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A little bit made up
The balloon flowers are real, but the rest may not be
Personalities, medical successes, the word “it:” Sometimes, I like to remind myself that everything is a least a little bit made up.
Although you’ve probably encountered the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, you might not have learned much about the people Myers and Briggs. INTJ, ENFP, ISTP: these personality types came from a mother-daughter pair, and the cultural shift that was happening around them. As Briggs raised her daughter, Western culture was starting to measure mothers by the success of their children. Katharine Cook Briggs pursued success diligently with her child Isabel Briggs, who later changed her last name to Myers, to match her husband’s.
I read about Myers, Briggs, and the personality test's story in Merve Emre’s work. The story is fascinating and complex. It includes interaction with the military during WWII (who happened to be trying to determine Hilter's personality type… just wowwwww) and later, efforts to maximize profit in companies. We can throw in a bit of racism and sexism along the way, too, despite the inventors being underrepresented themselves.
The whole strange story leads to the concept of personalities becoming mainstream in the U.S. To emphasize the point: The average person didn’t think about personalities at all before Myers-Briggs came to the workforce in the 1940s!
And so, this thing that we blame and credit for our weaknesses and successes, it didn’t even exist in our mental model of humans (and animals, let’s be honest, pet owners) a century ago. Personalities are definitely at least a little bit made up.
As for medical successes, I’m talking about the placebo effect. In some cases, treatments that patients know are non-treatments still work. For example:
A study led by [Harvard Professor Ted Kaptchuk] and published in Science Translational Medicine explored [the placebo effect] by testing how people reacted to migraine pain medication. One group took a migraine drug labeled with the drug’s name, another took a placebo labeled “placebo,” and a third group took nothing. The researchers discovered that the placebo was 50% as effective as the real drug to reduce pain after a migraine attack.
The researchers speculated that a driving force beyond this reaction was the simple act of taking a pill. “People associate the ritual of taking medicine as a positive healing effect,” says Kaptchuk. “Even if they know it's not medicine, the action itself can stimulate the brain into thinking the body is being healed.”
Regardless of whether the researchers' speculated correctly about the explanation, studies like these again remind me that everything has a chance of being just a little bit made up—regardless of its effectiveness.
And now, we're ending with the most whimsical of my examples, the word “it.”
In the context of “it is raining” or “it is 8:30,” what does the word “it” mean? According to artist and amateur linguist Abraham Piper, there are a whole subsection of linguists and philosophers considering this question.
As I watched Piper’s video, where he discussed the possible definitions and cited a couple of the authors in the debate, I felt a grin spread across my face. English, too, like so much else, is a least a little bit or (in the case of English) a lot a bit made up.
What to do with this realization of the made up world?
Rather than despair and roll back into a miserable nihilist depression, I find it freeing. If everything is at least a little bit made up, then the things that feel heavy and impossible can be at least a little bit lighter and more possible.
If everything's at least a little bit made up, we can chose to make everything up in a way that creates the world of our hopes.
(PS, friend: Don't let me catch you using this essay to gaslight people. Just as everything is a little bit made up, everything is undeniably real. But that's a topic for another day.)
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