Mind/Brain Candy

Rebecca Solnit on Breaking Silence as Our Mightiest Weapon Against Oppression

Rebecca Solnit on Breaking Silence as Our Mightiest Weapon Against Oppression

“To sin by silence, when we should protest makes cowards out of men,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her 1914 anthem against silence — an incantation which fomented biologist and writer Rachel Carson’s courage to speak inconvenient truth to power as she catalyzed the environmental movement. “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you,” Audre Lorde admonished on the cusp of another cultural revolution in her influential 1984 treatise on transforming silence into redemptive action. “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech shortly after Lorde’s landmark essay was published.

No silence is larger, both in age and in scope, nor more demanding of breaking, than the silencing of women’s voices — a millennia-old assault on the integrity of more than half of humankind.

Let me make one thing clear here: We — all of us, of any gender — may have different answers to the questions feminism raises. But if we refuse to engage with the questions themselves, we are culpable not only of cowardice but of complicity in humanity’s oldest cultural crime.

How to dismantle that complicity and transmute it into courage is what Rebecca Solnit explores in an extraordinary essay titled “Silence Is Broken,” found in The Mother of All Questions (public library) — a sweeping collection of essays Solnit describes as “a tour through carnage, a celebration of liberation and solidarity, insight and empathy, and an investigation of the terms and tools with which we might explore all these things.”

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Solnit begins by mapping the terra cognita of silence:

Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard. It surrounds the scattered islands made up of those allowed to speak and of what can be said and who listens. Silence occurs in many ways for many reasons; each of us has his or her own sea of unspoken words.

Silence, of course, is crucially different from quietude, the latter being the absence of noise and the former the absence of voice. Silence is to quietude what isolation, that weapon of oppression, is to solitude, that wellspring of creative fertility. Defining silence as “what is imposed” and quietude as “what is sought,” Solnit contrasts the two:

The tranquility of a quiet place, of quieting one’s own mind, of a retreat from words and bustle, is acoustically the same as the silence of intimidation or repression but psychically and politically something entirely different. What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought is as different from what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great as swimming is from drowning. Quiet is to noise as silence is to communication. The quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others, like the quiet of the reader taking in words on the page, like the white of the paper taking ink.

[…]

Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanized or excluded from one’s humanity.

Echoing Ursula K. Le Guin’s memorable assertion that “words are events, they do things, change things,” Solnit celebrates our mightiest, perhaps our only, mechanism for breaking our silences:

Words bring us together, and silence separates us, leaves us bereft of the help or solidarity or just communion that speech can solicit or elicit.

[…]

We are our stories, stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison; we make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others, stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.

Cartography: Molly Roy; subway route symbols © Metropolitan Transit Authority
The New York City subway map reimagined with every stop named after a notable woman, from Nonstop Metropolis by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly Shapiro

Noting that “the history of silence is central to women’s history,” Solnit writes:

Violence against women is often against our voices and our stories. It is a refusal of our voices, and of what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent, to live and participate, to interpret and narrate.

Bees Have Emotions and Moods. But Do They Have Feelings and Consciousness?

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The honeybee is in deep trouble. Colony collapse disorder (CCD), a condition whose cause isn’t known, has occurred in 42% of colonies within the US, since 2015. CCD occurs when worker bees mysteriously disappear, leaving a queen and her young with no one to tend to them. Invasive species, the loss of habitat, gut parasites, certain pesticides, and other causes have been considered, but nothing is definitive yet.

Research is ongoing. The Obama administration did enact some measures to help protect bee populations which so far remain in place. But they won’t be enough. Without knowing what’s causing CCD, there can be no definitive plan in place to reverse it.

That’s a serious blow to our agricultural industry and could have disastrous consequences for our food supply. 70% of food bearing plants are pollinated by bees. Harvard scientists have a technological fix in place. They’ve developed a type of micro-robot to replace these crucial pollinators, nicknamed robobees. In truth, no one really knows if they can do the job.

What’s more, who will pay for the additional service, which nature normally provides for free? Most likely, the cost will be passed along to the consumer. That means higher food prices, at a time when more and more jobs are disappearing, and wages continue to come back at a crawling pace.

To combat the loss of the honeybee population and perhaps preserve their supply chain and mascot, Cheerios has launched a campaign called #BringBacktheBees. They’ve partnered with a seed company, and have already given away 100 million wildflower seeds to interested parties in the general public. By reestablishing the bees vanishing habitat, they hope to bring these insects back from the brink. Though they’ve already reached their goal, they still have more seeds to give away, should you be interested.

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) in France. Getty Images.

Perhaps we’d hear a far greater outcry and more would be invested, if the problem was packaged in a way that pulls at the heartstrings, rather than engages the intellect. Usually, we think of invertebrates as incapable of advanced emotions. Some of the latest experiments with bees however, are challenging this assumption.

These prodigious pollinators show a remarkably advanced understanding of patterns, can anticipate future ones, be taught behaviors, and we now have evidence that they display a range of emotions, even moods. Today, the bee crisis is packaged thusly—these service-providing drones are being snuffed out by a sterilized acronym. Instead, why not portray it as fellow, sentient beings suffering from an epidemic? This is Ebola for bees, people!

Need…

The 21st Century’s Most Important Idea… & Older Natural Algorithmic Forces

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1. “The 21st century will be dominated by algorithms,” says Yuval Harari. That makes “‘algorithm’ arguably the single most important concept in our world.”

2. He’s almost right. Natural algorithms have ruled every century with life in it. He means unnatural algorithms (which have been called “weaponized math“) now matter.

3. Daniel Dennett says, “Darwin discovered the fundamental algorithm of evolution.” Of course Darwin couldn’t have seen natural selection as algorithmic, but technomorphic analogies to our unnatural computers mean we’re beginning to recognize “algorithmic forces.”

4. For instance, Gregory Chaitin says, “the origin of life is really the origin of software,” and “DNA is multibillion-year-old software.”

5. Algorithms are sequences of step-by-step instructions for complex processes (like recipes, or software). They describe how dumber sub-steps compose complex tasks.

6. Evolution’s survival-of-the-fittest algorithm is very loosely “survive, replicate with variation, repeat.”

7. Out of that dumb process-logic arises all the intelligence and complexity of all living systems. Including what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension.”

8. Consider “termite castles” that look like a monumental Gaudí…

These Cities Out-Earn Entire Countries

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Large cities, not countries are the future centres of world power. They will become islands of good governance in a world in which globalisation has eroded the nation state. That point was argued in #768, which emphasises population size and growth as yardsticks for metropolitan importance across Europe.

An even more crucial measure is economic power, expressed in GDP. By that measure, the ten richest large urban conglomerations in the world are each worth more than entire countries – including some of the world’s biggest economies.

This map compares the 2015 Gross Domestic Product in Purchasing Power Parity, expressed in billions of dollars, of the world’s ten richest metro areas to that of countries with a similar GDP-PPP$.

  • Tokyo, the world’s richest (as well as largest) conglomeration, has a GDP of $1.62 trillion. That is in the same league as South Korea, the world’s 14th-largest economy, with a GDP of $1.75 trillion.
  • In 2015 New York, in second place on the metro rich list, produced almost as much wealth as the entirety of Canada, the second-biggest country in the world – and without the benefit of that country’s considerable natural resources.
  • On the other U.S. coast, Los Angeles came pretty close to duplicating the Gross Domestic Product of another giant country, Australia.
  • Seoul, capital of South Korea and responsible for more than half of its GDP, on its own out-GDPs Malaysia.
  • Greater London generates almost the same economic output as the entire country of the Netherlands.
  • Paris – almost the same GDP as London – easily outperforms South Africa, one of the top three economies of its continent.
  • Shanghai, virtually on a par with Paris, is a mightier economic power than the Philippines.
  • Moscow is a bigger economic hub that the United Arab Emirates.
  • Osaka produces more than a fifth more wealth that Switzerland.
  • And Beijing‘s GDP is more than…

Did the Election Change How Men and Women Negotiate?

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Men have become much more aggressive with women in their negotiation style since Donald Trump became president, according to a new Game Theory simulation-based study. More aggressive tactics by men are leading to reduced mutual benefits and a destruction

Accordingto a study to be published in the May issue of American Economic Review, mens’ negotiation style with women has become much more aggressive since Donald Trump became president.

The authors of the study, Corrine Low and Jennie Huang from the University of Pennsylvania, used a “Battle of the Sexes” game theory simulation to gauge whether men’s negotiation styles had changed since the 2016 election.

According to the rules of the study’s “Battle of Sexes” simulation, each pair of subjects was given $20 to split. They had only two options: One person would get $15 and the other would get $5, or vice versa. If an impasse were reached, both would get $0.

In this study, pairs were randomly assigned, and weren’t necessarily male-female. The researchers informed some pairs about the genders of pair members, but withheld that information in the case of other pairs. The researchers used an online chat tool to track the communication, and used third-party observers to code the interactions as either “aggressive” or “cooperative”.

Acording to the study, Trump's election “disrupted community norms around civility and chivalry.” (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
Trump’s election “disrupted community norms around civility and chivalry,” according to the authors of the Game Theory simulation-based study (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

The experiment’s first simulation was conducted before the election (October), and researchers found that, in normal unstructured communication, men were less likely to use tough negotiation tactics when paired with female partners, and also that they were more likely to offer the higher reward of the game (the $15 payoff) to female partners.

When the…

Diseases of the Will: Neuroscience Founding Father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the Six Psychological Flaws That Keep the Talented from Achieving Greatness

Diseases of the Will: Neuroscience Founding Father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the Six Psychological Flaws That Keep the Talented from Achieving Greatness

“Principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother in a beautiful letter about talking vs. doing and the human pursuit of greatness. “The great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.” But what stands between the impulse for greatness and the doing of the “little things” out of which success is woven?

That’s what neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal (May 1, 1852–October 17, 1934) addresses in his 1897 book Advice for a Young Investigator (public library) — the science counterpart to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist, predating one by nearly a decade and the other by more than a century.

Although Cajal’s counsel is aimed at young scientists, it is replete with wisdom that applies as much to science as it does to any other intellectually and creatively ambitious endeavor — nowhere more so than in one of the pieces in the volume, titled “Diseases of the Will,” presenting a taxonomy of the “ethical weaknesses and intellectual poverty” that keep even the most gifted young people from ascending to greatness.

Self-portrait by Cajal at his library in his thirties, from

It should be noted that Cajal addresses his advice to young men, on the presumption that scientists are male — proof that even the most visionary geniuses are still products of their time and place, and can’t fully escape the limitations and biases of their respective era, or as Virginia Woolf memorably put it in Orlando, “It is probable that the human spirit has its place in time assigned to it.” (Lest we forget, although the word “scientist” had been coined for a woman half a century earlier, women were not yet able to vote and were decades away from being admitted into European universities, so scientists in the strict academic sense were indeed exclusively male in Cajal’s culture.) Still, when stripped of its genderedness, his advice remains immensely psychologically insightful, offering a timeless corrective for the pitfalls that keep talent and drive from manifesting into greatness, not only in science but in any field.

Considering the all too pervasive paradox of creative people “who are wonderfully talented and full of energy and initiative [but] who never produce any original work and almost never write anything,” Cajal divides them into six classes according to the “diseases of the will” afflicting them — contemplators, bibliophiles and polyglots, megalomaniacs, instrument addicts, misfits, and theorists.

He examines the superficiality driving the “particularly morbid variety” of the first type:

[Contemplators] love the study of nature but only for its aesthetic qualities — the sublime spectacles, the beautiful forms, the splendid colors, and the graceful structures.

One of Cajal’s revolutionary histological drawings

With an eye to his own chosen field of histology, which he revolutionized by using beauty to illuminate the workings of the brain, Cajal notes that a contemplator will master the finest artistic techniques “without ever feeling the slightest temptation to apply them to a new problem, or to the solution of a hotly contested issue.” He adds:

[Contemplators] are as likable for their juvenile enthusiasm and piquant and winning speech as they are ineffective in making any real scientific progress.

More than a century before Tom Wolfe’s admonition against the rise of the pseudo-intellectual, Cajal treats with special disdain the bibliophiles and polyglots — those who use erudition not as a tool of furthering humanity’s enlightenment but as a personal intellectual ornament of pretension and vanity. He diagnoses this particular “disease of the will”:

The symptoms of this disease include encyclopedic tendencies; the mastery of numerous languages, some totally useless; exclusive subscription to highly specialized journals; the acquisition of all the latest books to appear in the bookseller’s showcases; assiduous reading of everything that is important to know, especially when it interests very few; unconquerable laziness where writing is concerned; and an aversion to the seminar and laboratory.

In a passage that calls to mind Portlandia’s irrepressibly hilarious “Did You Read It?” sketch, he writes:

Naturally, our bookworm lives in and for his library, which is monumental and overflowing. There he receives his following, charming them with pleasant, sparkling, and varied conversation — usually begun with a question something like: “Have you read So-and-so’s book? (An American, German, Russian, or Scandinavian name is inserted here.) Are you acquainted with Such-and-such’s surprising theory?” And without listening to the reply, the erudite one expounds with warm eloquence some wild and audacious proposal with no basis in reality and endurable only in the context of a chat about spiritual matters.

Cajal examines the central snag of these vain pseudo-scholars:

Discussing everything — squandering and misusing their keen intellects — these indolent men of science ignore a very simple and very human fact… They seem only vaguely aware at best of the well-known platitude that erudition has very little value when it does not reflect the preparation and results of sustained personal achievement. All of the bibliophile’s fondest hopes are concentrated on projecting an image of genius infused with culture. He never stops to think that only the most inspired effort can liberate the scholar from oblivion and injustice.

Three decades before John Cowper Powys’s incisive dichotomy between being educated and being cultured, Cajal is careful to affirm the indisputable value of learnedness put to fertile use — something categorically different from erudition as a personal conceit:

No one would deny the fact that he who knows and acts is the one who counts, not he who knows and falls asleep. We render a tribute of respect to those who add original work to a library, and withhold it from those who carry a library around in their head. If one is to become a mere phonograph, it is hardly worth the effort of complicating cerebral organization with study and reflection. Our neurons must be used for more substantial things. Not only to know but also to transform knowledge; not only to experience but also to construct.

[…]

The eloquent fount of erudition may undoubtedly receive enthusiastic plaudits throughout life in the warm intimacy of social gatherings, but he waits in vain for acclamation from the great theater of the world. The wise man’s public lives far away, or does not yet exist; it reads instead of listens; it is so austere…

The Telling: An Unusual and Profound 1967 Manifesto for Truth

The Telling: An Unusual and Profound 1967 Manifesto for Truth

“Teller and listener, each fulfills the other’s expectations,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her beautiful meditation on the magic of real human communication. “The living tongue that tells the word, the living ear that hears it, bind and bond us in the communion we long for in the silence of our inner solitude.” But what exactly is this act of telling that transfigures our isolation into communion — how, why, and what do we actually tell, and to whom do we tell it?

That’s what the poet Laura Riding (January 16, 1901–September 2, 1991) set out to explore half a century ago.

Eleven years after she composed her extraordinary letters of life-advice to an eight-year-old girl, Riding renounced her vocation, feeling that she had “reached poetry’s limit” as a means of probing human truth and that there existed “something better in our linguistic way of life than we have.” She fell in love with TIME magazine poetry critic Schuyler B. Jackson and became Laura (Riding) Jackson. The Jacksons went on to live a humble yet intensely intellectual life in Florida, working as citrus farmers to fund their work on an ambitious, unorthodox dictionary that distilled each word into a single definition.

But Jackson, animated by her intense love of language, remained restless about the problem of truth’s articulation. It took her a quarter century to formulate just why she had abandoned poetry and what greater frontiers of truth-telling there may be. Her formulation first appeared in the New York magazine Chelsea in 1967 and later became the small, immensely profound book The Telling (public library) — an unusual manifesto for the existential necessity of living for truth.

Laura (Riding) Jackson

Jackson frames the promise of the book in a prefatory note:

Life of the human kind has been lived preponderantly so far according to the needs of the self as felt to be the possession of itself. This self-claiming self is a human-faced creature, existing in the multiple form of a loose number reckonable only as “the human aggregate.” The needs of this self issue from a diffuse greed, which is imparted from one to the other in garrulous sociality.

There is an alternative self, a human-faced soul-being, a self conscious of ourselves who bear in manifold individualness, each singly, the burden of the single sense of the manifold totality. This self is implicated in the totality as a speaking self of it, owing it words that will put the seal of the Whole upon it. On what we each may thus say depends the happiness of the Whole, and our own (every happiness of other making being destined to disappear into the shades of the predetermined nothingness of the self-claiming self, which encircle it.)

The book is structured like Pascal’s Pensées and Descartes’s The Passions of the Soul — as a series of short meditations each presented in a numbered paragraph. In the first, Jackson considers our primal hunger for the telling of core human truths yet untold:

There is something to be told about us for the telling of which we all wait. In our unwilling ignorance we hurry to listen to stories of old human life, new human life, fancied human life, avid of something to while away the time of unanswered curiosity. Many of the lesser things concerning us have been told, but the greater things have not been told; and nothing can fill their place. Whatever we learn of what is not ourselves, but ours to know, being of our universal world, will likewise leave the emptiness an emptiness. Until the missing story of ourselves is told, nothing besides told can suffice us: we shall go on quietly craving it.

Art by Sydney Pink from Overcoming Creative Block

In the fourth fragment, she suggests that at the heart of the pervasive sense that our stories are unheard lies the fact that they are first and foremost untold:

Everywhere can be…

The Necessity of Atheism

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Upon learning of the drowning of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1822, the London Courier took a shot at the deceased poet’s atheism by writing, “now he knows whether there is a God or no.” Shelley’s wife, Mary, who had published Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus only four years prior, probably didn’t enjoy the jab at her late husband, victim of a sudden storm in the Gulf of Spezia.

Percy Shelley never achieved widespread fame during his lifetime. After death his writing spread—The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, and Hellas became classics. Along the way the poet penned essays and journal entires describing his transition from mystical pantheism to atheism. In 1811he published “The Necessity of Atheism,” for which he received flack from the religiously-inclined. Two years later, while writing his poem, Queen Mab, he expanded and revised the essay.

Shelley was living during England’s golden age of scientific discovery. As a student at Oxford he fell in love with the new technology of ballooning. He equated the epic flights of silk balloons, which would soon carry humans, with liberation, himself once securing a revolutionary pamphlet on a number of balloons that he launched from a Lynmouth beach.

Shelley’s poetry was filled with scientific wonder. He studied under James Lind, the Scottish physician most famous for conducting the first experimental method by treating sailors with citrus to cure scurvy. While many of Shelley’s contemporaries were searching for metaphysical explanations of the growing fields of biology and chemistry, Shelley recognized poetry in the processes of nature.

The young poet found Christianity detestable, infusing his thoughts on psychology with scientific ideas. His amalgam of speculative journaling—he shared diaries with Mary—laid the foundation for her to dream up Frankenstein and usher in a new form of literature, the science fiction novel. Just as Shelley was influenced by researchers around him, those same scientists drew inspiration from the poetic materialism expressed in his verses.

In “The Necessity of Atheism,” Shelley writes that man first feared then adored the elements, paying homage to the planet by learning to control them. Humans then started to simplify categories—which is true in light of modern neuroscience as well as the historical evolution from polytheism to monotheism—and imagined a single agent as the source of all of nature.

Mounting from cause to cause, mortal man has ended by seeing nothing; and it is in this obscurity that he has placed his God; it is in this darksome abyss that his uneasy imagination has always labored to fabricate chimeras, which will continue to afflict…

David Attenborough Narrates an Animated Adventure Series For Kids

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Sir David Attenborough’s adventures are being retold. His time in nature exploring the nooks and crannies of wildlife will now be featured on Storytime, an app with 2.4 million downloads, that is designed for toddlers. With Attenborough’s narration, the Storytime app run by CBeebies (a BBC television network for the under six age group) aims to help young children learn how to read on their iOS and Android screens.

Attenborough has plenty of great stories to tell young children, including the moment where a gorilla sat in his lap. His love of animals and the natural world was exemplified in his creation of the BBC documentary series Zoo Quest, in 1954. Before Zoo Quest, if shows wanted to educate their audiences about animals, the featured creatures would be brought onto a lit stage, uncomfortable and out of their natural habitat. Attenborough wanted that to change, and did so by bringing his show into the animal’s natural domain instead, forever changing the dynamic. His mission and popularity grew exponentially, and he later headlined Eastwards with Attenborough and Life on Earth. Narrating his life’s work through an educational app is an important step in cultivating the next generation’s interest in preserving biodiversity on our planet.

Monkeys, Babies, and “Awesome” Science Laurie Santos

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Why Hopefulness Is a Greater Predictor of Academic Success than Intelligence

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U.S. Naval Academy graduates throw their hats in the air during graduation ceremonies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

This article is part of the Hope and Optimism initiative which explores the theoretical, empirical, and practical dimensions of hope, optimism, and related states.

Succeeding at school or university is about more than memorizing vast amounts of information and impressing professors with ingenious ideas. A growing body of scientific investigation now supports the conclusion that being hopeful has a distinctly positive effect on academic performance.

One paper from the University of Kansas looked at how the presence of hope boosted college achievement over a 6-year period, finding that ‘high-hope’ students had higher GPAs, and were more likely to graduate than ‘low-hope’ students.

A separate 3-year study by a team of British researchers has shown that hope is not only related to academic success, but is a greater predictor of success than intelligence tests, personality, or whether individuals previously did well in academic environments.

But what is hope? Recent studies have based their definition on positive psychologist Rick Snyder’s theory developed in the 1990s. Snyder saw hope as a “cognitive process allowing individuals to plan for and execute the pursuit of goals.”

Snyder’s separate “hope theory” offers more insight on the concept of hope.

Students studying
Students studying

Students study with their laptop computers in the Pedagogical Library at the Freie Universitaet university on September 20, 2011 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In a 1991 paper, Snyder outlined his theory as “a cognitive set that is based on a reciprocally-derived sense of successful agency (goal-directed determination) and pathways (planning to meet goals)”. In other words, it is essential for hope that a person feels he or she has agency — an ability…

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