Hey Linda Gray! If you missed last week's edition – what the psychology of suicide prevention teaches us about controlling our everyday worries, Hemingway's ideas of heaven and hell, and more – you can catch up here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation.
"Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that."
"How we spend our days," Annie Dillard wrote in her timelessly beautiful meditation on presence over productivity, "is, of course, how we spend our lives." And nowhere do we fail at the art of presence most miserably and most tragically than in urban life – in the city, high on the cult of productivity, where we float past each other, past the buildings and trees and the little boy in the purple pants, past life itself, cut off from the breathing of the world by iPhone earbuds and solipsism. And yet: “The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras reverberates – and it can be learned, as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz invites us to believe in her breathlessly wonderful On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) – a record of her quest to walk around a city block with eleven different "experts," from an artist to a geologist to a dog, and emerge with fresh eyes mesmerized by the previously unseen fascinations of a familiar world. It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year, if not the decade, and the most enchanting thing I've read in ages. In a way, it's the opposite but equally delightful mirror image of Christoph Niemann's Abstract City – a concrete, immersive examination of urbanity – blending the mindfulness of Sherlock Holmes with the expansive sensitivity of Thoreau.
Horowitz begins by pointing our attention to the incompleteness of our experience of what we conveniently call "reality":
Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.
By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.
This adaptive ignorance, she argues, is there for a reason – we celebrate it as "concentration" and welcome its way of easing our cognitive overload by allowing us to conserve our precious mental resources only for the stimuli of immediate and vital importance, and to dismiss or entirely miss all else. ("Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator," Horowitz tells us. "It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that.") But while this might make us more efficient in our goal-oriented day-to-day, it also makes us inhabit a largely unlived – and unremembered – life, day in and day out.
For Horowitz, the awakening to this incredible, invisible backdrop of life came thanks to Pumpernickel, her "curly haired, sage mixed breed" (who also inspired Horowitz's first book, the excellent Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know), as she found herself taking countless walks around the block, becoming more and more aware of the dramatically different experiences she and her canine companion were having along the exact same route:
Minor clashes between my dog’s preferences as to where and how a walk should proceed and my own indicated that I was experiencing almost an entirely different block than my dog. I was paying so little attention to most of what was right before us that I had become a sleepwalker on the sidewalk. What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see; what my dog showed me was that my attention invited along attention’s companion: inattention to everything else.
The book was her answer to the disconnect, an effort to "attend to that inattention." It is not, she warns us, "about how to bring more focus to your reading of Tolstoy or how to listen more carefully to your spouse." Rather, it is an invitation to the art of observation:
Together, we became investigators of the ordinary, considering the block – the street and everything on it—as a living being that could be observed.
In this way, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the old the new.
Her approach is based on two osmotic human tendencies: our shared capacity to truly see what is in front of us, despite our conditioned concentration that obscures it, and the power of individual bias in perception – or what we call "expertise," acquired by passion or training or both – in bringing attention to elements that elude the rest of us. What follows is a whirlwind of endlessly captivating exercises in attentive bias as Horowitz, with her archetypal New Yorker's "special fascination with the humming life-form that is an urban street," and her diverse companions take to the city.
First, she takes a walk all by herself, trying to note everything observable, and we quickly realize that besides her deliciously ravenous intellectual curiosity, Horowitz is a rare magician with language. ("The walkers trod silently; the dogs said nothing. The only sound was the hum of air conditioners," she beholds her own block; passing a pile of trash bags graced by a stray Q-tip, she ponders parenthetically, "how does a Q-tip escape?"; turning her final corner, she gazes at the entrance of a mansion and "its pair of stone lions waiting patiently for royalty that never arrives." Stunning.)
But as soon as she joins her experts, Horowitz is faced with the grimacing awareness that despite her best, most Sherlockian efforts, she was "missing pretty much everything." She arrives at a newfound, profound understanding of what William James meant when he wrote, "My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.":
I would find myself at once alarmed, delighted, and humbled at the limitations of my ordinary looking. My consolation is that this deficiency of mine is quite human. We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object. We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders.
These "blinders," despite psychologists' concentrated efforts to dissect this strange phenomenon we call "attention," remain largely a mystery – or, at best, a series of misconstrued hypotheses:
Though paying attention seems simple, there are numerous forms of payment. … To concentrate, to pay attention, is viewed as a brow-furrowing exercise. Sit still, don’t blink, and attend. … This may do for a moment of concentration, but it is not the way to better attention in your daily life. For that, we need to know what attention is. The very concept is odd. Is it an ability, a tendency, a skill? Is it processed in a special nugget in the brain, or by your eyes and ears? …
The longtime model used by psychologists is that of a “spotlight” that picks out particular items of interest to examine, bringing some things into focus and awareness while leaving other things in the dim, dusty sidelines. The metaphor makes me feel like a headlight-wearing spelunker who can only see what is right in front of her in the darkness of the cave. Such a comparison can be misleading, because in fact one can still report on what was within one’s peripheral vision at rates better than chance. And despite that spotlight, we seem to miss huge elements of the thing we are ostensibly attending to.
A better way of thinking about attention is to consider the problems that evolution might have designed “attention” to solve. The first problem emerges from the nature of the world. The world is wildly distracting. It is full of brightly colored things, large things casting shadows, quickly moving things, approaching things, loud things, irregular things, smelly things.
Thus, evolution's problem-solving left us modern humans with two kinds of attention: vigilance, which allows us to have a quick and life-saving fight-or-flight response to an immediate threat, be it a leaping lion or a deranged boss, and selective attention, which unconsciously curates the few stimuli to attend to amidst the flurry bombarding us, enabling us to block out everything except what we're interested in ingesting. (Selective attention, of course, can mutate to dangerous degrees, producing such cultural atrocities as the filter bubble.) Much like French polymath Henri Poincaré argued that to invent is simply to choose ideas, to attend, it turns out, is simply to choose stimuli – but what sounds so deceptively simple turns out to be marvelously complex. In her walks with expert companions, Horowitz tickles this latter type of attention to unravel all the unseen, unsmelled, and unheard miracles of a city block, the wonderlands of sensation and awareness that bloom behind the looking glass of our evolutionarily primed everyday inattention.
The first "expert" Horowitz walks with is her very own toddler, from whom we learn that a walk is not necessarily the purposeful and linear transfer of a body from point A to point B, but rather an exploratory exercise in touching and – eek! – tasting textures and surfaces, pointing at sights, pausing to absorb the tickling brush of the breeze:
A walk is, instead, an investigatory exercise that begins with energy and ends when (and only when) exhausted.
Much of what makes the story so compelling is Horowitz's ability to swiftly weave scientific insight into the details of these anecdotal experiences. Here, she notes:
The perceptions of infants are remarkable. That infants reliably develop into adults, who for all their wisdom or kindness are often unremarkable, blinds us to this fact. The infant’s world is a case study in confused attention. … The world is not yet organized into discrete objects for these new eyes: it is all light and dark, shadow and brightness.
Infants, in fact, seem to experience syneshtesia as a baseline sensory given. (Perhaps MoMA's Juliet Kinchin touched on a bigger cognitive truth when she reflected that "children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real.") But, eventually, they grow out of this wondrous multidimensional awareness, which William James called "aboriginal sensible muchness," and we, the sensible and selectively attentive adults, emerge:
Part of normal human development is learning to notice less than we are able to. The world is awash in details of color, form, sound – but to function, we have to ignore some of it. The world still holds these details. Children sense the world at a different granularity, attending to parts of the visual world we gloss over; to sounds we have dismissed as irrelevant. What is indiscernible to us is plain to them.
Part of toddlers' extraordinary capacity for noticing has to do with their hard-wired neophilia – the allure of the new and unfamiliar, which for them includes just about everything that we, old and jaded, have deemed familiar and thus uninteresting. (Horowitz points to one systematic exception for us adults – vacations – which brim with enough novelty to produce such fascinating, reality-warping psychological phenomena as the holiday paradox. The reason, Horowitz argues, lies in two factors: "We actually do see new places and second, we bother to look.")
In a way, "experts" have a toddler's ability to zoom in on the details, the very fabric of experience, that most of us glide adaptively by.
ABOVE: Art by Maira Kalman from On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes
From beloved artist and reconstructionist Maira Kalman – a woman of boundless wisdom on life and unrelenting faith in walking as a creative device, whom Horowitz aptly describes as "a hoarder, in the finest sense of that word, of both experience and image" – we learn that looking at the ordinary, looking and really seeing it, seeing its extraordinary wonder, is a special talent that takes patient cultivation. Horowitz writes:
One perceptual constraint that I knowingly labor under is the constraint that we all create for ourselves: we summarize and generalize, stop looking at particulars and start taking in scenes at a glance—all in an effort to not be overwhelmed visually when we just need to make it through the day. The artist seems to retain something of the child’s visual strategy: how to look at the world before knowing (or without thinking about) the name or function of everything that catches the eye. An infant treats objects with an unprejudiced equivalence: the plastic truck is of no more intrinsic worth to the child than an empty box is, until the former is called a toy and the latter is called garbage. My son was as entranced by the ubiquitous elm seeds near our doorstep as any of the menus, mail, flyers, or trash that concern the adults.
Echoing Anaïs Nin's timeless words on the shared magic of the child and the artist, Horowitz writes:
To the child, as to the artist, everything is relevant; little is unseen.
Once you look at what seems ordinary long enough, though, it often turns odd and unfamiliar, as any child repeatedly saying his own name aloud learns. I had the suspicion that walking with Kalman would be the ambulatory equivalent of saying my own name aloud a hundred times.
But Kalman's singular spirit came to life not in the purposeful stride of a destination-walk but in the creative digression of an amble:
With Kalman, walking around the block entered a fourth dimension. … Eventually, we made it from A to B, but not before visiting all of the later letters of the alphabet. … Objects and people on our route became possibilities for interaction, rather than decoration or obstruction, as the urban pedestrian might define them.
Kalman gently nudges Horowitz to remove the "invisibility cloak" so familiar to us urbanites as we shield ourselves from strangers, and the two do something city dwellers – especially New Yorkers – never do: They talk to policemen, movers, a mailman, churchgoers, and the social workers tending to a halfway house. In other words, they cease to simply coexist with their fellow citizens and, for the duration of the walk, live with them instead, attend to them with presence and curiosity, see them; they slow their cadence, now tourists in their native fast-paced New York; they amble. Horowitz once again returns to her potent blend of philosophical reflection and scientific substance:
I had not noticed, until forced to by Kalman’s sociability, how I was engaging in a fundamentally social activity by walking out in public.
Still, we all have a sense of the “appropriate” personal space around us— a kind of zone of privacy that we wear, even on the social sidewalk. Indeed, we have many coencentric circles of personal spaces, plural. The Swiss zoologist Heini Hediger, elaborating from studies of animal behavior, proposed that the personal zones around us fall into a few categories. Those with whom we do not mind “inescapable involvement” – as our loved ones – can broach the closest zone and get nearer than eighteen inches to us. At that proximity, we can smell them, feel the heat of their bodies, their breath, hear the small sounds they mutter or emit. We can whisper together. Most social interactions take place in a comfortable zone about one and a half to four feet away – closer in some cultures (Latin American) than others (North American). Friends can waltz through; acquaintances can hover on the edge. We have a social distance up to twelve feet from our bodies for more formal transactions, or for those we don’t know well. Beyond that is a kind of public distance in which we use our “outdoor” voice. All of these zones are artificial, varying with differing relationships, based on context and the physical setting – but we have a bodily sense of the reality of these spaces. Violate them, and we may feel stressed and anxious.
ABOVE: Art by Maira Kalman from On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes
Eventually, Horowitz realizes that Kalman has a wholly different way not only of looking, but also of seeing – she challenges the normative expectations of where one is allowed to go in the city and experiences space not "as defined by an edge, but as an infinitely explorable openness" – and so she wonders what it is about the artist's brain that enables that limitless perception of possibility. Though she is careful to insure against any phrenology-like pseudoscience of the "creative brain," Horowitz does point to a curious study that suggests brains like Kalman's might, in fact, be wired differently:
One research team, though, reported a correspondence between the brains of those who seem to be especially creative thinkers. Certain people, they found, have fewer of one kind of dopamine receptor in the thalamus of the brain. These people also performed well on tests of “divergent thinking,” in which people are asked to concoct more and more elaborate uses for ordinary objects, for instance. The reduction in receptors might actually increase information flow to various parts of the brain, essentially allowing them to think up new and interesting solutions. “Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box,” the researchers wrote.
(For more on this research by Stanford's Carol Dweck, see this.)
ABOVE: A typographic storefront from James and Karla Murray's Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York
From typography nerd Paul Shaw, who brought us the almost true story of New York's subway Helvetica, we learn that our minds are constantly coerced into reading the "dull, tedious words" that bombard us from storefronts, billboards, and computer screens nearly every waking moment – but besides the linguistic burden, embedded in each letter we ingest is also a design one, for typography can quietly convey an unwritten message, set a mood, create an ineffable sense of something being either terribly wrong or terribly wonderful. A letter, Horowitz reminds us as she discovers the humanistic quality of words while touring New York's type-smothered streets with Shaw, can be "jaunty" or "uncomfortable" amidst awkward kerning, an ampersand can be "pregnant" and an S "complacent." She encapsulates:
Three hours of walking with Shaw later, I felt relieved, for the moment, of my compulsion to read what was readable, to parse text when I saw it. Surprisingly, this relief came not from avoiding text, but from seeking it out – only to zoom in on the details held within. It was a vision that let me miss the forest and see the trees. Rather than words, I saw the components of words. Some small part of my brain (the linguistic part) rested; the shape-identifying part hummed with activity. … The thing you are doing now affects the thing you see next.
From geologist Sidney Horenstein of the American Museum of Natural History we learn that our entire world consists of only two types of things: minerals and the biomass of plants and animals. A city suddenly becomes not a sterile "man-made" object but a thriving ecosystem of living and once-living landscapes, "an ersatz natural landscape writ small … on every single block," a place suddenly brimming with reminders of its own impermanence:
Viewed with this lens, the city feels less artificial. The cold stone is natural, almost living: it absorbs water, warms under the sun, and sloughs its skin in rain. Like us, stone is affected by time, its outer layer softened and its veins made more prominent. And viewed as a natural landscape, the city feels less permanent: even the strongest-looking behemoth of an apartment tower is gradually deteriorating under the persistent, patient forces of wind, water, and time.
From field naturalist and insects advocate Charlie Eiseman, we learn that on every square inch of surface, entire microcosms oscillate between vibrant life and violent death. ("If a driveway holds an ecosystem," Horowitz ponders, "what of a parking lot? Perchance a universe.") Over the next few hours, the two proceed to discover traces of just about every kind of insect – from spider egg cases to discarded fly exoskeletons – lacing the most ordinary of city blocks. What emerges is a keen awareness that the negative space of the unseen is itself a source of rich information:
Surprisingly, those leaves that have no sign, no holes, no smattering of excrement, are themselves sign of something else. They indicate that the tree is probably not from around here.
Once again, Horowitz explores what enables Eisenman's brain to function so differently from her own and pops the cognitive hood of his singular selective attention, tracing it to the work of notable early twentieth-century bird-watcher Luunk Tinbergen:
Tinbergen noticed that songbirds did not prey on just any insect that had recently hatched in the vicinity; instead, they tended to prefer one kind of bug – say, a particular species of beetle – at a time. As the numbers of young beetles rose through a season, the birds gorged on these beetlettes, ignoring any other available young insects nearby. Tinbergen suggested that, once the birds found a food they liked, they began to look just for that food, ignoring all others. He called this a search image: a mental image of a beetle—with its characteristic beetly shape, size, and colors—with which the bird scans her environment.
This search image, it turns out, is something all of us employ when we need to. . .
:: READ FULL ARTICLE (IT'S WORTH IT) ::
"Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought."
For as long as I can remember – and certainly long before I had the term for it – I've believed that creativity is combinatorial: Alive and awake to the world, we amass a collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks – knowledge, memories, bits of information, sparks of inspiration, and other existing ideas – that we then combine and recombine, mostly unconsciously, into something "new." From this vast and cross-disciplinary mental pool of resources beckons the infrastructure of what we call our "own" "original" ideas. The notion, of course, is not new – some of history's greatest minds across art, science, poetry, and cinema have articulated it, directly or indirectly, in one form or another: Arthur Koestler's famous theory of "bisociation" explained creativity through the combination of elements that don't ordinarily belong together; graphic designer Paula Scher likens creativity to a slot machine that aligns the seemingly random jumble of stuff in our heads into a suddenly miraculous combination; T. S. Eliot believed that the poet's mind incubates fragmentary thoughts into beautiful ideas; the great Stephen Jay Gould maintained that connecting the seemingly unconnected is the secret of genius; Gutenberg's invention of the printing press embodied this combinatorial creativity; even what we call "intuition" is based on the unconscious application of this very mental faculty.
The concept, in fact, was perhaps best explained by Albert Einstein, who termed it "combinatory play." (Einstein famously came up with some of his best scientific ideas during his violin breaks.) From his Ideas and Opinions (public library) – the same invaluable volume that gave us the beloved physicist's timeless wisdom on kindness and our shared existence – comes Einstein's single most succinct articulation of how his mind works, driven by this powerful combinatorial creativity. The 1945 letter was written in response to French mathematician Jacques S. Hadamard's survey of the mental processes of famous scientists, inspired by polymath Henri Poincaré's famous meditation on the subject and published as An Essay on the Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, with Einstein's missive included as a "testimonial":
My Dear Colleague:
In the following, I am trying to answer in brief your questions as well as I am able. I am not satisfied myself with those answers and I am willing to answer more questions if you believe this could be of any advantage for the very interesting and difficult work you have undertaken.
(A) The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be "voluntarily" reproduced and combined.
There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought – before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.
(B) The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.
(C) According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for.
(D) Visual and motor. In a stage when words intervene at all, they are, in my case, purely auditive, but they interfere only in a secondary stage, as already mentioned.
(E) It seems to me that what you call full consciousness is a limit case which can never be fully accomplished. This seems to me connected with the fact called the narrowness of consciousness (Enge des Bewusstseins).
Ideas and Opinions is superb from cover to cover, the kind of book you return to again and again, only to find new layers of meaning with each reading. Complement it with this vintage technique for producing ideas and Einstein on the secret of learning anything.
:: MORE / SHARE ::
How an illustrated poem comes to life.
"Start with a big, fat lump in your throat, start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, or a crazy lovesickness, and run with it," wrote friend-of-Brain Pickings Debbie Millman in her superb illustrated-essay-turned-commencement-address on courage and the creative life, based on her 2009 book Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design. That piece, in fact, went on to become one of the most-read, most-shared articles in the entire history of Brain Pickings, as well as the source of some of the most moving and personal reader letters I've ever received, and other excerpts from Look Both Ways emerge as the most-played Literary Jukebox pairings of all time. So it's with enormous joy and excitement I share the news that the sequel to this gem, Self Portrait as Your Traitor: Visual Essays by Debbie Millman – a spectacular collection of illustrated essays and poems on everything from love to (self-)forgiveness to the Super Bowl, blending the deeply personal mesmerism of a memoir with the profound, universal resonance of philosophy on our shared human triumphs and tribulations – is coming this fall and has just been released for pre-order.
Debbie's enchanting hand-lettered type – sometimes tender, sometimes gritty, always breathtaking in its visceral candor – makes for a moving masterpiece of a singular art form that speaks to our deepest longings for beauty, honesty, and the ineffable magic of what it means to live.
In the introduction, legendary graphic designer Paula Scher captures the book's singular spell:
Debbie Millman has demonstrated her ability to combine thoughts about design and everyday life with her own obsessive hand-drawn typography, creating a new form of visual poetry. She has invented a 21st century illuminated manuscript.
To celebrate the pre-release, here is an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek at Debbie's creative process for "Pebbles," the book's final and most personal poem, which began as a submission to the New Yorker's cartoon caption contest:
And here is a sneak peek at a portion of the contact sheet containing the remaining illustrated essays and poems from the book:
Start getting excited about Self Portrait as Your Traitor: Visual Essays by Debbie Millman, and revisit this taste of the magnificent Look Both Ways.
:: MORE / SHARE ::
"You are what you remember – your very identity depends on all of the events, people and places you can recall."
We've seen the many ways in which our memory can be our merciless traitor: it is not a recording device but a practitioner of creative plagiarism, a terrible timekeeper, and the bent backbone in the anatomy of lying. How, then, can this essential human faculty become our ally?
In The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well (public library) – a compendium of pragmatic advice on such modern fixations and timeless aspirations as how to create a great company culture (courtesy of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh) to how to be funny (courtesy of Alec Baldwin) to how to fight for justice (courtesy of Constance Rice) – neurologist, neuropsychiatrist, and prolific brain-book author Richard Restak offers some vital tips on how to optimize your brain, central to which is honing the capacity and performance of your memory:
On a very basic level, you are what you remember – your very identity depends on all of the events, people and places you can recall. Improving your memory will help you develop a quicker, more accurate retrieval of information that will increase your intelligence. Sharpening your short-term or "working" memory requires concentration. For instance, study four unrelated words for 15 seconds, then set an alarm for five minutes. Pay attention to another activity until the alarm sounds. Then try to remember the words. As you get better, change and add to the number of words and increase the amount of time. You can do similar exercises with numbers, visual designs, spoken words or even try to recount the scenes of a television show you just watched.
But this, Restak cautions, can be physically taxing:
When you do these exercises your brain will require extra oxygen, blood and glucose. Just as with physical exercise, this can tire you out. Many "tricks" to sharpen your recall use memory pegs, systems to attach an association or meaning to what you desire to remember. There are visual and story memory systems, some dating back to Ancient Rome. One of these systems is called "the memory palace," in which you associate the things you want to remember with vivid mental pictures, which you then imaginatively place in a familiar setting such as your living room. Later, you can "tour" in your mind the living room to observe the remembered objects in their familiar places. This technique can be so effective it is often used by memory contest champions.
ABOVE: Argentinian photographer Irina Wering recreates adults' childhood portraits in her 'Back to the Future' series
Just as important as working memory, Restak argues, is emotional memory – an essential psychological tool that has found creative expression in everything from sentimental cartography to object-based storytelling to wearable personal histories. Restak writes:
Another aspect of recall is emotional memory, when we relive how we felt at moments in the past – elated, sad, depressed, or angry. When we lose emotional memory of our own youth, we find that we no longer understand young people. If this forgetting progresses, we begin to lose touch with ourselves. And if we allow our emotional memories to disappear, as happens with Alzheimer's patients, we will find a stranger staring back at us from the mirror.
He recommends an exercise for reacquainting yourself with your emotional memory, one practiced by cultural icons in their letters to their younger selves and embedded in the heart of the It Gets Better project:
Find a picture of yourself in which you are half of your present age. Stare at the picture for a while. Then write a letter to your older self from the perspective of the younger you in the photo, expressing all of the younger self's hopes and concerns about the future. Follow this with a letter back from the present self to the younger you, telling that younger self about all the things they will do in their future and who they will grow into. Hopefully you will uncover feelings and memories of things you haven't experienced for years.
ABOVE: Annie Lennox's letter to her 16-year-old self
Restak reminds us of the multi-sensory dimensions of experience:
The olfactory nerve links directly to the emotional centers of the limbic system, so the scents of your past – such as mowed grass, crayons or perfumes – can also bring back emotionally charged memories. Think of Proust and his madeleine.
Complement with this fascinating read on the science of "chunking" and working memory and this guide to the art of revising our inner storytelling, then find more practical modern-day how-to's on everything from entrepreneurship to comedy to winemaking in The Art of Doing.
:: MORE / SHARE ::