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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

14 FEBRUARY, 2013

Alain de Botton on How to Think More About Sex

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“The more closely we analyze what we consider ‘sexy,’ the more clearly we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.”

“When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent,” Dorion Sagan — son of Carl — wrote in his fascinating history of sex. And yet that very quest to end our isolation has been subject to centuries of stigma and incessant friction with our social values. But it needn’t be this way.

Last week, The School of Life taught us how to stay sane by revising our inner stories. From the same fantastic series of intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living comes How to Think More About Sex (public library; UK) by philosopher Alain de Botton, who has previously given us some sage advice on success, a vision for religion for atheists, and some answers to little kids’ biggest questions.

De Botton writes in the introduction:

Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple or nice in the ways we might like it to be. It is not fundamentally democratic or kind; it is bound up with cruelty, transgression and the desire for subjugation and humiliation. It refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives: it leads us to destroy our relationships, threatens our productivity and compels us to stay up too late in nightclubs talking to people whom we don’t like but whose exposed midriffs we nevertheless strongly wish to touch. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values. Unsurprisingly, we have no option but to repress its demands most of the time. We should accept sex as inherently rather weird instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses.

This is not to say that we cannot take steps to grow wiser about sex. We should simply realize that we will never entirely surmount the difficulties it throws our way. Our best hope should be a respectful accommodation with an anarchic and reckless power.

He later offers a delightfully animated account, reminiscent of Bill Plympton’s classic animated version, of why a kiss holds the appeal that it does:

The pleasure of the moment can be understood only by considering its wider context: the overwhelming indifference against which any kiss is set. It goes almost without saying that the majority of people we encounter will be not merely uninterested in having sex with us but positively revolted by the idea. We have no choice but to keep a minimum of sixty or, even better, ninety centimeters’ distance between us and them at all times, to make it absolutely clear that our compromised selves have no intention of intruding into their personal spheres.

Then comes the kiss. The deeply private realm of the mouth — that dark, moist cavity that no one else but our dentist usually enters, where our tongue reigns supreme over a microcosm as silent and unknown as the belly of a whale — now prepares to open itself up to another. The tongue, which has had no expectation of ever meeting a compatriot, gingerly approaches a fellow member of its species, advancing with something of the reserve and curiosity exhibited by a South Sea Islander in greeting the arrival of the first European adventurer. Indentations and plateaus in the inner lining of the cheeks, hitherto thought of as solely personal, are revealed as having counterparts. The tongues engage each other in a tentative dance. …

Beneath the kiss itself, it is its meaning that interests us — which is why the desire to kiss someone can be decisively reduced… by a declaration of that desire — a confession which may in itself be so erotic as to render the actual kiss superfluous.

But the true mesmerism of sex, de Botton argues, isn’t even in the physical act itself — it’s in the existential promise that it holds:

The pleasure we derive from sex is also bound up with our recognizing, and giving a distinctive seal of approval to, those ingredients of a good life whose presence we have detected in another person. The more closely we analyze what we consider ‘sexy,’ the more clearly we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.

[…]

Our culture encourages us to acknowledge very little of who we normally are in the act of sex. It seems as if it might be a purely physical process, without any psychological importance. But … what happens in love-making is closely bound up with some of our most central ambitions. The act of sex plays out through the rubbing together of organs, but our excitement is no boorish physiological reaction; rather, it is an ecstasy we feel at encountering someone who may be able to put to rest certain of our greatest fears, and with whom we may hope to build a shared life based upon common values.

Ultimately, sex is a grounding mechanism that reminds us of our own imperfect humanity, and in that imperfection lies the messy richness of being human:

Without sex, we would be dangerously invulnerable. We might believe we were not ridiculous. We wouldn’t know rejection and humiliation so intimately. We could age respectably, get used to our privileges and think we understood what was going on. We might disappear into numbers and words alone. It is sex that creates a necessary havoc in the ordinary hierarchies of power, status, money and intelligence.

[…]

We might even embrace the pain sex causes us, for without it we wouldn’t know art and music quite so well. … When every contemptuous but fair thing has been said about our infernal sexual desires, we can still celebrate them for not allowing us to forget for more than a few days at a time what is really involved in living an embodied, chemical and largely insane human life.

Complement How to Think More About Sex with some of literary history’s most beautiful definitions of love.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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11 FEBRUARY, 2013

Thomas Edison, Power-Napper: The Great Inventor on Sleep & Success

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“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”

It took Thomas Edison superhuman feats of biology to fuel his astoundingly ambitious to-do list. He reportedly slept a mere three to four hours at night, “regarding sleep as a waste of time, ‘a heritage from our cave days,’” as James Maas tells us in his 1997 productivity bestseller Power Sleep (public library). In fact, Edison is often accused of having forever disrupted our internal clocks with his invention of the lightbulb — some researchers go as far as estimating that artificial light has stripped modern life of 1-2 hours of sleep per night. David K. Randall writes in Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, one of the best science books of 2012:

Thanks to Edison, sunset no longer meant the end of your social life; instead, it marked the beginning of it.

[…]

Yet all of the artificial light in use around the world before Edison developed his lightbulb amounted to the brightness of a match compared to the lights of Times Square.

The Incandescing Electric Lamp, one of Edison's 1,093 inventions, was patented on October 30, 1883. His first functional incandescent electric lamp was successfully tested at his Menlo Park Lab on October 21, 1879, which marked the beginning of the electrical age.

Image: Henry Ford Foundation

Indeed, Edison had so much faith in the power of his invention to liberate people from the burden of sleep that he made some boldly outlandish causal inferences. In Sleep Thieves (public library), Stanley Coren quotes the inventor:

When I went through Switzerland in a motor-car, so that I could visit little towns and villages, I noted the effect of artificial light on the inhabitants. Where water power and electric light had been developed, everyone seemed normally intelligent. Where these appliances did not exist, and the natives went to bed with the chickens, staying there until daylight, they were far less intelligent.

So contemptuous was Edison’s attitude towards sleep that he wrote in 1921:

People will not only do what they like to do — they overdo it 100 per cent. Most people overeat 100 per cent, and oversleep 100 per cent, because they like it. That extra 100 per cent makes them unhealthy and inefficient. The person who sleeps eight or ten hours a night is never fully asleep and never fully awake — they have only different degrees of doze through the twenty-four hours. … For myself I never found need of more than four or five hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. I never dream. It’s real sleep. When by chance I have taken more I wake dull and indolent. We are always hearing people talk about ‘loss of sleep’ as a calamity. They better call it loss of time, vitality and opportunities. Just to satisfy my curiosity I have gone through files of the British Medical Journal and could not find a single case reported of anybody being hurt by loss of sleep. Insomnia is different entirely — but some people think they have insomnia if they can sleep only ten hours every night.

In hindsight, of course, his assertions were not only scientifically misguided but also rather hypocritical. We now know that sleep is essential to overcoming creative blocks, and it turns out, so did Edison. While he carried his lack of sleep as a kind of badge of honor, he had a duplicitous little secret: Power-napping. Not only were napping cots scattered throughout his property, from labs to libraries, but he was also frequently photographed sneaking his stealthy shut-eye in unusual locations.

Edison's office, with napping cot

Image: Mike Roush

The cot in Edison’s library

Image: Holly Korus

Thomas Edison taking a midday nap under a tree in the Blue Ridge Mountains (1921)

Image: Bettman/Corbis via TIME

Thomas Edison sleeping at his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory (1924)

Image: Henry Ford Foundation

Thomas Edison napping at the Ford Edison Camp in Hagerstown, Maryland, with President Warren Harding (right) and automobile tire magnate Harvey Firestone reading the newspapers in the background (1921)

Image: Edison-Ford Winter Estates Museum / Brian Bennett

'Tearing off a nap after 72 hours of continuous work' (1912)

Image: National Museum of Education

Edison used napping to counterbalance the intensity of his work. Most days, he took one or two brief naps — on his famous cots, outdoors in the grass, and even on a chair or stool if no better option was available. Per multiple first-hand accounts, he always awoke from his naps reinvigorated rather than groggy, ready to devour the rest of the day with full alertness and zest. Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Martin write of the West Orange laboratory in Edison: His Life And Inventions (public library):

As one is about to pass out of the library attention is arrested by an incongruity in the form of a cot, which stands in an alcove near the door. Here Edison, throwing himself down, sometimes seeks a short rest during specially long working hours. Sleep is practically instantaneous and profound, and he awakes in immediate and full possession of his faculties, arising from the cot and going directly “back to the job” without a moment’s hesitation…

Edison’s diary, which he kept only briefly while on vacation in the summer of 1885 and which was eventually published in 1971, reveals an even more conflicted and ambivalent relationship with sleep. On Sunday, July 12, he writes playfully, but in evident circadian distress:

Image: The Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers

Awakened at 5:15 a.m. My eyes were embarrassed by the sunbeams. Turned my back to them and tried to take another dip into oblivion. Succeeded. Awakened at 7 a.m. Thought of Mina, Daisy, and Mamma G. Put all 3 in my mental kaleidoscope to obtain a new combination a la Galton. Took Mina as a basis, tried to improve her beauty by discarding and adding certain features borrowed from Daisy and Mamma G. A sort of Raphaelized beauty, got into it too deep, mind flew away and I went to sleep again.

Awakened at 8:15 a.m. … Arose at 9 o’clock, came down stairs expecting twas too late for breakfast. Twasn’t.

[…]

Had dinner at 3 p.m. Ruins of a chicken, rice pudding.

[…]

The sun has left us on time, am going to read from the Encyclopedia Britannica to steady my nerves and go to bed early. I will shut my eyes and imagine a terraced abyss, each terrace occupied by a beautiful maiden. To the first I will deliver my mind and they will pass it down down to the uttermost depths of silence and oblivion. Went to bed worked my imagination for a supply of maidens, only saw Mina, Daisy and Mamma [G]. Scheme busted. Sleep.

Image: The Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers

On July 14, contradicting his contention that he never dreams, Edison notes:

In evening went out on sea wall. Noticed a strange phosphorescent light in the west, probably caused by a baby moon just going down Chinaward, thought at first the Aurora Borealis had moved out west. Went to bed early dreamed of a demon with eyes four hundred feet apart.

Then, on July 19:

Slept as sound as a bug in a barrel of morphine.

Image: The Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers

Only July 21, another poetic vignette:

Slept splendidly — evidently I was inoculated with insomnic bactilli when a baby. Arose early, went out to flirt with the flowers.

One thing that becomes apparent from Edison’s habits and cognitive dissonance about sleep is his extreme compulsion for productivity. In fact, Dyer and Martin cite an anecdote in which Edison tells his friend Milton Adams:

I have got so much to do and life is so short, I am going to hustle.

And hustle he did. Writing in 1885, Sarah Knowles Bolton marvels at Edison’s remarkable work ethic:

Five feet ten inches high, with boyish but earnest face, light gray eyes, his dark hair slightly gray falling over his forehead, his hat tipped to the back of his head, as he goes ardently to his work, which has averaged eighteen hours a day for ten years, he is indeed a pleasant man to see.

You perceive he is not the man to be daunted by obstacles. When one of his inventions failed — a printing machine — he took five men into the loft of his factory, declaring he would never come down till it worked satisfactorily. For two days, and nights and twelve hours — sixty hours in all — he worked continuously without sleep, until he had conquered the difficulty; and then he slept for thirty hours.

He often works all night, thinking best, he says, when the rest of the world sleeps.

In the same fantastic 1901 tome that gave us Amelia E. Barr’s 9 rules for success, Orison Swett Marden sets out to discover the secret to Edison’s success, camping out in the vicinity of the inventor’s New Jersey laboratory for three weeks awaiting a chance to interview him. When he finally does, he is particularly interested in the inventor’s “untiring energy and phenomenal endurance” and asks 53-year-old Edison a number of questions about his daily routine, including his relationship with sleep:

‘Do you have regular hours, Mr. Edison?’ I asked.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I do not work hard now. I come to the laboratory about eight o’clock every day and go home to tea at six, and then I study or work on some problem until eleven, which is my hour for bed.’

‘Fourteen or fifteen hours a day can scarcely be called loafing,’ I suggested.

‘Well,’ he replied, ‘for fifteen years I have worked on an average of twenty hours a day.’

When he was forty-seven years old, he estimated his true age at eighty-two, since working only eight hours a day would have taken till that time.

Mr. Edison has sometimes worked sixty consecutive hours upon one problem. Then after a long sleep, he was perfectly refreshed and ready for another.

Still, Edison used much of the time others invested in sleep not merely for mindless sleeplessness but for building his networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity:

‘I’ve known Edison since he was a boy of fourteen,’ said another friend; ‘and of my own knowledge I can say he never spent an idle day in his life. Often, when he should have been asleep, I have known him to sit up half the night reading. He did not take to novels or wild Western adventures, but read works on mechanics, chemistry, and electricity; and he mastered them too. But in addition to his reading, which he could only indulge in at odd hours, he carefully cultivated his wonderful powers of observation, till at length, when he was not actually asleep, it may be said he was learning all the time.’

Marden proceeds to inquire about Edison’s legendary work ethic, producing an anecdote you might recall from the timelessly fantastic How To Avoid Work and affirming the recurring theme of focused persistence as the key to success:

‘You lay down rather severe rules for one who wishes to succeed in life,’ I ventured, ‘working eighteen hours a day.’

‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘You do something all day long, don’t you? Every one does. If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put in sixteen good hours, and it is certain with most men, that they have been doing something all the time. They have been either walking, or reading, or writing, or thinking. The only trouble is that they do it about a great many things and I do it about one. If they took the time in question and applied it in one direction, to one object, they would succeed. Success is sure to follow such application. The trouble lies in the fact that people do not have an object, one thing, to which they stick, letting all else go. Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.’

Complement with the science of internal time and how dreaming regulates depression.

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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:

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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