Brain Pickings

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05 MARCH, 2012

The Power of Habit and How to Rewire Our “Habit Loops”

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What Iraqi kebob vendors have to do with your New Year’s resolutions.

As a young man, Benjamin Franklin set out to improve himself by devising a chart-based log for tracking his progress against the virtues he identified as essential to good personhood. Each week, he would pick a virtue to cultivate, then put a black pencil mark in his calendar chart on any day he failed to uphold the virtue. This visual feedback on his progress encouraged him, and allowed him to move to a different virtue the following week, hoping that each week would leave him with a “habitude” for that particular virtue.

We try to reverse-engineer willpower and flowchart our way to happiness, but in the end, it is habit that is 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, 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.”

The Power of Habit goes on to explore the same underlying mechanisms in contexts as diverse as behavioral marketing (see the excellent recent New York Times story on how Target used shopper habit data to find out a girl was pregnant before the father did) to sugar cravings, exposing the “habit loop” and eventually showing you how to re-engineer it to better serve your goals.

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02 MARCH, 2012

The Seven Lady Godivas: Dr. Seuss’s Little-Known “Adult” Book of Nudes

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What Peeping Toms have to do with failure and the expectations of genius.

One hundred and eight years ago today, the world welcomed Theodor Seuss Geisel, better-known as Dr. Seuss — legendary children’s book author, radical ideologist, lover of reading. Among his many creative feats is a fairly unknown, fairly scandalous one: In 1939, when Geisel left Vanguard for Random House, he had one condition for his new publisher, Bennett Cerf — that he would let Geisel do an “adult” book first. The result was The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family, which tells the story of nudist sisters who, after their father’s death, pledge not to wed until each of them has “brought to the light of the world some new and worthy Horse Truth, of benefit to man.”

Geisel wrote in the foreword:

A beautiful story of love, honor and scientific achievement has too long been gathering dust in the archives.”

The humorous story is based on the Lady Godiva legend, according to which in 1037 the Earl of Coventry’s wife rode naked on horseback through the streets of Coventry, protesting against her husband’s unfair taxes. The citizens of Coventry were ordered to remain indoors, shuttered, as she rode. But one man, Peeping Tom, peered out and was then struck blind.

The book, however, was a complete flop. Ten thousand copies were printed on the first run, and only about 2,500 were sold. The Seven Lady Godivas eventually went out of print, causing Geisel to later say:

I attempted to draw the sexiest babes I could, but they came out looking absurd.

Absurd as they might be, and oddly unerotic despite the nudity, the illustrations are a treat, perhaps in that so-bad-it’s-good kind of way, or perhaps because they offer endearing reassurance that even genius can falter.

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02 MARCH, 2012

David Foster Wallace on Art vs. TV and the Motivation to be Smart

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“…what we need…is seriously engaged art that can teach us again that we’re smart.”

In early 1996, journalist David Lipsky accompanied 34-year-old David Foster Wallace on the last leg of his tour for his breakout novel, Infinite Jest for an ambitious Rolling Stone interview. The feature was never published, but in 2010, some 14 years after the road trip and two years after Wallace’s suicide, Lipsky released the transcript in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. Among the many thoughtful, revealing conversations is this remarkably sharp insight by Wallace on the TV vs. the arts, the capacity for intellectual stimulation, and the challenge of creating the motivation for it in the first place:

You teach the reader that he’s way smarter than he thought he was. I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy. When in fact there are parts of us, in a way, that are a lot more ambitious than that. And what we need… is seriously engaged art that can teach again that we’re smart. And that’s the stuff that TV and movies — although they’re great at certain things — cannot give us. But that have to create the motivations for us to want to do the extra work, to get those other kinds of art… Which is tricky, because you want to seduce the reader, but you don’t want to pander or manipulate them. I mean, a good book teaches the reader how to read it.”

Clay Shirky, of course, has written a great deal about the enormous intellectual and creative resources that are being opened up as we shift away from TV in Cognitive Surplus. But Wallace’s point about motivations resonates particularly deeply with me as I consider my role — and Brain Pickings’ highest aspiration — to motivate people to be interested in things they didn’t know they were interested in until they are.

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