Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

03 APRIL, 2013

Advice to Little Girls: Young Mark Twain’s Little-Known, Lovely 1865 Children’s Book

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“Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to ‘sass’ old people unless they ‘sass’ you first.”

In the summer of 2011, I chanced upon a lovely Italian edition of a little-known, playful short story young Mark Twain had written in 1865 at age of 30, with Victorian-scrapbook-inspired artwork by celebrated Russian-born children’s book illustrator Vladimir Radunsky, mischievously encouraging girls to think independently rather than blindly obey rules and social mores. I was instantly in love. So I approached my friend Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Brooklyn’s Enchanted Lion Books, whom I’d befriended through her beautiful books and with whom I’d already begun collaborating on another side project, to see if she’d be willing to take a leap of faith and help bring this gem to life in America. It took a bit of convincing, but we eventually joined forces, pooled our lunch money to pay Vladimir his advance, and found a printer capable of reflecting the mesmerism of the Twain/Radunsky story in the book’s physicality — rich colors, crisp text, thick beautiful paper with a red fabric spine.

I’m enormously delighted to announce that Advice to Little Girls (public library) is officially out this week — a true labor of love nearly two years in the making. (You might recall a sneak peek from my TED Bookstore selections earlier this year.) Grab a copy, enjoy, and share!

While frolicsome in tone and full of wink, the story — like the most timeless of children’s books — is colored with subtle hues of grown-up philosophy on the human condition, exploring all the deft ways in which we creatively rationalize our wrongdoing and reconcile the good and evil we each embody.

Good little girls ought not to make mouths at their teachers for every trifling offense. This retaliation should only be resorted to under peculiarly aggravated circumstances.

If you have nothing but a rag-doll stuffed with sawdust, while one of your more fortunate little playmates has a costly China one, you should treat her with a show of kindness nevertheless. And you ought not to attempt to make a forcible swap with her unless your conscience would justify you in it, and you know you are able to do it.

One can’t help but wonder whether this particular bit may have in part inspired the irreverent 1964 anthology Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls and its mischievous advice on brother-sister relations:

If at any time you find it necessary to correct your brother, do not correct him with mud — never, on any account, throw mud at him, because it will spoil his clothes. It is better to scald him a little, for then you obtain desirable results. You secure his immediate attention to the lessons you are inculcating, and at the same time your hot water will have a tendency to move impurities from his person, and possibly the skin, in spots.

If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.

Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to ‘sass’ old people unless they ‘sass’ you first.

There are no words to describe how much Advice to Little Girls makes my heart sing — let’s make a choir.

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02 APRIL, 2013

The Science of How Your Mind-Wandering Is Robbing You of Happiness

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Why the secret of life remains in the living.

“The main thing is to get what little happiness there is out of life in this wartorn world,” Clare Boothe Luce advised her young daughter, “because ‘these are the good old days’ now.” And yet most of us are conditioned to escape into the past, into the future, into our to-do lists — to wander off away from the present, even as we chronicle the moment in real-time on various lifestreaming platforms.

If you’ve read any of these seven essential books on happiness or taken the sage advice of Jackson Pollock’s dad, the research findings from his Track Your Happiness project Matt Killingsworth shares in his TEDxCambridge talk will be of no surprise. Still, there’s something grounding about the unequivocal empirical evidence of something most of us intuit on some level, often with great discomfort:

People are less happy when they’re mind-wandering, no matter what they’re doing.

Strikingly enough, that mind-wandering is a cause rather than a consequence of unhappiness is at once jarring and heartening — it suggests that by training our minds to be more fully present, we’d be honing our capacity for happiness, something Eastern philosophy has long maintained. But perhaps the most surprising and most commanding finding is that even when people’s minds wander off to pleasant things, they’re less happy than when they are fully present in the moment:

Remind yourself of what it’s like to celebrate the present with history’s greatest moments of everyday happiness, then reel yourself back into the moment with a lesson in immersive living from Henry Miller.

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01 APRIL, 2013

Was Shakespeare Shakespeare? 11 Rules for Critical Thinking

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To be or not to be certain — an exercise in the art and science of doubt.

It’s been argued that Shakespeare changed everything. Yet even if this is true, it’s true of the literature we consider Shakespeare’s legacy — which, it turns out, might not be Shakespeare’s after all. So holds the Authorship Question — the age-old debate about whether or not a single man we refer to as Shakespeare authored the legendary sonnets and plays. Currently, there are three contenders for the authorship throne: “Startford” (the man from the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, or Traditional Shakespeare), “Oxford” (Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford), or “Ignatus” (an unnamed and unidentified third person).

In AKA Shakespeare: A Scientific Approach to the Authorship Question (public library), Stanford astrophysicist Peter Surrock, who lists as his credentials “a love of literature and a fondness for attempting to solve problems … coupled with a conviction that scientific thinking need not be restricted to scientific problems,” presents a DIY kit for assessing the Authorship Question, applying scientific principles to the four-centuries-old dispute. Surrock writes:

Why another book about the Shakespeare Authorship Question? Because the identity of the author we know as “Shakespeare” remains an open question. Most scholars of English literature maintain that he was a gentleman of that or similar name who was born and died in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the County of Warwickshire in England. However, there are a growing number of independent scholars who dispute that contention. The scholastic community has not persuaded the independent scholars to see the error of their ways. But neither have the independent scholars persuaded the orthodox scholars to see the error of their ways. The Authorship Problem therefore remains unresolved.

Unusual in both form and format, the book is written as a dialogue between four characters of various skills and perspectives — a Shakespeare-Is-Shakespeare believer, a fierce skeptic, and two participants of neutral disposition who are there to shepherd the scientific process. What emerges is part choose-your-own-adventure novel, part Baloney Detection Kit, tickling your critical thinking and guiding you through various pieces of information as you make up your own mind about The Bard’s identity.

The the toolkit — being a product of science — does involve some number-crunching, a tool on the book’s companion site affectionately named Prospero will analyze your judgments of the evidence and produce a result in favor of Stratford or Oxford or Ignotus.

But perhaps best of all is the checklist of credos that underpin the analytical tool. Dubbed Prospero’s Precepts, these eleven rules culled from some of history’s greatest minds can serve as a general-purpose guideline for critical thinking in all matters of doubt:

  1. All beliefs in whatever realm are theories at some level. (Stephen Schneider)
  2. Do not condemn the judgment of another because it differs from your own. You may both be wrong. (Dandemis)
  3. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. (Francis Bacon)
  4. Never fall in love with your hypothesis. (Peter Medawar)
  5. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts. (Arthur Conan Doyle)
  6. A theory should not attempt to explain all the facts, because some of the facts are wrong. (Francis Crick)
  7. The thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that is most interesting. (Richard Feynman)
  8. To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact. (Charles Darwin)
  9. It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. (Mark Twain)
  10. Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong. (Thomas Jefferson)
  11. All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed, second, it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

Itching to solve the age-old mystery for yourself? Grab a copy of AKA Shakespeare and head over to Prospero to calculate your final degrees of belief, which Surrock and his research team will add to those of others before publishing a summary of the crowd-sourced results.

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