Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

07 AUGUST, 2013

A Moving Meditation on Gender Identity

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“This culture wants little boys to dream only of baseball, trucks, and trains. This culture has no room for little boys who want to be gorgeous.”

A recent Slate article on a supportive camp environment for gender-variant “princess boys” elicited some of the most heartbreakingly ignorant and intolerant comments I’ve ever encountered on the internet, an ugly mixture of stubborn self-righteousness and complete failure of compassion. It reminded me of an exquisite letter I had heard read years ago on Tara Brach’s fantastic mindfulness podcast, sent to The Sun magazine by reader Erika Trafton from El Cerrito, California in September of 2010:

“Am I GOR-GEOUS?” my child asks, drawing the word out like pulled taffy.

“Yes,” I say, “you are.”

The pink and teal dress is probably made of highly flammable material, some chemist’s approximation of tulle and satin. Pudgy fingers decorated with pink polish trace the sequins on the bodice. “I love this!” A giant pair of bubble-gum pink wings flap slowly. Little feet dance in sparkly red slippers. “I’m just like a real princess!”

“Yes,” I say, “you are.”

Thick blond hair, blue eyes, rosy cheeks, flawless skin. This child is the American epitome of beauty.

This child, my son.

He is four years old and prefers to wear dresses. Maybe it is a phase, maybe not. Even as I wonder how I produced such an angelic-looking creature, I wish he would put on some pants and go back to playing with toy tractors — not because it matters to me (it doesn’t) but because I am already hearing in my head the name-calling he will face in kindergarten. Many adults already seem a bit disturbed by the dresses. Strangers utter awkward apologies when they realize he’s not female.

This culture wants little boys to dream only of baseball, trucks, and trains. This culture has no room for little boys who want to be gorgeous.

He picks up a parasol a neighbor gave him and opens it jauntily over his shoulder. “Am I beautiful?” he asks.

I sweep him into my arms and plant a kiss on his cheek.

“Always.”

Boy at 'You Are You' camp rehearses his fashion show ta-dah moment.

(Image: Lindsay Morris via Slate)

Complement with Andrew Solomon’s beautiful meditation on gender identity and unconditional love and Jennifer Finney Boylan’s fantastic memoir on transgender parenting.

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05 AUGUST, 2013

Synesthesia and the Poetry of Numbers: Autistic Savant Daniel Tammet on Literature, Math, and Empathy, by Way of Borges

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“Like works of literature, mathematical ideas help expand our circle of empathy, liberating us from the tyranny of a single, parochial point of view.”

Daniel Tammet was born with an unusual mind — he was diagnosed with high-functioning autistic savant syndrome, which meant his brain’s uniquely wired circuits made possible such extraordinary feats of computation and memory as learning Icelandic in a single week and reciting the number pi up to the 22,514th digit. He is also among the tiny fraction of people diagnosed with synesthesia — that curious crossing of the senses that causes one to “hear” colors, “smell” sounds, or perceive words and numbers in different hues, shapes, and textures. Synesthesia is incredibly rare — Vladimir Nabokov was among its few famous sufferers — which makes it overwhelmingly hard for the majority of us to imagine precisely what it’s like to experience the world through this sensory lens. Luckily, Tammet offers a fascinating first-hand account in Thinking In Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math (public library) — a magnificent collection of 25 essays on “the math of life,” celebrating the magic of possibility in all its dimensions. In the process, he also invites us to appreciate the poetics of numbers, particularly of ordered sets — in other words, the very lists that dominate everything from our productivity tools to our creative inventories to the cheapened headlines flooding the internet.

Reflecting on his second book, Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind, and the overwhelming response from fascinated readers seeking to know what it’s really like to experience words and numbers as colors and textures — to experience the beauty that a poem and a prime number exert on a synesthete in equal measure — Tammet offers an absorbing simulation of the synesthetic mind:

Imagine.

Close your eyes and imagine a space without limits, or the infinitesimal events that can stir up a country’s revolution. Imagine how the perfect game of chess might start and end: a win for white, or black, or a draw? Imagine numbers so vast that they exceed every atom in the universe, counting with eleven or twelve fingers instead of ten, reading a single book in an infinite number of ways.

Such imagination belongs to everyone. It even possesses its own science: mathematics. Ricardo Nemirovsky and Francesca Ferrara, who specialize in the study of mathematical cognition, write that “like literary fiction, mathematical imagination entertains pure possibilities.” This is the distillation of what I take to be interesting and important about the way in which mathematics informs our imaginative life. Often we are barely aware of it, but the play between numerical concepts saturates the way we experience the world.

Sketches from synesthetic artist and musician Michal Levy's animated visualization of John Coltrane's 'Giant Steps.' Click for details.

Tammet, above all, is enchanted by the mesmerism of the unknown, which lies at the heart of science and the heart of poetry:

The fact that we have never read an endless book, or counted to infinity (and beyond!) or made contact with an extraterrestrial civilization (all subjects of essays in the book) should not prevent us from wondering: what if? … Literature adds a further dimension to the exploration of those pure possibilities. As Nemirovsky and Ferrara suggest, there are numerous similarities in the patterns of thinking and creating shared by writers and mathematicians (two vocations often considered incomparable.)

In fact, this very link between mathematics and fiction, between numbers and storytelling, underpins much of Tammet’s exploration. Growing up as one of nine siblings, he recounts how the oppressive nature of existing as a small number in a large set spurred a profound appreciation of numbers as sensemaking mechanisms for life:

Effaced as individuals, my brothers, sisters, and I existed only in number. The quality of our quantity became something we could not escape. It preceded us everywhere: even in French, whose adjectives almost always follow the noun (but not when it comes to une grande famille). … From my family I learned that numbers belong to life. The majority of my math acumen came not from books but from regular observations and day-to-day interactions. Numerical patterns, I realized, were the matter of our world.

This awareness was the beginning of Tammet’s synesthetic sensibility:

Like colors, the commonest numbers give character, form, and dimension to our world. Of the most frequent — zero and one — we might say that they are like black and white, with the other primary colors — red, blue, and yellow — akin to two, three, and four. Nine, then, might be a sort of cobalt or indigo: in a painting it would contribute shading, rather than shape. We expect to come across samples of nine as we might samples of a color like indigo—only occasionally, and in small and subtle ways. Thus a family of nine children surprises as much as a man or woman with cobalt-colored hair.

Daniel Tammet. Portrait by Jerome Tabet.

Sampling from Jorge Luis Borges’s humorous fictional taxonomy of animals, inspired by the work of nineteenth-century German mathematician Georg Cantor, Tammet points to the deeper insight beneath our efforts to itemize and organize the universe — something Umberto Eco knew when he proclaimed that “the list is the origin of culture” and Susan Sontag intuited when she reflected on why lists appeal to us. Tammet writes:

Borges here also makes several thought-provoking points. First, though a set as familiar to our understanding as that of “animals” implies containment and comprehension, the sheer number of its possible subsets actually swells toward infinity. With their handful of generic labels (“mammal,” “reptile,” “amphibious,” etc.), standard taxonomies conceal this fact. To say, for example, that a flea is tiny, parasitic, and a champion jumper is only to begin to scratch the surface of all its various aspects.

Second, defining a set owes more to art than it does to science. Faced with the problem of a near endless number of potential categories, we are inclined to choose from a few — those most tried and tested within our particular culture. Western descriptions of the set of all elephants privilege subsets like “those that are very large,” and “those possessing tusks,” and even “those possessing an excellent memory,” while excluding other equally legitimate possibilities such as Borges’s “those that at a distance resemble flies,” or the Hindu “those that are considered lucky.”

[…]

Reading Borges invites me to consider the wealth of possible subsets into which my family “set” could be classified, far beyond those that simply point to multiplicity.

Tammet circles back to the shared gifts of literature and mathematics, which both help cultivate our capacity for compassion:

Like works of literature, mathematical ideas help expand our circle of empathy, liberating us from the tyranny of a single, parochial point of view. Numbers, properly considered, make us better people.

The rest of the essays in Thinking In Numbers, ranging from fascinating biographical anecdotes to speculative fiction imagining young Shakespeare’s first arithmetic lessons in zero, are equal parts mind-bending and soul-stirring, and altogether delightful in innumerable ways. Complement it with Paul Lockhart’s multisensory exploration of the whimsy of math, then revisit the extraordinary feats of other autistic savants, from Gregory Blackstock’s astonishing visual taxonomies to Gilles Trehin’s remarkable imaginary city.

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05 AUGUST, 2013

The Book of Mean People: Toni Morrison’s Children’s Allegory about Kindness and Context

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“Big people are little when they are mean. But little people are not big when they are mean.”

In 1999, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Toni Morrison joined the ranks of other famous “adult” writers’ lesser-known and lovely children’s stories when she penned The Big Box — a darkly philosophical meditation on morality, imaginative freedom, justice, and self-sufficiency — in collaboration with her son, the painter and musician Slade Morrison. Three years later, the duo followed up with The Book of Mean People (public library), illustrated by the wonderful Pascal Lemaitre — a subversive allegory for the subjectivity of “good” and “evil,” how context and motive frame those, and why the power of optimism is our greatest psychological defense mechanism.

Somewhere between Twain’s irreverent advice to little girls and the faux-meanness of the facetious faux-unkindness Cat-Hater’s Handbook, the book nudges us to reconsider what “meanness” is and isn’t, and how a child’s assessment differs from a grown-up’s. The Morrisons’ dedication reads:

To brave kids everywhere
(mean people, you know who you are)

Though the book invites many interpretations, depending on your tolerance for the non-literal, its central premise returns again and again to the importance of kindness — something George Saunders would enthusiastically embrace — and reminds us that children, as well as the universal inner child in each of us, can always distinguish between “meanness” that is simply the discomfort of doing things we don’t want to do but should, and “meanness” that springs from truly mean-spirit intention, from anger, from one’s misguided attempt to feel big by making another feel small.

Complement The Book of Mean People with other previously uncovered children’s gems by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

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02 AUGUST, 2013

Bedroom via Kitchen: What Food Preferences Reveal about You and Your Romantic Partner

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“You can learn a lot about a person from the way he or she eats.”

The shared meal, Michael Pollan noted in his altogether fascinating exploration of how cooking civilized us, is where we “learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization.” But, beyond the mere mythology of aphrodisiacs and anti-aphrodisiacs, the careful observation of our relationship with food during those shared occasions can also reveal our rawest nature, most unfiltered preferences, and least civilized psychological tendencies. So argues Mimi Sheraton in The Seducer’s Cookbook (public library) — her charming 1962 guide to the lost art of seduction, illustrated by MAD’s Paul Coker — where she presents this curious culinary anatomy of romantic and sexual archetypes:

You can learn a lot about a person from the way he or she eats — about the extent of his physical appetites and the way they are satisfied. There are those who will try anything offered to them, no matter how new or exotic, while others refuse to accept any but the most familiar fare — obviously not the adventurous type to new experiences.

Sheraton argues that dietary preferences reveal a great deal about how good a dancer someone is in the intricate dance between abandon and restraint, so essential in intimate relationships:

Women who are diet-conscious should, when some tempting morsel is presented, throw caution to the wind and eat without a thought for tomorrow. An air of abandon must prevail sometimes, and if not at the table, then probably not in bed either; while a man who appears to be turning into one of Circe’s swine after dinner may display the same propensities when satisfying his other physical urge.

The act of ordering itself, Sheraton counsels, is remarkably revealing of a person’s overall authenticity:

While ordering in restaurants, you should be able to tell a great deal about someone’s tastes, sensitivities and pretensions. A man or woman who is completely honest and without airs, and already knows good food, will recognize it whether it be a hot dog at Nedick’s or a páté en croute at Pavillon. Beware of anyone who seems to recognize good food only when served in a currently fashionable restaurant. Such a person may be given to passing fads and is not to be trusted.

Sheraton goes on to offer a kind of gastronomic phrenology of personality types based on dietary preferences:

If a woman consistently orders sickeningly sweet, overelaborate whipped-cream desserts, she may be given to equally sticky goodbyes, and a man who overeats on one course and then has to pass up the rest of the meal doesn’t know how to pace himself and could be a problem later in the evening. And should you find yourself with a girl who orders a pastrami sandwich on whole-wheat toast with lettuce and Russian dressing (a meal I actually heard someone order in a New York delicatessen), you’d best be off before the waiter returns with the check.

The rest of The Seducer’s Cookbook similarly oscillates between the delightfully outlandish and the surprisingly insightful, and remains an absolute treat from cover to cover. Sample more of it here and complement it with unbeknownst gastronome Alexandre Dumas on the three types of appetite.

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