Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

16 NOVEMBER, 2012

Eleanor Roosevelt on Happiness, Conformity, and Integrity

By:

“When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”

Eleanor Roosevelt endures as one of the most memorable thinkers and doers in modern history — a relentless champion of working women and underprivileged youth, the longest-serving American First Lady, and the author of some beautiful, if controversial, love letters. When she was 76, Roosevelt penned You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life (public library) — an elegantly written, relentlessly insightful compendium of her philosophy on the meaningful life. In the sixth chapter, “Learning to be Useful,” Roosevelt considers the secret of happiness — that elusive, shape-shifting aspiration of which such great hearts and minds as Henry David Thoreau, Alfred Hitchcock, Alan Watts, Martin Seligman, C. S. Lewis, Annie Dillard, and a range of TED speakers have had their own theories.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Public domain image courtesy San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive via Flickr Commons

Roosevelt writes:

Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.

[…]

It is easy to slip into self-absorption and it is equally fatal. When one becomes absorbed in himself, in his health, in his personal problems, or in the small details of daily living, he is, at the same time losing interest in other people; worse, he is losing his ties to life. From that it is an easy step to losing interest in the world and in life itself. That is the beginning of death.

I have always liked Don Quixote’s comment, ‘Until death it is all life.’

Someone once asked me what I regarded as the three most important requirements for happiness. My answer was: ‘A feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you; a feeling that you have done the best you could both in your personal life and in your work; and the ability to love others.’

But there is another basic requirement, and I can’t understand now how I forgot it at the time: that is the feeling that you are, in some way, useful. Usefulness, whatever form it may take, is the price we should pay for the air we breathe and the food we eat and the privilege of being alive. And it is its own reward, as well, for it is the beginning of happiness, just as self-pity and withdrawal from the battle are the beginning of misery.

Eleanor Roosevelt votes in Hyde Park, New York, November 3, 1936

Public domain image courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library via Flickr Commons

In the following chapter, titled “The Right to Be an Individual,” Roosevelt considers the moral responsibility of living what you believe and fully inhabiting your inner life as the foundation of integrity and, more than that, of what it means to be human:

It’s your life — but only if you make it so. The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.

Indeed, this sentiment is at the heart of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words: “To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest.”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

16 NOVEMBER, 2012

Are We Nearing the Maximum Capacity of the Human Brain?

By:

How “the cleverest organ in the known universe could suddenly become one of the dumbest.”

“If you ever feel lazy or dull,” neuroscientist David Eagleman wrote of the human brain, “take heart: you’re the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.” But are you, or at least are you for long?

Much has been said about the perils of information overload and what we can do about it. But what if the issue was not simply one of will over wiring? In The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning (public library) — which also gave us this fascinating look at the science of “chunking” and how pattern recognition fuels creativity — Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Bor turns to the potential hard-wired limitations of our human brains as they grapple with the rapidly proliferating influx of available information:

Human eyes have around 100 million photoreceptors, each of which can pick up about ten visual events every second, so our eyes are effectively receiving a billion pieces of information each second. If you include the information pouring in from our other senses, that’s a staggering quantity of data for our brains to sift through every moment of our waking lives.

[…]

If we had an infinite resource of energy by which to crunch the numbers, and an infinitely fast brain by which to make the calculations, then there would be no problem, as we could analyze every scrap of data to its fullest capacity and never miss an opportunity or be caught by a threat. But, of course, in reality, it takes time to process anything, and human brains consume a frighteningly large proportion of our body’s total energy resources.

Computing pioneer Charles Babbage's brain

Public domain image

Then, Bor adds in a footnote:

Even though the human brain is a mere 2 percent of total body weight, in newborns this single organ requires a staggering 87 percent of the body’s total energy. A five-year-old has a brain that greedily guzzles nearly half of all the energy the child consumes, and even in adults this figure is at least a quarter, though that proportion can rise dramatically if we’ve had a mentally taxing day — for instance, when studying for exams. In fact, some biologists have suggested that the energy demands and complexity of a human brain are nearing the endpoint of what is biologically possible and that if you started trying to cram even more neuronal wires into the brain, the additional miniaturization that this would entail would turn all brain signal into random noise — and the cleverest organ in the known universe would suddenly become one of the dumbest.

Of course, for those of us who believe it’s less a matter of what machinery the skull houses and more a matter of how we use it, this is merely of curiosity rather than of concern.

Babbage’s brain image via Public Domain Review

Donating = Loving

In 2012, bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings took more than 5,000 hours. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of coffee and a fancy dinner:





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





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

15 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Birth of Sound: Why the Big Bang Was Actually Silent

By:

The science of why the wail of the baby Universe sounded like muffled highway traffic.

Questions of what sound is, why its digitization is a dangerous thing, and how it bleeds into other senses have long fascinated thinkers and listeners alike. In Discord: The Story of Noise (public library) from Oxford University Press, sound scholar Mike Goldsmith, former Head of the Acoustic Group at the UK National Physical Laboratory, explores the flipside of the cultural evolution of silence by tracing our relationship with noise, the history of sound, and where our auditory future might take us.

Among the many fascinating and counterintuitive facets of noise Goldsmith examines is the very dawn of sound, in a chapter titled A Silent Bang:

Despite a promising name, the Big Bang was silent — a sudden burst of energy in which time and space began, forming the Universe as it spread. With no space to expand into, there could be no medium around it into which sound waves could possibly propagate. But, in cosmic terms, the Universe was not silent for long — 380,000 years later (a mere 0.0003 per cent of its present age), it was filled with sound. And, this was not the random roar of white noise that one might perhaps expect — it was a sound with a pitch: it had a characteristic wavelength.

It would not, however, have been an audible sound to any eared creatures, could they have existed so far back in time, before even the stars were born: a vast objet like the Universe makes a very low sound indeed — about one trillionth of a hertz.

The reason that there was such a vast deep tone in the infancy of space and time is closely connected to one of the most mysterious and important aspects of the Universe’s history: structure, of which sound is a signpost. If the Universe had remained as it began, a completely homogenous, smoothed-out volume of energy, then galaxies, stars, and people could not exist today. But, for reasons that are still unclear, there was a clumpiness in the early Universe — some areas were a little denser than others, and it was these denser areas that would eventually become stars and galaxies. Density means gravity, and gravity attracted nearby matter (then in the form of plasma — a ‘gas’ of ions). he motion of that matter caused compression, heating the plasma, which in turn increased its output of radiation. The force of this radiation counteracted the gravitational force, and so the compression became an expansion — and it is this cycle of compression and expansion that formed the primordial sound waves.

But that early sound of was unlike what we typically think of as “sound,” not only because of its physical nature, but also because it fell on deaf — or, rather, non-existent — ears:

The wavelengths of the wail of the baby Universe — measured in hundreds of thousands of light years — were limited by the speed with which the pull of gravity travelled from one region to another, which is the speed of light. So, there was an ever-falling lowest possible pitch to the Universe, and consequently a gradually descending tone marked its growth.

The variation in pressure of the sound was around 1 per cent, or 11 dB, the kind of level that would be associated with motorway traffic a few metres away and over thirteen billion years later.

In the early Universe, as new generations of stars formed using the nuclear reaction products of the old, planets like ours formed with them — and sound waves surged and echoed through their structures and their atmospheres and, later, their hydrospheres too. But, as far as we know, for ten billion years there was nothing to hear them.

Though life on Earth began some four billion years ago in the ancient seas, it wasn’t until about 400 million years ago that the first amphibians crawled onto land, equipped with complex structures that could not only detect sound waves both underwater and in air, but could also estimate their strengths, pitches, and directions. So “sound” itself, or at least our conception and experience of it, is a property of evolution rather than of the physical environment.

The rest of Discord goes on to examine everything from the basic nature of sound to the war on noise pollution to scientific advances harnessing the power of sound in medicine.

Complement with Jad Abumrad’s fantastic talk on sound, science, and mystery.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.