Bookshelf: Pigs Do Fly

Image: Book Cover: Louder Than Words
Benjamin K. Bergen
Louder Than Words

by Benjamin Bergen

Humans have a special talent for understanding nuance and complexity. How else would we manage to comprehend lofty concepts like time and morality, ideas that seem to have no referents in objective reality? The brain is crafty, Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, explains: It uses the concrete to make sense of the abstract. We rely on brain areas involved in seeing, touching, and moving to mentally simulate whatever it is we hear, speak, or read. When researchers scramble the signal in the movement-processing part of the brain, for example, people get tripped up using action words but have no problems with nouns. We come to understand the world through our bodies—by mentally tethering even the most abstract concepts to tangible things in the physical world. —Luciana Gravotta

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Grasping at Straws

Complex ideas—and simple ways we think about them.

Seriousness is weight. People reviewing a job candidate's résumé judge him to be more serious about the position when they are holding a heavy clipboard than when they are holding a light one. Think: "the gravity" vs. "to make light" of a situation.

Morality is cleanliness. People asked to remember something unethical they did are more likely to choose a cleansing wipe as a gift, while those reflecting on their ethical actions tend to choose a pencil. Think: "dirty deeds" vs. "a clean record."

Affection is warmth. Participants holding a hot beverage rate an imaginary person as being warmer than those holding something cold. Think: "warm smile" vs. "icy stare."

Similarity is proximity. People judge abstract concepts like justice and loyalty to be more similar when the words are shown closer together. Think: "not identical, but close" vs. "their views couldn't be farther apart."

Time is length. When people are shown animated lines of different lengths, they tend to estimate that longer lines are on the screen for longer—even when they are actually on the screen for less time than shorter ones. Think: a "long" vs. a "short" vacation. —LG

Image: Book Cover: The Undefeated Mind

The Undefeated Mind

by Alex Lickerman

The Big Idea

Heartbreak and disappointment paved the way for the principles that Lickerman, a doctor and Nichiren Buddhist, now embraces. Lickerman recounts and explores with his patients the deeply interpersonal reason one woman wants to shed weight and the illness that forces another to rethink her relationship to the world. His tales address the need to balance competing goals of transformation and acceptance.

Fast Facts

  • Nichiren Buddhism holds that earthly desires are enlightenment because it is only in striving for goals that we face and overcome obstacles.
  • People's aversion to loss makes it impossible to see that attachments are not the foundation of life but byproducts that we should be able to relinquish.

In His Own Words

"We change poison into medicine by taking action to flip the significance of events ourselves. And not just by reframing adversity ('at least it's just a stroke, not cancer'), but by actually overcoming it." —Kaja Perina

Image: Book Cover: The Antidote

Oliver Burkeman
The Antidote

by Oliver Burkeman

The Big Idea

Positive psychology and the obsession with finding happiness have gripped the world and become a booming industry. But does the rabid pursuit of positivity work? Paradoxically, Burkeman writes, the true road to happiness might be giving up on it. He chases this anti-optimist approach from the slums of Nairobi to the graveyards of rural Mexico, embracing embarrassment, death, and failure along the way.

Fast Facts

  • The most likely consumer of self-help books, industry insiders say, is someone who bought another self-help book in the last 18 months.
  • Focusing on the best possible outcomes of your goals can reduce your motivation to actually achieve them.
  • Happy people have a less accurate understanding of their abilities and influence than depressed people. (Blame optimism.)

In His Own Words

"For a civilization so fixated on achieving happiness, we seem remarkably incompetent at the task." —Jonah Comstock

Image: Book Cover: The Wisdom of Psychopaths

Kevin Dutton
The Wisdom of Psychopaths

by Kevin Dutton

The Big Idea

"Functional" psychopathy is the sweet spot on an otherwise dark spectrum, wherein people lawfully marshall ruthlessness, charm, and the ability to focus. The right dose in the right context (i.e. a lawyer who mercilessly cross-examines a rape victim but can still empathize with his wife) is a hallmark of successful executives, covert agents, and criminals. Dutton meets them all in a high-octane charge across the psychopathy continuum.

Fast Facts

CEOs, lawyers, and the broadcast media compose the UK's most psychopathic professions.

When stakes are low, psychopaths "switch off" and may exhibit relatively normal interpersonal behavior (i.e. refusing to play a mean trick on a relative).

In His Own Words

"Psychopathy is like sunshine. Overexposure can hasten one's demise in grotesque, carcinogenic fashion. But regulated exposure at controlled and optimal levels can have a significant positive impact on well-being and quality of life." —KP

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