Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

13 NOVEMBER, 2013

Do Something Meaningful: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan on Carl Sagan

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“Who are we, if not measured by our impact on others?”

As a boundless admirer of the late and great Carl Sagan, I was thrilled to attend a special event at the Library of Congress celebrating their historic acquisition of his personal papers — 1,705 archival boxes of materials, to be precise — thanks to support from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s charitable foundation.

Sagan was our civilization’s greatest yenta to the marriage of skepticism and wonder. As Bill “Science Guy” Nye so eloquently put it at the event, “Carl Sagan emboldened us to know our place among the stars, our place in space.” More than that, however, he empowered us to know our place within ourselves — to be our highest selves, to inhabit the stardust of our own ephemeral human lives with the greatest possible eternal light. This enduring aspect of his legacy was most powerfully captured by two exceptional people who share a very different kind of closeness with Sagan: Neil deGrasse Tysonmodern-day cosmic sage, science champion, masterful communicator, unrelenting genius, perhaps our generation’s closest thing to Sagan himself — and Ann Druyan, the love of Sagan’s life and his longtime creative collaborator, who hosted the Library of Congress event and whose own papers are also included in the archive.

Drawing by young Carl Sagan, 1942 (Library of Congress)

Druyan adds to Sagan’s own meditation on the meaning of life with an anecdote that captures the essence of his ethos, and his greatest gift to us:

Referencing the 1997 movie Rebecca, titled after a character who had died before the plot begins, Tyson, with his signature mesmerism of expression, captures Sagan’s undying legacy:

Who are we, if not measured by our impact on others? That’s who we are! We’re not who we say we are, we’re not who we want to be — we are the sum of the influence and impact that we have, in our lives, on others.

Thank you for everything, Carl.

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08 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Science of Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

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“The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.”

“Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind,” Einstein wrote, “life would have seemed to me empty.” It is perhaps unsurprising that the iconic physicist, celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius,” intuited something fundamental about the inner workings of the human mind and soul long before science itself had attempted to concretize it with empirical evidence. Now, it has: In Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (public library), neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman, director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab, sets out to “get clear about ‘who we are’ as social creatures and to reveal how a more accurate understanding of our social nature can improve our lives and our society. Lieberman, who has spent the past two decades using tools like fMRI to study how the human brain responds to its social context, has found over and over again that our brains aren’t merely simplistic mechanisms that only respond to pain and pleasure, as philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously claimed, but are instead wired to connect. At the heart of his inquiry is a simple question: Why do we feel such intense agony when we lose a loved one? He argues that, far from being a design flaw in our neural architecture, our capacity for such overwhelming grief is a vital feature of our evolutionary constitution:

The research my wife and I have done over the past decade shows that this response, far from being an accident, is actually profoundly important to our survival. Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain. By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by helping to keep them close to their parents. The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth. Given the fact that our brains treat social and physical pain similarly, should we as a society treat social pain differently than we do? We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to “just get over it.” And yet when it comes to the pain of social loss, this is a common response. The research that I and others have done using fMRI shows that how we experience social pain is at odds with our perception of ourselves. We intuitively believe social and physical pain are radically different kinds of experiences, yet the way our brains treat them suggests that they are more similar than we imagine.

Citing his research, Lieberman affirms the notion that there is no such thing as a nonconformist, pointing out the social construction of what we call our individual “selves” — empirical evidence for what the novelist William Gibson so eloquently termed one’s “personal micro-culture” — and observes “our socially malleable sense of self”:

The neural basis for our personal beliefs overlaps significantly with one of the regions of the brain primarily responsible for allowing other people’s beliefs to influence our own. The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.

Contextualizing it in a brief evolutionary history, he argues that this osmosis of sociality and individuality is an essential aid in our evolutionary development rather than an aberrant defect in it:

Our sociality is woven into a series of bets that evolution has laid down again and again throughout mammalian history. These bets come in the form of adaptations that are selected because they promote survival and reproduction. These adaptations intensify the bonds we feel with those around us and increase our capacity to predict what is going on in the minds of others so that we can better coordinate and cooperate with them. The pain of social loss and the ways that an audience’s laughter can influence us are no accidents. To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.

The implications of this span across everything from the intimacy of our personal relationships to the intricacy of organizational management and teamwork. But rather than entrusting a single cognitive “social network” with these vital functions, our brains turn out to host many. Lieberman explains:

Just as there are multiple social networks on the Internet such as Facebook and Twitter, each with its own strengths, there are also multiple social networks in our brains, sets of brain regions that work together to promote our social well-being.

These networks each have their own strengths, and they have emerged at different points in our evolutionary history moving from vertebrates to mammals to primates to us, Homo sapiens. Additionally, these same evolutionary steps are recapitulated in the same order during childhood.

He goes on to explore three major adaptations that have made us so inextricably responsive to the social world:

  • Connection: Long before there were any primates with a neocortex, mammals split off from other vertebrates and evolved the capacity to feel social pains and pleasures, forever linking our well-being to our social connectedness. Infants embody this deep need to stay connected, but it is present through our entire lives.
  • Mindreading: Primates have developed an unparalleled ability to understand the actions and thoughts of those around them, enhancing their ability to stay connected and interact strategically. In the toddler years, forms of social thinking develop that outstrip those seen in the adults of any other species. This capacity allows humans to create groups that can implement nearly any idea and to anticipate the needs and wants of those around us, keeping our groups moving smoothly.
  • Harmonizing: The sense of self is one of the most recent evolutionary gifts we have received. Although the self may appear to be a mechanism for distinguishing us from others and perhaps accentuating our selfishness, the self actually operates as a powerful force for social cohesiveness. During the preteen and teenage years, adolescent refers to the neural adaptations that allow group beliefs and values to influence our own.

The rest of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, which dives deeper into this trifecta of adaptations and their everyday implications, is absolutely fascinating — necessary, even. Get a teaser-taste with Liberman’s TEDxStLouis talk based on his research and the resulting book:

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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05 NOVEMBER, 2013

What’s Wrong with the Nobel Prize

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How come only fifteen women were ever awarded the prestigious accolade in science?

Inspired by this piece on the surprisingly dark origin of the Nobel Prize, Joe Hanson of the wonderful It’s Okay To Be Smart breaks down the inner workings of the esteemed accolade and discusses a darker aspect still — its chronic, hegemonic Middle-Aged White Man syndrome: Why was Rosalind Franklin snubbed? How come Alice Munro’s 2013 win made her only the fifteenth woman to ever win a Nobel in science? Isn’t it disheartening to hold Marie Curie, remarkable though she was, as such a dramatic outlier rather than one of many merited women?

Except for the size of the pile of Swedish krona you get, not much has changed about the awarding of Nobel prizes in, well, ever. This begs the questions: Is it time to overhaul the Nobel prizes? Do they really represent how science is done? And what are they for, exactly?

Complement with this visual history of Nobel prizes and laureates and this rare look at Alfred Nobel’s will.

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