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Siri Hustvedt on Living, Thinking and Looking
It’s difficult to categorize Siri Hustvedt. She is, first and foremost, a writer and a thinker. Her well-known novels include What I Loved and The Sorrows Of An American. They explore, among various other topics, the nature of perception and identity. But her prose goes beyond the typical themes that novelists and essayists riff on. Hustvedt draws from cognitive science to reflect on – just to name a few – the neuroscience of morality, the psychology of memory and the relationship between embodied cognition and art. These topics and more fill the pages of her latest book, Living, Thinking, Looking, a collection of essays written over the past several years.
The 32 non-fiction essays that make up Living, Thinking, Looking are a charming yet challenging reflection of Hustvedt’s mental investigations. Although her collection might not be cited in the next Nature paper, she successfully navigates uncharted territories of human nature and the brain by blending science with her background as a writer, essayist and poet. Her outsider status relative to the brain sciences is a welcome and refreshing perspective as well. As cognitive science becomes more and more cerebral, Hustvedt’s angle reminds us that understanding the brain requires an understanding of how it relates to the body and the environment – we aren’t, after all, walking computers.
Siri was kind enough to field some of my questions.
Sam: Could you describe, in a few sentences, your creative process?
Siri: A banal description of my creative process goes like this: I begin writing early in the morning, before seven if possible, but I should have at least seven hours of sleep behind me. My morning mind is most nimble. Tension is an enemy. Relaxation and openness a friend. I continue into the early afternoon when my sentences begin to droop and my prose slows. After I finish writing, I try to read for three to four hours in the afternoon. Steady reading seems to feed steady writing. The more mysterious aspects of writing are more difficult to describe. For example, why do sentences sometimes appear to arrive from nowhere fully formed and perfect, as if they have been dictated by another person and were merely inscribed by me? Why do I have an awareness that a character or event in a novel is somehow unrealized and must be changed? The question is: what is it that allows a writer to write almost unconsciously and to "know" when something in a work of fiction is "wrong" (when theoretically everything is possible)? In order to explain this, it is necessary to think hard about the mental-bodily processes at work in creative work of all kinds.
Sam: How does cognitive science inform your writing exactly?
Siri: I understand that you are using the term cognitive science in a broad sense, but I would say that my interests are most accurately described as clustered--in cognitive psychology and neurobiology, psychiatry, neurology, psychoanalysis, and philosophy. There are cognitive scientists who have no knowledge of neuroscience. They design research to answer questions about human cognition and compile data, but don't worry about synapses and neurochemicals. And there are neurobiologists who work exclusively on one kind of neuron with little regard for wider systems. Science is a world of specialties. My strong feeling is that so-called cognitive functions cannot be so neatly separated from affective and motor-sensory functions. This is not to say that calculating a math question partakes of the same processes as watching a sentimental movie, but rather that all activities have an emotional tone, which has often been eliminated in the studies of cognition. It seems to me the isolation of "cognition" from other processes in human beings has resulted in a distortion of the brain-mind because it lopsidedly favors the computational.
Anyway, while I write fiction I am not thinking about my cognitive-motor-sensory-affective abilities. They are there in me, and I use them. What am I drawing on? Without question, I am using subliminal material that has been accumulated over many, many years--the thousands of books, conversations, and experiences which are part of me but are no longer conscious. The well learned becomes unconscious. The undigested and novel remains conscious. Nevertheless, when I write, some of this underground can be accessed; it comes up. For me, theories of self in neuroscience and phenomenology are part of that underground, and I tap into them when I am writing fiction or non-fiction.
Sam: What can science learn from a novelist?
Siri: The novelist's domain is particular experience, the drama of the subjective. It is this aspect of life which is often missing from scientific research which deals with nameless "subjects" and normalized results. The new interest in the neurosciences in the "self" and "subjective" experience must take into account the phenomenology of inner experience, qualia. In this the novel can be useful. Furthermore, the more experience a scientist has with other modes of thought, with art as well as science, the more he or she is able to expand, criticize, and re-think what may be stale models of understanding his or her own work.
Also check out Siri's previous interview with Big Think here
Join multiple Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Judith Light live on Big Think at 2 pm ET on Monday.
From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.
- A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
- There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
- A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Appeal to privacy<p>When someone behaves in a way that negatively affects (or could affect) others, but then gets upset when others criticize their behavior, they're likely engaging in the appeal to privacy — or "mind your own business" — fallacy. Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who speeds excessively on the highway, considering his driving to be his own business.</li><li>Someone who doesn't see a reason to bathe or wear deodorant, but then boards a packed 10-hour flight.</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "You're not the boss of me." "Worry about yourself."</p>
Sunk cost fallacy<p>When someone argues for continuing a course of action despite evidence showing it's a mistake, it's often a sunk cost fallacy. The flawed logic here is something like: "We've already invested so much in this plan, we can't give up now." Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who intentionally overeats at an all-you-can-eat buffet just to get their "money's worth"</li><li>A scientist who won't admit his theory is incorrect because it would be too painful or costly</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "We must stay the course." "I've already invested so much...." "We've always done it this way, so we'll keep doing it this way."</p>
If-by-whiskey<p>This fallacy is named after a speech given in 1952 by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_S._Sweat" target="_blank">Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.</a>, a state representative for <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi" target="_blank">Mississippi</a>, on the subject of whether the state should legalize alcohol. Sweat's argument on prohibition was (to paraphrase):<br></p><p><em>If, by whiskey, you mean the devil's brew that causes so many problems in society, then I'm against it. But if whiskey means the oil of conversation, the philosopher's wine, "</em><em>the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning;" then I am certainly for it.</em></p>
Slippery slope<p>This fallacy involves arguing against a position because you think choosing it would start a chain reaction of bad things, even though there's little evidence to support your claim. Example:<br></p><ul><li>"We can't allow abortion because then society will lose its general respect for life, and it'll become harder to punish people for committing violent acts like murder."</li><li>"We can't legalize gay marriage. If we do, what's next? Allowing people to marry cats and dogs?" (Some people actually made this <a href="https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/national/cats-marrying-dogs-and-five-other-things-same-sex-marriage-won-mean/dLV9jKqkJOWUFZrSBETWkK/" target="_blank">argument</a> before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S.)</li></ul><p>Of course, sometimes decisions <em>do </em>start a chain reaction, which could be bad. The slippery slope device only becomes a fallacy when there's no evidence to suggest that chain reaction would actually occur.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "If we do that, then what's next?"</p>
"There is no alternative"<p><span style="background-color: initial;">A modification of the </span><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">false dilemma</a><span style="background-color: initial;">, this fallacy (often abbreviated to TINA) argues for a specific position because there are no realistic alternatives. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used this exact line as a slogan to defend capitalism, and it's still used today to that same end: Sure, capitalism has its problems, but we've seen the horrors that occur when we try anything else, so there is no alternative.</span><br></p><p>Language to watch out for: "If I had a magic wand…" "What <em>else</em> are we going to do?!"</p>
Ad hoc arguments<p>An ad hoc argument isn't really a logical fallacy, but it is a fallacious rhetorical strategy that's common and often hard to spot. It occurs when someone's claim is threatened with counterevidence, so they come up with a rationale to dismiss the counterevidence, hoping to protect their original claim. Ad hoc claims aren't designed to be generalizable. Instead, they're typically invented in the moment. <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ad_hoc" target="_blank">RationalWiki</a> provides an example:<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It is clearly said in the Bible that the Ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Bob: "A purely wooden vessel of that size could not be constructed; the largest real wooden vessels were Chinese treasure ships which required iron hoops to build their keels. Even the <em>Wyoming</em> which was built in 1909 and had iron braces had problems with her hull flexing and opening up and needed constant mechanical pumping to stop her hold flooding."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It's possible that God intervened and allowed the Ark to float, and since we don't know what gopher wood is, it is possible that it is a much stronger form of wood than any that comes from a modern tree."</p>
Snow job<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This fallacy occurs when someone doesn't really have a strong argument, so they just throw a bunch of irrelevant facts, numbers, anecdotes and other information at the audience to confuse the issue, making it harder to refute the original claim. Example:</span><br></p><ul><li>A tobacco company spokesperson who is confronted about the health risks of smoking, but then proceeds to show graph after graph depicting many of the other ways people develop cancer, and how cancer metastasizes in the body, etc.</li></ul><p>Watch out for long-winded, data-heavy arguments that seem confusing by design.</p>
McNamara fallacy<p>Named after <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara" target="_blank">Robert McNamara</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Secretary_of_Defense" target="_blank">U.S. secretary of defense</a> from 1961 to 1968, this fallacy occurs when decisions are made based solely on <em>quantitative metrics or observations,</em> ignoring other factors. It stems from the Vietnam War, in which McNamara sought to develop a formula to measure progress in the war. He decided on bodycount. But this "objective" formula didn't account for other important factors, such as the possibility that the Vietnamese people would never surrender.<br></p><p>You could also imagine this fallacy playing out in a medical situation. Imagine a terminal cancer patient has a tumor, and a certain procedure helps to reduce the size of the tumor, but also causes a lot of pain. Ignoring quality of life would be an example of the McNamara fallacy.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "You can't measure that, so it's not important."</p>
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Generation Ships<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a1e6445c7168d293a6da3f9600f534a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H2f0Wd3zNj0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.
Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.