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.
"Calling myself a liespotter—a human lie detector—might suggest that I live in anticipation of being deceived, wary and suspicious of everyone with whom I come into contact. Actually, becoming a trained liespotter allows you to do the opposite. You'll know you have the tools you need to protect yourself in situations in which you might encounter falsehood or obfuscation. Becoming a liespotter doesn't inspire paranoia—it frees you from it." Pamela Meyer
Though Meyer's work isn't nearly as rigorously scientific as Ekman's and at times calls for a grain of salt, it nonetheless offers the foundation of a skill few of us have and most of us desire.
"Liespotting will introduce the [basic] method, which combines facial recognition with advanced interrogation techniques. It will show you how to read the map of the human face and body, as well as how to decode human language and vocal tone, exposing the myriad signs people inadvertently leave behind when they are working to hide the truth about something that really matters." Pamela Meyer
While the techniques in Liespotting can be tremendously valuable in an ideal, neutral scenario, the thing I find most important to remember—and most difficult to accept—is that even if we worked ourselves into the perfect, most accurate human lie detectors, when it comes to the dishonesty of those we care about the most about the things that most matter to us, we have a remarkable ability to ignore, dismiss, and disregard any intuitive or factual evidence of deception. In order for Meyer's techniques to be of practical value in those most crucial situations, we need to couple them with a keen awareness of this bigger, fundamental human bias and an actionable desire to change.
4. THE PLEASURES AND SORROWS OF WORK
Sure, I'll take any excuse to sing the praises of Alain de Botton, dubbed the creator of the "literary self-help genre" and a master of philosophical social criticism through an eloquent blend of wit and wisdom. (His will change your life.) There's no better way to celebrate his second TED Global appearance than with The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, about which he spoke in his first:
"One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They're sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etc. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we're truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it's bad enough not getting what you want, but it's even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn't, in fact, what you wanted all along." Alain de Botton
"One of the reasons we might be suffering is that we are surrounded by snobs. A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you and uses it to come to a complete vision of who you are. That is snobbery. And the dominant form of snobbery that exists today is job snobbery—you encounter it within minutes at a party when you get asked that famous, iconic question of the 21st century: 'What do you do?' The opposite of a snob is your mother." Alain de Botton
5. THE PHILOSOPHICAL BABY
Children are at once profound and enigmatic vessels of the human mind, and yet the first 2,500 years of philosophy contain almost no reference to or study of children. But the scientific revolution of the past 30 years has led philosophers and scientists to take children seriously for the first time. That's exactly what psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik addresses in The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life—an ambitious look at how babies, in many ways, are more conscious than adults in that they don't operate on the kind of autopilot that often drives us. In the process, Gopnik explores philosophical questions about the nature of love, the relativity of truth, and various facets of the human condition.
"Childhood is a profound part of the human condition. But it is also a largely unexamined part of that condition—so taken for granted that most of the time we hardly notice it at all. Childhood is a universal fact, but when we do think about it, it is almost always in individual first-person terms: What should i do, now, about my child? What did my parents do that led me to be the way I am? Most books about children are like this, from memoirs and novels to the ubiquitous parenting advice books. But childhood is not just a particular plot complication of Irish autobiographies or a particular problem to be solved by American self-help programs. It is not even just something that all human being share. It is, I'll argue, what makes all human beings human." Alison Gopnik
This post also appears on Brain Pickings.
Main image: whiteafrican/flickr