The 10 Best Psychology and Philosophy Books of 2012
From Buddhism to the relationship between creativity and dishonesty, by way of storytelling and habit.
By Maria Popova
After the best science books, art books, and design books of 2012, the season’s subjective selection of best-of reading lists continue with the most stimulating philosophy, psychology, and creativity books published this year. (Catch up on last year’s roundup here.)
THIS WILL MAKE YOU SMARTER
Every year for more than a decade, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman has been asking the era’s greatest thinkers a single annual question, designed to illuminate some important aspect of how we understand the world. In 2010, he asked how the Internet is changing the way we think. In 2011, with the help of psycholinguist Steven Pinker and legendary psychologist Daniel Kahneman, he posed an even grander question: “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” The answers, featuring a wealth of influential scientists, authors, and thought-architects, were collected in This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking (public library) — a formidable anthology of short essays by 151 of our time’s biggest thinkers on subjects as diverse as the power of networks, cognitive humility, the paradoxes of daydreaming, information flow, collective intelligence, and a dizzying, mind-expanding range in between. Together, they construct a powerful toolkit of meta-cognition — a new way to think about thinking itself.
Brockman prefaces the essays with an important definition that captures the dimensionality of “science”:
Here, the term ‘scientific’ is to be understood in a broad sense — as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be human behavior, corporate behavior, the fate of the planet, or the future of the universe. A ‘scientific concept’ may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or any other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous tool that can be summed up succinctly but has broad application to understanding the world.”
Neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of the excellent Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, explores the concept of “the umwelt” coined by biologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1909 — the idea that different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different elements of their environment and thus live in different micro-realities based on the subset of the world they’re able to detect. Eagleman stresses the importance of recognizing our own umwelt — our unawareness of the limits of our awareness:
I think it would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who authored one of the best psychology books of 2011, contemplates the “focusing illusion” — our tendency to misjudge the scale of impact certain circumstances, from a pay raise to the death of a loved one, will have on our actual well-being.
Marketers exploit the focusing illusion. When people are induced to believe that they “must have” a good, they greatly exaggerate the difference that the good will make to the quality of their life. The focusing illusion is greater for some goods than for others, depending on the extent to which the goods attract continued attention over time. The focusing illusion is likely to be more significant for leather car seats than for books on tape.
Politicians are almost as good as marketers in causing people to exaggerate the importance of issues on which their attention is focused. People can be made to believe that school uniforms will significantly improve educational outcomes, or that health care reform will hugely change the quality of life in the United States — either for the better or for the worse. Health care reform will make a difference, but the difference will be smaller than it appears when you focus on it.
Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, writes about PERMA, the five pillars of well-being — Positive Emotion, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning and Purpose, and Accomplishment — reminding us that reducing disabling conditions like poverty, disease, depression, aggression, and ignorance is only one half of the life satisfaction equation:
Science and public policy have traditionally been focused solely on remediating the disabling conditions, but PERMA suggests that this is insufficient. If we want global well being, we should also measure and try to build PERMA. The very same principal seems to be true in your own life: if you wish to flourish personally, getting rid of depression, anxiety, and anger and getting rich is not enough, you also need to build PERMA directly.”
Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has previously examined the neurochemistry of love and desire, zooms in on the temperament as the essential building block of the self:
Personality is composed of two fundamentally different types of traits: those of ‘character;’ and those of ‘temperament.’ Your character traits stem from your experiences. Your childhood games; your family’s interests and values; how people in your community express love and hate; what relatives and friends regard as courteous or perilous; how those around you worship; what they sing; when they laugh; how they make a living and relax: innumerable cultural forces build your unique set of character traits. The balance of your personality is your temperament, all the biologically based tendencies that contribute to your consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving. As Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, put it, ‘I am, plus my circumstances.’ Temperament is the ‘I am,’ the foundation of who you are.
The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt. Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge. Therefore a good scientist is never ‘certain’. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain: because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better elements of evidence, or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.
But my favorite comes from curator extraordinaire Hans-Ulrich Obrist:
Lately, the word “curate” seems to be used in an greater variety of contexts than ever before, in reference to everything from a exhibitions of prints by Old Masters to the contents of a concept store. The risk, of course, is that the definition may expand beyond functional usability. But I believe ‘curate’ finds ever-wider application because of a feature of modern life that is impossible to ignore: the incredible proliferation of ideas, information, images, disciplinary knowledge, and material products that we all witnessing today. Such proliferation makes the activities of filtering, enabling, synthesizing, framing, and remembering more and more important as basic navigational tools for 21st century life. These are the tasks of the curator, who is no longer understood as simply the person who fills a space with objects but as the person who brings different cultural spheres into contact, invents new display features, and makes junctions that allow unexpected encounters and results.
To curate, in this sense, is to refuse static arrangements and permanent alignments and instead to enable conversations and relations. Generating these kinds of links is an essential part of what it means to curate, as is disseminating new knowledge, new thinking, and new artworks in a way that can seed future cross-disciplinary inspirations. But there is another case for curating as a vanguard activity for the 21st century.
As the artist Tino Sehgal has pointed out, modern human societies find themselves today in an unprecedented situation: the problem of lack, or scarcity, which has been the primary factor motivating scientific and technological innovation, is now being joined and even superseded by the problem of the global effects of overproduction and resource use. Thus moving beyond the object as the locus of meaning has a further relevance. Selection, presentation, and conversation are ways for human beings to create and exchange real value, without dependence on older, unsustainable processes. Curating can take the lead in pointing us towards this crucial importance of choosing.”
The true gift of This Will Make You Smarter — of Brockman — is in acting as a potent rupture in the filter bubble of our curiosity, cross-pollinating ideas across a multitude of disciplines to broaden our intellectual comfort zones and, in the process, spark a deeper, richer, more dimensional understanding not only of science, but of life itself.
The text of the answers is also available online in its entirety.
Originally featured, with more excerpts, in February.
TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS
When an anonymous advice columnist by the name of “Dear Sugar” introduced herself on The Rumpus on March 11, 2010, she made her proposition clear: a “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” But in the two-some years that followed, she proceeded to deliver something tenfold punchier, more honest, more existentially profound than even such an intelligently irreverent promise could foretell. This year, all of Sugar’s no-bullshit, wholehearted wisdom on life’s trickiest contexts — sometimes the simplest, sometimes the most complex, always the most deeply human — was released in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library), along with several never-before-published columns, under Sugar’s real name: Cheryl Strayed.
The book is titled after Dear Sugar #64, which remains my own favorite by a long stretch. It’s exquisite in its entirety, but this particular bit makes the heart tremble with raw heartness:
Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.
When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss doesn’t ‘mean anything’ because, much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with you or anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.
The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.
One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.
Say thank you.
In the introduction, Steve Almond, who once attempted to be Sugar before there was Sugar, captures precisely what makes Sugar Sugar:
The column that launched Sugar as a phenomenon was written in response to what would have been, for anyone else, a throwaway letter. Dear Sugar, wrote a presumably young man. WTF? WTF? WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day. Cheryl’s reply began as follows:
My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel the same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.
It was an absolutely unprecedented moment. Advice columnists, after all, adhere to an unspoken code: focus on the letter writer, dispense all necessary bromides, make it all seem bearable. Disclosing your own sexual assault is not part of the code.
But Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters — every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’s absorbed before she was old enough to even understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded. The fuck is your life. Answer it.
Originally featured in July.
WHERE THE HEART BEATS
“Good music can act as a guide to good living,” John Cage (1912-1992) once said. But what, exactly, is good music, or good living, or, for that matter, goodness itself?
In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (public library), longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson constructs a remarkable intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists. Fifteen years in the making, it is without a doubt the richest, most stimulating,most absorbing book I’ve read in ages — superbly researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.
From his early life in California, defined by his investigations into the joy of sound, to his pivotal introduction to Zen Buddhism in Japanese Zen master D. T. Suzuki’s Columbia University class, to his blossoming into a force of the mid-century avant-garde, Larson traces Cage’s own journey as an artist and a soul, as well as his intermeshing with the journeys of other celebrated artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and, most importantly, Merce Cunningham.
The book itself has a beautiful compositional structure, conceived as a conversation with Cage and modeled after Cage’s imagined conversations with Erik Satie, one of his mentors, long after Satie’s death. Interspersed in Larson’s immersive narrative are italicized excerpts of Cage’s own writing, in his own voice.
Where to begin? Perhaps at the core — the core of what Cage has come to be known for, that expansive negative space isn’t nihilistic, isn’t an absence, but, rather, it’s life-affirming, a presence. Cage himself reflects:
Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.
In his early life, however, Cage was rather unable to get his “mind and desires out of the way,” leading himself into a spiral of inner turmoil. While engaged in a relationship with a man named Don Sample, he met artist Xenia Kashevaroff, the Alaskan-born daughter of a Russian priest, and quickly fell in love. The two got married and, for a while, Cage was able to appease his dissonance about his affair with Sample. But rather than gaining deeper self-knowledge, he seemed to steer further away from himself. Perhaps that’s what prompted him, sixty years later, to admonish:
I’m entirely opposed to emotions….I really am. I think of love as an opportunity to become blind and blind in a bad way….I think that seeing and hearing are extremely important; in my view they are what life is; love makes us blind to seeing and hearing.
By the 1940s, Cage’s relationship with Xenia had begun to unravel. When the two eventually divorced in 1945, Cage’s identity was thrown into turbulence. His work followed faithfully, as he set out to compose Ophelia (1946), a “two-tone poem to madness” based on Shakespeare. Larson writes:
Margaret Leng Tan asked Cage why his portrait of Ophelia is so much harsher than Shakespeare’s. She recorded his reply that ‘all madness is inherently violent, even when it is not directed towards others, for it invariably ravages the sufferer internally.’
Soon, Cage began the decades-long romance with the love of his life, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, which would last until the end of Cage’s life and bequeath some of the most magical collaborations in the history of 20th-century art. Around the same time, Cage began the other essential relationship of his life — that with Zen Buddhism.
Hardly anywhere does Larson’s gift for prose and grasp of the human condition shine more beautifully than in this passage articulating the profound, uncomfortable transformation that love sets in motion:
Caught in the roar of his emotions, Cage was forced to confront a question totally new to him: What is the ‘self’ that is being expressed? The self that hurts so badly it nearly kills you? The self that isn’t seen until it aches?
When Cage and Cunningham met, perhaps they felt a tremor of gravitational shift. It might have been small at first, or the shiver might have been so insistent it rattled them. Whatever the case, something evidently stirred between the two men before they came to New York. But maybe nothing was spoken.
So it is with the places preparing to teach us. It’s only when the heart begins to beat wildly and without pattern — when it begins to realize its boundlessness — that its newly adamant pulse bangs on the walls of its cage and is bruised by its enclosure.
To feel the heart pound is only the beginning. Next is to feel the hurt — the tearing of the psyche — the prelude of entry into the place one has always feared. One fears that place because of being drawn to it, loving it, and wanting to be taught by it. Without the need to be taught, who would feel the psyche rip?…. Without the bruise, who would know where the walls are?
Tying it back to Cage himself, Larson writes:
Bruised and bloodied by throwing himself against the four walls of his enclosure, and deeply shaken by his shrieking emotions, Cage stopped pacing his confinement and realized that his container had no roof. Looking up, he could see the sky. Fascinated, he set out to explore this new dimension.
What he found was a language of silence and immanence.
This Cageian inquisitiveness was indeed fundamental to both this personal life and his approach to music — an ethos reminiscent of Rilke’s counsel to live the questions. Cage:
What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions.
One remarkable aspect of Cage’s music, derived from his close study of Indian traditions, was the notion of “disinterestedness” — which is not to be confused with “indifference.” Larson distinguishes:
From the standpoint of spiritual practice, the two words have nothing in common. Indifference borders on nihilism. It has a quality of ‘not caring.’ It is ‘apathetic.’ It expresses corrosive cynicism. Ultimately, it is poisonous, both to the practitioner and to the culture as a whole.
Disinterestedness, on the contrary, ‘is unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives,’ according to the Random House Dictionary (1971). Disinterestedness is the natural outcome of meditation on the self and recognition of its lack of substance — then what can trouble you? freeing one’s mind from the grip of the self leads to spiritual ease — being at home in your own skin, free of self-attachment, cured of likes and dislikes, afloat in rasa. It’s how you open your ears to the music of the world.
Cage defined disinterestedness and equated it with ‘love’ in 1948:
‘If one makes music, as the Orient would say, disinterestedly, that is, without concern for money or fame but simply for the love of making it, it is an integrating activity and one will find moments in his life that an complete and fulfilled.’
(This sentiment regarding purpose and doing what you love would come to be articulated by many other creators over the decades to come.)
Echoing something Jackson Pollock’s dad once wrote to his son in one of history’s finest letters, Cage advises:
Look at everything. Don’t close your eyes to the world around you. Look and become curious and interested in what there is to see.
Larson concludes with a beautiful metaphor for both Zen Buddhism and Cage’s legacy, reflecting on artist Bruce Nauman’s show Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), which was spurred by Nauman’s discovery that he had mice in his studio:
In the studio, things happen by chance. A mouse runs by. A moth flitters through space. These ‘chance events’ are random and filled with non-intention — the buzz of small creatures, caught on film, in the midst of their busy eventful lives. As far as a mouse is concerned, its life is the center of the universe. By watching through the neutral eye of the camera, we are able to see what we might not glimpse otherwise: that a ‘silent’ space is an invisible game of billiards played by beings, each at its own center, each responding to all other beings. The mice, dashing here and there, are playing out their expectations about the cat. Life fills the gaps.
There are absolutely no metaphors, just observations.
The artist maps reality. That’s the cat-and-mouse game between the artist and the world. And it’s not just the artist who plays it. Each of us is in a cat-and-mouse game with our perceptual life. Do we really see ourselves? Or do we see only what obtrudes in daylight? Do we crash through our nightlife, scattering the subtle things that abide there? Or do we simply watch without judgment, in the expectation of learning something?
Originally featured at length in July.
It’s no secret Susan Sontag’s journals have been on heavy rotation here this year. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), the second published volume of her diaries, offers an intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices. The tome includes her insights on art, love, writing, censorship, boredom, and aphorisms.
Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.
What extraordinary energy we expend, as a culture and a civilization, on trying to understand where good ideas come from, how creativity works, its secrets, its origins, its mechanisms, and the five-step action plan for coaxing it into manifestation. And little compares to the anguish that comes with the blockage of creative flow.
In 2010, designer and musician Alex Cornell found himself stumped by a creative block while trying to write an article about creative block. Deterred neither by the block nor by the irony, he reached out to some of his favorite artists and asked them for their coping strategies in such an event. The response was overwhelming in both volume and depth, inspiring Cornell to put together a collection on the subject. The result is Breakthrough!: 90 Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block and Spark Your Imagination (public library) — a small but potent compendium of field-tested, life-approved insight on optimizing the creative process from some of today’s most exciting artists, designers, illustrators, writers, and thinkers. From the many specific strategies — walks in nature, porn, destruction of technology, weeping — a few powerful universals emerge, including the role of procrastination, the importance of a gestation period for ideas, and, above all, the reminder that the “creative block” befalls everyone indiscriminately.
First of all, being creative is not summoning stuff ex nihilo. It’s work, plain and simple — adding something to some other thing or transforming something. In the work that I do, as a writer and a metaphor designer, there’s always a way to get something to do something to do something else. No one talks about work block.
Also, block implies a hydraulic metaphor of thinking. Thoughts flow. Difficulty thinking represents impeded flow. This interoperation also suggests a single channel for that flow. A stopped pipe. A dammed river. If you only have one channel, one conduit, then you’re vulnerable to blockage. Trying to solve creative block, I imagine a kind of psyching Roto-Rootering.
My conceptual scheme is more about the temperature of things: I try to find out what’s hot and start there, even if it may be unrelated to what I need to be working on, and most of the time, that heats up other areas too. You can solve a lot with a new conceptual frame.
Have your heart broken. It worked for Rei Kawakubo. You’ll realize the work you’d been doing wasn’t anywhere near your potential.
The inimitable Debbie Millman has kindly offered this hand-lettered version of the typeset list in the book:
Writer Douglas Rushkoff rebels:
I don’t believe in writer’s block.
Yes, there may have been days or even weeks at a time when I have not written — even when I may have wanted to — but that doesn’t mean I was blocked. It simply means I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, as I’d like to argue, exactly the right place at the right time.
The creative process has more than one kind of expression. There’s the part you could show in a movie montage — the furious typing or painting or equation solving where the writer, artist, or mathematician accomplishes the output of the creative task. But then there’s also the part that happens invisibly, under the surface. That’s when the senses are perceiving the world, the mind and heart are thrown into some sort of dissonance, and the soul chooses to respond.
That response doesn’t just come out like vomit after a bad meal. There’s not such thing as pure expression. Rather, because we live in a social world with other people whose perceptual apparatus needs to be penetrated with our ideas, we must formulate, strategize, order, and then articulate. It is that last part that is visible as output or progress, but it only represents, at best, 25 percent of the process.
Real creativity transcends time. If you are not producing work, then chances are you have fallen into the infinite space between the ticks of the clock where reality is created. Don’t let some capitalist taskmaster tell you otherwise — even if he happens to be in your own head.
Cheers. Watcha gonna do with a blocked toilet? I mean, that’s all it is, right? A bung that needs pulling to let the clear waters of inspiration flow.
Maybe. Or maybe it just takes showing up. Going back again and again to write or paint or sing or cook.
Some days the genius will be in you, and you will sail. Other days the lead will line the slippers, and you’ll be staring into the void of your so-called creative mind, feeling like a fraud. It’s all part of the big ole cycle of creativity, and it’s a healthy cycle at that.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett has a special term for his method:
My strategy for getting myself out of a rut is to sit at my desk reminding myself of what the problem is, reviewing my notes, generally filling my head with the issues and terms, and then I just get up and go do something relatively mindless and repetitive. At our farm in the summer, I paint the barn or mow the hayfield or pick berries or cute fire wood to length…. I don’t even try to think about the problem, but more often than not, at some point in the middle of the not very challenging activity, I’ll find myself mulling it over and coming up with a new slant, a new way of tackling the issue, maybe just a new term to use. Engaging my brain with something else to control and think about helps melt down the blockades that have been preventing me from making progress, freeing up the circuits for some new paths. My strategy could hardly be cruder, but it works so well so often that I have come to rely on it.
One summer, many years ago, my friend Doug Hofstadter was visiting me at my farm, and somebody asked him where I was. He gestured out to the big hayfield behind the house, which I was harrowing for a reseeding. ‘He’s out there on his tractor, doing his tillosophy,’ Doug said. Ever since then, tillosophy has been my term for this process. Try it; if it doesn’t work, at least you’ll end up with a painted room, a mowed lawn, a clean basement.
How can you defeat the snarling goblins of creative block? With books, of course. Just grab one. It doesn’t matter what sort: science fiction, science fact, pornography (soft, hard, or merely squishy), comic books, textbooks, diaries (of people known or unknown), novels, telephone directories, religious texts — anything and everything will work.
Now, open it to a random page. Stare at a random sentence.
Every book holds the seed of a thousand stories. Every sentence can trigger an avalanche of ideas. Mix ideas across books: one thought from Aesop and one line from Chomsky, or a fragment from the IKEA catalog melded with a scrap of dialog from Kerouac.
By forcing your mind to connect disparate bits of information, you’ll jump-start your thinking, and you’ll fill in blank after blank with thought after thought. The goblins of creative block have stopped snarling and have been shooed away, you’re dashing down thoughts, and your synapses are clanging away in a symphonic burst of ideas. And if you’re not, whip open another book. Pluck out another sentence. And ponder mash-ups of out-of-context ideas until your mind wanders and you end up in a new place, a place that no one else ever visited.
Originally featured, with more excerpts, in October.
“What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?,” wondered Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time. “Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?”
This inquiry has long occupied scientists, philosophers, and deep thinkers alike, culminating in the most fundamental question of why there is something rather than nothing. That, in fact, is the epicenter of intellectual restlessness that Jim Holt sets out to resolve in Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (public library). Seeking to tease apart the most central existential question of all — why there is a world, rather than nothingness, a question he says is “so profound that it would occur only to a metaphysician, yet so simple it would occur only to a child” — Holt pores through millennia of science and theology, theory by theory, to question our most basic assumptions about the world, reality, and the nature of fact itself, with equal parts intelligence, irreverence, and insight.
Reflecting on his many conversations with philosophers, theologians, particle physicists, cosmologists, mystics, and writers, Holt puts things in perspective:
When you listen to such thinkers feel their way around the question of why there is a world at all, you begin to realize that your own thoughts on the matter are not quite so nugatory as you had imagined. No one can confidently claim intellectual superiority in the face of the mystery of existence. For, as William James observed, ‘All of us are beggars here.’
And while the book is remarkable in its entirety — take a closer look with Kathryn Schulz’s exquisite review for New York Magazine — one of Holt’s most fascinating conversations is with someone one wouldn’t immediately peg as an expert on cosmogony: novelist John Updike, who seems to share in Isaac Asimov’s famous contention that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.” Holt writes:
[T]he laws amount to a funny way of saying, ‘Nothing equals something,'” Updike said, bursting into laughter. “QED! One opinion I’ve encountered is that, since getting from nothing to something involves time, and time didn’t exist before there was something, the whole question is a meaningless one that we should stop asking ourselves. It’s beyond our intellectual limits as a species. Put yourself into the position of a dog. A dog is responsive, shows intuition, looks at us with eyes behind which there is intelligence of a sort, and yet a dog must not understand most of the things it sees people doing. It must have no idea how they invented, say, the internal-combustion engine. So maybe what we need to do is imagine that we’re dogs and that there are realms that go beyond our understanding. I’m not sure I buy that view, but it is a way of saying that the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain. I have trouble even believing—and this will offend you—the standard scientific explanation of how the universe rapidly grew from nearly nothing. Just think of it. The notion that this planet and all the stars we see, and many thousands of times more than those we see — that all this was once bounded in a point with the size of, what, a period or a grape? How, I ask myself, could that possibly be? And, that said, I sort of move on.
Taking a jab at the “beautiful mathematics” of string theory, Updike echoes the landmark conversation between Einstein and Indian philosopher Tagore, exclaiming:
Beautiful in a vacuum! What’s beauty if it’s not, in the end, true? Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty.
Holt invites Updike to reconcile the “brute fact theory” of science and the “God theory” of religion:
He was silent again for a moment, then continued. “Some scientists who are believers, like Freeman Dyson, have actually tackled the ultimate end of the universe. They’ve tried to describe a universe where entropy is almost total and individual particles are separated by distances that are greater than the dimensions of the present observable universe … an unthinkably dreary and pointless vacuum. I admire their scientific imagination, but I just can’t make myself go there. And a space like that is the space in which God existed and nothing else. Could God then have suffered boredom to the point that he made the universe? That makes reality seem almost a piece of light verse.”
What a lovely conceit! Reality is not a “blot on nothingness,” as Updike’s character Henry Bech had once, in a bilious moment, decided. It is a piece of light verse.
Originally featured in July.
THE POWER OF HABIT
“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar,” William James famously wrote on habit. Indeed, try as we might to reverse-engineer willpower and flowchart our way to happiness, in the end it is habit that lies at the heart of our successes and our failures. So argues New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (public library), proposing that the root of adhering to our highest ideals — exercising regularly, becoming more productive, sleeping better, reading more, cultivating the discipline necessary for building successful ventures — is in understanding the science and psychology of how habits work.
Duhigg, whose chief premise echoes many of Timothy Wilson’s insights in Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, takes a deep dive into the bleeding edge of neuroscience and behavioral psychology to explore not only why habits exist in the first place, but also how they can be reprogrammed and optimized.
Duhigg first became fascinated by the power of habit eight years ago, while in Baghdad as a newspaper reporter. There, he met an army major who was conducting a curious experiment in the small town of Kufa: After analyzing taped footage of riots in the area, the major identified a common sequence — first a crowd of Iraqis would gather in the plaza, drawing in spectators and food vendors, then eventually someone would throw a rock and all hell would break loose.
So the major summoned Kufa’s mayor and made a strange request: Get the food vendors out of the plaza. The next time the sequence began to unfold and a crowd started to gather, something different transpired — the crowd snowballed and people started chanting angry slogans, but by dusk, people had gotten hungry and restless. They looked for the familiar kebobs, but they weren’t there. Eventually, the spectators left and the chanters lost steam. By 8PM, everyone was gone.
Upon asking the major how he figured out the clever strategy, Duhigg got the following response: “Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army.”
Originally featured in March.
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely belongs to the rare breed of scientists who are both actively engaged in empirical research, running all kinds of fascinating experiments in the lab, and keenly skilled in synthesizing those findings as equally fascinating insights into human nature, then communicating those articulately and engagingly to a non-scientist reader. Adding to his track record> of doing precisely that is The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves (public library), in which Ariely asks a seemingly simple question — “is dishonesty largely restricted to a few bad apples, or is it a more widespread problem?” — and goes on to reveal the surprising, illuminating, often unsettling truths that underpin the uncomfortable answer. Like cruelty, dishonesty turns out to be a remarkably prevalent phenomenon better explained by circumstances and cognitive processes than by concepts like character.
Ariely writes in the introduction:
In addition to exploring the forces that shape dishonesty, one of the main practical benefits of the behavioral economics approach is that it shows us the internal and environmental influences on our behavior. Once we more clearly understand the forces that really drive us, we discover that we are not helpless in the face of our human follies (dishonesty included), that we can restructure our environment, and that by doing so we can achieve better behaviors and outcomes.
Particularly interesting is a chapter on the relationship between creativity and dishonesty. The same habits of mind that allow us to create elaborate ideas turn out to also be responsible for enabling dishonesty and the subsequent rationalizations justifying our immoral behavior. That penchant for justification, in fact — which Ariely places at the “control tower of thinking, reasoning, and morality” — is a powerful driver of how we make decisions towards what we want to do and reverse-engineer them towards what we believe the right thing to do is.
[S]ometimes (perhaps often) we don’t make choices based on our explicit preferences. Instead, we have a gut feeling about what we want, and we go through a process of mental gymnastics, applying all kinds of justifications to manipulate the criteria. That way, we can get what we really want, but at the same time keep up the appearance — to ourselves and to others — that we are acting in accordance with our rational and well-reasoned preferences.
Here’s where it gets interesting:
[T]he difference between creative and less creative individuals comes into play mostly when there is ambiguity in the situation at hand and, with it, more room for justification… Put simply, the link between creativity and dishonesty seems related to the ability to tell ourselves stories about how we are doing the right thing, even when we are not. The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.
But could it be, Ariely wondered, greater intelligence was responsible for better stories? One experiment measured the brain structure of pathological liars, and compared it to normal controls — more specifically, the ratio of gray matter (the neural tissue that makes up the bulk of our brains) to white matter (the wiring that connects those brain cells). Liars, it turned out, had 14% less gray matter than the controls but had 22-26% more white matter in the prefrontal cortex, suggesting that they were more likely to make connections between different memories and ideas as increased connectivity means greater access to the reserve of associations and memories stored in gray matter. “Intelligence,” it turned out, wasn’t correlated with dishonesty — but creativity, which we already know is all about connecting things, was.
In another experiment, Ariely tested how “moral flexibility” was related to the level of creativity required in different jobs by visiting an ad agency and studying the capacity for dishonesty in representatives of its various departments:
[T]he level of moral flexibility was highly related to the level of creativity required in their department and by their job. Designers and copy-writers were at the top of the moral flexibility scale, and the accountants ranked at the bottom. It seems that when ‘creativity’ is in our job description, we are more likely to say ‘Go for it’ when it comes to dishonest behavior.
Ultimately, Ariely explains the osmotic balance between creativity and dishonestly through our capacity for storytelling:
Just as creativity enables us to envision novel solutions to tough problems, it can also enable us to develop original paths around rules, all the while allowing us to reinterpret information in a self-serving way… [C]reativity can help us tell better stories — stories that allow us to be even more dishonest but still think of ourselves as wonderfully honest people.
Originally featured at length in May.
THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL
“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser memorably asserted, and Harvard sociobiologist E. O. Wilson recently pointed to the similarity between innovators in art and science, both of whom he called “dreamers and storytellers.” Stories aren’t merely essential to how we understand the world — they are how we understand the world. We weave and seek stories everywhere, from data visualization to children’s illustration to cultural hegemony. In The Storytelling Animal (public library), educator and science writer Jonathan Gottschall traces the roots, both evolutionary and sociocultural, of the transfixing grip storytelling has on our hearts and minds, individually and collectively. What emerges is a kind of “unified theory of storytelling,” revealing not only our gift for manufacturing truthiness in the narratives we tell ourselves and others, but also the remarkable capacity of stories — the right kinds of them — to change our shared experience for the better.
Gottschall articulates a familiar mesmerism:
Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.
Joining these favorite book trailers is a wonderful short black-and-white teaser animation:
One particularly important aspect of storytelling Gottschall touches on is the osmotic balance between the writer’s intention and the reader’s interpretation, something Mortimer Adler argued for decades ago in his eloquent case for marginalia. Gottschall writes:
The writer is not … an all-powerful architect of our reading experience. The writer guides the way we imagine but does not determine it. A film begins with a writer producing a screenplay. But it is the director who brings the screenplay to life, filling in most of the details. So it is with any story. A writer lays down words, but they are inert. They need a catalyst to come to life. The catalyst is the reader’s imagination.
In discussing the extent to which we live in stories, Gottschall puts in concrete terms something most of us suspect — fear, perhaps — on an abstract, intuitive level: the astounding amount of time we spend daydreaming.
Clever scientific studies involving beepers and diaries suggest that an average daydream is about fourteen seconds long and that we have about two thousand of them per day. In other words, we spend about half of our waking hours — one-third of our lives on earth — spinning fantasies. We daydream about the past: things we should have said or done, working through our victories and failures. We daydream about mundane stuff such as imagining different ways of handling conflict at work. But we also daydream in a much more intense, storylike way. We screen films with happy endings in our minds, where all our wishes — vain, aggressive, dirty — come true. And we screen little horror films, too, in which our worst fears are realized.
From War and Peace to pro wrestling, from REM sleep to the “fictional screen media” of commercials, from our small serialized personal stories on Facebook and Twitter to the large cultural stories of religious traditions, The Storytelling Animal dives into what science knows — and what it’s still trying to find out — about our propensity for storytelling to reveal not only the science of story but also its seemingly mystical yet palpably present power.
Originally featured in May.
Do you feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner party invitation in favor of a good book and a cup of tea? Or, worse yet, do you reluctantly accept the invitation even though you’d much rather curl up with the book? You are not alone. In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain dissects the anatomy of this socially-induced guilt and delves deep into one of psychology’s most enduring tenets — that the single most important defining aspect of personality is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum — to break through the “long and storied tradition” of neatly mapping this binary division onto others, like submission and leadership, loneliness and happiness, settling and success.
Cain exposes the much more complicated interplay between these character traits and society’s metrics for fulfillment, exploring how “closeted introverts” — a self-reported one third to one half of people, including cultural icons and legendary entrepreneurs like Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Craig Newmark — are expending enormous energy on trying to pass as extroverts in a culture that rewards extroversion and conflates it with boldness, happiness, sociability, and success.
Introversion — along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness — is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women living in a man’s world, discounted because it goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality trait, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”
Ultimately, Cain teases apart not only how and why we internalize society’s extroversion bias very early on, but also how we can reconnect with the valuable qualities implicit to introversion and rethink our hard-wired strengths in a culture that categorizes them as weaknesses.
I had always imagined Rosa Parks as a stately woman with a bold temperament. But when she died in 2005 at the age of ninety-two, the flood of obituaries recalled her as soft-spoken, sweet, and small in stature. They said she was ‘timid and shy’ but had ‘the courage of a lion.’ They were full of phrases like ‘radical humility’ and ‘quiet fortitude.’ What does it mean to be quiet and have fortitude? these descriptions asked implicitly. How could you be shy and courageous?
Originally featured in February.
“One should try to write as if posthumously,” Christopher Hitchens famously opined in a New York Public Library talk three days before his fatal cancer diagnosis. “Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others,” he advised young contrarians years earlier. How striking, then, becomes the clash between his uncompromising ethos and the equally uncompromising realities of death, recorded in Mortality (public library), his last published work, out this week — a gripping and lucid meditation on death as it was unfolding during Hitch’s last months of life. But what makes the book truly extraordinary is his profound oscillation between his characteristic, proud, almost stubborn self-awareness — that ability to look on with the eye of the critic rather than the experiencing self — and a vulnerability that is so clearly foreign to him, yet so breathlessly inevitable in dying. The ideological rigor with which he approaches his own finality, teasing apart religion and politics and other collective and thus impersonal facets of culture, cracks here and there, subtly at first, letting the discomfort of his brush with the unknown peek through, then gapes wide open to reveal the sheer human terror of ceasing to exist.
To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?
Read closer with the original article from September.
Published December 4, 2012