There is no more important book to understand our times than Albert Camus’s The Plague, a novel about a virus that spreads uncontrollably from animals to humans and ends up destroying half the population of a representative modern town. Camus speaks to us now not because he was a magical seer, but because he correctly sized up human nature. As he wrote: ‘Everyone has inside it himself this plague, because no one in the world, no one, can ever be immune.’
A wonderful message of inspiration I recorded for Chaplain Service. Chaplain Resident Catherine Thomas reminds us that it is OK to ask others for help when we need it. An ancient Somalian proverb says this: be a mountain, or lean on one. We should name our fears and address them.
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Every day more than 1.8 million books are sold in the US. Despite all the other easy distractions available to us today, there’s no doubt that many people still love reading. Books can teach us plenty about the world, of course, as well as improving our vocabularies and writing skills. But can fiction also make us better people?
Characters hook us into stories. Aristotle said that when we watch a tragedy two emotions predominate: pity (for the character) and fear (for yourself). Without necessarily even noticing, we imagine what it’s like to be them and compare their reactions to situations with how we responded in the past, or imagine we might in the future. Be an epic reader!
If You Don’t Use it You Lose it
This exercise in perspective-taking is like a training course in understanding others. The Canadian cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley calls fiction “the mind’s flight simulator”. Just as pilots can practice flying without leaving the ground, people who read fiction may improve their social skills each time they open a novel. In his research, he has found that as we begin to identify with the characters, we start to consider their goals and desires instead of our own. When they are in danger, our hearts start to race. We might even gasp. But we read with luxury of knowing that none of this is happening to us. We don’t wet ourselves with terror or jump out of windows to escape.
Having said that, some of the neural mechanisms the brain uses to make sense of narratives in stories do share similarities with those used in real-life situations. Reading the word “kick”, for example, areas of the brain related to physically kicking are activated. If we read that a character pulled a light cord, activity increases in the region of the brain associated with grasping. Even if it’s an eReader versus a paperback book!
With all this practice in empathizing with other people through reading, you think it would be possible to demonstrate that those who read fiction have better social skills than those who read mostly non-fiction or don’t read at all.
The difficulty with conducting this kind of research is that many of us have a tendency to exaggerate the number of books we’ve read. To get around this, Oatley and colleagues gave students a list of fiction and non-fiction writers and asked them to indicate which writers they had heard of. They warned them that a few fake names had been thrown in to check they weren’t lying. The number of writers people have heard of turns out to be a good proxy for how much they actually read.
We have some fiction horror as well as non-fiction being available as an eBook on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Play and Kobo.
The Neuroscience Behind Reading
Next, Oatley’s team gives people the “Mind in the Eyes” test, where you are given a series of photographs of pairs of eyes. From the eyes and surrounding skin alone, your task is to divine which emotion a person is feeling. You are given a short list of options like shy, guilty, daydreaming or worried. The expressions are subtle and at first glance might appear neutral, so it’s harder than it sounds. But those deemed to have read more fiction than non-fiction scored higher on this test – as well as on a scale measuring interpersonal sensitivity.
At the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition. In other words, they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling. Using brain scans, she has found that while reading fiction, there is more activity in parts of the default mode network of the brain that are involved in simulating what other people are thinking.
So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better. Certainly some institutions consider the effects of reading to be so significant that they now include modules on literature. At the University of California Irvine, for example, Johanna Shapiro from the Department of Family Medicine firmly believes that reading fiction results in better doctors and has led the establishment of a humanities programme to train medical students.
It sounds as though it’s time to lose the stereotype of the shy bookworm whose nose is always in a book because they find it difficult to deal with real people. In fact, these bookworms might be better than everyone else at understanding human beings.
I was first introduced to Ralph Waldo Emerson in high school. I don’t recall exactly what I first read, I simply remember carrying his collected works around, along with my journal. Writing and Emerson to me were synonymous and my writing wasn’t writing unless it came after reading some Emerson. His essay on Self Reliance was what I needed and desired to hear at that time. I was a young man, coming into age, I was boxing and finding my self. 20 years later and Emerson is still my go to intellectual when I am going through some rough times, or simply stuck inside my head, and not in a productive way.
For those of you who are not familiar with Emerson, his upbringing and philosophy, this video below created by the Pursuit of Wonder provides a wonderful overview of his life and works:
Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century.
Below are the top ten works produced by this prolific intellect:
Nature (essay): This is the essay in which he put forward the foundation of Transcendentalism, a belief system that espouses a non-traditional appreciation of nature. He believed that one can learn to understand reality by studying nature.
Self Reliance (essay): Emerson says “Trust thyself”. It is about trusting the force within you, working in harmony with your inner self (particularly the laws of nature), doing things naturally instead of mechanically.
Brahma (Poem): Named for the Hindu god of creation, this poem is both religious and not at the same time.
The American Scholar (speech): This is his speech given to the Phi Beta Kappa society at Cambridge University in which he stated the need for America to declare an intellectual independence from Europe and to develop our nation’s own identity.
Politics (essay): This essay lays out his ideas on politics – being in favor of democracy and individualism. He was very opposed to the State and even goes so far as to say, “Every actual state is corrupt.
The Poet (essay): This essay offers a profound look at poetry’s role in society. It was a major influence for Walt Whitman to publish his own book of poetry, Leaves of Grass.
Experience (essay): An essay about the over-intellectualization of life and why utopian societies will never work. Quite astounding for someone of that era.
The Snow Storm (poem): A beautiful rendition of both the fury or a nighttime winter storm as well as the creative artistry it brings. A poem which runs from furious conflict to slow appreciation in the period of a few lines.
Divinity School Address (speech): A speech given to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School, it argues that moral intuition is more important than religious doctrine.
Uriel (poem): A tale of Gods and Goddesses, lines vs circles in nature, and the difference between “understanding” and “reason”. This poem, while deep and complex, has everything.
On January 11, philosopher, writer, and psychologist Williams James was born in 1842. James was instrumental in establishing Harvard’s psychology department, which at its inception was tied to the department of philosophy.
James himself remained unconvinced that psychology was in fact a distinct discipline, writing in his 1892 survey of the field, Psychology: Briefer Course, “This is no #science; it is only the hope of a science” (p. 335). Despite James’s skepticism, in the ensuing century this hope was fully realized in the department he helped to found.
In psychology, James’s work is of course dated, but it is dated as is Galileo’s in physics or Charles Darwin’s in biology because it is the originative matrix of the great variety of new developments that are the current vogue. In philosophy, his positive work is still prophetic. The world he argued for was soon reflected in the new physics, as diversely interpreted, with its resonances from Charles Peirce, particularly by Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and the Danish quantum physicist Niels Bohr—a world of events connected with one another by kinds of next-to-next relations, a world various, manifold, changeful, originating in chance, perpetuated by habits (that the scientist calls laws), and transformed by breaks, spontaneities, and freedoms. In human nature, James believed, these visible traits of the world are equally manifest. The real specific event is the individual, whose intervention in history gives it in each case a new and unexpected turn. But in history, as in nature, the continuous flux of change and chance transforms every being, invalidates every law, and alters every ideal.
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Jung’s map of mind is very believable and reflects a number of other positions. It would probably make a wonderfully hipster t-shirt as well 🙂
Few people have had as much influence on modern psychology as Carl Jung; we have Jung to thank for concepts like extroversion and introversion, archetypes, modern dream analysis, and the collective unconscious. Psychological terms coined by Jung include the archetype, the complex, synchronicity, and it is from his work that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) was developed, a popular staple of personality tests today.
Among Jung’s most important work was his in-depth analysis of the psyche, which he explained as follows: “By psyche I understand the totality of all psychic processes, conscious as well as unconscious,” separating the concept from conventional concept of the mind, which is generally limited to the processes of the conscious brain alone.
Jung believed that the psyche is a self-regulating system, rather like the body, one that seeks to maintain a balance between opposing qualities while constantly striving for growth, a process Jung called “individuation”.
Jung saw the psyche as something that could be divided into component parts with complexes and archetypal contents personified, in a metaphorical sense, and functioning rather like secondary selves that contribute to the whole.
Isaac Newton (1642–1727) is best known for having invented the calculus in the mid to late 1660s (most of a decade before Leibniz did so independently, and ultimately more influentially) and for having formulated the theory of universal gravity — the latter in his Principia, the single most important work in the transformation of early modern natural philosophy into modern physical science. Yet he also made major discoveries in optics beginning in the mid-1660s and reaching across four decades; and during the course of his 60 years of intense intellectual activity he put no less effort into chemical and alchemical research and into theology and biblical studies than he put into mathematics and physics.
He became a dominant figure in Britain almost immediately following publication of his Principia in 1687, with the consequence that “Newtonianism” of one form or another had become firmly rooted there within the first decade of the eighteenth century. His influence on the continent, however, was delayed by the strong opposition to his theory of gravity expressed by such leading figures as Christiaan Huygens and Leibniz, both of whom saw the theory as invoking an occult power of action at a distance in the absence of Newton’s having proposed a contact mechanism by means of which forces of gravity could act.
As the promise of the theory of gravity became increasingly substantiated, starting in the late 1730s but especially during the 1740s and 1750s, Newton became an equally dominant figure on the continent, and “Newtonianism,” though perhaps in more guarded forms, flourished there as well. What physics textbooks now refer to as “Newtonian mechanics” and “Newtonian science” consists mostly of results achieved on the continent between 1740 and 1800.