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16 JANUARY, 2015

Why Not to Put a Raincoat on Your Dog: A Cognitive Scientist Explains the Canine Umwelt

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“If we want to understand the life of any animal, we need to know what things are meaningful to it.”

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s Levin observes his dog Laska one evening — “she opened her mouth a little, smacked her lips, and settling her sticky lips more comfortably about her old teeth, she sank into blissful repose” — and finds in her behavior a “token of all now being well and satisfactory,” mirroring the “blissful repose” he so desires in his own life. Our tendency to anthropomorphize our faithful canine companions and project on them our own experiences and intentions may have produced some great literature — including Mary Oliver’s sublime Dog Songs and an entire canon of high-brow comics — but it is something against which cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz admonishes with great elegance and rigor in Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (public library).

Of all the misplaced anthropomorphism we unleash on our dogs, Horowitz — a self-described “dog person” and “lover of dogs,” who also happens to be a scientist heading Barnard’s Dog Cognition Lab, where she studies dogs at play — makes a special, and utterly fascinating, case against the use of doggie raincoats:

There are some interesting assumptions involved in the creation and purchase of tiny, stylish, four-armed rain slickers for dogs. Let’s put aside the question of whether dogs prefer a bright yellow slicker, a tartan pattern, or a raining-cats-and-dogs motif (clearly they prefer the cats and dogs). Many dog owners who dress their dogs in coats have the best intentions: they have noticed, perhaps, that their dog resists going outside when it rains. It seems reasonable to extrapolate from that observation to the conclusion that he dislikes the rain.

But dogs, Horowitz points out, are also masters of mixed signals — your dog might wag his tail excitedly as you put the raincoat on him, or he might cower from the coat and curl his tail between his legs; he might look disheveled after a coatless rainy walk, but then take great joy in shaking off the water vigorously. To discern the dog’s true feelings about that possibly plaid, possibly tartan-patterned raincoat, Horowitz turns to the dog’s evolutionary ancestor:

The natural behavior of related, wild canines proves the most informative about what the dog might think about a raincoat. Both dogs and wolves have, clearly, their own coats permanently affixed. One coat is enough: when it rains, wolves may seek shelter, but they do not cover themselves with natural materials. That does not argue for the need for or interest in raincoats. And besides being a jacket, the raincoat is also one distinctive thing: a close, even pressing, covering of the back, chest, and sometimes the head. There are occasions when wolves get pressed upon the back or head: it is when they are being dominated by another wolf, or scolded by an older wolf or relative. Dominants often pin subordinates down by the snout. This is called muzzle biting, and accounts, perhaps, for why muzzled dogs sometimes seem preternaturally subdued. And a dog who “stands over” another dog is being dominant. The subordinate dog in that arrangement would feel the pressure of the dominant animal on his body. The raincoat might well reproduce that feeling. So the principal experience of wearing a coat is not the experience of feeling protected from wetness; rather, the coat produces the discomfiting feeling that someone higher ranking than you is nearby.

This interpretation is borne out by most dogs’ behavior when getting put into a raincoat: they may freeze in place as they are “dominated.” … The be-jacketed dog may cooperate in going out, but not because he has shown he likes the coat; it is because he has been subdued. And he will wind up being less wet, but it is we who care about the planning for that, not the dog. The way around this kind of misstep is to replace our anthropomorphizing instinct with a behavior-reading instinct. In most cases, this is simple: we must ask the dog what he wants. You need only know how to translate his answer.

But more than a mere evolutionary curiosity or reality check for our relationship with our beloved pets, this illustrates the broader solipsism of the Golden Rule in its traditional formulation, which urges us to do unto other human animals as we would like for them to do unto us. Instead, as Karen Armstrong has written in her magnificent treatise on the subject, true compassion requires that we seek to understand others so that we can do unto them what they would like done, rather than treating them by the personal ideals we subscribe to ourselves.

Artwork by Ana Juan from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Much of that, whether it comes to a dog’s raincoat or to interpersonal relationships between humans, has to do with understanding the umwelt — the subjective reality in which each creature dwells — and how it shapes the meaning of things for that creature. Horowitz writes:

If we want to understand the life of any animal, we need to know what things are meaningful to it. The first way to discover this is to determine what the animal can perceive: what it can see, hear, smell, or otherwise sense. Only objects that are perceived can have meaning to the animal; the rest are not even noticed, or all look the same… Two components — perception and action — largely define and circumscribe the world for every living thing. All animals have their own umwelten.

[…]

Each individual creates his own personal umwelt, full of objects with special meaning to him. You can most clearly see this last fact by letting yourself be led through an unknown city by a native. He will steer you along a path obvious to him, but invisible to you. But the two of you share some things: neither of you is likely to stop and listen to the ultrasonic cry of a nearby bat; neither of you smells what the man passing you had for dinner last night (unless it involved a lot of garlic). We … and every other animal dovetail into our environment: we are bombarded with stimuli, but only a very few are meaningful to us.

This notion is what led Horowitz to follow up Inside of a Dog — which is intensely fascinating in its totality — with On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, a book that profoundly changed my perception of reality. For a sample taste of these first disorienting, then wonderfully reorienting ideas, see my conversation with Horowitz about the art and science of looking.

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16 JANUARY, 2015

Joan Didion on Driving as Secular Worship and Self-Transcendence

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“Participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway.”

Many years ago, an imaginative campaign for Mini Cooper reframed driving, something drudgerous, as motoring, something joyful. It became an instant success and received every major industry award, including a Cannes Lion. The young creative director who dreamed it up — Steve O’Connell, an old friend with whose encouragement Brain Pickings was born back in the day, and a brilliant creative mind always looking for the deeper longings beneath human behavior — was hailed as a rising star and went on to start a new kind of creative agency. The genius of his idea was that it tapped into a fundamental yearning to bring more mindfulness and presence to the ordinary activities of our daily lives — the same impulse that Thoreau tickled when he reframed the ordinary activity of walking as the art of sauntering.

But the original champion of driving as more-than-driving, as an experience more transcendent than simply propelling a vehicle over pavement and more present than mindlessly getting from point A to point B, is none other than Joan Didion — she of world-reorienting wisdom on self-respect, grief, and the value of keeping a notebook.

Joan Didion by Julian Wasser

In an essay about California’s freeway system in her altogether sublime 1979 collection The White Album (public library), Didion writes:

The freeway system … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over. A distortion of time occurs, the same distortion that characterizes the instant before an accident.

Drawing from 'Mr. Bliss,' the little-known children's book J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and illustrated for his own kids. Click image for more.

Illustrating the idea that kindred minds often arrive at the same conclusions about certain aspects of the human experience, Didion quotes from the 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham, a work of enduring genius:

The freeways become a special way of being alive … the extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical.

The White Album remains one of the best essay collections ever published. Complement it with Didion’s all-time favorite books, then revisit Vanessa Redgrave’s beautiful reading from Didion’s memoir of mourning.

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15 JANUARY, 2015

The Art of Tough Love: Samuel Beckett Shows You How to Give Constructive Feedback on Your Friends’ Creative Work

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“If I were less concerned with you I should simply say it is very good.”

If it is the duty of friends to hold up a mirror to one another, as Aristotle believed, and if true friendship is the dual gift of truth and tenderness, as Emerson eloquently argued, then it is a chief task of friendship to hold up a truthful but tender mirror to those things which the friend holds most dear — including the labors of love that are one’s creative work.

By this definition, the great Irish novelist, playwright, poet, and Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett revealed himself as a true friend to Aidan Higgins — a young Irish writer living in South Africa, for whom Beckett has remained a lifelong influence. (Beckett was also deeply invested in the fate of civil rights in South Africa and, in protesting the country’s apartheid, placed an embargo on his plays being performed before segregated audiences.)

In the spring of 1958, 31-year-old Higgins — then a rising star described as “a Rimbaud in search of an Africa” — sent 52-year-old Beckett one of his short stories, hoping that it might be a fit for the literary journal Botteghe Oscure, with which Beckett had significant editorial pull. Alas, Beckett deemed the story unsuitable, but sent Higgins an exquisite letter of constructive feedback on how it might be improved, found in the altogether revelatory tome The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 3, 1957–1965 (public library).

Samuel Beckett by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Beckett opens with a cushion of assurance, indicating his affectionate intent and respect for Higgins by noting his initial reluctance to criticize, but then puts into action Emerson’s conviction that a friend is a person with whom one may be sincere“I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage,” Emerson wrote. “When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.” — and instead argues that constructive criticism is part of the creative communion between kindred spirits:

My reluctance to comment has become overpowering. I hate the thought of the damage I may do from such unwillingness and such incapacity. If I were less concerned with you I should simply say it is very good, I like it very much, but don’t see where to send it, and leave it at that. But I don’t want to do that with you. And at the same time I know I can’t go into it in a way profitable for you. This is not how writers help one another.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton courtesy of the artist

Taking care to note that offering criticism is a “terrible effort” for him, Beckett goes on to offer a detailed deconstruction of Higgins’s weaker points of style, from small typos — remember, this was decades before spellcheck and a writer this young was probably unable to afford a copy-editor — to a particularly meticulous itemization of overindulgent similes:

“menacing as banners” … “cumbersome as manacles” … “ponderous as Juggernaut” … “colossal as a ship’s hull” … “reckless as the sibyl of Cumae” … “Indelicate as chinaware” … “incorrigible as murder” … You want to be careful about that.

Beckett also reveals himself as a master of the compliment-criticism-compliment sandwich, remarking on a passage that begins on the fourth page of the manuscript:

Up to there I had read with only very trifling reserves and with admiration for the firmness and precision and rapidity of the writing. This quietly is present throughout and I do not mean that those passages are devoid of it… I simply feel a floundering and a laboring here and above all a falsening of position… I suppose it is too sweeping to say that expression of the within can only be from the within. There is in any case nothing more difficult and delicate than this discursive [explaining] of a word which is not to be revealed as object of speech or as source of speech… The vision is so sensitive and the writing so effective when you stop blazing away at the microcosmic moon that results are likely to be considerable when you get to feel what is possible prey and within the reach of words (yours) and what is not.

Folded into the particularities of his critique is a spectacular general point on writing — Beckett frequently seeds those throughout his letters — making an apt admonition, especially timely today, against the rush to publish:

Work, work, writing for nothing and yourself, don’t make the silly mistake we all make of publishing too soon.

Five weeks later, Higgins wrote to a friend: “He wrote an extensive criticism of [the story] which was probably more helpful than publication.” The following year, shortly before the release of Higgins’s first book, Beckett wrote to another friend: “I think he is very promising and should be encouraged.”

The Letters of Samuel Beckett is an infinitely absorbing read in its entirety, full of Beckett’s insights on literature, life, love, and more. Complement it with this compendium of advice on writing from some of humanity’s greatest writers, then revisit Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love.

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