Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

14 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power & Technology

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What 14th-century cathedrals have to do with Google, Darwin and the purpose of art’s existence.

Yesterday, we devoured The Mind — the first in a series of anthologies by Edge.org editor John Brockman, curating 15 years’ worth of the most provocative thinking on major facets of science, culture, and intellectual life. On its heels comes Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology — a treasure chest of insight true to the promise of its title, featuring essays and interviews by and with (alas, all-male) icons such as Brian Eno, George Dyson and Douglas Rushkoff, as well as Brain Pickings favorites like Denis Dutton, Stewart Brand, Clay Shirky and Dan Dennett. From the origin and social purpose of art to how technology shapes civilization to the Internet as a force of democracy and despotism, the 17 pieces exude the kind of intellectual inquiry and cultural curiosity that give progress its wings.

Here’s a modest sampling of the lavish cerebral feast you’ll find between the book’s covers.

In his 1997 meditation “A Big Theory of Culture”, music icon and deep-thinker Brian Eno explores what constitutes cultural value and how it comes about:

Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautify and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable. Now this is very important, because so many, in fact all fundamentalist ideas, rest on the assumption that some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning. All pragmatists work from another assumption: No, it’s us. It’s us who make those meanings.”

In “Art and Human Reality” (2009), the late and great Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton made an early case for provocative Darwinian theory of beauty:

[It] is not some kind of ironclad doctrine that it is supposed to replace a heavy post-structuralism with something just as oppressive. What surprises me about the resistance to the application of Darwin to psychology is the vociferous way in which people want to dismiss it, not even to consider it.”

In “Social Networks Are Like the Eye” (2008), Harvard physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis examines why networks form and how they operate:

The amazing thing about social networks, unlike other networks that are almost as interesting — networks of neurons or genes or stars or computers or all kinds of other things one can imagine — is that the nodes of a social network — the entities, the components — are themselves sentient, acting individuals who can respond to the network and actually form it themselves.”

In “Turing’s Cathedral” (2005), science historian George Dyson recalls his visit to the Google headquarters in the context of H. G. Wells’s 1938 prophecy:

I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral — not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built [...] The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual [...] Wells foresaw not only the distributed intelligence of the World Wide Web, but the inevitability that this intelligence would coalesce, and that power, as well as knowledge, would fall under its domain.”

Thoughtfully curated to stimulate your keenest critical thinking — like, for instance, the juxtaposition of Jaron Lanier’s digital dystopianism and Clay Shirky’s optimistic retort — Culture is on par with The Mind as one of this year’s most significant time-capsules of contemporary thought.

Images via Flickr Commons

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13 SEPTEMBER, 2011

15 Years of Cutting-Edge Thinking on Understanding the Mind

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What mirror neurons have to do with Abu Ghraib, the science of religion, and how happiness flourishes.

For the past 15 years, literary-agent-turned-crusader-of-human-progress John Brockman has been a remarkable curator of curiosity, long before either “curator” or “curiosity” was a frivolously tossed around buzzword. His Edge.org has become an epicenter of bleeding-edge insight across science, technology and beyond, hosting conversations with some of our era’s greatest thinkers (and, once a year, asking them some big questions.) Last month marked the release of The Mind, the first volume in The Best of Edge Series, presenting eighteen provocative, landmark pieces — essays, interviews, transcribed talks — from the Edge archive. The anthology reads like a who’s who of Brain Pickings favorites across psychology, evolutionary biology, social science, technology and more. And, perhaps equally interestingly, the tome — most of the materials in which are available for free online — is an implicit manifesto for the enduring power of books as curatorial capsules of ideas. Brockman writes in the book’s introduction:

While there’s no doubt about the value of online presentations, the role of books, whether bound and printed or presented electronically, is still an invaluable way to present important ideas. Thus, we are pleased to be able to offer this series of books to the public.”

Here’s a small sampling of the treasure chest between The Mind’s covers:

In “Eudaemonia: The Good Life” (2004), Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology whom you might recall as the author of Flourish and Learned Optimism, one of our 7 essential books on optimism, explores what he calls the “third form of happiness,” which lies in:

knowing what your highest strengths are and deploying those in the service of something you believe is larger than you are. There’s no shortcut to that. That’s what life is about. There will likely be a pharmacology of pleasure, and there may be a pharmacology of positive emotion generally, but it’s unlikely there’ll be an interesting pharmacology of flow. And it’s impossible that there’ll be a pharmacology of meaning.”

In “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion” (2007), psychologist Jonathan Haidt (whose The Happiness Hypothesis you might recall as one of our 7 favorite books on happiness) notes:

[I]t might seem obvious to you that contractual societies are good, modern, creative, and free, whereas beehive societies reek of feudalism, fascism, and patriarchy. And, as a secular liberal I agree that contractual societies such as those of Western Europe offer the best hope for living peacefully together in our increasingly diverse modern nations (although it remains to be seen if Europe can solve its current diversity problems). I just want to make one point, however, that should give constructualists pause: surveys have long shown that religious believer s in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people.”

In “Amazing Babies” (2009), psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik laid the foundations for her The Philosophical Baby, one of this year’s must-read books by TED Global speakers:

We’ve known for a long time that human children are the best learning machines in the universe, but it has always been like the mystery of the hummingbirds. We know that they fly, but we don’t know how they can possibly do it. We could say that babies learn, but we didn’t know how.”

Harvard’s Steven Pinker, whose illuminating insights on violence and human nature you might recall and who penned one of our 5 favorite books on language, wrote in “Organs of Computation” (1997), long before the hype of contemporary quasi-sciences like neuromarketing:

Most of the assumptions about the mind that underlie current discussions are many decades out of date. [L]ook at the commentaries on human affairs by pundits and social critics. They say we’re ‘conditioned’ to do this, or ‘brainwashed’ to do that, or ‘socialized’ to believe such and such. Where do these ideas come from? From the behaviorism of the 1920s, from bad cold war movies from the 1950s, from folklore about the effects of family upbringing that behavior genetics has shown to be false. The basic understanding that the human mind is a remarkably complex processor of information, an ‘organ of extreme perfection and complication,’ to use Darwin’s phrase, has not made it into the mainstream of intellectual life.”

Stanford social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, best-known for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment and most recently a founder of the Heroic Imagination Project, drew on his seminal work exploring good and evil in “You Can’t Be a Sweet Cucumber in a Vinegar Barrel” (2005):

When you put that set of horrendous work conditions and external factors together, it creates an evil barrel. You could put virtually anybody in it and you’re going to get this kind of evil behavior. The Pentagon and the military say the Abu Ghraib scandal is the result of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel. That’s the dispositional analysis. The social psychologist in me, and the consensus among many of my colleagues in experimental social psychology, says that’s the wrong analysis. It’s not the bad apples, it’s the bad barrels that corrupt good people. Understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systemic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that ‘little shop of horrors.’”

Iconic neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran, whose empirical quest for the what makes us human we recently examined, wrote in his seminal 2000 essay “Mirror Neurons and Imitation Learning as the Driving Force Behind ‘the Great Leap Forward’ in Human Evolution”:

The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys, and their potential relevance to human brain evolution — which I speculate on in this essay — is the single most important ‘unreported’ (or at least, unpublicized) story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.”

And in his second essay, “The Neurology of Self-Awareness” (2007), which laid the foundations for his The Tell-Tale Brain, Rama pondered the essence of the self:

What is the self? How does the activity of neurons give rise to the sense of being a conscious human being? Even this most ancient of philosophical problems, I believe, will yield to methods of empirical science. It now seems increasingly likely that the self is not a holistic property of the entire brain; it arises from the activity of specific sets of interlinked brain circuits. But we need to know which circuits are critically involved and what their functions might be. It is the ‘turning inward’ aspect of the self — its recursiveness — that gives it its peculiar paradoxical quality.”

A coffer of cutting-edge contemporary thought, The Mind contains the building blocks of tomorrow’s history books — whatever medium they may come in — and invites a provocative peer forward as we gaze back at some of the most defining ideas of our time.

Images via Flickr Commons

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12 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Unwilling Tourist: Vintage Czech Illustration Captures the Life of the Refugee

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What the dawn of the Czech avant-garde has to do with UN statistics and outsmarting Hitler.

Lawyer, politician, illustrator, cartoonist and dadaist are not the kinds of vocations that frequently converge in a single polyglot, but they did in Adolf Hoffmeister (1902-1973), whose illustrations, collages, and caricatures of prominent personalities shaped the Czech avant-garde. But parallel to his prolific creative career was a seemingly endless life on the run from political prosecution. In 1939, he spent seven month in prison in Paris, where he had emigrated. After France’s capitulation, Hoffmeister went to Morocco, where he faced time in a concentration camp. He finally made his way to New York in 1941 as a free man before returning to his homeland of then-Czechoslovakia in 1945.

As soon as he got to New York, Hoffmeister published The Animals Are in Cages, released in the UK under the title The Unwilling Tourist — a stunningly illustrated book that captured his experience of life on the run from the Nazis with equal parts humor and poignancy, spotted on the excellent 50 Watts (which you should be reading voraciously, or run the risk of having a profoundly impoverished experience of the curated web). More than a mere treat of vintage illustration — which it most certainly is — Hoffmeister’s work exudes a certain timeless tragicomic lament for the fate of refugees, or “unwilling tourists,” displaced by disaster and turmoil, of which the world netted 25.2 million in 2010 per UN statistics.

From the book’s flap:

Many books have been written by refugees, and all have ground their axe of bitter tragedy almost to the exclusion of everything else; but not so with Hoffmeister. Here is the only one of them whose native fund of humor is still so great that he must take a laughing-stock of tragedy. ‘Laugh, clown, laugh,’ both pen and pencil insist. Yet at no single moment does Hoffmeister lose sight of the final tragedy of the uprooted — for he too has made the hopeless march. But he also made this book one of the most permanent and perfect indictments, both in word and in picture, of all those who have contributed to the creation and the torture of the Unwilling Tourist.”

Though the book is long out of print, you can snag yourself a used copy with some poking around Amazon or sifting through your best-stocked local used bookstore — it’s very much worth the scavenger hunt.

via 50 Watts

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