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Posts Tagged ‘Psychology

“Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth”*…



A map from 1893 portrays Earth as square and stationary and warns of Biblical interdiction against the notion of a round Earth flying through space


If you are only just waking up to the twenty-first century, you should know that, according to a growing number of people, much of what you’ve been taught about our planet is a lie: Earth really is flat. We know this because dozens, if not hundreds, of YouTube videos describe the coverup. We’ve listened to podcasts—Flat Earth Conspiracy, The Flat Earth Podcast—that parse the minutiae of various flat-Earth models, and the very wonkiness of the discussion indicates that the over-all theory is as sound and valid as any other scientific theory. We know because on a clear, cool day it is sometimes possible, from southwestern Michigan, to see the Chicago skyline, more than fifty miles away—an impossibility were Earth actually curved. We know because, last February, Kyrie Irving, the Boston Celtics point guard, told us so. “The Earth is flat,” he said. “It’s right in front of our faces. I’m telling you, it’s right in front of our faces. They lie to us.” We know because, last November, a year and a day after Donald Trump was elected President, more than five hundred people from across this flat Earth paid as much as two hundred and forty-nine dollars each to attend the first-ever Flat Earth Conference, in a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina…

The unsettling thing about spending two days at a convention of people who believe that Earth is flat isn’t the possibility that you, too, might come to accept their world view, although I did worry a little about that. Rather, it’s the very real likelihood that, after sitting through hours of presentations on “scientism,” lightning angels, and NASA’s many conspiracies—the moon-landing hoax, the International Fake Station, so-called satellites—and in chatting with I.T. specialists, cops, college students, and fashionably dressed families with young children, all of them unfailingly earnest and lovely, you will come to actually understand why a growing number of people are dead certain that Earth is flat. Because that truth is unnerving…

Alan Burdick explains what the burgeoning movement says about science, solace, and how a theory becomes truth; “Looking for Life on a Flat Earth.”

* Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49


As we contemplate curvature, we might recall that it was on this date in 1850 that Harvard Observatory director William Cranch Bond and Boston photographer John Adams Whipple took a daguerreotype of Vega– the first photograph of a star ever made.



“As my artist’s statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance”*…




The neuroscientist was in the art gallery and there were many things to learn. So Eric Kandel excitedly guided me through the bright lobby of the Neue Galerie New York, a museum of fin de siècle Austrian and German art, located in a Beaux-Art mansion, across from Central Park. The Nobel laureate was dressed in a dark blue suit with white pinstripes and red bowtie. I was dressed, well, less elegantly.

Since winning a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, for uncovering the electrochemical mechanisms of memory, Kandel had been thinking about art. In 2012 and 2016, respectively, he published The Age of Insight and Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, both of which could be called This Is Your Brain on Art. The Age of Insight detailed the rise of neuroscience out of the medical culture that surrounded Sigmund Freud, and focused on Gustav Klimt and his artistic disciples Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, whose paintings mirrored the age’s brazen ideas about primal desires smoldering beneath conscious control.

I’d invited Kandel to meet me at the Neue Galerie because it was the premier American home of original works by Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele. It was 2014 when we met and I had long been reading about neuroaesthetics, a newish school in neuroscience, and a foundation of The Age of Insight, where brain computation was enlisted to explain why and what in art turned us on. I was anxious to hear Kandel expound on how neuroscience could enrich art, as he had written, though I also came with a handful of doubts…

Kevin Berger learns “what neuroscience is doing to art”: “Gustav Klimt in the Brain Lab.”

* Bill Watterson


As we think about thinking about it, we might spare a thought for Jacob Lawrence; he died on this date in 2000.  One of the best-respected 20th century American painters, and one the most well-known African-American artists, Jacobs described his style as “Dynamic Cubism.”  His works are in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Phillips Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and Reynolda House Museum of American Art.

He is perhaps best known for a 60-panel work, Migration Series (depicting the migration of rural southern African-Americans to the urban north), which he painted on cardboard.  The collection is now held by two museums: the odd-numbered paintings are on exhibit in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the even-numbered are displayed at MOMA in New York.


The first panel of Migration Series [source]

220px-Portrait_of_Jacob_Lawrence_LCCN2004663191 source


Written by LW

June 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“In so far as the mind sees things in their eternal aspect, it participates in eternity”*…



David Ramsay Hay’s mapping of color onto musical notes, a diagram from his The Laws of Harmonious Colouring (1838)


“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” So wrote the Victorian art critic Walter Pater in 1888. Earlier in the century, Scottish artist David Ramsay Hay composed a series of fifteen books published between 1828 and 1856 that attempted to develop a theory of visual beauty from the basic elements of music theory. Anticipating Pater but also fin-de-siècle attempts to unite the arts via spiritual or synesthetic affinities, Hay’s writings mapped colors, shapes, and angles onto familiar musical constructs such as pitches, scales, and chords. While these ideas might appear highly eccentric today, an understanding of them offers a glimpse of the remarkable importance of music to the Victorian Zeitgeist…

Hay’s approach to visual aesthetics was equally applicable to architecture, color theory, the ornamental arts, and the human face and figure. It can be understood as a psychological account of beauty, as opposed to other contemporary theories that anchored beauty in notions of the picturesque, the mimetic, or the sublime. Though analogies between music and the fine arts certainly do not originate with Hay, his application of music theory to an extensive array of visual experiences including color, shapes, figures, and architecture broke new ground. Rather than locating musical properties in the objects themselves, as earlier thinkers ranging from Plato to Newton had done, Hay worked in the post-Kantian tradition, regarding these features as immanent to our own minds, where they create our experience of beauty by determining the very structure of our perceptions…

Throughout his writings, Hay consistently links the claim that a single fundamental law of nature determines aesthetic perception to the work of the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras…

Understanding the same laws to apply to both visual and aural beauty, David Ramsay Hay thought it possible not only to analyze such visual wonders as the Parthenon in terms of music theory, but also to identify their corresponding musical harmonies and melodies: “Music of the Squares: David Ramsay Hay and the Reinvention of Pythagorean Aesthetics.”

* Baruch de Spinoza


As we excavate the essential, we might send elegantly-composed birthday greetings to Mary Cassatt; she was born on this date in 1844.  An American printmaker and painter, she moved to Paris as an adult, where she developed a friendship with Edgar Degas and became, as  Gustave Geffroy wrote in 1894, one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism (with Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot).

Self-portrait, c. 1878




Written by LW

May 22, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”*…



With the appearance of the first rays of the sun from Cerro Huantajaya in Alto Hospicio, northern Chile, people celebrate the arrival of the Aymara New Year, Machaq Mara, and the arrival of new energies.


For centuries, Inuit hunters navigated the Arctic by consulting wind, snow and sky. Now they use GPS. Speakers of the aboriginal language Gurindji, in northern Australia, used to command 28 variants of each cardinal direction. Children there now use the four basic terms, and they don’t use them very well. In the arid heights of the Andes, the Aymara developed an unusual way of understanding time, imagining the past as in front of them, and the future at their backs. But for the youngest generation of Aymara speakers – increasingly influenced by Spanish – the future lies ahead.

These are not just isolated changes. On all continents, even in the world’s remotest regions, indigenous people are swapping their distinctive ways of parsing the world for Western, globalised ones. As a result, human cognitive diversity is dwindling – and, sadly, those of us who study the mind had only just begun to appreciate it.

In 2010, a paper titled ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ gave the field of cognitive science a seismic shock. Its authors, led by the psychologist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia, made two fundamental points. The first was that researchers in the behavioural sciences had almost exclusively focused on a small sliver of humanity: people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. The second was that this sliver is not representative of the larger whole, but that people in London, Buenos Aires and Seattle were, in an acronym, WEIRD.

But there is a third fundamental point, and it was the psychologist Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania who made it. In his commentary on the 2010 article, Rozin noted that this same WEIRD slice of humanity was ‘a harbinger of the future of the world’. He had seen this trend in his own research. Where he found cross-cultural differences, they were more pronounced in older generations. The world’s young people, in other words, are converging. The signs are unmistakable: the age of global WEIRDing is upon us….

Are we breeding a global cultural and cognitive monoculture?  More at: “What happens to cognitive diversity when everyone is more WEIRD?.”

* Stephen R. Covey


As we delight in difference, we might send utilitarian birthday greetings to Jeremy Bentham; the author, jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer was born on this date in 1748.  Bentham is considered a founder of modern Utilitarianism (via his own work, and that of his students, including James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill); he actively advocated individual and economic freedom, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and the decriminalizing of homosexual acts. He argued for the abolition of slavery and the death penalty, and for the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children.

Bentham was involved in the founding of University College (then, the University of London), the first in England to admit all, regardless of race, creed, or political belief.  On his death, he was dissected as part of a public anatomy lecture– as he specified in his will.  Afterward– again, as Bentham’s will specified– the skeleton and head were preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet called the “Auto-icon”, with the skeleton stuffed out with hay and dressed in Bentham’s clothes.  Bentham had intended the Auto-icon to incorporate his actual head, preserved to resemble its appearance in life.  But experimental efforts at mummification, though technically successful, left the head looking alarmingly macabre, with dried and darkened skin stretched tautly over the skull.  So the Auto-icon was given a wax head, fitted with some of Bentham’s own hair.

It is normally kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of University College.  The real head was displayed in the same case as the Auto-icon for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks, so is now locked away.

 see a virtual, 360-degree rotatable version here


“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes”*…




There’s a persistent belief across America that crime is on the rise.

Since the late 1980s, Gallup has been polling people on their perception of crime in the United States, and consistently, the majority of respondents indicate that they see crime as becoming more prevalent. As well, a recent poll showed that more than two-thirds of Americans feel that today’s youth are less safe from crime and harm than the previous generation.

Even the highest ranking members of the government have been suggesting that the country is in the throes of a crime wave:

We have a crime problem. […] this is a dangerous permanent trend that places the health and safety of the American people at risk. (then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions)

Is crime actually more prevalent in society?… crime rate data from the FBI shows a very different reality…

More on a phenomenon that would simply be bemusing if it weren’t driving both personal and governmental action: “The Crime Rate Perception Gap.”

* Sherlock Holmes, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles


As we triple-lock our doors, we might recall that it was on this date in 1976 that Sesame Street aired episode #847, featuring Margaret Hamilton reprising her role as the Wicked Witch of the West from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.  It scared children so badly that the episode has never been re-aired. (This, after she had appeared as herself in three episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, between 1975 and 1976– because Fred Rogers wanted his young viewers to recognize the Wicked Witch was just a character and not something to fear.)

220px-Sesame_Street_Margaret_Hamilton_Oscar_The_Grouch_1976 source


“In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”*…



Bertrand Russell’s quip prefigured the scientific discovery of a cognitive bias—the Dunning–Kruger effect—that has been so resonant that it has penetrated popular culture.


Dismayed at the Nazification of Germany, the philosopher [Bertrand Russell] wrote “The Triumph of Stupidity,” attributing the rise of Adolf Hitler to the organized fervor of stupid and brutal people—two qualities, he noted, that “usually go together.” He went on to make one of his most famous observations, that the “fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Russell’s quip prefigured the scientific discovery of a cognitive bias—the Dunning–Kruger effect—that has been so resonant that it has penetrated popular culture, inspiring, for example, an opera song (from Harvard’s annual Ig Nobel Award Ceremony): “Some people’s own incompetence somehow gives them a stupid sense that anything they do is first rate. They think it’s great.” No surprise, then, that psychologist Joyce Ehrlinger prefaced a 2008 paper she wrote with David Dunning and Justin Kruger, among others, with Russell’s comment—the one he later made in his 1951 book, New Hopes for a Changing World: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” “By now,” Ehrlinger noted in that paper, “this phenomenon has been demonstrated even for everyday tasks, about which individuals have likely received substantial feedback regarding their level of knowledge and skill.” Humans have shown a tendency, in other words, to be a bit thick about even the most mundane things, like how well they drive…

But what exactly is stupidity? David Krakauer, the President of the Santa Fe Institute, told interviewer Steve Paulson, for Nautilus, stupidity is not simply the opposite of intelligence. “Stupidity is using a rule where adding more data doesn’t improve your chances of getting [a problem] right,” Krakauer said. “In fact, it makes it more likely you’ll get it wrong.” Intelligence, on the other hand, is using a rule that allows you to solve complex problems with simple, elegant solutions. “Stupidity is a very interesting class of phenomena in human history, and it has to do with rule systems that have made it harder for us to arrive at the truth,” he said. “It’s an interesting fact that, whilst there are numerous individuals who study intelligence—there are whole departments that are interested in it—if you were to ask yourself what’s the greatest problem facing the world today, I would say it would be stupidity. So we should have professors of stupidity—it would just be embarrassing to be called the stupid professor.”

Stupidity, and what to do about it: “The Case for Professors of Stupidity.”

* Bertrand Russell, “The Triumph of Stupidity” (1933)


As we get smart, we might spare a thought for Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin; he died on this date in 1921.  A scientist and geographer, he combined biological and historical fact to arrive at his theory of Mutual Aid.  While an army officer in Siberia, he studied the native animals, made geographical surveys, and examined the effects of the Ice Age in Asia and Europe.  His investigation of the structural lines of mountain ranges revised the cartography of eastern Asia.

But Kropotkin is probably better remembered as a revolutionary.  He wrote a series of articles against social Darwinism and its tenet of the benefits of competition.  Kropotkin argued that sociability characterized animals; thus, he held, cooperation rather than struggle guided the evolution of man and human intelligence.  These beliefs led him to propose a decentralized, “communist” society– a form of anarcho-communism, his championing of which led to his 41 year exile from Russia.  He returned in 1917, but was disappointed in the Bolshevik form of state socialism (the centralization– and totalitarian quality– of which violently conflicted with his belief in decentralization, freedom, and voluntary cooperation).

220px-Peter_Kropotkin_circa_1900 source


“It is not enough that I succeed, others must fail”*…



Who said “it is not enough that I succeed, others must fail”? According to Tiffany Watt Smith, in this spry book, it might have been Gore Vidal or Genghis Kahn. According to the internet it is either La Rochefoucauld or Somerset Maugham. Having thought about it a bit, it might actually have been me, or perhaps it was Watt Smith herself. The point is that it doesn’t really matter since taking pleasure in another’s misfortune turns out to be a pungent but free-floating feeling that pops up everywhere. The flavours might change – as an academic cultural historian Watt Smith is far from suggesting that emotions are universal across time and place – but there is something familiar to us all about the odd stab of pleasure we get when an enemy or even, God help us, a friend, stumbles.

So it is odd that the English language does not have a word for this grubby little pleasure – instead we have to borrow from the German and call it Schadenfreude (literally “damage-joy”)…

Kathryn Hughes considers that delicious feeling of satisfaction at the “epic fails” of somebody else in a review of Tiffany Watt Smith’s Schadenfreude- the Joy of Another’s Misfortune: “Damage-joy.”

* see above


As we try not to snicker, we might recall that it was on this date in 45 B.C.E. that the Julian Calendar came into effect.  It was the predominant calendar in the Roman world, most of Europe, and in European settlements in the Americas and elsewhere, until it was refined and gradually replaced by the Gregorian calendar, promulgated in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII.

(The Julian calendar remains useful for some scientific, especially astronomical, purposes, as it provides a linear count of days from a starting point. which was introduced by Joseph Scaliger in 1583.  Julian Day 0 is defined as noon on Monday, January 1, 4713 B.C.E. (in the Julian Calendar).  Regardless of leap years and calendar changes by the Romans or Pope Gregory, the Julian date number enables the easy calculation of the number of days between two dates by simply taking the difference in their Julian day number. This is useful, say, for astronomers’ calculations of the dates of eclipses.  Thus, the Julian day number of a day is defined as the number of days since noon GMT on 1 Jan 4713 B.C.E. in the Proleptic Julian Calendar, and each Julian day number runs from noon to noon.)

122918-03-History-Calendar-768x439 source


Written by LW

January 1, 2019 at 1:01 am

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