What’s really out there?

How we know what we know seems such a hazardous topic.

Anil Seth on why our senses are fine-tuned for utility, not for ‘reality’Aeon Videos
It’s easy to mistake our conscious experience for an ongoing, accurate account of reality. After all, the information we recover from our senses is, of course, the only window we’ll ever have into the outside world. And for most people most of the time, our perception certainly feels real. […]

Seth argues that it’s not just that our perceptions provide flawed accounts of the outside world, but that our brains aren’t in the business of recovering the outside world to begin with. So it’s more accurate to think of our conscious experience as a series of predictions that we’re incessantly and subconsciously fine-tuning – a world we build from the inside out, rather than the outside in.

And here, with plenty of visual illusions to illustrate the point, is another take on the same issue.

“Reality” is constructed by your brain. Here’s what that means, and why it matters.Vox
“The dirty little secret about sensory systems is that they’re slow, they’re lagged, they’re not about what’s happening right now but what’s happening 50 milliseconds ago, or, in the case for vision, hundreds of milliseconds ago,” says Adam Hantman, a neuroscientist at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus.

If we relied solely on this outdated information, though, we wouldn’t be able to hit baseballs with bats, or swat annoying flies away from our faces. We’d be less coordinated, and possibly get hurt more often.

So the brain predicts the path of motion before it happens. It tells us a story about where the object is heading, and this story becomes our reality. […]

In Hantman’s view, what we experience as consciousness is primarily the prediction, not the real-time feed. The actual sensory information, he explains, just serves as error correction. “If you were always using sensory information, errors would accumulate in ways that would lead to quite catastrophic effects on your motor control,” Hantman says. Our brains like to predict as much as possible, then use our senses to course-correct when the predictions go wrong.

Image Victoria Skye, via Gavin Buckingham

Feeling isolated? You’ll be fine

Going a little crazy stuck indoors? Get some advice from the experts.

How Mandela stayed fit: from his ‘matchbox’ Soweto home to a prison cell – The Conversation
He’d begin with running on the spot for 45 minutes, followed by 100 fingertip push-ups, 200 sit-ups, 50 deep knee-bends and calisthenic exercises learnt from his gym training (in those days, and even today, this would include star jumps and ‘burpees’ – where you start upright, move down into a squat position, kick your feet back, return to squat and stand up). Mandela would do this Mondays to Thursdays, and then rest for three days. This continued even during his several spells in solitary confinement.

Jacob Solome survived the Holocaust by hiding in a small basement for two years with up to 15 others.

My cousin Jack survived the unimaginable. Here’s his advice for right now.The Cut
This is my philosophy, and so far it has helped. Because I compare myself to other people who worry all the time, and always when you see them, they are telling you about their tsuris and their problems. Some people are optimistic, but some people are more pessimistic. I am in the first category. Really, that’s the nature of a person. I’m always thinking how worse it was when we were under the German occupation, where every minute, our lives were at risk; literally, being in the ghetto and being in hiding. So if I was able to live through that, what the heck is coronavirus?

For some, it’s a calling.

I’m a nun and I’ve been social distancing for 29 years. Here are tips for staying home amid coronavirus fears.nj.com
People say they want peace and quiet. Then when it is thrown in their lap, they panic. They don’t know how to be alone. They are afraid to confront their “shadow side,” the hard truths about themselves that they don’t like. They fill their lives with noise to run away from their emotions. Life isn’t meant to be rushed. Use this time to get to know yourself.

And from The Economist, advice from a former hostage, a writer with chronic fatigue and an astronaut.

Stories of an extraordinary world – Notes on isolation, from those who know it wellThe Economist
When I was in space, Mission Control scheduled my days to the minute. Every evening the information they sent would come out like a fax machine, a long thin bit of paper telling me exactly what time I should get up, when I should eat, what experiments I should do and when. I didn’t mind – it was efficient – but I did get comfort from the small things that I could control, like what juice I drank and the time after dinner when I really could do whatever I wanted. Now my days are restricted like everyone else – my speaking engagements have been cancelled and my work for Imperial College London is moving online – but I still take pleasure in the small things; deciding my morning run and what path I take. I remember that lesson from space, letting go of what you can’t control and focusing on what you can. We have all been told to stay at home – but we can still decide how we use our time.

Who’s a good dog?

TLS reviews a number of recent books on our best friends.

The ways of dog to Mann: Various responses to canine companionsTLS
For several of the contributors, the most prominent thread that runs through the book is love – both the love dogs have for people and the love that people return. Our love of dogs is in part a response to their happiness but also, as the legendary French actor and animal welfare activist Brigitte Bardot observes, to their wanting us to be happy. Our love, in effect, responds to their love. “Response”, perhaps, is not the ideal word. Certainly, love for a dog need not be an unconsidered, mechanical reaction to their affection. As Monty Don pointed out in his book on his golden retriever Nigel, a dog is an “opportunity” for a person to develop, shape and manifest love for a being that is not going to reject or betray this love. […]

Powerful stuff.

For other contributors, admiration stems less from canine virtue than canine wisdom – what, in other words, do dogs teach us? Alice Walker learns from the ease with which Marley bounces back after a telling-off that, when we behave badly, it is “because we are temporarily not ourselves”. Several other writers express admiration for the dog’s ability to “live in the moment”.

That reminded me of that line by Iris Murdoch about paying attention, to watch “as a dog watches”. The review continues:

This is an element perhaps in the wisdom that Mark Alizart attributes to dogs in Dogs: A philosophical guide to our best friends. It is an ability, identified by Stoics, Buddhists and Spinozans alike, of “accommodating oneself, with simplicity and gratitude, to what life has to offer”. “The dog is joyous because it made man”, he concludes, and since “the human descends from the dog”, its joy is like that which parents take in their offspring. Alizart makes no attempt to elaborate, or even to state in less paradoxical terms, what I take to be the familiar truth behind this rhetoric: namely, that dogs played a significant role in the origins and development of human society. Indeed, the book is certainly not the guide to understanding our best friend that its sub-title promises.

Here’s a look at a new photography book from Martin Usborne, The Silence of Dogs in Cars. They’re not the only ones who can feel a little sad and dejected sometimes.

Martin Usborne’s heartbreaking photos of dogs in cars speak to humans’ fear of abandonmentIt’s Nice That
Featuring rejected, lonely and expectant pups, often meeting the lens of the camera with unbearable sadness, the series extrapolates from his very personal experience while commenting on the way humans treat voiceless animals more widely. “The dog in the car is a metaphor, I suppose, not just for the way that animals (domestic and wild) are so often silenced and controlled by humans but for the way that we so often silence and control the darker parts of ourselves: the fear, the loneliness that we all feel at times,” Martin explains.

whos-a-good-boy-1

It’s described as a new book, but this 2013 article from The Independent suggests otherwise. Not that it matters. Perhaps just a new edition.

The silence of dogs in carsThe Independent
Usborne didn’t frequent supermarket car parks in order to photograph dogs left in cars. He set everything up in a studio with careful planning. He says he even chose cars which “matched the dog”, for maximum impact.

“The camera is the perfect tool for capturing a sense of silence and longing,” Usborne says. “The silence freezes the shutter forever and two layers of glass are placed between the viewer and the viewed: the glass of the lens, the glass of the picture frame and, in this instance, the glass of the car window further isolates the animal. The dog is truly trapped.”

whos-a-good-boy-2

Walking the dog

Talking to myself

Yesterday’s post from Jeremy in Hong Kong was about William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, a book that shows how ancient Stoic philosophy is still relevant and needed today. And yesterday’s Wintergatan Wednesday video also included a review of William Irvine’s book, coincidentally.

Intrigued, I knew I had this book on my Kindle somewhere, so I thought I should re-read it and maybe blog a review of this book myself.

But then I realised I already had, back in 2013.

Once again, surprised Present Me thanks diligent Past Me for all his help with forgetful Future Me.

All change?

We can learn new facts, master new skills, grow and develop to become ‘better’, but can we really change? A few people recently have tried to find out.

Glass half-full: how I learned to be an optimist in a weekThe Guardian
Day three: One of the simplest strategies for increasing optimism is avoiding the company of other pessimistic people. I figure that I have a headstart here, in that I already avoid the company of most people.

The doorbell rings. I think: this can’t be good. Then I think: stop that. The man at the door has a package for me. My wife passes through the kitchen as I’m opening it.

“What’s that?” she says.

“It’s my gratitude journal,” I say, holding up a slim notebook with the words “Start with gratitude” written on the cover in a self-helpy calligraphic font.

“Stupid,” my wife says.

“If you’re not going to be positive about my journey,” I say, “then you and I might have to stop hanging out.”

“That can be arranged,” she says.

Ok, so perhaps the Guardian columnist Tim Dowling wasn’t taking the venture too seriously. Let’s see how Jessica Pan, author of Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come, gets on over the course of a year, rather than just a week.

Can you fake being an extrovert?Sydney Morning Herald
I had a lot of time to ponder: what did I want from life? I wanted a job, new friends I felt truly connected to, and more confidence. So what were other people out there with jobs and close friends and rich, fulfilling lives doing that I wasn’t? Eventually, and with mounting fear, I realised: they were having new experiences, taking risks, making new connections. I knew what I had to do.

I would talk to new people. I would travel alone and make new friends on the road. I would say yes to social invitations. I would go along to parties and not be the first to leave. It would be like jogging: sweaty and uncomfortable but possibly good for me in the long term. In other words, I would become an extrovert. I gave myself a year.

So how did she get on?

It was fear that if I never changed I would never know what it was like to live a bigger life that propelled me. I’d spent most of my life telling myself I was one kind of person, not believing I could do things that I saw other people doing. Then I spent a year doing all of those things that petrified me. A small part of me thought I’d undertake all these challenges and emerge as a socially savvy, articulate, gregarious social butterfly. Or wind up hiding in a ditch. But I am still who I was at the beginning of this year. Only I know more now.

I feel like co-opting a Stonewall slogan — Some of us are introverts. Get over it!

It’s okay if you’re not resilientElemental
“This story has emerged that if you fail or are struggling, it’s because you lack this characteristic that other people possess,” says Mark Seidenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Not only is this an unhelpful form of “victim blaming,” but it also confuses effect for cause, he says. People don’t fail because they lack resilience; they lack resilience because circumstances have set them up for failure. “Success is very motivating, and failure is discouraging,” Seidenberg explains.

There’s a balance to be had here, though.

While pointing to a lack of resilience as the cause of a person’s problems is both unhelpful and unfair, teaching a person how to be more resilient in certain contexts is beneficial and, according to some research, achievable. “I think both sides of this debate have a point,” Tabibnia says. “Just as we shouldn’t oversell the potential of behavioral and psychosocial strategies for boosting resilience, lest it should lead to further feelings of disappointment and failure, nor should we take a completely passive and helpless approach.”

She says the research so far points to three broad categories of intervention that seem to bolster resilience. The first involves downregulating negative thought patterns through approaches like exposure therapy and cognitive reappraisal. (Basically, these teach your brain to think about sources of stress in new and less-troubling ways.) The second category involves taking steps to improve optimism and social connectedness, both of which encourage positive feelings. And the third involves mindfulness, religious engagement, and other practices that help people “transcend the self,” Tabibnia says.

Update 27/12/2019

On a related note.

Introvert? You may just be bad at recognising facesThe Conversation
We do not yet understand the importance and reason for these findings, however. It may be that extroversion causes superior face recognition or that people who are better at identifying faces become more extroverted as a result.

If so, then a person’s inability to learn and recognise faces may lead them to become more introverted, to avoid potentially embarrassing social situations. Alternatively, introverted people may meet fewer people and therefore never develop good face recognition skills.

It may also work both ways. If you are slightly worse at recognising faces to start with you may end up meeting fewer people, and therefore becoming even worse at it over time. It could also be that both extroversion and face recognition are related to yet another factor that we still don’t know about.

Thanks!

This video struck a chord recently. It was shown to us as part of a Wellbeing Day at work a few weeks ago and—as well as being quite funny—I thought its practical, down-to-earth steps to a more positive mindset made a lot of sense.

The happy secret to better work | Shawn AchorYouTube
We believe that we should work to be happy, but could that be backwards? In this fast-moving and entertaining talk from TEDxBloomington, psychologist Shawn Achor argues that actually happiness inspires productivity.

One of his slides summarises the ways you can train your brain to become more positive.

thanks

I’ve been following these steps for a few weeks now, and writing down three new things I’m grateful for and a positive experience I’ve had that day does help me focus on looking for the positives.

That video was published in 2012, but one that contained a very similar message coincidentally appeared just a few days ago, from Kurzgesagt.

An antidote to dissatisfactionYouTube
Everybody is familiar with the feeling that things are not as they should be. That you are not successful enough, your relationships not satisfying enough. That you don’t have the things you crave. In this video we want to talk about one of the strongest predictors of how happy people are, how easily they make friends and how good they are at dealing with hardship. An antidote against dissatisfaction so to speak: Gratitude.

This video, too, discussed the benefits of a simple gratitude journal, “sitting down for a few minutes, one to three times a week, and writing down five to ten things you’re grateful for.”

thanks-2

In the end, how you experience life is a representation of what you believe about it. If you attack your core beliefs about your self and your life, you can change your thoughts and feelings, which automatically changes your behaviour. It’s pretty mind-blowing that something as simple as self-reflection can hack the pathways in our brain to fight dissatisfaction. And if this is no reason to be optimistic, what is?

So thanks, Shawn Achor and the folks behind Kurzgesagt, for highlighting the importance of gratitude!

The hole truth

I’m sure we all occasionally find ourselves thinking about nothing in particular. But here’s an invitation from Aeon to think specifically about nothing.

Is a hole a real thing, or just a place where something isn’t?
It seems indisputable that there are holes. For example, there are keyholes, black holes and sinkholes; and there are holes in things such as sieves, golf courses and doughnuts. We come into the world through holes, and when we die many of us will be put into specially dug holes. But what are these holes and what are they made of? One of the big philosophical questions about holes is whether they are actually things themselves or, as the German-Jewish writer Kurt Tucholsky suggested in ‘The Social Psychology of Holes’ (1931), whether they are just ‘where something isn’t’.

Any conclusions? I know about the holes in space, and the ones in speakers and even in photographs, but after reading this, there remains a hole in my understanding.

“What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?”
Bertolt Brecht

Let’s be optimistic

I think it’s pretty obvious to those that know me that I’m a glass-half-empty kind of guy.

The bright and dark sides of optimism and pessimism
Many psychologists classify the population as predominantly optimistic — some claiming 80% of people are optimistic, others stating that 60% of us are somewhat optimistic. This seems an optimistic appraisal to me. Some experts agree — they believe that optimism itself may affect the validity of research on positivity.

I still struggle with the concept that a positive outlook is a choice, that I could simply choose to be optimistic. But then my better half just sent me this:

october_2019

Optimistic October calendar
Let’s stay hopeful and focus on what really matters. This Optimistic October Action Calendar has daily suggested actions to do throughout October 2019 to help you be a realistic optimist and have goals to look forward to.

I’ve not come across Action for Happiness before, but it could be just what I was looking for.

Action for Happiness
Our patron is The Dalai Lama and our members take action to increase wellbeing in their homes, workplaces, schools and local communities. Our vision is a happier world, with fewer people suffering with mental health problems and more people feeling good, functioning well and helping others.

And there’s an app, too.

Octobers can be such gloomy months; summer has long gone, the nights draw in, the clocks go back. Perhaps that’s why these pick-me-ups are so necessary now. For instance, Stoic Week 2019 is starting up again next week, 7–13 October. I enjoyed it last year, and will give it another go.

And coincidentally, just as I was about to publish this post, a newsletter with links to these articles has just landed in my inbox.

Being depressed in the ‘world’s happiest country’
Finland regularly tops global rankings as the happiest nation on the planet, but this brings a unique set of challenges for young people struggling with depression.

A 60,000-year-old cure for depression
Traditional healers have been entrusted with the well-being of indigenous Australian communities for as long as their culture has been alive – yet surprisingly little is known of them.

Sounds like we need all the help we can get.

Did you lose your baggage today?

So, today was Let It Go Day, apparently.

Today (23rd June, 2019) is… Let It Go Day
Let It Go Day is another one of the bevy of holidays created by Thomas and Ruth Roy of Wellcat Holidays & Herbs. They knew the difficulty of living with a pocketful of regrets that haunts you during every quiet hour, and knew that letting them go was the only way to find peace and contentment in their lives. So it was that Let It Go Day was created, with the intent of encouraging others throughout the world to let go of their regrets and forgive themselves for actions taken in the past.

Perhaps file this under ‘Whatever will they think of next?’

It’s national Let It Go Day, so here are 8 things you should definitely… well, let go of
6. Regret. I believe in learning from mistakes but not getting mad at yourself for making them. We do what seems like the best decision in the present, and we can’t always know that our future perspective will look like. We also can’t know how the future would have turned out if we’d acted differently. The results of our “mistakes” are often blessings in disguise.

Keep an eye on the time

A mesmerising, meditative film introducing us to Faramarz, a London-based Iranian watchmaker. The world may seem chaotic, but “everything is in exactly the right place.”

The Watchmaker: A philosohy of craft and life
Filled with the pulses of numerous ticking watch hands, this short documentary from the UK filmmaker Marie-Cécile Embleton profiles a London-based Iranian watchmaker as he muses on the delicate and temporal nature of his work. As Faramarz meticulously polishes wood, shapes metal and positions springs, his personal philosophy emerges – one that values the minutiae of moment-to-moment experiences, and finds craft in all things.

Mitka Engebretsen is another watchmaker working in the UK. Here’s his set-up, somewhat shinier, though no less hypnotic.

Mitka’s vintage watch service

He lets us follow along on his blog when he’s servicing his clients’ vintage watches. The intricacy and precision is wonderful to see, however out of my reach they may be. Not that there’s anything wrong with my current watch — I love it!

What would he make of this video from Watchfinder & Co on the level of expertise that goes into producing fake watches these days, fakes that will still set you back £1,000.

This fake Rolex is the most accurate yet
Two years ago, we investigated just how far fake watches have come when we compared a real Rolex Submariner with a fake one. For anyone thinking that fake watches were the easy-to-spot domain of the seaside tat shop, we demonstrated that it’s harder to spot a fake than you might think. Two years on, and it’s got even harder.

One way round that, of course, is to not have a watch at all.

A Norwegian city wants to abolish time
“You have to go to work, and even after work, the clock takes up your time,” Hveding told Gizmodo. “I have to do this, I have to do that. My experience is that [people] have forgotten how to be impulsive, to decide that the weather is good, the Sun is shining, I can just live.” Even if it’s 3 a.m.

Pay less attention?

Some advice, via Daily Stoic, on how to better manage your mood that feels decidedly counter-intuitive.

How to keep your cool: an interview with James Romm
My own favorite is summed up in the quote: “Do you want to be less angry? Be less aware.” Anger often starts from noticing too many subtleties of the way others interact with us. In many cases, we’d do better not to notice the slights and microaggressions that can drive us nuts if we let them. One can will oneself to ignore such things — a practice many long-married couples will instantly recognize!

Twenty years of bullet time

John Wick’s son Neo turns 20 this year. Kind of.

The Matrix at 20: how the sci-fi gamechanger remains influential
Yet objects tend to shift during flight, and in the year 2019, The Matrix has endured as both touchstone and Rorschach blot, a way for people of vastly different ideologies to make sense of the world around them. The effects are still a marvel, but the film’s ideas have taken root in a destabilized culture where conspiracy theories flourish and individuals are defining for themselves what is and isn’t real, and what constitutes freedom in a heavily monitored, highly synthetic technological space. Neo may “follow the white rabbit” into a Wonderland of personal discovery, but we’re citizens of Wonderland now, having made a second home for ourselves where the laws of gravity don’t apply. […]

Yet the idea of the world as changeable seems far closer to what the film’s creators, the Wachowskis, had in mind. In the time between then and now, the Wachowskis have both gender transitioned and The Matrix seems at least a subconscious reference to the evolution to come. Much has been written about the film as trans allegory, and the reading bears out in the possibility for humans to define themselves however they like, outside the fixed identities enforced by the machines. Whenever Agent Smith snarls “Mr Anderson”, it feels like a menacing taunt, his refusal to allow Neo to untether himself from the matrix and discover who he actually is. That goes beyond red-pilling, which is about the authoritarian business of telling someone how things really are, and grants them the latitude to figure it out on their own.

The trans narrative escaped me then, and escapes me still. It’s certainly a philosophical film, though.

15 facts about The Matrix on its 20th anniversary
7. The actors were asked to brush up on their knowledge of philosophy before production began.

The Wachowskis had all the lead actors read Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, Out of Control by Kevin Kelly, and Introducing Evolutionary Psychology by Dylan Evans and Oscar Zarate in order to better understand the world of the movie. In the film, Neo actually hides his illegal computer files in a copy of Baudrillard’s book.

Not everyone’s a fan, however.

The Matrix’s male power fantasy has dated badly
It’s this attitude which now seems so antiquated – so glaringly late-20th Century. Anderson isn’t kept awake at night by war or climate change or the rise of fascism. He isn’t campaigning for equal rights – and he certainly isn’t doing any Kung-fu practice. He’s a white-collar worker whose most pressing problem is a slight dissatisfaction with ordinary office life. He is, fundamentally, a less witty brother of Chandler Bing from Friends. And they have plenty of other brothers. One is the unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) of Fight Club. The other is Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), a disgruntled software programmer in Mike Judge’s cult comedy, Office Space. Both of those films came out in 1999, as The Matrix did. And as different as the three of them may appear, they all share a theme whose prevalence in 1990s pop culture culminated with the debut of the BBC2 sitcom The Office, in July 2001. The theme is that being a handsome, middle-class, thirtysomething professional is ultimately not very fulfilling. The Matrix may allude to Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, to Jean Baudrillard and Jesus, but its central thesis is right there on the Office Space poster: “Work Sucks”.

Perhaps those confusing sequels were to blame for souring it a little.

The ending of The Matrix trilogy finally explained
One major theme that came to the fore as the series reached its conclusion had to do with the similarities between humans and machines. In the original, they couldn’t seem more different, but by Revolutions, programs in the Matrix are portrayed as being almost more human than our heroes, loving and happy individuals, as worthy of existence as any person. Further, characters from the first film who were firmly human or machine are portrayed in the sequels as having a little bit of both. […]

The humanizing of the Machines and the complimentary mechanization of Neo made for a storytelling turn that audiences weren’t really ready for. People who saw The Matrix couldn’t be faulted for expecting an ending that saw Neo winning by doing his Superman thing and eradicating humanity’s robot overlords. Instead, Neo triumphed by becoming a bridge between man and machine, sacrificing his own life for the sake of securing the future.

Bees, breathing and Buddhism

A painful lesson in Zen and the art of honeybee reverence
After the stings, I had a new kind of puzzle to solve. What were the bees trying to tell me with this intense pain? As I blew up, my thoughts came: I should know to pay closer attention and not brazenly steal from creatures I am trying to advocate for and protect. I shouldn’t take them for granted. Relationships with insects aren’t easy. And, as a friend reminded me, love hurts sometimes.

Breathtaking
This is conscious breathing’s more beguiling side: its capacity to interact with emotion, the psyche, perhaps even the spirit. A century of philosophical globalisation has seen a broadly Eastern conception of conscious breathing move from the esoteric to the mainstream. Today, certain techniques are so mainstream that your doctor is just as likely to recommend them as your hippie sibling. Hillary Clinton has said that, along with Chardonnay, yogic breathwork helped her get over losing the 2016 US election to Donald Trump.

How Buddhism resolves the paradox of self-deception
It might strike the modern reader as patently wrongheaded to suggest that any religious tradition contains the seeds of a solution more satisfying than secular proposals. For, understandably, many see religious belief as coterminous with wishful thinking and incompatible with reason. However, the Buddhist response sketched here depends exclusively on arguments about human nature that are equally open to dispute and defence. There is no recourse to mystical or non-empirical claims.

Looking East for answers

I don’t think we modern Westerners appreciate how easy it is for us to dip into Eastern philosophy. It’s all just a mouse-click away (and maybe feels a little superficial because of that?). It wasn’t always like that, of course.

How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis — David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment
But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.

How did Hume come up with these ideas, so profoundly at odds with the Western philosophy and religion of his day? What turned the neurotic Presbyterian teenager into the great founder of the European Enlightenment?

And here the detective story begins. It’s a great read, and crazy to think that in the early 1700s, when Hume was building up his body of work, the number of Europeans who had studied Buddhism could literally be counted on one hand.

Now, of course, Buddhist-inspired meditation and mindfulness techniques are big business, with apps like Headspace and Insight Timer on millions of phones. But are they really getting us any further forward?

Meditation in the time of disruption
A 2016 blog post by Puddicombe on the Headspace site entitled “How to meditate in ten minutes” begins, “If you’ve decided to give meditation a shot, congratulations! You’ve also decided to improve your sleep, lower your blood pressure, increase your marital harmony and reduce your stress.” Puddicombe’s 10-minutes-a-day claim speaks to the hilariously modern expectation that self-transformation be fast, friendly, and neat. It also fits with the company’s broader focus on metrics and results. As with mindfulness meditation generally, the science surrounding Headspace serves the dual purpose of making meditation seem worth one’s time and dispelling the worry that one is being indoctrinated. In other words, the question is less about faith, which is unseen, and science, which—as those with faith in science believe—sees all.

Or, as the company’s chief science officer, Megan Jones Bell, puts it, the research is there “for people who need science as a belief point.” Jones Bell joined the company in March 2017. For her, meditation is in part a subset of mental health, and the people who seek out Headspace are looking for ways to nurse internal wounds. “Their motivation to change something or learn something new is coming from a place of ‘I’m not OK, and I need help,’” she says.

The distinction is important: Whereas some come to meditation as a way of reckoning with the incredible gifts existence has already given them, others come because they want to see what else is in the bag. This sort of rhetoric only gets ramped up in reference to meditation as a performance booster. For example, the promise that meditation will make you more effective at work seems to have a lot more salience and motivational charge than the promise that meditation will just make work feel a little less important overall.

They’re not the only ones wanting a quick fix. Katie Bloom from the Outline enrols on a 10-week introductory ‘happiness’ course from the School of Practical Philosophy.

Enlightenment can be yours for just $10
The fine print reads: “Jobs come and go. Physical beauty fades, markets rise and fall. Even close relationships can end. But the benefits of philosophy last a lifetime.” These benefits — HAPPINESS included — can be gained, according to the ad, by attending the 10-week introductory course at a place called the School of Practical Philosophy.

The clichéd, Hallmark-y, feelgood pop-philosophy isn’t to everyone’s tastes, though.

The classes had more in common with my Catholic K-12 education than with the philosophy courses I took in college. It’s difficult to characterize what we learned, because none of it really cohered. Each week had a theme (“The Light of Reason,” “Beauty,” etc.), and consisted of cherry-picked ideas from eastern and western philosophies and religions, devoid of context and presented as fact. We had souls, we were told; the proof was that our bodies and thoughts and feelings changed, but something inside of us remained constant. There was beauty in everything, we learned one week, a banal-seeming claim that set off an agonizing half-hour argument about whether there was beauty in the Holocaust.

But maybe getting to the bottom of Truth and being one with the fundamental nature of knowledge and existence isn’t what it’s all about, as Katie muses at the end of the course.

Here’s what else I learned. Two Watches looked forward to class all week. His divorce had been awful, his kids lived with their mom, and he was lonely. (“Even close relationships can end,” goes one of the SPP’s subway ads.) He worked in maintenance at Yankee Stadium. He hadn’t gone to college, and he didn’t belong to a church — his life was not teeming with opportunities to talk about the nature of wisdom. The lessons were fun, but the real appeal was community.

The students who stuck around until the final week reminded me of the many lonely people I had met while working in the service industry, people who often tried to turn a short, professional interaction into something lengthy and intimate. It was possible my classmates were not compelled by the notion that “three distinct energies governed the universe.” Maybe they just liked sitting in a room of people who would listen to them. The week before, an elderly widow had confessed in halting speech that it was hard to be kind to her husband towards the end of his life, because his illness changed his personality, made him mean. I watched as the woman sitting next to her, a stranger, squeezed her hand.

Rather than looking for answers, perhaps we’re just looking for people to ask the questions with.

Thoughtfully animated

I really like the delicacy of these live-action animations (that’s not the right term) from Catherine Prowse. The frailty of the models and the directness of the movements acting on them work well to illustrate the vulnerability of our inner lives, trying to get through each day.

Asleep on the Train: a puppeteered music video explores the wishful daydreams embedded in a daily commute
The stop motion short film follows a businessman as his daily commute gets wildly off-track, leaving the audience to guess if his adventure was real or only acted out in a wishful dream. A rich blue and orange color scheme is used in the design of both the train and the surrounding landscape, which stylistically connects the protagonist’s commute to the scenery he explores during his nostalgic escape.

Rod puppets in intricate felt sets profess The Need to Be Alone for Alain de Botton
Not long out of Kingston’s Illustration and Animation course, Tom Fisher and Catherine Prowse have directed a charming and impressively detailed short film for The School of Life, made entirely from hand-stitched felt. Featuring a cast of rod puppets shot in a live action format, The Need to Be Alone stars a red-spectacled, introverted protagonist called Alan – a tribute to its writer and narrator Alain de Botton. Throughout the film, Alan navigates a series of potentially awkward social scenarios as Alain professes the importance of having time alone to process these interactions.

Pages from the Book of Life

Have you read anything of the Book of Life yet? You should, it’s the nearest we humans get to a user guide. Here’s a little of what was in the newsletter this week.

How to be comfortable on your own in public
Eating alone in public can be one of the great hurdles of psychological life. It can be an exceptional trial because it forces us to wrestle with a set of thoughts that, for most of our lives, we successfully push to the back of consciousness: that we are in essence an unacceptable being, tainted from birth, an object of quiet ridicule or open mockery.

How to stop worrying whether or not they like you
One of the most acute questions we ask ourselves in relation to new friends and acquaintances is whether or not they like us. The question feels so significant because, depending on how we answer it in our minds, we will either take steps to deepen the friendship or, as is often the case, immediately make moves to withdraw from it so as to spare ourselves humiliation and embarrassment.

What to do at parties if you hate small talk
A lot of discomfort about going to social engagements is rooted in what can sound like a rather high-minded concern: a hatred of small talk. We can develop a dread of parties because we know how likely we are to end up wedged into conversations about the weather, parking, traffic or the way we plan to spend the forthcoming holidays – when there would be so many deeper and more dignified topics to address.

It’s from the School of Life, an organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence by applying psychology, philosophy, and culture to everyday life.

It was founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton. I’ve been a fan of his for a while now, after having read books like The Consolations of Philosophy (which became Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness), How Proust Can Change Your Life (which he discusses here), and Status Anxiety (which was made into a documentary).

I’ve finally got round to reading his Art as Therapy book, after having linked to that before on here, some years back.

Alain de Botton on Art as Therapy

Not to be confused with art therapy, of course. Here’s a piece about that, if you’re interested.

Art therapy gives patients a voice when there are no words
Always in any kind of therapy I think we are looking for a an act of communication, the smallest act of connection. There is a wonderful book by Martina Thomson, an art therapist, called On Art and Therapy: An Exploration and she talks about art therapy being like ‘feeding birds’ you want to be very quiet and allow the client to feel able to come towards you in some way. It is a delicate thing. You are not firing questions and needing answers. You are being together. Therapy is often seen as something for psychologically-minded people, or those of a certain class. For those with complex trauma for example, there might not be words to express the depth of what they have been through. Art can give them a voice.

Happy Stoic Week!

I’m glad I happened across this article in time.

The secret to happiness is simple: live like a Stoic for a week
We don’t control what happens to us, we can’t control what the people around us say or do, and we can’t even fully control our own bodies, which get damaged and sick and ultimately die without regard for our preferences. The only thing that we really control is how we think about things.

It’s an invitation to learn a little about this ancient philosophy.

Modern Stoicism: Stoic Week 2018
On October 1, 2018, the seventh annual Stoic Week takes place and Modern Stoicism are inviting people in the UK and from around the rest of the world to participate and learn how to live like a Stoic for a week. The idea behind the week is to give people an opportunity to see whether Stoic philosophy can help them live a more fulfilling life today.

I’ve mentioned Stoicism here before: I was getting wound up by my damned phone and displaying some decidedly un-Stoic attitudes towards it, before remembering a book I had just finished and had obviously not taken on board. A re-read is due, I guess.

Some other introductions.

The philosophy of Stoicism – Massimo Pigliucci

And then there’s this one, from the School of Life. A little harder to get, I think.

Why Stoicism Matters

Another great introduction to Stoicism comes from Maria Popova‘s philosophy and literature blog Brain Pickings.

A Stoic’s key to peace of mind: Seneca on the antidote to anxiety
With an eye to the self-defeating and wearying human habit of bracing ourselves for imaginary disaster, Seneca counsels his young friend: “What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.”

That blog is such a rabbit warren, I could get lost down there all day.

An antidote to the Age of Anxiety: Alan Watts on happiness and how to live with presence
Wisdom on overcoming the greatest human frustration from the pioneer of Eastern philosophy in the West.

How Not To Worry: Timeless 1934 Advice on Controlling Anxiety and Mastering Life
“We must gain victory, not by assaulting the walls, but by accepting them.”

100 Days of Overthinking: An Illustrated Diary of Mental Meanderings
A visual serenade to presence and a lamentation of how we continually eject ourselves from it.

Peanuts and the quiet pain of childhood: how Charles Schulz made an art of difficult emotions
“Readers recognized themselves in “poor moon-faced, unloved, misunderstood” Charlie Brown — in his dignity in the face of whole seasons of doomed baseball games, his endurance and stoicism in the face of insults. He … reminded people, as no other cartoon character had, of what it was to be vulnerable, to be small and alone in the universe, to be human — both little and big at the same time.”

happy-stoic-week-2

Contented

Maria Popova, the driving force behind Brain Pickings, shares her thoughts on how we relate to ideas, culture and philosophy.

Maria Popova on evergreen ideas and rethinking the meaning of content
I loathe the term “content” as applied to cultural material — it was foisted upon us by a commercially driven media industry that treats human beings as mindless eyeballs counted in statistics like views and likes, as currency to be traded against advertising revenue. Somehow people have been sold on the idea that the relationship between ads and “content” is a symbiotic one, but it is a parasitic one.

We are flooded with mediocre “content” produced for the sole purpose of transmits the ads — this type of “content,” which is now predominant online, is the reason for the epidemic of clickbait, the carrier for the highly contagious impoverishment of thought and feeling we are undergoing as a civilization …

Brain Pickings is the record of my looking, my trying to see. What I write about is simply what I think about as I read what I read, what I feel as one human being moving through this world — a kind of elaborate marginalia, my private discourse with the literature and art and ideas with which I engage. It may be the contents of my heart and mind, but it is not “content” in the sense this term has come to take on.

I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time now, she finds such great ideas.

Everything is out to get us

Following on from that post about how technology is deliberately addictive and seemingly out to get us, here’s a wider view of the problems we face and “the price we have to pay for being born in modern times”.

How the modern world makes us mentally ill
The modern world is wonderful in many ways (dentistry is good, cars are reliable, we can so easily keep in touch from Mexico with our grandmother in Scotland) – but it’s also powerfully and tragically geared to causing a high background level of anxiety and widespread low-level depression.

Thankfully, for each area of concern there’s a solution of sorts. For instance:

The media has immense prestige and a huge place in our lives – but routinely directs our attention to things that scare, worry, panic and enrage us, while denying us agency or any chance for effective personal action. It typically attends to the least admirable sides of human nature, without a balancing exposure to normal good intentions, responsibility and decency. At its worst, it edges us towards mob justice.

The cure would be news that concentrated on presenting solutions rather than generating outrage, that was alive to systemic problems rather than gleefully emphasizing scapegoats and emblematic monsters – and that would regularly remind us that the news we most need to focus on comes from our own lives and direct experiences.

It can all seem quite overwhelming, but we need to stay positive.

The forces of psychological distress in our world are – currently – much wealthier and more active than the needed cures. We deserve tender pity for the price we have to pay for being born in modern times. But more hopefully, cures are now open to us individually and collectively if only we recognise, with sufficient clarity, the sources of our true anxieties and sorrows.

The trick is remembering all this when we’re caught up in the moment and wrapped up in our day-to-day troubles. They ought to produce and sell a little cheatsheet we can carry around in our wallets or something.

Our phones and (are?) us

If I’m reading this right, a mobile phone manufacturer is saying less than positive things about their mobile phones. (Not for the first time?)

Phones should be ‘slaves, not masters’, says Samsung UK mobile chief
… Following increasing unease from technology insiders and development experts that young and old alike are becoming increasingly addicted to smartphones, social media and the constant need for messaging, Samsung’s head of mobile in the UK says that something needs to change to stop the constant heads-down relationship we have with our devices.

“Ultimately what we want to try and do is create more of a heads-up lifestyle,” Conor Pierce, Samsung’s vice president of mobile and IT in the UK and Ireland, told the Guardian at the launch of the company’s new Galaxy S9 smartphone.

“Let’s not spend our life looking at these devices. You look around and everyone is doing it, leaning over [their] phones. Let’s make the device be the slave and we’ll be the master – let’s turn the roles completely on their head.”

And the problem of all this distracting technology can be resolved through more technology?

“What I’m really looking forward to is making sure that not only customers have the best mobile experience, but also the best connectivity experience,” said Pierce. “Through our SmartThings open alliance, we’re bringing a ubiquitous, convenient experience in which users can control their privacy, as they need to be able to do, regardless of brand, to make it all a really joyful, easy, trusted experience for real people.”

Combine that with this discussion on the ‘extended mind’ thesis:

Are ‘you’ just inside your skin or is your smartphone part of you?
After all, your smartphone is much more than just a phone. It can tell a more intimate story about you than your best friend. No other piece of hardware in history, not even your brain, contains the quality or quantity of information held on your phone: it ‘knows’ whom you speak to, when you speak to them, what you said, where you have been, your purchases, photos, biometric data, even your notes to yourself – and all this dating back years.