmond USA in 2015


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Pythagoras was wrong: there are no universal musical harmonies, study finds

Tue, 27/02/2024 - 09:30

According to the Ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, ‘consonance’ – a pleasant-sounding combination of notes – is produced by special relationships between simple numbers such as 3 and 4. More recently, scholars have tried to find psychological explanations, but these ‘integer ratios’ are still credited with making a chord sound beautiful, and deviation from them is thought to make music ‘dissonant’, unpleasant sounding. 

But researchers from the University of Cambridge, Princeton and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, have now discovered two key ways in which Pythagoras was wrong.

Their study, published in Nature Communications, shows that in normal listening contexts, we do not actually prefer chords to be perfectly in these mathematical ratios.

“We prefer slight amounts of deviation. We like a little imperfection because this gives life to the sounds, and that is attractive to us,” said co-author, Dr Peter Harrison, from Cambridge’s Faculty of Music and Director of its Centre for Music and Science.

The researchers also found that the role played by these mathematical relationships disappears when you consider certain musical instruments that are less familiar to Western musicians, audiences and scholars. These instruments tend to be bells, gongs, types of xylophones and other kinds of pitched percussion instruments. In particular, they studied the ‘bonang’, an instrument from the Javanese gamelan built from a collection of small gongs.

“When we use instruments like the bonang, Pythagoras's special numbers go out the window and we encounter entirely new patterns of consonance and dissonance,” Dr Harrison said.

“The shape of some percussion instruments means that when you hit them, and they resonate, their frequency components don’t respect those traditional mathematical relationships. That's when we find interesting things happening.”

“Western research has focused so much on familiar orchestral instruments, but other musical cultures use instruments that, because of their shape and physics, are what we would call ‘inharmonic’. 

The researchers created an online laboratory in which over 4,000 people from the US and South Korea participated in 23 behavioural experiments. Participants were played chords and invited to give each a numeric pleasantness rating or to use a slider to adjust particular notes in a chord to make it sound more pleasant. The experiments produced over 235,000 human judgments.

The experiments explored musical chords from different perspectives. Some zoomed in on particular musical intervals and asked participants to judge whether they preferred them perfectly tuned, slightly sharp or slightly flat. The researchers were surprised to find a significant preference for slight imperfection, or ‘inharmonicity’. Other experiments explored harmony perception with Western and non-Western musical instruments, including the bonang.

Instinctive appreciation of new kinds of harmony

The researchers found that the bonang’s consonances mapped neatly onto the particular musical scale used in the Indonesian culture from which it comes. These consonances cannot be replicated on a Western piano, for instance, because they would fall between the cracks of the scale traditionally used. 

“Our findings challenge the traditional idea that harmony can only be one way, that chords have to reflect these mathematical relationships. We show that there are many more kinds of harmony out there, and that there are good reasons why other cultures developed them,” Dr Harrison said.

Importantly, the study suggests that its participants – not trained musicians and unfamiliar with Javanese music – were able to appreciate the new consonances of the bonang’s tones instinctively.

“Music creation is all about exploring the creative possibilities of a given set of qualities, for example, finding out what kinds of melodies can you play on a flute, or what kinds of sounds can you make with your mouth,” Harrison said.

“Our findings suggest that if you use different instruments, you can unlock a whole new harmonic language that people intuitively appreciate, they don’t need to study it to appreciate it. A lot of experimental music in the last 100 years of Western classical music has been quite hard for listeners because it involves highly abstract structures that are hard to enjoy. In contrast, psychological findings like ours can help stimulate new music that listeners intuitively enjoy.”

Exciting opportunities for musicians and producers

Dr Harrison hopes that the research will encourage musicians to try out unfamiliar instruments and see if they offer new harmonies and open up new creative possibilities. 

“Quite a lot of pop music now tries to marry Western harmony with local melodies from the Middle East, India, and other parts of the world. That can be more or less successful, but one problem is that notes can sound dissonant if you play them with Western instruments. 

“Musicians and producers might be able to make that marriage work better if they took account of our findings and considered changing the ‘timbre’, the tone quality, by using specially chosen real or synthesised instruments. Then they really might get the best of both worlds: harmony and local scale systems.”

Harrison and his collaborators are exploring different kinds of instruments and follow-up studies to test a broader range of cultures. In particular, they would like to gain insights from musicians who use ‘inharmonic’ instruments to understand whether they have internalised different concepts of harmony to the Western participants in this study.

Reference

R. Marjieh, P.M.C. Harrison, H. Lee, F. Deligiannaki, & N. Jacoby, ‘Timbral effects on consonance disentangle psychoacoustic mechanisms and suggest perceptual origins for musical scales’, Nature Communications (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-024-45812-z

The tone and tuning of musical instruments has the power to manipulate our appreciation of harmony, new research shows. The findings challenge centuries of Western music theory and encourage greater experimentation with instruments from different cultures.

There are many more kinds of harmony out therePeter HarrisonAndrew Otto via Flikr under a CC licenseA man playing a bonang


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Aim policies at ‘hardware’ to ensure AI safety, say experts

Wed, 14/02/2024 - 11:28

Chips and datacentres – the “compute” driving the AI revolution – may be the most effective targets for risk-reducing AI policies as they have to be physically possessed, according to a new report.

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New report into Turkey-Syria earthquakes uncovers deficiencies in building structures and construction shortcuts were the main cause of casualties

Mon, 05/02/2024 - 17:19

A new, independent field investigation into the aftermath of the Turkey-Syria earthquakes has found that a drive for profit has pushed all players within the construction industry to take shortcuts, with building stock primarily made of Reinforced Concrete (RC) structures, being the main cause of the casualties. 

Findings show that deficiencies were also recorded among even the newest building stock. This is despite established technical know-how, state-of-the-art building codes and rigorous building regulations. 

The longitudinal study report published here today by the Institution of Structural Engineers for EEFIT, was co-led by Cambridge's Professor Emily So, Professor of Architectural Engineering and Director of the Cambridge University Centre for Risk in the Built Environment (CURBE). Some of the findings include:

  • The drive for profit pushes players within the construction industry to take shortcuts. The auditing and quality control mechanisms embedded in the legal and bureaucratic processes should be strengthened to ensure code compliance. The legalisation of non-compliant buildings through amnesties cannot continue. 
  • Critically, despite established technical know-how, state-of-the-art building codes and rigorous building regulations, deficiencies in Reinforced Concrete (RC) structures were found even in the newest building stock. This demonstrates that seismic resilience is not only a technical problem in Turkey, but one that demands a multi-sectoral and interdisciplinary dialogue, scrutinising the regulatory system, bureaucracy, the legal and political backdrop within which the construction sector operates in Turkey. 
  • Building stock is primarily composed of Reinforced Concrete structures, which were therefore the main cause of the casualties. The team saw problems with such structures across their whole lifecycle from design to implementation and post-occupancy stages. The structures therefore did not withstand the seismic pressures.  
  • A review of building stock and infrastructure is critical to understand risk levels for future earthquakes. Lack of publicly available data is a big problem in Turkey, hindering not only a robust inquiry into damage and associated building characteristics, but also reliably establishing the risk profiles for future events. 
  • Debris management and demolishment practices have not fully recognised the potential of mid-/long-term environmental and public health implications. Field observations and contacts in the affected communities show that they are already affected by the poor air quality. The Compulsory Earthquake Insurance (CEI) is a system that was put in place in Turkey following the 1999 earthquakes to provide monetary reserves to fund the management of future disasters. The extent to which these funds have been used and how resources have been allocated remain unclear.' 

Read the full report and findings here.

Professor So says: “The 2023 Türkiye and Syria earthquakes were truly tragic, hitting an already fragile population, including migrants. Our field work and remote analysis revealed many issues, including the issue of non-compliant buildings with little seismic resilience. Building code compliance needs to be strengthened.” 

EEFIT - a joint venture between industry and universities - gathered a team of 30 global experts to assess the damage and develop suggestions to reduce future impacts and vulnerabilities. They studied the science, engineering and data related to the earthquakes including geotechnics, the structural and infrastructure impact, and the relief response and recovery.

 

 

The Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team (EEFIT), co-led by Professor Emily So, today publishes its findings and recommendations.

Our field work and remote analysis revealed many issues, including the issue of non-compliant buildings with little seismic resilience. Building code compliance needs to be strengthened.” Professor Emily SoEEFITA partially-collapsed building in the aftermath of the Turkey-Syria earthquakes in 2023.


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The graduate student rewriting Deaf histories and disability histories

Fri, 05/01/2024 - 12:00

When Kirstie Stage was diagnosed with hearing loss, she realised that the experiences of Deaf and disabled people were missing from the history books. Kirstie is determined to bring these narratives to the fore.

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