Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘TED’

05 MAY, 2011

5 Guides to Life from Cultural Luminaries

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Finding practical applications for philosophy, or what Ovid can teach us about sex.

One of our favorite unattributed quotes goes as follows: “Life is a test. It is only a test. If this were your actual life, you would have been given better instructions.”

The good news is that guidance is in fact out there, which is why we’ve put together a short list of reads (and one documentary) that gather the best of what we’ve collectively learned about the tricky art of living. Where the self-help genre can be trite, a byproduct of the latest pop-culture trends, there’s comfort in knowing that these picks go deeper in their quest for human self-actualization.

ALL THINGS SHINING

In 2011, we live in an age without existential anchors, a state that leaves many of us feeling adrift in our day-to-day lives. So goes the argument behind All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. Though the book is co-written by academics with burnished credentials, All Things Shining is intended for the general reader, as the authors note in their forward.

[A]nyone who hopes to enrich his or her life by experiencing it in the light of classic philosophical and literary works can hope to find something here. Anyone who wants to lure back the shining things, to uncover the wonder we were once capable of experiencing… anyone who is done with indecision and waiting, with expressionlessness and lostness and sadness and angst, and who is ready for whatever it is that comes next.”

From Dante to David Foster Wallace, All Things Shining suggests that non-religious westerners look for sacraments in (sometimes surprising) new places. Places like the football field, as one of the book’s authors proposed during a recent appearance on The Colbert Report. Watch him get genially punted about by Colbert here:

EXAMINED LIFE

Director Astra Taylor has her subjects – and their minds – on the move in Examined Life: Philosophy Is in the Streets. What’s most refreshing about her excellent 2009 documentary is how it portrays today’s greatest living philosophers interacting with the world.

Cornel West expounds on the “funk” of birth from the backseat of a taxi cab driving through the streets of New York; Michael Hardt talks about political revolution while rowing a canoe through Central Park’s reservoir; and Slavoj Zizek holds forth on the Anthropocene while standing in the middle of a landfill. The Real doesn’t get much realer than this.

On the critical issues of justice, Martha Nussbaum (interviewed along Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive) remarks:

The Social Contract tradition is of course an academic, philosophical tradition, but it also has tremendous influence on popular culture and our general public life. Because every day we hear things like ‘those people don’t pay their own way’… So the idea that the good member of society is a producer who contributes advantage to everyone is a very live idea, and it lies behind the decline of welfare programs in this country.”

If their peripatetic musings leave you hungry for more, Taylor also published the complete interviews with eight of our most eminent contemporary minds as a book.

BREAKFAST WITH SOCRATES

In Breakfast with Socrates: An Extraordinary (Philosophical) Journey Through Your Ordinary Day, we were taken on a highly enjoyable tour of the mundane accompanied by the Buddha, Max Weber, and a host of other great thinkers. The book flows chronologically through a typical day, beginning with a chapter called “Waking Up,” logically, since both Descartes and Kant preside over the process of getting out of bed.

Running on the treadmill is an occasion for the following observation:

So let’s say Foucault is right: the gym is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an overtly friendly club on a covert mission to monitor not just your heart rate but your general regularity as a subject. Now turn that argument on its head: the state wouldn’t need to keep bodies docile if they didn’t hold the power to subvert it, which is to reconceive the body as a political weapon, an agent of resistance.”

What we liked most about Breakfast with Socrates was its absorption in the quotidian aspects of life, since, as its epigraph from the writer Annie Dillard reminds us, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

MORNING, NOON, AND NIGHT

Where Breakfast with Socrates walked us through the diurnal, the new publication Morning, Noon, and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books has nothing less than our entire lives on its itinerary. Its author, Arnold Weinstein, has been teaching literature at Brown University for more than four decades, and he brings a compelling intimacy to his subject.

In Morning, Noon, and Night something quite personal is at stake; namely, Weinstein’s own reckoning with the passing of time. His readings in the book’s latter half are particularly sensitive to the irrefutable phenomenon of mortality. To wit:

Baudelaire and Freud are cartographers of a special sort: they are alive to the temporal destinies of cities and humans. What they tell us, in their own way, is that humans are also historical monuments, replete with stories, memories, scar tissue, and the living pith of days and works.”

Alongside classics like Ulysses, contemporary works from Marjane Satrapi and Jonathan Safran Foer also appear in Weinstein’s existential exigesis.

THE CONSOLATIONS OF PHILOSOPHY

No survey of life lessons derived from luminaries would be complete without a pick from writer Alain de Botton. In The Consolations of Philosophy we get his well-established blend of wit and wisdom applied, most comfortingly, to the aspects of life that cause the most anxiety. In a chapter entitled “Consolation for Not Having Enough Money,” de Botton trades on the legacy of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Wealth is of course unlikely ever to make anyone miserable. But the crux of Epicurus’s argument is that if we have money without friends, freedom and an analysed life, we will never truly be happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy.”

Illustrations humorously illuminate de Botton’s other chapters, which draw on Seneca (how to address frustration and loss), Schopenhauer (on healing a broken heart), and Montaigne (for those suffering from feelings of inadequacy).

de Botton’s 2009 TED talk on “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success” has always been one of our favorites; and it touches on much the same anxious territory as The Consolations of Philosophy.

These five items draw deeply and across disciplines from the humanities and the social sciences, reminding us that we have a lot to learn still from those who have labored, lived, and loved before us. Better yet, we also get to be entertained on this long and winding road to enlightenment.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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25 APRIL, 2011

Edward Burtynsky’s Oil

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What vintage airplanes have to do with Chinese bridges and tire retirement.

As we revisit the Gulf oil spill on its first anniversary, its gruesome and deep-running consequences are more uncomfortably palpable than ever. And no one exposes the underbelly of this oil economy more viscerally than environmental photographer Edward Burtynsky. In his 2009 book, Oil, he explores the scale and reach of these politicized resourced through a decade’s worth of images from the world’s largest oil fields, refineries, auto plants and freeway interchanges.

State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) oilfields, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006

Image: Edward Burtynsky /Courtesy HASTD HUNT KRAEUTLER, New York / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Nanpu Bridge interchange, Shanghai, China, 2004

Image: Edward Burtynsky /Courtesy HASTD HUNT KRAEUTLER, New York / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Alberta oil sands, Fort McMurray, Alberta, 2007

Image: Edward Burtynsky /Courtesy HASTD HUNT KRAEUTLER, New York / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Oxford tire pile, Westley, California, USA, 1999

Image: Edward Burtynsky /Courtesy HASTD HUNT KRAEUTLER, New York / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Centre (AMARC), Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona, 2006

Image: Edward Burtynsky /Courtesy HASTD HUNT KRAEUTLER, New York / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Images via The Guardian

In 1997 I had what I refer to as my oil epiphany. It occurred to me that all the vast, man-altered landscapes I had been in pursuit of for over 20 years were all possible because of the discovery of oil and the mechanical advantage of the internal combustion engine.” ~ Edward Burtynsky

Burtynsky offers a fascinating closer look at the Oil project in this short but powerful 2009 TED talk:

Gripping and post-apocalyptic, the images in Oil reveal many facets of our petroleum lust with unprecedented breadth, depth and intimacy.

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18 APRIL, 2011

Why We Love: 5 Books on the Psychology of Love

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What Oscar Wilde has to do with Hippocrates and the neurochemistry of romance.

It’s often said that every song, every poem, every novel, every painting ever created is in some way “about” love. What this really means is that love is a central theme, an underlying preoccupation, in humanity’s greatest works. But what exactly is love? How does its mechanism spur such poeticism, and how does it lodge itself in our minds, hearts and souls so completely, so stubbornly, as to permeate every aspect of the human imagination? Today, we turn to 5 essential books that are “about” love in a different way — they turn an inquisitive lens towards this grand phenomenon and try to understand where it comes from, how it works, and what it means for the human condition.

ESSAYS IN LOVE

No superlative is an exaggeration of Alain de Botton‘s humble brilliance spanning everything from philosophy to architecture. Essays in Love is precisely the kind of thoughtful, poetic, highly intelligent tome De Botton has grown famous for. Part novel, part philosophical inquiry into the origin and machinery of romantic love, the book follows the story of a love affair, tracing each stage — from the initial dopamine-driven lovesickness to the despair of love’s demise — through a beautiful blend of intellectual analysis and deeply human felt emotion. In De Botton’s classic style of networked knowledge, the narrative is sprinkled with references to and quotes from the major Western philosophers, yet equally reflective of his signature style of absorbing, highly readable narrative.

Every fall into love involves [to adapt Oscar Wilde] the triumph of hope over self-knowledge. We fall in love hoping that we will not find in the other what we know is in ourselves – all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise and brute stupidity. We throw a cordon of love around the chosen one, and decide that everything that lies within it will somehow be free of our faults and hence lovable. We locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves, and through union with the beloved, hope somehow to maintain [against evidence of all self-knowledge] a precarious faith in the species.”

WHY WE LOVE

You might recall biological anthropologist Helen Fisher‘s work from this fascinating discussion of how antidepressants impact the experience of romantic love. That’s just one of a myriad equally fascinating facets of love Fisher dissects in Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love — a journey into the mind’s blend of neurochemistry and storytelling, the hormones and neurotransmitters that make us feel certain emotions, and the stories we choose to tell ourselves about those emotions. Fisher outlines the three key components of love, each involving different but connected brain systems — lust, driven by androgens and estrogens, the craving for sexual gratification; attraction, characterized by high dopamine and norepinephrine levels and low serotonin, euphoria when things are going well and terrible mood swings when they’re not, focused attention, obsessive thinking, and intense craving for the individual; and attachment, commandeered by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin and associated with the sense of calm, peace, and stability one feels with a long-term partner — and brings a researcher’s lens to fundamental questions about passion and obsession, joy and jealousy, monogamy and divorce.

Sample her work with this fantastic TED talk on the brain in love:

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF LOVE

Originally written in 1988, The Psychology of Love is an anthology of 16 academic, though highly readable, papers dissecting various aspects of love. The collection is divided into five parts, each focusing on a specific facet of understanding love, from global theories that explain the phenomenon, to the psychology of relationship maintenance, to a critical overview of the field of love research.

For many people, love is the most important thing in their lives. Without it, they feel as though their lives are incomplete. But what is “it”? This question has been addressed by poets, novelists, philosophers, theologians, and, of course, psychologists, among others. This book presents the attempts of contemporary psychologists whose field of expertise is the study of love and close relationships to figure out just what love is.”

The book is best-read in tandem with The New Psychology of Love, the 2008 follow-up to the original title — a priceless parallel that captures how scientific and technological innovation has improved and, in some cases, shifted our understanding of love’s psychological underbelly, and perhaps more importantly, the curious fact that nearly 25 years later, we still have no succinct and singular definition of “love.”

FALLING IN LOVE

Have you ever encountered a couple with disproportionately unequal attraction levels, only to find yourself thinking that the less-attractive person “must be really funny” or “is probably some sort of genius” or some other rational explanation of the seemingly mismatched pairing? In Falling in Love: Why We Choose the Lovers We Choose, social psychologist and researcher Ayala Malach Pines tackles this and many other mysteries of the psychology of mate selection through a masterfully woven mesh of social and clinical approaches to understanding romance. The book extracts its key insights from three case studies: An interview-based study of 100 romantic relationships, a cross-cultural, data-driven juxtaposition of American and Israeli accounts of falling in love, and another interview series of 100 couples examining their reasons for falling in love in the context of turmoil later in the relationship.

Is love really blind? A large body of theory and research, as well as my own research and many years of clinical work, have convinced me that the answer to this question is a firm no!”

From whether proximity is the hidden matchmaker of true romance to how conscious choices increase the likelihood of finding “true love,” Falling in Love is deeply fascinating yet warmly written, devoid of the hollow ring of academic pontification without compromising the rigor of the research or the depth of its conclusions.

A GENERAL THEORY OF LOVE

Besides having a cover the epitome of design’s capacity for communicating powerful concepts with brilliant visual simplicity, A General Theory of Love by psychologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon is also a first-of-its-kind synthesis of research and poeticism, bringing a social science eye to the natural history of the grandest emotion.

Since the dawn of our species, human beings in every time and place have contended with an unruly emotional core that behaves in unpredicted and confusing ways. Science has been unable to help them. The Western world’s first physician, Hippocrates, proposed in 450 B.C. that emotions emanate from the brain. He was right — but for the next twenty-five hundred years, medicine could offer nothing further about the details of emotional life. Matters of the heart were matters only for the arts — literature, song, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance. Until now.”

Eloquent and eye-opening, A General Theory of Love illuminates “hard science” findings across brain function and neurochemistry though a humanistic prism that offers a richer, deeper understanding of the heart’s will.

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