Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

16 APRIL, 2014

The Science of Humor and the Humor of Science: A Brilliant 1969 Reflection on Laughter as Self-Defense Against Automation


“Our life has become so mechanized and electronified that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor?”

What, exactly, makes a joke funny? How does an intelligent joke remain a joke without diluting the intellectual and remain intelligent without compromising the funny? From the altogether fantastic 1973 volume A Random Walk in Science (public library) — a compendium of comments, both lighthearted and serious, by scientists that “reveal their intensely human ambitions, frustrations and elation” and that “record some changing attitudes within science and mirror the interaction of science with society” — comes an essay titled “Keeping Up with Science” by Hungarian writer and satirist László Feleki, adapted from his 1969 paper published in UNESCO’s journal Impact of Science on Society. Feleki explores the role of humor — specifically educated humor and scientific humor, even more precisely — as a sort of cultural defense mechanism against the incomprehensibly fast-paced technological progress of modern society. Revisiting Feleki’s words more than four decades later — after then-unthinkable developments like personal genomics, 3-D printing, advanced robotic space probes, and the world wide web — gives them all the more amplified resonance. He writes:

With the invention of the steam engine the hell of science broke loose. Since then one admirable discovery has followed the other. Today no human brain is capable of comprehending the whole of science. Today there are part-sciences with part-scientists. Man has hopelessly surpassed himself. He can be proud of this, but he is no longer able to keep track of his own achievements.

Our life has become so mechanized and electronified that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor? It is decisive for the present and future of mankind whether humor and science can keep in step…

Considering the question of humor to be one of “extraordinary importance,” Feleki notes that “to laugh at a joke without analyzing it is work half done” and sets out to explore what humor actually is:

The term “humor” itself means fluid or moisture, indicating that already the ancient Greeks must have known both moisture and humor. Humor as a fluid probably served to dilute the hard facts of life making it possible to swallow and digest them. Humor is, of course, palatable even without moisture; in such cases we are dealing with dry humor.

Still, Feleki concedes that one of the hallmarks of humor is how it eludes definition. He outlines, instead, “some partial truths about humor”:

It is evident that humor is difficult to write and therefore is certainly not “light” literature.

Parody is a humorous genre of literature. A really good parody or take-off is better than the original.

The basis of acid humor is ulcers. Many humorists have ulcers.

Truth is often humorous simply because it is so unusual that it makes people laugh.

The greatest blessing of humor is that it relaxes tension. It is really indispensable in situations when there is nothing left but a big laugh.

Feleki goes on to demonstrate the tenets of the science of humorology through a single joke, which he himself told to an acquaintance at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences:

Two geologists converse in a cafe. One of them says: “Yes, unfortunately fifteen years from now the Sun will cool, and then all life on Earth will perish.” A card-player nearby has been half listening to the joke, and turns in terror to the geologist: “What did you say? In how many years will the Sun cool?” “Fifteen billion years,” the scientist replies. The card-player lets out a sigh of relief: “Oh, I was afraid you said fifteen million!”

Soil sample containing Siberian actinobacteria, about half a million years old. Photograph by Rachel Sussman from her project 'The Oldest Living Things in the World.' Click image for details.

But as Feleki awaits an outburst of laughter, or at the very least an amused smile, from the professor, he is faced with nothing but “brown study — rock-bottom humiliation for a teller of jokes.” Just as he began to wonder whether his companion had understood the joke, the professor gave an appreciative nod, which he substantiated with a romp through the history of philosophical theories explaining humor:

The joke is good… If we accept Aristotle’s definition according to which the comic, the ridiculous is some fault, deficiency or ugliness which nonetheless causes no pain or trouble, we will find the joke just heard meets these criteria. The cooling of the Sun is certainly a deficiency, or more accurately heat deficiency, although it is not ugliness, for even a chill celestial object can be a very pleasing sight as there are several examples in the universe to demonstrate.

And, then, what about Hobbes’s hypothesis? In his treatise on the causes of laughter Hobbes pointed out that laughter is the feeling of pride, as seeing the weakness of others, we experience our own intellectual superiority.

The joke also satisfies the contrast theory. For, according to Kant, contrast is the essence of the comic. And in fact it would be difficult to imagine a sharper contrast than that existing between the ephemeral life of man and cosmic time.

In Schopenhauer’s terms, this can also be taken as the disharmony of a concept with some realistic object with which it is associated. Indeed, the card-player who sighs with relief at the idea that he can calmly continue his card-playing until the 14 millionth year of his life, for it will remain warm enough, entertains a most unrealistic thought within the context of a most realistic idea that men like to live as long as possible and dislike the cold.

Nor is Bergson’s theory of automatism left out of account, because the protagonist is jolted out of the mathematically induced natural time sense that measures human life.

To sum it up, I repeat that the joke is funny. Hence I am fully justified in laughing at it.

With this, the professor burst into uncontrollable laughter “so hard that tears flowed and he held his sides.” Faleki returns to the heart of the matter:

It was easy to laugh in the past at the modest jokes which involved the Little Idiot, the two traveling salesmen, someone’s mother-in-law, the drunk, or the Scotsman. Only a small surprise element had to be provided for the listener. A proper appreciation of scientific humor requires the proper scientific qualifications. The vital need to future generations is for a scientific education so they can have the incomparable surcease of humor in order to endure the state of perfection to which man and life will have been reduced by the process of science.

Just consider what degree of culture and education is required to understand the joke which is said to have practically drawn tears of laughter from Einstein and Oppenheimer. One photon asks the other photon weaving about in space: “Can’t you move straight? You must be drunk again!” The other photon protests vehemently: “What do you expect? Can’t you see that I am getting soaked in a gravitational field?” Yes, this is coming, this is what we have to get prepared for.

A Random Walk in Science is a fantastic read from cover to cover. In the introduction, editor Robert L. Weber captures the volume’s spirit perfectly by citing something he read in the Worm Runner’s Digest, a publication that began as one researcher’s “personal joke with the Scientific Establishment” and evolved into a bona fide journal without losing its sense of humor:

We know considerably more about flatworms than we do about people who study flatworms. The Establishment never questions its own motives; the true humorist always does.

The collection is thus the Establishment’s effort to inhabit the spirit of the humorist. The result is infinitely delightful.

Complement this particular meditation with Arthur Koestler’s seminal “bisociation” theory of how humor works.

Thanks, Lucinda

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14 APRIL, 2014

How to Cultivate Practical Wisdom in Our Everyday Lives and Why It Matters in Our Individual and Collective Happiness


The psychology of how we use frames, categories, and storytelling to make sense of the world.

“It’s insulting to imply that only a system of rewards and punishments can keep you a decent human being,” Isaac Asimov told Bill Moyers in their magnificent 1988 conversation on science and religion. And yet ours is a culture that frequently turns to rigid external rules — be they of religion or of legislature or of social conduct — as a substitute for the inner moral compass that a truly “decent human being” uses to steer behavior. So what can we do, as a society and as individual humans aspiring to be good, to cultivate that deeper sense of right and wrong, with all its contextual fuzziness and situational fluidity? That’s precisely what celebrated psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of the influential The Paradox of Choice, and political scientist Kenneth Sharpe explore in Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing (public library) — a fascinating and necessary exploration of how to nurture and reclaim the essential moral skill at the heart of character traits like courage, compassion, loyalty, fairness, generosity, and empathy, inspired by the timeless teachings of Aristotle’s philosophy yet grounded in invaluable insights from contemporary psychology.

Schwartz and Sharpe write:

[Aristotle] thought that our fundamental social practices constantly demanded choices — like when to be loyal to a friend, or how to be fair, or how to confront risk, or when and how to be angry—and that making the right choices demanded wisdom. To take the example of anger, the central question for Aristotle was not whether anger was good or bad, or the abstract question about what the nature of the “good” in fact was. It was the particular and concrete issue of what to do in a particular circumstance: who to be angry at, for how long, in what way, and for what purpose. The wisdom to answer such questions and to act rightly was distinctly practical, not theoretical. It depended on our ability to perceive the situation, to have the appropriate feelings or desires about it, to deliberate about what was appropriate in these circumstances, and to act.


Acting wisely demands that we be guided by the proper aims or goals of a particular activity. Aristotle’s word for the purpose or aim of a practice was telos. The telos of teaching is to educate students; the telos of doctoring is to promote health and relieve suffering; the telos of lawyering is to pursue justice. Every profession — from banking to social work — has a telos, and those who excel are those who are able to locate and pursue it. So a good practitioner is motivated to aim at the telos of her practice. But it takes wisdom — practical wisdom — to translate the very general aims of a practice into concrete action.

External rules, while helpful in other regards, can’t instill in us true telos. Echoing Asimov’s concern, Schwartz and Sharpe consider how this concept helps define a good person and what it necessitates:

People who are practically wise understand the telos of being a friend or a parent or a doctor and are motivated to pursue this aim. A wise practitioner wants to do the right thing not because of some monetary reward or punishment but because it is what being a good teacher or a good doctor demands. But aiming at the right thing is not sufficient. That’s why we say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Translating our aims into action demands expertise.

In an insight that Daniel Pink would later come to echo in exploring the science of what actually motivates us, the authors point out that the rules and incentives used by many of our cultural institutions to foster efficiency and accountability are no substitute for telos and, in fact, often erode rather than nurture it. More than a pragmatic tool of social progress, however, telos is a centerpiece of our well-being as individuals:

We need to appreciate that cultivating wisdom is not only good for society but is, as Aristotle thought, a key to our own happiness. Wisdom isn’t just something we “ought” to have. It’s something we want to have to flourish.

At the heart of practical wisdom is the ability to contemplate our choices and discern the best course of action in the context of a particular set of circumstances, and in order to do that, we rely on framing the situation, telling good and relevant stories about it, using metaphorical thinking to make sense of it, and enlisting empathy — the ability to imagine another’s thoughts and feelings — to grasp the full dimensions of the situation.

That latter emotional capacity is actually an enormously important aspect of practical wisdom and yet, Schwartz and Sharpe point out, most social and institutional regulations are based on rational rules — in fact, they often tend to be about removing emotion from the decision-making process. (That’s precisely what Susan Sontag lamented in condemning how the intellect vs. intuition polarization limits us and what Ray Bradbury bemoaned in asserting that the intellect should serve rather than dominate emotion.) While emotions do have the capacity to blind us and blur our sound judgment, they argue for the power of properly trained and modulated emotion by citing Aristotle himself:

We can experience fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and generally any kind of pleasure and pain either too much or too little, and in either case not properly. But to experience all this at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people, for the right reason, and in the right manner—that is the median and the best course, the course that is a mark of virtue.

Perhaps most importantly, practical wisdom requires a degree of self-awareness and self-reflection, affirming the notion that it’s more important to understand than to be right — something not always easy in a culture dominated by the illusion of the separate ego:

Practical wisdom demands more than the skill to be perceptive about others. It also demands the capacity to perceive oneself—to assess what our own motives are, to admit our failures, to figure out what has worked or not and why… Such self-reflection is not always so easy when … we feel we’ve been wronged. And it’s also difficult when we’ve been wrong — thoughtless, careless, too self-interested. Being able to criticize our own certainties is often a painful struggle, demanding some courage as we try to stand back and impartially judge ourselves and our own responsibility.

Schwartz and Sharpe go on to outline the six core qualities of the person endowed with telos:

  1. A wise person knows the proper aims of the activity she is engaged in. She wants to do the right thing to achieve these aims—wants to meet the needs of the people she is serving.
  2. A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.
  3. A wise person is perceptive, knows how to read a social context, and knows how to move beyond the black-and-white of rules and see the gray in a situation.
  4. A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another—to see the situation as the other person does and thus to understand how the other person feels. This perspective-taking is what enables a wise person to feel empathy for others and to make decisions that serve the client’s (student’s, patient’s, friend’s) needs.
  5. A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what a situation calls for, and to inform judgment without distorting it. He can feel, intuit, or “just know” what the right thing to do is, enabling him to act quickly when timing matters. His emotions and intuitions are well educated.
  6. A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. People learn how to be brave, said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling.

One enormous cultural impediment we’re constantly facing is the mistaken belief — and its misguided implementation — that rules can substitute for wisdom. They cannot, the authors remind us again and again — the wise person is one who is able to understand the rules and apply them selectively, perceptively, and insightfully according to the specific contextual demands of a situation. They return to Aristotle:

For Aristotle, knowing how to bend the rule to fit the circumstance was exactly what practical wisdom was all about.


Anybody who has raised a child, sustained a friendship or marriage, supervised others in the workplace, or worked to serve others knows the limits of rules and principles. We can’t live without them, but not a day goes by when we don’t have to bend one, or make an exception, or balance them when they conflict. We’re always solving the ethical puzzles or quandaries that are embedded in our practices because most of our choices involve interpreting rules, or balancing clashing principles or aims, or choosing between better and worse. We’re always trying to find the right balance.

How, then, do we cultivate those essential skills that help us find the right balance? It turns out we’re “born to be wise” — not “hardwired,” Schwartz and Sharpe are careful to point out, but endowed with the innate capacity to develop moral skill that wise judgment necessitates, much like we are born with the innate capacity to master language with the proper nurturing.

Illustration from 'The Little Golden Book of Words.' Click image for more.

We exercise our capacity for wisdom in three key ways: natural categorization (our predisposition to organize the world into categories of things, arranged in nuanced ways); framing (finding a context of comparison for things we are evaluating); and storytelling (constructing sense-making narratives about our lives and our experiences). One particularly interesting feature of our predilection for categories is the notion of “fuzziness” — the idea that the categories in which we classify the world are more often based on a nuanced spectrum than a binary dichotomy. Take, for instance, the category of fruits, which tend to have a “graded membership” in the category — for instance, we perceive an apple as more “fruity” than a persimmon (Schwartz and Sharpe point to experiments in which people consistently list “apple” as a better example of the fruit category than a persimmon), let alone a tomato, which is biologically a fruit yet culturally a vegetable. What’s more, the fuzziness of our categories fluctuates with our experience — if we moved to a country where persimmons were a national staple far more common than apples, the “fruitiness” of each would slide up or down to the respective end of the spectrum. That innate ability to organize ordinary things into categories and experience the “fuzziness” of nuance, it turns out, translates into a parallel moral skill of discerning more important concepts like fairness and truth with an equal sensitivity to context. In other words, categories are essential to our capacity for wise judgment.

Illustration from 'The Little Golden Book of Words.' Click image for more.

That capacity is what psychologists call “framing.” The authors extol the aptness of the frequently misunderstood term:

“Frame” is a wonderful metaphor because it emphasizes our capacity to take the chaos of the social world around us and organize it in an understandable way. In framing the scene, we are setting the picture off from its surroundings, excluding what is on the outside and defining what is inside as special and worthy of attention. Frames tell us what is important and help us establish what should be compared with what. The capacity we have to frame enables us to do one of the most important things that practical wisdom demands — discern what is relevant about a particular context or event in regard to the decision we face. Learning to frame well helps make us wise.


“Framing” has gotten a bad name. In a marketing context, it is characterized as an effort to manipulate us into buying things we don’t need. In a political context, it is labeled as “spin” and characterized as an effort to slant or distort the truth in the direction of our favored position. And evidence that we depend on the frame, or context of comparison, for making judgments is sometimes regarded as a defect of human reason. We should be able to see and evaluate things as they “really” are, unbiased by the way they are packaged. But in fact, it is our capacity to frame that enables all our judgments, and it is nearly impossible to make judgments that do not depend on frames… It is only our capacity to do this automatic framing that enables us to make sensible judgments at all.

Framing is pervasive, inevitable, and often automatic. There is no “neutral,” frame-free way to evaluate anything.

Because no frame is neutral, each makes us aware of and sensitive to a different aspect or context of our choices, affecting our judgment in different ways — the social-science equivalent of Einstein’s theory of relativity, perhaps. To illustrate this in practical terms, consider the options for supporting Brain Pickings. If you happen to live in a refugee camp in Chad, where you entire weekly food budget is $1.23, a donation of even just (“just”) $3 a month is an unthinkable amount. (That’s also why Brain Pickings has always been free); but if you happen to live in a place where you drink several $6 lattes a week, then $7 or $10 a month seems more than reasonable if you find intellectual value, creative inspiration, and spiritual stimulation here. The choice, once again, is modulated by the contextual “frame” of both the price and the value.

Schwartz and Sharpe encapsulate the end result of this phenomenon in terms at once poetic and practical:

We might wish to see things “as they really are,” but there is no way that things “really are,” at least not in the complex and chaotic social world we inhabit.

Our third, and arguably most important, sensemaking mechanism is storytelling. “Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story.” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her superb meditation on how we tell stories to save ourselves. Our inner storytelling is what keeps us sane. Because “narrative truth” rather than “historical truth” shapes our lives, redirecting our behavior and undertaking any effort of psychological change requires revising that inner storytelling. Schwartz and Sharpe put it elegantly, doubly so for citing Joan Didion (who knows a thing or two about telling stories):

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” said novelist and essayist Joan Didion. What she meant was that we understand our own lives as stories, as narratives, with narrative “arcs.” Where we are in our own life story provides the context within which we evaluate relationships and experiences and make decisions. Job offers, illnesses, disagreements with friends or family — each of these will mean something different to us at different points in our lives. We can’t understand ourselves as frozen in time. Self-understanding is a narrative construction.

(On that note, see experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe’s mind-bending contemplation of how, if we change so much, we know who we really are.)

Schwartz and Sharpe summarize the interplay of these three tools of wisdom:

The world is gray. Natural categories enable us to see gray. Judgments are almost always relative. Frames help us see relations. And isolated events or episodes occur in the context of ongoing lives being lived. Narratives enable us to appreciate lives as lived and make sense of the episode before us.

Practical Wisdom, which goes on to explore the importance of cultivating telos in everything from our personal happiness to building better social institutions, is an excellent and enormously enriching read in its entirety. Complement it with Schwartz’s TED talk, one of the genre’s finest:

A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule… A wise person knows how to improvise… Real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand. A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the service of the right aims. To serve other people, not to manipulate other people. And finally, perhaps most important, a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.

Thanks, Tina

Donating = Loving

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You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

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11 APRIL, 2014

The Science of Mood in Animals: Can Pets Be Depressed?


The science behind what every pet-parent knows.

“What were the secrets of the animal’s likeness with, and unlikeness from man?” John Berger pondered in his influential meditation on our relationship with animals. “The secrets whose existence man recognized as soon as he intercepted an animal’s look.” And yet for all the progress we’ve made, for all the advances afforded us by pioneering animal scientists like Jane Goodall, we still struggle to understand — or, in some cases, even acknowledge — the inner lives and emotional realities of our fellow non-human beings. Despite what every pet-parent sees with absolute clarity in watching, say, her dog whimper with agonizing anxiety or greet a friend with exquisite elation, the question of animal emotionality is still, perplexingly, something of a taboo.

In The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic (public library) — his fascinating exploration of how mood science illuminates “the unaddressed business of filling our souls” — psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg addresses this paradox:

Depression in animals has long been a hard sell. In the wake of René Descartes, an enormous gulf opened between humans and other species, and Cartesian thinkers ever since have argued that other animals are mere automata, furry robots. Skepticism about complex inner states in other species has endured even into the twenty-first century. The torch has been passed from behaviorists, who wanted to banish all notions of motivation from scientific purview, to contemporary neuroscientists, who accepted basic motivational drives but not anything as elusive as animal feelings, and finally to cultural psychologists, who have no place for animal depression, but for different reasons. For them, depression is a shared understanding, a historical artifact defined by human words and deeds.

Mood science seeks to refute these views… Our fellow mammals, be they rats, cats, or bats, provide the most compelling and dramatic evidence for depression in the animal kingdom. High and low moods equip these animals to track opportunities and resources in their environments; the capacity for mood is essential for guiding behavior in a changing world.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton based on Gay Talese. Click image for more.

Much like the human version, Rottenberg argues that depression in animals spans the full spectrum of severity, from brief and shallow periods of low mood to long and intense stretches of depression. Animals also experience the same hormonal changes that depressed humans do, including higher secretion of steroid hormones and dampened immune system function. Perhaps most interestingly and indicatively, the body clocks of depressed animals — their circadian rhythms, which we already know are of tremendous importance to human well-being — are so disrupted that they produce the same irregularities in body temperature and sleep-wake cycle seen in depressed humans. Rottenberg adds:

Beyond the official symptoms of human depression, dogs and cats manifest numerous unofficial signs that are characteristic of depressed humans. Those who live with them know that reduced exploratory behavior, long hours hiding under the bed, and reduced interest in self-care and personal hygiene, reflected in less grooming or use of a litter box, are all signs that something is amiss.

In a heartbreaking illustration of my longtime lament that there is no nuance in news today, Rottenberg points out a particularly ungenerous and gratuitously one-note instance of how the popular media tends to treat what’s clearly a complex subject:

Psychiatric problems in small animals are often trivialized, so it is easy for pet depression to fly under the radar. Fortune Magazine mocked Eli Lilly’s decision to pursue FDA approval of a chewable Prozac for pets as the second dumbest moment in business of 2007, writing, “Thank God. We’ve been so worried since Lucky dyed his hair jet black and started listening to the Smiths.”

Photograph by Tim Flach from his series 'More Than Human.' Click image for more.

Understanding non-human depression, Rottenberg reminds us, isn’t just a matter of compassion but might also hold important keys to better understanding, and treating, human depression, which is what he explores further in the altogether fantastic The Depths. Sample it further here.

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