Brain Pickings

The Science of How Music Enchants the Brain, Animated

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How harmony, melody, and rhythm trigger the same reward systems that drive our desires for food and sex.

The profound connection between music and the brain has long fascinated scientists and philosophers alike, and has even shaped the course of our evolution. The wonderful duo Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, better known as AsapSCIENCE, breaks down music’s ability to create a state of arousal by inducing the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which also regulates the neurochemistry of love, offsetting a reward circuit similar to the one drugs exploit — something I can certainly attest to as a hopeless music addict.

In the same way that a drug-induced dopamine surge leaves you craving more, music becomes addictive — the dopamine tells your body it was rewarded and creates a desire to seek out more.

For more, see these 7 essential books on music, emotion, and the brain.

It’s Okay To Be Smart

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Dr. Seuss’s World War II Political Propaganda Cartoons

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“One-tenth of your income must go into War Bonds if you hope to defeat both the Axis and inflation!”

Dr. Seuss (1904-1991) may be best-remembered for his irreverent rhymes and the timeless prescriptions for living embedded in them, but he was also a prolific maker of subversive secret art and the auteur of a naughty book for adults. Though his children’s books have already been shown to brim with subtle political propaganda, during WWII, like Walt Disney, Geisel lent his creative talents to far more explicit, adult-focused wartime propaganda when he joined the New York daily newspaper PM as a political cartoonist. Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel (public library) collects 200 of Geisel’s black-and-white illustrations, but more than half of his editorial cartoons were never made publicly available — until now. Dr. Seuss Goes To War: A Catalog of Political Cartoons from UCSD Libraries has digitized the original drawings and newspaper clippings of Geisel’s wartime cartoons, produced between 1941 and 1943. Here’s a sampling:

We're just going to knock out the unnecessary floors designed by F.D.R., published by PM Magazine on May 18, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Insure your home against Hitler!, published by PM Magazine on July 28, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

In Russia a chap, so we're told, knits an object strange to behold. Asked what is his gag, he says 'This is the bag that the great Adolf will hold!,' published by PM Magazine on August 11, 1941, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Spreading the lovely Goebbels stuff, published by PM Magazine on September 18, 1941, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Tis Roosevelt, Not Hitler, that the world should really fear, published by PM Magazine on June 2, 1941, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Boss, maybe you'd better hock me and buy more U.S. Defense Bonds and Stamps!, published by PM Magazine on December 26, 1941, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Those Americans sure can attack... themselves!, published by PM Magazine on February 11, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

In Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography, Judith and Neil Morgan contextualize the collaboration:

Ted was haunted by the war in Europe, and one evening in Manhattan he showed an editorial cartoon he had drawn to his friend Zinny Vanderlip Schoales, the brilliant, hard-drinking intellectual…. She had joined the patrician liberal Ralph Ingersoll when he launched the tabloid newspaper PM in New York with the backing of Marshall Field III. Zinny took Ted’s cartoon to Ingersoll and PM published it on January 30, 1941…

You, Too, can sink U-Boats, published by PM Magazine on May 24, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Cages cost money!, published by PM Magazine on December 15, 1941, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Don't let them carve THOSE faces on our mountains, published by PM Magazine on December 12, 1941, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

One buck out of every 10!, published by PM Magazine on May 2, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Join the C.B.C.!, published by PM Magazine on August 4, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Me? I'd give my life for my country, published by PM Magazine on September 1, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Maybe it's none of our business... but how much are YOU giving this Christmas in U.S. War Bonds and Stamps?, published by PM Magazine on December 22, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Wipe that sneer off his face!, published by PM Magazine on October 13, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

Time to swap the old book for a set of brass knuckles, published by PM Magazine on December 30, 1941, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

See more on the project site, then graduate to the more subtle, complex political propaganda in Seuss’s children’s books with Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature.

Coudal

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Several Short Sentences About Writing

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“You can say smart, interesting, complicated things using short sentences. How long is a good idea?”

“If there is a magic in story writing,” admonished Henry Miller, “and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.” And yet, famous advice on writing abounds.

In Several Short Sentences About Writing (public library), author and New York Times editorial board member Verlyn Klinkenborg does away with much of the traditional wisdom on writing and dissects the sentence — its structure, its intention, its semantic craftsmanship — to deliver a new, useful, and direct guide to the art of storytelling.

Klinkenborg writes in the introduction:

Like most received wisdom, what people think they know about writing works in subtle, subterranean ways. For some reason, we seem to believe most strongly in the stuff that gets into our heads without our knowing or remembering how it got there. What we think we know bout writing sounds plausible. It confirms our generally false ideas about creativity and genius. But none of this means it’s true.

[…]

Unlearning what I learned in college — teaching myself to write well — is the basis of what I know. So is a lifetime of reading and a love of language.

[…]

This is a book full of starting points. Perhaps they’ll help you find enough clarity in your own mind and your own writing to discover what it means to write. I don’t mean ‘write the way I do’ or ‘write the way they do.’ I mean ‘write the way you do.’

A short sampling of advice:

Know what each sentence says,
What it doesn’t say,
And what it implies.
Of these, the hardest is knowing what each sentence actually says.

There are innumerable ways to write badly.
The usual way is making sentences that don’t say what you think they do.

The only link between you and the reader is the sentence you’re making.

You can’t revise or discard what you don’t consciously recognize.

These assumptions are prohibitions and obligations are the imprint of your education and the culture you live in.
Distrust them.

Speaking to the power of ignorance and the negative space of knowledge:

What you don’t know about writing is also a form of knowledge, though much harder to grasp.
Try to discern the shape of what you don’t know and why you don’t know it,
Whenever you get a glimpse of your ignorance.
Don’t fear it or be embarrassed by it.
Acknowledge it.
What you don’t know and why you don’t know it are information too.

Complementing E. B. White’s case against absolutism when it comes to brevity and length:

You can say smart, interesting, complicated things using short sentences.
How long is a good idea?
Does it become less good if it’s expressed in two sentences instead of one?

[…]

There’s nothing wrong with well-made, strongly constructed, purposeful long sentences.
But long sentences often tend to collapse or break down or become opaque or trip over their awkwardness.
They’re pasted together with false syntax.
And rely on words like ‘with’ and ‘as’ to lengthen the sentence.
They’re short on verbs, weak in syntactic vigor,
Full of floating, unattached phrases, often out of position.
And worse — the end of the sentence commonly forgets its beginning,
As if the sentence were a long, weary road to the wrong place.

[…]

Writing short sentences will help you write strong, balanced sentences of any length.
Strong, lengthy sentences are really just strong, short sentences joined in various ways.

Klinkenborg synthesizes our arsenal of writing thusly:

  1. What you’ve been taught.
  2. What you assume is true because you’ve heard it repeated by others.
  3. What you feel, no matter how subtle.
  4. What you don’t know.
  5. What you learn from your own experience.

These are the ways we know nearly everything about the world around us.

Unusual and unusually useful, Several Short Sentences About Writing comes as a fine addition to these essential books on how to write better.

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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.