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Study Finds Our Thoughts Are Susceptible to External Influence – Even Against Our Will

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By Beth Tagawa, SFSU News

For a recent San Francisco State University study, participants were asked to look at a commonplace image but avoid thinking of the word that corresponds with the image or how many letters are in that word. The task may seem simple, but the study found that when presented with ☼, for example, nearly 80 percent of people will automatically conjure up the word “sun” and about half will quietly count to three.

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This nifty little cognitive trick is not only amusing — the study also reveals that the stream of consciousness is more susceptible to external stimuli than had previously been proven. This research is the first demonstration of two thoughts in the stream of consciousness being controlled externally and against participants’ will.

“Our conscious thoughts seem protected from our surroundings, but we found that they are much more tightly linked to the external environment than we might realize, and that we have less control of what we will think of next,” said Ezequiel Morsella, associate professor of psychology and co-author of the study.

Morsella and his team showed the study’s participants 52 black-and-white images corresponding to familiar words of varying lengths — basic drawings including a fox, heart and bicycle. Participants were instructed not to subvocalize (speak in the mind) each word or how many letters the word had. On average, 73 percent subvocalized a word and 33 percent counted its letters.

“We triggered with our experiment not one but two different kinds of unintentional thoughts, and each thought required a substantial amount of processing,” Morsella said. “We think that this effect reflects the machinery of the brain that gives rise to conscious thoughts. When you activate the machinery — and it can be activated even by being told not to do something — the machinery cannot help but deliver a certain output into consciousness.”

The study found that people were much more likely to experience counting subvocalizations of shorter words. For words with three letters, 50 percent of participants reported counting. At six or more letters, the rate dropped to just over 10 percent. “It shows you the limits of the unconscious machinery that generates conscious thoughts — it seems that it can’t count above four or five,” Morsella said. He added that the limits to the automatic triggers are not clear, nor is it understood why they exist.

Morsella said that this research has important implications for the study of psychopathological disorders that afflict people with uncontrollable repetitive thoughts or, more commonly, the inability to stifle an obsession. “When people have a thought they can’t control, this machinery may be at work,” Morsella said. “We’re learning not only that the brain does work this way, but that unfortunately, under most circumstances, the brain should work like this.”

While it may seem counterintuitive, Morsella argues that the mind’s inability to shut out unwanted thoughts is a good thing in most cases. “A lot of things that seem bad about the brain reflect part of its overall architecture, which was selected through evolution because, in most cases, it is adaptive,” Morsella said.

Take guilt, for example. Just like most people can’t stop themselves from subvocalizing the word “sun” in response to an image of one, it can also be difficult to repress negative feelings after doing something wrong. “If you could override these kinds of thoughts, it would not be adaptive,” Morsella explained. “There is a reason why we feel guilt: to change future behavior. If you could snap your fingers and not feel guilty about something, guilt would cease to have a functional role.”

“External control of the stream of consciousness: stimulus-based effects on involuntary thought” was posted in the online version of the journal Consciousness and Cognition on Jan. 28 and will be published in the journal in May 2015. Co-authors of the study include Christina Merrick and Melika Farnia of SF State, Tiffany Jantz of the University of Michigan and Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco.

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Black History

Alexandre Dumas: The French Author of ‘The Three Musketeers’

Alexandre Dumas wrote plays, both comedies and dramas. Scholars describe his writing as having a “heavy emphasis on plot; his primary skill as a writer consisted of his capacity to imagine and execute tales of breathtaking adventures that cause the reader to experience feelings of excitement.”

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Alexandre Dumas.Wikipedia.org image.
Alexandre Dumas.Wikipedia.org image.

By Tamara Shiloh

Best known for having penned the historical adventure novels “The Three Musketeers” (1844) and “The Count of Monte Cristo,” (1846) Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870) established himself as one of the most popular and prolific authors in France.

He wrote essays, short stories, volumes of romantic novels, plays, and travelogues, many having been translated into more than 100 languages and adapted for numerous films. But Dumas’ own story begins with his father, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie.

Thomas-Alexandre adopted the Dumas name from his Haitian grandmother. He did so just prior to enlisting in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. He rose to the rank of general, the highest rank of any Black man in a European army. He would separate from the military after clashing with Bonaparte over his Egyptian Campaign.

The elder Dumas left Egypt in 1799 traveling on what was known to be an unsound vessel. The ship’s troubles forced it to put aground in Naples, a city in southern Italy. There Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was arrested, thrown into a dungeon, and held for two years.

After his release, he returned to France. The following year, Alexandre was born. Thomas-Alexandre died when his son was four.

Dumas’ mother, Marie Louise Labouret, took on several jobs to ensure that her son was educated. He attended Abbé Grégoire’s school, but later quit to take a job assisting a local notary.

He held such a great interest in reading and books that he relocated to Paris at age 20 to immerse himself in literature. There he met the duc d’Orléans (later named King Louis Philippe) and began working for him as a scribe. It was then that Dumas dreamed of publishing his own works.

He wrote plays, both comedies and dramas. Scholars describe his writing as having a “heavy emphasis on plot; his primary skill as a writer consisted of his capacity to imagine and execute tales of breathtaking adventures that cause the reader to experience feelings of excitement.”

Dumas’ style is often compared to that of his contemporary and rival Victor Hugo.

It is estimated that all his published writings, if placed in one document, would span about 100,000 pages.

Dumas did well financially, but his spending rivaled his earnings. He spent much of his life in debt because of his extravagant lifestyle. He built a home in the country himself (now a museum), but after two years of lavish living, financial difficulties forced him to sell it. Another downfall was that he kept several mistresses.

Dumas married actress Ida Ferrier (1840) yet continued to have relationships with other women. According to scholar Claude Schopp, Dumas entertained about 40 women and fathered at least four children outside of the marriage.

To escape creditors, Dumas fled to Belgium, then to Russia. Still, he published his work, including travel books on Russia. He continued to take on mistresses, including much younger women in his old age. He remained married to Ferrier until his death in 1870.

Suggested reading: “Alexandre Dumas: Genius of Life,” by Claude Schopp.

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Black History

Fort Mose: The First Free Black Settlement

Fort Mose was the first free Black settlement in what is now the United States, and the only one known to have been sponsored by a European colonial government. Two Fort Mose sites eventually existed: one occupied by the Spanish (1737–1740) and the other by Blacks (1752–1763). Although living there was peaceful, the settlement was not immune to violent opposition.

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Fort Mose as it may have appeared in the 1700s. PBChistoryonline.org photo.
Fort Mose as it may have appeared in the 1700s. PBChistoryonline.org photo.Fort Mose as it may have appeared in the 1700s. PBChistoryonline.org photo.

By Tamara Shiloh

During the 18th century, Florida had become a haven for colonial South Carolina’s fugitive slaves. This was a result of the competition between Spain and Britain. Spain held a flexible attitude toward slaves and Black freedmen and thus encouraged British-owned slaves to escape to Florida. Such a move would inevitably destabilize British colonization in the north.

Runaway slaves crossed swamps and forestlands on foot. Help provided by Native Americans along the way created the first Underground Railroad. Parts of the journey were treacherous, and many did not survive. Those who reached St. Augustine, Fla., were granted asylum by the Spanish government: freedom in exchange for converting to Catholicism. Male slaves served a term of military service.

The first group seeking these freedoms arrived in 1687: eight men, two women, and a three-year-old child. By 1738, the numbers increased to more than 100. That’s when the fortified town of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (Fort Mose) was constructed on St. Augustine’s northernmost border. (A fortified town is one with strong defenses, usually a massive wall structure and inner citadels or strongholds.)

Fort Mose was the first free Black settlement in what is now the United States, and the only one known to have been sponsored by a European colonial government. Two Fort Mose sites eventually existed: one occupied by the Spanish (1737–1740) and the other by Blacks (1752–1763). Although living there was peaceful, the settlement was not immune to violent opposition.

A war broke out between England and Spain (The War of Jenkins’ Ear: 1740–1750). Citizens of St. Augustine and Fort Mose had suddenly found themselves involved in a conflict spanning three continents. This action of war was The Battle of Fort Mose (then dubbed Bloody Mose or Bloody Moosa).

The English employed thousands of soldiers and dozens of ships to destroy St. Augustine. All runaway slaves were to be returned to their former owners. A blockade was set up and the city was bombarded for 27 consecutive days. Those protecting St. Augustine and Fort Mose were hopelessly outnumbered. But that did not stop a group of Blacks, whites, and Native Americans from pulling together and fighting back.

Capt. Francisco Menéndez, a formerly enslaved African, led Fort Mose’s free Black militia in protecting St. Augustine. They lost the fort briefly but were able to recapture it, holding back English forces. In 1763, Spain ceded all of La Florida to England (Treaty of Paris). The citizens of Fort Mose once again faced enslavement. To maintain their freedom, they abandoned the fort for safety in Havana, Cuba, then a colony of Spain.

Fort Mose was demolished by the British during the War of 1812. As the years passed, the land was swallowed by marsh; the important legacy of its community was forgotten.

But later in the 20th century, a team of archaeologists, historians, government leaders, and citizens restored Fort Mose to its rightful place of honor.

Today, the location of the fort occupied by Blacks is recognized as a significant local, national, and international historic landmark.

Image: http://www.fortwiki.com/Fort_Mose

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Crime

Assemblymember Demands Probe into Bomb Threat at California’s Only HBCU

Earlier this month, there were bomb threats at approximately eight historically Black colleges across the country: Spelman College in Atlanta; Howard University in Washington, D.C.; the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff; Florida Memorial University; Norfolk State University in Virginia; North Carolina Central University; Prairie View A&M University in Texas; and Xavier University in Louisiana.

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Founded in 1966, CDU has trained more than 8,000 health care professionals, including doctors, nurses and public health specialists.
Founded in 1966, CDU has trained more than 8,000 health care professionals, including doctors, nurses and public health specialists.

By California Black Media

Following a racist bomb threat Jan. 11 that disrupted operations and terrified students, faculty and staff at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (CDU) in Los Angeles, Assemblymember Mike A. Gipson (D-Carson) is calling on state and federal authorities to investigate.

CDU is the only historically Black college in California. It is also designated a “Minority-Serving Institution” by the U.S. Office for Civil Rights.

“As I heard about the violent threat leveled against California’s current and future doctors, nurses, and first responders, I was utterly enraged and pissed off! How can anyone threaten to take the lives of those who have committed themselves to provide life-saving services? This makes me sick to my stomach,” said Gipson in a statement.

Located in the Willowbrook community in Los Angeles, CDU prides itself on its high enrollment of minority students. Its student body is 80% students of color. About 71% of its faculty is Black, Latino or another ethnic minority.

“In light of the seriousness of this threat and the threats against Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across the nation, I’ve contacted the Governor’s Office, Attorney General’s Office, the Federal Department of Justice, and President Biden to take action against this racist attack NOW,” continued Gipson.

Earlier this month, there were bomb threats at approximately eight historically Black colleges across the country: Spelman College in Atlanta; Howard University in Washington, D.C.; the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff; Florida Memorial University; Norfolk State University in Virginia; North Carolina Central University; Prairie View A&M University in Texas; and Xavier University in Louisiana.

On Jan. 11, CDU officials say they discovered a bomb threat that had been e-mailed to a generic university e-mail address on Jan. 9.

The sender identified himself as a “Neo Nazi Fascist” and wrote: “…I will detonate all 3 of the Titanium Nitrate Sulfuric bombs. My reasoning … I want to show the Black Population what the White Man can do, we will take back our land!”

“The threat claimed that explosive devices had been planted on the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science campus in South Los Angeles. Out of an abundance of caution, CDU immediately closed the entire campus and notified authorities,” read a CDU statement.

CDU Campus Safety and local law enforcement completed a review of the grounds and facilities and determined that the campus is safe.

The campus reopened for operations Jan. 12, according to Jonathan Zaleski, CDU director of Communications.

Founded in 1966, CDU has trained more than 8,000 health care professionals, including doctors, nurses and public health specialists.

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