Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

08 MARCH, 2013

Synergetics and The Wellspring of Reality: Buckminster Fuller Against Specialization

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“Only mind can discover how to do so much with so little as forever to be able to sustain and physically satisfy all humanity.”

Writer Alvin Toffler once described architect, theorist, designer, and futurist Buckminster Fuller as “one of the most-powerful myth-makers and myth-exposers of our time … a controversial, constructive, endlessly energetic metaphor-maker who sees things differently from the rest of us, and thereby makes us see ourselves afresh” — perhaps the richest and most accurate account of a mind to whom we owe more than we realize.

Today, the concept of synergy permeates everything from boardrooms to artspeak to hipster dinner party chatter — but it was Fuller who coined it as cultural currency in pioneering the study of synergentics, which concerns itself with the “behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately.” In “The Wellspring of Reality,” the introductory essay to his seminal 1975 volume Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking (public library), Fuller decries specialization as the enemy of synergy and proposes a reframing of culture that could “get all of humanity to educate itself swiftly enough to generate spontaneous social behaviors that will avoid extinction.” At its epicenter he places the value of wide curiosity and generalist knowledge.

Fuller begins:

We are in an age that assumes the narrowing trends of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable. Consequently, society expects all earnestly responsible communication to be crisply brief. Advancing science has now discovered that all the known cases of biological extinction have been caused by overspecialization, whose concentration of only selected genes sacrifices general adaptability. Thus the specialist’s brief for pinpointing brevity is dubious. In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war.

He makes an eloquent contribution to history’s greatest definitions of science:

Science is the attempt to set in order the facts of experience.

While contemporary neuroscientists might scoff at the distinction between brain and mind, claiming that “trying to suggest one causes the other is like saying wetness causes water” — a contention biologically correct in some ways and spiritually impoverished in others, worrisomely neuro-deterministic and negating the reality of the malleable self — Fuller does make a noteworthy distinction, reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s concept of the “brain attic” and modern-day conceptions of how creativity works:

The human brain is a physical mechanism for storing, retrieving, and re-storing again, each special-case experience. The experience is often a packaged concept.

[…]

Mind is the weightless and uniquely human faculty that surveys the ever larger inventory of special-case experiences stored in the brain bank and, seeking to identify their intercomplementary significance, from time to time discovers one of the rare scientifically generalizable principles running consistently through all the relevant experience set. The thoughts that discover these principles are weightless and tentative and may also be eternal. … It seems also to follow that the more experiences we have, the more chances there are that the mind may discover, on the one hand, additional generalized principles or, on the other hand, exceptions that disqualify one or another of the already catalogued principles that, having heretofore held ‘true’ without contradiction for a long time, had been tentatively conceded to be demonstrating eternal persistence of behavior. Mind’s relentless reviewing of the comprehensive brain bank’s storage of all our special-case experiences tends both to progressive enlargement and definitive refinement of the catalogue of generalized principles that interaccommodatively govern all transactions of Universe.

In a sentiment that the late Aaron Swartz seemed to echo in his memorable wisdom on curiosity, Fuller cautions:

Specialization tends to shut off the wide-band tuning searches and thus to preclude further discovery.

(Indeed, we see such “wide-band tuning” as central to the expansive genius of celebrated “specialists,” as evidenced by the reading lists of Carl Sagan and Alan Turing.)

Fuller then moves on to the vital distinction between money-work and purpose, debunking the myth of the zero-sum game of prosperity:

It is also mistakenly assumed that employment is the only means by which humans can earn the right to live, for politicians have yet to discover how much wealth is available for distribution. All this is rationalized on the now scientifically discredited premise that there can never be enough life support for all. Thus humanity’s specialization leads only toward warring and such devastating tools, both, visible and invisible, as ultimately to destroy all Earthians.

[…]

It is eminently feasible not only to provide full life support for all humans but also to permit all humans’ individual enjoyment of all the Earth without anyone profiting at the expense of another and without any individuals interfering with others.

Indeed, I wholeheartedly subscribe to this notion of symbiotic prosperity, something my favorite graphic designer, Milton Glaser, articulates beautifully in Debbie Millman’s indispensable How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, in words I quoted in this hand-drawn slide from a recent talk:

Fuller points to the usefulness of useless knowledge as a critical element in this collective abundance and the salvation of our species:

Only a comprehensive switch from the narrowing specialization and toward an ever more inclusive and reining comprehension by all humanity — regarding all the factors covering omnicontinuing life aboard our spaceship Earth — can bring about reorientation from the self-extinction-bound human trending, and do so with the critical time remaining before we have passed the point of chemical process irretrievability.

[…]

Specialization’s preoccupation with parts deliberately forfeits the opportunity to apprehend and comprehend what is provided exclusively by synergy.

Amidst the obstacles to such synergetic success, he counts the bias of the news media — a point all the more prescient in the age of the “Gladwell Effect”, as editors would deliberately inflate information to make headlines more clickable. Fuller laments:

Today’s news consists of aggregates of fragments. Anyone who has taken part in any event that has subsequently appeared in the news is aware of the gross disparity between the actual and the reported events. … We also learn frequently of prefabricated and prevaricated events of a complex nature purportedly undertaken for the purposes either of suppressing or rigging the news, which in turn perverts humanity’s tactical information resources. All history becomes suspect. Probably our most polluted resource is the tactical information to which humanity spontaneously reflexes.

Bewailing scientific reductionism in a passage that falls squarely between Einstein and Tagore, Fuller — true to his reputation as a fringe-thinker — makes a case for the metaphysical as inextricably intertwined with the physical:

Science’s self-assumed responsibility has been self-limited to disclosure to society only of the separate, supposedly physical (because separately weighable) atomic component isolations data. Synergetic integrity would require the scientists to announce that in reality what had been identified heretofore as physical is entirely metaphysical — because synergetically weightless. Metaphysical has been science’s designation for all weightless phenomena such as thought. But science has made no experimental finding of any phenomena that can be described as a solid, or as continuous, or as a straight surface plane, or as a straight line, or as infinite anything. We are now synergetically forced to conclude that all phenomena are metaphysical; wherefore, as many have long suspected — like it or not — life is but a dream.

To be sure, Fuller is far from negating science. To the contrary, he — like Bertrand Russell — sees it as essential to democracy and social good:

Unguided by science, society is allowed to go right on filling its children’s brain banks with large inventories of competence-devastating misinformation.

Presaging the ethos of the Occupy movement, Fuller observes:

The youth of humanity all around our planet are intuitively revolting from all sovereignties and political ideologies. The youth of Earth are moving intuitively toward an utterly classless, raceless, omnicooperative, omniworld humanity.

Fuller portends contemporary grievances about our flawed education system and concludes with a hopeful vision for tomorrow:

Children freed of the ignorantly founded educational traditions and exposed only to their spontaneously summoned, computer-stored and -distributed outflow of reliable-opinion-purged, experimentally verified data, shall indeed lead society to its happy egress from all misinformedly conceived, fearfully and legally imposed, and physically enforced customs of yesterday. They can lead all humanity into omnisuccessful survival as well as entrance into an utterly new era of human experience in an as-yet and ever-will-be fundamentally mysterious Universe.

And whence will come the wealth with which we may undertake to lead world man into his new and validly hopeful life? From the wealth of the minds of world man — whence comes all wealth. Only mind can discover how to do so much with so little as forever to be able to sustain and physically satisfy all humanity.

Synergetics, a hefty tome of nearly 1,000 pages, is fascinating and mind-bending in its entirety. Complement it with Benjamin Betts’s Geometrical Psychology from nearly a century earlier and Bertrand Russell’s Education and the Good Life.

Public domain photographs courtesy State Archives of North Carolina

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27 FEBRUARY, 2013

Lord Chesterfield on the Art of Pleasing: Outlandish Advice to His Teenage Son, 1748

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“You may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh while you live.”

Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, better-known simply as Lord Chesterfield, remains best-remembered for the hundreds of witty and wise letters he wrote to his son, spanning everything from history and literature to meditations on philosophy to advice on life and love — an intriguing addition to history’s greatest letters of fatherly guidance in some ways, and a compendium of terrible advice in others. Beginning in 1737 and ending with the young man’s sudden death in 1768 at the age of 36, which devastated Lord Chesterfield, the 400 or so surviving letters were collected by the son’s widow in 1774 and published in a hefty tome titled Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (public library; public domain).

Among Lord Chesterfield’s wide-ranging counsel is a section dedicated to “the art of pleasing,” peppered with outlandish suggestions that at once bespeak the era’s biases and reveal the earl’s deep investment in his son’s success and happiness.

Writing from Bath on March 9, 1748, he advises the 16-year-old boy:

I must from time to time remind you of what I have often recommended to you, and of what you cannot attend to too much: sacrifice to the graces. Intrinsic merit alone will not do; it will gain you the general esteem of all, but not the particular affection, that is the heart, of any. To engage the affections of any particular person you must, over and above your general merit, have some particular merit to that person; by services done, or offered; by expressions of regard and esteem; by complaisance, attentions, etc., for him; and the graceful manner of doing all these things opens the way to the heart, and facilitates, or rather, insures, their effects.

A thousand little things, not separately to be described, conspire to form these graces, this je ne scais quoi, that always pleases. A pretty person, a proper degree of dress, an harmonious voice, something open and cheerful in the countenance, but without laughing; a distinct and properly varied manner of speaking; all these things and many others are necessary ingredients in the composition of the pleasing je ne scais quoi, which everybody feels, though nobody can describe. Observe carefully, then, what displeases or pleases you in others, and be persuaded that, in general, the same things will please or displease them in you.

Having mentioned laughing, I must particularly warn you against it; and I would heartily wish that you may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill-manners; it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joy at silly things; and they call it being merry. In my mind there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter. I am neither of a melancholy nor a cynical disposition, and am as willing and as apt to be pleased as anybody; but I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason nobody has ever heard me laugh. Many people, at first, from awkwardness and mauvaise honte, have got a very disagreeable and silly trick of laughing whenever they speak.

This, and many other very disagreeable habits, are owing to mauvaise honte at their first setting out in the world. They are ashamed in company, and so disconcerted that they do not know what they do, and try a thousand tricks to keep themselves in countenance; which tricks afterwards grow habitual to them. Some put their fingers in their nose, others scratch their heads, others twirl their hats; in short, every awkward, ill-bred body has its tricks. But the frequency does not justify the thing, and all these vulgar habits and awkwardness are most carefully to be guarded against, as they are great bars in the way of the art of pleasing.

On September 5th the same year, Lord Chesterfield sends the boy a letter from London, offering further counsel on the acquisition of manners and the art of pleasing. Though at first glance his advice may appear to encourage superficiality by way of imitating the manners of others, perhaps the art of pleasing is no different from all art, which Virginia Woolf reminds us is invariably rooted in imitation. Lord Chesterfield writes:

Berlin will be entirely a new scene to you, and I look upon it, in a manner, as your first step into the great world; take care that step be not a false one, and that you do not stumble at the threshold. You will there be in more company than you have yet been; manners and attentions will, therefore, be more necessary.

You will best acquire these by frequenting the companies of people of fashion; but then you must resolve to acquire them, in those companies, by proper care and observation. When you go into good company — by good company is meant the people of the first fashion of the place — observe carefully their turn, their manners, their address; and conform your own to them. But this is not all either; go deeper still; observe their characters, and pry into both their hearts and their heads. Seek for their particular merit, their predominant passion, or their prevailing weakness; and you will then know what to bait your hook with to catch them.

The letter then takes a sexist turn for the so-appalling-it’s-almost-amusing as Lord Chesterfield shares with the boy a carefully guided secret about how to gain the favors of a creature useful in the honing of manners but otherwise witless, humorless, and generally useless:

As women are a considerable, or, at least, a pretty numerous part of company; and as their suffrages go a great way towards establishing a man’s character in the fashionable part of the world, which is of great importance to the fortune and figure he proposes to make in it, it is necessary to please them. I will, therefore, upon this subject, let you into certain arcana that will be very useful for you to know, but which you must, with the utmost care, conceal and never seem to know.

Women, then, are only children of a larger growth; they have an entertaining tattle, and sometimes wit; but for solid reasoning, good sense, I never knew in my life one that had it, or who reasoned or acted consequentially for four-and-twenty hours together. Some little passion or humour always breaks in upon their best resolutions. Their beauty neglected or controverted, their age increased or their supposed understandings depreciated, instantly kindles their little passions, and overturns any system of consequential conduct that in their most reasonable moments they have been capable of forming. A man of sense only trifles with them, plays with them, humours and flatters them, as he does with a sprightly, forward child; but he neither consults them about nor trusts them with, serious matters; though he often makes them believe that he does both, which is the thing in the world that they are proud of.

But these are secrets, which you must keep inviolably, if you would not, like Orpheus, be torn to pieces by the whole sex. On the contrary, a man who thinks of living in the great world must be gallant, polite, and attentive to please the women. They have, from the weakness of men, more or less influence in all courts; they absolutely stamp every man’s character in the beau monde, and make it either current, or cry it down, and stop it in payment.

It is, therefore, absolutely necessary to manage, please, and flatter them; and never to discover the least mark of contempt, which is what they never forgive; but in this they are not singular, for it is the same with men, who will much sooner forgive an injustice than an insult.

These are some of the hints which my long experience in the great world enables me to give you, and which, if you attend to them, may prove useful to you in your journey through it. I wish it may be a prosperous one; at least, I am sure that it must be your own fault if it is not.

Complement Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman with some decidedly more measured, thoughtful, and timeless fatherly advice from Sherwood Anderson, Charles Dickens and Ted Hughes.

Artwork by Wilber H. Schilling

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26 FEBRUARY, 2013

10½ Favorite Reads from TED Bookstore 2013

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A full-brain reading list of cross-disciplinary stimulation.

Once again this year, like last, I had the honor of curating a selection of books for the TED Bookstore at TED 2013, themed The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered. Below are this year’s picks, along with the original text that appears on the bookstore cards and the introductory blurb about the selection:

‘I feel … as though the physical stuff of my brain were expanding, larger and larger, throbbing quicker and quicker with new blood — and there is no more delicious sensation than this,’ Virginia Woolf wrote on the mesmerism of books. Gathered here are books to make both hemispheres throb with boundless delight, stimulation, and deliciousness.

I SAW A PEACOCK WITH A FIERY TAIL

A die-cut masterpiece, two years in the making, I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail (public library), one of the best art books of 2012, is based on a 17th-century British “trick” poem and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe by Indian artist Ramsingh Urveti. It comes from Indian independent publisher Tara Books (), who for the nearly two decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a community of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books.

Originally featured, with more images and a trailer, last May.

TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS

When an anonymous advice columnist by the name of “Dear Sugar” introduced herself on The Rumpus on March 11, 2010, she made her proposition clear: a “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” But in the two-some years that followed, she proceeded to deliver something tenfold punchier, more honest, more existentially profound than even such an intelligently irreverent promise could foretell. Collected in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library), one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, is her no-bullshit, wholehearted wisdom on life’s trickiest contexts — sometimes the simplest, sometimes the most complex, always the most deeply human — published under Sugar’s long-awaited real name.

Turn to page 352 for a sublime taste.

BIG QUESTIONS FROM LITTLE PEOPLE

The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical in requiring apple-pie-from-scratch type of answers. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children between the ages of four and twelve to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers — including TEDsters like Alain de Botton, Mary Roach, and Richard Dawkins — to answer them. The result is Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds (public library), among both the best children’s books of 2012 and the year’s overall reader favorites. A portion of the proceeds from the book benefits Save the Children.

Originally featured, with several excerpts from the heart-warming, brain-tickling questions and answers, last November.

INTERNAL TIME

“Six hours’ sleep for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool,” Napoleon famously prescribed. But despite the laughably sexist hierarchy, his rule of thumb turns out to be grossly unsupported by science. In Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired (public library), one of the best science books of 2012, German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg demonstrates through a wealth of research that our sleep patterns have little to do with laziness and other such scorned character flaws, and everything to do with biology.

Originally featured at length last May.

WHERE THE HEART BEATS

In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (public library), also one of the best philosophy books of 2012, longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson constructs an exceptional intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of John Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists. Fifteen years in the making, this superbly researched, exquisitely written tome weaves together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.

Originally featured, with bountiful excerpts and photographs, last July.

AS CONSCIOUSNESS IS HARNESSED TO FLESH

The second published volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), one of the best history books of 2012, offers an intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices. Especially enchanting is the evolution of her relationship with love over that decade and a half, as Sontag settles into her own skin not only as a dimensional writer but also as a dimensional human being.

Sample this treasure with Sontag’s wisdom on love, art, education, writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms.

THE WHERE, THE WHY, AND THE HOW

In The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (UK; public library), one of the best science books of 2012, some of today’s most celebrated artists create scientific illustrations and charts to accompany short essays about the most fascinating unanswered questions on the minds of contemporary scientists across biology, astrophysics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, anthropology, and more. The questions cover such mind-bending subjects as whether there are more than three dimensions, why we sleep and dream, what causes depression, how long trees live, and why humans are capable of language. Above all, the project is a testament to the idea that ignorance is what drives discovery and wonder is what propels science — a reminder to, as Rilke put it, live the questions and delight in reflecting on the mysteries themselves.

Originally featured, with artwork and answers, in October.

HENRI’S WALK TO PARIS

Saul Bass is considered by many — myself included — the greatest graphic designer of all time, responsible for some of the most timeless logos and most memorable film title sequences of the twentieth century. In 1962, Bass collaborated with former librarian Leonore Klein on his only children’s book, which spent decades as a prized out-of-print collector’s item. Exactly half a century later, Henri’s Walk to Paris (public library), one of 2012’s best children’s books, was brought back to life.

Originally featured, with more images, last February.

A TECHNIQUE FOR PRODUCING IDEAS

Originally published by an ad man named James Webb Young in 1939, A Technique for Producing Ideas (public library) is a forgotten gem that lays out with striking lucidity and clarity the five essential steps for a productive creative process, touching on a number of elements corroborated by modern science and thinking on creativity: its reliance on process over mystical talent, its combinatorial nature, its demand for a pondering period, its dependence on the brain’s unconscious processes, and more.

Try Young’s 5-step technique here.

THE BIG NEW YORKER BOOK OF DOGS

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (public library) is a remarkable collection of canine-themed treats — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — by a slew of titans culled from the magazine’s archive, including E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl. Divided into four sections — Good Dogs, Bad Dogs, Top Dogs, and Underdogs — and spanning such subjects as evolution, domesticity, love, family, obedience, bereavement, language, and more, this lavish tome embodies what Malcolm Gladwell eloquently observes in the introduction: “Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.”

Cover by Maira Kalman, February 1, 1999

See it in its full glory here.


BONUS: ADVICE TO LITTLE GIRLS

In 1865, legendary satirist Mark Twain did something unexpected — he penned a children’s story, in which he challenged kids to digest the intelligent humor he was, and still is, known for among his adult audiences. Nearly a century and a half later, beloved Russian children’s illustrator Vladimir Radunsky and Brooklyn independent publisher Enchanted Lion () are bringing Advice to Little Girls (public library) to life, envisioned in the style of the scrapbooks and small albums that children of Twain’s era used for doodling and collecting various curious ephemera.

This little gem was a TED Bookstore exclusive — it isn’t publicly available until April, but it’s now out for pre-order.

Complement with other little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, then catch up on last year’s TED Bookstore selections.

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