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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

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

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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.

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29 OCTOBER, 2013

A Very Large Head: The Phrenology of George Eliot


“She is extremely feminine & gentle; & the great strength of her intellect combined with this quality renders her very interesting.”

“One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy,” Mary Ann Evans, better-known as George Eliot, wrote in a letter to a friend in 1844. Learning how to be happy, of course, is predicated on first learning how to be — a journey of self-knowledge and self-awareness that is sometimes disorienting, frequently uncertain, and always evolving. In our chronic discomfort with ambiguity and with the fluid nature of our character, we often yearn to anchor ourselves in something concretizing by seeking out answers from outside ourselves to tell us who we are. Eliot, despite her undeniable intellect, was no exception to this frailty of the human condition.

In George Eliot: Interviews and Recollections (public library), the famed British ribbon manufacturer and social reformer Charles Bray reflects on his nine years of close friendship with George Eliot, in whom he saw the same kind of generosity of spirit that Susan Sontag did in Borges. Bray writes:

I consider her the most delightful companion I have ever known: she knew everything. She had little self-assertion; her aim was always to show her friends off to the best advantage — not herself. She would polish up their witticisms, and give the credit to them.

But one particularly unusual thing brought Bray and Eliot together: Their shared interest in phrenology. Yes, phrenology — the same 19th-century pseudoscience that gave rise to the “high-brow” vs. “low-brow” mythology of popular culture and has since been relegated to fodder for pop-culture caricature and derision — the epitome of grasping for easy, tangible, and invariably misleading answers to the intangible complexity of the human soul. To know that even Eliot was susceptible to this is oddly assuring, as well as a testament to the fact that we’re all, at least to some degree, a product of our time with all its singular irrationalities and biases.

In 1844, Eliot went as far as having a cast taken of her head by the leading British phrenologist James De Ville, who had also cast the heads of such luminaries as William Blake, Richard Dale Owen, and Prince Albert. It was then used for the “diagnosis” of her character by the Scotsman George Combe, the leader of the phrenology movement. Bray recounts:

Miss Evans’s head is a very large one, 22¼ inches round; George Combe, on first seeing the cast, took it for a man’s.* The temperament, nervous lymphatic, that is, active without endurance, and her working hours were never more than from 9 a.m. till 1 p.m. … In her brain development the Intellect greatly predominates; it is very large, more in length than in its peripheral surface. In the Feelings, the Animal and the Moral regions are about equal; the moral being quite sufficient to keep the animal in order and in due subservience, but would not be spontaneously active. The social feelings were very active, particularly the adhesiveness. She was of a most affectionate disposition, always requiring some one to lean upon, preferring what has hitherto been considered the stronger sex, to the other and more impressible. She was not fitted to stand alone. Her sense of Character — of men and things, is a predominantingly intellectual one, with which the Feelings have little to do, and the exceeding fairness for which she is noted, towards all parties, towards all sects of denominations, is probably owing to her little feeling on the subject, — at least not enough to interfere with her judgment. She saw all sides, and they are always many, clearly, and without prejudice.

To be sure, Eliot didn’t take it all without a grain of salt. Two years earlier, she had written in a letter:

I am pronounced to possess a large organ of “adhesiveness,” a still larger one of “firmness,” and a large of conscientiousness. Hence if I should turn out a very weather cock and a most pitiful truckler you will have data for the exercise of faith maugre [notwithstanding] common sense, common justice, and the testimony of your eyes and ears.

In August of 1851, Eliot and a small group of friends visited with George Combe himself — the reigning godfather of phrenology for more than twenty years, and a great admirer of Eliot’s work. The evening of the visit, he revisited the subject of her head in his journal, after remarking that she was “the most extraordinary person in the party.”** Peeking from underneath the pseudoscience, however, is a very real observation about what lent Eliot her mesmerism — and what makes a person compelling in general:

She has a very large brain, the anterior lobe is remarkable for length, breadth, & height, the coronal region is large, the front rather predominating; the base is broad at Destruct[iveness]: but moderate at Aliment[iveness] & the portion behind the ear is rather small in the regions of Comb[ativeness], Amat[iveness] & Philopro[gentiveness]. Love of approb. and Concentrativeness are large. Her tempera[ment] is nervous lymphatic. She is rather tall, near 40 apparently,*** pale & in delicate health. She is an excellent musician. … She [showed] great analytic power & an instinctive soundness of judgment. … She is extremely feminine & gentle; & the great strength of her intellect combined with this quality renders her very interesting.

George Eliot: Interviews and Recollections is full of such unexpected curiosities shedding light on one of the most enigmatic and enthralling personae in literary history. Complement it with what Eliot teaches us about the life-cycle of happiness.

* In another recollection from the book, a woman named Susanna Chapman, the wife of publisher John Chapman, describes meeting Eliot for the first time and remarks, with rather ungenerous anatomical bluntness, on her head size: “She had such fine eyes, and the upper part of her face was so good, that it quite redeemed the lower part, which was large for a woman, and heavy set. I remember being struck to find how short she was when she rose from the tea-table.”

** Even Combe was cognizant of the limitations of his “science.” Three years later, upon finding out that Eliot had eloped to Germany with the married George Henry Lewes, with whom she went on to live for 20 years, Combe’s high opinion of her sound judgment and gentleness crumbled, and he even revisited this journal entry to add the following note: “This was written from eye-observation. She has gone off as the mistress of Mr. Lewes, a married man with 6 children.”

*** She was 31.

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25 OCTOBER, 2013

Art as Therapy: Alain de Botton on the 7 Psychological Functions of Art


“Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness.”

The question of what art is has occupied humanity since the dawn of recorded history. For Tolstoy, the purpose of art was to provide a bridge of empathy between us and others, and for Anaïs Nin, a way to exorcise our emotional excess. But the highest achievement of art might be something that reconciles the two: a channel of empathy into our own psychology that lets us both exorcise and better understand our emotions — in other words, a form of therapy.

In Art as Therapy (public library), philosopher Alain de Botton — who has previously examined such diverse and provocative subjects as why work doesn’t work, what education and the arts can learn from religion, and how to think more about sex — teams up with art historian John Armstrong to examine art’s most intimate purpose: its ability to mediate our psychological shortcomings and assuage our anxieties about imperfection. Their basic proposition is that, far more than mere aesthetic indulgence, art is a tool — a tool that serves a rather complex yet straightforwardly important purpose in our existence:

Like other tools, art has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with. Art compensates us for certain inborn weaknesses, in this case of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses that we can refer to as psychological frailties.

De Botton and Armstrong go on to outline the seven core psychological functions of art:


Given the profound flaws of our memory and the unreliability of its self-revision, it’s unsurprising that the fear of forgetting — forgetting specific details about people and places, but also forgetting all the minute, mundane building blocks that fuse together into the general wholeness of who we are — would be an enormous source of distress for us. Since both memory and art are as much about what is being left out as about what is being spotlighted, de Botton and Armstrong argue that art offers an antidote to this unease:

What we’re worried about forgetting … tends to be quite particular. It isn’t just anything about a person or scene that’s at stake; we want to remember what really matters, and the people we call good artists are, in part, the ones who appear to have made the right choices about what to communicate and what to leave out. … We might say that good artwork pins down the core of significance, while its bad counterpart, although undeniably reminding us of something, lets an essence slip away. It is an empty souvenir.

'We don't just observe her, we get to know what is important about her.' Johannes Vermeer, 'Woman in Blue Reading a Letter' (1663).

Art, then, is not only what rests in the frame, but is itself a frame for experience:

Art is a way of preserving experiences, of which there are many transient and beautiful examples, and that we need help containing.


Our conflicted relationship with beauty presents a peculiar paradox: The most universally admired art is of the “pretty” kind — depictions of cheerful and pleasant scenes, faces, objects, and situations — yet “serious” art critics and connoisseurs see it as a failure of taste and of intelligence. (Per Susan Sontag’s memorable definition, the two are inextricably intertwined anyway: “Intelligence … is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”) De Botton and Armstrong consider the implications:

The love of prettiness is often deemed a low, even a “bad” response, but because it is so dominant and widespread it deserves attention, and may hold important clues about a key function of art. … The worries about prettiness are twofold. Firstly, pretty pictures are alleged to feed sentimentality. Sentimentality is a symptom of insufficient engagement with complexity, by which one really means problems. The pretty picture seems to suggest that in order to make life nice, one merely has to brighten up the apartment with a depiction of some flowers. If we were to ask the picture what is wrong with the world, it might be taken as saying ‘you don’t have enough Japanese water gardens’ — a response that appears to ignore all the more urgent problems that confront humanity. . . . . The very innocence and simplicity of the picture seems to militate against any attempt to improve life as a whole. Secondly, there is the related fear that prettiness will numb us and leave us insufficiently critical and alert to the injustices surrounding us.

But these worries, they argue, are misguided. Optimism, rather than a failure of intelligence, is a critical cognitive and psychoemotional skill in our quest to live well — something even neuroscience has indicated — and hope, its chariot, is something to cherish, not condemn:

Cheerfulness is an achievement, and hope is something to celebrate. If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success. This flies in the face of the elite view that talent is the primary requirement of a good life, but in many cases the difference between success and failure is determined by nothing more than our sense of what is possible and the energy we can muster to convince others of our due. We might be doomed not by a lack of skill, but by an absence of hope.

Put simply and poignantly, it pays to “imagine immensities.”

'What hope might look like.' Henry Matisse, 'Dance' (II), 1909.

They offer an example:

The dancers in Matisse’s painting are not in denial of the troubles of this planet, but from the standpoint of our imperfect and conflicted — but ordinary — relationship with reality, we can look to their attitude for encouragement. They put us in touch with a blithe, carefree part of ourselves that can help us cope with inevitable rejections and humiliations. The picture does not suggest that all is well, any more than it suggests that women always delight in each other’s existence and bond together in mutually supportive networks.

And so we return to why prettiness sings to us:

The more difficult our lives, the more a graceful depiction of a flower might move us. The tears — if they come — are in response not to how sad the image is, but how pretty.


We should be able to enjoy an ideal image without regarding it as a false picture of how things usually are. A beautiful, though partial, vision can be all the more precious to us because we are so aware of how rarely life satisfies our desires.


Since we’re creatures of infinite inner contradiction, art can help us be more whole not only by expanding our capacity for positive emotions but also by helping us to fully inhabit and metabolize the negative — and by doing so with dignity and by reminding us “of the legitimate place of sorrow in a good life”:

One of the unexpectedly important things that art can do for us is teach us how to suffer more successfully. … We can see a great deal of artistic achievement as “sublimated” sorrow on the part of the artist, and in turn, in its reception, on the part of the audience. The term sublimation derives from chemistry. It names the process by which a solid substance is directly transformed into a gas, without first becoming liquid. In art, sublimation refers to the psychological processes of transformation, in which base and unimpressive experiences are converted into something noble and fine — exactly what may happen when sorrow meets art.

'Sublimation: the transformation of suffering into beauty.' Nan Goldin, 'Siobhan in My Mirror' (1992).

Above all, de Botton and Armstrong argue, art helps us feel less alone in our suffering, to which the social expression of our private sorrows lends a kind of affirmative dignity. They offer an example in the work of photographer Nan Goldin, who explored the lives of the queer community with equal parts curiosity and respect long before champions like Andrew Sullivan first pulled the politics of homosexuality into the limelight of mainstream cultural discourse:

Until far too recently, homosexuality lay largely outside the province of art. In Nan Goldin’s work, it is, redemptively, one of its central themes. Goldin’s art is filled with a generous attentiveness towards the lives of its subjects. Although we might not be conscious of it at first, her photograph of a young and, as we discern, lesbian woman examining herself in the mirror is composed with utmost care. The device of reflection is key. In the room itself the woman is out of focus; we don’t see her directly, just the side of her face an and the blur or a hand. The accent is on the make-up she has just been using. It is in the mirror that we see her as she wants to be seen: striking and stylish, her hand suave and eloquent. The work of art functions like a kindly voice that says, “I see you as you hope to be seen, I see you as worthy of love.” The photograph understands the longing to become a more polished and elegant version of oneself. It sounds, of course, an entirely obvious wish; but for centuries, partly because there were no Goldins, it was anything but.

Therein, they argue, lies one of art’s greatest gifts:

Art can offer a grand and serious vantage point from which to survey the travails of our condition.


With our fluid selves, clusters of tormenting contradictions, and culture of prioritizing productivity over presence, no wonder we find ourselves in need of recentering. That’s precisely what art can offer:

Few of us are entirely well balanced. Our psychological histories, relationships and working routines mean that our emotions can incline grievously in one direction or another. We may, for example, have a tendency to be too complacent, or too insecure; too trusting, or too suspicious; too serious, or too light-hearted. Art can put us in touch with concentrated doses of our missing dispositions, and thereby restore a measure of equilibrium to our listing inner selves.

This function of art also helps explain the vast diversity of our aesthetic preferences — because our individual imbalances differ, so do the artworks we seek out to soothe them:

Why are some people drawn to minimalist architecture and others to Baroque? Why are some people excited by bare concrete walls and others by William Morris’s floral patterns? Our tastes will depend on what spectrum of our emotional make-up lies in shadow and is hence in need of stimulation and emphasis. Every work of art is imbued with a particular psychological and moral atmosphere: a painting may be either serene or restless, courageous or careful, modest or confident, masculine or feminine, bourgeois or aristocratic, and our preferences for one kind over another reflect our varied psychological gaps. We hunger for artworks that will compensate for our inner fragilities and help return us to a viable mean. We call a work beautiful when it supplies the virtues we are missing, and we dismiss as ugly one that forces on us moods or motifs that we feel either threatened or already overwhelmed by. Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness.

Viewing art from this perspective, de Botton and Armstrong argue, also affords us the necessary self-awareness to understand why we might respond negatively to a piece of art — an insight that might prevent us from reactive disparagement. Being able to recognize what someone lacks in order to find an artwork beautiful allows us to embody that essential practice of prioritizing understanding over self-righteousness. In this respect, art is also a tuning — and atoning — mechanism for our moral virtues. In fact, some of history’s most celebrated art is anchored on moralistic missions — what de Botton and Armstrong call “an attempt to encourage our better selves through coded messages of exhortation and admonition” — to which we often respond with resistance and indignation. But such reactions miss the bigger point:

We might think of works of art that exhort as both bossy and unnecessary, but this would assume an encouragement of virtue would always be contrary to our own desires. However, in reality, when we are calm and not under fire, most of us long to be good and wouldn’t mind the odd reminder to be so; we simply can’t find the motivation day to day. In relation to our aspirations to goodness, we suffer from what Aristotle called akrasia, or weakness of will. We want to behave well in our relationships, but slip up under pressure. We want to make more of ourselves, but lose motivation at a critical juncture. In these circumstances, we can derive enormous benefit from works of art that encourage us to be the best versions of ourselves, something that we would only resent if we had a manic fear of outside intervention, or thought of ourselves as perfect already.

The best kind of cautionary art — art that is moral without being “moralistic” — understands how easy it is to be attracted to the wrong things.


The task for artists, therefore, is to find new ways of prying open our eyes to tiresomely familiar, but critically important, ideas about how to lead a balanced and good life.

'A reason to say sorry.' Eve Arnold, 'Divorce in Moscow' (1966).

They summarize this function of art beautifully:

Art can save us time — and save our lives — through opportune and visceral reminders of balance and goodness that we should never presume we know enough about already.


Despite our best efforts at self-awareness, we’re all too often partial or complete mysteries to ourselves. Art, de Botton and Armstrong suggest, can help shed light on those least explored nooks of our psyche and make palpable the hunches of intuition we can only sense but not articulate:

We are not transparent to ourselves. We have intuitions, suspicions, hunches, vague musings, and strangely mixed emotions, all of which resist simple definition. We have moods, but we don’t really know them. Then, from time to time, we encounter works of art that seem to latch on to something we have felt but never recognized clearly before. Alexander Pope identified a central function of poetry as taking thoughts we experience half-formed and giving them clear expression: “what was often thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” In other words, a fugitive and elusive part of our own thinking, our own experience, is taken up, edited, and returned to us better than it was before, so that we feel, at last, that we know ourselves more clearly.

More than that, they argue, the self-knowledge art bequeaths gives us a language for communicating that to others — something that explains why we are so particular about the kinds of art with which we surround ourselves publicly, a sort of self-packaging we all practice as much on the walls of our homes as we do on our Facebook walls and art Tumblrs. While the cynic might interpret this as mere showing off, however, de Botton and Armstrong peel away this superficial interpretation to reveal the deeper psychological motive — our desire to communicate to others the subtleties of who we are and what we believe in a way that words might never fully capture.


Besides inviting deeper knowledge of our own selves, art also allows us to expand the boundaries of who we are by helping us overcome our chronic fear of the unfamiliar and living more richly by inviting the unknown:

Engagement with art is useful because it presents us with powerful examples of the kind of alien material that provokes defensive boredom and fear, and allows us time and privacy to learn to deal more strategically with it. An important first step in overcoming defensiveness around art is to become more open about the strangeness that we feel in certain contexts.

De Botton and Armstrong propose three critical steps to overcoming our defensiveness around art: First, acknowledging the strangeness we feel and being gentle on ourselves for feeling it, recognizing that it’s completely natural — after all, so much art comes from people with worldviews radically different from, and often contradictory to, our own; second, making ourselves familiar and thus more at home with the very minds who created that alien art; finally, looking for points of connection with the artist, “however fragile and initially tenuous,” so we can relate to the work that sprang from the context of their life with the personal reality of our own context.


Our attention, as we know, is “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator” that blinds us to so much of what is around us and to the magic in our familiar surroundings. Art, de Botton and Armstrong argue, can lift these blinders so we can truly absorb not only just what we’re expecting to see, but also what we aren’t:

One of our major flaws, and causes of unhappiness, is that we find it hard to take note of what is always around us. We suffer because we lose sight of the value of what is before us and yearn, often unfairly, for the imagined attraction elsewhere.

While habit can be a remarkable life-centering force, it is also a double-edged sword that can slice off a whole range of experiences as we fall into autopilot mode. Art can decondition our habituation to what is wonderful and worthy of rejoicing:

Art is one resource that can lead us back to a more accurate assessment of what is valuable by working against habit and inviting us to recalibrate what we admire or love.

'Paying attention to ordinary life.' Jasper Johns, 'Painted Bronze' (1960).

One example they offer comes from Jasper Johns’s famous bronze-cast beer cans, which nudge us to look at a mundane and familiar object with new eyes:

The heavy, costly material they are made of makes us newly aware of their separateness and oddity: we see them as though we had never laid eyes on cans before, acknowledging their intriguing identifies as a child or a Martian, both free of habit in this area, might naturally do.

Johns is teaching us a lesson: how to look with kinder and more alert eyes at the world around us.

Such is the power of art: It is both witness to and celebrator of the value of the ordinary, which we so frequently forsake in our quests for artificial greatness, a kind of resensitization tool that awakens us to the richness of our daily lives:

[Art] can teach us to be more just towards ourselves as we endeavor to make the best of our circumstances: a job we do not always love, the imperfections of middle age, our frustrated ambitions and our attempts to stay loyal to irritable but loved spouses. Art can do the opposite of glamorizing the unattainable; it can reawaken us to the genuine merit of life as we’re forced to lead it.

The rest of Art as Therapy goes on to examine such eternal questions as what makes good art, what kind of art one should make, how art should be displayed, studied, bought and sold, and a heartening wealth more. Complement it with 100 ideas that changed art.

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