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On Superstition PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by George Hrab   

geo_standing_suitEarly humans looked to the sky and invented stories explaining the intricate machinations of gods and monsters, heroes and heroines, warriors and poets. They created myths, stories, and legends to account for the workings of these mysterious, brilliant points of light. A single dot in the heavens could represent the most epic of battles. A pair of stars could somehow contain within them the entire contents of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. This was all possible because early man's free-time allotment did not include the mind-numbing wonders of back episodes of VH-1's "The Flavor of Love."

Stories and explanations were extended and imposed upon everyday occurrences like the rising and setting of the sun, moon phases, tides, weather patterns, and why Thag repeatedly refused to return any flint tools  he borrowed. As successful pattern-seeking animals, we unfortunately inherited a side effect of finding patterns in occurrences where no structured systems exist. Luckily, our early progenitors gained far more than they lost by creating these myths and fomenting their superstitions. Seasonal structure was maintained by gazing at the stars and relying on their immutable, dependable permanence.

Yet, these incredible tales describing natural phenomena could never have begun to approach the truth. How could these distant ancestors have imagined that the materials composing their celestial ornamentations were the very same materials composing their everyday terrestrial experience?  To think that the elements and atoms at the heart of an unimaginably distant star are identical to the amalgamated parts of our very own selves was beyond the capacity of a primitive mind. In many ways, it still is beyond the capacity of the human mind. To realize that we are literally made of star stuff should inspire more awe and reverence than countless tales of hunters, chariot-riding warriors, fantastic creatures, or snake-coiffed babes.

As modern descendants of these pattern-seeking storytellers, we often forget that we are biologically identical to them. The anatomical composition of their brains and bodies exactly matches ours; it's no wonder that so many of us find it easy to succumb to the effects and pressure of superstition. I propose that every step of our species' cultural advancement has been due to the shedding of this superstitious influence, and that vigilance and effort are required to control the consequence of hundreds of years of evolutionary conditioning.

Arthur C. Clarke once posited that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. He also wore Nehru jackets so you know he was telling the truth. Imagine what our distant cousins would think upon seeing the workings of an iPhone, or the internet, or wireless remotes, or television, or a fountain pen, or even a Slinky. To them, these pocket miracles would be just as difficult to comprehend and explain as a solar eclipse or a hurricane, and would therefore be relegated to the vagaries of magic. We however, look at these leaps and strides of technology and become inured to the real sorcery of these implements. It's an ever shrinking gap from the recently inconceivable to the newly mundane.

Lest we forget-

We can actually predict the future.
We know-to within tenths of a second-when the sun will rise and set for the next 10,000 years. We can tell when Halley's Comet and Comet Encke will return, and we know precisely when hundreds of eclipses and celestial events will happen.

We can actually treat disease.
One ingests the tiniest of pills and a variety of ailments and symptoms are treated. The use of X-rays, CAT scans, and MRIs lets us peer into the inner workings of the body and painlessly diagnose and treat ailments. Polio is no longer the unavoidable, crippling disease it once was.

We can actually fly.

Using harnessed principles of air pressure and dynamics, we can soar thousands of feet into the sky while safely and reliably speeding along at hundreds of miles an hour, all while watching a lousy movie.

We can actually communicate across vast distances... instantly.
Telephones, radio, television, cell phones and the internet have completely redefined what communication means. There is no need for telepathy when one has the world's largest wireless network.

We can actually go to the Moon, or Mars, or Saturn, or soar outside our own solar system.

We have walked on the lunar surface, and machines designed by man have broken the very boundaries of our local space.

To many, these inventions and principles quickly become common, and they search for extended substance and meaning in shadow and hazy hyperbole. They place unearned value in the insignificance of coincidence, and ignore the practical miracles that surround us. They quickly forget that all of these inventions have been made possible by the rejection of superstitious thought.

Ben Franklin said that anger is never without reason, but seldom with a good one. I hope that as we reject superstition we don't search to be angry, but that we channel our anger when our reasons are good. A mature civilization should revel in its own indignation at the deleterious effects of superstition. Growing up is not selling out. It's simple to look at our distant history and question-or even ridicule-the various beliefs of past cultures. How easily we can mock those who prayed to a dog-headed god. How easily (and rightly) we can cringe at the ceremonial brutality of sacrifice. How easily we can look down at the hierarchy of racism, sexism, and ageism entrenched in many of these past cultures. How easily we can look back in shock and amazement at the popularity of flared pants. Conversely, how difficult it is, to point a judgmental finger back at ourselves, and ponder what future generations might think of our particular set of superstitions. What current ideas and concepts of love, race, tolerance, knowledge, and value will eventually embarrass us?

Mark Twain once lamented that the Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from Galileo's time down to his own. I would extend that not only the Church, but dogmatic thought from religious and non-religious magesteria have opposed (however mistakenly and innocently) every significant advancement of humanity. The progress of innovation has often been stymied by the ideology of traditionalism. Variations on superstitious thought have been used to explain and condone the denial of woman's suffrage, the limiting of human rights, and even the trafficking of human chattel...ideas that today are indefensible.

Perhaps it is a testament to the human animal that we as a species can quickly change our expectations of behavioral norms. What at one time could be thought of as mundane can, in mere generations, be viewed as barbaric. BUT- why do we easily forget and excuse the impetus and source of these beliefs? How often do espousers of dogma backtrack, apologize, and try to explain away past indiscretions through historical context? Why not question the maxim itself? It took the Vatican 359 years to admit they were wrong about Galileo. It took science less than 20 years to figure out that Stephen Hawking was wrong about black hole radiation. One of the folks who figured out that Stephen Hawking was wrong? Stephen Hawking. That's why he's being sacrificed inside the Large Hadron Collider for blasphemy.

Despite such a difficult superstitious-laden history, humanity has inched forward, gaining speed, improving its pace with every step. With clear thinking, exposure to centralized sources of knowledge, and access to the principles of science, we're slowly losing the encumbrance of superstition. As the weight is lifted, we marvel at the load we once carried. The rationale for slavery, bigotry, sexism, fear, and countless other beliefs becomes inexcusable under the welcoming glow of science's reasoned illumination.

We've arrived at a time where humanity must mature and grow out of its awkward adolescence; but there is no need to ever lose that childlike sense of wonder and amazement. Knowing how a clock works doesn't make one appreciate the passing of time any less. Learning that the sun is composed of hydrogen and helium doesn't take away from the beauty and majesty of a sunrise. Knowing that a complex system of wires, computers, and micro processors is required to transport your voice over a satellite-based network could never diminish the impact of hearing that there will indeed be a new Ozzy Osbourne record.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day." The last century, sometimes quite painfully, has proven his words to be true. Humanity is slowly starting to realize that any society that attempts to impose a structure of disseminated knowledge, with limited exposure to new ideas and concepts, is ultimately fighting an un-winnable battle. Regrettably, it often feels as though the superstitious get all the press. Ironically, the medium which they use to communicate has, from its inception, been reliant upon the precepts of science. The fact that a preacher or mullah can castigate the evils of secularism while using a satellite feed never ceases to amaze.

Why has the past century been such an incredible time of change? It's due to the speed in which unfettered knowledge and reason has advanced. It's due to the quantitative, self-correcting nature of science. It's due to our unrelenting thirst for information. It's due to the ability to store, retrieve, share, and build upon that information. It's due to the seemingly limitless capacity for humans to think and conceive ideas. And yes, these ideas can sometimes bear truths which can be disquieting. It's been said that progress has never been a bargain, but ultimately it has to be seen as worth the price. Knowledge, no matter how uncomfortable, is never so painful as to outweigh ignorance.

The shedding of superstitious thought-ALL superstitious thought-could ultimately be the process that allows the luminescence of the stellar material within us to shine. And perhaps for the first time, both our ancestors and descendants would be equally and unequivocally proud.

(George Hrab is a skeptical multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, producer, composer and heliocentrist. Listen to and learn more about George at geologicrecords.net.)

 

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biblical sex restrictions - primitive birth control?
written by Trish, December 08, 2008
Here's a thought I've had about the various circumstances in which the bible forbids sex. Suppose the authors, aware of the strain on a desert community that a few more mouths to feed can be, and without reliable chemical or mechanical means to limit conception, were not so much against sex or pleasure, but were doing what they could to limit births. And, if that were the case, how would they have reacted to reliable means for voluntarily limiting births?
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GEO!
written by Gail, December 08, 2008
I think you need to add something to your list:
We can dream crazy dreams, that seem impossible, and have them come true within our lifetime. I can only wonder what things which seem like magic or just outright crazy will come to pass by the time we are in our 80s (and if I will be cool and hip enough to keep up!)
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written by Able, December 08, 2008
WoW! There is so much right with this article that I cant express how great it is. I can forward it to some of my (ww) relatives without offending them yet will be able to discuss it with some of my other friends for days. "There is no need for telepathy" (you sense what I mean!) I just love this foundation.
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Optimism!
written by w_nightshade, December 09, 2008
Thanks for writing, George. Sometimes the voice of optimism gets lost among the (very important) standard skeptical work of outing frauds and mocking fools. Things are better than they have ever been, and the trend is moving upward. This is not to advocate complacence, but to ward off cynicism. Life is good! Enjoy it!
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Yes
written by Ian Mason, December 09, 2008
I agree. The problem is that religion and myths survive by virtue of their emotional resonance. What better description is there of a dysfuctional extended family that the Olympian? We need to reach peoples "souls" - for want of a better word. That's what try to do with poetry - one of the worlds oldest art forms.
Shelley! Thou shouldst be living at this hour!
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written by Ian Mason, December 09, 2008
Sorry, the "I" got left out in "I try to do...."
The reaction time for "caps" here is slower than my fingers, which is something of a feat.
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Well Said!
written by Realitysage, December 09, 2008
Very nice piece from Mr. Hrab. Fortunately the modern age has done much to dispel myth by advances in technology, medicine, and the like that actually addresses solutions once thought as only obtainable by supernatural means. [and still is] Who needs spooks when we have reality?
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Missing one crucial point
written by Stanfr, December 09, 2008
Nice article, but with this statement you are missing a very important point: "It's an ever shrinking gap from the recently inconceivable to the newly mundane" The problem is, the "newly mundane" is inconceivable to nearly everyone! Walk through any city and note that 90% of the inhabitants are talking on cellphones. These phones can take high-resolution video which can be shipped anywhere in the world, and if you point one at a speaker it will tell you what song and artist is playing on the radio! (Fourier analysis on the sound envelope?? I dunno!!) How many of these cellphone users truly (as opposed to abstractly) understand their toys??
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Point (part II)
written by Stanfr, December 09, 2008
(part II) I sure don't understand it, and ive got an MS degree and graduate-level math under my belt. If you were to prove to me tomorrow that it's really technology handed down to us by the Roswell aliens, i don't think I'd be that shocked or surprised! So, it is the ever widening gap between the population and its technology that is responsible for a modern embracement of superstition. For many folks, it's far easier and logical to believe in ghosts than it is in cellphones!

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written by BillyJoe, December 09, 2008
Stanfr,

"It's an ever shrinking gap from the recently inconceivable to the newly mundane" The problem is, the "newly mundane" is inconceivable to nearly everyone!

I think what George is saying is that before cell phones were invented, the public could not even conceive that they could be possible. But, as soon as they are, they are taken for granted.

So, it is the ever widening gap between the population and its technology that is responsible for a modern embracement of superstition.

Oh well, you don't like the evolutionary explanation, never mind.
I mean you don't think people who embrace superstition don;t also embrace technology?

BJ
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written by Stanfr, December 10, 2008
Of course they embrace technology, just as they embrace superstition! I am saying the two things are equally mundane and equally treated as such by the public: they dont understand the first thing about "mundane" technology, and so ghosts or psychic ability are equally incomprehensible, and thus equally acceptable! How can George expect modern society to "grow up" based on all this newfound science, when the workings of all this technology is completely inaccessible to the vast majority of the public? That's my point.
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Well...
written by George Hrab, December 10, 2008
Actually, what I was clumsily trying to say was that though people can use technology while not understanding it, they would never say “the supernatural is making my cell phone work.” They would say some variation of: “there’s a good scientific reason why this works but it’s beyond my comprehension.”

Fine and dandy.

Why then can’t that same attitude be transferred to occurrences in the universe that are beyond an individual's understanding?

My point is that (to me) it seems bizarre that the same person can say “I can’t imagine how e-mail works, but it’s not supernatural...” and then LEAP to “I can’t imagine what was there before the universe existed, so it must be god…”

or Mithrais…

or Gene Simmons…

Weird no?
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George - I strongly disagree with you! :)
written by podblack, December 10, 2008
Hello!

"Why then can’t that same attitude be transferred to occurrences in the universe that are beyond an individual's understanding? "

"The shedding of superstitious thought-ALL superstitious thought..."

Because in some cases (not all) - it's actually beneficial in a positive sense to the individual to behave that way, that's why. It's unreasonable and actually impossible to stamp them all out, nor are people who are superstitious unintelligent or backward.

If you look into fields such as sports, academia, arts, science (shock!), social networking and even (shock!!) music - there's in fact many examples in how superstitious-style reinforcement via tokens, behaviour and ritual is in fact beneficial. The most accessible book is Vyse's 'Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition'.

You might like to check out the posts I have on the topic on my blog - especially the series on women and superstitious behaviour: http://podblack.com/?p=1000

And no - the 'rational' are not exempt: http://podblack.com/?p=800

We could always debate it on the Skeptic Zone podcast, if you like? smilies/smiley.gif
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written by BillyJoe, December 10, 2008
George,

My point is that (to me) it seems bizarre that the same person can say “I can’t imagine how e-mail works, but it’s not supernatural...” and then LEAP to “I can’t imagine what was there before the universe existed, so it must be god…”

Because somewhere there are people who set up email and they must surely know how it works. Even if the person using email doesn't understand how it works they can be quite confident that someone does.
However, no one understands what was there before the universe existed...

BJ
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written by Cuddy Joe, December 11, 2008
"Actually, what I was clumsily trying to say was that though people can use technology while not understanding it, they would never say “the supernatural is making my cell phone work.” They would say some variation of: “there’s a good scientific reason why this works but it’s beyond my comprehension.”

A small point, but I think that most people feel they could learn how a cell phone, microwave oven, or other tech device works, but don't bother because one could spend a lifetime on this, so pervasive and progressive is our technological gadgets. How such devices work isn't beyond my comprehension so much as beyond my available time to investigate and learn.
Good article, BTW.

"Because in some cases (not all) - it's actually beneficial in a positive sense to the individual to behave that way, that's why."

I think you may be confusing 'comforting' for 'beneficial'. Everyone loves beauty, but a lie can be just as beautiful and beneficial as the truth. Since new knowledge must always be connectable to existing knowledge knowledge ought to be true and factual lest it taint what ensues - fruit of the poisoned tree.

Injecting unevidenced, fanciful entities like God, telepathy, superstition, etc., into one's knowledge gaps is a comforting practice, 'treatment' for the 'disease' of doubt and uncertainty. It establishes order where once was chaos. It eliminates doubt and confusion, and ameliorates the very human anxiety of not knowing what are very important things to know.

Having made up answers that comfort is beneficial and positive only in a short term, illusory way.

Imagine a very dumb criminal on death row being removed to the gas chamber. "Where are we going?" he asks the guards. "Um, to Disney World!" he's told. He accepts this and it is beneficial and positive to him. For a while.





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written by BillyJoe, December 11, 2008
Cuddy Joe,

Imagine a very dumb criminal on death row being removed to the gas chamber. "Where are we going?" he asks the guards. "Um, to Disney World!" he's told. He accepts this and it is beneficial and positive to him. For a while.

Of course, he may die suddenly of a stroke and never know any different. smilies/wink.gif
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As Voltaire Responded to Casanova... :)
written by podblack, December 11, 2008
"Having made up answers that comfort is beneficial and positive only in a short term, illusory way."

No, I'd disagree. smilies/smiley.gif Taking the extreme example of a 'person on the way to a gas chamber' is not the case in common usage of beneficial superstitions (although one might argue that the peace of mind in that case is probably their last resort - but that's not the argument I'm making here!!).

Instead, think of it as the baseball player who gets comfort from spitting twice and walking confidently to the plate. The musician who likes to wear red socks and has several pairs on hand before a concert. The dancer who backstage whispers 'merde' with others in her company before they do Swan Lake. The student who ties her hair up in braids before the big exam. The magician who kisses the tips of his fingers before he takes to the stage.

Those are all examples of superstitious behaviour. They are benign, and something that the less-pragmatic approach that George Hrab is taking seems to be overlooking?

You can tailor it not to be dependent on having a particular token (what if you lose your lucky coin??) not to be dependent on a religion (what if you can't find a Catholic church to pray at when you're on tour?) or to be something that doesn't require a dependency on others (what if all of your teammates aren't there for the special cheer?) - it's just a matter of picking and wisely acknowledging your discriminative stimulus and partial reinforcement.

As a good friend via email wrote:

"The underlying point is that both superstition and science are borne of an attempt to understand our environment. To see the correlations. Our biology has (it is arguable) found that it is better to mistakenly see a false correlation than to mistakenly miss a real one, so our sensitivity is set that way. If (big if) we are built that way, then perhaps taking advantage of that architecture to jump-start a sort of stimulus control is practical. It would still be superstition at its base, but to eliminate it would be to force oneself to take the long route to success."

To think it can be stamped out when someone can argue that it's harmless ritual or personally beneficial on a confidence-boosting basis... we just don't have a case.

I am reminded of Voltaire's response to Casanova (although Casanova's concluding response wouldn't be the one I'd take):
Casanova: “Suppose that you succeed in destroying superstition. With what will you replace it?”
Voltaire: “I like that. When I deliver humanity from a ferocious beast which devours it, can I be asked what I shall put in its place.”

That beast is bigger than what Voltaire thought and what Hrab proposes. We cannot 'tilt at windmills'(Cervantes) and waste our energy without reflection on what can practically be done.

BTW - one of the papers I'm drawing upon in research is this one:
www.richardwiseman.com/resources/PAID-charm.pdf
and you can see within that how Wiseman and Watt are saying despite the characteristics of neuroticism, et al.
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And because I should add it...
written by podblack, December 11, 2008
Email correspondent also added:

"There really is a very fuzzy line (in sports, dance, arts, et al) between superstition (bad) and pre-performance routine (good). And it may well be the case that the former is the quickest way to the latter."

It's just helpful to educate people about the difference and acknowledge that we're... human. smilies/wink.gif
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pre-performance routine/superstition?
written by Trish, December 12, 2008
Where would yiou place stretching - superstition or pre-performance routine? The scientific evidence seems to be leaning towards stretching - especially static positions at the limit of a muscle's capability - as being harmful to later performance. The reason people thought for so long that stretching helps is that they *felt* a change in their muscles, but now that someone has measured performance, stretching is being proven to be a hinderance to performance.
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Stretching
written by Ian Mason, December 12, 2008
Stretching is to prevent injuries to tendons, ligaments and muscles, not to improve performance. Take it from an experienced but slow marathon runner.
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Execution
written by Ian Mason, December 12, 2008
"The knowledge that he is to be hanged in the morning concentrates a man's mind wonderfully"
Samuel Johnson.
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A plug
written by Ian Mason, December 12, 2008
By the way, there's some great poetry on the other end of my link. Mine.
(Is self-promotion allowed when it's relevant?)
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written by BillyJoe, December 12, 2008
Trish: The scientific evidence seems to be leaning towards stretching - especially static positions at the limit of a muscle's capability - as being harmful to later performance.

I am always correcting you, sorry.
This is not correct. Incorrect stretching impairs performance, whilst correct stretching definitely improves it.
Take it from an ex-marathoner and present hill climber.

Ian Mason: Stretching is to prevent injuries to tendons, ligaments and muscles, not to improve performance. Take it from an experienced but slow marathon runner.

So, preventing injured tendons, ligaments, and muscles does not improve performance???
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written by Trish, December 12, 2008
Billy Joe, I took the info about stretching from a recent issue of the NY Times.
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written by Trish, December 12, 2008
Oh, and Billy Joe, I don't take it personally when people post a different point of view.

Speaking of which - I have to say that Flavor of Love re-runs do serve a purpose. They show how unattractive self-absorbed people can be, even if they do have perfect measurements...
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written by BillyJoe, December 12, 2008
Perfect measurements?
...well perhaps I'm saved, then, from your unattractive stereotype. smilies/wink.gif

Oh, and I was correcting your mistake, not providing a different point of view. smilies/smiley.gif

BJ
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written by Trish, December 13, 2008
Billy Joe, Here's the link the the NY Times report on stretching, published 10/31/08:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/02/sports/playmagazine/112pewarm.html?scp=1&sq=stretching&st=cse

Here's the main point: Researchers now believe that some of the more entrenched elements of many athletes’ warm-up regimens are not only a waste of time but actually bad for you. The old presumption that holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds — known as static stretching — primes muscles for a workout is dead wrong. It actually weakens them. In a recent study conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. Other studies have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent. Also, stretching one leg’s muscles can reduce strength in the other leg as well, probably because the central nervous system rebels against the movements.
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written by Trish, December 13, 2008
Billy JOe, I don't understand your comment abouthe "unattractive stereotype"
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written by BillyJoe, December 14, 2008
Trish,

That article discusses both incorrect/static stretching and correct/dynamic stretching. Somehow you've missed the second part of their article. smilies/sad.gif

What I said was:
Incorrect stretching impairs performance, whilst correct stretching definitely improves it.

What I called "incorrect stretching" they call "static stretching" and it indeed impairs performance. You have posted a good summary of incorrect/static stretching above.

What I called "correct stretching", they call "dynamic stretching". The second part of that article discusses correct/dynamic stretching. It is a little difficult to summarise, but the important points are to warm up before the stretch, to move into the stretch, and not to hold the stretch.

However, if you don't stretch at all, your muscles will progressively tighten, become painful and eventually cramp and your joints will become progressively stiff and painful.

regards,
BillyJoe.


PS: I don't remember what I meant by "unattractive stereotype" except that it was supposed to be a joke - obviously not a good one! smilies/grin.gif
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