Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A take on how to think...

I've read every Sherlock Holmes story back when I was in high school. I read a lot then, as I still do now. Everyday on my way home from school on the city bus, I passed the library and its dedicated bus stop. Often, I would get off, lugging my backpack full of text books. I still have no idea what possessed me to lug all of them around all the time – no math or English or social studies emergencies ever came up (one always needs science text books). At the library, I always found a book or two or five to cram into my already straining backpack.

Recently, while browsing in the bookstore that is dangerously close to my house, I stumbled across Mastermind: how to think like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova. From the inside flap: “No fictional character is more renowned for his powers of thought and observation than Sherlock Holmes. But is his extraordinary intellect merely a gift of fiction or can we learn to cultivate these abilities ourselves, to improve our lives at work and home?” How could I resist?

Since I rarely read a single book at a time, I read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the same time. Both were equally interesting however, Mastermind was a much easier read and included tips on how to improve ones thinking.

Konnikova breaks down the scientific method (for that is what Sherlock Holmes uses), discussing how each piece can be applied to our thought processes. All the while interweaving scenes from the stories that demonstrate the point she is making.

She discusses the idea that the structure of your mind can be viewed as a 'brain attic' that can be organized and easy to find things or left as a crammed space containing everything without order. We get to choose. She also includes a warning about filling your mind with too much junk – I'm assuming she means the headlines from the tabloids I can't help reading in the checkout line that just stick in my mind.

“We can, however, learn to master many aspects of our attic's structure, throwing out junk that got in by mistake, prioritizing those things that we want to and pushing back those that we don't, learning how to take the contours of our unique attic into account so that they don't unduly influence us as they otherwise might.”

Csikszentmihalyi's view on your mind's contents is slightly different. He points out, the structure provided by memorizing things that captivate your interest can make you life richer. Memorizing medieval British kings and queens (the real-life 'game of thrones') or Shakespearean sonnets or details of the periodic table (or anything else that catches your interest) helps with thinking by providing an internal structure. Memorizing this way helps improve memory and gives fodder to think about if you end up in a sensory deprivation tank – just incase that ever comes up.

On the how thinking works theme, I listened to a podcast about thinking and memory last night (from here). According to them, the key is to constantly expose yourself to new ideas and concepts. Quality counts – sitting on the sofa vegging out in front of crapy TV doesn't count. Reading counts, as well as other active ideas like taking a course or learning an instrument. The new information creates potential connections with what you already know potentially generating ideas.

In a recent interview with Joss Whedon (one of my favourite movie and TV writers), where he discussed what he does to remain productive, he gave a range of tips including how he uses his down time to expose himself to tones of new information such as books, theatre, etc. - a process he called 'fill the tanks'. Whedon suggests “step outside your viewing zone, your reading zone. It's all fodder but if you only take from one thing, then it'll show.”

On the flip side of 'filling your tanks' a recent blog post suggested that depriving oneself of new information gained through reading, which is generally how I get new info, could be a good way to kick-start your creativity. This is a technique out of one of Julia Cameron's books. I would find this a form of torture, but I'm curious if it would work. If one is always out obtaining information, would a forced week of nothing new forge new connections (i.e. creativity) between the old information?

At the same time I read all about Holmes, I devoured books about James Bond (by both Ian Flemming and John Gardner) along with everything then published by Ken Follett (The Key to Rebecca was my favourite). Since, I read all these books a long time ago and often concurrently, the lines between what happened in what story has been blurred. I do remember enjoying them all so perhaps it's time to start re-reading all these tales.

Image is from here

Thursday, July 11, 2013


What lurks below
Possible reality for some of our mythical monsters? Sounds entertaining to me. Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan covers a pantheon of monsters, some I'd never heard of like a Rukh (an oversized bird), and those that fill my favourite movie genre (Zombies). Included are the overdone Vampire (I've never been a vampire fan) and Frankenstein's monster (the monster that keeps getting stuck with his creators name). Not quite as funny as Mary Roach, Kaplan's style still contained plenty of humour – how else could one approach this topic?

Some of his links seemed a bit tenuous, but entertaining non-the-less. For example, I didn't know toads were a component of Haitian potions to make zombies. Excretions from toads may have induced the berserker rages from Norse legend, leaving me picturing groups of Vikings standing around licking toads. We keep an assortment of toads in my home, making toad induced zombie-states and berserker-rages a second reason not to lick the toads*.

My favourite monsters turned out to be the sea-monsters. When I'm out at sea, I often wonder what lurks under the surface and I'm well aware the ocean is more powerful than any man made contraption that I might be standing in. To quote the book:

... on modern vessels there are often radios, life rafts that automatically pop open if the boats are struck by rogue waves, and emergency beacons that will alert rescue teams if the ship goes down, but even so, these essential bits of safety equipment do little to assuage a primal fear of vulnerability associated with the sea. For ancient mariners, the ocean was a powerful and dangerous force.

From the fear of the sea, ancient Greeks brought us Charybdis – a living whirlpool with a reputation of eating men alive and their ships too. She's a monster composed of water, without physical form, making her unique among the ancient monsters. I picture her as the maelstrom out of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, sucking whole ships in (except everyone would be wearing outfits out of the 1981 Clash of the Titans). Kaplan argues Charybdis' creation grew out of a fear of drowning and observations of tidal whirlpools – meaning that the ancient Greeks dabbled in oceanography, as any group that included mariners would. Perhaps Greek mariners observed the tidal whirlpools that form in the waters between Sicily and the boot of Italy.

Out of the Book of Job came the hulking Leviathan – a clearly male sea-monster. This monster has form unlike Charybdis, and he uses it for destruction. In the book, this monster's biblical description was dissected like a specimen in a lab. The monster's form could have originated from decaying carcases washed ashore, fossilized remains of sea going plesiosaurs, along with sailor's tales of huge creatures such as whales and sharks. Over time the Leviathan theme morphed into other sea-monsters such as Cetus (the sea-monster of Clash of the Titans), the Kraken, the giant squid of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and even the much more recent Jaws.

I realize this wasn't his point of the book, but I felt creatures solely from human imagination got left out. Can't we think of some pretty weird things from scratch? He also never mentioned half-animal half-human creatures other than the Minotaur – what about mermaids, centaurs, fauns, or Egyptian gods such as Anubis, Horus and Thorth? Why did we come up with so many half-and-half creatures? On that note, Kaplan did bring in some creatures of non-European origin, but his focus was mostly on the European ones.

*the first reason is because they wouldn't like it

Image is from here.