This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

29Nov/10

One man’s perspective on awareness and compassion

I know it's been quite some time since my last post, but unfortunately I wasn't able to sneak blogging into my schedule between mouthfuls of turkey and gallons of eggnog.  Given that I am still in a mild post-turkey state of lethargy, I'm going to forego writing anything and instead give you a link to an absolutely amazing commencement speech I recently heard.

The speaker is David Foster Wallace, an fantastic and enlightening author that clearly understands more about the world than I could ever aspire to.  Describing his speech would sort of counterproductive, so I'll just appeal to two things.  One, it gives a glimpse at how to be a better person (in the real sense, not the fake self-help book sense), and two, it comes across as one of the most honest speeches I've heard.  Give it a listen, I know you'll be impressed!

via YouTube

19Aug/10

An excuse for my unemployment!

Here is a really interesting article on the nature of young adulthood and the changing forces that are shaping the lives of people in their twenties all across the world.  Personally, I think it's a really interesting analysis of the kinds of issues that people my age are facing, and I think it has a lot to say about the kind of world we live in right now.

Obviously, the world has changed drastically in the last 20 years.  The economy has become faster, more demanding, and unstable than ever before, higher education is no longer seen as the solid foundation from which any young person can guarantee success, and the music is undeniably better.  Granted, societies have been evolving for thousands of years, and one generation is never the same as its predecessor.  However, some scientists believe that what we currently have on our hands is a beast of a different nature.  Not only different kind of lifestyle, but a new phase in life.

Jeffrey Arnett, a professor at Clark University, calls it "emerging adulthood," that period of time in your 20s that all recent graduates can fondly point to.  Job insecurity, a lack of direction, and a reliance on your folks have come to dominate many of the discussions carried out by those who would predict the moral and productive downfall of our youth.  However, Arnett (and many others) see a highly beneficial aspect to this new period of life as well.

True, those in "emerging adulthood" often focus more on themselves rather than others, but is that such a bad thing?  In a world in which the dominating rhetoric is failed marriages, parentless children, unhappy jobs, and the constant dissatisfaction that many feel with life, perhaps it makes sense to spend a bit more time thinking about what you want to do with your life rather than diving right in after college.

At least, this is what Arnett suggests, suggesting that "emerging adulthood" will come to serve as a necessary process for self development just as "adolescence" was a hundred years ago.  He notes the parallels that a changing industrial economy and new pressures on the family had for the way we treated our children: with more time in their teens to devote to personal development rather than supporting a family, developmental psychologists realized that children needed a deeper period of development and teaching.  Thus was born "the adolescent years" as well as the societal infrastructure to deal with them.

And if Arnett is right, if "emerging adulthood" is a real developmental phenomenon, then we'll have to start thinking about how we can nurture those coming out of adolescence and into the real world.

Maybe it reflects a lack of drive, a loss of ability, and a world saturated with highly-educated individuals; or maybe it reflects an additional step in the lives of young adults everywhere, one which allows them to fine-tune their skills, learn about themselves, and make more calculated decisions in their life.  Only time will tell, but my money is on Arnett.

via The New York Times Magazine

16Aug/10

Power tripping

The last few posts I've made have looked at how your own subjective opinions and beliefs can color the world around you, but it's also important to point out that the external world has an equally powerful effect on your subconscious.

In this weekend essay, Jonah Lehrer discusses the kinds of characteristics that allow people to rise to power, and the extent to which they lose those characteristics once they are there.

People in charge are often easy to hate, but why is this?  Why would we allow them to get there in the first place if we didn't like the way they do things?  Well, studies in psychology and sociology suggest that this might be because we have two very different personalities when we are in and out of power.

Such an effect has been well-known for a long time - just look at the bevy of corrupt villains and politicians in modern and historical literature - but this may not simply be a matter of specific "fringe benefits," rather a subtle and subconscious shift in the way that we deal with other people.

Research suggests that, in fact, being more friendly and likeable is more likely to propel you to the top of the social and professional ladder, but that once this end is achieved, the same characteristics tend to vanish.  This is not to suggest that successful people are plotting this personality switch from day one, but that it reflects a natural response to finding one's power relationships shifted in their favor.

I think this is an important point to make, because understanding it entails shifting our focus towards a different kind of problem in the workplace as well as in politics.  If we are unhappy with leadership, it is not as easy as "electing better people" and waiting for everything to get better.  Instead, we must maintain an active role in our relationship with already-elected officials and try to shape their own evolution from subordinate to top dog.  This might include a more open dialog, more transparent views of leadership activity, and a different method of accountability rather than just the threat of losing the next election.

If coming into power subjects anyone to transformative pressures and opportunities to redefine themselves, it is our job to make sure we still play a role in that process.

via The Wall Street Journal

6Aug/10

Some words on life (and death) from a great man

So I know it ain't science, per say, but then again what could be a more essential part of learning about the world and yourself than learning about death?

Sounds morose, I know, but it's something that we all have to deal with at one time or another, and while many fight it tooth an nail, one man seems to take a much more measured and analytical approach.

Christopher Hitchens (one of my all-time favorite writers) is in the process of releasing a memoir that details his life as a journalist, visionary, and slightly crazy person.  Almost in justification of such a decision, he recently wrote this piece on his recent diagnosis and life with cancer.

Hitchens is a man that has a lot to say about the world, and it is a wonder that he expresses the same poignant insight into his own world.  I don't have much to say about the article, except that seeing someone who can express their feelings about their own terminal illness with such eloquence is both deserving of my respect and attention.  I suggest you check it out.

Here's a brief excerpt:

Ihave more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning last June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs. My heart was beating either much too much or much too little. Any movement, however slight, required forethought and planning. It took strenuous effort for me to cross the room of my New York hotel and summon the emergency services. They arrived with great dispatch and behaved with immense courtesy and professionalism. I had the time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment, but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady. Within a few hours, having had to do quite a lot of emergency work on my heart and my lungs, the physicians at this sad border post had shown me a few other postcards from the interior and told me that my immediate next stop would have to be with an oncologist. Some kind of shadow was throwing itself across the negatives.

from Vanity Fair

3Aug/10

Is higher education a waste of your time?

A recent interview has been posted to NPR's website that covers the issue of higher education and its place in our society.

Tony Cox sat down with Andrew Hacker, a distinguished academic and author of the recent book "Higher Education?" to discuss his thoughts on our current system and why it may be broken.

In a nutshell, he criticizes many institutional traditions such as tenure, declaring that it encourages professors to focus on themselves rather than on their students.  He also suggests that the research-focused nature of most large universities leaves students who shell out significant amounts of money each year in a lurch.

I have to say that I'm inclined to agree with Professor Hacker - it seems ridiculous to me that the cost of college degrees keeps on getting bigger and bigger while the value of having one seems to be shrinking by the day.

Most studies suggest that it is becoming easier and easier for students to pidgeonhole themselves into a specific field at a young age, something may aid in getting a job but ultimately deprives them of the breadth of experience that historically defines university life.

In my own experience with university life, it seems like the most valuable lessons I learned came unintentionally, from unexpected or even unwanted sources.  I wonder what kinds of experiences and knowledge people are missing out on these days by being allowed to avoid anything deemed "unnecessary."

via NPR