Brain Pickings

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Animated: History’s Greatest Parable Exploring the Nature of Reality

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“Life is like being chained up in a cave forced to watch shadows flitting across a stone wall.”

“Reality,” wrote Philip K. Dick, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” And yet how are we to be sure that what we observe actually is? After all, so much of what we experience as reality is the product of our remarkably flawed perception.

Some 2,400 years earlier, Plato explored this very question in his famous Allegory of the Cave — perhaps history’s most masterful figurative inquiry into the meaning of life and the nature of reality — found in Book VII of his Republic (free download; public library).

From my friends at TED-Ed — who have previously given us wonderful animated distillations of why we love repetition in music, how to detect lying, why bees build perfect hexagons, and how melancholy enhances our creativity — comes this elegant synthesis of Plato’s famous parable, its enduring wisdom, and how it illuminates some of the most fundamental questions about the human experience, from the origin of knowledge to the essence of reality itself.

Most people are not just comfortable in their ignorance, but hostile to anyone who points it out.

Complement with Alan Watts on what reality is and Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman on how our minds mislead us.

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Thoreau on What It Really Means to Be Awake

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“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”

“The secret of success is… to be fully awake to everything about you,” Jackson Pollock’s father wrote in his beautiful 1926 letter of advice to his teenage son. But how does one become fully awake to the world, especially in our world, through which we increasingly sleepwalk on autopilot, in a trance of productivity? (How awake are we, really, when we’ve stopped bowling over in awe at the everyday miracle of clouds? Or the unexpected glory of wildflowers on the city sidewalk?) Wakefulness — that embodied attentiveness to life as it lives itself through us — seems as mysterious as our nocturnal escape into dreams, and often more elusive.

That’s what Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) explores in a beautiful passage from Where I Lived, and What I Lived For (public library) — another timeless treasure from the same Penguin Great Ideas series that gave us Seneca’s indispensable The Shortness of Life.

Thoreau — a man of great and enduring wisdom on subjects like the spiritual rewards of walking, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the best definition of success — extols the gift of the awake imagination:

The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the wakening hour. Then there is at least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night. Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly acquired force and aspirations from within, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance fills the air — to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit and prove itself to be good, no less than the light.

In a sentiment he’d come to revisit some decades later in his journal, where he contemplated the myth of productivity and the true meaning of labor, Thoreau adds:

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.

Where I Lived, and What I Lived For is a spectacular read in its totality, as is Thoreau’s larger treatiseWalden and Civil Disobedience, from which it is distilled. Complement it with Mary Oliver on how to be fully alive.

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The Illustrated Story of Persian Polymath Ibn Sina and How He Shaped the Course of Medicine

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How a voraciously curious little boy became one of the world’s greatest healers.

Humanity’s millennia-old quest to understand the human body is strewn with medical history milestones, but few individual figures merit as much credit as Persian prodigy-turned-polymath Ibn Sina (c. 980 CE–1037 AD), commonly known in the West as Avicenna — one of the most influential thinkers in our civilization’s unfolding story. He authored 450 known works spanning physics, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, logic, poetry, and medicine, including the seminal encyclopedia The Canon of Medicine, which forever changed our understanding of the human body and its inner workings. This masterwork of science and philosophy — or metaphysics, as it was then called — remained in use as a centerpiece of medieval medical education until six hundred years after Ibn Sina’s death.

As a lover of children’s books that celebrate the life-stories of influential and inspiring luminaries — including those of Jane Goodall, Henri Matisse, Pablo Neruda, Henri Rousseau, Julia Child, Albert Einstein, and Maria Merian — I was delighted to come upon The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina (public library) by Lebanese writer Fatima Sharafeddine and Iran-based Iraqi illustrator Intelaq Mohammed Ali, a fine addition to these favorite children’s books celebrating science.

In stunning illustrations reminiscent of ancient Islamic manuscript paintings, this lyrical first-person biography traces Ibn Sina’s life from his childhood as a voracious reader to his numerous scientific discoveries to his lifelong project of advancing the art of healing.

A universal celebration of curiosity and the unrelenting pursuit of knowledge, the story is doubly delightful for adding a sorely needed touch of diversity to the homogenous landscape of both science history and contemporary children’s books — here are two Middle Eastern women, telling the story of a pioneering scientist from the Islamic Golden Age.

The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina comes from Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books, who have also given us such treasures as a wordless illustrated celebration of the art of noticing, a tender love letter to winter, and a heartening celebration of gender diversity.

Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs my own.

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Dear Data: Two Designers Visualize the Mundane Details of Daily Life in Magical Illustrated Postcards Mailed Across the Atlantic

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A celebration of the infinitesimal, incomplete, imperfect, yet exquisitely human details of life.

We live, they say, in the age of Big Data — algorithms trawl through vast databases of our digital trails seeking to extract insight on the human experience, from how we fall in love to what we read. But aggregating individual human lives into massive data sets and trying to extrapolate insight from the aggregate data that is valid for individual human lives is somewhat like taking an exquisite poem in English and running it through Google Translate to render into Japanese and then back into English. The result may have the vague contours of the original poem’s meaning, but none of its subtle magic and vibrant granular beauty.

But what if we could claim that beautiful granular humanity back from the homogenizing aggregate-grip of Big Data? That’s precisely what Giorgia Lupi, an Italian woman living in New York, and Stefanie Posavec, an American woman living in London, are doing in Dear Data — an extraordinary yearlong correspondence project that puts an imaginative twist on what Virginia Woolf termed “the humane art” through a series of analog self-portraits in data, drawn by hand and mailed on postcards.

A week of complaints (Lupi to Posavec)

A week of complaints (Posavec to Lupi)

Although Lupi and Posavec only met twice in person before the start of the project — both times at the wonderful EyeO Festival — they have a great deal of variables in common: Both are information designers known for working by hand; both have left their respective homeland to move across the Atlantic in pursuit of the creative life; both are only children, and they are the exact same age.

Giorgia Lupi

Stefanie Posavec

Every week, they each select one aspect of their daily lives — from their complaints to their spending habits to their use of mirrors — and itemize its components in a hand-drawn visualization on the back of a postcard, then mail it to the other. As if composing a Goldberg Variations of data, Lupi and Posavec deliberately use different visual metaphors and visualization techniques for each week’s postcard.

A week of clocks (Lupi to Posavec)

A week of clocks (Posavec to Lupi)

Both the process and the product are intensely human — each postcard takes time to design and time to read; it is simultaneously mundane and magical; it requires, on both ends, the sort of emotional attentiveness invoking Mary Oliver’s memorable assertion that “attention without feeling is merely a report.”

A week of purchases (Lupi to Posavec)

A week of purchases (Posavec to Lupi)

What emerges is a case for the beauty of small data and its deliberate interpretation, analog visualization, and slow transmission. Obliquely reminiscent of A Year of Mornings and Edward Gorey’s illustrated envelopes, yet wholly original, the project is a celebration of the infinitesimal, incomplete, imperfect, yet exquisitely human details of life.

A week of phone addiction (Lupi to Posavec)

A week of phone addiction (Lupi to Posavec)

The result is an immensely pleasurable duet of sensibilities — side by side, Posavec’s signature spatial poetics and Lupi’s mastery of shape and color elevate one another to a higher plane of delight. Amid an the epidemic of infoporn, the project presents a kind of tender data-lovemaking.

New postcards are uploaded to Dear Data every Wednesday in 2015. Publishers, nota bene — this is the kind of project begging to be a beautiful book.

All images courtesy of Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec

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