Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘sociology’

23 OCTOBER, 2012

The Power of Introverts, Animated

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A necessary antidote to our culture’s extreme bias for extraversion.

In this short animated excerpt from Susan Cain’s RSA talk, based on her fantastic book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (public library) and illustrated by the darkly delightful Molly Crabapple, Cain explores how modern society evolved to glorify the qualities associated with extraversion. And yet, rather than being a social handicap, introversion isn’t just enormously widespread but also socially advantageous and necessary. She gives the example of Apple, which we’ve come to associate with the very vocal Steve Jobs — but Steve Wozniak, a sworn champion of the creative value of working alone, was just as indispensable in building the iconic company. The two complemented one another, just like extroverts and introverts would in an ideal world.

For a richer taste of Quiet, which was one of 7 great books by this year’s TED speakers, see Cain’s recent TED talk on the power of introverts:

Our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces, they are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation. And also we have this belief system right now that I call the new groupthink, which holds that all creativity and all productivity comes from a very oddly gregarious place.

[…]

There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.

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22 OCTOBER, 2012

David DeSteno on the Psychology of Compassion and Resilience

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How to use the intricate balance of altruism and self-interest to our collective advantage.

Last week, I journeyed to this year’s PopTech conference, where one of the most compelling talks came from psychologist David DeSteno, director of Northeastern University’s Social Emotions Lab and author of the fascinating Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us, one of last year’s 11 finest psychology books. DeSteno examines the science of compassion and resilience, and explores emerging ideas for leveraging the mechanisms of the mind that enable them:

The distress we see someone experiencing — the compassion we feel for them — isn’t determined by the objective facts on the ground; it’s determined by who’s looking. … It’s not the severity or the objective facts of a disaster that motivate us to feel compassion and to help — it’s whether or not we see ourselves in the victims.

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18 OCTOBER, 2012

One-Minute Animated Primers on Major Theories of Religion

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From Karl Marx to Richard Dawkins in 60 seconds.

Last year, Open University brought us 60-Second Adventures in Thought — a fascinating and wonderfully animated series exploring six famous philosophy thought experiments. This season, they’re back with 60-Second Adventures in Religion — four short informative yet jocular primers on some major theories of religious studies, offering a fine addition to these essential meditations on faith.

The first introduces Karl Marx and his conception of religion as a vehicle of illusory happiness and a means of oppression and social control:

The second explores religion as ritual through the work of pioneering sociologist Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte, better-known as Auguste, who — like Alain de Botton today — tried to start a secular religion based on values of charity, order, and science:

The third episode paints religion as a mother through Swiss antiquarian and Roman law professor J. J. Bachofer’s theories of matriarchy:

The final installment explores religion as a virus, a concept proposed by Richard Dawkins, who famously coined the term “meme”:

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17 OCTOBER, 2012

How the Invention of Walls Gave Rise to Eavesdropping

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A brief history of personal opacity and public space.

In Eavesdropping: An Intimate History (public library), biolinguist John L. Locke takes a fascinating look at the ubiquitous yet largely unexamined cultural phenomenon, from medieval voyeurism to Hitchcock’s Rear Window to Twitter and Facebook, by way of chimpanzee behavior and bird calls. He points to two conflicting features of eavesdropping that make it particularly interesting: On the one hand, it feeds on activity that is inherently intimate, with the “sender(s)” of the information unaware of its “receiver”; on the other hand, the information relayed is stolen by the receiver rather than donated by the sender.

But one of Locke’s most intriguing insights traces how the evolution of human civilization, and the rise of urbanization in particular, shaped the norms of — and necessity for — eavesdropping:

Our distant ancestors were secure because they could see each other at all times. They were either trusted, or did not need to be. But on the way to modernity many things happened. A sequence of factors — from sedentism and population growth to the construction of durable housing — nudged our ancestors along a path that could only lead to long periods of personal opacity. The process took many millennia but only began to seriously impact supplies of social knowledge in the last several thousand years.

When residential walls were erected, it was the beginning of truer and deeper forms of intimacy. Walls also made it difficult — and ultimately unnecessary — to look around every few seconds to see what others were doing. A human vigil, one beginning with ancestors that we share with apes, was reduced to manageable proportions, freeing up many hours of undistracted time per day. This would gradually increase opportunities to develop the kind of personal, marital, and familial relationships that we now hold dear.

At one time, the isolation-cum-privacy enabled by walls was about as welcome as incipient blindness. By blocking the eye, walls placed a premium on something that they knew very little about: trust. What was trust? Who could be trusted? With so few previous opportunities to violate trust, it was hard to tell. Predictably, suspiciousness and fear rose precipitously. If walls were to continue, more penetrant means of perception would be needed. Fortunately, a suitable cognitive mechanism was waiting in the wings.

It was eavesdropping, a term that I will use in its conventional sense to mean surreptitious observation as a technique for sampling the intimate experiences of others — whether the surveillant is peeking through a keyhole or just feigning inattention to ambient activity. But I also use the term metaphorically to represent the lifelong quest of all humans to know what is going on in the personal and private lives of others.

Nota Bene: For some bizarre reason, at the time of this writing, Amazon is selling the $35 book for $3 — grab a copy before the algorithm changes its mind.

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