Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

16 NOVEMBER, 2012

Are We Nearing the Maximum Capacity of the Human Brain?

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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

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15 NOVEMBER, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut: You’re Allowed To Be In Love Three Times In Your Life

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An existential quota held in three long fingers.

It’s a fertile season for unprecedented glimpses of Kurt Vonnegut’s character, thanks to the newly published anthology of his letters, which has given us such treats as the author’s uncompromising daily routine and his playful, romantic poetry. But in the introduction to the recently released We Are What We Pretend To Be: The First and Last Works (public library) — a slim volume containing Basic Training, Vonnegut’s first-ever novella only published after his death, and If God Were Alive Today, his last unfinished novel — the author’s youngest biological daughter, Nanette Vonnegut, shares a piece of the author’s life-credo that feels at once more personal and more relatable than the vast body of what has been written by and about Vonnegut in his lifetime.

Most times I’d find my father in a very receptive mood to my prying questions, like ‘How many times have you been in love?’ His answer was instantaneous, and he held up three long fingers. I was relieved to hear my mother was one of them. His explanation of the merits and failures of each true love struck me as completely fair. Whether or not my mother really did not love him enough did not matter; he felt that love was lacking, and I believed him.

Indeed, in this wonderful recent interview on The Rumpus, she corroborates the anecdote and cites her father’s words directly:

I think you’re allowed to be in love three times in your life.

What is it about famous intellectual-authors having such prescriptive rules about love? And where does that leave the essential process of doubting love? Perhaps the poets of yore knew best in observing that “Love is not kindly nor yet grim / But does to you as you to him.”

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15 NOVEMBER, 2012

What Makes a Great City: A General Theory of Walkability

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“City engineers have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”

“I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory,” Maira Kalman observed in considering the creative capacity of walking. Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo, too, came up with their best ideas while walking. For Peanuts creator Charles Shulz, walking was part of love.

In Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time (public library), city planner Jeff Speck, who spent four years leading the design division of the National Endowment for the Arts working directly with a couple hundred mayors to help solve their greatest city-planning challenges, turns a perceptive eye towards what makes a great city and how we might be able to harness the power of a conceptually simple, practically complex, immeasurably far-reaching solution in improving the fabric and experience of urban life.

Speck opens with a bang:

This is not the next great book on American cities. That book is not needed. An intellectual revolution is no longer necessary. What characterizes the discussion on cities these days is not a wrongheadedness or a lack of awareness about what needs to be done, but rather a complete disconnect between that awareness and the actions of those responsible for the physical form of our communities.

We’ve known for three decades how to make livable cities — after forgetting for four — yet we’ve somehow not been able to pull it off. Jane Jacobs, who wrote in 1960, won over the planners by 1980. But the planners have yet to win over the city.

Winning the city over, however, requires equal parts sensitivity and rigor:

The pedestrian is an extremely fragile species, the canary in the coal mine of urban livability. Under the right conditions, this creature thrives and multiplies. But creating those conditions requires attention to a broad range of criteria, some more easily satisfied than others.

And yet, there’s hope:

It turns out that since the late nineties, the share of automobile miles driven by Americans in their twenties has dropped from 20.8 percent to just 13.7 percent. And if one looks at teens, future shifts seem likely to be greater. The number of nineteen-year-olds who have opted out of earning driver’s licenses has almost tripled since the late seventies, from 8 percent to 23 percent. .This statistic is particularly meaningful when one considers how the American landscape has changed since the seventies, when most American teens could walk to school, to the store, and to the soccer field, in stark contrast to the realities of today’s autocentric sprawl.

I was recently in London, curating a session on the future of cities at the 2012 Wired conference, where one of my speakers, the wonderful and witty Alissa Walker, made a case for walkable cities and walked the point home brilliantly:

Photograph by Nate Lanxon for Wired UK

Speck goes on to outline a “General Theory of Walkability,” focusing on the four key factors of making a city attractive to pedestrians:

The General Theory of Walkability explains how, to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential an none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe, which is even tougher to satisfy. Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban streets into ‘outdoor living rooms,’ in contrast to wide-open spaces, which usually fail to attract pedestrians. Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound.

He argues that, more than a utopian notion, the walkable city is a practical solution to a number of problems that affect both our daily lives as individuals and our economic, environmental, and cultural health as a society. He writes:

These fixes simply give pedestrians a fighting chance, while also embracing bikes, enhancing transit, and making downtown living attractive to a broader range of people. Most are not expensive — some require little more than yellow paint. Each one individually makes a difference; collectively, they can transform a city and the lives of its residents.

But to spark such holistic transformation, Speck advocates for the role of the generalist:

If they are to function properly, cities need to be planned by generalists, as they once were. Generalists understand that consolidating parks means that fewer people can walk to them. Generalists understand that infrastructure organized in service of big trucks is not always inviting to small people. And generalists, finally, are coming to understand that more lanes usually just lead to more traffic.

Most significantly, generalists — such as planners and, one hopes, mayors — ask the big-picture questions that are so often forgotten among the day-to-day shuffle of city governance. Questions like: What kind of city will help us thrive economically? What kind of city will keep our citizens not just safe, but healthy? What kind of city will be sustainable for generations to come?

These three issues — wealth, health, and sustainability — are, not coincidentally, the three principal arguments for making our cities more walkable.

As far as wealth is concerned, walkability is proving to be a monumental economic draw:

The economic advantage that has already begun to accrue to walkable places can be attributed to three key factors. First, for certain segments of the population, chief among them young ‘creatives,’ urban living is simply more appealing; many wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere else. Second, massive demographic shifts occurring right now mean that these pro-urban segments of the population are becoming dominant, crating a spike in demand that is expected to last for decades. Third, the choice to live the walkable life generates considerable savings for these households, and much of these savings are spent locally.

Ultimately, a walkable city isn’t merely an economically and environmentally healthy city — it’s also a relentlessly alluring city, the kind in which you can “create a sparkle of the highest power”:

Walkability is both an end and a means, as well as a measure. While the physical and social rewards of walking are many, walkability is perhaps most useful as it contributes to urban vitality and most meaningful as an indicator of that vitality.

[…]

This discussion is necessary because, since midcentury, whether intentionally or by accident, most American cities have effectively become no-walking ones. In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers — worshipping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking — have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at.

Insightful and passionately argued, Walkable City comes as a follow-up to the landmark 2010 tome Suburban Nation, which Speck co-authored, and presents a welcome addition to these favorite reads on urbanism.

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