Brain Pickings

Author Archive

01 JUNE, 2011

thxthxthx: The Art of Finding Happiness in Everyday Gratitude

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What laundry and bee stings have to do with the secret of happiness.

We live in a culture with far, far too much pessimism, cynicism and dystopianism going around. It’s easy to dismiss any inkling of positivity as self-serving Pollyannism, yet there’s plenty of evidence that recognizing our simple blessings greatly increases our well-being. I’m certainly a believer.

I’ve been a longtime fan of Leah Dieterich‘s fantastic THXTHXTHX thank-you-note-a-day blog and, this week, it’s joining this running list of blog-turned-book success stories with the publication of the truly wonderful book of the same name, thxthxthx: Thank Goodness for Everything — a lovely compendium of everyday gratitude in the form of 200 of Dieterich’s original handwritten thank-you notes on everything from clean sheets to empty bars to the “th” sound.

Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes vulnerable, and always profoundly human, the notes are a gentle, non-preachy reminder that, heck, we’re incredible beings living in an incredible world and why oh why do we make such a tragic habit of forgetting that?

Far from merely being one of the most charming books to come by this year, thxthxthx is a timeless and much-needed reminder that happiness is a choice we actively make, not a divine courtesy bestowed upon us by some arbitrary higher power.

An speaking of gratitude, a big “thank you” to Jason Bitner of Cassette From My Ex fame for flagging this.

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01 JUNE, 2011

Designing Minds: Uncovered Video Profiles of Prominent Designers

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Peeking inside creative crania, or what giant bananas have to do with the difference between design and art.

In 2008, a now-defunct podcast program by Adobe called Designing Minds — not to be confused with frogdesign’s excellent design mind magazine — did a series of video profiles of prominent artists and designers, including Stefan Sagmeister (whose Things I have learned in my life so far isn’t merely one of the best-produced, most beautiful design books of the past decade, it’s also a poignant piece of modern existential philosophy), Yves Behar (of One Laptop Per Child fame), Marian Bantjes (whose I Wonder remains my favorite typographic treasure) and many more, offering a rare glimpse of these remarkable creators’ life stories, worldviews and the precious peculiarities that make them be who they are and create what they create.

My favorite quote about what is art and what is design and what might be the difference comes from Donald Judd: ‘Design has to work, art doesn’t.’ And these things all have to work. They have a function outside my desire for self-expression.” ~ Stefan Sagmeister

When designers are given the opportunity to have a bigger role, real change, real transformation actually happens.” ~ Yves Behar

While the series may now be a sad ghost town of creative investment, as many such short-lived corporate initiatives tend to wither into, it remains an illuminating time-capsule of our era’s design thought-leadership. Luckily, all 70 episodes remain intact — and free — on iTunes.

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01 JUNE, 2011

Incognito: David Eagleman Unravels the Secret Lives of the Brain

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What seeing rainbows has to do with artificial intelligence and the biology of infidelity.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by neuroscientist David Eagleman is one of my favorite books of the past few years. So, as a proper neuro-nut, it’s no surprise I was thrilled for this week’s release of his latest gem, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain — a fascinating, dynamic, faceted look under the hood of the conscious mind to reveal the complex machinery of our subconscious.

Bringing a storyteller’s articulate and fluid narrative to a scientist’s quest, Eagleman dances across an incredible spectrum of issues — brain damage, dating, drugs, beauty, synesthesia, criminal justice, artificial intelligence, optical illusions and much more — to reveal that things we take as passive givens, from our capacity for seeing a rainbow to our ability to overhear our name in a conversation we weren’t paying attention to, are the function of remarkable neural circuitry, biological wiring and cognitive conditioning.

The three-pound organ in your skull — with its pink consistency of Jell-o — is an alien kind of computational material. It is composed of miniaturized, self-configuring parts, and it vastly outstrips anything we’ve dreamt of building. So if you ever feel lazy or dull, take heart: you’re the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.” ~ David Eagleman

Sample some of Eagleman’s fascinating areas of study with this excellent talk from TEDxAlamo:

Equal parts entertaining and illuminating, the case studies, examples and insights in Incognito are more than mere talking points to impressed at the next dinner party, poised instead to radically shift your understanding of the world, other people, and your own mind.

And if Incognito tickles your fancy, you might also enjoy V. S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, Mark Changizi’s The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision and Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, as well as these 7 must-read books on music, emotion and the brain.

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31 MAY, 2011

An Illustrated Guide to Cockroaches

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What superhuman sprinting has to do with democracy, the power of design and your kitchen sink drain.

If you’ve ever lived in a city, especially a densely populated, neighbors-across-the-street-staring-down-your-dinner-plate kind of city, you’ve likely had your run-in with a neighbor of the least likable yet most inevitable kind: The cockroach. And while for most people, it’s an endless source of variations on the ewww response, for Siberian-born, New-York-based artist Ekaterina Smirnova it’s been the unlikely source of design inspiration. In An Illustrated Guide to Cockroaches, she offers an irreverent and beautifully designed blueprint to better understanding your six-legged roommate in a graphic style that’s part Shepard Fairey, part Olly Moss, Lynd Ward, part something entirely its own.

The book began as an experiment, a study in the power of graphic design, as Smirnova was assigned to come up with an idea for a book in her editorial design class at the SVA. The winning idea: To muster the most tedious, even repulsive subject possible, and use design-driven storytelling to make it something interesting to read and study. And, as far as I’m concerned, she’s aced her assignment — the book is as fascinating as it is visually stimulating.

From the remarkable talents of roaches (did you know that an American cockroach can run a distance distance of 50 times his size in a second, which in human scale would translate to running at 186 miles per hour?) to their unusual intelligence (they seem to make democratic group decisions better than most human societies) to their enduring role in science fiction and pop culture, the book offers an extraordinary black-white-and-red look a character we spend our lives actively trying not to look at, delivering an unexpectedly delightful punch of trivia treats, obscure scientific factoids and artful graphic explorations.

In pop culture, cockroaches are often depicted as filthy, disgusting pests. Their shiny, greasy shells make them look like they are creatures born of filth and slime, but in fact they are obsessively clean.”

An Illustrated Guide to Cockroaches, yet another treat from my friends at Mark Batty Publisher, is out today and the kind of book you never thought you’d love until you do — which you will.

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