Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

09 OCTOBER, 2014

What Books Do for the Human Soul: The Four Psychological Functions of Great Literature

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“Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves.”

The question of what reading does for the human soul is an eternal one and its answer largely ineffable, but this hasn’t stopped minds big and small from tussling with it — we have Kafka’s exquisite letter to his childhood friend, Maurice Sendak’s visual manifestos for the joy of reading, and even my own answer to a nine-year-old girl’s question about why we have books today.

Now comes a four-point perspective on the rewards of reading by writer and philosopher Alain de Botton and his team at The School of Life — creators of those intelligent how-to guides to modern living, spanning everything from the art of being alone to the psychology of staying sane to cultivating a healthier relationship with sex to finding fulfilling work. In this wonderful animated essay, they extol the value of books in expanding our circle of empathy, validating and ennobling our inner life, and fortifying us against the paralyzing fear of failure.

  1. IT SAVES YOU TIME
  2. It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

  3. IT MAKES YOU NICER
  4. Literature performs the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s point of view; it allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t; and it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people.

    Literature deeply stands opposed to the dominant value system — the one that rewards money and power. Writers are on the other side — they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but can’t afford airtime in a commercialized, status-conscious, and cynical world.

  5. IT’S A CURE FOR LONELINESS
  6. We’re weirder than we like to admit. We often can’t say what’s really on our minds. But in books we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for. In the best books, it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves — they find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives… Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution…

  7. IT PREPARES YOU FOR FAILURE
  8. All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failure, of messing up, of becoming, as the tabloids put it, “a loser.” Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure. Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure — in one way or another, a great many novels, plays, poems are about people who messed up… Great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media…

Literature deserves its prestige for one reason above all others — because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little bit more wisdom, goodness, and sanity.

Complement with the greatest books of all time, according to 125 celebrated contemporary authors, then revisit The School of Life’s imaginative exploration of Heidegger’s philosophy via a shrimp and Alain de Botton on how art can save your soul.

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09 OCTOBER, 2014

Joni Mitchell on Therapy and the Creative Mind

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“An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion.”

It’s paradoxical that while “art holds out the promise of inner wholeness” for those who experience it, the relationship between creativity and mental illness is well-documented among those who make it, as is the anguish of artists who experience it. This, perhaps, renders the cultivation and preservation of mental health all the more urgently important for artists and those operating on a high frequency of creativity.

Eight-time Grammy recipient Joni Mitchell (b. November 7, 1943), undoubtedly one of the most original and influential musicians of the past century, as well as an enormously talented painter, speaks to the value of therapy and a commitment to mental health in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (public library) — that wonderful collection of wide-ranging conversations by musician, documentarian, and broadcast journalist Malka Marom, which also gave us Mitchell on freedom, creativity, and the dark side of success.

Joni Mitchell's 1995 self-portrait for the cover of her album 'Turbulent Indigo,' one of twenty album covers she painted herself, referencing Vincent van Gogh's famous self-portrait with the bandaged ear that has become a symbol of his struggle with mental health.

When Marom asks why Mitchell chose to record her unusual cover of Annie Ross’s old jazz song “Twisted” from the 1974 album Court and Spark — a song about psychoanalysis — she answers, half-jokingly, that her own experience of therapy earned her “the right to sing it.” But reflecting on the more serious aspects of therapy as a commitment to one’s wellbeing, Mitchell echoes the famous Tennessee Williams aphorism — “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels” — and tells Marom:

Everyone has confusion… Simply by confronting paradoxes or difficulties within your life, designating a time to confront them several times a week, they seem to be not so important as they do when they’re weighing on your mind in the middle of the night, by yourself, with no one to talk to…

I went through a lot of changes about [therapy]. It’s like driving out your devils — do you drive out your angels as well, you know, that whole thing about the creative process. An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion, and I’ve created out of that. It’s been part of the creative force. I mean, even out of severe depression there comes insight, if you meditate on it. It’s sort of masochistic to dwell on it, but you do gain understanding.

And yet Mitchell sees therapy as a kind a clarifying tool for her inner life, for her priorities and values, at a point in time:

That’s mostly what it was, questions about myself and the way I was conducting my life and what were my values in this time … What aren’t values in this time? Everything is so temporal.

Ultimately, however, she champions the benefits of therapy unequivocally:

I think it did me a lot of good. I think that self-confrontation is a good thing, whether you do it by yourself in solitude, or whether you do it in the presence of another person.

Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words is a wonderful read in its totality. Complement this particular excerpt with legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on what therapy and art have in common in soothing the soul.

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07 OCTOBER, 2014

The Mystery of Personal Identity: What Makes You and Your Childhood Self the Same Person Despite a Lifetime of Change

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Dissecting the philosophical conundrum of our “integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be.”

Philosophers and New Age sages have long insisted that the self is a spiritual crutch — from Alan Watts’s teachings on how our ego keeps us separate from the universe to Jack Kerouac’s passionate renunciation of the Self Illusion to Sam Harris’s contemporary case for self-transcendence. Modern psychologists have gone a step further to assert that the self is a socially constructed illusion. Whatever the case, one thing is certain and easily verifiable via personal hindsight — our present selves are unrecognizably different from our past selves and woefully flawed at making our future selves happy.

In a remarkable passage from Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (public library), her biography of the great 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, philosopher, writer, and MacArthur Fellow Rebecca Goldstein considers the perplexity of personal identity:

Personal identity: What is it that makes a person the very person that she is, herself alone and not another, an integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be — until she does not continue any longer, at least not unproblematically?

I stare at the picture of a small child at a summer’s picnic, clutching her big sister’s hand with one tiny hand while in the other she has a precarious hold on a big slice of watermelon that she appears to be struggling to have intersect with the small o of her mouth. That child is me. But why is she me? I have no memory at all of that summer’s day, no privileged knowledge of whether that child succeeded in getting the watermelon into her mouth. It’s true that a smooth series of contiguous physical events can be traced from her body to mine, so that we would want to say that her body is mine; and perhaps bodily identity is all that our personal identity consists in. But bodily persistence over time, too, presents philosophical dilemmas.

Illustration by Salvador Dalí from his rare 1969 'Alice in Wonderland' series. Click image for more.

To probe those dilemmas, Goldstein pulls into question the biographical and biological criteria we use to confirm that our childhood selves are indeed our childhood selves — roughly the same criteria we apply in identifying that the world’s oldest organisms are indeed continuously living individuals. Goldstein writes:

The series of contiguous physical events has rendered the child’s body so different from the one I glance down on at this moment; the very atoms that composed her body no longer compose mine. And if our bodies are dissimilar, our points of view are even more so. Mine would be as inaccessible to her … as hers is now to me. Her thought processes, prelinguistic, would largely elude me.

Yet she is me, that tiny determined thing in the frilly white pinafore. She has continued to exist, survived her childhood illnesses, the near-drowning in a rip current on Rockaway Beach at the age of twelve, other dramas. There are presumably adventures that she — that is that I — can’t undergo and still continue to be herself. Would I then be someone else or would I just no longer be? Were I to lose all sense of myself — were schizophrenia or demonic possession, a coma or progressive dementia to remove me from myself — would it be I who would be undergoing those trials, or would I have quit the premises? Would there then be someone else, or would there be no one?

She then turns to the quintessential threat to such bodily continuity, the source of our greatest existential anxiety and most profound longing:

Is death one of those adventures from which I can’t emerge as myself? The sister whose hand I am clutching in the picture is dead. I wonder every day whether she still exists.

Echoing Meghan O’Rourke’s poetic assertion that “the people we most love [become] ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” Goldstein writes:

A person whom one has loved seems altogether too significant a thing to simply vanish altogether from the world. A person whom one loves is a world, just as one knows oneself to be a world. How can worlds like these simply cease altogether? But if my sister does exist, then what is she, and what makes that thing that she now is identical with the beautiful girl laughing at her little sister on that forgotten day? Can she remember that summer’s day while I cannot?

Alan Watts had an answer, but Goldstein is more interested in the question itself as a gateway to our deepest humanity:

Personal identity poses a host of questions that are, in addition to being philosophical and abstract, deeply personal. It is, after all, one’s very own person that is revealed as problematic. How much more personal can it get?

Complement with pioneering educator Annemarie Roeper on the “I” of the beholder, Anaïs Nin’s bold defense of the fluid self, experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe on the mind-bending psychology of how we know who we are, and psychologist Daniel Gilbert on how your present self’s delusions limit your future self’s happiness.

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