Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

31 MAY, 2012

The Self Illusion: How Our Social Brain Constructs Who We Are

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Hume was a neuroscientist, or what early aviation has to do with the psychology of identity.

We’ve already seen that the notions of stable character and fixed personality are a myth. And yet, our culture is wired for labels and checkboxes, eager to neatly file people away into categorical cabinets and thrown into furor over the slightest inkling of multiplicity. Take, for instance, Howard Hughes, at once a legendary aviator, movie mogul, tycoon, and socialite, and a reclusive billionaire housebound by his deathly phobia of dirt. He was a fearless aviation pioneer who set and broke countless records, yet he remained terrified of dying from germs. Hughes spent his final days unbathed, dressed in rags, with long sticky hair, curling nails, and the remnants of five hypodermic needles in his arms. He was worth $2 billion.

It was this biography woven of paradoxes and dimensionality that compelled cognitive neuroscientist Bruce Hood to explore the building blocks of what we experience as the “self” in The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity.

Adding to the ongoing conversation on what consciousness is, how it works, and how it measures up against Truth, Hood writes:

Each morning, we wake up and experience a rich explosion of consciousness — the bright morning sunlight, the smell of roast coffee and, for some of us, the warmth of the person lying next to us in bed. As the slumber recedes into the night, we awake to become who we are. The morning haze of dreams and oblivion disperses and lifts as recognition and recall bubble up the content of our memories into our consciousness. For the briefest of moments we are not sure who we are and then suddenly ‘I,’ the one that is awake, awakens. We gather our thoughts so that the ‘I’ who is conscious becomes the ‘me’ — the person with a past. The memories of the previous day return. The plans for the immediate future reformulate. The realization that we have things to get on with remind us that it is a workday. We become a person whom we recognize.

The call of nature tells us it is time to visit the bathroom and en route we glance at the mirror. We take a moment to reflect. We look a little older, but we are still the same person who has looked in that same mirror every day since we moved in. We see our self in that mirror. This is who we are.

The daily experience of the self is so familiar, and yet the brain science shows that this sense of the self is an illusion. Psychologist Susan Blackmore makes the point that the word ‘illusion’ does not mean that it does not exist — rather, an illusion is not what it seems. We all certainly experience some form of self, but what we experience is a powerful depiction generated by our brains for our own benefit.

Hood goes on to trace how the self emerges in childhood and examines why this notion of the illusory self is among the hardest concepts to accept, contrasting the “ego theory” of the self, which holds that we are essential entities inside bodies, with Hume’s “bundle theory,” which constructs the self not as a single unified entity but as a bundle of sensations, perceptions, and thoughts lumped together. Neuroscience, Hood argues, only supports the latter. The Self Illusion tells the story of how that bundle forms and why it sticks together, revealing the brain’s own storytelling as the centripetal force of the self.

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31 MAY, 2012

The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves

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Lessons in the art of embracing identity from some of today’s most celebrated authors.

After centuries of politically sanctioned bigotry, LGBT rights are finally achieving human rights status — an achievement not of a particular political regime but of the generations of people who endured violence and social stigma yet spoke up for their rights anyway. But to inhabit one’s self wholeheartedly and stand firmly behind one’s identity with bravery and conviction in the face of insult and injustice is hardly simple and never easy. In The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves (public library), 63 celebrated authors, including David Levithan, Amy Bloom, Brian Selznick, Gregory Maguire, and Lucy Thurber, offer exactly what it says on the tin — honest, heartening, profoundly moving personal missives to their younger selves that are part Dear Me and part It Gets Better, imparting wisdom about what they wish they’d known about their future lives as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people.

The very things in your life that seem to be depressing and oppressing you right now are going to be the means by which you set yourself free.” ~ James Lecesne

Tom Rielly

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30 MAY, 2012

A Girl and Her Room: Portraits of Teenage Girls’ Inner Worlds Through Their Bedroom Interiors

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“I was discovering a person on the cusp on becoming an adult, but desperately holding on to the child she barely outgrew, a person on the edge between two worlds.”

We’ve already seen the striking spectrum of where children sleep around the world and how a child’s bedroom both reflects and reinforces society’s gender norms. In A Girl and Her Room, photographer Rania Matar takes this direction of curiosity a step further and explores the inner lives of teenage girls through the interiors of their bedrooms. From upperclass mansions to displaced person camps to college dorm rooms, and just about every bedroom variety in between, Matar’s tender yet powerful portraits capture the private spaces of these wildly diverse young souls — punk rockers, peace activist, valedictorians, teen moms, refugees, dog-lovers, cat-lovers.

Matar, herself the mother of a teenage daughter, focuses on the two worlds most familiar and formative to her own teenage years and young adulthood — America and the Middle East. She reflects on the project’s process:

I was discovering a person on the cusp on becoming an adult, but desperately holding on to the child she barely outgrew, a person on the edge between two worlds, trying to come to terms with this transitional time in her life and adjust to the person she is turning into. Posters of rock stars, political leaders or top models were displayed above a bed covered with stuffed animals; mirrors were an important part of the room, a reflection of the girls’ image to the world; personal objects, photos, clothes everywhere, chaotic jumbles of pink and black make-up and just stuff, seemed to give a sense of security and warmth to the room like a womb within the outside world.

Andrea, Beirut, Lebanon 2010

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Emma S, Cambridge, MA 2009

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Jess, Jamaica Plain, MA 2010

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Shannon 21, Boston MA, 2010

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Amal, Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon 2010

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Ellice, Jamaica Plain, MA 2010

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Zahra, Beirut, Lebanon 2010

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Dima, Beirut, Lebanon 2010

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Ai, Boston, MA 2009

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Shifa'a, Jerusalem, West Bank 2009

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Georgina, Roxbury, MA 2010

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Tori, Exeter, NH 2010

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Hollie, Harrisville, RI 2010

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Ariel, Winchester, MA 2009

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Sarah 17, Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp Beirut, 2010

© Rania Matar | raniamatar.com

Both visually stunning and culturally captivating, A Girl and Her Room offers a rare vista into one piece of what it means to grow up as a girl and to metamorphose into a woman, with all her obsessions, convictions, and fascinations, prompting us to find the parallels and universals amidst the differences and contrasts.

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