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Posts Tagged ‘books’

03 AUGUST, 2012

Anatomy of Lying

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“[Lying] is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood.”

“Ordinary language is an accretion of lies,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1980. “The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression.”

Unlike in literature, however, lies in life create rather than shatter “psychic oppression” — especially in a culture where the deadly fear of being wrong drives an exponential tragedy of cover-up lies after even the most benign of errors, a culture that then takes noxiously gruesome pleasure in devouring its fallen stars with far too little intelligent reflection.

In Lying, neuroscientist Sam Harris explores the nature and conditions of lying — defined, in most basic terms, as “to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication” — as a complex psychosocial phenomenon, rather than a simplistic categorial imperative.

The intent to communicate honestly is the measure of truthfulness. And most people do not require a degree in philosophy to distinguish this attitude from its counterfeits.

Harris offers a basic taxonomy of lying:

Ethical transgressions are generally divided into two categories: the bad things we do (acts of commission) and the good things we fail to do (acts of omission). We tend to judge the former far more harshly. The origin of this imbalance remains a mystery, but it surely relates to the value we place on a person’s energy
and intent.

Doing something requires energy, and most morally salient actions require conscious intent. A failure to do something can arise purely by circumstance and requires energy to rectify. The difference is important. It is one thing to reach into the till and steal $100; it is another to neglect to return $100 that one has received by mistake. We might consider both behaviors to be ethically blameworthy — but only the former amounts to a deliberate effort to steal. Needless to say, if it would cost a person more than $100 to return $100 he received by mistake, few of us would judge him for simply keeping the money.

The moral arrow of repercussions, researchers have found, goes both ways:

At least one study suggests that 10 percent of communication between spouses is deceptive. Another has found that 38 percent of encounters among college students contain lies. However, researchers have discovered that even liars rate their deceptive interactions as less pleasant than truthful ones. This is not terribly surprising: We know that trust is deeply rewarding and that deception and suspicion are two sides of the same coin. Research suggests that all forms of lying — including white lies meant to spare the feelings of others — are associated with poorer-quality relationships.

Harris admonishes even against the socially sanctioned “white lies”:

But what could be wrong with truly ‘white’ lies? First, they are still lies. And in telling them, we incur all the problems of being less than straightforward in our dealings with other people. Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding — these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered.

And while we imagine that we tell certain lies out of compassion for others, it is rarely difficult to spot the damage we do in the process. By lying, we deny our friends access to reality — and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information. Rather often, to lie is to infringe upon the freedom of those we care about.

[…]

These tiny erosions of trust are especially insidious because they are almost never remedied.

Lying, says Harris, perpetuates itself through a downward spiral of failed “mental accounting”:

One of the greatest problems for the liar is that he must keep track of his lies. Some people are better at this than others. Psychopaths can assume this burden of mental accounting without any obvious distress.

[…]

Lies beget other lies. Unlike statements of fact, which require no further work on our part, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality. When you tell the truth, you have nothing to keep track of. The world itself becomes your memory, and if questions arise, you can always point others back to it. You can even reconsider certain facts and honestly change your views. And you can openly discuss your confusion, conflicts, and doubts with all comers. In this way, a commitment to the truth is naturally purifying of error.

And what about integrity? “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself,” Richard Feynman famously said on the subject in his timeless 1974 Caltech commencement address, and Harris furthers this insight:

What does it mean to have integrity? It means many things, of course, but one criterion is to avoid behavior that readily leads to shame or remorse. The ethical terrain here extends well beyond the question of honesty — but to truly have integrity, we must not feel the need to lie about our personal lives.

To lie is to erect a boundary between the truth we are living and the perception others have of us. The temptation to do this is often born of an understanding that others will disapprove of our behavior. Often, there are good reasons why they would.

Perhaps most dangerous of all, however, is the subconscious attrition of truth that lies, even after corrected, inflict:

Consider the widespread fear of childhood vaccinations. In 1998, the physician Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. This study has since been judged to be an ‘elaborate fraud,’ and Wakefield’s medical license has been revoked.

The consequences of Wakefield’s dishonesty would have been bad enough. But the legacy effect of other big lies has thus far made it impossible to remedy the damage he has caused. Given the fact that corporations and governments sometimes lie, whether to avoid legal liability or to avert public panic, it has become very difficult to spread the truth about the MMR vaccine. Vaccination rates have plummeted — especially in prosperous, well-educated communities — and children have become sick and even died as a result.

An unhappy truth of human psychology is probably also at work here, which makes it hard to abolish lies once they have escaped into the world: We seem to be predisposed to remember statements as true even after they have been disconfirmed.

Harris concludes with a look at the broader social implications of lying as a violation of both collective conscience and individual autonomy:

As it was in Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and Othello, so it is in life. Most forms of private vice and public evil are kindled and sustained by lies….

Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship.

By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make — and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to.

Slim but potent, Lying comes on the heels of Harris’s Free Will, published earlier this year.

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02 AUGUST, 2012

Edward Gorey Illustrates Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic Children’s Stories

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An irreverent take on some of history’s most beloved storytelling.

After exploring classic children’s stories through the lenses of architecture and minimalist graphic design, Three Classic Children’s Stories (public library) brings the unmistakable Edward Gorey aesthetic of the irreverent fancy to Little Red Riding Hood, Jack the Giant-Killer, and Rumpelstiltskin, charmingly retold by James Donnelly. The result is a gem that lives somewhere between the best of the Brothers Grimm, early Arabian Nights illustrations, and Harry Clarke’s haunting artwork for Edgar Allan Poe, with the distinct Gorey flair.

From Little Red Riding Hood:

WHUMP and a minor cloud of dust! Something leapt into the path. Little Red Riding Hood hastily arose, and her eyes met the curious gaze of a great gray wolf.

From Jack the Giant-Killer:

Bu he took one step, and the ground fell away beneath him, and he tumbled, OOF, into Jack’s giant-trap. Jack stepped up smartly and swung his shovel: WHANG.

From Rumpelstiltskin:

Away down a hole, away Down Below,
Never sorrow over milk that’s spilt! Spin
Around, go to ground, take a baby,
leave a crown,
Just a job o’ work to Rumpelstiltskin!

Whimsical and just the right amount of hair-raising, Three Classic Children’s Stories will make you look at these timeless storytelling treasures with new eyes, eyes that glimmer with Gorey’s signature inspired idiosyncrasy.

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, courtesy Pomegranate. All rights reserved.

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02 AUGUST, 2012

The Calendar as a Meme: A Brief History of Timekeeping

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“To be human is to be aware of the passage of time; no concept lies closer to the core of our consciousness.”

For millennia, humans have sought to make sense of time, to visualize it, to ride its arrow, to hack it, to understand our biological connection to it. “Time is the very foundation of conscious experience,” writes Dan Falk in In Search of Time: The History, Physics, and Philosophy of Time (public library). “To be human is to be aware of the passage of time; no concept lies closer to the core of our consciousness.”

And yet that awareness has a long history of friction — to mark and measure the passage of time has proven remarkably challenging. For instance, Falk traces the evolution of the calendar, our dominant system for collectively experiencing time:

The Gregorian calendar is one of the most successful ideas in the history of civilization. (Richard Dawkins might call it a successful ‘meme’ — a unit of cultural information that propagates over time.)

The Gregorian calendar is not the only timekeeping system invented by humankind — nor, as we’ll see, is it even (by some measures) the most accurate. But its story is a noteworthy one, an achievement centuries, even millennia, in the making. We saw in the previous chapter how early humans were captivated by — and began to follow — the regular motions of the night sky. By the time of the great ancient civilizations, such systematic observation had become a virtual industry; every culture would develop some sort of calendar for mapping out the year, based on their observations of the heavens and their own particular needs and priorities. The one that rules today — the Gregorian Christian calendar — exploits ideas from many different cultures, each with a unique perspective on the significance of the heavenly bodies and unique solutions to the problem of tracking their motions. In this chapter we’ll take a look at some of the challenges confronting would-be calendar makers through the ages, as they tried to tame the myriad of motions displayed by the sun, moon, and stars.

Like much of knowledge, the contemporary calendar, it turns out, is an additive innovation:

The first rudimentary steps toward tracking those celestial motions, as we’ve seen, may have occurred as early as the Paleolithic period. But it is only with the rise of the first civilizations — marked by complex, agriculture-based urban settlements with full-blown writing systems — that we can be certain that people were keeping track of days, months, and years. Making sense of those celestial cycles, however, is complicated by the fact that neither the number of days in the lunar cycle nor the number of lunar cycles in a year is a nice round number (indeed, not even a whole number). The lunar month, as mentioned earlier, is about 29 ½ days long (actually 29.5306); the average solar year (also known as the “tropical” year) is about 365 ¼ days long (actually a smidgeon less, at 365.2422 days). That these cycles did not fit neatly into one another was well known: back in the fifth century B.C., the Greek poet Aristophanes, in his play The Clouds, had the moon complaining that the days refused to keep pace with her phases.

These incongruent cycles is where it gets interesting:

Try dividing the length of the year by the length of the lunar month, and again you get a fractional number, greater than 12 but less than 13 — the true figure is close to 12.3683. Over the millennia, different civilizations tried every possible trick for reconciling these incongruent cycles. Some simply rounded the length of the month up to 30 days, a practice adopted by the ancient Sumerians; 12 such months yield a 360-day year, just 5 days (roughly) short of the true solar year. Others used a more precise length for the lunar cycle and then assumed there were exactly 12 months in a year: the result is a year that is 354 days long — 11 days short (roughly) of the true solar year. Adopt such a calendar, and each New Year’s celebration will be 11 days earlier than it was the year before. A midsummer celebration would become a midwinter celebration after just 16 years.

Any calendar system that uses the phases of the moon to track the months but also attempts to reconcile those months with the cycle of the seasons is called a luni-solar calendar. The Babylonians adopted one such system. A new month was determined by the first sighting of the crescent moon in the western sky — a practice that continues in Muslim nations to this day (notice how many Muslim nations feature the crescent moon on their flag). To keep the months in step with the solar year, the Babylonians employed a cycle in which seven 13-month years alternated with 12 years of just 12 months. The result was a 19-year cycle known as the Metonic cycle, after the Greek astronomer Meton of Athens, who lived in the fifth century B.C. (Meton discovered that 235 lunar months amount to almost exactly the same interval as 19 solar years; a calendar based on this cycle would deviate from the true solar year by just 1 day every 219 years.) Beginning in the second millennium B.C., the extra month would be added — “intercalated” — following either the sixth month (Ululu) or the twelfth month (Addaru) of the Babylonian calendar. We have a record dating from the nineteenth century B.C. of King Hammurabi’s decree on just such an adjustment:

This year has an additional month. The coming month should be designated as the second month Ululu, and wherever the annual tax has been ordered to be brought in to Babylon on the 24th of the month of Tashritu it should now be brought to Babylon on the 24th of the second month of Ululu.

 

The Jewish calendar is closely modeled on the Babylonian. (The mutual influence of the two cultures can be traced back to the sixth century B.C., when Babylon, under Nebuchadnezzar II, conquered Jerusalem; the Jewish people spent the next 70 years or so in exile.) The Jewish calendar, like the Babylonian, is built on the nineteen-year Metonic cycle, with its combination of 12-month and 13-month years. Within that cycle, the lengths of certain months can also vary, so that a “regular” year can be 353, 354, or 355 days long, while a leap year (containing an extra month) can be 383, 384, or 385 days long. (This is why the date of Jewish holidays such as Hanukkah leaps around so much with respect to the Gregorian calendar.)

The rest of In Search of Time, a fine addition to these essential books on time, is just as fascinating an untangling of the basic fabric of our existence, exploring everything from the science of time travel to the persistence and mechanisms of memory to the inevitability of impermanence.

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01 AUGUST, 2012

Anaïs Nin on Paris vs. New York, 1939

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“The ivory tower of the artist may be the only stronghold left for human values, cultural treasures, man’s cult of beauty.”

French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977), an author of short stories and erotica, remains best-known as a prolific and dedicated diarist, perhaps the most prolific and dedicated diarist in modern literary history. Her sixteen tomes of published journals, spanning more than half a century between the time she began writing at the age of eleven and her death, speak volumes about the intellectual and creative landscape of 20th-century Europe and America.

Nin first began journaling in 1914 when her mother whisked Anaïs and brother from France to New York. Only months later did Nin find out that her parents had separated permanently and she wasn’t to be reunited with her father, with whom she loved and admired enormously. Tossed into a state of grief and turmoil, she came to project her anxious discomfort on her new non-home, New York — and joined the ranks of the city’s famous diarists. “When a child is uprooted,” she later wrote, “it seeks to make a center from which it cannot be uprooted.” Nin eventually returned from Europe but, with World War II looming menacing on the horizon, she once again fled to New York twenty years after her first exile, where she once again felt like an outsider.

From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) comes this poignant, articulate description of what Nin experienced as the difference between Parisians and New Yorkers — something recently explored in much lighter, more tongue-in-cheek terms — penned in the winter of 1939:

In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear, or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.

Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience.

[…]

I read over my old diaries. I sit by the fire of my life in Paris and wonder when this life here will start to burn brightly. So far it looks like those electric logs in artificial fireplaces burning with moderate glow and without sparkle or warmth.

Anais Nin portrait

Then, in September of 1940, she revisits the parallel:

Sometimes I think of Paris not as a city but as a home. Enclosed, curtained, sheltered, intimate. The sound of rain outside the window, the spirit and the body turned towards intimacy, to friendships and loves. One more enclosed and intimate day of friendship and love, an alcove. Paris intimate like a room. Everything designed for intimacy. Five to seven was the magic hour of the lovers’ rendezvous. Here it is the cocktail hour.

New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.

Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.

If people knew more about psychology they would have recognized in Hitler a psychotic killer. Nations are neurotic, and leaders can be psychotic.

The ivory tower of the artist may be the only stronghold left for human values, cultural treasures, man’s cult of beauty.

Nin’s lament was, of course, filtered through the lens of her painful, forced exile. Whether or not it bespeaks some grand universal truth about the New York way remains a question to be answered privately by each of us. But to deny that New York fosters a kind of Schopenhauer’s porcupine dilemma would be naive — the key to the city, as it were, is in learning how to unlock the enormity of Gotham’s magnificent humanity.

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