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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

11 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Quicksand of Existence: Sylvia Plath on Life, Death, Hope, and Happiness

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“The present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead.”

On February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, “an addict of experience” — took her own life at the age of thirty. Though some have argued that Plath has been “flattened into the prototype of the mentally tormented poet, the betrayed woman, the tragic literary blonde,” and suicide is always challenging to talk about in causal terms, Plath’s private writing reveals a complex and, indeed, tormented woman whose constant struggle to understand the meaning of life took an increasingly melancholy turn.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library; UK) — the same volume that gave us the young poet’s exuberant celebration of curiosity and life — also gives us a record of her incessant oscillation between hope and hopelessness. In an entry from the summer of 1950, 18-year-old Plath adds to history’s finest private moments of everyday happiness:

‘We only begin to live when we conceive life as tragedy…’ W. B. Yeats

‘Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past…’ James Joyce

[…]

I may never be happy, but tonight I am content. Nothing more than an empty house, the warm hazy weariness from a day spent setting strawberry runners in the sun, a glass of cool sweet milk, and a shallow dish of blueberries bathed in cream. Now I know how people can live without books, without college. When one is so tired at the end of a day one must sleep, and at the next dawn there are more strawberry runners to set, and so one goes on living, near the earth. At times like this I’d call myself a fool to ask for more…

But in the fall of that year, in a despondent and peculiarly punctuated stream-of-consciousness passage, Plath ponders:

Not to be sentimental, as I sound, but why the hell are we conditioned into the smooth strawberry-and-cream Mother-Goose-world, Alice-in-Wonderland fable, only to be broken on the wheel as we grow older and become aware of ourselves as individuals with a dull responsibility in life? … * to go to college fraternity parties where a boy buries his face in your neck or tries to rape you if he isn’t satisfied with burying his fingers in the flesh of your breast. * to learn that there are a million girls who are beautiful and each day that more leave behind the awkward teen-age stage, as you once did, to embark on the adventure of being loved and petted. * to be aware that you must compete somehow, and yet that wealth and beauty are not in your realm. … * to learn that you can’t be a revolutionary. * to learn that while you dream and believe in Utopia, you will scratch & scrabble for your daily bread in your home town and be damn glad if there’s butter on it. … * to have won $100 for writing a story and not believe that I am the one who wrote it. … * to know that millions of others are unhappy and that life is a gentleman’s agreement to grin and paint your face gay so others will feel they are silly to be unhappy, and try to catch the contagion of joy, while inside so many are dying of bitterness and unfulfillment. * to take a walk with Marcia Brown and love her for her exuberance, to catch some of it, because it’s real, and once again love life day by day, color by color, touch by touch, because you’ve got a body & mind to exercise & use it as much as you can, never mind whose [sic] got a better or worse body & mind, but stretch yours as far as you can.

Another entry bespeaks her dissonant, conflicted relationship with life and death in increasingly poetic, if heartbreaking in retrospect, language:

With me, the present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead. But you can’t start over with each new second. You have to judge by what is dead. It’s like quicksand… hopeless from the start. A story, a picture, can renew sensation a little, but not enough, not enough. Nothing is real except the present, and already, I feel the weight of centuries smothering me. Some girl a hundred years ago once lived as I do. And she is dead. I am the present, but I know I, too, will pass. The high moment, the burning flash, come and are gone, continuous quicksand. And I don’t want to die.

But perhaps most poignant of all is this meditation on the ineffable:

There are times when a feeling of expectancy comes to me, as if something is there, beneath the surface of my understanding, waiting for me to grasp it. It is the same tantalizing sensation when you almost remember a name, but don’t quite reach it. I can feel it when I think of human beings, of the hints of evolution suggested by the removal of wisdom teeth, the narrowing of the jaw no longer needed to chew such roughage as it was accustomed to; the gradual disappearance of hair from the human body; the adjustment of the human eye to the fine print, the swift, colored motion of the twentieth century. The feeling comes, vague and nebulous, when I consider the prolonged adolesence [sic] of our species; the rites of birth, marriage and death; all the primitive, barbaric ceremonies streamlined to modern times. Almost, I think, the unreasoning, bestial purity was best. Oh, something is there, waiting for me. Perhaps someday the revelation will burst upon me and I will see the other side of this monumental grotesque joke. And then I’ll laugh. And then I’ll know what life is.

To celebrate Plath’s life and legacy, I asked my ineffably talented friend Wendy MacNaughton — whose hand-lettered drawings of Susan Sontag on art and on love you might recall — to illustrate Plath’s vortex of literary influences, in the vein of our prior Circles of Influence collaboration. Enjoy:

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08 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Genius of Dogs: A Dimensional Definition of Human Intelligence

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“Genius means that someone can be gifted with one type of cognition while being average or below average in another.”

For much of modern history, dogs have inspired a wealth of art and literature, profound philosophical meditations, scientific curiosity, deeply personal letters, photographic admiration, and even some cutting-edge data visualization. But what is it that makes dogs so special in and of themselves, and so dear to us?

Despite the mind-numbing title, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think (public library; UK) by Brian Hare, evolutionary anthropologist and founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, and Vanessa Woods offers a fascinating tour of radical research on canine cognition, from how the self-domestication of dogs gave them a new kind of social intelligence to what the minds of dogs reveal about our own. In fact, one of the most compelling parts of the book has less to do with dogs and more with genius itself.

In examining the definition of genius, Hare echoes British novelist Amelia E. Barr, who wisely noted in 1901 that “genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly.” Hare points out that standardized tests provide a very narrow — and thus poor — definition of genius:

As you probably remember, tests such as IQ tests, GREs, and SATs focus on basic skills like reading, writing, and analytical abilities. The tests are favored because on average, they predict scholastic success. But they do not measure the full capabilities of each person. They do not explain Ted Turner, Ralph Lauren, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, who all dropped out of college and became billionaires.

Instead, Hare offers a conception of genius that borrows from Howard Gardner’s seminal 1983 theory of multiple intelligences:

A cognitive approach is about celebrating different kinds of intelligence. Genius means that someone can be gifted with one type of cognition while being average or below average in another.

For a perfect example, Hare points to reconstructionist Temple Grandin:

Temple Grandin, at Colorado State University, is autistic yet is also the author of several books, including Animals Make Us Human, and has done more for animal welfare than almost anyone. Although Grandin struggles to read people’s emotions and social cues, her extraordinary understanding of animals has allowed her to reduce the stress of millions of farm animals.

The cognitive revolution changed the way we think about intelligence. It began in the decade that all social revolutions seemed to have happened, the sixties. Rapid advances in computer technology allowed scientists to think differently about the brain and how it solves problems. Instead of the brain being either more or less full of intelligence, like a glass of wine, the brain is more like a computer, where different parts work together. USB ports,keyboards, and modems bring in new information from the environment; a processor helps digest and alter the information into a usable format, while a hard drive stores important information for later use. Neuroscientists realized that, like a computer, many parts of the brain are specialized for solving different types of problems.

An example of this comes from the study of memory, which we already know is fascinating in its fallibility:

One of the best-studied cognitive abilities is memory. In fact, we usually think of geniuses as people who have an extraordinary memory for facts and figures, since such people often score off the charts on IQ tests. But just as there are different types of intelligence, there are different types of memory. There is memory for events, faces, navigation, things that occurred recently or long ago — the list goes on. If you have a good memory in one of these areas, it does not necessarily mean your other types of memory are equally good.

Ultimately, the notion of multiple intelligences is what informs the research on dog cognition:

There are many definitions of intelligence competing for attention in popular culture. But the definition that has guided my research and that applies throughout the book is a very simple one. The genius of dogs — of all animals, for that matter, including humans — has two criteria:

  1. A mental skill that is strong compared with others, either within your own species or in closely related species.
  2. The ability to spontaneously make inferences.

(This second criterion comes strikingly close to famous definitions of creativity.)

The Genius of Dogs goes on to explore the specific types of intelligence at which dogs excel, including their empathic acumen of taking another’s visual perspective and learning from another’s actions, their ability to interpret and act upon human communicative gestures, and the unique ways in which they go about asking for help. Pair it with John Homans’s indispensable What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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06 FEBRUARY, 2013

An Addict of Experience: Sylvia Plath’s Sexual Repression and Class Struggle

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A journey into “what compelled Plath to peek over the edge and stare into the abyss of the human psyche.”

On February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world — took her own life, leaving behind her husband Ted Hughes and their two children. In the highly anticipated new biography Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted (public library; UK) — titled after the exquisite Plath poemAndrew Wilson explores the poorly understood period of Plath’s life before her relationship with Hughes. Diving into the darkest corners of her diaries and letters, as well as previously unavailable archives and direct interviews with those who knew Plath, Wilson sets out to “trace the sources of her mental instabilities and examine how a range of personal, economic, and societal factors — the real disquieting muses — conspired against her.”

He writes in the introduction:

In her journal in 1950 she wrote of how she was living on the ‘edge.’ She was not alone, she added, as all of us were standing on the edge of a precipice looking down into darkness, peering into an unnerving pit below.

This book will show what compelled Plath to peek over the edge and stare into the abyss of the human psyche.

Wilson notes Plath’s chronic dissonance between repression and an insatiable hunger for life:

Plath was an addict of experience, and she could not bear the fact that young women like her were denied something so life-enhancing. In the same letter she goes on to write of her deep envy of males, anger she describes as ‘insidious, malignant, latent.’

Sex — or rather the constraints and repressions surrounding it — played a central role in Plath’s creative and psychological development. She realized, as she wrote in her journal in the autumn of 1950, she was too well brought up to disregard tradition, yet she hated boys who could express themselves sexually while she had no choice but to ‘drag’ herself from one date to the next in ‘soggy desire.’ The system, she added, disgusted her.

But Wilson tends to jump to causality a little too eagerly. As Clay Shirky poignantly pointed out about the recent tragic loss of Aaron Swartz, “suicide is not only about proximate causes.” Wilson writes:

If too much has been made of the symptoms of Plath’s mental illness, so too little attention has been paid to its possible causes. Sylvia Plath was an angry young woman born in a country and at a time that only exacerbated and intensified her fury. Not only did she feel maddened that she could not express herself sexually, she also was furious that she had not been born into a family of greater means. Her letters and journals are full of references to feeling inferior and self-conscious because of her low status. As a scholarship girl at Smith College — one of America’s top universities for women — she was surrounded by the daughters of the country’s great and the good. She peeled potatoes, chopped vegetables, and waited on tables as a way of reducing her course fees. In order to try and take the burden off her mother — who worked at Boston University’s College of Practical Arts and Letters to pay the shortfall between her daughter’s fees and her scholarship — Sylvia volunteered for extra jobs at the college and, in whatever spare time she had, she wrote poems and stories for money. If she took boys home to her family’s two-bedroom house in Wellesley, Massachusetts — where she was forced to share a room with her mother — she worried that they would see the marks and rips in the wallpaper; on occasions like these, the lights would have to be kept low so as to try and disguise the blemishes. In her first semester at Smith, in the fall of 1950, she wrote in her journal of the arduous transition period between childhood and young adulthood. To help her make sense of this new, troubling reality, she made a list of certain aspects of life that she found difficult, an inventory of notes addressed to herself that she could use to boost her confidence when it was low. One of the sections focuses on her economic position in society. She noted how she knew she would have to compete with other girls who had been born into wealthier families. The Plaths, she realized, were not only of modest means but they didn’t come from a line of well-connected intellectuals. She observed how boys from richer families would often remark, in a casual fashion, of her ‘side of town,’ and although they didn’t mean to be cruel, she felt the comments keenly.

Though I have little else in common with Plath, I too found myself a “scholarship girl” amidst “the daughters of the country’s great and the good,” dirt-poor by the standards of the Ivy League institution into which I landed from Eastern Europe, and working up to four jobs at a time to support myself. Yet while the enormity of the mental and emotional burden inflicted by this constant sense of economic inferiority couldn’t be overstated, to call it a “possible cause” of suicide — rather than something more causally neutral, like a “trigger” or “contributing factor” — is questionable at best.

Still, semantic nitpicking aside, Mad Girl’s Love Song remains rigorously researched and absolutely fascinating, with its ample footnotes alone a treasure trove of insight into Plath’s previously unexplored life.

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