Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

27 FEBRUARY, 2014

Conformity and the Instinct of Rebellion: Norman Mailer Channels His Departed Friend, the Pioneering Psychologist Robert Lindner

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“Because of the instinct of rebellion man has never been content with the limits of his mind: it has led him to inquire its secrets of the universe, to gather and learn and manipulate the fabulous inventory of the cosmos, to seek the very mysteries of creation.”

On February 27, 1956, the prolific writer and pioneering psychologist Robert Lindner — best-known for his 1944 book Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath, from which the famous 1955 starring James Dean borrowed its title — died of a chronic heart condition at the age of 41. His death devastated, among others, his close friend Norman Mailer, who had befriended Lindner after being taken with his book Prescription for Rebellion. A week after Lindner’s death, Mailer wrote an unusual eulogy for his friend in his ninth Village Voice column, eventually included in Advertisements for Myself (public library) — a “collection of pieces and parts, of advertisements, short stories, articles, short novels, fragments of novels, poems and part of a play” that originally appeared in publications like The Harvard Advocate, The Independent, The Village Voice, and Esquire, which also gave us Mailer’s reflections on the rat race of success and what growth really means.

Mailer, who later sponsored a memorial research foundation in Lindner’s name, writes:

Bob Lindner was so good a friend that I simply have no heart to write about him now. I should go on at length about his charm, his generosity, his intellectual curiosity, his foibles, his weaknesses, his kindnesses, his ambitions, his achievements, his failures, and his great warmth (he was truly one of the warmest people I have known), but to write immediately about a man so complex, so individual, and yet so much part of our generation would be to do him a disservice, for Bob Lindner was nothing if not alive, and he would have loathed a facile eulogy.

Instead, he remembers and celebrates his dear friend through the work he had left behind, quoting from Lindner’s final book Must You Conform, published mere weeks before his death:

Cover of 'Must You Conform' by Robert Lindner

I am of the opinion that the definitions of maturity which assail us in such profusion currently are uniformly founded on the tacit hypothesis that human development is linked to human passivity. All that I have encountered assume that adjustment and conformity are the desirable modes of life, and that the closer one comes to a condition of domestication, the more mature one is. None of them, to my knowledge, takes account of man’s nature and spirit, of his innate rebelliousness, of his intrinsic values, or of his individuality. With monotonous regularity, these definitions predicate themselves upon, and defend, a society that is everyday and everywhere becoming more and more oppressive. Hence, the standards for mature behavior they advise are those standards that may apply to mature cattle or mature puppets — but not to mature men.

This false ideal of maturity and its even falser prophets, Lindner argues, betray the fundamental pathology of the human condition — or impulse for non-conformism:

The simple truth, stark and severe in its simplicity, is that we cannot conform; for it seems there is an ingredient in the composition of our cells, a chemistry in our blood, and a substance in our bones that will not suffer man to submit forever.

He captures this eternal tension in words equal parts poetic and provocative, idealistic and irreverent, touching on our mortality paradox and the constant friction between the human ego and the cosmic perspective:

Built into man, the foundation of his consciousness, the source of his humanity and the vehicle of his evolution up from the muck of a steaming primeval swamp, is an instinct. I have chosen to call it the “instinct of rebellion,” since it reveals itself as a drive or urge toward mastery over every obstacle, natural or man-made, that stands as a barrier between man and his distant, perhaps never-to-be-achieved but always-striven-after goals. It is this instinct that underwrites his survival, this instinct from which he derives his nature: a great and powerful dynamic that makes him what he is — restless, seeking, curious, forever unsatisfied, eternally struggling and eventually victorious. … Because of the instinct of rebellion man has never been content with the limits of his mind: it has led him to inquire its secrets of the universe, to gather and learn and manipulate the fabulous inventory of the cosmos, to seek the very mysteries of creation. Because of the instinct of rebellion, man has never been content, finally, with the limits of his life: it has caused him to deny death and to war with mortality.

Man is a rebel. He is committed by his biology not to conform, and herein lies the paramount reason for the awful tension he experiences today in relation to Society…

However excellent it may be, Must You Conform is, sadly, long out of print and used copies are rather hard to find both online and off. But Mailer excerpts from it generously in Advertisements for Myself, which is itself very much worth the read.

Complement it with the infinitely delightful 1968 gem How to Be a Nonconformist.

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26 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Nature of the Self: Experimental Philosopher Joshua Knobe on How We Know Who We Are

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A mind-bending new understanding of our basic existential anchor.

“The fate of the world depends on the Selves of human beings,” pioneering educator Annemarie Roeper wrote in her meditation on how poorly we understand the self. Indeed, while philosophers may argue that the self is a toxic illusion and psychologists may insist that it’s forever changing, we tend to float through life anchored by a firm conviction that the self is our sole constant companion. But when psychologist David DeSteno asks “Can the present you trust the future you?” in his fantastic exploration of the psychology of trust, the question leaves us — at least, leaves me — suddenly paralyzed with the realization that the future self is in many ways fundamentally different from the present self. Our emotions and beliefs and ideals are constantly evolving — Anaïs Nin put it perfectly: “I am a series of moods and sensations. I play a thousand roles… My real self is unknown.” — and even biologically, most cells in the our bodies are completely renewed every seven years. How, then, do we know how “we” are? How do we hold the “self” with any sense of firmness?

Over the past decade, the emerging field of experimental philosophy — a discipline that pursues inquiries about the human condition traditionally from the realm of philosophy with the empirical methods of psychology — has tackled this paradox, along with its many fringe concerns spanning morality, happiness, love, and how to live. In this fascinating video from the 2013 HeadCon seminar shot by TED Talks film director Jason Wishnow, Yale University professor and experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe, editor of the anthology Experimental Philosophy (public library), takes us through some mind-bending, soul-deconstructing thought experiments that push our notions of the self to the limit and past it, into a new understanding of our basic existential anchor.

Though the full talk is remarkable in its entirety and is well worth the watch, here is what I find to be Knobe’s most poignant pause-giver:

One specific thing [has] really been exploding in the past couple of years and this is experimental philosophy work on the notion of the self. This is work on questions about what is the self, how does the self extend over time, is there a kind of essence of the self, how do we know what falls inside or outside the self?…

Philosophers have called [this] the “question of personal identity.” It’s a question in philosophy that goes back, at least, to the time of John Locke. It’s one that philosophers are still talking about up until the present day. You can get a sense for the question pretty easily just by thinking about a certain kind of initial question, and it’s this:

Imagine how the world is going to be a year from now. A year from now there are going to be all these people in this world, and one of those people is going to have a very special property. That person is going to be you. So, with any luck a year from now, there’ll be someone out there who’s you. But what is it about that person that makes that person you?

At this moment you have a certain kind of body, you have a certain kind of goals, and beliefs, and values, you have certain emotions. In the future there are going to be all these other people that are going to have certain bodies, they’re going to have certain goals, certain beliefs, certain emotions. Some of them are going to be, to varying degrees, similar and, to varying degrees, different from yours; and one of those people is going to be you. So, what makes that person you?

[…]

Imagine what things are going to be like in 30 years. In 30 years, there’s going to be a person around who you might normally think of as you — but that person is actually going to be really, really different from you in a lot of ways. Chances are, a lot of the values you have, a lot of the emotions, a lot of the beliefs, a lot of the goals are not going to be shared by that person. So, in some sense you might think that person is you, but is that person really you? That person is like you in certain respects, but … you might think that person is kind of not me anymore.

Once you start to reflect on that, you might start to have a really different feeling about that person — the person you’re going to turn into. You might even start to feel a little bit competitive with that person. Suppose you start saving money right now. You are losing money and he or she is the one gaining the money. The money is being taken away from the person who has the values, the emotions, and the goals that you really care about and going to this other person.

Be sure to watch the full talk — you’ll be glad you did — and dive deeper into this fascinating fledgling field with Knobe’s second volume of Experimental Philosophy, featuring fourteen of the most influential recent essays and articles at this illuminating intersection of philosophy and psychology.

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25 FEBRUARY, 2014

Life Is Like Blue Jelly: Margaret Mead Discovers the Meaning of Existence in a Dream

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Revelations from the laboratory of the unconscious.

The meaning of life has been contemplated by just about every thinking, feeling, breathing human being, and memorably so by a number of cultural icons, including Carl Sagan, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, David Foster Wallace, Richard Feynman, and other luminaries. But one of the most unusual and poignant meditations on the eternal question comes, obliquely yet with crystalline precision, from legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead.

In a 1926 letter found in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us Mead’s love letters to her lifelong soulmate, Ruth Benedict, and her prescient thoughts on human sexuality — Mead recounts a particularly pause-giving dream. More than a mere record on the unconscious, it unfolds into a powerful metaphor for the meaning of life — for the beauty of not-knowing, for the soul-nourishment of wonder, and for the question of “enough” that Vonnegut once contemplated.

Mead writes:

Last night I had the strangest dream. I was in a laboratory with Dr. Boas and he was talking to me and a group of other people about religion, insisting that life must have a meaning, that man couldn’t live without that. Then he made a mass of jelly-like stuff of the most beautiful blue I had ever seen — and he seemed to be asking us all what to do with it. I remember thinking it was very beautiful but wondering helplessly what it was for. People came and went making absurd suggestions. Somehow Dr. Boas tried to carry them out — but always the people went away angry, or disappointed — and finally after we’d been up all night they had all disappeared and there were just the two of us. He looked at me and said, appealingly “Touch it.” I took some of the astonishingly blue beauty in my hand, and felt with a great thrill that it was living matter. I said “Why it’s life — and that’s enough” — and he looked so pleased that I had found the answer — and said yes “It’s life and that is wonder enough.”

Complement with famous scientists on the art of wonder.

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