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Tag: Technology

The Integration of Science and the Supernatural in the 19th Century

 

“Every age, and not just the modern age, has felt the need to make its religious beliefs comport somehow with the best scientific and philosophical learning of its day.”

– Thomas Laquer (2006)

Karl Marx famously stated that urbanisation rescued people from the “idiocy of rural life”, this quote alludes to the widely held belief that as technology progresses, it immediately results in the embrace of scientific rationality. Part of the reason why this is such a popular belief stems from the desire of 21st century historians to perceive themselves as technologically advance and thus dismissing any possible connections with the ‘primitive’.

The ‘Long Nineteenth Century’ (1789-1914) as coined by Eric Hobsbawm, was a period where modernity’s arrival was hailed by a mass of new inventions, but also a time where science managed to seeped into the psyche of the public and did no just exist in the minds of intellectuals. The abundance of scientific breakthroughs created an environment where people were beginning to challenge ingrained beliefs: Science and the supernatural were two competing parties trying to establish their influence in the battlefield of academia. Ironically, despite their competitive nature towards each other, both parties were often reactionary to the rising beliefs in the ‘opposition’s’ field of knowledge. Whilst possibly difficult to grasp in today’s context where popular culture portrays science and the supernatural as polar opposites; many technological inventions were seen as methods to tap into the supernatural. The 19th century within the western world was a time where science and the supernatural became intertwined and arguably reliant upon each other.

The new inventions which owed their existence to the industrial revolution and progress within the realms of science were (paradoxically) used by spiritualist as evidence of a world beyond the material. William Henry Harrison, the founder-editor of the Spiritualist proposed that thermometers and ultra-red illumination could be used to measure the spiritual activity in séances. In 1875, Harrison advocated the use of photographs as evidence; “We spiritualist would then be able to go to the scientific world and say… these flames can now be photographed… by the process which is laid before you”. The consistent desire to be validated as a legitimate in the eyes of already established fields, reflects how deeply 19th century spiritualism wanted to be accepted by science as a valid inquiry of the world.

Machines which were capable of recording sounds, capturing photos or typing were perceived as eerie by a majority of the 19th century audience, with such functions transgressing over the line of the supernatural. This equipment evoked the uncanny valley because it blurred what was once rigid lines between the animate and inanimate. Thomas Edison himself saw these new technologies as ways to tap into the occult since the machines seemed to be alive or extensions of the human conscious. Interestingly, new technologies were seen as steps towards a Utopian future and there was a growing movement which attempted to harness the power of spirits as an inexhaustible source of energy. Just as the steam engine had completely transformed the western world and created capitalism as a byproduct; controlling these supernatural forces were simply a new step in the evolution of mankind and its technological wonders . It can be argued these avenues of the supernatural were only opened up with the introduction of new technologies on the market. Due to humanity’s obsession to identify the supernatural in everyday life, it is not surprising that slowly such machinery came to embody some paranormal characteristics.

The practice of ‘typtology’ which developed quickly in the 19th century was heavily influenced by the invention of the electrical telegraph: Coincidentally the ‘Hydesville rappings’ only occurred four years after the first successful telegraph connection between Washington and Baltimore was established. In fact, often spiritualists were described as simple relays along a communication system with spirits, such imagery obviously pays homage towards the invention and popularisation of long distance communication. Likewise the many references to spiritualist as ‘celestial’ telegraphs evoke the image of a supernatural current transitioning between the medium and the occult in a similar fashion to electricity. This wording may have been deliberate to make their philosophies more understandable to the average laymen, however it does also reflect how many spiritualist often adopt the vocabulary and products of their scientific ‘rivals’.

The spiritualist community also quickly embraced the type writer as a new method of interacting with the occult. Whilst the 21st century audience may see this machine as a tool to inscribe words onto a piece of paper, two centuries ago it signalled the unnatural severing of the author from the physical act of writing. This distinction between authors and (type) writers was due to the fact that a finalised text did not carry the characteristics of an individual’s handwriting. Thus typewriters were eventually seen as people who were tapping into the thoughts of the author or simply possessed by the machine itself. Slowly this idea of possession began to develop supernatural connotations and this is reflected in how the noun ‘typewriter’ was used in the 19th century. Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy was often referred to as a ‘human typewriter’ due to her ability to channel the supernatural when writing and explaining her beliefs. Blavatsky dismissed claims of plagiarism by stating that all her writing had been done in a state of trance, and thus her body was simply a tool for channeling invisible forces. Likewise, mediums who used spiritual rappings and table tipping were often called typters, which roughly translates to ‘I strike’ in Greek. It is from this origin that the words ‘typist’ and ‘typing’ developed. The act of tapping found in the Morse code and typewriting were seen as physical and technological ways to invite spiritual possession by severing the ‘natural’ connection between the eye and writing.

Interestingly, as psychology became more of a respected field of knowledge, slowly it was able to strip away the supernatural associations of automatic writing. Both F. W. H Myer and Edmun Gurney were intensely motivated in proving that mediums who would produce writing or quotes during a trance, were simply tapping in their subconscious past, in a Freudian manner. Interestingly, both men attempted to discredit automatic writing because they believed the notion of an eternal spirit and afterlife was threatened by the popularisation of medium possession, which proposed a more fluid image of identity. New scientific inventions allowed spiritualist the opportunity to appropriate new tools into their repertoire, but evolving fields of science was also eventually responsible for stripping away the occult associations of type writing.

The commercialisation of electricity and its incorporation into all levels of society played a fundamental role in changing how the supernatural developed in the 19th century to today’s understanding of the paranormal. This was most famously reflected in the novel of Frankenstein, as electricity was regarded as the most basic and fundamental component of life. Shelley, inspired by her husband’s fascination with mesmerism, captured the growing public’s unease and fascination concerning the manipulating of electricity to create life and to interact with the dead. Mesmerism, which quickly became embedded into the consciousness of the public discourse and imagination was built upon many new scientific discoveries. It could be argued that the technological advances of the 19th century were not only a contributing factor to mesmerism’s doctrines, but rather it created a context where a belief system which frequently mixed technology and pseudoscience could thrive.

Mesmerism stood as a direct challenged to the traditional pillars of the medical community, proposing that the building of rapport and the interactions of two minds was able to overcome illness. This was in opposition to the general direction of the scientific community in the 19th century, which had turned towards an increasingly materialistic outlook on life. A notion which would only become more ingrained with the publication of On the Origin of Species. Franz Anton Mesmer a frequent user of magnets and electricity, attributed his medical successes to his ability to form an electrical conduit between himself and his patient. Even when the notion of electricity as the ‘essence of life’ was challenged by the emerging scientific discoveries, the mesmer community simply embraced ‘od’ or ‘odyle’ forces; a form of transparent magnetic fluid (Noakes, 2012). The key point isn’t whether or not 19th century spiritualism used these terms and descriptions in a ‘scientifically’ accurate way. But rather, by absorbing this scientific jargon into their terminology, it reflected a desire to legitimise their dogma in the eyes of their ‘rivals’, but also a wish to drop the connotations of irrationality which had long been a stigma on the occult. Mesmerism’s challenge to science during the nineteenth century is one of many attempts by supernatural ideologies to gain ground in the battle for how one perceived the world. Interestingly enough, mesmers relied and embraced new technologies so much, that they frequently accused scientist of being blind and dismissive to new avenues of thought, and readily referred to themselves as the ‘true scientist’.

Practitioners of mesmerism also regularly incorporated phrenology into their consultations with their patients. The belief that the brain was an organ with different areas which would trigger a certain response when touched was directly linked to the imagery of a machine. More tellingly is that the brain was often referred to as a ‘galvanic battery’ during the 19th century, and altered states of reality was believed to occur if too much blood (a metaphor for electric) was sent to the head. The rise of supernatural arts that was heavily intertwined with the latest scientific research shows that technological progress does not automatically equal to a decrease in superstition. This is because unlike religion or science, which carries with it a structured view of the universe, magic and technology are simply tools which make no such grandiose claims.

The rise of photography within the 19th century was not just influenced by the growing movement of spiritualism, but arguably its rising popularity was indebted to its supernatural associations. Much like the typewriter, a camera blurred the line between life and death, seemingly without a conscious, yet able to do things (such as recording sound or images) which previously only humans could perform. Spiritual photography worked under the assumption that the person in front of the camera was able to ‘mediumise’ the equipment in order to capture the unseen supernatural forces around them. As the theories and arguments for Darwinism and positivism seeped into the public conscious, this produced a yearning for the assurance of an afterlife. Spiritualist responded to this sentiment, and regularly attacked science as being harshly dismissive of personal spiritual experiences, all the while using tools of science to argue their position. This shift towards a supernatural which was more focused within the individual’s personal experience, can also be viewed as a response to the rise in technology capable of recording evidence. Thus, possibly this trend towards ‘smaller’ and more ‘personal’ interactions with the paranormal might have been a natural shift to legitimise the supernatural in the face of increasing demands of evidence.

Whilst it may seem like the relationship between the ‘spiritual photographer’ and the subject is unfair; since one is actively exchanging falsely created goods for money. Often, both parties were active participants in this lie; William Stainton Moses, a famous paranormal investigator commented that people regularly mistook a “broom as their dearly departed”. Similarly, even after William Hope, a famous spiritual photographer was proven to be a fraud, he still continued working as a photographer and a medium; as he was financially and publicly supported by his loyal fans. Science and emerging technologies were not so much the counter to ‘irrational’ ideas, but instead, simply gave 19th century citizens the opportunity to validate their attachments to the supernatural through modern methods.

Thomas Edison (a firm believer in the supernatural) famously remarked that death, “the final frontier”, was being opened out through the invention and commericalisation of new technologies. Likewise the industrial revolution gave Britain (and the rest of the western sphere) an opportunity to close the frontier between the east and west. Thus producing the great paradox of colonisation, whilst Anglo-Saxon culture was elevated to the most dominant position, it was not left ‘untarnished’ and was also transformed by its contact with foreign cultures. This absorption of eastern occultism was reflected in popular literature, with Dracula standing as a symbol of an ancient eastern evil unleashed upon the civilised (and unprepared) Anglo-Saxon societies. Similarly, Indian marijuana was used by the fictional protagonist John Silence in order to tap into the supernatural vibrations of his surroundings. This signified a shift in the perception of the supernatural; the west began to see itself as a piece in the global search for the paranormal and thus adopted other beliefs and rituals.

As science began to chip away at the vast distances and times between nations; linking once distance lands with the west, this resulted in the questioning of previously ‘unquestionable’ beliefs. Inspired by her understanding of eastern spirituality, Madame Blavatsky the founder of Theosophy, challenged the moral and religious authority of the Church as she claimed that she alone held the Truth, given to her through the Great White Brotherhood. Blavatsky’s willingness to challenge such an established pillar on conventionally accepted doctrines shows how technology and the freedom of movement provided citizens a chance to escape ‘pre-destined’ roles; making identity a more fluid conception. The supernatural greatly benefited the growing globalisation of the world through technologies like the railway and the telephone. It allowed the supernatural in the west to absorb and adopt a lot of foreign beliefs and practices, enlarging the circumference of what one perceived as the occult and also offering a refreshing breath of creativity into this field.

Modern historians have largely ignored the supernatural in their construction of history, anachronistically deeming it as primitive and incompatible with a ‘Whigsian’ approach to history. Much like the academics in the Renaissance, there is a sense of discomfort, in relation to just how deeply entrenched the supernatural was during a time of supposed ‘modernisation’. The view that the supernatural (something which dealt completely with emotions and personal experiences) and technology (something built on measured science and rationality) were polar opposites is an overly simplistic view which fails to look at how the supernatural still continues to absorb new technologies into its realms. It is because 19th century spiritualism shared so much in common with established sciences, that it was often hard for practitioners of either field to proper investigate and properly distinguish between each other.

Emma Hardringe Britten, a famous Victorian spiritualist, stated that spiritual science was merely the next step in the intellectual ‘progress of the human race’, echoing a sentiment which a majority of supernatural practitioners would have agreed with. Though, ironically, it is telling that her quote obviously alludes to both evolutionary theory and the survival of the fittest; the cutting edge of scientific thought. By describing the rise of her discipline in relation to the static older sciences, Britten is unconsciously exposing how deeply intertwined the destinies of scientific advancement and the supernatural was in the long 19th century.

 

… Science will continue to be colonized by spiritualists and other religious groups seeking to assert what they know, intuitively and spiritually, to be true, for in spiritualist perceptions, truth and science are inextricably linked

– Jennifer E. Porter (2005)

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Lost in Translation – Review & Analysis

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“I don’t want to leave.”
“So don’t. Stay here with me. We’ll start a jazz band.”

The title Lost in Translation captures more than just Bob Harris’ (Bill Murray) and Charlotte’s (Scarlett Johansson) confusion in an alien land with dizzying lights and lethargic frenzy. It alludes to what people have always wanted, simply, someone to understand and to be understood in return. Bob and Charlotte are two lost souls who find themselves wandering aimlessly around this neon playground, both entranced and uncomfortable with a country that seems incapable of rest; indifferent to the stragglers.

Bob is apathetic. As a declining movie star, he is in Japan selling whiskey to an audience he is completely disinterested in. He spends his time at the hotel bar, craving genuine human contact but too weary to start the conversation. Charlotte is young and intelligent but finds herself locked in a relationship which is already starting to disintegrate; she too, seems to be trapped in a web of pessimism. Yet their chemistry is immediate, their affection for each other is displayed through a string of subtle body language, the odd glance, the brush of the cheek, and the tenderness of their voices. Lost in Translation is a smart film because it uses nuance to communicate its ideas, the cliché of star-crossed lovers would be too easy, too obvious and Sofia Coppola is much too intelligent for that.

Most of Bob’s relationships have broken down; his wife calls him frequently to discuss everything but their relationship. She tries to put their children on the phone, yet they always seem to run away. After a string of biting sarcasm from both parties, she asks Bob if she “Needs to worry about him,” Bob responds with “Only if you want to…” and seconds later she hangs, stating that she has ‘urgent matters’ to attend to. Bob could be the life of the party, he could be cracking jokes but he is too jaded to entertain someone without getting something in return. At this point, he’s damaged goods and the years of wear have chipped away at his charismatic instincts.

Similarly, Charlotte tries to communicate with her husband but he seems too preoccupied in mingling with B-grade celebrities. He insists that she won’t enjoy coming along with him to his work and naively believes that a faxed sheet of paper with a hand-drawn heart can remedy their fracturing marriage. Later that night, Charlotte longingly flips through Polaroid photos of the pair in their younger days.

Both Bob and Charlotte are ‘lost in translation’. Somewhere in the past, both of them held their tongue, their partners reciprocated and their feelings got lost in a sea of comforting neglect. And it is these feelings of isolation that unite the two. Bob sees a beautiful, witty girl, who, like him, seems to have lost her way in life and Charlotte sees an older man who actually tries to understand how lonely she is. The most insightful moments are when the pair lie together and speak about cosmic themes in vague details, the absolutes don’t matter, only that they are next to each other; together. Charlotte asks about the difficulty of marriage and Bob attempts to pass all that he has learnt onto his younger student. The pair never have sex but they do something a lot more risky; they allow themselves to develop feelings for each other.

When we are spying upon their drunken adventures, there is a real sense of energy and enthusiasm. The night is forever young and each bend in the road offers the chance of another unforgettable experience. When the two are separate, the passion evaporates, a grey filter sets in and we divert our eyes, confused at why they are wasting their dwindling time on matters of little significance.

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“I just feel so alone, even when I’m surrounded by other people.”

But context is the sharp gust of reality ready to blow away this pink glazed dream. Bob is married with children, Charlotte is also married to another man and thirty years younger. The looming end of their impending separation accelerates the urgency of their unexpected friendship. Time is merciless, despite how perfect this pairing is, the audience and the characters know that it’s impossible. Charlotte has her path she must walk and so does Bob, yet for a brief, but powerful moment, their lives do cross. And this is why this film is such an understated masterpiece, it doesn’t pretend that Charlotte and Bob have solved all their problems by meeting each other, rarely does that happen in reality. I wouldn’t be surprised if Charlotte ended up dying from a drug overdose in five years, nor would I be surprised if she changes her mindset and allows her husband to share in her sadness. The same goes for Bob, maybe he divorces his wife and turns to alcoholism or maybe he returns home and holds her longingly; knowing that their relationship was once just like his and Charlotte’s.

That’s the beauty of this film, I don’t need answers. I am comfortable knowing that amongst the laughs, hugs and haunting stares of love, a genuine bond was forged in the most unexpected of locations.

Maybe one day, decades past, Charlotte will hear Bob’s name and then she’ll look down and crack a smile, or maybe even cry, or maybe not, because he is just a ghost in her past- And Bob will be on the other side of the world, attending to his own business, unaware that he had just entered the mind of a woman whom he loved, even if it was for a brief moment.

“I loved the moment near the end when Bob runs after Charlotte and says something in her ear, and we’re not allowed to hear it.

We shouldn’t be allowed to hear it. It’s between them, and by this point in the movie, they’ve become real enough to deserve their privacy. Maybe he gave her his phone number. Or said he loved her. Or said she was a good person. Or thanked her. Or whispered, “Had we but world enough, and time…” and left her to look up the rest of it.”

  • Roger Ebert, Lost in Translation Review, 2003

Genre: Romantic-Comedy
Certificate: R
USA Release Date: 3rd October 2003
Runtime: 141 minutes
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writer: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi & Fumihiro Hayashi
Synopsis: A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo.

Up in the Air – Review & Analysis

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“Yes, it was pretty lonely.”
“Life’s better with company.”
“Yeah.”

You’ve made your bed, now go lie in it. Enter Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man who summarises the shifting values of the 21st century, someone you see, but never meet. Tasked with the job of firing employees for ‘weak willed’ employers, Ryan travels the nation, never rooted, always moving. George Clooney delivers one of his best performances, and stars in the ‘Clooney’ role, an aging silver fox, with a seductive combination of wit and charisma, yet tragically flawed.

In this film, a young enthusiastic new employee; Natalie Kenner, played by the adorable and remarkably short Anna Kendrick, attempts to ‘revolutionise’ Ryan’s industry by introducing technology as the method of communication. Director Jason Reitman quietly brings up the moral questions of such an industry, will Skype make an already soul crushing announcement even less human? And if so, does it justify the cheaper economic cost? For Ryan, a gamophobic, he sees this decision as a direct attack on his laissez-faire state of living, ironically forgetting about the ‘real’ victims who are actually affected by the Global Financial Crisis. Already angry at Natalie for her suggestions, Ryan is tasked with the job of introducing her to the business, giving her first hand experience in this occupation, bridging the few months wait before the technology gets implemented.

This of course, cramps Mr. Bingham’s style, who personifies ‘easy come, easy go’.

On this subtle journey of self discovery, Ryan meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga); the modern day film noir love interest and a perfect combination of flirtiness, wit and unreachable allure. A self described ‘road warrior’, Ryan along with the audience is hopelessly charmed by her aura, even against their better judgement. It is with these bumps in the once smooth road, that the story starts.

[INCOMING SPOILERS]

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At the core of Jason Reitman’s film are the themes of relationships and responsibility; two dance partners who endlessly circle around the life of Ryan Bingham. Nothing reflects this like Ryan’s first encounter with Alex at a bar, both sipping on spirits, both waiting for the world to come and embrace them, but too jaded to make the first move. They start off their relationship by comparing credit cards, we as the audience are disgusted by such behaviour, but equally fascinated by their charm. They laugh and banter for a bit before going back to Ryan’s room to have sex. Casual and flirty; a quick transaction between two parties.

“We are two people that get turned on by elite status, I think cheap is our starting point.”

Apart from firing employees, Ryan Bingham also lectures about his isolationist philosophies, his message? “We weigh ourselves down until we can’t even move.” The core motif of this philosophy is Ryan’s travelling bag; light, compact and ruthlessly packed to maximise efficiency. The quick series of cuts showing Ryan checking into the airport at the start of the film, immediate convey his sense of character; professional, calculated and deliberate.

When Ryan’s oldest sister (Kara) calls Ryan to discuss about their young sister’s wedding (Julie), she pleads him to participate in their ‘wedding gift’. This requires him to take a few photos holding a cardboard cut out of the newly engaged couple at iconic scenes around America. Begrudging, and after a lot of resistance, Ryan agrees. From the continuation of the bag motif we can see how disgruntled Ryan is, the cardboard cut out, is a little too wide, a little too longer to fit into the metaphor of his luggage; his indifferent lifestyle of constant movement, constant activity. We start to see and understand how detached Ryan is, an emotionally damaged man, incapable, or even worse, unwilling to maintain any relationship. A man whose definition of success is to reach a mathematical number; ten millions frequent flyer miles. It all makes sense.

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“How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Feel ’em?”

Yet this motif comes to a crescendo when Ryan sheepishly invites Alex as a date to his sister’s wedding. When asked to pin the photos of the cardboard cutouts on a map, he stands there, transfixed. In front of him is a map filled to the brim with photos from all of the couple’s friends and family, it’s so crowded that Ryan struggles to find space. And there lies the irony, this humble homely couple in Milwaukee, unable to afford a honeymoon and with close to no travel experience, has connections all over the nation. In contrast, Ryan can boast about all the exotic places he’s been, all the five star hotels he has stayed and all the casual sex he has engaged in… Yet can’t describe the feeling of friendship, he can’t describe holding someone out of a genuine sense of affection.

Ryan Bingham lived for his resume and not his eulogy.

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Slowly, we can begin to see Ryan’s outlook on life change, his relationships with Alex builds and builds, overwhelming his once mathematical approach to life. Maybe, she wasn’t a burden, maybe love was more than just a transaction between two people. The wedding scene stands out as my favourite in the whole film; it was just relatable, so genuinely human. Reitman switches to a shaky cam and the tinge of vintage red makes the audience feel as if we’re attending the wedding of a close cousin. The following scene, when Ryan comes back to his unglamorous Omaha house contrasts the warmth and happiness he felt when surrounded by his new relationships. There’s no music, there’s no dancing, the world has lost its musky red filter. Only cold white walls, a vacant desk and dusty couch greet him.

During the middle of his ‘backpack’ speech in Las Vegas, a speech which was has been very excited for since the beginning of the film. Ryan stops and stutters, his philosophies have changed and the spark of superiority and sureness which glinted in his eyes previously was gone. He can’t even bring himself to say these words. He steps away from the podium, offers an apology and in an act of complete vulnerability and spontaneity, he catches a flight to Alex’s house to finally speak without his cool air of invincibility, without his sense of complete assurance.

And Ryan gets his heart crushed, Alex is married. With children.

Ryan’s whole life had been predicated upon his isolation and the distancing of himself from people. Now a middle aged man with his youth quickly fading away, Ryan realises the consequences of his actions. He made his bed, now he has to lie in it.

It’s ironic that for a man whose occupation demanded a total sense of aloofness, Ryan now stands as a victim to his own game. He hangs up on Alex after what is assumed to be their final phone call, “You are an escape… You are a break from our normal lives… You are an parenthesis.” Ryan Bingham was always very detached, unfortunately for him, he met the only person in America who was even more detached. Karma? You decide.

Dejected and demoralised, he catches a plane back home, when the announcement is made that he just hit the ten million miles mark. In celebration, the airline chief sits down beside Ryan and starts making small talk, asking him “Where are you from?” to which a disheartened Ryan can only respond with “I’m from here.”

When Ryan gets back to his office, he rings the airline company and tries to transfer his miles over to his sister and her new husband, giving them the chance to experience the honeymoon they deserve. Yet the decision is interrupted by an co-worker knocking at Ryan’s door, and he hangs up the phone. The thought is there, but whether or not he completes the action, the audience will never know.

The film ends with Ryan standing in front of a large destination board, once again called to be a ‘road warrior’. His figure dwarfed by the immensity of the screen. Stunned by the enormity of the task ahead, Ryan lets go on his luggage handle, silently protesting this lifestyle which molded him into a hermit. A man who has lived in many houses, but never a home.

And this is what separates Jason Reitman from the average director, with already a string of witty and clever films under his belt. Reitman refuses to give the audience their candy. A ‘happy ever after’ ending between Ryan and Alex would have been too smooth, too unrealistic, too impractical, and at their core, both were practical people. To have this joyous ending would have absolved Ryan and Alex from their past and ultimately, this was a film about responsibility.

You’ve made your bed, now go lie in it.

Genre: Comedy-Drama
Certificate: R
USA Release Date: 23rd December 2009
Runtime: 149 minutes
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Walter Kirn & Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga & Anna Kendrick
Synopsis: With a job traveling around the country firing people, Ryan Bingham enjoys his life living out of a suitcase, but finds that lifestyle threatened by the presence of a new hire and a potential love interest.

MythBusters: Learning Styles

“If there’s something strange in you neighborhood
Who you gonna call? (mythbusters)
If there’s something weird
And it don’t look good
Who you gonna call? (mythbusters).”

What the Research says about Learning Styles?

Background:

For the purposes of this assignment, we have chosen to suggest an approach for a school in the Western suburbs of Sydney, with an ethnically and linguistically diverse student body. Being engaged in professional development, the school has noticed the discourse of learning styles in professional spheres and wants to investigate before adopting it as school practice. The following is a paper evaluating the research on learning styles, and suggests an approach for the school to take.

Introduction:

The term “learning styles” is the constructed concept that “individuals differ in regard to what mode of instruction or study that is most effective for them”. Over the last fifty years, the myth of ‘Learning Styles’ has become one of the most popular aspects of educational theory, with it gaining traction amongst the wider academic circles. Pashler et al., states this education theory is very alluring because it presents an easy solution to the paradox of teaching inherently different students within a mass production system. However the popularity of this myth ventures into the field of pseudo-science as its catchy narrative is overwhelmingly unsupported by the current research. Furthermore Pashler et al. states that with the constant active promotion from vendors offering different tests, assessment devices and online technologies, it has allowed educational institutions to easily identify students learning styles, and adapt their instructional approaches accordingly.

It cannot be denied that it is important to recognise that students are diverse and learn differently, whether it is culturally, linguistically or cognitively. The concept of learning styles may seem like a credible approach to cater for this diversity, however there has been limited evidence supporting it. There is some evidence of neural correlation with a preferred learning preference, for example Kraemer, Rosenberg & Thompson-Schill (2008) had the first set of data that showed a neural correlation with a stated style preference, which suggested that those who are associated with the verbal style have a tendency to convert pictorial information into linguistic representations. However, in the majority of the research on learning styles, students who used their preferred learning styles did not fare significantly better than students who were prevented from using their preferred style. It is therefore important that educators are aware that learning styles are not reliable predictors of the most appropriate learning style for any given student.

Alternatively, Huebner suggests the use of “differentiated instruction to effectively address all students’ learning needs”. It cannot be denied that students come from complex backgrounds with a diversity of language, ability and prior knowledge in any given area. They will also have a preference with the way that they learn and retain information. However, evidence suggests that implementing differentiated instruction, rather than teaching to a single style or ability, proves to be the most effective when addressing diverse student learning needs. Instead of grouping students into learning styles, understanding how to promote student engagement and motivation, assessing student readiness and having effective classroom management procedures can enrich the student learning process. Huebner further affirms this statement by stating it is important to understand that with differentiated instruction, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model, instead it builds upon the prior knowledge, interests and abilities that students bring to the classroom.

The Myth of Learning Styles

Massa and Meyer’s study was very effective at highlighting the wide divide between what is the popular narrative and what is academically supported. Altogether Massa and Meyer performed three separate experiments to test whether or not ‘visual learners’ and ‘verbal learners’ excelled when multimedia instruction was given in their respective fields, in a total of 51 cases, 49 showed little or no evidence, for learning styles, with some even showing evidence against.

When Massa and Meyer’s first experiment involving 52 participants showed no evidence to support the learning styles education system, they attempted the exact same experiment in a different context. In the first experiment, the mean age was 18 years old with all the participants coming from the Psychology pool at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In experiment two it, the participants were non-college educated adults, with 15 out of the 61 having high school as their highest level of education. However despite the shift in demographics, the results to experiment two were very similar, with no significant increases in academic scoring in 14 of the 15 experiments.

Out of the 51 cases, 52.94% (27/51) of the time, the results showed a minute leaning towards the expected direction (visual learners getting slightly better results on visual instruction), whilst 47.05% (24/51) the results headed towards the opposite direction. These scores highlight how inconsistent this educational theory is and that there was close to an equal chance of a person either benefiting or not benefitting from learning styles classrooms.

Instead it was found that adding images to aid any form of instruction was a benefit to both ‘visual’ and ‘verbal’ learners, further discrediting the notion that people can be cleanly categorized into either element. This has been validated by studies such as Mayer and Moreno (2002) and Austin (2009) who found multimedia which incorporated animation and narration were consistently shown to be the most effective when it came to student’s retention of knowledge and academic scores.

The Argument for Learning Styles

One of the most significant reasons that the learning style theory gained momentum was due to educators realising that each child is different in the way that they learn and process knowledge. In their book “The Importance of Learning Styles,” Sims and Sims assert that learning opportunities need to be designed with the strengths and weakness of the child in mind. This is an argument which stands true to this day, even though the nuances of the words ‘strengths and weaknesses’ have evolved since then. In Sims and Sims’ time, the goal of learning styles assessment was to “make distinctions that lead to meaningful differences”. This was carried out through theories such as the Experiential Learning Theory presented by Kolb and the Learning Styles model proposed by Grasha-Reichmann. Both of these researchers were making nascent responses to the dilemma which arose from the acknowledgement of individual differences, or perhaps preferences, for perceiving and processing information. Since then, research on differentiated instruction by ability level and all forms of expression have developed these ideas.

The preconceived notions of some researchers have inhibited the critical analysis of data leading some to believe that what was measured was an indicator of different learning styles. Sprenger states that differentiation strategies such as tweaking the content or making instructional changes, need to be implemented after analysing the student’s “learning profile” or style of learning (2008, p.xvi). For qualitative researchers such as Sprenger (2008), who work with small scale case studies or take part in action research in their own classrooms, the idea that a child’s behaviour can indicate the child’s cognitive processes would have been almost self evident as it would have been observable evidence.

Massa and Mayer (2006), although critical of the learning style theory, acknowledges that in their study a correlation between cognitive style measures and processing measures were found where an individual’s professed learning style (visual or verbal) matched with how heavily they relied on help represented through the two styles. However, these findings are few and far between. Given the dominance of the learning styles discourse, it is very possible that researchers and participants alike were unwittingly primed to form these conclusions.

Conclusion

The basic idea of cognitive styles, that different individuals process certain types of information differently, has appeared in many forms and has been part of many theories in various avenues of psychological research. Despite this widespread interest, however, a precise description of what constitutes a cognitive style, both from a behavioral and from a biological perspective, remains elusive.

Although many schools are still inclined to adopt the concept of learning styles into their pedagogy, we would advise not to use it as a basis for teacher practice due to the lack of evidence for it. An overwhelming proportion of the evidence is based on ‘preferences’ instead of an assessment of cognition, or contain flawed and insufficient methodology. Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that in fact, what can be described as ‘learning styles’ has no significant impact on achievement.

Given these findings, we encourage the school to adopt the approach of differentiation, where pedagogy is designed to treat students as individuals based on their ability, prior knowledge, literacy and appropriate forms of engagement and management.

This was written by Gi Eun Lee, Kasturi Murugavel, Erica Sung and myself; SC. Thank you for being an amazing team, even if it was for a short period of time.