Nearly a decade ago, legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks told the story of the man who mistook his wife for a hat, which went on to become one of pop culture’s best-known tales of the brain’s incredible machinery. This season, Sacks is back with The Mind’s Eye, a fascinating exploration of how we use vision to make sense of the world.
With his signature blend of scientific illumintion and human interest storytelling, Sacks presents the curious case histories of six people for whom vision played bizarre tricks on the brain — from a writer who develops “word blindness” and becomes incapable of reading his own writing to his own experience with cancer in the eye, which made him unable to perceive depth.
Above all, Sacks approaches these fascinating case studies with extraordinary empathy, which makes The Mind’s Eye as much the brilliant work of a scientist as it is the touching gift of a humanist.
We all know the Sahara is the world’s largest desert. Well, turns out we all know wrong — Antarctica is. You’ll find this and 276 more esoteric, surprising, utterly fascinating facts about history, language, science, religion and the arts in All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge — a new book by Kee Malesky, NPR’s lovable and totally librarianly librarian.
From the precise duration of a “New York minute” to the last building Elvis left to
The book, despite its delightful dorky promo — or perhaps even more so because of it — is a knowledge geek’s bonanza, not to mention a powerful street-cred booster for your next dinner party conversation.
All Facts Considered is Wikipedia on interestingness steroids, a compendium of what you always wanted to know — and wanted others to know you know.
Why the cultural conditioning of your eye has nothing on the evolutionary biology of it.
What, exactly, is beauty? This question has been occupying the minds of philosophers, anthropologists, neuroscientists, art critics and ordinary people alike for centuries of human history. And while many may subscribe to the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” theory, this, it turns out, may not be the case. Earlier this year, we had the fortune of seeing Arts & Letters Daily editor and philosopher Denis Dutton give one of the most fascinating TED talks we’ve ever seen, presenting a provocative Darwinian theory of beauty. This week, Duttons’ talk was released online and animated by one of our favorite illustrators, Andrew Park of The RSA — it’s the smartest thing you’ll watch this week, likely this month, and possibly this year.
I have no doubt whatsoever that the experience of beauty, with its emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology. The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations. Beauty is an adaptive effect, which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment.” ~ Denis Dutton
Dutton debunks the commonly accepted academic explanation of beauty as something in the “culturally conditioned” eye of the beholder by demonstrating that beauty, or aesthetic appreciation, in fact travels across cultures rather easily, hinting at some deeper, universal underpinning of what we find beautiful. To explain this, Dutton reverse-engineers our present aesthetic taste by constructing a fascinating Darwinian evolutionary history of our artistic expression and aesthetic taste
For us moderns, virtuoso technique is used to create imaginary worlds in fiction and in movies, to express intense emotions with music, painting and dance. But still, one fundamental trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: The beauty we find in skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall, human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well.” ~ Denis Dutton
So is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No! It’s deep in our minds, it’s a gift handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors. Our powerful reaction to images, to the expression of emotion in art, to the beauty of music, to the night sky, will be with us and our descendants for as long as the human race exists.” ~ Denis Dutton
For a deeper dive into Dutton’s work and insights, be sure to grab his brilliant 2008 book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. The New Yorker, in reviewing the book, said that Dutton has done for art what Steven Pinker has for language, philosophy and religion in offering a compelling Darwinian explanation — we wouldn’t disagree. Sample it with this hour-long but very much worthwhile talk by Dutton, part of the Authors @ Google series.