Why We Learn

Before we get too smug about the past century of scientific progress, note that scientists developed the theory of special relativity before developing a consensus on the existence of the female orgasm.

Scientific inquiry into sex didn’t begin until the 20th century, and until the 1950s remained at the extreme fringes of biology, medicine, and psychology. Participants were nearly impossible to recruit. Many researchers completed their studies with prostitutes, research assistants, spouses, and, when necessary, themselves:

“Rather than risk being fired or ostracized by explaining their unconventional project to other people and trying to press those other people into service, researchers would simply, quietly, do it themselves.”

Mary Roach, Bonk

Measurement instruments were even more difficult to acquire. Mid-20th century researchers like William Masters and Virginia Johnson built their own makeshift penis cameras to get a better look at the action:

“The dildo camera unmasked, among other things, the source of vaginal lubrication: not glandular secretions but plasma seeping through the capillary walls in the vagina.”

Mary Roach, Bonk

TIL.

Here’s the thing: The Hubble telescope recently photographed a galaxy 13.8 billion light years away, literally looking back in time to the formation of the universe. It is very likely that we will develop 3D-printed human kidneys for transplant before we develop a complete model of the mechanics of human insemination.

We are taught to view technology as the bottleneck for understanding the world around us. If only we had more engineers and data scientists to build the gadgets and crunch the numbers, we’d usher in our age of abundance.

We could build a machine to perfectly record and analyze every detail of human sexuality, and we’d still be screwed without thousands of people willing to strip down and jump in, without governments and universities willing to fund the studies, without teachers and parents ready to broach the subject. Until we de-stigmatize human bodies and everything we like to do with them, we’ll never fully understand or heal them.

For our most important human problems, technology is not the bottleneck.

The bottleneck is people willing to talk frankly, to act shamelessly, to share generously.

The bottleneck is culture.

 

Bonk, by Mary Roach, is a frank, generous, and hilarious look at history and science of sex.  Check it out here.

Why We Love

“Years ago, a friend of mine and I used to frequent a market in Baltimore where we would eat oysters and drink VLB’s – Very Large Beers – from 32-ounce styrofoam cups. One of the regulars there had the worst toupee in the world, a comical little wig taped in place on the top of his head. Looking at this man and drinking our VLB’s, we developed the concept of the Soul Toupee.

Each of us has a Soul Toupee. The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us.

Contemplating one’s own Soul Toupee is not an exercise for the fainthearted.

Most of the time, other people don’t even get why our Soul Toupee is any big deal or a cause of such evident deep shame to us, but they can tell that it is because of our inept, transparent efforts to cover it up, which only call more attention to it and to our self-consciousness about it, and so they gently pretend not to notice it. Meanwhile, we’re standing there with our little rigid spongelike square of hair pasted on our heads thinking: Heh – got ‘em all fooled!”

What’s so ironic and sad about this is that the very parts of ourselves that we’re most ashamed of and eager to conceal are not only obvious to everyone but are also, quite often, the parts of us they love best.”

Tim Kreider, The Czar’s Daughter

If you spend enough time in nature, eventually you will see something so majestic and unlikely that you are struck speechless. You might watch a deer nibble at the grass in your local park when an eagle swoops down like a fighter jet, snatches the deer from the ground, and soars up into the treetops. These scenes temporarily empty your mind of vocabulary. You replay the incident over and over again in your head, examining the memory for any clue that you misperceived what just happened, like a merchant inspecting a diamond for flaws. In the weeks and months later, what stays with you is not just the slow-motion clarity of the event, but the feeling of awe that hit you like a sudden drop in air pressure, a sensation our neurons produce only after witnessing something both brutal and impossibly beautiful.

At its peak, Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing generates this sort of emotional response every 60-90 seconds. You pause an essay for minutes simply to absorb and recover from the precision with which he knocks you in gut with a hard truth, gorgeously rendered.

The book isn’t a manual to boost your productivity or reclaim your finances or build your network. It’s a series of stunning personal essays by a little-known cartoonist and writer. Few people reading this will take a chance on this book, even after a recommendation by me, a fully-unknown non-cartoonist and writer.

If you’d like to listen to Lazy: A Manifesto, one of the essays that appears in the book, you can do so here for free.

Like witnessing a bolt of lightning strike a tree fifty yards in the distance, the first thing you want to do after cleaning your pants and picking your jaw up off the ground is share the moment with your friends.

Why We Fuck Up

There are those that would ask for a summary of The Great Gatsby, yet read every page of whatever business book is en vogue among founders and VCs. The irony is that most books on business can be fully summarized in a few pages, while a hundred books can be written about The Great Gatsby and never capture it in full.

Pay attention to what expands and what contracts.

Why We Fuck Up

There are four possible reactions to reading or watching the news. I shall describe the appropriate response to each outcome.

1. “I didn’t understand this before, and I still don’t.”

Bummer. Perhaps this topic was too complex for the author to effectively capture. You might consider seeking a handful of books written by people with personal experience in the topic, should you wish to better understand. Stop reading the news.

2. “I didn’t understand this before, now I do.”

No, you don’t. You might consider seeking a handful of books written by people with personal experience in the topic, should you wish to better understand. Stop reading the news.

3. “I thought I understood before, now I don’t understand at all.”

Hey, you understand! The author effectively captured the irreducible complexity of human nature. Should you wish to deepen your informed perspective, you might consider seeking a handful of books written by people with personal experience in the topic. Continue reading the news, but please exercise caution.

4. “I understood this before, and now I understand better.”

Please, for the safety of those around you, stop reading the news.

Why We Act

This morning, while reading Tim Ferriss’s weekly newsletter, I re-encountered a quote by Oscar Wilde: “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.”

I wonder if Germans have a word for witty assertions that turn out to be scientifically confirmed.

During an election year, the first book every person should have on their reading list is Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Haidt explores the evolutionary, psychological, and cultural ingredients that flavor the stew of our individual moral preferences.

One of the central themes of the book is that our intuitions come first, our reasoning comes second. Gut feeling drives our judgments, and our strategic reasoning is the ‘press secretary’ that explains and justifies our non-rational whims.

As an example, he cites a study where participants are asked to describe their reactions to “harmless taboo violations.” These are situations that gross us out, but are ultimately harmless to the people in the story, e.g. two adult siblings having protected sex in secret. The majority of participants said that these actions were wrong, but when their reasons for saying so were disproven by the researcher, they’d simply generate a different reason, on and on until they finally settled on something like “it’s wrong because I just feel that it is.”

I’m reminded of this nearly every time I see people engaging in protracted political arguments on Facebook. I understand the urge to dip into the comments of a charged political post that gets its facts completely wrong, but the facts are beside the point.

Instead, we must understand what principles guide our moral intuitions. How much importance do we place on authority and hierarchy? How sensitive are we to physical suffering versus fairness? Is it more important to be chaste or loyal? Haidt explores how these moral dimensions translate into the ideologies we consider liberal and conservative.

It’s a challenge these days, being on social media and not wanting to gouge your eyes out or set the internet on fire in response to viewpoints we find at best baffling and at worst existentially dangerous. This book helps us develop empathy for why somebody might see the world very differently than we do.

Read The Righteous Mind if you want to have a less aggravating, more compassionate year.

Why We Fuck Up

A lot of our anxiety and unhappiness comes from one simple mistake. The mistake is believing you are a single individual with stable and absolute feelings, preferences, personality.

Surprise!

There is a quote in Alan Watt’s The Wisdom of Insecurity that I’ve come back to once or twice a day since I first read it.

The more we accustom ourselves to understanding the present in terms of memory, the unknown by the known, the living by the dead, the more desiccated and embalmed, the more joyless and frustrated life becomes.

The idea is that the narrative called ‘you’ is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one, formed out of the connective tissue of our memories. Our memories are not strict recordings of events as they happened, any more than a watercolor self-portrait of your gemüse kebab is your lunch.  Memories are stories we tell ourselves, ones that change in the retelling. What we call memory has no absolute connection to what has happened, nor can it accurately describe it, anymore than our fantasies have any concrete connection to what will happen.

The stereotypical soap-opera plot has a character lose their memories in an accident, and with that, they lose everything that makes them them. Indeed, we suffer from the same delusion – that the person I am in this moment is not me; I am the person I was. As a result, we begin a curious form of performance, play-acting as ourselves in an attempt to maintain consistency with a character that lives entirely in our own mind. We make decisions not based on how we feel right now, but how we imagine our “self” would act. Out of a drive to create consistency between yesterday and today, we create inconsistency, anxiety, and ulcers. Ironically, the harder we try to resolve this anxiety, the further it swells.

The other day I looked through some blog entries I wrote ten years ago and at times I barely recognized myself. My observations, my style of writing, my outlook on the world – all completely different than they are today. Put ten-years-ago me in a room with right-now me, and we are two different people, each with unique perspectives, desires, and lessons to teach each other. While there may be a corporal-temporal line between us, we are different individuals. The difference between ten-years-ago me and right-now-me; ten-days-ago me and now-me; even ten-seconds ago me and right now me is just as profound. We are different people, in separate moments, and none of us are accountable to each other.

One benefit to producing creative work of any kind is that it is the closest we can ever come to truly seeing ourselves as we were. While memories trap us in nostalgia and the drive for consistency, our past creative works liberate us by reminding us that we have changed – grown here, softened there – and that above all change is not only possible, but inevitable.  Finally, we can stop resisting becoming who we are, over and over again.