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02 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Science of Finding Your Soul Mate

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Breaking down the mathematical odds of winning at SoulMateRoulette.

It’s been argued that the secret of lasting love is giving up the myth of “the one” — and yet the notion of a perfect soul mate is irresistibly alluring to most of us. We go after it with remarkable ambition and even try to calculate the odds of finding that special someone, that invaluable human mirror who will “tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light can get in.” But in a world of seven billion, how likely is it, really, that each of us will find that mythic other?

That’s precisely what NASA-roboticist-turned-comic-creator Randall Munroe explores in a chapter of What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (public library), the altogether fantastic book based on his ever-delightful and inexhaustibly original blog xkcd.

Munroe answers a reader’s seemingly simple, strangely unsettling question: “What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?” Acknowledging that this proposition is problematic — “a nightmare,” he approaches the premise that each of us has “one randomly-assigned perfect soul mate” with a scientist’s vital balance of skepticism and openness, and a side of a cartoonist’s snark:

We’ll assume your soul mate is set at birth. You know nothing about who or where they are, but — as in the romantic cliché — you’ll recognize each other the moment your eyes meet.

Right away, this raises a few questions. For starters, is your soul mate even still alive? A hundred billion or so humans have ever lived, but only seven billion are alive now (which gives the human condition a 93% mortality rate). If we’re all paired up at random, 90% of our soul mates are long dead.

If this weren’t disheartening enough, Munroe assures us that things get worse when we account for the arrow of time:

A simple argument shows we can’t just limit ourselves to past humans; we have to include an unknown number of future humans as well. See, if it’s possible for your soul mate to be in the distant past, then it also has to be possible for soul mates to be in the distant future. After all, your soul mate’s soul mate is.

To make matters somewhat less messy, Munroe assumes that your soul mate is your contemporary and, with an unnecessarily judgmental remark how this would “keep things from getting creepy,” that your age difference is only a few years. With these parameters, each of us is left with a pool of about half a billion potential matches. Even so, the math remains murky — Munroe explains:

What about gender and sexual orientation? And culture? And language? We could keep using demographics to try to break things down further, but we’d be drifting away from the idea of a random soul mate. In our scenario, you don’t know anything about who your soul mate will be until you look into their eyes. Everybody has only one orientation — toward their soul mate.

Returning to the mythic requirement of identification via eye contact, he delineates the infinitesimal odds of finding your soul mate:

The number of strangers we make eye contact with each day is hard to estimate. It can vary from almost none (shut-ins or people in small towns) to many thousands (a police officer in Times Square). Let’s suppose you lock eyes with an average of a few dozen new strangers each day. (I’m pretty introverted, so for me that’s definitely a generous estimate.) If 10 percent of them are close to your age, that’s around 50,000 people in a lifetime. Given that you have 500,000,000 potential soul mates, it means you’ll only find true love in one lifetime out of 10,000.

Here, Munroe veers into a science-fictional scenario reminiscent of Malcolm Cowley’s 1930 prediction for the future of love, envisioning an artificial platform for maximizing eye contact exposure — a webcam-based system akin to ChatRoulette, which he dubs “SoulMateRoulette”:

If everyone used the system for eight hours a day, seven days a week, and if it takes you a couple seconds to decide if someone’s your soul mate, this system could — in theory — match everyone up with their soul mates in a few decades.

In the real world, many people have trouble finding any time at all for romance — few could devote two decades to it. So maybe only rich kids would be able to afford to sit around on SoulMateRoulette. Unfortunately for the proverbial 1%, most of their soul mates are to be found in the other 99%. If only 1% of people use the service, then 1% of that 1% would find their match through this system — one in ten thousand.

After further exploring this scenario to its most outrageous extremes, Munroe arrives at a strikingly familiar outcome:

Given all the stress and pressure, some people would fake it. They’d want to join the club, so they’d get together with another lonely person and stage a fake soul mate encounter. They’d marry, hide their relationship problems, and struggle to present a happy face to their friends and family.

His conclusion, however, contrasts the hopelessness of the soul mate theory with the hopefulness that keeps our hearts alive with a sense of possibility, that immutable optimism that helps us go on living and loving:

A world of random soul mates would be a lonely one. Let’s hope that’s not what we live in.

Perhaps John Steinbeck put it best: “If it is right, it happens… Nothing good gets away.

In the remainder of What If?, Munroe brings his signature blend of science, snark, and sensitivity to such mysteries as how lightning picks its targets, whether vigorously stirring a cup of tea can bring it to a boil, and what it would actually be like to travel in a time machine. Complement it with scientists’ answers to little kids’ questions about life and an illustrated tour of today’s greatest scientific mysteries.

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02 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Fox’s Garden: A Tender Wordless Story About the Gift of Grace and the Transformative Power of Kindness to Those Kicked Away

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A gentle reminder that life can be a cold wasteland of cruelty or a whimsical wonderland of grace, depending on the generosity of spirit with which we approach it.

The question of human nature — whether we are born full of goodness or spend our lives concealing our inherently rotten souls — is perhaps the most timeless and most significant of humanity’s inquiries. A subtle and infinitely heartening answer comes in Fox’s Garden (public library) — a breathtaking wordless picture-book by French artist Princesse Camcam, born Camille Garoche, whose lyrical cut-paper illustrations tell a story of cruelty redeemed by kindness, of coldness melted away by the warmth of compassion that is our true nature.

One cold winter night, the fox loses her way in the forest and stumbles into a village. Kicked away by the grownups — those strange beings chronically paralyzed by their fear of the unfamiliar — she finds refuge in a shut-down greenhouse, where she gives birth to a litter of baby foxes.

A curious and warmhearted little boy, full of children’s inherent openness to experience, follows her and offers a small gift — a beautiful gesture bespeaking the transformative power of acknowledging the rejected and making mindful room in one’s heart for those outcast by the mindless majority.

Reminiscent of Norwegian artist Øyvind Torseter’s handcrafted dioramas for My Father’s Arms Are a Boat, Camcam’s refreshingly analog cut-paper vignettes, meticulously lit and photographed, exude a towering tenderness that only amplifies the story’s overwhelming purity of emotion.

The wordlessness mirrors the silence of the snowy winter, a backdrop against which we are reminded that, like winter, life can be a cold and barren wasteland or a whimsical wonderland of grace, depending on the eyes we bring to it and the generosity of spirit with which we approach it.

Fox’s Garden comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion, champion of quietly moving masterworks of extraordinary emotional intelligence and sensitivity — lyrical treasures like The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, and Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, among others.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion

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02 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Psychology of Why Creative Work Hinges on Memory and Connecting the Unrelated

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“In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding.”

Literature is the original internet — an endless rabbit hole of discoveries, with each citation, footnote, and allusion essentially a “hyperlink” to another text, another idea. I was recently reminded of this by a passing mention in Ronald Kellogg’s 1994 book on the psychology of writing, which led me to a fantastic 1985 volume titled Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking (public library). In this masterwork of insight, psycholinguist Vera John-Steiner cracks open the minds of 100 different creative individuals — writers, artists, composers, choreographers — via original interviews and an analysis of their existing notebooks, journals, letters, and scientific records, shedding light on the central elements and essential patterns of creative thought.

While John-Steiner expanded on seminal work like Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner’s model of creativity and Howard Gardner’s influential theory of multiple intelligences, she pioneered a new framework for understanding creativity based on qualitative research and interdisciplinary perspective. An early champion of an idea now ubiquitous in today’s ever-growing catalog of books on creativity, John-Steiner approached her research with visionary clarity of conviction: “That ‘creativity’ is beyond analysis is a romantic illusion we must now outgrow.”

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

One of the most important and enduring of John-Steiner’s insights on the “invisible tools” that propel a life of creative work and set artists apart from the rest is the concept of memory and how it empowers us to connect seemingly unrelated ideas — one of the defining characteristics of the creative mind and the basis of combinatorial creativity. She writes:

Among the invisible tools of creative individuals is their ability to hold on to the specific texture of their past. Their skill is akin to that of a rural family who lives through the winter on food stored in their root cellar… The creative use of one’s past, however, requires a memory that is both powerful and selective.

Mozart, she notes, called this his “bag of memories” — a mental reservoir of experiences and impressions “accumulated during the childhood years of intense wonder, a source to which many creative people return again and again.” Similarly, Ingmar Bergman wrote that “to make films is also to plunge again by its deepest roots down to the world of childhood.” She cites author Judy Blume, for whom this mental library of memories is especially dependent on sensory impressions:

I remember smells, feelings. I will walk in a house and say, this is B. N.’s home. This is the way his house smelled on a winter morning. All the sensations are there to be brought back.

This highly selective nature of creative memory is a supreme testament to the fact that memory is not a recording device and that, as legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks would put it decades later, “memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.” John-Steiner quotes the English poet Stephen Spender, who captured this beautifully:

Memory is not exactly memory. It is more like a prong, upon which a calendar of similar experiences happening throughout the years, collect. A memory once clearly stated ceases to be a memory, it becomes perpetually present, because every time we experience something which recalls it, the clear and lucid original experience imposes its formal beauty on the new experiences. It is thus no longer memory but an experience lived through again and again.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

But certain domains of creativity, like science or the sort of writing that relies on a heavy use of research and historical facts, demand that the creator’s access to memory be a lot less abstract and a lot more methodical. Indeed, this need explains the odd strategies many famous authors employed in organizing their ideas. John-Steiner points to Darwin’s particularly obsessive organization strategy, possibly one of his techniques for alleviating his chronic anxiety — he “carefully indexed all the books he had read and organized the material into portfolios that he consulted at the beginning of each new project.” Reviewing other examples of similar practices, John-Steiner puts it in no uncertain terms:

A powerful and personally developed structuring of information — an active and selective memory — is as necessary for scientists as it is for poets.

But perhaps the most potent use of memory in the creative mind is the cross-pollination of accumulated ideas and the fusing together of seemingly unrelated concepts into novel configurations — something Stephen Jay Gould, arguably the greatest science essayist of all time, captured when he said that his sole talent is “making connections.” John-Steiner quotes a similar sentiment by the Polish-born mathematician Stan Ulam:

It seems to me that good memory — at least for mathematicians and physicists — forms a large part of their talent. And what we call talent or perhaps genius itself depends to a large extent on the ability to use one’s memory properly to find analogies, past, present and future, which [are] essential to the development of new ideas.

Returning to Judy Blume’s approach to writing, which includes writing manuscript pages and taping them into a notebook for later use while the author’s mind “races head to this or to that,” John-Steiner points out how this technique bespeaks the fact that “the human mind is multi-channeled not only in the way in which we record experience … but also in the way in which writers, poets, and composers think while engaged in a new work”:

While Blume composes her narrative in a focused forward movement on her typewriter, she is also aware of the more diffuse associations that accompany her writing.

She cites her interview with the legendary composer Aaron Copland, who remarked that when this associative process works in an optimal state of flow, “all different musical materials run to their proper places.”

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

This utilization of remembered ideas and their combination into new concepts, John-Steiner argues, can occur both consciously and unconsciously — the latter best evidenced in the unconscious incubation stage present in just about every formal model of the creative process. This is powered by our multiple modes of analyzing and retaining information — sensory, perceptual, semantic, and episodic. She explains:

An experience is processed in multiple ways, as each type of memory “storage” has its own special characteristic. The stories of one’s life are recorded in episodic memory, and these are tagged according to the time and place of their occurrence. More abstract knowledge lacks such coding; instead it is recorded in a more formal structure such as biological taxonomies or other facts, which are organized according to hierarchical concepts.

Each domain of creativity prioritizes a different mode of memory as a primary source of raw material. Citing painter Paul Gauguin’s self-admitted “remarkable memory,” John-Steiner notes the importance of “a precise visual imagination that activates the exceptional abilities of this artist-designer”:

Mental images are an important resource for the working artist’s talent.

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

Noting that memory is a crucial resource in “keeping one’s knowledge current by linking the known to new ideas and insights,” she adds:

In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding. This process is demanding; it calls upon all the inner resources of the individual — active memory, openness to experience, creative intensity, and emotional courage. It demands self-knowledge in the use of expansion of one’s talents.

In the remainder of Notebooks of the Mind, John-Steiner explores the many “invisible tools” of creative work, including the role of revision, the interplay of anxiety and ambition, the power of finding the right mentors, and the importance of working from a place of love while remaining open to all your feelings. Complement it with Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions of creativity and the psychology of optimizing your brain by honing emotional memory.

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