Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘health’

19 JANUARY, 2012

The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption

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Why “information overload” is the wrong lens on the issue, or what sugar and fat have to do with Hollywood.

“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” artist Austin Kleon recently proclaimed. This encapsulates the founding philosophy behind Brain Pickings — a filtration mechanism that lets into your life things that are interesting, meaningful, creatively and intellectually stimulating, memorable. Naturally, I was thrilled for the release of Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption — an intelligent manifesto for optimizing the 11 hours we spend consuming information on any given day (a number that, for some of us, might be frighteningly higher) in a way that serves our intellectual, creative, and psychological well-being.

Johnson — best known for managing Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, then directing Sunlight Labs at government transparency operation Sunlight Foundation — draws a parallel between the industrialization of food, which at once allowed for ever-greater efficiency and ushered in an obesity epidemic, and the industrialization of information, arguing that blaming the abundance of information itself is as absurd as blaming the abundance of food for obesity. Instead, he proposes a solution that lies in engineering a healthy relationship with information by adopting smarter habits and becoming as selective about the information we consume as we are about the food we eat. In the process, he covers the history of information, the science of attention, the healthy economics of media, and a wealth in between.

In any democratic nation with the freedom of speech, information can never be as strongly regulated by the public as our food, water, and air. Yet information is just as vital to our survival as the other three things we consume. That’s why personal responsibility in an age of mostly free information is vital to individual and social health. If we want our communities and our democracies to thrive, we need a healthier information diet.”

(For a piece of timely irony, consider the fact that the book came out at a time when the U.S. government is considering a policy that not only attempts to regulate access to information, but does so for the purpose of force-feeding the public Hollywood’s entertainment lard.)

Johnson begins with a familiar quote from Steve Jobs:

When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.”

He builds on the analogy between food and information by arguing that just like we know we’re products of the food we eat, we must understand just how much we’re products of the information we consume — and consume accordingly. Yet the sheer amount of information available to us — 800,000 petabytes (a million gigabytes per petabyte) in the storage universe and 3.6 zettabytes (a million petabytes per zettabyte) consumed by American homes per day, expected to increase 44-fold by 2020 — is mind-boggling.

Using Google’s n-gram viewer, which searches the occurrences of a particular phrase in a corpus of English books from the past 150 years, Johnson points out that the term “information overload” became popular in the 1960s, surging 50% by 1980 and then again by 2000.

But, Johnson is careful to point out, the term itself is semantically broken:

The concept of information overload doesn’t work, however, because as much as we’d like to equate our brains with iPods or hard drives, human beings are biological creatures, not mechanical ones. Our brains are as finite in capacity as our waistlines. While people may eat themselves into a heart attack, they don’t actually die of overconsumption: we don’t see many people taking their last bite at a fried chicken restaurant, overstepping their maximum capacity, and exploding. Nobody has a maximum amount of storage for fat, and it’s unlikely that we have a maximum capacity for knowledge.

Yet we seem to want to solve the problem mechanically. Turn it the other way around and you see how absurd it is. Trying to deal with our relationship with information as though we are somehow digital machines is like trying to upgrade our computers by sitting them in fertilizer. We’re looking at the problem through the wrong lens.”

Johnson argues that instead of the lens of productivity and efficiency, which have become a false holy grail for our inbox-zero-obsessed culture, we should consider this through the lens with which we assess what we consume biologically: health. Because the problem is now larger than a mere matter of getting things done:

It’s a matter of health and survival. Information and power are inherently related. Our ability to process and communicate information is as much an evolutionary advantage as our opposable thumbs.”

Still, Johnson cautions that we’re wired to love certain kinds of information, most notably affirmation, so we seek out information that confirms, rather than challenges, our existing beliefs. (Cue in Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.)

Just as food companies learned that if they want to sell a lot of cheap calories, they should pack them with salt, fat, and sugar — the stuff that people crave — media companies learned that affirmation sells a lot better than information. Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they’re right?”

Ultimately, at the heart of The Information Diet lies an urgency to not only recognize, but also act upon, something we all intuit but have a hard time enacting:

Like any good diet, the information diet works best if you think about it not as denying yourself information, but as consuming more of the right stuff and developing healthy habits.

To aid in that, Johnson has provided a toolkit of helpful (mostly) free software for a healthy information diet on the book’s site, ranging from productivity apps to ad blockers to various setting hacks to make your favorite services and social web platforms more conducive to info-wellness.

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01 NOVEMBER, 2011

Maira Kalman Illustrates Michael Pollan’s Iconic Food Rules

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A diet your grandmother would approve, why boredom isn’t edible, and what peas have to do with time travel.

I love love, love artist Maira Kalman and revere the work of Michael Pollan, easily today’s most vocal and influential advocate of smart, sustainable food. So I’m thrilled with today’s release of a Kalman-illustrated edition of Pollan’s classic compendium, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual — the timelessly sensible blueprint to a healthy relationship with food, now delivered with Kalman’s characteristically colorful and child-like yet irreverent aesthetic. This new edition also features 19 additional food rules, including Place a bouquet of flowers on the table and everything will taste twice as good and When you eat real food, you don’t need rules.

From the very first page, starting with Kalman’s introduction, the book is an absolute — and guilt-free — treat:

Everyone eats food. That is the universal connector. Life is fragile. Fleeting. What do we want? To be healthy. To celebrate and to Love and to live Life to the Fullest. So here comes Michael Pollan with this little (monumental) book. A humanistic and smart book that describes a Sane and Happy world of Eating. It asks us, gently, to hit the Reset button on manufactured food and go back in Time.” ~ Maira Kalman


Treat Meats as a Flavoring or Special Occasion Food

Cook

Don't Overlook the Oily Little Fishes

Shop the Peripheries of the Supermarket and Stay Out of the Middle

Eat When You Are Hungry, Not When You Are Bored

Kalman’s illustrations emanate the kind of thoughtful simplicity that underpins the message of Pollan’s classic, which is based on the premise that the wisdom of our grandparents might teach us more about eating well than the overly complicated nutritional scheming purveyed by the popular media.

Pollan has an excellent audio slideshow on his site.

Already a powerful classic in its original edition, the Kalman-illustrated Food Rules is, quite simply, irresistible.

Images courtesy of Maira Kalman / Penguin Press

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07 SEPTEMBER, 2011

New Philanthropy: End Malaria and Boost Your Own Creative Process

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Altruism by way of self-improvement, or what optimizing your workflow has to do with saving children.

This year, The Domino Project set out to change the future of publishing, and now it’s out to change the future of philanthropy. The project’s latest release, by author Michael Bungay Stanier of Box of Crayons fame, is out to tackle one of our civilization’s grimmest epidemics: malaria. (And if the gravity of the issue still hasn’t stopped you dead in your tracks — like, for instance, the fact that a child dies of malaria every 45 seconds — watch Bill Gates’ 2009 TED talk.)

End Malaria: Bold Innovation, Limitless Generosity, and the Opportunity to Save a Life, released on End Malaria Day today, is a fantastic anthology that will save lives — by helping you be better, smarter, more efficient at your job. The book features essays, tips and insights on great work by 62 leading writers and thinkers — including Brain Pickings favorites Sir Ken Robinson, Brené Brown, Kevin Kelly, Scott Belsky, Barry Schwartz, Daniel Pink, Derek Sivers and more — with $20 out of every $25 book sale (that’s 80%, for the mathematically challenged) going to Malaria No More to buy mosquito nets for Africa, still the most effective malaria prevention method. (For comparison purposes, most product-based charitable contributions are in the 5-10% range.)

Divided into eight key areas of insight — including creating freedom, disrupting “normal,” and taking small steps — the essays range from the pithy to the profound, equal parts actionable blueprint for optimizing your own work and fascinating peek into the workflow and creative process of some of today’s most admired thinkers and doers.

I don’t think there is a reliable twelve-step plan to being in your element that will guarantee the outcome. Human life isn’t like that. But it is possible to offer some navigational tools for those who are committed to the quest.” ~ Sir Ken Robinson

We seek to substitute rules for discretion, scripts for imagination.” ~ Barry Schwartz

Beta is an act of transparency and an admission of humility.” ~ Jeff Jarvis

Vulnerability is not weakness; it is our strongest connection to humanity and to each other. Choosing vulnerability means leaning into the full spectrum of emotions — the dark as well as the light — and examining how our feeling affect the way we think and behave. Vulnerability is equal parts courage, mindfulness, and understanding — it’s being ‘all in.'” ~ Brené Brown

End Malaria is an inspired effort to bridge the divide between selflessness and self-interest, inviting you to help eradicate both malaria and your own creative plateaus with something as humble yet potent as a book — what’s not to love?

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11 JULY, 2011

5 Must-Read Books by TED Global Speakers, Part 2

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From life before birth to living with death, or what marine life has to do with global equality.

With TED Global a mere 24 hours way, it’s time for the second part of this year’s reading list of books by TED Global speakers, a continuation of the first installment of five featured here last month. Here are five more powerhouses of cognitive stimulation for your vicarious TED experience, spanning everything from philosophy to economics to marine biology.

ORIGINS

We’ve previously pondered the grand questions of what makes us human and what makes us uniquely us. But most inquiries into these existential fundamentals have focused on insights from life after birth — after the commonly agreed upon marker for our entry into selfhood and the world. And yet there’s an increasing amount of evidence suggesting that our selves begin before our first breath. That’s precisely what Annie Murphy Paul explores in Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives — a fascinating journey into the emerging science of epigenetics and how it has changed medicine’s understanding of pregnancy and even psychology’s understanding of self, blending equal parts scientific rigor and human tenderness.

An excerpt from the book was a TIME cover story last year and The New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof rightfully called it a “terrific and important new book.”

[P]regnancy is now something it’s never been before: a frontier. The nine months of gestation are at the leading edge of scientists’ efforts to cure disease; to improve public health; to end vicious cycles of poverty, infirmity, and illness; and to initiate virtuous cycles of health, strength, and stability. Life on a frontier can be nerve-wracking, no question — but it’s also among the most interesting and invigorating places to spend your time.” ~ Annie Murphy Paul

Engrossing and deeply enlightening, Origins tackles the age-old mystery of what makes us who we are with a compelling new vision for our beginnings at the intersection of science, philosophy and personal memoir.

THE SPIRIT LEVEL

How come some of the world’s most “developed” nations are also among the most dysfunctional? The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson explores the multitude of social problems that income inequality creates, but rather than a somber meditation on the statistics — like, for instance, the high positive correlation between income disparity and homicide, obesity, drug abuse, mental illness and high school dropout rates — at the heart of the book lies an empathic belief in the human ability to transcend self-interest, framed in a set of practical propositions for closing the equality gap.

The contrast between the material success and social failure of many rich countries is an important signpost. It suggest that, if we are to gain further improvements in the real quality of life, we need to shift attention from material standards and economic growth to ways of improving the psychological and social wellbeing of whole societies.” ~ Richard Wilkinson

Above all, The Spirit Level is the vessel for a powerful political message and a tremendously important call for social action, made all the more compelling by the crisp writing, meticulously culled evidence and remarkable timeliness of the issue.

CENSUS OF MARINE LIFE

Last fall, the world witnessed its very first Census of Marine Life — an ambitious global collaboration between researchers from more than 80 nations, the first concentrated effort to better understand the past, present and future of marine biodiversity. In Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life: Making Ocean Life Count, Paul Snelgrove explores the most dramatic and fascinating findings of the census, how new technologies and partnerships have enabled a richer understanding of the world’s oceans, and what humanity needs to do in the future to honor and conserve wondrous worlds that live beneath the ocean’s surface. At the heart of the book are the stories, manuscripts, imagery and ideas of the dozens of scientists involved.

Snelgrove’s presence on the TED stage is a fine reflection of TED’s continued commitment to marine sustainability and ocean conservation.

The Census of Marine Life is a different intellectual enterprise. Disregarding many objections from Mainstream Road, the leaders of the initiative used a metaphor to rally the interest of the relevant scienti?c community: to conduct a Census of marine life, an impossible task sensu strictu. By choosing an extremely broad subject, the living ocean, and setting a research vector, or direction, to count and account for the living in the ocean, the founders were able to form a community of researchers with quite disparate research interests and objectives, to weave a delicate fabric of research topics that brought together the main ingredients of scienti?c discovery: deploying new technologies, poking through disciplinary boundaries, transporting knowledge produced in one ?eld to another, attacking simultaneously the small and the large and the extremely large scales usually unavailable to single teams of scientists. Using as an epistemic Occam’s razor the distinction between the known, the unknown, and the unknowable, they collectively and systematically selected a limited number of bets to maximize results. This book demonstrates unreservedly their success.” ~ Paul Snelgrove

With dozens of breathtaking full-color photographs and glimpses of previously unknown species, convoluted migration routes and otherworldly habitats, Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life explores the ocean with equal parts urgency, poeticism and enthusiasm, stimulating, illuminating and enchanting at the same time, leaving you with a newfound respect and profound love for the extraordinary universe of life beneath the surface.

POST-SECULAR PHILOSOPHY

Last week, we explored 7 essential books on faith and spirituality. But where does philosophy fit into the conversation? The Western philosophical tradition, with its insistence on the secular, has remained largely wary, of not dismissive, of religion. In Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology, Phillip Blond gathers 15 essays distilling how iconic philosophers like Descartes, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Derrida have placed God at the center of their thinking. Blond — who in the 13 years since the book’s publications has become a leading British political theorist, the mastermind behind David Cameron’s “Big Society” concept — pens a poignant introduction to the anthology, discussing the broader role of theology in secular philosophy and the often conflicted relationship between the two.

[I]t is a classical and cardinal point that the utterly dissimilar would have great difficulty in attaining any knowledge of one another, for mutual knowledge can only be achieved if ‘like is known by like.'” ~ Phillip Blond

Though the writing is anything but light and at times fringes on academia’s most prolix, the volume’s broad lens and sharp focus make it a powerful and read-worthy synthesis of the Western philosophical tradition’s tortured yet fascinating relationship with theology and religion.

Blond’s most recent book, Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It, is being released in the US in 2012 as Radical Republic and reworked with an international focus. Blond is the opening speaker for this year’s TED Global.

FINAL EXAM

Facing mortality is hard enough for us ordinary people, but it’s particularly challenging for medical parctitioners, whose very mission in life is so profoundly antithetical to the concept of death. That’s exactly what transplant surgeon Pauline Chen examines in Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality. From her first dissection of a human cadaver to the first time she pronounced a patient dead to having to face taking responsibility for the accidental death of a patient in her care, Chen uses profound personal anecdotes as the linchpin to a deeper discussion of mortality in the context of medicine, but also in the broader context of human existence.

There is an essential paradox in medicine: a profession premised on caring for the ill also systematically depersonalizes the dying.” ~ Pauline Chen

Beautifully written, passionately argued and lined with equal parts humility and dignity, Final Exam is poetry for medicine, equally thought-provoking for those in the medical profession as it is for those of us in the profession of merely living with the diagnosis of the human condition.

If you missed the first part of this year’s TED Global reading list or last year’s roundup, it’s never too late to catch up with these 7 must-read books by TED Global 2010 speakers, as well as these two sets of must-reads by this year’s TED Long Beach speakers.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.