Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

22 SEPTEMBER, 2014

A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus on Our Search for Meaning and Why Happiness Is Our Moral Obligation

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Why “the demand for happiness and the patient quest for it” isn’t a luxury or a mere need but our existential duty.

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus wrote in his 119-page philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. “Everything else … is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.” One of the most famous opening lines of the twentieth century captures one of humanity’s most enduring philosophical challenged — the impulse at the heart of Seneca’s meditations on life and Montaigne’s timeless essays and Maya Angelou’s reflections, and a wealth of human inquiry in between. But Camus, the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature after Rudyard Kipling, addressed it with unparalleled courage of conviction and insight into the irreconcilable longings of the human spirit.

In the beautifully titled and beautifully written A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (public library), historian Robert Zaretsky considers Camus’s lifelong quest to shed light on the absurd condition, his “yearning for a meaning or a unity to our lives,” and its timeless yet increasingly timely legacy:

If the question abides, it is because it is more than a matter of historical or biographical interest. Our pursuit of meaning, and the consequences should we come up empty-handed, are matters of eternal immediacy.

[...]

Camus pursues the perennial prey of philosophy — the questions of who we are, where and whether we can find meaning, and what we can truly know about ourselves and the world — less with the intention of capturing them than continuing the chase.

Reflecting on the parallels between Camus and Montaigne, Zaretsky finds in this ongoing chase one crucial difference of dispositions:

Camus achieves with the Myth what the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty claimed for Montaigne’s Essays: it places “a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence.”

For Camus, however, this astonishment results from our confrontation with a world that refuses to surrender meaning. It occurs when our need for meaning shatters against the indifference, immovable and absolute, of the world. As a result, absurdity is not an autonomous state; it does not exist in the world, but is instead exhaled from the abyss that divides us from a mute world.

Camus himself captured this with extraordinary elegance when he wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus:

This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together.

To discern these echoes amid the silence of the world, Zaretsky suggests, was at the heart of Camus’s tussle with the absurd:

We must not cease in our exploration, Camus affirms, if only to hear more sharply the silence of the world. In effect, silence sounds out when human beings enter the equation. If “silences must make themselves heard,” it is because those who can hear inevitably demand it. And if the silence persists, where are we to find meaning?

This search for meaning was not only the lens through which Camus examined every dimension of life, from the existential to the immediate, but also what he saw as our greatest source of agency. In one particularly prescient diary entry from November of 1940, as WWII was gathering momentum, he writes:

Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything. It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace? We must simply begin without thinking of such grandiose aims.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton based on my highlights from Albert Camus's journals. Click image for details.

For Camus, the question of meaning was closely related to that of happiness — something he explored with great insight in his notebooks. Zaretsky writes:

Camus observed that absurdity might ambush us on a street corner or a sun-blasted beach. But so, too, do beauty and the happiness that attends it. All too often, we know we are happy only when we no longer are.

Perhaps most importantly, Camus issued a clarion call of dissent in a culture that often conflates happiness with laziness and championed the idea that happiness is nothing less than a moral obligation. A few months before his death, Camus appeared on the TV show Gros Plan. Dressed in a trench coat, he flashed his mischievous boyish smile and proclaimed into the camera:

Today, happiness has become an eccentric activity. The proof is that we tend to hide from others when we practice it. As far as I’m concerned, I tend to think that one needs to be strong and happy in order to help those who are unfortunate.

This wasn’t a case of Camus arriving at some mythic epiphany in his old age — the cultivation of happiness and the eradication of its obstacles was his most persistent lens on meaning. More than two decades earlier, he had contemplated “the demand for happiness and the patient quest for it” in his journal, capturing with elegant simplicity the essence of the meaningful life — an ability to live with presence despite the knowledge that we are impermanent:

Be happy with our friends, in harmony with the world, and earn our happiness by following a path which nevertheless leads to death.

But his most piercing point integrates the questions of happiness and meaning into the eternal quest to find ourselves and live our truth:

It is not so easy to become what one is, to rediscover one’s deepest measure.

A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning comes from Harvard University Press and is a remarkable read in its entirety. Complement it with Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, then revisit the story of his unlikely and extraordinary friendship with Nobel-winning biologist Jacques Monod.

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19 SEPTEMBER, 2014

John Dewey on the True Purpose of Education and How to Harness the Power of Our Natural Curiosity

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“While it is not the business of education … to teach every possible item of information, it is its business to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions.”

“Do not feel absolutely certain of anything,” philosopher Bertrand Russell instructed in the first of his ten timeless commandments of teaching and learning in 1951. And yet formal education, today as much as then, is for the most part a toxic byproduct of industrialism based on the blind acquisition of certainty and the demolition of the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that gives rise to real progress, both personal and cultural. To fuel the internal engine of learning is a lifelong journey we are left to steer on our own as the education system continues to flounder. The quest to repair that broken system has never been addressed with more urgency and passion than it is today, and yet one of the most intelligent and timely takes on it comes from more than a century ago.

In How We Think (free download; public library) — his timelessly stimulating 1910 treatise on the art of reflection and fruitful curiosityJohn Dewey, one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century, distills the purpose and ideals of education with remarkable clarity and conviction. The enactment of these ideals today would produce nothing less than a radical, sorely needed transformation of our broken education system.

Dewey champions the role of education in equipping us with the sort of critical thinking necessary for questioning authority, deconditioning our “mental bad habits,” and dispelling false beliefs and illusory ideas bequeathed to us by society:

Causes of bad mental habits are social as well as inborn… Over and above the sources of misbelief that reside in the natural tendencies of the individual (like those toward hasty and too far-reaching conclusions), social conditions tend to instigate and confirm wrong habits of thinking by authority, by conscious instruction, and by the even more insidious half-conscious influences of language, imitation, sympathy, and suggestion. Education has accordingly not only to safeguard an individual against the besetting erroneous tendencies of his own mind—its rashness, presumption, and preference of what chimes with self-interest to objective evidence — but also to undermine and destroy the accumulated and self-perpetuating prejudices of long ages. When social life in general has become more reasonable, more imbued with rational conviction, and less moved by stiff authority and blind passion, educational agencies may be more positive and constructive than at present, for they will work in harmony with the educative influence exercised willy-nilly by other social surroundings upon an individual’s habits of thought and belief.

Arguing that “the office of education in forming skilled powers of thinking,” Dewey considers the essentials of “mental discipline” and articulates the basic tenets of critical thinking that Carl Sagan would come to outline in his now-legendary Baloney Detection Kit nearly a century later:

While it is not the business of education to prove every statement made, any more than to teach every possible item of information, it is its business to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions; to develop a lively, sincere, and open-minded preference for conclusions that are properly grounded, and to ingrain into the individual’s working habits methods of inquiry and reasoning appropriate to the various problems that present themselves. No matter how much an individual knows as a matter of hearsay and information, if he has not attitudes and habits of this sort, he is not intellectually educated. He lacks the rudiments of mental discipline. And since these habits are not a gift of nature (no matter how strong the aptitude for acquiring them); since, moreover, the casual circumstances of the natural and social environment are not enough to compel their acquisition, the main office of education is to supply conditions that make for their cultivation. The formation of these habits is the Training of Mind.

And yet this training, Dewey is careful to point out, isn’t a one-size-fits-all operation but, rather, should be tailored to finding each student’s element and harnessing his or her natural ability:

The very importance of thought for life makes necessary its control by education because of its natural tendency to go astray, and because social influences exist that tend to form habits of thought leading to inadequate and erroneous beliefs. Training must, however, be itself based upon the natural tendencies — that is, it must find its point of departure in them. A being who could not think without training could never be trained to think; one may have to learn to think wellthink. Training, in short, must fall back upon the prior and independent existence of natural powers; it is concerned with their proper direction, not with creating them.

Dewey makes an enormously important point — one that Adrienne Rich would come to echo decades later in her brilliant commencement address on why an education is something you claim, not something you get — arguing that “the one taught must take the initiative”:

Teaching and learning are correlative or corresponding processes, as much so as selling and buying. One might as well say he has sold when no one has bought, as to say that he has taught when no one has learned. And in the educational transaction, the initiative lies with the learner even more than in commerce it lies with the buyer. If an individual can learn to think only in the sense of learning to employ more economically and effectively powers he already possesses, even more truly one can teach others to think only in the sense of appealing to and fostering powers already active in them. Effective appeal of this kind is impossible unless the teacher has an insight into existing habits and tendencies, the natural resources with which he has to ally himself.

Illustration from 'Rosie Revere, Engineer,' a stereotype-defying children's book about a little girl who wants to become an inventor. Click image for more.

Two of our most important and most universal natural faculties essential for learning are curiosity and a “desire for fullness of experience.” Dewey writes:

The curious mind is constantly alert and exploring, seeking material for thought, as a vigorous and healthy body is on the qui vive for nutriment. Eagerness for experience, for new and varied contacts, is found where wonder is found. Such curiosity is the only sure guarantee of the acquisition of the primary facts upon which inference must base itself.

He later adds:

To the open mind, nature and social experience are full of varied and subtle challenges to look further.

Our ability to cultivate the powers of curiosity and reap its fruits, however, is predicated on our fragile willingness to embrace uncertainty and welcome the unknown. Lamenting “the open-minded and flexible wonder of childhood and of the ease with which this endowment is lost,” Dewey considers the various channels of this loss and how education, at its best, can rekindle curiosity:

If germinating powers are not used and cultivated at the right moment, they tend to be transitory, to die out, or to wane in intensity. This general law is peculiarly true of sensitiveness to what is uncertain and questionable; in a few people, intellectual curiosity is so insatiable that nothing will discourage it, but in most its edge is easily dulled and blunted.

[...]

Some lose it in indifference or carelessness; others in a frivolous flippancy; many escape these evils only to become incased in a hard dogmatism which is equally fatal to the spirit of wonder. Some are so taken up with routine as to be inaccessible to new facts and problems. Others retain curiosity only with reference to what concerns their personal advantage in their chosen career. With many, curiosity is arrested on the plane of interest in local gossip and in the fortunes of their neighbors; indeed, so usual is this result that very often the first association with the word curiosity is a prying inquisitiveness into other people’s business. With respect then to curiosity, the teacher has usually more to learn than to teach. Rarely can he aspire to the office of kindling or even increasing it. His task is rather to keep alive the sacred spark of wonder and to fan the flame that already glows. His problem is to protect the spirit of inquiry, to keep it from becoming blasé from overexcitement, wooden from routine, fossilized through dogmatic instruction, or dissipated by random exercise upon trivial things.

Illustration from 'My Teacher Is a Monster' by Peter Brown. Click image for more.

Bemoaning education’s focus on mindless memorization rather than true understanding, Dewey pulls into sharp focus the central system failure that still plagues us today:

Pupils who in matters of ordinary practical experience have a ready and acute perception of the difference between the significant and the meaningless, often reach in school subjects a point where all things seem equally important or equally unimportant; where one thing is just as likely to be true as another, and where intellectual effort is expended not in discriminating between things, but in trying to make verbal connections among words.

[...]

The depth to which a sense of the problem, of the difficulty, sinks, determines the quality of the thinking that follows; and any habit of teaching which encourages the pupil for the sake of a successful recitation or of a display of memorized information to glide over the thin ice of genuine problems reverses the true method of mind training.

In the remainder of How We Think, an immeasurably lucid and necessary read in its entirety, Dewey goes on to explore the most reliable strategies for cultivating the essential “mental discipline” of intellectual development and self-expansion, both in public formal education and in our private journeys of lifelong learning. Download it as a free ebook here, then revisit Kio Stark’s modern manifesto for lifelong learning beyond the classroom.

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18 SEPTEMBER, 2014

How Repetition Enchants the Brain and the Psychology of Why We Love It in Music

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“Music takes place in time, but repetition beguilingly makes it knowable in the way of something outside of time.”

“The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism,” Haruki Murakami reflected on the power of a daily routine. “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue,” Mary Oliver wrote about the secret of great poetry, adding: “When it does, it grows sweeter.” But nowhere does rhythmic repetition mesmerize us more powerfully than in music, with its singular way of enchanting the brain.

How and why this happens is precisely what cognitive scientist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, explores in On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind (public library). This illuminating short animation from TED Ed, based on Margulis’s work, explains the psychology of the “mere exposure effect,” which makes things grow sweeter simply as they become familiar — a parallel manifestation of the same psychological phenomenon that causes us to rate familiar statements as more likely to be true than unfamiliar ones.

Margulis writes:

Music takes place in time, but repetition beguilingly makes it knowable in the way of something outside of time. It enables us to “look” at a passage as a whole, even while it’s progressing moment by moment. But this changed perspective brought by repetition doesn’t feel like holding a score and looking at a passage’s notation as it progresses. Rather, it feels like a different way of inhabiting a passage — a different kind of orientation.

In On Repeat, a fine addition to these essential books on the psychology of music, Margulis goes on to explore how advances in cognitive science have radically changed our understanding of just why repetition is so psychoemotionally enticing.

HT Open Culture

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