Brain Pickings

Full Spectrum Reading List: 7 Great Books by TED 2012 Speakers

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Anatomy of introversion, inside the brain’s optimism bias, and a blueprint for doomsday from PC Guy.

TED time is once again upon us, with this year’s conference, themed Full Spectrum, a mere week away. In preparation, and true to the Brain Pickings pre-TED tradition, here are seven exceptional books by some of this year’s TED speakers, spanning everything from psychology to children’s books to satire — a full spectrum, indeed. (Catch up on reading lists from years past: TEDGlobal 2010, TED 2011 Part 1 and Part 2, TEDGlobal 2011 Part 1 and Part 2.)

THE HAPPINESS HYPOTHESIS

The question of what makes us happy is likely as old as human cognition itself and has occupied the minds of philosophers, prophets, and scientists for millennia. In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, one of seven essential books on happiness, psychology professor Jonathan Haidt unearths ten great theories of happiness discovered by the thinkers of the past, from Plato to Jesus to the Buddha, to reveal a surprising abundance of common tangents. (For example, from Shakespeare: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” From Buddha: “Our life is the creation of our mind.”)

Underpinning the narrative is a fascinating and dimensional lens on the constant interplay of reason and emotion, intuition and rationality.

Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brains work so well that our reasoning can work at all.”

Haidt takes this ambitious analysis of philosophical thought over the centuries and examines it through the prism of modern psychology research to extract a remarkably compelling blueprint for optimizing the human condition for happiness.

QUIET

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.”

In this no-frills talk from Leaders@Google, Cain gives a sneak peek of the book, which she spent the past seven years researching and writing:

At its heart, Quiet is not only about how and why we internalize society’s extroversion bias very early on, but also about how to 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?”

THE WAYFINDERS

Since time immemorial, mankind has grappled with the question of what it means to be human. Different cultures have given different answers throughout history and across geography — answers composed of each culture’s myth and folklore, intellectual and spiritual tradition, artistic lens, and social context. In The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis sets out to answer this grandest of questions through the wisdom of the world’s indigenous cultures. From the descendants of a true Lost Civilization in the Amazon to a Nepalese Buddhist who spent 45 years in solitude to the last nomads of Borneo’s rainforest, Davis weaves a rich tapestry of human knowledge and imagination, a kind of Noah’s Ark of cultural diversity to preserve as we frame the future of the human legacy.

One of the intense pleasures of travel is the opportunity to live among people who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel their past in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, recognize its taste in the bitter leaves of plants. Just to know that, in the Amazon, Jaguar shaman still journey beyond the Milky Way, that the myths of the Inuit elders still resonate with meaning, that the Buddhists in Tibet still pursue the breath of the Dharma is to remember the central revelation of anthropology: the idea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular cultural lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago.”

OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messer takes you on a journey into the white wilderness, where foxes and owls and bullfrogs play amidst the winter wonderland.

With wonderfully textured artwork by graphic artist Christopher Silas Neal, known for his album covers, posters, and spot illustrations, the book is an absolute treat and a fine belated addition to the best children’s books of 2011.

Messer and Neal have a fascinating image-annotated chat about the creative process behind the art.

THE PSYCHOPATH TEST

For years, scientists all over the world had been receiving mysterious packages containing a lavish book full of seemingly impossible puzzles. Using the only clue in common — a postage stamp from Gothenburg, Sweden — journalist and documentary filmmakerJon Ronson resolved to find the enigmatic sender, who turned out to be a bona fide psychopath. But what, exactly, is a psychopath? That’s what Ronson set out to investigate. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, a potent blend of investigative journalism and captivating storytelling with a point of view, traces his quest to understand the fabric of psychopathy, from becoming a kind of qualified psychopath-spotter by learning the 20-point “psychopath checklist” to examining why psychopaths make excellent leaders in business and politics to brushing up against society’s worrisome propensity for pathologizing behavior.

In this teaser, Ronson offers a handful of behavioral cues to look for in a psychopath, while admonishing against the slippery slope of seeing “symptoms” in nearly everyone — a reminder that sanity is a continuum, not a binary divide.

THAT IS ALL

For the past seven years, John Hodgman — actor, humorist, McSweeney’s contributor, “PC Guy” — has been showering the world with his singular brand of keen social observation disguised as offbeat satire in a series title Complete World Knowledge. In 2005, he released The Areas of My Expertise, a collection of absurdist historical anecdotes best described as nonfactual rather than fictional, followed by More Information Than You Require in 2008. That Is All is the third and final part of the series, humorously exploring the impending end of the world.

“Explaining humor,” Mark Twain famously said, “is a lot like dissecting a frog, you learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.” So let’s let Hodgman do the talking:

Bonus points: All three book covers were designed by the wonderful Sam Potts, a longtime favorite.

THE OPTIMISM BIAS

The reason pessimism is easily escapable, as Martin Seligman posits, might just be that its opposite is our natural pre-wired inclination. At least that’s the argument British neuroscientist Tali Sharot makes in The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain — a fascinating yet accessible exploration of how and why our brains construct a positive outlook on life even in the direst of circumstances, and one of 7 essential books on optimism.

Sharot has been studying “flashbulb memories” — recollections with sharp-edged, picture-like qualities, usually about unexpected arousing or traumatic events — since the 9/11 attacks, investigating why the brain tends to “Photoshop” these images, adding contrast, enhancing resolution, inserting and deleting details. This phenomenon led her to probe deeper into the neural system responsible for recollecting these episodes from our past — a system that, contrary to previous belief, hadn’t evolved just for memory but to also imagine the future. These shared neural networks gleaned insight into how the brain generates hope, why we’re able to move forward after trauma, and what makes the brains of optimists different from those of pessimists.

The optimism bias protects us from accurately perceiving the pain and difficulties the future undoubtedly holds, and it may defend us from viewing our options in life as somewhat limited. As a result, stress and anxiety are reduced, physical and mental health are improved, and the motivation to act and be productive is enhanced. In order to progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — not just any old realities, but better ones, and we need to believe them to be possible.”

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