Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

04 NOVEMBER, 2013

Jeanette Winterson on Adoption, Belonging, and How We Use Storytelling to Save Ourselves


“When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.”

The yearning to belong is one of the greatest human longings, just as the fractures of belonging are among our most profound trauma. But English writer and modern-day queer literary icon Jeanette Winterson — who also brought us that infinitely poetic answer to a child’s question about how we fall in love — finds in these very fractures a gateway to wholeness. In her exquisite and harrowing memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (public library), Winterson plunges into the depths of her psyche to extract profound insight, at once intensely personal and poignantly universal, into how we use stories to find and save ourselves.

Adopted into an unhappy family and raised by a depressed, abusive mother, Winterson was violently flung into the depths of self-exploration, where she contemplated — had no choice but to contemplate — the essence of adoption as a formative force in human identity. Though her own experience was negative, she steps beyond it to consider the broader mechanisms of self-salvation we all confront in our quest for wholeness and belonging, which we set into motion through the stories we tell ourselves and others:

Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb. The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of a story — of course that is how we all live, it’s the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you — and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.

That isn’t of its nature negative. The missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void. It can be an entry as well as an exit. It is the fossil record, the imprint of another life, and although you can never have that life, your fingers trace the space where it might have been, and your fingers learn a kind of Braille.

She later adds:

Whatever adoption is, it isn’t an instant family — not with the adoptive parents, and not with the rediscovered parents. … Adoption is so many things at once. And it is everything and nothing.

In this missingness Winterson finds her own answer to the eternal question of why writers write:

It’s why I am a writer — I don’t say ‘decided’ to be, or ‘became’. It was not an act of will or even a conscious choice. To avoid the narrow mesh of [my mother’s] story I had to be able to tell my own. Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out.

Winterson, whose mother used to punish her by locking her out of the house and leaving her sitting outside on the doorstep overnight until the milkman came, reflects on how the sense of non-belonging reverberated through her own ability to relate to others. She writes with heartbreaking — and heartbroken — wryness:

I spent most of my school years sitting on the railings outside the school gates in the breaks. I was not a popular or a likeable child; too spiky, too angry, too intense, too odd. The churchgoing didn’t encourage school friends, and school situations always pick out the misfit. Embroidering THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED on my gym bag made me easy to spot.

But even when I did make friends I made sure it went wrong . . .

If someone liked me, I waited until she was off guard, and then I told her I didn’t want to be her friend any more. I watched the confusion and upset. The tears. Then I ran off, triumphantly in control, and very fast the triumph and the control leaked away, and then I cried and cried, because I had put myself on the outside again, on the doorstep again, where I didn’t want to be.

Adoption is outside. You act out what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t belong. And you act it out by trying to do to others what has been done to you. It is impossible to believe that anyone loves you for yourself.

Winterson’s present wisdom on love was hard-earned:

It has taken me a long time to learn how to love — both the giving and the receiving. I have written about love obsessively, forensically, and I know/knew it as the highest value. I loved God of course, in the early days, and God loved me. That was something. And I loved animals and nature. And poetry. People were the problem. How do you love another person? How do you trust another person to love you? I had no idea. I thought that love was loss.

She returns to how this formative experience of grappling with belonging and love shaped her as a writer by teaching her that, much like the therapeutic quality of art, the therapeutic quality of storytelling is found as much in what is told as in what is left out of the story:

Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? The photographer frames the shot; writers frame their world. … There are so many things that we can’t say, because they are too painful. We hope that the things we can say will soothe the rest, or appease it in some way. Stories are compensatory. The world is unfair, unjust, unknowable, out of control.

When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold.

When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.


I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words. … I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is an unspeakably fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with Maya Angelou on home and belonging.

Jeanette Winterson portrait by Peter Peitsch

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

01 NOVEMBER, 2013

Naomi Wolf’s Spectacular, No-Bullshit Letter of Advice to Her Younger Self


“Don’t gossip; it makes you untrustworthy. . . . Kindness is everything.”

Naomi Wolf was only twenty-six when she began writing the cult-classic The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, which went on to become a bestseller that shaped the cultural narrative on beauty and identity. Confronted with her sudden success, Wolf had to face the demon of “Fear of Having Too Much” — that peculiar ghoul of private self-doubt in the face of public affirmation and material rewards, which so often manifests itself in our conflicted relationship with money. Two years after the publication of The Beauty Myth, Wolf reflected on this demon, a downside of success to which she believes women are particularly susceptible, in her meditation on female power in the 21st century, Fire with Fire:

I reacted by moving further into the elaborate complex of stupidity about money that I had begun to pick up in college. Like many women, I went into a numbers-induced fog that enveloped me whenever I had to discuss my income. I was embarrassed talking to the woman who helped me with my taxes. I thought it was inappropriate for me to learn the least detail about handling my income.

In What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self (public library) — a heartening collection of 41 extraordinary women’s life-tested learnings, including contributions from Maya Angelou, Madeleine Albright, and Roz Chast — Wolf looks back on her early experience with success and money, offering some sage, succinct, no-bullshit advice on life that, while directed at her twenty-something self, holds refreshing and timeless wisdom for all ages and genders:

Dear Younger Self,

INVEST FIFTY BUCKS IN THE STOCK MARKET EVERY MONTH!! You don’t need to eat out so much. Think of all that compound interest!

If they don’t have beards and aren’t clean-shaven either, they make good short-term but bad long-term boyfriends. Beware.

Stop worrying about making people happy or getting people’s approval.

Forget trends; go for the classics.

Don’t gossip; it makes you untrustworthy.

Condoms, condoms, condoms.

Kindness is everything.

(For some reflections in a similar spirit from yours truly, see 7 things I’ve learned in 7 years of Brain Pickings.)

Complement What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self with Dear Me, which features luminaries’ letters to their 16-year-old selves, and The Letter Q, queer writers’ wise and wonderful letters to their young selves, then revisit Wolf’s most recent work, exploring the science of stress and orgasm.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

30 OCTOBER, 2013

How Our Minds Mislead Us: The Marvels and Flaws of Our Intuition


“The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.”

Every year, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman summons some of our era’s greatest thinkers and unleashes them on one provocative question, whether it’s the single most elegant theory of how the world works or the best way to enhance our cognitive toolkit. This year, he sets out on the most ambitious quest yet, a meta-exploration of thought itself: Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction (public library) collects short essays and lecture adaptations from such celebrated and wide-ranging (though not in gender) minds as Daniel Dennett, Jonathan Haidt, Dan Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson, covering subjects as diverse as morality, essentialism, and the adolescent brain.

One of the most provocative contributions comes from Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman — author of the indispensable Thinking, Fast and Slow, one of the best psychology books of 2012 — who examines “the marvels and the flaws of intuitive thinking.”

In the 1970s, Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, self-crowned “prophets of irrationality,” began studying what they called “heuristics and biases” — mental shortcuts we take, which frequently result in cognitive errors. Those errors, however, reveal a great deal about how our minds work:

If you want to characterize how something is done, then one of the most powerful ways of characterizing how the mind does anything is by looking at the errors that the mind produces while it’s doing it because the errors tell you what it is doing. Correct performance tells you much less about the procedure than the errors do.

One of the most fascinating examples of heuristics and biases is what we call intuition — a complex cluster of cognitive processes, sometimes helpful but often misleading. Kahneman notes that thoughts come to mind in one of two ways: Either by “orderly computation,” which involves a series of stages of remembering rules and then applying them, or by perception, an evolutionary function that allows us to predict outcomes based on what we’re perceiving. (For instance, seeing a woman’s angry face helps us predict the general sentiment and disposition of what she’s about to say.) It is the latter mode that precipitates intuition. Kahneman explains the interplay:

There is no sharp line between intuition and perception. … Perception is predictive. . . . If you want to understand intuition, it is very useful to understand perception, because so many of the rules that apply to perception apply as well to intuitive thinking. Intuitive thinking is quite different from perception. Intuitive thinking has language. Intuitive thinking has a lot of word knowledge organized in different ways more than mere perception. But some very basic characteristics [of] perception are extended almost directly to intuitive thinking.

He then considers how the two types of mental operations established by modern cognitive science illuminate intuition:

Type 1 is automatic, effortless, often unconscious, and associatively coherent. . . . Type 2 is controlled, effortful, usually conscious, tends to be logically coherent, rule-governed. Perception and intuition are Type 1. … Type 2 is more controlled, slower, is more deliberate. . . . Type 2 is who we think we are. [And yet] if one made a film on this, Type 2 would be a secondary character who thinks that he is the hero because that’s who we think we are, but in fact, it’s Type 1 that does most of the work, and it’s most of the work that is completely hidden from us.

Type 1 also encompasses all of our practiced skills — for instance, driving, speaking, and understanding a language — which after a certain threshold of mastery enter autopilot mode. (Though this presents its own set of problems.) Underpinning that mode of thinking is our associative memory, which Kahneman unpacks:

You have to think of [your associative memory] as a huge repository of ideas, linked to each other in many ways, including causal links and other links, and activation spreading from ideas to other ideas until a small subset of that enormous network is illuminated, and the subset is what’s happening in the mind at the moment. You’re not conscious of it, you’re conscious of very little of it.

This leads to something Kahneman has termed “associative coherence” — the notion that “everything reinforces everything else.” Much like our attention, which sees only what it wants and expects to see, our associative memory looks to reinforce our existing patterns of association and deliberately discounts evidence that contradicts them. And therein lies the triumph and tragedy of our intuitive mind:

The thing about the system is that it settles into a stable representation of reality, and that is just a marvelous accomplishment. … That’s not a flaw, that’s a marvel. [But] coherence has its cost.

Coherence means that you’re going to adopt one interpretation in general. Ambiguity tends to be suppressed. This is part of the mechanism that you have here that ideas activate other ideas and the more coherent they are, the more likely they are to activate each other. Other things that don’t fit fall away by the wayside. We’re enforcing coherent interpretations. We see the world as much more coherent than it is.

Put another way, our chronic discomfort with ambiguity — which, ironically, is critical to both our creativity and the richness of our lives — leads us to lock down safe, comfortable, familiar interpretations, even if they are only partial representations of or fully disconnected from reality.

The Type 1 modality of thought gives rise to a System 1 of interpretation, which is at the heart of what we call “intuition” — but which is far less accurate and reliable than we like to believe:

System 1 infers and invents causes and intentions. [This] happens automatically. Infants have it. . . . We’re equipped … for the perception of causality.

It neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt and … exaggerates coherence. Associative coherence [is] in large part where the marvels turn into flaws. We see a world that is vastly more coherent than the world actually is. That’s because of this coherence-creating mechanism that we have. We have a sense-making organ in our heads, and we tend to see things that are emotionally coherent, and that are associatively coherent.

But the greatest culprit in the failures of our intuition is another cognitive property Kahneman names “what you see is all there is” — a powerful and persistent flaw of System-1 thinking:

This is a mechanism that takes whatever information is available and makes the best possible story out of the information currently available, and tells you very little about information it doesn’t have. So what you get are people jumping to conclusions. I call this a “machine for jumping to conclusions.”

This jumping to conclusions, Kahneman adds, is immediate and based on unreliable information. And that’s a problem:

That will very often create a flaw. It will create overconfidence. The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence [but] of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct. Quite often you can construct very good stories out of very little evidence. . . . People tend to have great belief, great faith in the stories that are based on very little evidence.

Most treacherous of all is our tendency to use our very confidence — and overconfidence — as evidence itself:

What’s interesting is that many a time people have intuitions that they’re equally confident about except they’re wrong. That happens through the mechanism I call “the mechanism of substitution.” You have been asked a question, and instead you answer another question, but that answer comes by itself with complete confidence, and you’re not aware that you’re doing something that you’re not an expert on because you have one answer. Subjectively, whether it’s right or wrong, it feels exactly the same. Whether it’s based on a lot of information, or a little information, this is something that you may step back and have a look at. But the subjective sense of confidence can be the same for intuition that arrives from expertise, and for intuitions that arise from heuristics. . . .

In other words, intuition, like attention, is “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator [that] asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that” — a humbling antidote to our culture’s propensity for self-righteousness, and above all a reminder to allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.

Thinking is excellent and mind-expanding in its entirety. Complement it with Brockman’s This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, one of the best psychology books of 2012.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

30 OCTOBER, 2013

French Polymath Paul Valéry on “The Three-Body Problem”


“Everything that is masks for us something that might be.”

“It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive. … The body becomes irrelevant,” Dani Shapiro wrote in her beautiful meditation on the pleasures and perils of the creative life. And yet the body is the single most relevant, persistent, and unrelenting reality of our lives, a constant companion, on whom “we” — as much as we’re able to separate the “we” from the “it” — depend as much as “it” depends on “us,” an often ambivalent and conflicted codependence that endures, whether we like it or not, for as long as we are alive. Even consciousness itself can’t transcend the nesting-doll physical reality of the body that includes the brain that includes the mind that contemplates itself. But what, exactly, is the body as a conscious experience beyond a biological mass?

That’s precisely what legendary French polymath Paul Valéry (October 30, 1871–July 20, 1945) explores in his 1943 essay “Some Simple Reflections on the Body,” found in the altogether fantastic 1989 anthology Zone 4: Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part 2 (public library), in which he poses “the three-body problem” — the trifecta of bodily realities that we each inhabit and struggle to integrate.

Illustration from 'The Human Body,' 1959. Click image for details.

He begins with the First Body, which possesses us more than we possess it and serves as a reference point to the world:

The [First Body] is the privileged object of which, at each instant, we find ourselves in possession, although our knowledge of it — like everything that is inseparable from the instant — may be extremely variable and subject to illusions. Each of us calls this object My Body, but we give it no name in ourselves, that is to say, in it. We speak of it to others as of a thing that belongs to us; but for us it is not entirely a thing; and it belongs to us a little less than we belong to it. . . .

It is for each of us, in essence, the most important object in the world, standing in opposition to the world, on which, however, it knows itself to be closely dependent. We can say that the world is based on it and exists in reference to it; or just as accurately, with a simple change in the adjustment of our intellectual vision, that the selfsame body is only an infinitely negligible, unstable event in the world.

There’s a particular amorphousness to this First Body:

The thing itself is formless: all we know of it by sight is the few mobile parts that are capable of coming within the conspicuous zone of the space which makes up this My Body, a strange, asymmetrical space in which distances are exceptional relations. I have no idea of the spatial relations between “My Forehead” and “My Foot,” between “My Knee” and “My Back.” … This gives rise to strange discoveries. My right hand is generally unaware of my left. To take one hand in the other is to take hold of an object that is not-I. These oddities must play a part in sleep and, if such things as dreams exist, must provide them with infinite combinations.

This First Body, Valéry argues, is “our most redoubtable antagonist,” for “it carries within it all constancy and all variation.” Then we get to the Second Body — the package of physical concreteness we present to others, as well as to ourselves:

Our Second Body is the one which others see, and an approximation of which confronts us in the mirror or in portraits. It is the body which has a form and is apprehended by the arts, the body on which materials, ornaments, armor sit, which love sees or wants to see, and yearns to touch.

Nude female anatomical figure, artist unknown, c. 1550. Click image for details.

This Second Body, with its cruel concreteness, is also the one that causes us distress — the part of our mortality paradox that makes it so burdensome and so distressing:

This is the body that was so dear to Narcissus, but that drives many to despair, and is a source of gloom to almost all of us once the time comes when we cannot help admitting that the aged creature in the glass, whom we do not accept, stands in some terrible close though incomprehensible relation to ourselves.

In some ways, this Second Body serves as surface protection for what goes on inside — that which we long so desperately to understand and make palpable, yet which remains largely mysterious and intangible:

One can live without ever having seen oneself, without knowing the color of one’s skin.

Man as Industrial Palace of Industry by Fritz Kahn, 1926. Click image for details.

This brings us to the Third Body, that of medicine’s fascination and the one best captured in the industrial-age vision for the body as a machine:

[The Third Body] has unity only in our thought, since we know it only for having dissected and dismembered it. To know it is to have reduced it to parts and pieces.

Complete Notes on the Dissection of Cadavers by Kaishi Hen, 1772. Click image for details.

And yet, Valéry suggests there is more to the human body than the abstract, the superficial, and the mechanical. He thus proposes a Fourth Body, which is distinct from the other three and is at once a Real Body and an Imaginary Body — a body of possibility:

My Fourth Body is neither more nor less distinct than is a whirlpool from the liquid in which it is formed. . . . The mind’s knowledge is a product of what this Fourth Body is not. Necessarily and irrevocably everything that is masks for us something that might be.

As Valéry brushes up against the inherent contradictions of this proposition, he hears “the Voice of the Absurd” within himself admonishing:

Think carefully: Where do you expect to find answers to these philosophical questions? Your images, your abstractions, derive only from the properties and experiences of your Three Bodies. But the first offers you nothing by moments; the second a few visions; and the third, at the cost of ruthless dissections and complicated preparations, a mass of figures more indecipherable than Etruscan texts. Your mind, with its language, pulverizes, mixes and rearranges all this and from it, by the abuse, if you will, of its habitual questionnaire, evolves its notorious problems; but it can give them a shadow of meaning only by tacitly presupposing a certain Nonexistence — of which my Fourth Body is a kind of incarnation.

Fragments for a History of the Human Body is excellent in its entirety. Complement it with Nancy Etcoff’s exploration of the science of beauty, which revisits Valéry’s theories with the lens of modern cognitive science and neurobiology.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.