Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘video’

12 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Democracy & Despotism: 1940s Encyclopedia Britannica Films

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Vintage lessons in civic harmony, or how small-scale common courtesy paves the way for large-scale peace.

In 1945 and 1946, immediately following the end of World War II, Encyclopedia Britannica’s films division produced two educational short films, one on democracy and one on despotism, exploring how societies and nations rank on the spectrum from democracy to despotism by measuring the degree to which power is concentrated and respect for individuals restricted. More than half a century later, these analyses remain a compelling metric of social harmony and discord, in an era when we’re still struggling to understand the psychology of riots in a global political climate where the tension between despotism and democracy is in sharper focus than ever.

A community is low on a respect scale if common courtesy is withheld from large groups of people on account of their political attitudes, if people are rude to others because they think their wealth and position gives them that right, or because they don’t like a man’s race or his religion. Equal opportunity for all citizens to develop equal skills is one basis for rating a community on a respect scale.”

Sharing respect means that each shares the respect of all, not because of his wealth or his religion or his color, but because each is a human being and makes his own contribution to the community — from healing its sick to collecting its garbage, from managing its railroads to running its trains.”

You might recognize footage from the films, which are both in the public domain, from Temujin Doran’s provocative observations on the distortions of democracy in Market Maketh Man, highly recommended if you haven’t already seen it.

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09 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Redirect: A New Way to Think About Psychological Change

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How Aristotle went about cultivating virtue, or what Susan Sontag can teach us about self-improvement.

In our ceaseless quest for self-improvement and our relentless pursuit of happiness, most of us have had some brush with the world that lives on the spectrum between self-help books and legitimate clinical psychotherapy. But a compelling new (non-self-help) book suggests many of these methods might be derailing rather than propelling our progress. In Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, social psychologist Timothy Wilson reveals insights from three decades of empirical evidence indicating that what is true of culture is also true of individuals: Our experience of the world is shaped by our interpretations of it, the stories we tell ourselves, and these stories can often become so distorted and destructive that they completely hinder our ability to live balanced, purposeful, happy lives, so the key to personal transformation is story transformation.

Let’s pause here and observe that this seems pretty commonsensical. What’s more, most of us believe that our character and circumstances are so unique that the universal human psychological flaws, biases, and shortcoming we are keenly aware of simply don’t befall us personally. Yet, in one domain of life or another, we find ourselves stuck in thought patterns and behavioral cycles we lack the tools to escape. This, Wilson demonstrates, is a pathological storytelling problem based on the stories we’ve led ourselves to believe and the behaviors that stem from them.

We could solve a lot of problems if we could get people to redirect their interpretations in healthier directions.”

Of course, this isn’t news to anyone who has ever dabbled in cognitive-behavioral therapy — an entire branch of psychotherapy designed to address precisely that. But Wilson argues that there’s a new way to redirect people’s personal interpretations, one that doesn’t require one-on-one sessions and can address a wide array of personal and social problems, from severe trauma to everyday distress.

This new approach is based on the work of Kurt Lewin, who helped found the field of social psychology in the 1930s and 40s, and is rooted in three specific psychological interventions: story-editing — a set of techniques designed to reshape people’s narratives about themselves and the world in a way that results in lasting behavioral change (cue in the famous words of Susan Sontag, one of my big heroes: “I write to define myself — an act of self-creation — part of my process of becoming.”); story-prompting — redirecting people down a particular narrative path with subtle prompts; and do good, be good — an approach that dates back to Aristotle, premised on changing people’s behavior first, which in turn changes their self-perception of the kind of person they are based on the kinds of things they do. Wilson shows how these story-editing techniques have been used to make people happier, improve parenting, solve adolescent behavioral problems, and even reduce the racial achievement gap in schools.

Sample Wilson’s findings in his recent RSA talk. (And rest assured he is much more eloquent and captivating a writer than he is a speaker, bless his heart, as some of the most acclaimed academics tend to be.)

Images via Flickr Commons

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08 SEPTEMBER, 2011

This Must Be The Place: Poetic Short Films Explore ‘Home’

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What 19th-century farming has to do with solar panels and the creative losses of digital photography.

From filmmakers Ben Wu and David Usui of Lost & Found Films comes This Must Be The Place — an inspired ongoing series of short films exploring the idea of home and what our private sanctuaries mean to us. The latest film in the series, Coffer, takes us to the small kingdom of an upstate New York farmer named John Coffer. Tucked between his quiet rural routines is a profound creative and philosophical lens on contemporary culture, articulated with remarkable humility and authenticity.

I got a bug to do wet plate photography in ’76. In this day and age of digital, it’s so easy to just shoot thousands of pictures a day. Each individual picture becomes rather insignificant. Whereas, with the tintype, it’s very intentional and you’re not gonna make very many in a day. They become valued objects, not just an image. Each image is absolutely unique, like a painting.”

I have created a hybrid situation where there are certain things I continue to do in the old, 19th-century way — somethings may be the way it was done before Christ, as far as I know — but then there are cutting-edge, high-tech things that I have here and do. I have a wind generator, solar panels, a laptop computer. You can blend these old, timeless things with the latest technology to do the things that need to be done in life. I think there’s going to be more people looking back for models from the past, and use it to blend in with new ideas and technology today.”

(This sentiment is reminiscent of Molly Landreth’s tender vintage portraits.)

Coffer follows last year’s excellent Byun — the story of an eccentric Korean artist and collector-of-everything living in Brooklyn, who takes a hands-on approach to the concept of combinatorial creativity:

You can create a lot of stories by putting all these objects together.”

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