#11 – Jordan Crestwood: Within the Flame


Jordan Crestwood is the author of the apocalyptic tale Within the Flame: After the Fall, a new fiction series that explores the dark depths of the human psyche when confronted with the collapse of society and the nature of true heroism in the face of utter chaos. Crestwood (pen name of Josh Geckles) has been a lifelong writer who only recently entered the public sphere with the publication of After the Fall, Book 1. In this episode of ConverSapiens, he discusses his process as a writer and some of the influences on his life that led to the creation of the Within the Flame series. 

Check out Within the Flame: After the Fall Book 1 on Kindle/ Amazon today!

Where you can find Jordan:

Paranormal Investigation: The Spirit Seeking Methods

Kristy Sumner is the leader of Soul Sisters Paranormal, an all women team of paranormal investigators wielding advanced degrees who use academic-minded methods to research the history and reported paranormal activities at haunted locations. Kris joined ConverSapiens for episode 7 of the show to discuss their work. The following is an excerpt from our ghostly encounter!

What is a paranormal investigator?

For most people paranormal investigation is exactly what it sounds like: you go into a location and look for some type of unexplainable paranormal phenomena or event. They may look for a spirit and in some cases, people go in and look for demons if they want to call it that or negative energy, if you prefer the term. In my group, Soul Sisters Paranormal, we follow a two-tiered process. The first thing that we do is investigate and research the historical context of locations that we get to visit. Whether it’s somewhere related to the Civil War, or the Revolutionary War, or a famous site of an axe murder, for example, we really like to delve into the history of those locations. A major focus of Soul Sisters is to couple our paranormal investigations with those historical element.

Our second step is to control for activity that may have an explanation. Yes, paranormal investigators do go in to look for things that we can’t explain, but we also go into each investigation with a scientific mindset. We look for environmental factors that could be contributing to what people think is paranormal, i.e. light pollution, noise pollution, etc. Is there a train, airplane, heavy traffic, or anything like that that could explain what somebody may perceive as paranormal. Absent any of that, then we may call a phenomenon unexplainable. That’s after we’ve controlled for everything else, when we just cannot explain the reason for those occurrences. For example, when we went to the Exchange Hotel in Gordonsville, Virginia, we captured the voice of a small child. There are no children in our group, and there were no children on the property, so that is something that I will call unexplainable.

What sort of equipment do you use to capture a voice like that?

We use a variety of equipment. The first thing that we bring out, that we never go into an investigation without, is our voice recorders. We have 10 of them. They’re just Sony dictation voice recorders. I feel that the evidence they record is the hardest for me to debunk. Sometimes when we capture shadow figures or light anomalies, those are things that I can explain away, but for the most part, a voice emanating out of the darkness isn’t something I can explain.

We also take night vision video cameras. We have 20 of those that we set up in different places on the property that we’re investigating. We have laser grids that we use in conjunction with those night vision video cameras to see any movement that might block the lasers. We also have different pieces of handheld equipment that are designed to measure different things such as magnetic energy and static electricity.

In one of your videos, your team is at a private address in Florida. You went into a closet and said that you felt uneasy, so you stepped out of the closet and then asked if you should avoid that area, and the device in your hand went from one green dot to 5 red dots immediately. What is that? What is that device?

That device is a K2 meter and it measures electromagnetic energy fields. It was actually designed for electricians, originally. When we go to a location, we turn off the power and we leave behind all personal electronic devices. If the K2 starts to alarm, that’s something that is very hard for me to explain. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the meter has a light scale that it goes from green, which is really no energy, to red, which is high energy. When I stepped into that closet it was something that I felt a little bit uneasy about. It felt like a cold feeling, if you will. And then when I stepped out and began asking questions, the K2 meters did start going off.

Again, that’s pretty profound, because there is no electricity. It should not be going off. For the sake of argument, let’s say we do find an electrical current somewhere, like if we held it up to an outlet that was still powered or something like that. It would go off consistently and stay powered on to red. When I back off of it, it would go back to green. So theoretically, if I’m standing in an open room and there’s no spike on that device, I wouldn’t expect it to ever spike because there’s no energy acting upon it.

Does the use of a K2 meter work on the theory that paranormal entities are made up of electromagnetic energy?

It does, and we use it for that purpose. I do think that when we die, because we are made up of energy, that energy has to go somewhere, since it can’t be created or destroyed. So for those spirits that are what I would consider closer to the veil, let’s say, between this and whatever’s next, those entities can communicate with us and we use this tool as one method for them to do so. I’m not saying that every spirit that we encounter will set off the K2. Some don’t approach it or they’ll stand back and we’ll get an EVP from them.

You’ll hear a lot of people say, “I’m a paranormal expert.” I will never call myself a paranormal expert because it’s not a field that we can explain. We’re all dealing with theories on this. I can go to one location and collect evidence and another investigator can go to that same location and not get the same evidence. We very much are dealing with theory and that is one of them – that the energy of spirits will manipulate that device.

A standard K-II meter

What is an EVP?

It stands for Electronic Voice Phenomena. As I said earlier, we set up those voice recorders as a part of our investigations. An EVP is a voice, or a movement, or a sound that we capture on the voice recorder that we either didn’t hear in the moment or we did hear in the moment and can go back to the recordings to confirm. Or it could be something our recorders pick up when we aren’t even in the room. At the Exchange Hotel in Virginia we left one of those voice recorders on the bed in one of the the mock rooms they had set up. We were all in another part of the building. When we reviewed the recordings, we had captured that child’s voice I mentioned. He said, “Hi, this is my bed.” That is what we call an EVP. It’s a voice with an unknown origin.

In your videos from the Fort Mifflin investigation, there is a very clear EVP. You explain that your team is leaving some cigarettes and water for a spirit. The recordings pick up an audible “Thank you.” How did that come about?

To answer that, let me backtrack for a moment to explain to you how we do an investigation. Like I said before, we’ll find a location that we want to investigate primarily for the history. Fort Mifflin is a location that is very rich in history. It was a Revolutionary War Fort. It was later used during the Civil War to house both Union and Confederate prisoners in what they call the casemate. The casemates were designed as underground bunkers to house munitions during the Revolutionary War. During the Civil War, they housed prisoners in solitary confinement.

When we go to a place like Fort Mifflin the first thing that we do is take a day tour, because we want to scope out the area to decide where we can leave some of our stationary equipment during the night. We also want to know a little bit about the history of the location, so we’ll talk to a volunteer or a docent to discuss where they’ve had experiences or anything germane to the investigation. We also look at factors like light and noise pollution to rule them out, like I was saying earlier.

The night of the investigation, we’ll set up all of our stationary equipment. (Night vision video cameras, our voice recorders, etc.) We leave them in very specific places on the property based on what we find out earlier from the tour and interviews. That particular EVP came from casemate 11 at Fort Mifflin. It was a solitary confinement cell and one of the prisoners in that cell was a gentleman by the name of William Howe. He was tried for treason and found guilty, so they put him in that solitary confinement cell before they hung him at the fort.

When we do our background research, we try to look for any individuals that would have a story like that so that we can ask very specific questions during the investigation. We also bring in what we call trigger items, which are items that we feel could elicit some type of a response. For that situation, we figured he was in solitary confinement, so water would be a good thing. Cigarettes would be a good thing. We also took some food and left it there. We set up our equipment and walked away for a little while. When we came back, it was just myself and one other investigator. It’s a very small space so only about four people can fit in there comfortably at one time, and it’s subterranean. I can verify that we were the only two people in there because you see us step back into the room on camera.

When I asked, “Did you see what we left you? We left you some water and some cigarettes?” That’s when we got the “Thank you.” That was picked up on every piece of equipment that we had running at that moment, which is very compelling to us. And again, that’s something that I can’t explain because we were the only two people there. You can see on camera that our mouths aren’t moving, and we have no men with us in the group. We’re an all female group. So to come up with a man’s voice was very compelling for us.

Was that something that you could physically hear in the moment, or was it only picked up on the voice recorders?

In that instance, we heard it. did hear. If you watch the whole clip, you can hear us asking each other, “Did you hear that voice?” So yes, we heard that in the moment. We get that in a lot of the locations that we go to. We will hear things like that in the moment. Then we go back and verify it on our equipment. Those are most compelling pieces of evidence for us, when we hear something in the moment and then all of the equipment also picks it up.

An aerial shot of Fort Mifflin

Have you ever taken that same equipment and put it in a place that has no stories attached to the area? A place that is not haunted?

Yes. We’ve even taken it to locations where people perceive that there is a haunting and gotten nothing. We really are research-based in our approach. Again, we’re an all female group and all of us have advanced degrees, so we’ve been in academia our entire lives. That’s one of the things that we really pride ourselves on – to go in and really research these locations.

Here’s one example: We had an individual call us and he was convinced that the new business he had opened was haunted. His whole basis for that was that his nice night vision video cameras would turn on and off at night when nobody was there. He asked us to come do an investigation, so we did. If you can picture it, his storefront was all glass and he had some mirrors running down the side of it. It was kind of a narrow, boxy store. He had these night vision video cameras in all four corners.

Like I said, he was convinced that something was messing with his cameras. So we went in and set up our equipment, but we weren’t getting hits on anything. Our K2’s weren’t going off. Our rim pods weren’t going off. None of our handheld equipment was set off, and we weren’t feeling anything in the moment. We left our night vision video cameras there to run during the night and we left. When I went back the next morning to collect our equipment, I asked him, “Did your cameras go off during the night?” He said, “Oh yes, they were going off and on! Something was messing with them.” So I got him to give me the timestamps.

I cross referenced them to our night vision video camera footage and found that the way his storefront was positioned, it was in front of a median on a highway. When cars were making a U-turn, their headlights would shine in and bounce off the mirrors into his night vision video cameras which essentially turned off the night vision. When the car would pass, they would turn back on. That was consistent. Every time a car went by it was happening. So our advice was, take the mirrors down or switch the location of your your night vision video cameras. He did and the haunting stopped.

To hear our full conversation, check out episode 7 of ConverSapiens on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music or wherever else podcasts are played!

Isolated Facts: The Standardized Multiple Choice Conundrum

Dr. Jonathan Adams is a psychology professor with a Ph.D. in developmental psychology. I am a high school teacher with some… ideas about the failures of standardized testing and its impact on what our students learn, as well as what they come to believe “learning” is. In this excerpt from episode 5 of ConverSapiens, we talk about unprepared college freshmen and the jaded standardized testing-based system that leads them to believe that knowledge is just a set of isolated facts.

At our alma mater, Samford University, a professor of psychology named Dr. Chew gives a presentation for incoming freshmen each year where he talks about the challenges they may face when transitioning to college classes. Dr. Chew emphasizes the word “metacognition,” arguing that those freshmen often bring to the table a high school metacognition that ultimately doesn’t work at the college level. What does he mean when he says that?

Metacognition refers to your ability to assess your own knowledge. Here’s how I demonstrate this for my students: I show a very, very bad American Idol audition. It’s one of the ones where the singer actually thinks that they’re really, really good, but they’re awful. I show that to my freshmen and when they’re done laughing at it I’ll say, “Okay, this is you right now, entering college!”

That may sound a little bit harsh, but then I dovetail into metacognition and this notion that the best students have an understanding of what they know and what they don’t know. Gaining that understanding doesn’t happen overnight. I think the best way to assess your own metacognition is to put your notes away when you’re studying and write down as much as you can remember. You want to simulate the environment you’ll be testing in or at least the demands of that test. If you’re just passively reading and rereading and rereading and hoping it sticks, it’s not going to work.

Dr. Chew points out that those freshmen with “high school metacognition” often believe that knowledge is a set of isolated facts. How do we get away from that isolated fact, multiple choice style “knowledge” to reach a more interconnected picture of knowledge? How do we get students to think about learning in a deeper, more complete way?

Well, it all depends on your learning objectives. If you want students to come out with a certain idea or a certain competency, you have to specify it in your learning objectives. And this is something that I, as a fledgling professor, am still learning how to do. But we have to dictate those learning outcomes and then devise ways to get students from where they are to those final outcomes. If interdisciplinary connectedness is not a part of your curriculum, then students are not going to develop that competency. So you have to intentionally make it a part of your curriculum.

Do you think, on the assessment side of it, there’s a way we can improve?

I think we’ve got to start doing more writing based assignments. We just have to. There’s something about writing that the multiple choice task cannot capture. It can’t do it. And the reason that writing is often not assigned is that it’s a lot tougher to grade. At the end of a long day of teaching, you’re exhausted and you don’t want to look at those papers. But we need to have more writing assignments. If that means that we’ve got to hire more teachers, then so be it.

I have always suspected that the multiple choice standardized test is partly at blame for that shallow understanding of knowledge as well.

So objectives, for educators at the middle and high school levels, are dictated by test outcomes. That’s why you saw that big scandal in Atlanta a few years ago where teachers were actually changing students test answers, because the funding was directly tied to the student’s performance on the tests. Well, if that’s the case, then the entire system is going to be centered around getting students to get good scores on those tests rather than focusing on actually imparting knowledge. As long as they get good scores on the test, that’s fine. Now, if the test measured what you wanted it to measure, that’d be totally fine. But if the test is not sufficiently capturing the outcomes that we want our students to reach, then we think really have to rethink this approach. There’s actually something kind of similar going on in universities right now. In universities, we are really, really tied to our student evaluations.

There’s a subset psychologists and a few ragtag professors from other disciplines who are part of a scholarship that is examining pedagogy as a science. They’ve determined that active learning strategies, (less lecture based, more hands on instruction) produces better learning outcomes. That’s what the science says, and it is literally to the point that some scholars say doing lectures is like a medical professional giving their patients ineffective treatment; it’s actually unethical!

If we’re talking about concepts being imparted, to me that just goes back to the entire testing structure. It’s what I see as the “big bad standardized test” but however you want to frame it, it’s a question of whether the students can actually do something useful with the concepts their learning. If you take a multiple choice test that is easily gamed by cramming, word recognition, and elimination, does that really indicate that you are able to manage those concepts we’re trying to teach?

I’m totally agreeing with you there. And you do see some modified multiple choice testing now, which tries to dive more into why students choose certain answers. It’s a really interesting approach. That way you can give students partial credit for thinking and being on the right track, but even if they can’t demonstrate that they understand the higher level concept, they can still get some credit.

But going back to what I started to say about student evaluations in the university, the downfall of active learning strategies is that students don’t like it as much. They’ve found that they don’t like it as much and they actually would rather be lectured because they see active learning as a waste of time. You’d be amazed just how many students see teaching as a product and a service, especially at the college level.

I feel like a skipping record here, but when you when you talk about the students not liking active learning, perhaps that also goes back to expectations that are based on those poorly designed assessments. For example, maybe in high school I had a science class and I knocked it out of the park. I got a 100 on every multiple choice test and I was able to function in a system where you just kind of sit, half-aware, in class for an hour and then cram the night before the test, take that test and select the right suggestions that are already made to you by the multiple choice format, make an easy A+ and forget it all by the next day.

Yep, that’s exactly right. And students think that past success is indicative of future success.

The whole thing is very frustrating. What do you say to a teacher who wants to cut through that madness and actually teach something? Let’s say they find themselves in a traditional, lecture based classroom but want to change. What are some things they could start doing to make that happen?

One thing that I would say is that we have to work on establishing a better school climate. So forging stronger relationships with our students and getting to know our students on a personal level is going to increase their connectedness to the school. It’s going to make them feel safer in school and encourage them to act out less. They’re more likely to enjoy school and succeed long term when you have that warmer school climate. Another suggestion is that we need a more diverse curriculum. When students are in a school that doesn’t teach about people who look like them, they’re going to disengage. They’re going to unplug. The students need to feel represented in the curriculum.

And finally, I would say this: I recently read this article that shook my mind as a teacher. The title and premise of it was How Did This Class Prepare You for the End of the World? The thesis of the article was that as educators, we are usually teaching our students to succeed and a preexisting world. We’re teaching students to succeed and the world that exists as it is, but that world is not going to exist as it is 20 years from now. We need to teach students to be prepared to address the challenges that lie ahead. Maybe we need to start teaching students more explicitly about climate change and environmental justice. We definitely need to start teaching students about anti-racism. We definitely need to start teaching students about women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. We need to prepare our students to make this world a better place.

I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but I think we could achieve all of that more easily if we tried to step away that standardized, multiple choice, isolated facts understanding of “knowledge” and instead focused on teaching kids how to think so that they could work to solve whatever problems arise in their lifetimes.

Hear the full episode with Dr. Jonathan Adams on episode 5 of ConverSapiens! You can click the Listen Now! tab for links to the show on all podcasting platforms, or listen right here on our website.

Freud, Piaget & Vygotsky Walk into a Bar…

Dr. Jonathan Adams joined episode 5 of ConverSapiens to discuss his specialty, developmental psychology. In this excerpt from our conversation, he defines developmental psych and offers some thoughts on traditional psychoanalysis, modern therapy, and the developmental theories of Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, and Lev S. Vygotsky.

First off, what is developmental psychology, for those of us who have heard the term but don’t have a clear picture of what it means?

I’ll start off by defining psychology, which is the scientific study of behaviors and mental processes. When we say behaviors, we mean things that you can observe; mental processes, your thoughts, actions, feelings, etc. When we say scientific study, we mean that we’re examining these things empirically. So there’s a hypothesis, there’s a data collection process, there’s a data analysis process, and then there’s an interpretation process. That’s psychology. Developmental psychology looks at how those things evolve over the course of the lifespan. Many people think that developmental psychology focuses just on kids or just on teenagers, but it actually focuses on the entire lifespan.

A lot of people associate psychological development almost entirely with early life influences and experiences. The Freudian stages and similar ideas come to mind. Do you think that’s an accurate focal point for understanding development?

First of all, the Freudian psychosexual stages are dismissed by practically all psychologists today. There’s no empirical evidence for a lot of Freudian constructs. He was a brilliant, innovative thinker, but he simply did not have the tools at his disposal that we have today. He didn’t have the modern outlook that we have today, or that empirical foundation. So I just want to clarify that before answering your question. I will say, in regards to the issue of early life development, the importance of that has been vastly overstated. I think it was Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton who pushed an enormous emphasis on the first three years of life recently. They’re saying that your first three years are going to change the trajectory of your life, and if you aren’t exposed to a lot of rich environmental stimulation, then you’re going to suffer cognitive deficits that will impair you for the rest of your life. All of that is based on some really sensationalized findings and really shoddy interpretations of brain science.

There are two big studies that frame this argument. The first was a study of rats. Scientists put some rats in this cage that was absolutely devoid of all stimuli. It was just a dark room with nothing for the rats to do. They put another group of rats in a cage with all these toys. There were seesaws and rat swings and hamster wheels to play in, and they had all the fun in their little rat theme park. The other poor rats had to sit in silence in the dark. As a result, those rats in the dark depressing cages unsurprisingly had cognitive deficits because they weren’t exposed to anything at all. The rats who were exposed to the enriched environment flourished, by contrast.

We misinterpret that to say that we need environmental stimuli to flourish, and that’s true, but the misinterpretation lies in the fact that most of our environments give us the stimulation that we need naturally. There was a similar study done in Romania that looked at children in orphanages that were in absolutely horrific conditions. There was very little opportunity for the children to develop and very little attention given to them. As a result, they didn’t flourish. There were cognitive deficits. But by and large, it takes a lot of environmental deprivation to make that happen. You have to intentionally deprive the environment of stimuli in order to be able to produce those deficits. As long as you are giving your child a normal amount of stimulation and a normal amount of interaction, they will more than likely grow up to be a totally wonderful, healthy, neurotypical adult.

I’m glad you point out that the Freudian stages have been debunked, because they’re so incredibly strange!

Yes! That was actually the very first lecture that I ever gave…. Conveniently my preceptor had to go out of town to a conference and she left me to teach Freud. I swear it was one of the most awkward moments of my life when I had to elaborate on all of the Freudian concepts in all their glory. I was like, “Hey everyone, how many of you have read Oedipus Rex and lived to tell the tale? Let me give you the SparkNotes version: This dude kills his dad and marries his mom. Freud apparently snorted a little bit too much coke one day and thought ‘I bet if three year olds were given the chance, they’d do the same thing!'” It was very interesting.

On a more serious note, one time a student actually came up and asked me, why do we still study this? I thought it was a really important question. For one, it is very good entertainment value for students, which if you’re a teacher, you know how important it is to have something with a bit of entertainment value in your class. But really, I think it’s important for people to understand those foundational ideas and to know that people did once subscribe to these theories because they didn’t really have any better explanations. I think 100 or 200 years from now our successors might look back at us and say, “look at all those idiots!”

Freud and the other psychoanalysts wrote such vast volumes of their observations and ideas. Are there contributions from Freud that are still useful to psychology that have not been debunked?

There are a few rare disorders that Freudian psychoanalysis is still used in an attempt to treat. I’m not an expert on those disorders, but they are beyond rare, and that was actually something that I learned from someone who is deeply trained in psychoanalysis. I think more broadly speaking, the notion of the therapist client relationship was largely built upon Freudian principles. The notion that you would come in and disclose intimate details about your life stemmed from Freud.

What’s the difference between a psychoanalyst and a modern therapist?

The main difference is that modern therapies are evidence based. Any therapy that you’re given, be it cognitive behavioral therapy, some sort of psychotropic drug treatment, etc… those are all evidence based treatments for mental illness and there is a firm duration in which those treatments are administered. With psychoanalysis, the recommendation was that you spend maybe one to three hours a day talking to your analyst, and there’s not really an end in sight. If you are a health insurance company in the United States of America, you want to spend as little as possible on giving care to your patients. So the insurance companies are not interested in the whole psychoanalysis thing. They’ll want to treat this disorder and treat it as fast as possible.

Is it fair to say that psychoanalysis is focused more on long term ideas about understanding your individual psyche, whereas modern therapy is focused more on how we can treat the problem right in the here and now?

Well, when it was used, psychoanalysis was used for treatment. It wasn’t just a mechanism for self understanding. It was used as a way of actually attempting to treat psychological disorders that really seemed to have mysterious origins or couldn’t be treated otherwise.

Childhood development has frequently been thought to occur in discrete stages, but is that really the case?

Piaget is another big name in developmental psychology. I know in education, especially in pedagogy classes, he gets brought up quite a lot. What are his major contributions and what are your thoughts on him?

Piaget proposed that our development consists of four different stages. There’s a sensorimotor stage, in which we’re exploring our environment with our senses and our motor skills, hence the uncreative name. Then there’s the preoperational stage. The preoperational stage is when we are first beginning to develop the cognitive capacities that we think of when we say the phrase cognitive capacities. That’s when we’re focused on learning, for example, that others have different ideas and beliefs than we do. That’s when we start to learn that if I took a big tall glass of water and I poured it into a wider, shorter tub, that water doesn’t actually change. We haven’t mastered that in the preoperational stage though. We’re still learning those things. Then we get into the concrete operational stage, and then the formal operational stage, and that’s when abstract thought starts to blossom. That’s Piaget’s developmental theory, in a very broad nutshell.

The issue with that theory is that development doesn’t really happen in those discrete stages. Those stages are really kind of arbitrarily dictated. There’s also a lot of other research that suggests that children actually demonstrate an understanding of certain principles that demark each stage before Piaget said they would. One example of that would be the concept of object permanence. Object permanence is this notion that just because something is out of sight doesn’t mean it’s out of existence. You can actually do some experiments with children as young as 5 months old and see that they will show surprise when objects seem to spontaneously disappear because they experience a violation of expectation. That suggests they already have this notion of object permanence, and 5 months is a lot earlier than Piaget theorized a child would understand that. So that’s one example where Piaget didn’t get the timing quite right.

But my biggest gripe with Piaget is the cultural insensitivity within his work. He did most of his work on white European kids, and he tried to derive his findings from those kids to describe the developmental trajectory of all children. Obviously, you can’t do that. A lot of the tenets that the formal operational stage of development praises reflect our Western ideals. According to Piaget, you reached your developmental apex when you’re able to think abstractly about your identity, about politics, or about religion, but for many individuals, they don’t reach that point because their environments don’t demand it. If you are in an environment that dictates that your survival is contingent on subsistence farming, or on finding clean water, that’s what your cognitive resources are going to go towards, not towards developing political or religious ideologies.

When we were talking earlier, you suggested that a developmental psychologist you are more interested in is Vygotsky, right?

Yeah, I do tend to veer towards Vygotsky, personally. His life was tragically cut short by tuberculosis at age 37, so we really didn’t get to see a lot of his thoughts fleshed out, but Vygotsky put a lot more emphasis on the role of children’s environments in sculpting their cognitive abilities. Vygotsky was a champion of this idea known as the zone of proximal development. The ZPD, which is probably familiar to all educators out there, describes the distance between what a child currently knows and what you know as the expert. To bridge that distance, you engage in something called scaffolding. You go step by step, challenging those children until they can independently reach autonomy with whatever they are learning. I really like that idea more because you don’t have that arbitrary dictation of “stages” and it’s also a bit more culturally sensitive. Of course, it’s also not as fully fleshed out an idea because of his early death.

Do you think the emphasis on “stages” and the the ideas that are related to trying to determine exact “stages” of development may be influenced by the Freudian psychosexual stages that possibly set the mold for that obsession?

That’s an interesting question. I think that there might have been some influence. In the history of psychology there have undoubtedly been different periods where certain scholars would react to the ideas of other scholars, and sometimes they would build upon them. Knowing that I’d say maybe it’s possible. But I will say to those who are listening, Piaget stages and Freud stages are like day and night. They may be stage theories, but that’s all they have in common.

Hear the full conversation and learn more about developmental psychology by checking out episode 5 on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or where ever else podcasts are played! To see a full list of links to the show on all platforms or even listen to it right here on our website, click Listen Now!

The Cushing’s Nightmare: 10 Cortisol Symptoms

Cushing’s Syndrome, or Cushing’s Disease, is a term that describes the effects of hypercortisolism. That’s when you have way too much cortisol – the stress hormone – in your body. You can have endogenous Cushing’s if your body produces too much cortisol because of a pituitary tumor, an adrenal problem, or from some other internal cause, or you can get exogenous Cushing’s from taking medications that contain synthetic cortisol, such as Prednisone or other corticosteroids.

On episode 4 of the ConverSapiens podcast, Cushing’s survivors Shauna Nelson, Kelsey Zeman, and Caleb Wilemon discuss hypercortisolism. In the following excerpts from the show, they describe their experiences with 10 common symptoms of Cushing’s.

1. Uncontrollable Weight Gain

“For me, I gained about 75 or 80 pounds in the span of six months. It’s very frustrating because cortisol changes your metabolism. Your body converts everything you eat into stored fat because it thinks you are in fight or flight mode. From the outside, people see that weight gain as something that’s resulting from lifestyle choices you must be making.” -Caleb

“I gained about 70 pounds over the course of three years. I actually had two surgeries for Cushing’s and 15 of those pounds were gained between the two surgeries, which was over a very short amount of time.” -Kelsey

“I gained about about 150 pounds over overall. We’ve all been taught calories in calories out, but there is some wrinkle in that. It’s not a failure of the person – it’s literally the cortisol taking over everything.” -Shauna

2. Moon Face & Buffalo Hump

“Moon face is a common symptom where your cheeks will puff up and your face becomes round from new fat deposits caused by the cortisol. My face blew up like a balloon! It’s still a little puffy to this day. I also had a buffalo hump, which a hump of fat that appears between your shoulder blades on your back. I really think they consulted the schoolyard bully to come up with these terms sometimes.” -Caleb

“I did have moon face swelling under the chin and cheeks and everything. I also had a buffalo hump, but I always wear my hair down, so my endocrinologist never saw it. It was actually one of my friends who’s in med school that pointed it out. She noticed it and told me, ‘Yeah, that’s another symptom of Cushing’s.’ I was like… go figure!” -Kelsey

“You could look at me straight on and not see my ears like you can today! I definitely had the buffalo hump too, as well as fat deposits everywhere, even around my clavicles.” -Shauna

3. Stretch Marks (Striae)

“Striae are large pink, purple or reddish stretch marks that can be from a quarter inch to a full inch or more wide. While most associate “stretch marks” with weight gain (and that is a contributing factor) Cushing’s striae are exceptionally large and they’re caused by the dermis losing its natural elasticity due to an interaction with the cortisol. That’s why you don’t see guys with beer guts at the beach covered in them like a Cushing’s patient. I have them all over my abdomen, my upper arms and thighs.” -Caleb

“For me, I did not experience that symptom until after my first surgery because most of my weight gain before surgery was pretty slow going. But then, since I did gain more weight so rapidly after my first surgery, I developed striae.” -Kelsey

“I got them. Not too bad, all things considered, but mine were mostly lower abdomen down through the top part of my thighs. It’s been 20 something years for me since I had active Cushing’s, so they’ve definitely lightened. They’ve lightened to the point that I know where they are, but I don’t think a stranger can pick them out, which is good.” -Shauna

Cushing’s is also known as “The Ugly Disease.” This unflattering diagram of Cushing’s symptomology illustrates the root of that unfortunate designation.
4. Hair Change or Hair Loss

“We all know a mom who experienced hair changes during pregnancy because of hormonal changes. Cushing’s can have those same effects. My hair has a natural wave to it, but during Cushing’s, it became almost curly. There was a big curl right on top of my head that appeared and then later went away after my Cushing’s was over. The hair on my arms and legs also got really thick. Hair started growing on my hands, and that had never happened before. I felt like I was becoming a werewolf!” -Caleb

“The hair on my head definitely got thinner and over time it started breaking off and falling out more. I didn’t get too many other hair changes. The hair on my face got a little bit thicker but it was nothing too noticeable.” -Kelsey

“I had a curly hair, like ringlet curly hair! After going through all the Cushing’s stuff, it’s straight. I’ve heard of a lot of people going through the opposite where they had straight hair before and now they have curly hair.” -Shauna

5. Skin Problems

“Besides the striae, Cushing’s can cause other skin problems, including acne, easy bruising, slowed healing and increased skin sensitivity. I was really lucky to not experience any of those symptoms, that I can remember.” – Caleb

“I did experience an increase in acne. There was some on my back and my chest and a lot more on my face. That’s actually one of the first symptoms that has started clearing up after my second surgery. I also experienced a really heightened sensitivity to touch. If someone squeezed my arm even slightly it would hurt really bad. It was like that all over my body. I later learned that’s because Cushing’s can also cause nerve inflammation.” -Kelsey

“There was no increase in acne for me, but it did slow my natural healing. If I cut myself by accident, I’d notice that it didn’t heal as quickly as before. I also bruised more easily, to a certain extent, but not as badly as I’ve known others to experience. For some people with Cushing’s, if their cat jumps on their lap they will have bruises everywhere that cat walked on them.” -Shauna

6. Chronic Fatigue & Muscle Atrophy

“Fatigue and even muscle loss are very common in Cushing’s patients. A thing called glucocorticoid-induced muscle atrophy happens in 60% or more of people with hypercortisolism, which is a fancy way of saying your muscles become weak. For me, I had both chronic fatigue and muscle loss during Cushing’s. I was always tired and would come in from my job each day and lay down for a few hours. The muscle loss also made me sore constantly, like I had just worked out. It was miserable.” -Caleb

“I definitely had severe fatigue. At one point during my Cushing’s experience I was working with kids, so I was always having to be up and down, running around. I thought that’s what I was getting fatigued from, but I was always tired, always exhausted. It was actually the effects of Cushing’s.” – Kelsey

“I had an exercise intolerance with mine. I got Cushing’s when I was probably around 25. At the time I was healthy and active, then Cushing’s hit and I was literally exhausted all the time. If you asked me to walk like a mile, you would think I was climbing Everest. It was more than my body could do.” -Shauna

A tweet reposted in a Cushing’s forum that resonates with the difficulty many endogenous Cushing’s patients have getting a diagnosis.
7. Insomnia

“Insomnia is an extremely common symptom of hypercortisolism. I would go to bed normally but I would toss and turn the entire night. I eventually got to the point where I would just get up and turn on my lamp to read because sleep was just impossible. Then two nights later I might sleep ‘normally’ because my body was so exhausted. It’s a constant cycle of being sleep deprived by this hormone that is basically telling your body that you’re in danger. Your body thinks you need get out of here when really you just need to sleep.” -Caleb

“I did have insomnia too. I had a lot of trouble sleeping during Cushing’s.” -Kelsey

“Insomnia is a given for Cushing’s patients. Our cortisol is lowest in the morning. For normal people, their cortisol starts out high and kind of goes down throughout the day. Ours starts out low and gets higher through the day, so its highest at bedtime. You’re never going to sleep with cortisol raging.” -Shauna

8. Anxiety & Depression

“Not all the symptoms of Cushing’s are physical. Cortisol has a lot of unpleasant psychological effects as well. Since it is ‘the stress hormone’ and forms a part of the cocktail of hormones that make up the fight or flight response, it puts your body in a physiological state of stress, whether you are in an otherwise stressful situation or not. Logically, it can cause anxiety because of that. I definitely experienced increased anxiety in general during my Cushing’s. Some people also experience depression, apathy, or other mental health issues caused by excess cortisol.” -Caleb

“Before Cushing’s I was already dealing with depression and anxiety, but I was on a really good medication regimen for that and things were under control. Once my symptoms started, anxiety and depression got a lot worse. At first I blamed that on grad school because I was very stressed all the time, but I noticed I was more stressed than any of my classmates. It wasn’t because I was having a harder time or anything, it was just because of the elevated cortisol.” -Kelsey

“Cortisol made me have a lot of apathy. I didn’t really care. You want to go out to a restaurant? Yeah, whatever. You wanted to clean the kitchen? Whatever. I didn’t care what happened. I remember thinking one day, I haven’t laughed in a long time. And I hadn’t! I hadn’t laughed in months. It was kind of a sudden realization and I thought… that’s not normal. People laugh. People laugh and have a range of emotions.” -Shauna

9. Increased Irritability (Cushing’s Rage)

“Hypercortisolism can give you a sense of rage that can almost take over at times. I first identified it one day when I was coming home from work and a guy cut me off in traffic. Anyone would be a little peeved, but I was so enraged by it. I was screaming and cussing at this guy, and it was like I could feel my blood pressure skyrocketing. I pulled over and I had to take a deep breath, which is something that has never happened for me. When I got home, I took my blood pressure and it was 199 over 100.” -Caleb

“I was more irritable than usual during Cushing’s. I’m hoping not too much…. but I’d say definitely a little bit more irritable. Other than that, I didn’t really notice any major personality changes, fortunately.” -Kelsey

“I had the Cushing’s rage inside of me. I was so angry at everything, and nothing was wrong. My life was great! I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but you get this kind of undercurrent of anger. I felt as though this world is really out to get me as a result.” -Shauna

“Moon Face” by a Cushing’s survivor and art therapy student, Natasha Yeso, depicts the frustrations of trying to relate medical information about Cushing’s Disease, often caused by a pituitary tumor.
10. Impaired Memory & Concentration

“During Cushing’s my short term memory left me completely. I had to pass my sister’s house to get to work and I remember there was one week when I was going to go by and grab something from her. Every day I told her I’d swing by on the way home from work and every day I would come straight home. It would only hit me that I had forgotten again at night when she would text me about it. It was completely gone from my memory. Stuff like that happened all the time for me.” -Caleb

“Memory and concentration were really poor for me. I was interning at a hospital all night at the time of my Cushing’s. I would have to write some of my chart notes at the end of the day because I didn’t have time to write them right after seeing the patient, and I would just sit there at the computer trying so hard to remember what happened during the appointments or during the meetings, but it just completely left me.” -Kelsey

“Long term memory is spotty, and my concentration can be all over the place unless I really focus. My long term memory is bad. I don’t remember major life events without reminders and some are just lost.” -Shauna

Diabetes, Psychosis, Osteoporosis, etc.

There are many other symptoms of Cushing’s, such as type 2 diabetes that requires insulin to control until the hypercortisolism is successfully treated. Another rare disorder is actual psychosis. While that symptom isn’t extremely common, there has been research suggesting that Cushing’s patients experiencing the psychological effects of cortisol are routinely misdiagnosed with bipolar and other mental health issues that are only symptoms, not the root cause of their problems. Cushing’s patients often have to get bone density tests and scans as well, as the heightened cortisol can lead to osteonecrosis, the death of bone tissue that results in the same effects seen in osteoporosis patients, which could leave them needing joint replacements or permanently disabled.

Cushing’s is an awful condition. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned here and you haven’t been diagnosed, contact your doctor and try to get an appointment with an endocrinologist, if at all possible. If you have been diagnosed with Cushing’s, learn all that you can about the disease and become a self advocate. The medical profession often overlooks patients with hypercortisolism. Take note of your symptoms and research them, talk to other survivors in support groups like “The Many Faces of Cushing’s” on Facebook, and help guide your doctors in the right direction where it is necessary by becoming informed and articulate regarding your condition.

To hear the full conversation between Caleb, Shauna, and Kelsey, listen to episode 4 of ConverSapiens on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever podcasts are played. You can access links to the show on all platforms or even listen to it right here on the website by clicking the “Listen Now!” tab in the top menu.

Heel Striking Is Your Problem

Ethan Hammond is a performance therapist and CrossFit instructor who helps people improve their mobility and athleticism. He came on ConverSapiens to discuss the top 5 mobility issues he encounters in his work, one of which is the inability to run well. In this excerpt from the show, Ethan describes his own journey as a runner and the tells a cautionary tale about heel striking.

I’ve heard you say before that no one ever teaches you how to run, even if you’re an athlete. You just learn naturally how to walk and then it’s presumed that you’ll be able to run. You may grow up playing a sport where you’re running the whole time, but the coach never trains you to run because it’s presumed you’re already able. There is little to no emphasis on technique.

Well, more than likely your history teacher in high school didn’t have any idea how to run either. Let’s be honest, your football coach was your history teacher. I’m going to say something here that might piss some people off…. The vast majority of sports coaches don’t know much of anything about athletics. They know their sport, and they’re more of a sports strategist. They know the game and they’re very good at that, but when it comes to actually performing in the weight room or on the track, they are going to mimic what they did in their younger days. In that way they often pass down subpar technique at best, whether that’s in lifting weights or running.

The game and athleticism are not one in the same. I’ve only been seriously involved in athletics since my early 20’s, but I played tennis and I ran all throughout high school. I ran cross country but that didn’t make me a skilled runner. I did that for two years, and I was perpetually broken the whole time. I went to physical therapy because I had horrible shin splints. They thought that I might have stress fractures, meaning that the tibia – the shinbone – was actually cracking, or so they believed. I was running about 20 miles a week. If you don’t know, that is an extremely low amount.

That’s not even a marathon a week! For reference, my brother ran track in high school several years earlier, and he was doing 60 to 80 miles a week. That’s significantly more training volume. I was doing a much smaller amount, yet I was having all these issues. When I went to the physical therapist, all they did was massage my shins. They would rub and massage in some lotion. They also put some kind of infrared light over my leg… I still have no idea what that was about! I would spend the rest of appointment stretching out my calves by myself, because the physical therapists would be treating his other 10 clients for that hour. Nothing got done to actually help me run better.

Unfortunately running injuries are so freakishly common that it’s considered just part of the territory. It’s understood. I understood my issues to be inevitable byproducts of running. I thought, I’m a runner, so I’m gonna be living in pain, that’s just how it is. I didn’t understand, and neither did my coaches or the physical therapists, that the real problem was my technique.

Hear Ethan describe proper running mechanics on his YouTube page!

Were you really running that incorrectly?

Yeah, horribly so! I’ve always loved running. I can remember being a little kid always wanting to race people. Running was always my thing, but I wasn’t trained to run correctly as a kid. Unless you grew up running barefoot, running probably isn’t really something that you do well. I think anyone who hears me say that might kind of funny psychologically, but when you run barefoot outside on the asphalt, you will run differently than if you have all the protective cushioning around your feet called “shoes.” The way you move will completely change.

And it becomes what becomes more correct?

If you want to define correct as meaning you’re not going to have as much pain or as many injuries over time and you’ll have more longevity with your sport, yes!

What is it that makes you say that, from a physiological/mechanical perspective?

When most people run they do what’s known as heel striking, meaning they reach their leg out in front of their body and their first point of contact with the ground is their heel. You will not do that when you’re barefoot unless you’re on very soft ground, like in the sand. If you’re on a firm surface, even just hard dirt, and especially if you’re on concrete or asphalt or any kind of pavement, you will not heel strike. You can try to force yourself to do it, but instinctively your brain will want to take over, and it will not let you run very well. You’ll wind up tiptoeing, which is closer to how you should be running, mechanically speaking.

When we’re talking about ideal running mechanics, it’s landing on the ball of your foot, meaning the area in between your arch and your toes, because that’s where you’re meant to land, biologically. If you stand up barefoot and start jumping in place like you’re jumping rope, you’re gonna jump on the balls your feet. Now lift your toes up to try to balance yourself on your heels and then jump. Mechanically it doesn’t work because there’s no spring there. There’s no energy absorption. When your heel hits the ground from heel striking all that energy is going to get dispersed through your entire body. You will feel it jerk all the way into your head. When you’re jumping and landing on the balls of your feet, you will feel your whole body shaking much less because most of the energy will get distributed through your arch and through your ankle. That’s why you have an arch. It’s a spring!

No other creature on the planet has a foot arch. Human beings are the best endurance runners on the planet. The arch is there to act as a natural spring, like a shock absorber. You’re springy arch is there, so you should use it! But the assumption you’re already using it properly may very well be wrong. When we try to get people to change how they’re running, it’s a completely different skill set from walking. It takes real training! You’re completely rewiring how your muscles are used for an activity that you’ve been doing for most your life. That’s a pretty deep set habit. When I began to address my running technique problem, it was probably damn near a year before I felt like I was actually competent at running correctly. When you learn to run on the balls of your feet, you just fall forward. You literally lead with your hips like you’re falling down, and you pick up your feet and catch yourself on the ball of your foot.

I’ve never heard anyone have a valid argument for heel striking. The only people that I’ve ever heard who are for it are those who do it and don’t want to change because it’s what they already know. You’re not going to be a powerful heel striking runner, period. There is no professional runner in the world that runs on their heels. It doesn’t happen, because they can’t get that good. Choosing to heel strike is like choosing to be exhausted much faster, to not be able to go as fast and to have far less endurance. Also, the likelihood of you developing plantar fasciitis, shin splints, knee pain, hamstring strains, lower back pain, or hip problems escalates drastically when you heel strike because of all the constant impact on your whole body.

You’re also using gravity when you’re when you’re running properly, right?

Yes! That’s why when I teach people to run, I also teach them how to fall. We talk about how to catch yourself, in case you do fall. No one that I’ve ever worked with has ever fallen, but getting over that fear of falling allows you to embrace the feeling more readily. You’re just falling forward. If you think about the satellites that orbit Earth, they don’t actually fly. They perpetually fall at the exact same pace that the earth is moving away from them. Running is the same, in a way.

You’re just perpetually falling and you barely catch yourself with your legs, using the ball your foot and your ankle to compress and distribute the impact energy. You’re letting gravity pull you forward instead of propelling yourself by jumping forward, which is the mechanics of heel striking. It’s so much less energy efficient to run that way. You can heel strike if you want, but you’re gonna have a much greater likelihood of developing problems. Or you can find a good quality coach. It’s becoming much more common to find coaches who teach this stuff now. Spend a day with them. If it’s a good quality coach, that day will help you to start to build correct habits. Practice those for a month and you’ll start to habitually run correctly.

Check out the full conversation with Ethan on episode 3 of ConverSapiens, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and all other major platforms. Click the Listen Now! tab at the top of the page to find links to the show on your preferred podcast app, or listen right here on our website.

The #1 Mobility Issue: Lower Back Pain

Ethan Hammond is a mobility coach and performance therapist in England. He helps his clients address mobility problems using Yoga Tuneup and also acts as a CrossFit coach in his practice, E. H. Mobility. Ethan came on episode 3 of ConverSapiens to discuss the top 5 mobility issues he sees in his practice. In this excerpt from the show, he discusses the number one problem he sees – perceived lower back pain.

You said you see a lot of lower back pain in your practice.

Yeah, that’s one of the most common mobility problems in the first world. There are similar stats in America, but here in the UK, 80% of all cases of disability are from perceived low back pain. Many people have so much back pain that they are unable to work.

What causes that pain?

Pain receptors around the lower back are overstimulated. The exact cause of that depends on the person. There are a lot of things connected to the lower back, but chiefly speaking, when we get people sitting for approximately 16 hours a day, there’s a lot of muscles around the spine that will get short, especially in the front of your body. There’s a muscle called your psoas that attaches directly from your lower spine in the front, and it connects to your femur. If your femur is raised because you’re sitting down and the angle of your hip is closed, that muscle gets shorter.

Muscles adapt over time. Whatever you do habitually, your body gets better at. We understand that intuitively, but that includes muscle length. If you always hold your arm closed, like you’re trying to make your bicep big, and you hold that position perpetually for 14 hours a day, your bicep is actually going to become short. The same thing happens to the psoas. If you go through a couple decades of sitting all day long, which is a position that contracts that muscle, it can become shorter. Then when you stand up, it’s going to pull on your lower back, causing pain.

So the cause isn’t necessarily even within the back originally?

Right. Where you perceive pain is not always where the problem is. That may be where the problem is lighting itself up. It’s where your body’s trying to bring your attention to.

If someone has a mostly sedentary job, is there any strategy they could use to prevent that shortening of the psoas and the ensuing back pain?

Get a stand up desk. Try to stand up as much as you can. Humans function much better standing up and sitting down. Being sat down is a very lazy position. It actually makes you less alert because your body is partly turned off.

So you think standing may even positively impact things like productivity?

Yeah, because cognitive function increases when you’re standing. Your body is much more alert. It’s naturally more stimulated.

I have seen it advised that people with desk jobs take breaks to stand and walk around, if they can’t get a stand up desk. Do you think that’s useful as well?

Yeah, absolutely. Sitting isn’t a problem. It’s the habit of sitting. If you sit for five minutes at a time, that’s no big deal. But anyone who has ever driven for 14 hours straight, knows that that wrecks their body. That’s why when you’re driving you should find a rest stop every hour or so. Just get out and move around for a couple minutes and that will help to prevent the accumulation of that stress.

At one point a few years ago you said something about sitting in floor at home, instead of on the couch. Is that something you would still recommend? What’s the mechanical reason that makes you say that?

Yes! If you’re going to sit on the floor, then imagine what kind of shape your legs have to be into to accommodate that. You’re either going to be in a full squat, you’re going to be in a cross legged position, or you may be sitting on your knees in seiza. That’s not quite as popular an option, but it’s there. The difference between those positions and sitting in a chair or on a couch is that they force you to utilize full range of motion in your joints.

You’re not just going halfway and staying there, you’re using the entirety of that range of motion. You keep that range of motion because it’s being used. If you don’t use range of motion, then you don’t have range of motion. You’re also practicing a full squat over and over again when getting up and down like that. Most American adults cannot squat beyond halfway, halfway being 90 degrees in the knees and hips, because that’s the furthest ever go. It’s what they practice by sitting in chairs.

I’ll say, as a teacher I am used to standing and walking all day. When the coronavirus hit, that was the first time that I had sat down all day for a long time. That first couple days I could really feel it!

Yes, your body will start to change very quickly. If you are always sitting down, and you try to stand up, just standing up for 30 minutes is probably going to be really rough, and vice versa. If you stooped over all the time, then pulling your shoulders back is going to be really uncomfortable. And the reverse is true – if you have really good posture all the time and you start to slouch, that’s going to become pretty uncomfortable quickly.

Ever get emotional during a massage??

I read a book called Healing Back Pain by John Sarno earler this year. His theory is that back pain might have an emotional root. He says there’s a mechanism in the body that holds onto emotional trauma in the form of muscle tension. Along those lines, I have heard of people having emotional responses during massages, for example, whenever the therapist works in a particularly tense area. Have you ever seen anything like that?

Quite a lot, actually. We like to designate these different systems in the body, right? We have the muscular system, the nervous system, the skeletal system, the endocrine system, the lymphatic system, the integumentary system, and all these other systems. Really, they’re all one thing that creates our body. We will designate different systems to help us study them, because if we can isolate things, we can better understand that one thing.

But it becomes important to put it all back together. When we’re training athletics, a lot of people have this idea that it’s just about how big your muscles are. You’re just training your muscles. Your muscles are how you move your skeleton, yes, but how your nervous system in your brain interacts with those muscles to create movement is actually more important. That has a lot more to do with developing your athleticism than “getting big muscles.” These things all work together. It’s the same, from a psychological point of view.

In the West, we tend to differentiate between physical well-being, emotional well-being, and mental well being, but in reality all those things blend together. There isn’t really too much of a distinction between your psychology and your physiology. They both work together. When you have emotional trauma, your body will have physical reactions to the stress it creates. When you are in a heightened level of stress, you get hormones called cortisol and adrenaline flowing through your body. Those create a whole series of responses in your body and your brain. Your mind is affected. Your ability to think shuts down. Your digestive system starts to shuts down. Healing and immunity shuts down.

Those systems are placed on hold when you’re in a fight or flight response because you don’t need them right now. So your body will respond physically and mentally under stress. People can begin to close off physically under that stress. Their posture might draw inward and turn into a slumping position. They can create a habit, if they are stressed out often, that leaves them hunched over. Their upper back can become extremely tense and tight. It does sometimes happen that a person in that state, when going through an upper back massage for example, can suddenly become extremely angry or start crying or start to feel sick. There can an emotional reaction because of the connection between your emotions and your physical body.

We talked about preventative measures for back pain, but if you are already are suffering from chronic lower back pain, is there something that you could start doing right now to begin addressing it?

Two things come to mind. If you have absolutely no tools whatsoever, try to hang out laying down on your back with your legs up on a wall. In the short term that might make the pain feel worse because your body will be able to really sedate itself, and the pain signals may be able to come through more heavily. But it will also be a very relaxing position, and if you practice it, it will help the tissues around your lower back to start to relax.

You can also use massage tools to work the area. As far as tools go, I recommend a soft, grippy, latex ball. Don’t use hard tools for self massage therapy. There are people out there who have metal tools for scraping people’s skin. I mean there are actual physical therapists who use them…. I’ve talked to a couple of people who have experienced care from those and they all talk about how excruciatingly painful it was to be massaged by them. Go figure! It’s made of fucking metal! A racquetball or some form of soft latex ball like that is a much better option. It’s got some rigidity to it, but it’s very soft, which means you can put it around bones and it won’t hurt you. It will not bruise you. Using a soft tool like that, you can start to massage around your lower back.

When you touch your body gently, it creates a whole cascade of sensations that get you to relax. Maybe you have heard of fascia, the connective tissue in your body. A lot of your fascia contains cannabinoid receptors. Cannabinoid sounds kind of like cannabis because those are the same receptors that marijuana stimulates. That’s part of what makes you feel really relaxed when you’re high. Those same receptors get stimulated when you’re hugged. They respond to gentle touch. When you create gentle pressure in the skin, it helps to stimulate relaxation. If you have that problem of over tension, simply creating some gentle pressure in that area will help to tamp down on the pain response and get things feeling better.

Let’s say someone who is in their 50s comes to see you. They have chronic back pain. They’ve had a sedentary lifestyle for the last 30 years because of their job. How long, on average, would it take them to be free of that pain?

There’s no real answer to that. The best answer is, it depends. It depends entirely on the person, and I’ll tell you why. There are people with herniated discs in their lower back who experience no symptoms. In your spine, you have the bones of your vertebra and then you have a cushioned disc in between them. Sometimes those can get pushed out a bit and you can see that on an MRI or an X ray. Some people will have that disk misalignment and be in excruciating pain.

Others could have even worse misalignment but be totally asymptomatic, with no pain and no perceived dysfunction. They can still move their spine well and may even be able to dead-lift and squat just fine, no problem. The symptoms can vary considerably. Sometimes, especially with asymptomatic cases, their spine will sort itself out on its own. Other times, you can look at an X ray, and see a very minor problem, but the individual is in immense pain.

If I get someone who has perceived low back pain, even if they’ve had it for years and years, some might work with me for an hour and they will be good to go for the rest of their life. For others, I might need to see them a couple of times a week for a long time. That’s a big part of why I teach self care and get people to do these things themselves. Then they can spend all their free time working on it. Everyone is different, so it can vary considerably. Some people will be fine after an hour, some people will be fine after a few months. It just depends.

Listen to ConverSapiens episode 3 on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever podcasts are played! You can click the “Listen Now!” tab for a comprehensive list of links to the show, or you can listen right here in the player below! Thank you for your support!

It’s Vague Across the Pond: European vs. American English

Ethan Hammond is a mobility coach born in America, now living in the UK. He came on the 3rd episode of ConverSapiens to discuss mobility issues, but first we talked about some of his observations about the differences in American and European English. In this excerpt from the show, we discuss English vagueness… or is it American specificity? Who knows?

Did anything blow your mind when you moved to England, as far as differences in their English and American English?

Yeah. I think most Americans don’t have any clue whatsoever as to how many accents there are here in the UK. England alone is approximately the size of Alabama, they have about 10 times the population here, and the native accent changes about every 20 miles. You basically have southern accents and northern accents, and they’re pretty distinct, though they’re similar in their own ways. But someone from Hampshire, which is the county I live in, sounds quite different from a native person from London, and they will sound vastly different, completely different from someone who was born and raised in Yorkshire, which is about five hours north of here. If you drive for just a couple of hours, the way people speak changes completely. I think Americans mostly think of famous actors like Michael Caine, or Dick Van Dyke from Mary Poppins, which is going to be a much more cockney accent, or the weird little British girl and Family Guy. I think that’s what most Americans think of when they think of a UK accent, and they don’t realize just how many accents there are. There’s over 50 distinct English accents, nevermind, the Welsh, Irish, Northern Irish and Scottish accents. 

Have you ever run into anyone that was difficult for you to understand because their accent was so different?

Yeah, I still get that. But when I first moved here, it was a good three months before my ears were trained enough that I didn’t have to ask every single person I spoke with to repeat every single sentence they said. I must have sounded very rude! Given, where I live is very Metropolitan, so we have a massive Polish population and there’s a massive Middle Eastern population here as well, so you get a lot of those accents too. 

Well, cheerio! Cheerio to you!

Some people do actually say that, which I’m quite happy about. It’s not common though. Or calling people gov… I love calling people gov because they don’t actually say that. That’s not a term they use here. I was so disappointed when I found that out…. You’re ruining my stereotypes!

Guvna! If I moved over there, the first time someone said cheerio to me, I would legitimately have to contain myself. 

Oh, I didn’t contain myself. I’ve got a buddy from Ireland and he actually does say cheerio to say goodbye and I busted out laughing when I first heard it. I’m like, dude, that is awesome! That’s the first time I heard it and I had lived here for over a year, but never actually had someone say cheerio to me.

There is a very strange sort of thing that happens here…. I’ve been meaning to document this better, but in my opinion, from what I’ve observed so far, there’s a bit more of a tendency to rely on context here, when you’re talking to an English person. I think Americans tend to be a little bit more direct in what they’re saying, in terms of the words that they use. I think this is really strange. There’s a tendency for Brits to use words that an American would consider to be a bit vague, whereas they use it here to refer to something very specific. 

Do you have an example?

I have a few examples. I think some American southerners say this too, but a stove over here is referred to as the “cooker.” So in order to differentiate it from all the other utensils in the kitchen that accomplish the task of cooking… it’s called a cooker! It’s a very general word, but it specifically refers to the stove. The oven is not the cooker. The kettle is not the cooker. Even though they all cook, technically, they aren’t the cooker.

Also, all vehicles that you drive over here, unless it’s like a very big vehicle, like a moving van or an 18-wheeler, they’re all cars. You don’t say SUV or hatchback or truck. A “truck” would be like an 18 Wheeler. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Honda Civic, which we would call a car, that’s a car. If it’s a Grand Cherokee, which we would call a jeep, over here it’s a car. A Ford F 150: we would call that a truck… over here it’s a car! 

Yeah, that would definitely be different! 

Yeah. So if you want to specifically refer to those, it’s a little bit odd here. You have to know the exact make and model.

It’s funny you say that. I was just talking to Duncan last week and that’s one of his main observations about Japanese culture. It can be very indirect and it’s certainly more context based. I wonder sometimes if it’s an issue of other places being too indirect, or if we, as Americans, are actually just way, way too upfront! It seems that’s a common comparison point from a lot of cultures to ours. 

Yeah, I had a funny incident. So I’ve had a part time job working as a barista, which is awesome. Being a barista is awesome. I love making coffee. A coworker brought in basically a bucket full of gummies. Gummy bears and things like that. Now, when I just said that just then, you understood what I was talking about when I said gummy, right? You can picture that sort of texture?


Well, I mentioned to one of my colleagues, I’m like, “Hey, Jason brought in and a whole bunch of gummies.” They were like, “What??” I’m like, gummies! you know, like, gummy bears… Haribo… that kind of thing? They said, “Oh, you mean a sweet!” My wife just happened to pick me up from work that day, So I asked her, would you like some gummies from the bucket this guy brought in. She says “what??” So I show her… Gummies. She says, “ Oh you mean sweets.”

No! Sweet is so vague!

Yeah, a sweet could be chocolate, that can mean plain sugar, that can be a lollipop, that could be a popsickle… It could be anything! It’s so vague. But they just refer to it all as a “sweet.” They don’t have a specific designation for a gummy for example. I just think this is so weird. It kind of makes it difficult to communicate at times.

I would imagine because a sweet could be a little Debbie cake, it could be a brownie, it could be any kind of candy! I sometimes wonder if, when you look at linguistic phenomena like that, if it’s reflective of the way people actually think, and if there are differences in the underlying psychology as well.

There are commonalities, if that’s even a word, based on your region and the way you speak right? With England… imagine a country the size of Alabama that’s been invaded by Vikings, by the Danes, by the Engels, by the Saxons, by the French. You have all of these linguistic influences from all over,so get a mix of how people think, naturally. Given that America is a big melting pot of cultures, linguistically it’s based mostly off German and Latin and a little bit of Greek. I just don’t think that we have as much variety in our language, if that makes sense.

Yeah, could be! There was some research done on that in Africa. You may have heard of this before, and I’m probably gonna botch it. But there was a tribe that had no distinction between blue and green in their language, so researchers put those people in front of a computer screen that showed them squares that were blue or green. It would be fairly close, but it would be such that people who have those distinctions would easily say, oh this is green and that one’s blue. For the people of that tribe, they really couldn’t tell the difference. It could be either one for them.

That’s interesting. I imagine that would be biological. 

Yeah, I don’t know. The problem with stuff like that is if you wanted to prove that there was a linguistic connection with the way you actually see the world in that way, it wouldn’t be too hard to construe the experiment such that it gave you those results, which is why I’m sometimes critical of that sort of thing. But it’s at least interesting to think about that. These people grow up without the distinction, so you give them the distinction. You run them through a quick crash course and teach them this one we call blue and English, that one we call green, and then they can’t actually make that distinction, even after supposedly learning it, because supposedly, their perception doesn’t even include it. It makes you think.

Hear the full discussion along with Ethan’s commentary on the top five most common mobility issues plaguing the western world on the ConverSapiens podcast, available right here, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, & more!

5 Observations About Japanese Culture

Duncan McCrary is an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) living in Japan, where he teaches English as a foreign language. He recently came on the ConverSapiens podcast, where he explained his take on the pros and cons of some unique aspects of Japanese culture. He gave me a list of several statements about Japan and then explained them throughout our conversation. Here are 5 of his observations about Japanese culture.

1. People are helpful… but I’m not a child

Japanese people are helpful, but I’m not a child. This is similar, in a way, to the American South, without the religious connotations. There is a societal emphasis on being useful, so if you are having problems, people will generally help you. That probably goes without saying in any place that you would visit, but I find that, in Japan, as soon as an issue arises, control is taken away from you and then dispersed to other people. It’s as if you have been deemed completely incompetent the moment you are in need of assistance. 

It can be hard to tell if they’re being intentionally patronizing if you aren’t used to it or don’t know what to expect. I think that, from a Japanese person’s perspective, they may have no idea how else to assist you besides just doing whatever it is for you, because it may be assumed you don’t have the language capacity to do that for yourself, which is understandable 

When you mention a parallel with the American Southeast do you mean that Japanese people are also likely to strike up conversations with strangers, or are you only referring to the bless-your-heart helpfulness?

Well you have to be pretty obviously in a tough spot to invoke that helpful control removal. If a Japanese person went up to another Japanese person they had no connection with and then tried to start a conversation, the person on the receiving end would think they had a serious mental issue, so it’s not like the South in all aspects. But I’ve noticed, as a non-native, that the spotlight sometimes gets turned on people like me because I’m outside of the rigid social structure here. When people have the opportunity to momentarily break away from the subtlety that is Japanese culture, they do take it. I think that’s at the root of those overbearing helpful interactions.

2. Dedication to craft: The work culture

There is a huge cultural focus on work and being at your place of work here. It can be good, because it certainly gets results. For example, students have club activities that are essentially mandatory as a result of this emphasis on dedication to a craft. Because of that, there are 12-year-olds that are much better than most American high school students I’ve seen at playing soccer or baseball, for example. But, I’ve run into students outside at like 9 at night who are coming home from juku, which is Japanese cram school, because there’s not enough time in the day to study and do club activities and then do your homework and catch up on missing work, etc. The work-life balance here is really rough. It’s maybe even nonexistent. It’s skewed heavily in favor of work – in favor of what you are contributing to society. 

I’ve heard it said that, historically, if you were a fisherman in Japan and your family was made up of fishermen, you would be seen primarily as just that. You would be expected to do that work with all your might. Is that still relevant today?

I feel like that’s the way that they would want you to think about it. As assistant language teachers, they really drive home the idea to us that we’re ambassadors to the city. You’re representing the program and you’re expected to be able to establish and maintain a positive connection to the English teachers and the other teachers at your school. There’s a lot wrapped up in being a teacher. It’s more than just teaching students during the school day.

Is there any silver lining to that cultural emphasis on work

I do feel like I can have more “adult conversations” with younger people here because of it. They can have something that they’re more or less dedicated to, be it because of passion, or because the societal structure has forced a passion or pursuit onto them. Either way, having that sense of purpose does give some perspective that American kids of the same age may or may not have.

3. Tatemae: The work mask

Tatemae and honne are like your public and private faces. Tatemae is basically acting polite to people who you don’t like. There’s a universal need to be polite to people you don’t like, to a degree, just for the sake of getting things done. But the extent of tatemae doesn’t really have an American parallel. It isn’t an established part of our culture, with a name. We would just call it lying to someone’s face. That sounds harsh, but when I talk to Japanese people, that’s generally their opinion about it too. It’s the one aspect of the culture that I truly dislike, because frankly I think it’s dangerous. It’s like malicious pandering. I don’t have many good things to say about it, but I don’t think many Japanese people do either. It’s only designed to be used with people you don’t enjoy interacting with. Instead of working to solve the problem or working through whatever difficulties you have with that person, you just put on the mask of tatemae when you’re around them.

Do you have a concrete example of what that might look like?

Since we don’t have a word for it in English, I would say it’s probably like a relationship with a workplace acquaintance you dislike, or the face you might show them if you have an issue with them but you want to ignore it to avoid rocking the boat. Here’s an example that almost seems like something you would see on The Office. I was walking to class with one of the teachers that I have worked with and he got stopped by the principal, who apparently he doesn’t like. The principal made some joke, and as the teacher was walking through the door, he was laughing loudly at whatever he said. As soon as the door shut behind us the laughter stopped dead. There were no smiles. I noticed it and I asked what happened. He told me he was just pretending to laugh. That’s tatemae.

4. Going through the motions vs. doing it right

I feel like this might be more of a personal thing for me, but here’s an example of what I mean. When covid-19 started picking up, the metropolitan government sent masks to everybody. Everyone got two cloth masks.  That sounds great on paper, but in reality, they’re tiny! They don’t fit on your face and in terms of actual functionality, most of them don’t even work. It was a strictly bureaucratic maneuver. 

Does that preoccupation with what looks good on paper come from a strictly governmental standpoint?

No. I think it’s cultural, which then trickles into the government. Culturally, there’s a lot of doing things to make yourself appear better. There are very clear divides as to where people stand socially in Japan, and in order to try to keep moving up the ladder, you have to show that you know what you’re doing. You must prove that you’re putting in the effort to do the right thing. The motivation is “Look, I care! I got you masks. You can’t criticize my effort after giving you masks because I did a good thing for you. I contributed.”

Japanese art forms are renowned for their focus on detail. Do you think that focus exists as a counterbalance to the bureaucratic going through the motions that happens elsewhere?

Possibly, but I think it all comes from a massive emphasis on being too detail-oriented. It’s admirable in a way. A lot of the systems in this country wouldn’t work anywhere else, because of the dedication that either gets put on the details naturally, or forced on it culturally. It’s always about not wasting. You need to get as much as you possibly could out of anything and everything you involve yourself in, whether that’s art, or giving masks to your constituents. We’re on a four day holiday weekend right now, and I had a teacher ask me what I was going to do. My response was, “hopefully nothing.”  For her, she had a list of things to do. Everything was already planned out. I think that’s great, but I don’t have that in the tank. I want to sit down and play guitar or Animal Crossing.

Do you think it’s harder to relax for a Japanese person? 

Well, that’s a broad thing. Yes, everybody enjoys sitting down and doing nothing after a while. But the definition of relaxing here is just different. It still involves that efficiency that is so ingrained in Japanese culture. 

5. The fatalism of shoganai

There’s no direct translation of shoganai, but it gets colloquialized as something like, “it can’t be helped.” Here’s an example: I had a conversation with a student one day when I was wearing full formal wear in the summer. They asked me if I was hot and I was like, of course! In response, they said shoganai. That makes sense because it’s hot and you have to wear hot clothes, so you’re going to be hot. There’s nothing you can do about it, so you might as well press on. But there’s another side to it that I don’t think is all that positive.

What’s a negative shoganai example?

Often you will hear it in response to situations that, for a non-japanese person, would still be solvable. For example, if you had a job that you wanted to get and you didn’t get it… shoganai. Get over it. It can’t be helped. For me, you could have done other things to make your chances better. You don’t need to be so hard on yourself, in that fatalistic sense. But sometimes, rather than working through a problem and figuring out a solution, the situation is either summarized as something that can’t be helped, or it’s something that you’re just supposed to suffer through for the sake of the passion

To make that clearer, I was talking to two Japanese women when I first got here about childbirth, and they explained that they were against using epidurals during labor, because the pain they felt would make them love their child more. The suffering that results from a difficult or bad situation is sometimes romanticized as a part of shoganai.

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