Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Entrevue en Français à Radio Canada et BC Book Week!

Ever since my interview on CBC Radio last Tuesday with Danielle Marcotte, I’ve caught myself thinking in French from time to time. It’s wonderful. The French language is a sensual language, with full-bodied vowels and sharp consonants that slide off the tongue like a French kiss. Speaking French is like making love. It’s intense, lyrical, interactively fun and ultimately satisfying.

Alors, merci, Danielle! Merci!

So, what was I doing on CBC Radio, you might ask? I’d been invited by Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine to join editors Karl and Stephanie Johanson and fantasy author Janine Cross in a series of readings, mine from my short story, Virtually Yours (selected for “The Best of Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine”) as part of the Main Street Literary Tour (one of the events of BC Book and Magazine Week 2009). My interview with CBC focused on this event. It was a blast!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Laugh Your Way to Health & Success

The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease—Voltaire

Laughing makes you stronger, friendlier and sexier, says psychologist Steve Ayan in an article in the April/May 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind, entitled, “Laughing Matters.” LOL! Who would have thought, huh? Ayan contends that “seeing the bright side of life may strengthen the psyche, ease pain and tighten social bonds.” Cheerfulness, he tells us, is linked to emotional resilience—the ability to keep a level head in difficult circumstances.
Oh, and it’s also very sexy.

It seems that we’re hardwired for humor; but in different ways, depending on whether we’re extroverts or introverts. Allan L. Reiss and a team of researchers at Standford University School of Medicine demonstrated in 2005 that extroverts reacted to jokes primarily through the prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex and introverts through the amygdala and the temporal lobe—pleasurable emotions originating from different parts of the brain in these two groups.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Home is Where the Heart Is

You are environment; and environment is you—Nina Munteanu

In a recent Scientific American Mind article, entitled "Building Around the Mind" Emily Anthes recounts the story of how prizewinning biologist Jonas Salk came up with the polio vaccine in the 1950s. According to Anthes, Salk’s progress was slow in his dark basement laboratory in Pittsburg, so he decided to travel to Assisi, Italy, to clear his head. Amid his ambles within the cloistered courtyards and elegant columns of a 13th Century monastery, Salk was struck with fresh insights, including the one that led to his successful polio vaccine. Salk was convinced that he’d drawn his inspiration from the contemplative setting.

With the belief that a building’s architecture strongly influenced the mind, Salk teamed up with architect Louis Kahn to build the spacious Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. The institute functioned as a scientific facility devoted to stimulating breakthroughs and encouraging creativity through architectural design.

“Half a century after Salk’s inspiring excursion, behavioral scientists are giving these hunches an empirical basis,” writes Anthes. “They are unearthing tantalizing clues about how to design spaces that promote creativity, keep students focused and alert, and lead to relaxation and social intimacy.”

In an earlier post of mine (about the circular campus of UVic), I explored the idea of the “circle” in architectural design and how it may affect people’s social interaction and intellectual performance. I also looked at a prototype circular city in the Venus Project.

The field of environmental psychology that blossomed in the early 1960s spawned a new merging of brain science with architecture. What’s interesting is that some architecture schools now offer courses in introductory neuroscience. The question, according to Eve Edelstein (visiting neuroscientist at the University of California and adjunct professor at the new School of Architecture and Design in San Diego) was “how can we use the rigorous methods of neuroscience and a deeper understanding of the brain to inform how we design?”

Results are already taking root in various projects, such as 1) residences for seniors with dementia in which the building itself is part of the treatment and 2) the redesign of a school in London to promote social cohesion and foster alertness and creativity.

In a 2007 study, Joan Meyers-Levy, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, reported that the height of a room’s ceiling affects how people think. “Ceiling height affects how you process information,” says Meyers-Levy. “You focus on the specific details in the lower-ceiling condition.” While higher ceilings encourage more free thinking, leading to conceptual and abstract ideas. A study published in 2000 by environmental psychologist Nancy Wells found that ample daylight and greenery boosted attentiveness, focus and academic performance. A UK study demonstrated that a spacious and attractive courtyard encourages positive social interaction. A recent heuristic and in-depth study by Nina Munteanu at the Vancouver downtown library determined that the addition of a Starbucks or Blenz Coffee shop to such an environment added an element of intellectual incentive, not unlike what the French outdoor cafés of Paris provide (little grin).

“Architects have long intuited that the places we inhabit can affect our thoughts, feelings and behavior,” writes Anthes. Indeed, since ancient times people have applied aesthetic ideals to increase well-being in one’s dwelling. For instance, the Chinese art of Feng shui or the Indian Vaastru Shastra aim to harmonize the flow of life-energy through a house by applying intuited truths of Heaven (astronomy) and Earth (geography) to receive positive qi or prana. Such practices stem from and have a large basis in our strong connection with our environment (e.g., biogeoclimatic zone, soils and geology, nearby water, air quality, etc.) and influences of what researcher Stephen J. Field calls “space weather”, which encompasses weather events, geo- and electromagnetism, ambient plasma, dark matter, light & radiation (e.g., solar winds and flares), polarity, and our senses and openness to these connections. Whether you’re inside or outside, these all interact with you and affect you.

So, what is your home like? How have you incorporated and enhanced the intrinsic beauty and pleasing qualities of your surroundings in the design of your immediate environment?

Friends have observed of me that I can enclose myself in a “bubble” of focus when I write and therefore can write just about anywhere. One friend delights in telling others how I literally “existed on another plane” while writing on my laptop in a bustling recreation centre as my son cavorted in the pool with his friends some years ago. I was “somewhere else”. Of late, I have been travelling a great deal from place to place, doing book tours, giving lectures, workshops and readings. While I find each environment welcoming in its own way (e.g., crashing at a friend’s place or a nice hotel), I am aware that I carry my own “home” with me. I suppose that’s because I am, according to some friends, a bit of a gypsy (my father vehemently refuted my suggestion, which makes me very suspicious that we carry their blood). Sometimes I carry my home better than other times and some places are more conducive to me doing it than others. The strongest influence on me is provided by the “life energy” that radiates from the people I am closest to who surround me at the time. We are environment; and environment is us.

As for home...Home is where the heart is.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


It’s my birthday today … and I’ve decided to express the REAL me…

A friend of mine recently gave me a rather rude birthday card that described an Aries (the ram) person a little too well. Giving me the card suggested that I was possibly some or ALL of these things…

The card listed these traits: restless, reckless, impatient, temperamental, opinionated, BOSSY, lustful, impulsive, headstrong, blunt, brash, jealous, self-centered, impetuous, irresponsible, quick-tempered, self-indulgent, confident, competitive, argumentative, self-absorbed, volatile…

Well, she REALLY DOESN’T KNOW ME AT ALL! (big pout…stomps foot)

For instance, where does it say in there about my incridibl inteligenz?

Or that I’m a gifted guitar player and can sing "Bobby Magee" with a raunchy voice?

Or that I can speak three languages well and four languages terribly?

Or how I can even get the mailman to laugh?

Or that I’m destined for greatness and will likely become famous on the planet Vega 11209 for my incredible LOLquotes?

Or my mystical ability to motivate co-workers to do my work?

Or my consummate multi-tasking abilities (I can stand on my head and chew gum at the same time)?

Or how I can coax a Plymouth Acclaim to career on two wheels?

Or about my totally rad fashion sense and brilliant bling?

...Okay…maybe she knows me a little… (silly grin)…

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hitting a Moving Target—What is Normal?

“We have an epidemic of attention deficit disorder—or at least, we have an epidemic of diagnoses of that condition. And the culprit most often named? The use of computers,” wrote Hugo and Nebula Award winning author Robert J. Sawyer in the March 20 (2009) issue of the Ottawa Citizen entitled, All Screens Are Not Equal. “But is there really something wrong with huge numbers of young people today?” he goes on to pose. “Has computer use rotted their brains?”

“Or is it—perhaps—that there’s something wrong with how we’re defining normal?” taunts Sawyer.

He goes on to say that our psychological tests for measuring attention were developed between the 1950s and the 1990s, during a time that the kind of screen that dominated society was the passive screen of TV and the phenomenon of the “couch potato”. Today’s dominant screen is the computer screen, whose interactivity has very little in common with the passive screen of TV. In fact, asserts Sawyer, the computer is “far from being harmful.” Rather, it is “a key to survival in the new world.”

Psychologists have demonstrated that playing video games, for instance, exercise the mind and improve memory and alertness. Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent with the Telegraph, reported that such play also reverses cognitive decline, “making the brain more agile” and improving an elderly person’s ability to juggle multiple tasks. So much so that a growing market of computer games is being marketed for the elderly (e.g., Nintendo DS portable games). The December 11 2008 issue of the Washington Post reported that past studies “have shown that playing video games [have] many positive benefits, ranging from improved problem-solving abilities in young people to improved operating skills in surgeons.”

The December 2008 issue of Psychology and Aging reports findings of researchers Chandramallika Basak, Art Kramer and other researchers who tested the cognitive abilities in people in their 60s and 70s before and after playing the real-time strategy video game “Rise of Nations”, which rewards the complex task of creating a society (which includes building cities, employing people and expanding territory). You guessed it; those who played the game displayed enhanced cognitive abilities, memory, and alertness. “When we look at improvements in cognition,” says Basak, “it’s not just one thing that it is affecting, it is all integrative.” The benefits remained for weeks after and transferred to everyday tasks: things like “scheduling, planning, working memory, multi-tasking, and dealing with ambiguity,” which, according to Kramer, are harder for older people to do.

Sawyer was referring to a changing—evolving—paradigm in society. It is an evolution that embraces technology as part of who and what we are and will be. And that scares people. Change usually scares people. It takes us out of our “comfort zones” and strips us of our carefully constructed masks. It puts us out there, where that part of us that neatly hides beneath our conformity is exposed: the part of us that is different, unique, and in many cases, unrealized. Change liberates our creative souls; it gives us a chance to be and express who we really are.

I found the commentary by online readers on Sawyer’s article fascinating. Commentary was a mix of enthusiastic agreement, cynical skepticism and barely masked fear. The major concerns were that playing video games and computer use are isolating and mitigate other health benefits provided by their use. I found one comment particularly interesting that responded to Sawyer’s assertion that kids are “creating videos, building websites, and publishing thousands of words of text each day…doing high-quality work…doing things on their own that it used to take large teams to accomplish.” The comment suggested that this was a bad thing, because it was ultimately anti-social and that scientific studies had proven that multi-tasking “actually harms the brain’s ability to learn.”

Is it not a bit hypocritical to point this “moral” finger at kid’s creative use of computers when we as adults (many of us at any rate) spend our work time AND play time in front of computers ourselves? Basak suggests that playing strategy-based games such as chess or online interactive video games with other people provides the same benefits without sacrificing social interaction.

And, while several studies have shown that workers required to multi-task in the workplace can be less productive than those with fewer tasks to perform, other studies have shown that the ability to multi-task can be highly beneficial. For instance, a recent study by Kleider, Parrott and King of Georgia State University demonstrated that multi-tasking policemen were less likely to shoot an innocent person. “In cognitive psychology, operation span—or working memory—is an overarching cognitive mechanism that indicates the ability to multi-task…People with a higher capacity are able to keep more things ‘in play’ at one time,” said Kleider.

I think it quite apt that Sawyer’s article in the Ottawa Citizen precedes his book tour for the first book of his new series on the World Wide Web. It’s entitled “Wake”.

So, what IS normal?

Recommended Reading:
Basak, C., W.R. Boot, M. Voss, and A. Kramer. 2008. Can training in a real-time strategy videogame attenuate cognitive decline in older adults? Psychology and Aging 23: 765-777.

Boot, Walter, Arthur Kramer, Daniel J. Simons, Monica Fabiani, and Gabriele Gratton. 2008. The effects of video game playing on attention, memory, and executive control. Acta Psychologica 129: 387-398.

De Lisi, R. & J.L. Wolford. 2002. Improving children’s mental rotation accuracy with computer game playing. The Journal of Genetic Psychology 163:272-282.

Green, C.S. & D. Bavelier. 2003. Action video game modifies visual selective attention. Nature 423:534-537.

Kleider, H., D. Parrott, & T. King. 2009. Shooting Behavior: How Working Memory and Negative Emotionality Influence Police Officer Shoot Decisions. Applied Cognitive Psychology (in press).

Kramer, A.F., & S.L. Willis. 2002. Enhancing the cognitive vitality of older adults. Current Directions in Psychological Science 11: 173-177.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Facepalming with Jean-Luc Picard...

I freaked myself out, after watching the bleak and thoughtful apocalyptic "Knowing" (by Alex Proyas, director of "I, Robot") the other day--I think it was April 1st too, so that didn't help (I'll post a review of it eventually)--then I experienced a spate of interesting anomalies, including a self-inflicted one, like locking myself out of my office. I think karma was kicking in as I engaged in some very weird conversations with friends and family. Then my friends started to look at me strangely (well, they do that anyway, but they were doing it more). Several of them were doing the "FACEPALM" thing after I'd say something...

What? You don't know about facepalming? You obviously haven't been reading the Urban Dictionary or met Jean-Luc Picard... He is the consumate facepalmer.

Well, let me edify you on this very serious subject. According to Moondog in the Urban Dictionary,

To facepalm is: "the act of dropping one's face/forehead into one's hand. Usually accompanied by a thunk or a cry of "d'oh!"

Seungsation defines facepalm as "the only logical answer to a stupid question or statement." And gives this example:

Guy 1: " Dude, how to I get my Siege Tank into Siege-Mode?"

Guy 2: *facepalm*

The Wiktionary give this definition for facepalm:

to facepalm (third-person singular simple present facepalms, present participle facepalming, simple past and past participle facepalmed):

1) to bring the palm of one’s hand to one’s face as an expression of mixed humor and disbelief or disgust or shame, for example, when one is caught off-guard with a particularly bad pun.
2) To bring one’s face down to one’s cupped hand or hands.

If that doesn't give you a good idea of context check out these keywords that The Urban Dictionary uses for facepalm: headesk, idiot, stupid, plam, retard, lol, lmao, epic fail. Well, that pretty much sums it up for me.

Oh, one last thing. I think facepalming is a sign of intelligence. After all, Jean-Luc does it all the time. And cats are apparently good at it too.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Are All Canadians Fringe Dwellers?

When I agreed to participate in a study of Romanian writers by the University of Bucharest, I didn’t expect that it would lead to meeting another Canadian writer. That is how fate works…and serendipity. I was talking about seeing life through a different lens in an earlier post, written while still sleep deprived: viewing the world turned upside down or careering on its side. WOOEE!

Then PhD student, Marilena Dracea, at the University of Bucharest who was studying my written works introduced me to a fellow Canadian writer. That in itself is a wondrous thing—that someone half across the world would introduce me to someone in my own country. His name is Shane Joseph. Joseph has written several books. One is entitled Fringe Dwellers. It’s a collection of short stories about the marginalized people in society, those who for some reason or another have suffered some kind of prejudice or treatment as lesser individuals: widows, divorcees, immigrants, unemployed executives, the aged, the young, the poor, those with a perceived mental or physical “infirmity”. He writes about people who once may have led a normal life until a twist in the road—an epiphany, decision, stroke of fate—sent them into the fringes of society.

I would add: or until a collision with an unsavory or unconscionable force or unfair societal condition sent them spinning off the well-beaton path, injured but "enriched". And what of those who have always been perceived this way?

Joseph describes the scenario of a woman who was expelled from her family because she decided to leave the fundamentalist religious organization she was born into. He wrote about a man who is a war hero ... and a bum. Then there was the priest of a dying congregation in a booming suburb. Who are the marginalized and what does that mean? These are people who have a different viewpoint than the current one popular in their culture or region. These are people who may look different, act different, think and speak different, even smell different from the rest. They are generally looked upon askance or overlooked entirely; they are avoided or ridiculed or slandered for being different. They are misunderstood, perhaps even perceived as threatening (to the status quo or precious traditions and rules) just for being who they are.

What is it to be different and how did they get there? Most of the time it isn't an overt choice. Most people don't say to themselves, "I'm going to be different." However, it usually arises from having made some kind of decision (usually from the heart) that ends up setting them apart and making them different, or at least perceived as different (I guess that's the same thing in the end). The view is the opposite of the "mob mentality", which is driven by fear and the need to be the same. To "blend in".

Our society tends to view "fringe dwellers" as "broken" somehow, requiring subduing, in need of alteration (through drugs or some other rehabilitation technique to help them conform); social mores compell us to use our compassion, even our pity on these "wayward" unconventional souls. Instead, society could learn from them. For, like the scattered pieces of a broken mirror (that an ordered society would cast away as inconsequential or "messy") fringe dwellers offer diverse and fresh perspectives on all things important. They are the heralds of change and provide the scaffolding of a more plastic, flowing society that embraces its own evolution.

In a blog post entitled, “Are We All Fringe Dwellers?” Joseph shared that while doing his Canadian book tour, typical middle-class and apparently comfortably off Canadians shared perceptions of their own “marginalization”. This suggested to him that he had “tapped into the [Canadian] zeitgeist quite accidentally”.

Canada has long held international acclaim for its success as a multicultural society and for its ability to celebrate diversity through a federal constitution. In 1971 the Liberal Party government of Pierre Trudeau announced an unprecedented "Implementation of Policy of Multiculturalism within Bilingual Framework" in the House of Commons, the precursor of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of the Brian Mulroney Progressive Conservative government in 1988. This made Canada the first country in the world to declare multiculturalism as official state policy. Canada's cultural mosaic is described by some as pluralistic, which views each culture or subculture in a society as contributing unique and valuable cultural aspects to the whole culture. In a 2002 interview with the Globe and Mail, the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslims described Canada as "the most successful pluralist society on the face of our globe", citing it as "a model for the world."

Perhaps, it is because we are all Fringe Dwellers…

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.