Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent & Lead by Brene Brown

Brene Brown is a bit of a celebrity after her viral TED Talk, but she seems not to have suffered from it. This book and the video that I link to below continue to reveal a person striving for greater understanding and a better world. The fact that she refers to things that are “shitty” in her book and talk only adds to her street cred. The situations that she describes are sometimes just that ("shitty") and her willingness not to mince words on the subject only adds credence to her academic work and 13,000 interviews. 

This 2012 book follows upon her two earlier books. For her inspiration, she cites a famous speech given by Teddy Roosevelt after his presidency. Because of its importance to Ms. Brown and to her work—and because it stands out in its own right—I share her quote from it in full (with just a bit more):

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Brown cites this as the definition of vulnerability. In some sense, the entire book is a riff of this speech (minus TR’s more machismo elements). Indeed, Brown’s anecdotes about her personal experiences as presenter, researcher, spouse, and parent make the whole project personal in the sense that the stories she shares (appropriately) bring her insights into the realm of experiences of her readers and listeners. 

Brown argues that shame—the feeling or belief that we are inadequate—is ubiquitous. It’s different than guilt, which arises from specific actions or omissions. Although she does not use this term, I sense that we might consider shame as a species of original sin, impossible to escape. We can only cope. However, the universality of shame provides us with a shared humanity. 

Shame can arise from any area of life: physical traits, relationships, work, sex, play—you name it and people can feel a sense of shame. Brown argues that we have to recognize the reality of shame—we can’t cure it as such—and set it aside. Too many of us  avoid an endeavor that might reveal our shame, such as making a presentation, entering into a relationship, starting a new business—the list could prove go on indefinitely. The fact that we share this trait is one key to helping us overcome its drag upon us. But the most important ingredient for overcoming our reluctance born of vulnerability is courage. The worse thing that we can do is to don our vulnerability armor, the ways that we try to shield ourselves from vulnerability, which can run from physical isolation to cynicism to perfectionism. Each such strategy shortchanges us. 

After defining and identifying the sources of shame and our common strategies in attempting to allay our fears, Brown explores typical situations in parenting, work, and relationships. Lots of examples that we all can recognize.

The common requirement in every endeavor is the courage that TR speaks about in the opening quote. You must also learn to discern voices. Some critics, including yourself (maybe), are worth listening to. We need to learn, and learning includes criticism. We’re not perfect, and we need feedback in to improve. But we must ignore some critics, those shouting (or posting) from the cheap seats. Only those who have entered the arena, taken the risks, and (I argue) shared the goals to which you aspire, qualify as critics to whom you should listen. I’d add goodwill as a qualification as well, those who wish for you to succeed and perform well. I can imagine rivals or the jealous holding motivations that poison their judgments. 

I try to remember these when I consider criticizing any athletic performance or the actions of a political leader. Really? Do I have the responsibility, that level of skill? Am I in that game or holding that office? When someone boos at an athletic event, my thoughts usually consider the persons booing as losers who’ve never been in the arena. Likewise, among political leaders, we can and should disagree in a democracy when we believe ourselves justified, but we should do so with a sense of respect and humility. Some leaders are venal and inadequate, but far too often the most voracious criticism comes from those who are ill informed and who are not even rank amateurs. 

If you want the 20 minute executive summary of the book, watch this video, where Brown shares the essence of her book with a live audience.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes
Few literary characters have the staying power of Sherlock Holmes, the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle. Years of book spin-offs, movies, and television don’t seem to have diminished our appetite for this rather bizarre fellow. Recent incarnations include the rather frenetic portrayal of Holmes by Robert Downey, Jr. in the two Guy Ritchie films, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s more recent (and to my mind more faithful) incarnation set in contemporary London (with Martin Freeman providing a superb Watson). Why are we so intrigued by this (almost) super-human misfit? I think because he is human and not super-human—that he does things that we can imagine doing. I think Maria Konnikova shares this perception. 

Ms. Konnikova is a psychologist who grew-up hearing Holmes stories read to her by her father in her native Russian. Now with a doctorate in psychology, she unpacks the dynamics of Holmes and his foil Watson to share with us ways in which we might emulate the great (fictional!) detective. For this task, Konnikova draws extensively on both the Holmes stories of Conan Doyle and cutting-edge psychological research. 

It turns out the Holmes-Watson pairing matches well with the “thinking fast and slow” paradigm of Daniel Kahneman (more prosaically designated as System 1 and System 2 thinking). Watson goes quick and instinctive, while Holmes thinks; Watson glances, Holmes observes. To put it in a nutshell, Holmes makes the sustained and energetic effort to observe and consider what he perceives, while Watson wants to cut to the chase (a surgeon, no doubt). 

Konnikova details the ways these two men go about their detecting work in light of what modern psychology has taught us. She highlights the scientific frame of mind used by Holmes that looks for evidence and tests hypotheses. She considers what information he puts (or doesn’t put) into his “brain attic”. Holmes is rather single-minded in his pursuit of information needed to make him the world’s only “consulting detective”, unlike Watson, who fills his mind with the drivel of the evening paper. But perhaps the most surprising difference between the two is that Holmes uses his imagination. He does so in a systematic and focused way, not in flights of fancy or mental woolgathering. Like Einstein’s thought experiments (riding that beam of light), Holmes tests and weighs alternatives in his mind based on the empirical evidence that he gathers and considers in the light of logic. We learn that imagination is at least as important, if not more important, than logic in resolving the problems that Holmes faces. 

We also learn that creativity plays a huge role in how Holmes operates. He improvises in each new situation, drawing on different mental practices as circumstances require—some need the magnifying glass, while others may constitute a “three-pipe problem” that mark an effort of sustained mental work. (Or a three nicotine-patch problem if you’re Cumberbatch’s incarnation in smoke-free London.) Konnikova emphasizes the dexterity and flexibility of the great detective’s mind. 

Konnikova concludes with the important point that Holmes never stops learning. He does err (rarely), but he reflects and learns from those errors, and he’s always getting his (non-mandatory) continuing education through his own self-guided study. How many times does Holmes cite a precedent to the unenlightened inspector or to Watson? He knows his subject matter! 

This is both an informative and immensely entertaining book. Large doses of Holmes mixed with intriguing perspectives from contemporary psychology make it fun to read. And, I hope, after having read it and reviewed it, we find ourselves a little more Holmes-like in resolving our problems, although, I hope with more social tact than our rather introverted detective. Also, I don’t think that I could ever match the eagle-eyed abilities that he possesses. As an aging, life-long four-eyes, I believe myself nearly hopeless in this regard! 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Sea by John Banville

John Banville lives two lives as an author. One author is the Man Booker award-winning author of The Sea and other works. The "other" John Banville writes crime and detection fiction under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. I’ve read The Sea, and now I want to read his incarnation as Benjamin Black, including his recent re-creation of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe in Black-Eye Blond. For alas, The Sea left me cold. 

The Sea is a first-person narrative of a man ruminating about the present, the recent past, and events in his childhood. The narrator moves between these three time perspectives with the fluency that we all experience. This trait, and the stream of consciousness-like perspective that it mimics, is a hallmark of modern (modernist) literature. We lose narrative arc and the Freytag triangle to a seemingly unremarkable flow of events. This marks “literature” today as opposed popular fiction. Indeed, Banville distinguishes between his work as an “artist” in writing a book like The Sea and his work as a “craftsman” writing under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. I wonder if the “art” expressed in his prose isn’t really more suited to poetry, with its ethereal handling of time, perspective, and consciousness. In The Sea, toward the end, a couple of plot revelations occur that tantalize the reader but that don’t disclose much in relation to the rest of the book. Perhaps if I re-read the book knowing these plot revelations I would gain more, but I’m not sure that the reward would justify the effort. Banville’s prose is well wrought, and I did enjoy it for its intrinsic aesthetic, but I want it to point to some insight beyond itself, more the beauty of mere description. For me, this didn’t happen, although the beauty of the prose and elusiveness of the work did keep me reading to the end. I can’t say that I really enjoyed the book, only that it works if you have the patience and inclination to explore a work in this genre. 

For me, the demands of much of modernist literature are too great for the rewards in comparison to more popular literature. Sometime I’ll give modernist “literature” another try, But now I'm eager to read Banville’s work as Benjamin Black, either the new Marlowe or one of his Quirke novels, to compare the "artist" with the "craftsman".

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Comfort of Saturdays: An Isabel Dalhousie Novel by Alexander McCall Smith

This is my third adventure with Isabel Dalhousie after The Sunday Philosophy Club and Friends, Lovers, Chocolate. I found The Comfort of Saturdays at the most orderly, spacious, and well-lit, bookstore that I’ve yet  found in India (via some mall-walking in Chennai). I try to read these in order, but I find that I’ve skipped a couple. In one sense, this is quite alright because Isabel is Isabel, but she has undergone some major changes in her life that give her even more to think about and to act upon. 

In this book, as well as the others, Isabel “meddles”, as she calls it. Asked by someone to look into a situation, she dives in. As a detective (of sorts) she arrives at seeming conclusions much too quickly. She’s often surprised by wrong assumptions and conclusions, yet she wears her mistakes lightly. I do wish that some of her philosophy training would have included more on hypothesis formation and testing, probabilities, and the like. I’m tempted to send her a copy of Sherlock Holmes and The Black Swan (Taleb). She’s too much Watson—but such a lovely Watson. In addition to looking into whether a doctor has committed the misdeeds he’s accused of, she has to deal with a contribution to her journal by an old nemesis and her visceral dislike of a new acquaintance. The joy of McCall’s writing is that he lets us share Isabel’s struggles to do the right thing. She strives to think like a philosopher, but her instincts prompt her to act as a human being, with all our foibles in the face of all the ambiguities that the world presents to us. 

Besides struggling with how the deal with the dislikes of her life, she must also deal with her love life and the insecurities attendant to it. I marvel at McCall’s ability to display this woman’s pride, intelligence, and beauty (inner and outer), yet also her vulnerability and insecurity. Even Isabel, who seems quite the rock in many instances, struggles with these issues. 

I’ll keep reading about Isabel Dalhousie because I like her company. That’s no small compliment in my book. 

Side Note: One of my other favorite series is set in Edinburgh, the John Rebus novels of Ian Rankin. Dalhousie’s and Rankin’s experiences of the city differ, to put it mildly. How would an “Isabel Dalhousie meets John Rebus” novel work? Like “Bambi meets Godzilla”, I suspect. But together they do put Edinburgh on my “to visit” map.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Divided Brain & the Search for Meaning: Why Are We So Unhappy by Ian McGilchrist & RSA Animate “The Divided Brain”

I don’t recall how I discovered RSAnimate, but I did, and you should, too. RSA stands for “The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce: an enlightenment organization.” And if I’m not mistaken, when they say enlightenment, I think that they mean Enlightenment, as in going back to the time of Newton. But whatever their pedigree, they’re providing some first rate programs. For value and quality, they rival and sometimes exceed TED Talks. I especially enjoy the animations, which make the learning visual as well as fun. 

I recall that the first animation that I discovered is this one by Iain McGilchrist about “The Divided Brain”. The short summarizes the work that McGilchrist has done in writing The Master & His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World (my on-deck list). McGilchrist argues that the earlier split-brain theory is wrong in positing that the left side of our brain is all logic and language and the right side all visual and imagination. Functions involving language, vision, and other processes are spread across both hemispheres. However, our brain is clearly divided into two hemispheres. Something is going on even though the initial split-brain theories were off the mark. In fact, we learn from the animation (as only animation can teach it), our brain doesn’t sit symmetrically within our skulls, but it’s torqued so that the right front and the left rear receive more space, and in social mammals, the right side is larger. What gives? 

McGilchrist posits that the divided brain reflects two functions: one a holistic (my term, not his) monitoring of our surrounding environment that prompts a desire for understanding and the other (left) side features the ability to focus narrowly on objects, allowing us to abstract and manipulate them, giving rise to such things as language and tools. Thus one side of the brain acts as a flood light and the other as a search light. These two necessary, separate, and complementary functions allow us to grasp wholes in a more intuitive manner (although he doesn’t use the term in the book or short, it sounds like gestalt to me). And the left side allows us to abstract and manipulate tools, language, and persons. Gilchrist notes something that I’d learned many years ago from psychiatrist and student of mysticism and meditation, Dr. Gerald May: the large frontal lobes of the brain—unique to humans—serve foremost as an inhibition device. It prevents us from acting compulsively on our desires or fears. Consider this premise: what makes us most human is our ability to say “no” to our whims or compulsions, our ability to restrain action. This ability allows us to step back, as it were, and to act strategically (represented in the animation by Machiavelli) and to act empathically (represented by Erasmus). 

The final segment of the animation and the main focus of The Divided Brain addresses the significance of this information about brain architecture and function. Without this final perspective, this would be just another book and animation about how our brains work. Fun and interesting, but of no great consequence. However, McGilchrist, before becoming a psychiatrist, taught English literature at Oxford. He bridges C.P. Snow’s two cultures. He argues that the architecture and functions of the brain affect how we live and act. McGilchrist believes that from the time of Greek civilization to the European Renaissance, a balance existed between the functions of the two sides of the brain. But with the advent of modernity, the West became enamored of left side functions that emphasize tools and manipulation, language, logic, and abstraction— at the expense of the right-side functions that concern the wider context of the embodied, changing environment in which we live. This, McGilchrist contends, accounts for the fact that despite our unimaginable wealth and material well-being, we’re often profoundly unhappy and hold a feeling being stuck in a trap of our own making. 

The Divided Brain is a 10,000 word essay written as a follow-up to The Master & His Emissary. (Yale U Press commissioned The Divided Brain as an e-book to complement the paperback edition of The Master & His Emissary.) In this essay, McGilchrist fills in some of the holes or questions that have arisen from his big book (and he whets my appetite to read the longer work). He brings extreme good sense to the issues posed. For instance, he writes: 

I take it that we bring about a world in consciousness that is partly what is given, and partly what we bring, something that comes into being through this particular conjunction and no other. And the key to this is the kind of attention we pay to the world.

McGilchrist, Iain. The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning (Kindle Locations 120-122). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

(By the way, I made a note of this in my copy of this that it contradicts the patter that I hear from so many (young) yoga teachers: “It’s all in your head”, “you just need to believe”, and so on. I notice that I never hear this nonsense coming out to the mouths of 60-year old bodies.) 

In another gem of insight, he writes: 

There is no royal road to certainty about what the world is, or what it is like. We all, whether we are poets or scientists, or just going about the business of daily life, have to begin somewhere, by a leap of intuition, as to what kind of thing it might be we are dealing with – not just any leap, of course, always a guided one, but nonetheless fallible and uncertain. Depending on where and how we leap is what we find. And depending on what we find is what we will find in due course, since it begins the process of hardening things up into what we call a certainty. What we do not expect to find, we just will not see: much elegant research demonstrates that we are essentially blind to what we do not think is there. 

Id. at 124-129.

In this quote, he offers a succinct summary of the differences in the functions and modus operandi of the two sides of our brains: 

[I]t is the left hemisphere that controls the right hand with which we grasp something, and controls the aspects of language (not all language) by virtue of which we say we have ‘grasped’ the meaning – made it certain and pinned it down. The right hemisphere underwrites sustained attention and vigilance for whatever may be, without preconception. Its attention is not in the service of manipulation, but in the service of connection, exploration and relation.

Id at 144-147.

He goes on: 

What are the key distinctions? One way of looking at the difference would be to say that while the left hemisphere's raison d'ĂȘtre is to narrow things down to a certainty, the right hemisphere's is to open them up into possibility. In life we need both. In fact for practical purposes, narrowing things down to a certainty, so that we can grasp them, is more helpful. But it is also illusory, since certainty itself is an illusion – albeit, as I say, a useful one. There is no certainty.
Another way of thinking of the difference between the hemispheres is to see the left hemisphere's world as tending towards fixity, whereas that of the right tends towards flow. All systems in nature, from particles to the greater universe, from the world of cellular processes to that of all living things, depend on a necessary balance of the forces for stasis with the forces for flow. All existing things could be thought of as the product of this fruitful tension. But again, stasis itself is an illusion, helpful though it is in grasping the world on the wing.

Id. at 154-158; 192-196. 

I could go on with these quotes, but I think that you grasp (manipulation on the left-brain) the meaning (located on the right). His essay is full of these insights. I will leave you with this one last thought from McGilchrist: 

[S]ince the Industrial Revolution, we have constructed a world around us externally that is the image of the world the left hemisphere has made internally. Appeals to the natural world, to the history of a culture, to art, to the body, and to spirituality, routes that used to lead out of the hall of mirrors have been cut off, undercut and ironised out of existence, and when we look out of the window – we see more of the world we had created in our minds extended in concrete all around us.
Meaning emerges from engagement with the world, not from abstract contemplation of it.
Id. at 440-443; 445.
Think on these things.