Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

05 FEBRUARY, 2013

How To Stay Sane: The Art of Revising Your Inner Storytelling

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“Our stories give shape to our inchoate, disparate, fleeting impressions of everyday life.”

“I pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity,” Jack Kerouac professed in discussing his writing routine. But those of us who fall on the more secular end of the spectrum might need a slightly more potent sanity-preservation tool than prayer. That’s precisely what writer and psychotherapist Philippa Perry offers in How To Stay Sane (public library; UK), part of The School of Life’s wonderful series reclaiming the traditional self-help genre as intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living.

At the heart of Perry’s argument — in line with neurologist Oliver Sacks’s recent meditation on memory and how “narrative truth,” rather than “historical truth,” shapes our impression of the world — is the recognition that stories make us human and learning to reframe our interpretations of reality is key to our experience of life:

Our stories give shape to our inchoate, disparate, fleeting impressions of everyday life. They bring together the past and the future into the present to provide us with structures for working towards our goals. They give us a sense of identity and, most importantly, serve to integrate the feelings of our right brain with the language of our left.

[…]

We are primed to use stories. Part of our survival as a species depended upon listening to the stories of our tribal elders as they shared parables and passed down their experience and the wisdom of those who went before. As we get older it is our short-term memory that fades rather than our long-term memory. Perhaps we have evolved like this so that we are able to tell the younger generation about the stories and experiences that have formed us which may be important to subsequent generations if they are to thrive.

I worry, though, about what might happen to our minds if most of the stories we hear are about greed, war and atrocity.

Perry goes on to cite research indicating that people who watch television for more than four hours a day see themselves as far more likely to fall victim in a violent incident in the forthcoming week than their peers who watch less than two hours a day. Just like E. B. White advocated for the responsibility of the writer to “to lift people up, not lower them down,” so too is our responsibility as the writers of our own life-stories to avoid the well-documented negativity bias of modern media — because, as artist Austin Kleon wisely put it, “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.” Perry writes:

Be careful which stories you expose yourself to.

[…]

The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved. … If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up.

[…]

The trouble is, if we do not have a mind that is used to hearing good news, we do not have the neural pathways to process such news.

Yet despite the adaptive optimism bias of the human brain, Perry argues a positive outlook is a practice — and one that requires mastering the art of vulnerability and increasing our essential tolerance for uncertainty:

You may find that you have been telling yourself that practicing optimism is a risk, as though, somehow, a positive attitude will invite disaster and so if you practice optimism it may increase your feelings of vulnerability. The trick is to increase your tolerance for vulnerable feelings, rather than avoid them altogether.

[…]

Optimism does not mean continual happiness, glazed eyes and a fixed grin. When I talk about the desirability of optimism I do not mean that we should delude ourselves about reality. But practicing optimism does mean focusing more on the positive fall-out of an event than on the negative. … I am not advocating the kind of optimism that means you blow all your savings on a horse running at a hundred to one; I am talking about being optimistic enough to sow some seeds in the hope that some of them will germinate and grow into flowers.

Another key obstruction to our sanity is our chronic aversion to being wrong, entwined with our damaging fear of the unfamiliar. Perry cautions:

We all like to think we keep an open mind and can change our opinions in the light of new evidence, but most of us seem to be geared to making up our minds very quickly. Then we process further evidence not with an open mind but with a filter, only acknowledging the evidence that backs up our original impression. It is too easy for us to fall into the rap of believing that being right is more important than being open to what might be.

If we practice detachment from our thoughts we learn to observe them as though we are taking a bird’s eye view of our own thinking. When we do this, we might find that our thinking belongs to an older, and different, story to the one we are now living.

Perry concludes:

We need to look at the repetitions in the stories we tell ourselves [and] at the process of the stories rather than merely their surface content. Then we can begin to experiment with changing the filter through which we look at the world, start to edit the story and thus regain flexibility where we have been getting stuck.

Complement How To Stay Sane with radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s 1948 list of the six rules for creative sanity.

Artwork by pennylrichardsca

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04 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Shrinking of Treehorn: An Edward Gorey Illustrated Gem, 1971

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The unusual story of a little boy who grows littler.

As a lover of vintage children’s books and of Edward Gorey’s intricate and irreverent illustrations, I was delighted to stumble upon an original first edition of the 1971 gem The Shrinking of Treehorn (public library), written by Florence Parry Heide and illustrated by Gorey. This first installment in the Treehorn trilogy, followed by Treehorn’s Treasure (1981) and Treehorne’s Wish (1986), tells the curious Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Benjamin-Button story of a little boy who is shocked to discover that he is shrinking, but can’t figure out the cause or the cure.

Something very strange was happening to Treehorn.

The first thing he noticed was that he couldn’t reach the shelf in his closet that he had always been able to reach before, the one where he hid his candy bars and bubble gum.

The Shrinking of Treehorn and the other two books in the series were eventually reprinted in 2011 in a single volume, The Treehorn Trilogy. Complement it with some Gorey’s other gems, including his snarky illustrated commentary on 1960s culture, his classic gory alphabet book The Gashlycrumb Tinies, his Little Red Riding Hood adaptation, and his frisky story for adults only.

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04 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Unfeathered Bird: An Illustrated History of Avian Anatomy

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Evolutionary eccentricities, ornithological oddities, and the engineering mysteries of flight.

Birds are an incessant source of scientific fascination, from why they sing to how their wings work. The Unfeathered Bird (public library; UK) by Katrina van Grouw isn’t about the anatomy of birds — it’s about “how their appearance, posture, and behavior influence, and are influenced by, their internal structure.” Though originally intended as a tool for artists, the book is also rigorously scientific but without the burdensome language and clunky terminology of anatomical writing. What emerges is an illuminating and meticulously illustrated look at the brilliance of birds at the intersection of art, science and history, covering such intricate mysteries as how the ostrich lost two of its four toes and why the vulture diverged into radically different Old World and New World varieties. The 385 or so intricate drawings include a number of species never illustrated before and explore everything from the mechanics of flight to the aerodynamics of avian skulls.

Van Grouw — who is herself a remarkable cross-pollinator of disciplines and perspectives as a taxidermist, RCA-trained fine artist, and former curator of the ornithological collections at London’s Natural History Museum — writes of the mechanical miracle of flight:

Flight makes rather specific demands on the physical engineering of an animal. The skeleton needs to be of a lightweight structure, with large flattened surfaces for the attachment of muscles, and to have tremendous rigidity and the strength to support the entire weight of the animal while airborne. The components are highly specialized and once a satisfactory blueprint has been achieved there is very little room for modification. The paradox, then, is that although the birds represent the largest class of all the vertebrates — approaching ten thousand species — they are fundamentally rather uniform; though with some very surprising variations!

The adaptation for flight is the most important factor behind the structure of birds and can provide an explanation for virtually all of their anatomical characteristics — even those that seem to have nothing to do with flying. For example, with wings instead of front legs, birds need two strong hind limbs and a modified posture to balance on them. And with a body rigid enough to cope with the demands of flapping flight, it’s vital to have a long and flexible neck to compensate for the loss of movement. But it’s important to remember that birds didn’t learn to fly first and develop these perfections afterward. Many of these qualities had long been present in the birds’ theropod ancestors — the upright dinosaurs that walked on two legs — and only through a constant process of adaptation and counteradaptation spanning millions of years did it become possible for the feathered dinosaurs to survive and take wing.

One of the most intriguing chapters deals with the divergence of vulture species between the New and Old World:

The universal truths about vultures are, as every schoolchild knows, as follows: they have a bare head, a hooked beak, and long, broad wings, and they eat things they find dead. Few definitions could be more cut and dried. All over the Americas, Europe, and Asia this very uniform group of birds can be instantly recognized and, on a group level at least, poses no problems of identification.

So when, in the 1980s, the newly developed techniques for hybridizing strands of DNA revealed that the New World vultures may not be vultures at all but close relatives of the storks, it created something of a sensation. Indeed, to the average birdwatcher the concept seemed to symbolize the chaos that test-tube technology would drag their world into without the steadying hand of empirical common sense. What many birdwatchers didn’t realize was that this concept wasn’t new. In fact, by the time the DNA experiments were taking place, it had already been around for over a hundred years, based on a range of complex anatomical features: the musculature of the wings, formation of the intestines, and so forth. More recent DNA research has once again made the position of the New World vultures uncertain. They are probably not, after all, stork relatives, and for the time being some authorities have tentatively returned them to the company of other hook-billed birds.

What is perhaps most remarkable, however, is not that New and Old World vultures may not be related but that two possibly unrelated groups of birds have come to look so alike. They differ externally only in the longer and functional hind toe of the Old World vultures and the open nostrils (you can see right through from one side to the other) of the New World vultures.

This similarity is the result of a process called convergent evolution. It’s the selective pressures of the lifestyle that shape an animal, not the shape of an animal that dictates the lifestyle — given sufficient time, that is. So when different animal groups share the same ecological niche independently of one another there is a tendency for them to reinvent the wheel, finding the same solutions to the same challenges and ultimately coming to look very much alike.

Meticulously researched, gloriously illustrated, and absorbingly narrated, The Unfeathered Bird lives at the heart of that timeless temple where art and science meet to enrich one another with “systematic wonder.”

Images courtesy Princeton University Press

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