Recent classics and new books look at the human condition– how we think, feel, remember and respond to people and powerful external forces. How are human emotions and behaviors being shaped by globalism, the current pandemic, widespread uncertainty and economic conditions—as well as technology in the frenzied digital age?
Wherever possible, we’re expanding your access with videos and podcasts (30-60 minutes long) that introduce you to the books and their authors.
First Thoughts: Earlier Books
A decade ago, neuroscientists and journalists were already considering the impacts of technology –cell phones, the Internet, and social media– on brain functions such as memory and human social interactions.
“The pull of these devices is so strong, that we’ve become used to them faster than anyone would have suspected,” says Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and the founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self.
All of these books are still in print, some with new editions, and available online or as e-books.
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr – a 2010 release coming out updated in March 2020 in paperback – was a shot across the bow, warning that cognitive functions decay from the distractions brought on by constant web roaming. See the video
In Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, William Powers (Harper/Harper Collins) foretells in 2010 why our addiction to cell phones (Blackberries a reminder of earlier tech), may be wired to us from an evolutionary standpoint. The New York Times notes: “We are wired by nature… to pay attention to new stimuli, thereby helping us to respond quickly to predators or to nab a potential meal. The biochemical effect of the iPhone ping, in fact, might be injecting my brain with what one scientist calls a ‘dopamine squirt.’” New York Times review
Multi-author clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle in Alone Together (predecessor to Reclaiming Conversation) in Green News Update (2012) conducted hundreds of interviews with teens and adults to explore intimacy, human-technological interaction, constructed identities that exist only online, and the price we may pay for our e-addiction. (Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, 360 pp (Basic Books) $28.95) Turkle’s web site with excerpt. Radio interview Fresh Air (35 mins)
As a follow-up, in Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, (Penguin Press) Turkle offered a deep dive into how face-to-face time with others is diminished by our constant reliance on communicating with media tools. In an NPR interview, she noted: merely having your cell phone within viewing distance changes the conversation you are having with someone at the dinner table. What she finds alarming is how time spent being alone – for privacy and self-reflection – is being lost, and how that may be robbing us of the skills needed, especially empathy, to maintain in-person relationships with others. See the Green News Update story
Turkle says, ” Face-to-face interaction teaches “skills of negotiation, of reading each other’s emotion, of having to face the complexity of confrontation, dealing with complex emotion.
In World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines and the Internet, (Free Press 2010) Michael Chorost envisions the time when implanted chips will allow direct communication between people, without the worry of constant texting and email ! He considers whether this type of communication can be as intimate and effect as actual touch. See the article Youtube video
Fast Forward to 2020: A Selection of New Books
What does neuroscience tell us about emotions, behavior, and memory? Is there an antidote to unraveling our addiction to the influences on our brain of our cell phones and social media? Can we cope with the noise--constant din of cable news, Presidential tweeting and social media? When is silence welcome — and can it be achieved?
How Emotions Are Made : The Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
“You are the architect of your experience “ says psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Barrett as she plumbs how emotions are both learned and shaped by experience, not just innate and universal. Video on myths about emotions
Barrett notes: “The human brain is a master of deception. It creates experiences and directs actions with a magician’s skill, never revealing how it does so, all the while giving us a false sense of confidence that its products — our day-to-day experiences — reveal its inner workings. Joy, sadness, surprise, fear, and other emotions seem so distinct and feel so built-in that we assume they have separate causes inside us. [So] it’s easy to come up with a wrong theory of the mind. We are, after all, a bunch of brains trying to figure out how brains work.” Youtube video
“Her research overturns the widely held belief that emotions live in distinct parts of the brain…. She has shown that emotion is constructed in the moment, by core systems that interact across the whole brain, aided by a lifetime of learning.” Barrett’s web site
In Why? What Makes Us Curious ? (Simon & Schuster), astrophysicist Mario Livio looks at what role curiosity has in learning and memory. It turns out the brain’s hippocampus (linked to learning) and the neurotransmitter dopamine (linked to pleasure) are partners . Livio says, “The desire to learn produces its own internal rewards.” He claims that Leonardo Da Vinci and Richard Feynman (“the Sherlock Holmes of physics”) were the top-tier in their curiosity. While you may have to navigate through a fair amount of diadactic material, there are rewards by reading the profiles of Queen guitarist/physicist Brian May and paleontologist Jack Horner (dinosaur hunter) among others. Curiosity unites humans as the one species that asks why. Livio says, “[It’s]… the best remedy for fear,” and a catalyst that can channel true human progress. Youtube lecture
The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution, Richard Wrangham (Pantheon)
Evolutionary biologist Richard Wrangham is no stranger to controversy. Didier Maleuvre’s La Quillette review of his new book says, “Into a minefield of provocative ideas, Wrangham certainly treads—ideas such as the genetic determination of temperament, behavior, and gender, and the natural selection for adaptive traits that include hierarchy, authority, warfare, the universal subordination of females, in-group bias (i.e., bigotry), and the pleasure in killing strangers (the Romans thought this pretty obvious).” Free version PDF
When is it better to forget the past to be happier and more creative? Are we getting “stupider” with our limitless dependence on online media, or are there ways to boost memory to recall names, faces, numbers, facts ?
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by American journalist Joshua Foer (Penguin)
Are we being sloppy in forgetting names, facts and numbers, or is it simply easier to use new tools and resources in the cloud (Google search, web sites, Wikipedia) that make it easier to discard our “knowledge” Foer offers new techniques for remembering that will boost your memory. Guardian review
We dream in order to forget
Every act of memory is an act of forgetting
A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past, Lewis Hyde (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Carrying the “baggage” of the past can mean a less complete life because we are locked into the issues of right, wrong, injustice that cannot be squared with daily life. Hyde looks at specific case studies of doing the “work of forgetting” – getting past the past with a conscious effort at “self-forgetfulness.” Along the way he offers examples of how forgetting can stimulate impressive creativity by artists and writers.
Are You Seeking Balance ?
What about understanding the impact of noise, chaos, overconsumption and attention-grabbing online digital distractions that keep adults, youth and families from having better life balance ? Here’s six books that might get your attention.
Four books that deal with silence are featured in a mini-review in the Washington Post by Bilal Quereshi who recently scouted them out in a famed Washington independent bookstore.
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in an Increasingly Noisy World, Cal Newport (Portfolio)
When is it time to put down your cellphone or tablet and curb obsessive self-documentation ? Is it possible to take control of your digital life? That’s what Newport proposes by going offline (like “dry January,” to hold off drinking for a month) to enjoy your kids, family, friends and nature. Newport recommends “decluttering” — reducing your dependence on personal technology – by determining just how much time is the right amount to spend on your phone and in the internet. He suggests taking a digital sabbatical. Newport’s earlier book Deep Work outlines how to concentrate without distraction on a demanding project or task. Video talk at Georgetown University Review at Goodreads
Silence in the Age of Noise, Erling Kagge (translated by Becky L. Crook) (Pantheon) 114 pp. Now in its 8th printing, translated into 37 languages.
Do you fight silence by constantly being plugged into your earbuds, leaving on the TV and the computer ? Just about everything undermines silence, even when you’re in a forest, standing alone on a beach, sitting parked in your car at the end of a dead-end road. Kagge walked solo to the South Pole — maybe the ultimate search for silence? He presents 34 vignettes interspersed with full color images – as a meditation on silence. Just for starters: Do you actually know what silence is ? Kenyon Review story
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell (Melville House)
Can you detach from life online? Can you turn away from social media ? Digital artist Jenny Odell did that by looking at things that already exist – works and words by artists, writers and philosophers. Then she wrote about how she stands apart from the social media mob scene. “Doing nothing is not a luxury, it’s a ground for meaningful thoughts.” New York Times story
Odell looks to parks, libraries and nature for personal reflection – and inspiration. It’s an inner journey: “To stand apart,” she observes, “is to take the view of the outsider without leaving . . . It means not fleeing your enemy, but knowing your enemy, which turns out not to be the world — contemptus mundi — but the channels through which you encounter it day to day.” Odell’s presentation (60 mins) Washington Post review
In Praise of Wasting Time, Alan Lightman (TED Books/Simon& Schuster) MIT professor Alan Lightman is a prolific researcher and writer of some 20 books. In 2019 we featured his book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine – about his transcendent nighttime experience floating (motorless) in his boat on the water and looking at the galaxy. In In Praise of Wasting Time, he urges us to earmark “ half our waking minds be designated and saved for quiet reflection.” Failing to do that, Lightman warns, will result in the collective destruction of “our inner selves and our creative capacities.” Maybe you’ll be surprised to learn that creativity by children is down (measured starting in 1990) and teens would rather self-administer a shock than sit in total silence for 12 minutes! Try out the podcast and see if you think his ruminations on how letting the mind wander and roam (Carl Jung, Einstein and others benefited from “wasting” some time) may lead to insights for you. New York Times story Washington Post review
The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism. Kyle Chayka (Bloomsbury)
Mass consumption and the appeal of abundance is stimulated through “the Algorithm” of Google, Facebook and Amazon – with constant appeals to buy more to be more. Chakya says he stumbled into minimalism “by default” in 2010 as recent college grad and underpaid writer (no closets, no basement). One reviewer says, “The book itself is like an exercise in decluttering,” which he overcomes that with a serious look at the works of artists such as Agnes Martin, Walter DeMaria, and Bryce Marden.
Here’s a second (and free) avenue to consider the impact of social media on the culture industry. It’s Chakya’s article in The Nation, What’s the Deal With George W.S. Trow?, a powerful pre-Internet essay by Trow called “Within the Context of No Context.”
This won’t give you a Marie Kondo checklist to wipe out the detritus you may be accumulating – but may clear your mind in a time that is fraught with so much chaos and bad news,” New York Times story Article in Slate
The Happiest Kids in the World A Stress-Free Approach to Parenting—the Dutch Way, Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison (The Experiment) 256 pp
The Dutch have the world’s happiest kids, according to two moms who have observed that ample free time to play outdoors, do less homework, sleep more, and live in a calm household make for happier kids. See the Huffpost article. Some of this is possible because the Dutch believe in work-life balance (nearly half the country works part-time!) that allows such things as a papadag (papa day) or sick leave for mom if the baby is sick. A UNICEF study backs up their claim. Youtube video from Today Show Goodreads review