The psychology of pleasure, a financial history of the world, how to analyze expressions to tell if someone's lying, and more
TED is among the highlights of my year and, every time before the big event, I like to prepare by reading or re-reading books by that TED season's roster of speakers. (Previously: Long Beach 2011 in two parts and TED Global 2010.) Last week, TED revealed next month's TED Global speakers and I was delighted to find, as always, some of my favorite thinkers, writers, and doers on the list. Here are five fantastic books by some of them.
1. HOW PLEASURE WORKS
I've previously looked closely at the art and science of happiness, and one of the simplest ways in which we humans grasp after happiness is through the pursuit of pleasure. What is pleasure, exactly, and is it really just a simplistic, false substitute for happiness? That's exactly what Yale psychologist Paul Bloom explores in How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like—a fascinating look at the complex cognitive and sociological elements of what we find pleasurable. Bloom looks at common pleasure sources across the entire spectrum of social conduct—food, sex, art, video games, drugs, saunas, crossword puzzles, reality TV—through a hybrid lens of developmental psychology, evolutionary science, philosophy, neuroscience, behavioral economics, and sociology to examine the mechanisms and ultimate function of pleasure.
Bloom explores the prevalent theory of "essentialism"—the idea that things in the world, including other people, have invisible, distinct essences that make them what they are, and we are born with a predilection for subscribing to this worldview. Bloom uses essentialism to explain the mysterious pleasures of everyday life, from our attachments to objects like celebrity memorabilia to our hunger for art to the pleasures of the imagination to the appeal of science and religion, examining pleasure through both its developmental origin in us as individuals and its evolutionary roots in our species.
"If you look through a psychology textbook, you will find little or nothing about sports, art, music, drama, literature, play, and religion. These are central to what makes us human, and we won't understand any of them until we understand pleasure." Paul Bloom
What makes Bloom's argument most interesting, perhaps, is that it centers around two seemingly conflicting claims: That pleasure is deep and transcendent, which implies it must be socialized, cultured, and learned, and that pleasure is a byproduct of evolution, which implies that it should be simple, superficial, and a knee-jerk response to environmental stimuli. The truth, however, is a marriage of the two—we have evolved essentialism to help us make sense of the world, but it now pushes us to desire things that have nothing to do with survival and reproduction. (Pornography, for instance, is enjoyed by a great deal of people, and while we're biologically inclined to have an interest in real-life attractive naked people, there's absolutely no reproductive advantage associated with watching attractive naked people get it on on the screen.)
Gracefully dancing across everything from Shakespeare to cannibalism to IKEA furniture, Bloom more than lives up to his reputation as one of modern psychology's deepest thinkers, crispest writers, and most eloquent storytellers. Besides, as Newsweek's Mary Carmichael put it, "Is there anyone who could resist a book about sex, food, art, and fun?"
2. THE ASCENT OF MONEY
Historian Niall Ferguson is a prolific and relentlessly fascinating author, so choosing just one of his excellent books is no easy task. His most recent masterpiece, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, makes a compelling case for banking and the development of currency as a central force behind how civilization has evolved. As we're just beginning to barely emerge from the financial crisis that swept the Western world four summers ago, Ferguson offers a timely and timeless reminder of one of the greatest truths in financial history and, I would add, human psychology at large: Sooner or later, every bubble bursts. What makes the book even more interesting is that Ferguson completed his research for it prior to the actual economic recession in the U.S., yet many of his insights and conclusions presage what was about to happen with uncanny accuracy.
"Behind each great historical phenomenon there lies a financial secret, and this book sets out to illuminate the most important of these. For example, the Renaissance created such a boom in the market for art and architecture because Italian bankers like the Medici mad fortunes by applying Oriental mathematics to money. The Dutch Republic prevailed over the Habsburg Empire because having the world's first modern stock market was financially preferable to having the world's biggest silver mine. The problems of the French monarchy could not be resolved without a revolution because a convicted Scots murderer had wrecked the French financial system by unleashing the first stock market bubble and bust." Niall Ferguson
Above all, the book is an admirable effort to break down what Ferguson calls "the dangerous barrier which has arisen between financial knowledge and other kinds of knowledge," a celebration of the holistic, cross-disciplinary curiosity I so firmly believe is the key to a richer, more creative, more intelligent life.
Ferguson's latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, comes out in November and looks to be very much worth a read.
Years ago, I did a thesis largely on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, who pioneered the study of emotion through facial expression. He devised a system for coding and interpreting facial "microexpressions," which has since been used by everyone from the FBI to financial loan officers to actors, and has become instrumental in assisting lie detection. My longstanding fascination with the field led me to the work of Pamela Meyer, who uses visual cues and psychology to detect deception. In Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, Meyer reveals some of the most reliable techniques for detecting and, in turn, protecting ourselves against dishonesty.