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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

16 NOVEMBER, 2012

Eleanor Roosevelt on Happiness, Conformity, and Integrity

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“When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”

Eleanor Roosevelt endures as one of the most memorable thinkers and doers in modern history — a relentless champion of working women and underprivileged youth, the longest-serving American First Lady, and the author of some beautiful, if controversial, love letters. When she was 76, Roosevelt penned You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life (public library) — an elegantly written, relentlessly insightful compendium of her philosophy on the meaningful life. In the sixth chapter, “Learning to be Useful,” Roosevelt considers the secret of happiness — that elusive, shape-shifting aspiration of which such great hearts and minds as Henry David Thoreau, Alfred Hitchcock, Alan Watts, Martin Seligman, C. S. Lewis, Annie Dillard, and a range of TED speakers have had their own theories.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Public domain image courtesy San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive via Flickr Commons

Roosevelt writes:

Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.

[…]

It is easy to slip into self-absorption and it is equally fatal. When one becomes absorbed in himself, in his health, in his personal problems, or in the small details of daily living, he is, at the same time losing interest in other people; worse, he is losing his ties to life. From that it is an easy step to losing interest in the world and in life itself. That is the beginning of death.

I have always liked Don Quixote’s comment, ‘Until death it is all life.’

Someone once asked me what I regarded as the three most important requirements for happiness. My answer was: ‘A feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you; a feeling that you have done the best you could both in your personal life and in your work; and the ability to love others.’

But there is another basic requirement, and I can’t understand now how I forgot it at the time: that is the feeling that you are, in some way, useful. Usefulness, whatever form it may take, is the price we should pay for the air we breathe and the food we eat and the privilege of being alive. And it is its own reward, as well, for it is the beginning of happiness, just as self-pity and withdrawal from the battle are the beginning of misery.

Eleanor Roosevelt votes in Hyde Park, New York, November 3, 1936

Public domain image courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library via Flickr Commons

In the following chapter, titled “The Right to Be an Individual,” Roosevelt considers the moral responsibility of living what you believe and fully inhabiting your inner life as the foundation of integrity and, more than that, of what it means to be human:

It’s your life — but only if you make it so. The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.

Indeed, this sentiment is at the heart of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words: “To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest.”

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16 NOVEMBER, 2012

Are We Nearing the Maximum Capacity of the Human Brain?

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How “the cleverest organ in the known universe could suddenly become one of the dumbest.”

“If you ever feel lazy or dull,” neuroscientist David Eagleman wrote of the human brain, “take heart: you’re the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.” But are you, or at least are you for long?

Much has been said about the perils of information overload and what we can do about it. But what if the issue was not simply one of will over wiring? In The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning (public library) — which also gave us this fascinating look at the science of “chunking” and how pattern recognition fuels creativity — Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Bor turns to the potential hard-wired limitations of our human brains as they grapple with the rapidly proliferating influx of available information:

Human eyes have around 100 million photoreceptors, each of which can pick up about ten visual events every second, so our eyes are effectively receiving a billion pieces of information each second. If you include the information pouring in from our other senses, that’s a staggering quantity of data for our brains to sift through every moment of our waking lives.

[…]

If we had an infinite resource of energy by which to crunch the numbers, and an infinitely fast brain by which to make the calculations, then there would be no problem, as we could analyze every scrap of data to its fullest capacity and never miss an opportunity or be caught by a threat. But, of course, in reality, it takes time to process anything, and human brains consume a frighteningly large proportion of our body’s total energy resources.

Computing pioneer Charles Babbage's brain

Public domain image

Then, Bor adds in a footnote:

Even though the human brain is a mere 2 percent of total body weight, in newborns this single organ requires a staggering 87 percent of the body’s total energy. A five-year-old has a brain that greedily guzzles nearly half of all the energy the child consumes, and even in adults this figure is at least a quarter, though that proportion can rise dramatically if we’ve had a mentally taxing day — for instance, when studying for exams. In fact, some biologists have suggested that the energy demands and complexity of a human brain are nearing the endpoint of what is biologically possible and that if you started trying to cram even more neuronal wires into the brain, the additional miniaturization that this would entail would turn all brain signal into random noise — and the cleverest organ in the known universe would suddenly become one of the dumbest.

Of course, for those of us who believe it’s less a matter of what machinery the skull houses and more a matter of how we use it, this is merely of curiosity rather than of concern.

Babbage’s brain image via Public Domain Review

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12 NOVEMBER, 2012

Philosopher Judith Butler on Doubting Love

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“Love is not a state, a feeling, a disposition, but an exchange, uneven, fraught with history, with ghosts, with longings that are more or less legible to those who try to see one another with their own faulty vision.”

“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination,” John Keats famously wrote. John Keats, who also argued for the gift of “negative capability” — the intricate art of embracing uncertainty and living with those shaky in-between states, echoing Einstein’s contention that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.” Still, we’re creatures incredibly susceptible to cognitive dissonance and painfully prone to paralysis in the face of ambiguity, especially when it comes to the most tender and vulnerable corners of our inner worlds.

In her poignant essay titled “Doubting Love” from Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — the same anthology that gave us Martha Nussbaum’s exquisite advice on fully inhabiting your inner life — philosopher Judith Butler examines the question of uncertainty in that corner of life where we most long for security and grounding conviction. She writes:

On occasion when I am getting to know someone — when someone seeks to know me or, indeed, find in me the occasion for love — I am asked what my idea of love is, and I always founder. There are clearly those who have their ideas of love, who enter into their conversations, their letters, their initial encounters with an idea of love in mind. This is admirable in a way. And I am somewhat embarrassed by the fact that I have no answer, and that I cannot, in the moment of potential seduction, [have] an entrancing view of love to offer the one with whom I speak. … One knows love somehow only when all one’s ideas are destroyed, and this becoming unhinged from what one knows is the paradigmatic sign of love.

Butler then describes herself as a “secular Kierkergaardian when it comes to love,” but also sees Freud as her guide:

[Freud] is the one who writes, ‘A man who doubts his own love may, or rather, must doubt every lesser thing.’ And this is the line I return to in my life, a line that cannot be read once, at least not by me. Freud is making a statement, but he is, implicitly, delivering as well a warning and an admonition. The one who doubts his own love will find himself doubting every lesser thing.

[…]

There is no way around it: If you doubt your own love, you will be compelled to doubt every lesser thing and if there is no greater thing than love, you will be compelled to doubt every other thing, which means that nothing, really nothing, will be undoubted by you.

After examining the oscillation of certitudes and uncertainties in love, Butler returns to Freud:

It would seem that for Freud the goal is not to doubt one’s own love, to come to have certainty in it, and to somehow know oneself in the dispossession that love provides. I am the one who loses myself here, in this way, under these conditions, who finds the following irresistible; who falls then and there; who wants, who idealizes, who pursues; who cannot forget this or that kind of thing, wants it again, cannot stop wanting it easily; who wants to be pursued, or to become unforgettable, irreplaceable. One finds that love is not a state, a feeling, a disposition, but an exchange, uneven, fraught with history, with ghosts, with longings that are more or less legible to those who try to see one another with their own faulty vision.

And yet, what Richard Feynman knew about science, Orson Welles knew about film, and Rilke knew about life might indeed be true of love as well — that faulty vision, that state of doubt, seems absolutely necessary for complete love:

If one becomes somewhat savvy about one’s love — ‘ah, yes, there goes my love again, what will it bring forth this time? What havoc will it wreak?’ — does this mean that one ceases to doubt it, or that one knows it with certainty for all time? Or is this the distance that one takes from what one cannot do, an instance of the doubt that goes along with love? We might think Freud is saying that to doubt one’s own love is to doubt it in a very fundamental way, to call the most important matters into questions, and to not let assumptions go unquestioned. It is, in a way, to become philosophical in and about one’s passions. And this does not mean that one ceases to live them or that one kills them by thinking them into the ground. on the contrary, one lives them, and seeks to know them, but only by bringing one’s questions into the practice of love itself. I cannot pretend to know myself at the moment of love, but I cannot pretend to fully know myself. I must neither vacate the knowledge that I have — the knowledge, after all, that will make me a better lover — and I cannot be the one who knows everything in advance — which would make me proud and, finally, lovable. Love always returns us to what we do and do not know. We have no other choice than to become shaken by doubt, and to persist with what we can know when we can know it.

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