Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

03 OCTOBER, 2012

The Neurochemistry of Empathy, Storytelling, and the Dramatic Arc, Animated

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What cortisol and oxytocin have to do with a 19th-century German playwright.

This week, I’m headed to the Future of Storytelling summit, an unusual cross-disciplinary unconference exploring exactly what it says on the tin. Among the presenters is neuroeconomics pioneer Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies and author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. In this short film on empathy, neurochemistry, and the dramatic arc, directed and edited by my friend Kirby Ferguson and animated by Henrique Barone, Zak takes us inside his lab, where he studies how people respond to stories.

What he found is that even the simplest narrative can elicit powerful empathic response my triggering the release of neurochemicals like cortisol and oxytocin, provided it is highly engaging and follows the classic dramatic arc outlined by the German playwright Gustav Freytag 150 years ago.

Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but, in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry — and that’s what it means to be a social creature.

Complement with Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

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02 OCTOBER, 2012

Politically Incorrect Advice to the Young from William S. Burroughs, Remixed

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“Any old soul is worth saving at least to a priest, but not every soul is worth buying.”

It is in the tradition of every culture that its cultural icons would impart words of wisdom on its young. In ours, those have come from celebrated minds like E. O. Wilson’s advice to young scientists, Neil Gaiman’s advice to young artists, Jacqueline Novogratz’s advice to young graduates, and Christopher Hitchens’s advice to young contrarians. Joining them is William S. Burroughs with this deliciously remixed take on his famous, uncensored, and at times questionable advice to the young — which, if anything, underscores the importance of knowing when to and when not to take advice.

People often ask me if I have any words of advice for young people.
Well… here are a few simple admonitions for young and old:

Never interfere in a boy-and-girl fight.

Beware of whores who say they don’t want money. The hell they don’t. What they mean is they want MORE MONEY, much more.

If you’re doing business with a religious son of a bitch, get it in writing. His word isn’t worth shit, not with the good Lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal.
Avoid fuck-ups. You all know the type. Anything they have anything to do with, no matter how good it sounds, turns into a disaster.

Do not offer sympathy to the mentally ill. Tell them firmly, ‘I am not paid to listen to this drivel. You are a terminal fool.’

Now some of you may encounter the devil’s bargain if you get that far. Any old soul is worth saving at least to a priest, but not every soul is worth buying. So you can take the offer as a compliment. They charge the easy ones first, you know, like money, all the money there is. But who wants to be the richest guy in some cemetery? Not much to spend it on, eh, Gramps? Getting too old to cut the mustard. Have you forgotten something, Gramps? In order to feel something, you have to be there. You have to be 18. You’re not 18, you are 78. Old fool sold his soul for a strap-on.

How about an honorable bargain? ‘You always wanted to become a doctor. Now’s your chance. Why, you could have become a great healer and benefit humanity. What’s wrong with that?’ Just about everything. There are no honorable bargains involving exchange of qualitative merchandise like souls. Just quantitative merchandise like time and money. So piss off, Satan, and don’t take me for dumber than I look. As an old junk pusher told me, ‘Watch whose money you pick up.’

Ben Kay; image by Christiaan Tonnis

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28 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Antilamentation: A Poetic Antidote to Regret

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“You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake.”

“The useless days will add up to something….These things are your becoming,” Cheryl “Sugar” Strayed wisely advised.

The psychology of regret is indeed one of the most fascinating and universal equalizers of the human experience — one poet Dorianne Laux captures with breathless poignancy in “Antilamentation,” found in her The Book of Men: Poems (public library) and read here by Tom O’Bedlam.

Exhale and enjoy:

Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook.
Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don’t regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the livingroom couch,b
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed
coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs
window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation. Relax. Don’t bother remembering any of it.
Let’s stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.

Thanks, Kerri

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