Brain Pickings

Brain Bugs: The Glorious Imperfections of Our Brains

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What our memory lapses have to do with optical illusions, advertising, and the bliss of ignorance.

In 1876, Thomas Edison coined a term we use to this day to describe those pesky glitches, malfunctions and other deviations from the intended paths of technology:

It has been just so in all my inventions. The first step is an intuition — and come with a burst, then difficulties arise. This thing gives out and then that — ‘Bugs’ — as such little faults and difficulties are called.” ~ Thomas Edison

So opens Dean Buonomano’s excellent new book, Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives, which borrows the technological term to explore “the full range of limitations, flaws, foibles, and biases of the human brain.” From our susceptibility to advertising and propaganda to the biases of our memory to how word choice sways our decisions, Buonomano treks across evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, neurobiology, philosophy, theory of mind and a number of other disciplines — though, it’s worth nothing, not at all in the fluffy, formulaic fashion of “Big Idea books” — to reveal the intricate limitations and blessings of the most complex device in the known universe and, perhaps most fascinatingly, the trade-offs between the two: the balance of fear and curiosity, of altruism and jealousy, of the rational and the irrational.

Who we are as individuals and as a society is defined not only by the astonishing capabilities of the brain, but also by its flaws and limitations.” ~ Dean Buonomano

Buonomano pinpoints three central sources of “brain bugs” — our brains’ evolutionary bias towards survival and reproduction; the cognitive quirks that have resulted from an imperfect and clumsy evolution process, such as optical illusions and impulsivity; and our constantly evolving environment, which forces us to adapt rapidly, in the scale of evolution, and often not in the best ways possible.

Simply put, our brain is inherently well suited for some tasks, but ill suited for others. Unfortunately, the brain’s weaknesses include recognizing which tasks are which, so for the most part we remain ignorantly blissful of the extent to which our lives are governed by the brain’s bugs.” ~ Dean Buonomano

(This phenomenon is actually called anosognosia and Errol Morris wrote a fantastic five-part series on it for The New York Times last year, one of 2010’s best longreads.)

What makes the book all the more compelling is the lucidity with which Buonomano recognizes, amidst its weaknesses, the brain’s insurmountable strengths, feats artificial intelligence is ages from reaching — most notably, its remarkable penchant for pattern-recognition and what Buonomano calls “the inherent and irrepressible ability of the brain to build connections and make associations.” And whatever we may say of the future of the Internet and technology, even our most optimistic predictions pale in comparison to the remarkable information processes taking place, quite literally, under our very roofs. (And, if we’re really keeping score, Buonomano points out that the brain’s 90 billion neurons linked by 100 trillion synapses far surpass the web’s 20 billion web pages connected by a trillion links.)

The brain is an incomprehensibly complex biological computer, responsible for every action we have taken and every decision, thought, and feeling we’ve ever had. This is probably a concept that most people do not find comforting. Indeed, the fact that the mind emerges from the brain is something not all brains have come to accept. But our reticence to acknowledge that our humanity derives solely from the physical brain should not come as a surprise. The brain was not designed to understand itself anymore than a calculator was designed to surf the Web.” ~ Dean Buonomano

Ultimately, Brain Bugs drives home the point that exploring our cognitive limitations and mental blind spots doesn’t merely tickle our curiosity and fuel or fascination, but is also a fundamental part of our human quest for self-knowledge, for better understanding what makes us human.

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7 Obscure Children’s Books by Authors of Grown-Up Literature

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What a moral cat has to do with a lost boy, a happy prince and the rules for little girls.

We’ve previously explored some beloved children’s classics with timeless philosophy for grown-ups, plus some quirky coloring books for the eternal kid, and today’s we’re looking at the flipside — little-known children’s books by beloved authors of literature for grown-ups.

JAMES JOYCE

James Joyce may be best known as a poet, playwright, short story writer and novelist. But in an August 10, 1936 letter his grandson, Stephen, Joyce planted the story seeds of what became The Cat and the Devil — a charming children’s picture-book, originally illustrated by French cartoonist Roger Blachon, about the cat of Beaugency and a moral dilemma, a classic fable narrative mixing Irish wit with French folklore, shaken and stirred with Joyce’s extraordinary storytelling.

Joyce’s original letter to “Stevie” can be found in Stuart Gilbert’s 1964 volume, Letters of James Joyce. We Too Were Children has more images, a synopsis and a timeline of different editions.

MARK TWAIN

In 1865, legendary satirist Mark Twain did something unexpected — he penned a children’s story, titled Advice to Little Girls, in which he challenged children to digest the kind of intelligent humor and knowledge he was, and still is, known for among his adult audiences. The story was eventually published in The 30,000 Dollar Bequest and Other Stories.

This year, Italian publishing house Donzelli Editore released a beautifully illustrated Italian translation of the story, envisioned in the style of the scrapbooks and small albums the children of Twain’s era used for doodling and collecting various curious ephemera.

You ought never to take your little brother’s ‘chewing-gum’ away from him by main force; it is better to rope him in with the promise of the first two dollars and a half you find floating down the river on a grindstone. In the artless simplicity natural to this time of life, he will regard it as a perfectly fair transaction. In all ages of the world this eminently plausible fiction has lured the obtuse infant to financial ruin and disaster.”

VIRGINIA WOOLF

In 1923, with her greatest works still ahead of her, Virginia Woolf responded to a submissions call from a family newspaper called The Charleston Bulletin, published by her teenage nephews. The Widow and the Parrot is, roughly, a tongue-in-cheek moral story about kindness to animals and though Quentin, Woolf’s older nephew, bemoaned it as a disappointment and “a tease…based on the worst Victorian examples,” devoid of Woolf’s typical subversive humor he had hoped for, it remains a sweet reflection of character, her taking the time to contribute to a small family pet project in the heat of her literary career.

The Widow and the Parrot stayed dormant in the archives of The Charleston Bulletin for over half a century, until it finally saw light of day in the 1982 issue of Redbook, celebrating 100 years since Woolf’s birth.

Ariel Wright has more on We Too Were Children.

T.S. ELIOT

T.S. Eliot is often regarded as the most important English-language poet of the 20th century. In the 1930s, Eliot, under his assumed name “Old Possum,” wrote a series of letters to his godchildren, in which he included a handful of whimsical poems about feline psychology and sociology. They were eventually published in 1939 as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, originally illustrated by the author himself. But, given our affinity for mid-century illustrator Edward Gorey, the even bigger treat is the 1982 edition illustrated by Gorey in his signature style of black-and-white drawings at the intersection of the macabre and the whimsical.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats inspired the iconic Broadway musical Cats.

MARY SHELLEY

Between the time Mary Shelley published anonymous edition of her iconic Frankenstein in London in 1818 and the publication of the second edition in France in 1823, where her name appears for the first time, she penned Maurice, or The Fisher’s Cot — a children’s story Shelley wrote in 1820 for a daughter of friends. Shelley tried to have the story published by her father, William Godwin, but he refused, burying the text for nearly two centuries. In 1997, scholars discovered a manuscript copy was in Italy, considered one of modernity’s great feats of literary forensics.

The story, written in the straightforward Romantic language of poet William Wordsworth, whose work Shelley was reading at the time she composed Maurice, is about a boy searching for a home and his encounters with a traveller who turns out to be his long-lost father. With its melancholy tone and autobiographical undercurrents, the rediscovered text revealed a new glimpse of Shelley’s character and offered a precious missing link in the evolution of her literary style.

LEO TOLSTOY

Iconic Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy may be best-known for his epics Anna Karenina and War and Peace, considered two of the greatest novels of all time, but he also had a keen and active interest in children and children’s literature. He founded a school for peasant children on his family’s estate, followed by a second, more experimental school with the motto, “Come when you like, leave when you like” — an early model for open education. Inspired by the simplicity and innocence with which the children of his schools told stories, he began writing about his own childhood, eventually publishing a series of alphabet books after War and Peace. Known as “The ABC Book” (Azbuka) and “The New ABC Book” (Novaia Azbuka), these easy readers were widely adopted in Russia’s education system and remained in use throughout the Soviet Era.

Classic Tales and Fables for Children features a selection of stories and fables from Tolstoy’s classic primers. Always delightful, frequently humorous and never patronizing, these wonderful tales bespeak Tolstoy’s profound respect and appreciation for children’s unique creative and moral sensibilities, as well as his dedication to the broader aspirations of education.

OSCAR WILDE

In 1888, before his most iconic plays and essays made grand their debut, Oscar Wilde wrote The Happy Prince and other Tales — a poetic collection of five children’s stories about happiness, life and death. Though the most popular Western version, illustrated by Laura Stutzman, is certainly a treat, nothing compares to the astounding 1992 Chinese translation (which features an English version in the back of the book) illustrated by renowned Chinese artist Ed Young.

The anthology’s title text, The Happy Prince, can be read online in its entirety, courtesy of The Literature Network.

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Andrew Bush’s Drive-By Portraits: A Meditation on Character

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What a vintage Beetle has to do with speeding grannies and the challenges of family travel.

Many years ago — okay, maybe three — I came across Andrew Bush’s fantastic photos of everyday people cruising the freeways of Los Angeles, thanks to Very Short List, one of my 5 favorite newsletters for a better, more interesting life. This week, Public School reminded me of the Vector Portraits series, immortalized in the excellent coffeetable book Drive — a selection of Bush’s best photographs, exploring the often uncomfortable intersection of the public and the private through his peculiar drive-by portraits.

Man heading south at 73 mph on Interstate 5 near Buttonwillow Drive outside of Bakersfield, California, at 5:36 p.m. on a Tuesday in March 1992

Woman pausing at a Beverly Hills intersection at 2:22 p.m. on September 12, 1990

Man drifting northwest at approximately 68 mph on U.S. Route 101 somewhere near Camarillo, California, one evening in 1989

Each image of car and driver captures the personality of the person behind the wheel with surprising simplicity, candid yet unabashedly creative, resulting in what Cathleen Medwick eloquently calls “a meditation on character, class, [and] the human condition, precarious at any speed.”

Man drifting near the shoulder at 61 mph on Interstate 405 around the Getty Drive exit at 4:01 p.m. on a Tuesday in September 1992

Someone's son traveling northbound at 60 mph on U.S. Route 101 near Santa Barbara at 1:55 p.m. in August 1993

Family traveling northwest at 63 mph on Interstate 244 near Yale Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at approximately 4:15 p.m. on the last day of 1991

Bush takes his portraits by driving alongside his subjects, often at 60mph, with a camera attached to his passenger window. The captions on each photograph, frequently imbued with subtle humor, include notes on the speed and direction he was going. An essay by cultural critic Patt Morrison contextualizes the series and an interview with Bush offers a peek inside the mind and creative process of one of today’s most remarkable photographic artists.

Women racing southwest at 41 mph along 26th Street near the Riviera Country Club, Pacific Palisades, California, at 1:14 p.m. on a Tuesday in February 1997

Woman waiting to proceed south at Sunset and Highland boulevards, Los Angeles, at approximately 11:59 a.m. one day in February 1997

High school students facing north at 0 mph on Sepulveda Boulevard in Westwood, California, at 3:01 p.m. on a Saturday in February 1997

With images spanning nearly 15 years, Drive is as much a time-capsule of techno-anthropology, with its evolving car models and hairstyles, as it is a rich and peculiar collective portrait of car culture and the myriad vehicles of human character that fuel it.

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