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Topic Recommends: Mass Panic, Placebos, Fake Diners

Fifty-nine years ago today, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin sat at his command desk, having completed the first outer space orbit of Earth on April 12, 1961. He died in 1968, when his fighter jet crashed during a routine training flight. Courtesy of Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images

Topic Recommends: Mass Panic, Placebos, Fake Diners

The first installment of our biweekly column.

For years now, we’ve admired Laura Olin’s regular email dispatches on the best stories, videos, Twitter threads—you name it—circulating on the internet. We are so pleased, then, that she’s agreed to bring her curatorial taste to Topic.

Every other week, using our monthly themes as a prompt, Topic Recommends will bring the very best stuff from around the web for you to watch, listen to, read, and enjoy. Anything, really, besides the news.

This time, Laura takes on our April theme: belief. Sign up to get this as a newsletter here.

1. Summer Is Coming. How do you talk to people who don’t believe in climate change?

2. Alien Mass. The day before Halloween, 1938: Orson Welles, age 23, stages a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’s story about aliens attacking the earth called The War of the Worlds. You were probably taught in school that people around the United States believed the report was real rather than fiction, and that the incident was a famous instance of mass panic: a parable of dangerously new mass media leading unsuspecting people to believe fantastical things they’d never believe otherwise. But it turns out there’s little evidence to believe that those credulous, panicked Americans ever existed at all. Newspapers accounts of people taking to the streets “were almost entirely anecdotal and largely based on sketchy wire-service roundups that emphasized breadth over in-depth detail.” Welles, a lifelong giant ham, may have helped perpetuate the legend as a (successful!) means of personal myth-making. You can listen to the entire War of the Worlds broadcast on YouTube and judge its believability for yourself.

3. Doors of Misperception. Handy for correcting yourself, impressing your friends, and undermining your nemeses: a list of cognitive biases and a list of common misconceptions.

4. The Real Thing. Here’s something wild: we don’t know all that much about how the placebo effect—a cornerstone of medicine and all of human health—really works. Accounts of people who have have rid themselves longstanding back ailments, chronic pain, and leg injuries just by believing that they’ve been cured may be the closest thing to real-life alchemy or magic that we have. But recent research shows that the placebo effect may be less about the healing powers of belief, and more about biochemicals in the brain. That discovery has tons of implications for the pharmaceutical industry, the practice of modern medicine, and all of us.

5. Real Truman Show. “Reminiscence therapy” is a treatment for Alzheimer’s that involves putting patients with dementia in circumstances that bring them back to the times of their lives that they remember most vividly. For many patients now in their 70s and 80s, that time is the 1950s and '60s. In Chula Vista, just outside San Diego, there's a daytime treatment facility called Town Square that resembles a movie set: it has a fake diner, a movie theater, a city hall. This benevolent, Truman Show-like alternate reality—possibly helping patients believe they are living in circumstances that are more familiar to them than a traditional in-patient facility would be—helps them interact “in ways not always available to those with dementia.” It used to be the consistent policy of care facilities to remind patients of their true circumstances in moments of lucidity. ("You have dementia. Your husband is dead. I’m not Susie.") But recently, it’s become more accepted to use “therapeutic fibbing” as a treatment option. Sometimes, a lie is kinder than the truth. 6. Picture Pages. The tech angle: how Instagram is leading teens to believe in conspiracy theories. 7. Rosetta Stone. In 2009, a young PhD student learned about a technique in an ethics class that gave him some hope for helping his nonverbal brother, DJ, then 30, communicate with words for the first time. The technique, called "facilitated communication," involved a trained practitioner steadying a nonverbal person at their elbow, shoulder, or forearm to help them point to images or type on a keyboard—and potentially share thoughts with the outside world that they had never had the means to express before.

The PhD student asked his professor, Anna Stubblefield, if she might be able to help him see if facilitated communication would work for DJ. The events that followed hinged on faith in a technique that may help free people from silence—or just help those around them believe that's what's happening.

This article originally published as the Topic Recommends newsletter on April 12, 2019. Like what you see? Sign up here.

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