TIME Cancer

How Calling Cancer a ‘Fight’ or ‘Battle’ Can Harm Patients

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War metaphors can lead to feelings of guilt and failure

Using hostile, warlike metaphors to describe cancer may make patients less likely to take steps toward certain treatments, new research suggests.

The study, which will be published in the January issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that patients are less likely to engage in important limiting behaviors, like reducing smoking and cutting back on red meat, when researchers associated cancer with words like “hostile” and “fight.” In fact, the study shows that war metaphors do not make patients any more likely to seek more aggressive treatment.

“When you frame cancer as an enemy, that forces people to think about active engagement and attack behaviors as a way to effectively deal with cancer,” says David Hauser, who led the study. “That dampens how much people think about much they should limit and restrain themselves.”

In earlier research, investigators found that war metaphors can lead to feelings of guilt and failure in patients who die of cancer, even though they have little control managing it.

“Blame is being put on the patient, and there’s almost a sense that, if you are dying, you must have given up and not have fought hard enough,” said the study’s author, Lancaster University professor Elena Semino, in a statement.

Semino based her finding on an analysis of 1.5 million words from interviews and online cancer discussions that she conducted with colleagues. She is now working on a manual of cancer metaphors for health care providers.

Still, it may be difficult to change such a deeply-rooted element of our lexicon. Words like “fight” and “battle” make the top-ten list of words commonly associated with cancer, according to Hauser. Straightforward words like “die” and “suffer” comprise the remainder of the list. According to Semino’s study, words like “journey” might be a better replacement for “battle.”

Hauser says that medical professionals and media outlets should try to help expand the way that people think about the disease. He cites the “watchful waiting,” a passive method of treating prostate cancer, as one such example.

“What would be more beneficial would be changing the sorts of stories about cancer out there to expose aspects of the disease that don’t fit with this enemy conceptualization,” he says.

TIME viral

Watch Fred Armisen Master 10 Different New York Accents

Yes, there is shrugging involved.

New York City’s residents speak as many as 800 languages, but they also speak English in almost as many accents. Or if not quite as many, every neighborhood, at least, boasts its own nuanced version of the New York accent. And Fred Armisen, master of impressions, has mastered them all.

At a fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders, the Saturday Night Live alumnus performed impressions of different New York accents based on audience suggestions, tackling the West Village, Astoria and the Bronx, among others. He also took an anthropological perspective on the accents’ origins. Upper West Siders, for example, are “more appreciative of the things that are around New York,” whereas residents of the Rockaways are “trying to prove something.”

He took his biggest jab at the corner of New York where he himself was raised: Long Island. “They’re trying to prove that they’re not dumb,” he stutters, making ample use of arm gestures. “They’re already being defensive about being made fun of.” And just like that, Armisen reveals the genesis of his career as a comedian: a childhood marked by Long Island-induced insecurity.

TIME Opinion

How to Reclaim the F-Word? Just Call Beyoncé

Beyonce performs onstage at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, Calif.
Beyonce performs onstage at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, Calif. Jason LaVeris—FilmMagic/Getty Images

Beyonce’s brand of empowerment isn’t perfect, but her VMA performance on Sunday accomplished what activists could not: She took feminism to the masses.

Militant. Radical. Man-hating. If you study word patterns in media over the past two decades, you’ll find that these are among the most common terms used to talk about the word “feminist.” Yes, I did this — with the help of a linguist and a tool called the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which is the world’s largest database of language.

I did a similar search on Twitter, with the help of Twitter’s data team, looking at language trends over the past 48 hours. There, the word patterns were more simple. Search “feminist,” and you’ll likely come up with just one word association: Beyoncé.

That’s a product of Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards, of course, in which the 33-year-old closed out the show with an epic declaration of the F-Word, a giant “FEMINIST” sign blazing from behind her silhouette.

As far as feminist endorsements are concerned, this was the holy grail: A word with a complicated history reclaimed by the most powerful celebrity in the world. And then she projected it — along with its definition, by the Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — into the homes of 12 million unassuming Americans. Beyoncé would become the subject of two-thirds of all tweets about feminism in the 24 hours after her appearance, according to a data analysis by Twitter, making Sunday the sixth-highest day for volume of conversation about feminism since Twitter began tracking this year (the top three were days during #YesAllWomen).

“What Bey just did for feminism, on national television, look, for better or worse, that reach is WAY more than anything we’ve seen,” the writer Roxane Gay, author of the new book, Bad Feminist, declared (on Twitter, naturally).

“HELL YES!” messaged Jennifer Pozner, a writer and media critic.

“It would have been unthinkable during my era,” said Barbara Berg, a historian and the author of Sexism in America.

Feminism may be enjoying a particular celebrity moment, but let’s just remember that this wasn’t always the case. Feminism’s definition may be simple — it is the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, as Adichie put it — and yet its interpretation is anything but. “There was only about two seconds in the history of the world in which women really welcomed [feminism],” Gail Collins, The New York Times columnist and author of America’s Women once told me in 2010, for an article I was writing about young women and feminism. “There’s something about the word that just drives people nuts.”

Over the past 40 years in particular, as Berg explains it, the word has seen it all: exultation, neutrality, uncertainty, animosity. “Feminazi” has become a perennial (and favorite) insult of the religious right (and of Rush Limbaugh). In 1992, in a public letter decrying a proposal for an equal rights amendment (the horror!) television evangelist Pat Robertson hilariously proclaimed that feminism would cause women to “leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.”

Even the leaders of the movement have debated whether the word should be abandoned (or rebranded). From feminist has evolved the words womanist, humanist, and a host of other options — including, at one point, the suggestion from Queen Bey herself for something a little bit more catchy, “like ‘bootylicious.'” (Thank God that didn’t stick.)

It wasn’t that the people behind these efforts (well, most of them anyway) didn’t believe in the tenets of feminism — to the contrary, they did. But there was just something about identifying with that word. For some, it was pure naiveté: We were raised post-Title IX, and there were moments here and there where we thought maybe we didn’t need it. (We could be whatever we wanted, right? That was the gift of the feminists who came before us.) But for others, it was a notion of what the word had come to represent: angry, extreme, unlikeable. As recently as last year, a poll by the Huffington Post/YouGov found that while 82 percent of Americans stated that they indeed believe women and men should be equals, only 20 percent of them were willing to identify as feminists.

Enter… Beyoncé. The new enlightened Beyoncé, that is. Universally loved, virtually unquestioned, and flawless, the 33-year-old entertainer seems to debunk every feminist stereotype you’ve ever heard. Beyoncé can’t be a man-hater – she’s got a man (right?). Her relationship – whatever you believe about the divorce rumors – has been elevated as a kind of model for egalitarian bliss: dual earners, adventurous sex life, supportive husband and an adorable child held up on stage by daddy while mommy worked. Beyoncé’s got the confidence of a superstar but the feminine touch of a mother. And, as a woman of color, she’s speaking to the masses – a powerful voice amid a movement that has a complicated history when it comes to inclusion.

No, you don’t have to like the way Beyoncé writhes around in that leotard – or the slickness with which her image is controlled – but whether you like it or not, she’s accomplished what feminists have long struggled to do: She’s reached the masses. She has, literally, brought feminism into the living rooms of 12.4 million Americans. “Sure, it’s just the VMAs,” says Pozner. “She’s not marching in Ferguson or staffing a battered woman’s shelter, but through her performance millions of mainstream music fans are being challenged to think about feminism as something powerful, important, and yes, attractive. And let’s head off at the pass any of the usual hand-wringing about her sexuality — Madonna never put the word FEMINIST in glowing lights during a national awards show performance. This is, as we say… a major moment.”

It’s what’s behind the word that matters, of course. Empty branding won’t change policy (and, yes, we need policy change). But there is power in language, too.

“Looking back on those early days of feminism, you can see that the word worked as a rallying cry,” says Deborah Tannen, aa linguist at Georgetown University and the author of You Just Don’t Understand, about men and women in conversation. “It gave women who embraced [it] a sense of identity and community — a feeling that they were part of something, and a connection to others who were a part of it too. Beyoncé’s taking back this word and identifying with it is huge.”

Bennett is a contributing columnist at TIME.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A former Newsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.

TIME Brain

Scientists Map What Your Brain Looks Like on English

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Study reveals that we process even smaller linguistics units than phonemes

Ever wonder how your brain distinguishes all the sounds in a language? How does it know “b” is different from “z”?

Researchers may now be closer to understanding how the brain processes sounds, or at least those made in English. Taking advantage of a group of hospitalized epilepsy patients who had electrodes hooked directly to their brains to monitor for seizures, Dr. Edward Chang and his colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, and University of California, Berkeley, were able to listen in on the brain as it listened to 500 English sentences spoken by 400 different native English speakers.

A specific part of the brain, the superior temporal gyrus, is responsible for translating auditory signals into something the brain “hears.” Until recently, however, neuroscientists assumed that the smallest chunk of sound that the brain distinguished were phonemes, such as the “b” or “z” sounds. But Chang and his team revealed that the brain parsed English sounds even further, into something they called “features.” Linguists have known about these differences, named plosives or fricatives and which occur because of the way the lips or tongue have to move air in order to make the sounds. But Chang’s work showed for the first time that the brain processes sounds in much smaller units as well.

MORE: Toddlers’ Early Language Skills May Influence Later Anger Management

“We needed to have the right level of resolution on the order of millimeters and milliseconds to address this kind of question,” he says. “It’s about how small or microscopic neural responses can be recorded.” Having the electrodes implanted directly on the six participants’ brains allowed Chang and his team to record nerve firings with unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution.

And why do the findings matter? Mapping how the brain processes sounds like plosives and fricatives could lead to better understanding of conditions such as dyslexia and autism, which involve problems encoding acoustic signals. “When we can pinpoint down to the level of individual speech sounds, and how those are being processed by the brain, then we can have a much more powerful model of how to think about these disorders,” he says.

For example, comparing the way native and non-native English speakers encode English sounds could reveal how much of the processing is hard-wired or learned. For example, constant exposure to certain sounds can strengthen some neural connections and weaken others, which could explain why some sounds in foreign languages are difficult for non-native speakers to hear and make. Similar differences could be occurring in people with learning or speech disorders.

MORE: Understanding How the Brain Speaks Two Languages

Still, says Chang, languages around the world share a surprising number of linguistic features, which might suggest that the differences between languages are mostly learned and malleable. “It’s a fascinating, complicated system,” he says. “This is just the starting point. There is a ton more work to do in understanding how we work up from individual chunks of features to syllables and rods, and from there to meaning.”

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