Last Week’s Links

Finding It Hard to Focus? Maybe It’s Not Your Fault

“The liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time,” writes James Williams, a technologist turned philosopher and the author of a new book, “Stand Out of Our Light.”

A look at how social media and our obsession with it have created the new “attention economy.”

This Is What Road Rage Does to Your Body

Road rage, a type of fight-or-flight response, “could actually trigger a heart attack or stroke in the hours afterward, according to a 2014 research review from the Harvard School of Public Health.”

A neuroscientist explains what tech does to the reading brain

For anyone who has ever been a reader, there’s much to sympathize with in Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home. The UCLA neuroscientist, a great lover of literature, tries to read Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, an old favorite, only to realize that she finds him boring and too complex. She wonders why he ever won a Nobel. And Wolf, who previously wrote Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, is horrified that this is what has happened to her ability to concentrate.

Here’s an interview with Maryanne Wolf, who explains how technology is changing our brains by making us lose deep attention:

My biggest worry now is that a lot of what we’re seeing in society today — this vulnerability to demagoguery in all its forms — of one unanticipated and never intended consequence of a mode of reading that doesn’t allow critical analysis and empathy.

Maybe Your Sleep Problem Isn’t a Problem

As a night owl myself, I was glad to read this in-depth look at the stereotypes (lazy, unproductive) commonly associated with those of us whose innate circadian rhythm doesn’t jibe with the rest of the world’s schedule:

Yes, I get it. I have heard this all my life: Society likes morning people. Loves them, actually. Early risers tend to be more punctual, get better grades in school and climb up the corporate ladder. These so-called larks are celebrated as the high achievers, the apple polishers, the C.E.O.s.

But according to Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Why We Sleep:

about 40 percent of the population are morning people, 30 percent are evening people, and the remainder land somewhere in between. “Night owls are not owls by choice,” he writes. “They are bound to a delayed schedule by unavoidable DNA hard wiring. It is not their conscious fault, but rather their genetic fate.”

‘Let the soul dangle’: how mind-wandering spurs creativity

Whether in the form of literature, rap or abstract oil painting, many of us know we can improve the tenor of our thoughts by contemplating art. The Germans have a lovely saying for the benefits of keeping an idle (or idling) mind: ‘die Seele baumeln lassen’, meaning ‘let the soul dangle’. Now, the emerging science of neuroaesthetics is beginning to reveal the biological processes that sit behind such ‘dangling’.

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

After Blast, New Yorkers Examine Themselves for Psychological Shrapnel

A poignant article about a recent bombing in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. The “psychological shrapnel” of such an event can be just as traumatic as physical injury.

7 Surprising Facts About Creativity, According To Science

brain02For just about all my writing life I’ve known that I get my best ideas in the shower. This article based on the book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire says that I’m not alone in this: The first of these seven surprising facts is “72% of people have creative insights in the shower.”

Read how solitude, daydreaming, and even trauma can contribute to creativity.

Rethinking madness: inside the world’s oldest mental asylum

For years, the term ‘asylum’ has evoked images of chaos and cruelty – in spite of the mental health community’s attempts to give it new meaning. Examining 700 years of history at the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital, Bethlem, a new exhibition intends to set things straight.

A fascinating look at Bethlem Royal Hospital in the Beckenham area of south London, the asylum that give us the word bedlam.

Where Creativity Comes From

Scientific American summarizes research of species other than humans to try to find an answer to the question of where creativity comes from.


© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

These are pieces from across the web that caught my eye this week.

How language is processed by your brain

An overview of how our brain processes language, with an emphasis on how learning a new language can help the brain grow.

Four Things To Do Outside The Office To Boost Your Creativity

Aimed at business professionals, this article explains why these four activities may boost creativity:

(1) taking a bath
(2) observing the details of the world around us
(3) working at a coffee shop (or in other surroundings with moderate background noise)
(4) walking

Syllabus: Using Poetry and Fiction to Encourage Experiments in Nonfiction

Writer Chelsea Hodson explains how books that blend or cross genre lines can help writers be more creative and experimental in their own writing. She discusses five books here.

The System I Used to Write 5 Books and Over 1,000 Blog Posts

journal_writingWell known writer Jeff Goins explains his three-step system for discovering ideas and developing them in writing:

(1) collect ideas
(2) write and save
(3) edit and publish

Experienced writers probably have their own ways of following these three steps, but Goins’s system may help beginning writers get a handle on the process.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Falling for sleep

Sleep has been transformed from a deeply personal experience to a physiological process; from the mythical to the medical; and from the romantic to the marketable. Our misconstrued sense of sleep and consequent obsession with managing it are the most critical overlooked factors in the contemporary epidemic of sleep loss.

A look at the results of chronic sleep deprivation, which can lead to heart disease, neurodegenerative disorders, autoimmune illnesses, and depression.

sleeping baby

Rubin Naiman argues that wakism, our devotion to what we experience while awake, prevents us from appreciating the positive aspects of sleep.


Here’s a fascinating article on the concept of eudaemonic happiness, defined by Aristitle about 2,500 years ago:

In his Nicomachean Ethics, he described the idea of eudaemonic happiness, which said, essentially, that happiness was not merely a feeling, or a golden promise, but a practice. “It’s living in a way that fulfills our purpose,” Helen Morales, a classicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told me. “It’s flourishing. Aristotle was saying, ‘Stop hoping for happiness tomorrow. Happiness is being engaged in the process.’ ” Now, thousands of years later, evidence that Aristotle may have been onto something has been detected in the most surprising of places: the human genome.

Psychologists continue to look for explanations and examples of this higher-order form of happiness, which differs from (but does not preclude) sensual pleasures such as a good pizza or a glass of good wine.

Study uncovers how exposure to social news videos affects behavior

Research into how internet-based delivery of social news produced some perhaps not surprising results:

in the positive social news condition, kindness and providing help are the most salient contents–these prime conventional norms mean more altruistic behaviors as well as a greater tolerance for opponents defecting during the prisoner’s dilemma game. In the negative social news condition, harm towards innocent people and unethical behavior are signs of rule violations and lower moral levels. This leads to a greater propensity to break the rules and cheat.

The 9 Biggest Myths About Creativity You Should Never Believe

Some of the most common adages are not true at all. Here are nine aspects of traditional knowledge about creativity that are wrong, at least in the business setting:

  1. Innovation = creativity
  2. Innovation = entrepreneurship and startups
  3. You were either born creative or not
  4. There is nothing you can do to increase innovation organically in your company
  5. You need to drive innovation
  6. You need to build an innovation space and allocate time for creativity
  7. Financial incentives increase creativity
  8. Innovation requires significant resources and funding
  9. Innovation initiatives need to be implemented throughout the entire organization


© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Recent Articles on Sleep, Memory, Learning, Brain Function, and Mind Wandering

Examining Sleep’s Roles in Memory and Learning

Go ahead and take that nap. New research suggests that sleep can improve both memory and creativity.

Getting smarter

Brain-training games won’t boost your IQ, but a host of strategies can improve your cognitive abilities one piece at a time

brain02Psychologist Jeffrey M. Zacks of Washington University in St. Louis looks at various popular methods advertised to improve cognitive functioning, including brain-training games, drugs, subliminal training programs, electrical stimulation

His conclusion: “Sadly, most of the rapid cognitive enhancers currently being peddled are not very effective.” However, he adds, there are a few approaches that can make us better at performing specific functions, such as remembering people’s names: “we can all think better in specific domains if we engage in focused practice, and be smarter, happier and healthier if we take care of ourselves.”

Jerome S. Bruner, Who Shaped Understanding of the Young Mind, Dies at 100

Jerome S. Bruner, whose theories about perception, child development and learning informed education policy for generations and helped launch the modern study of creative problem solving, known as the cognitive revolution, died on Sunday [June 5, 2016] at his home in Manhattan. He was 100.

In his later work, Bruner applied ideas about thinking, culture, and storytelling to understanding legal and cultural issues.

Why Do Our Minds Wander?

sometimes, even without going to sleep, we turn away from the world. We turn inward. We are contemplative or detached. We decouple ourselves from the environment and we are set free, as it were, to let our minds play themselves.

Philosopher Alva Noë of the University of California, Berkeley, discusses the problems of studying when, why, and how our minds sometimes wander.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

I’m trying out something different this week. I have three blogs:

Because of these wide-ranging interests, I often end up with lots of open browser tabs containing quite a variety of materials.

Since sorting all these materials out for the individual blogs can be quite time-consuming, I’m going to try to streamline my blogging process by putting together a weekly list of all the interesting articles I come across and publishing the same post to all three of the blogs. Feel free to click on whichever links interest you and to ignore the rest.

Note: In compiling this initial list, I discovered that I’ve actually been holding many of these tabs open for two weeks. Therefore, this entry is longer than future ones will probably be.


Taking On the Ph.D. Later in Life

While the overall age of Ph.D. candidates has dropped in the last decade, about 14 percent of all doctoral recipients are over age 40, according to the National Science Foundation. Relatively few students work on Ph.D.s [in their 60s], but educators are seeing increasing enrollment in doctoral programs by students in their 40s and 50s. Many candidates hope doctorates will help them advance careers in business, government and nonprofit organizations; some … are headed for academic research or teaching positions.

This article caught my eye because I started working on a doctorate at age 57 and finally received my degree on my 63rd birthday. About 30 years earlier I had completed the course work but not the dissertation for a doctorate in English and American literature. My main motivation for returning to school was to fulfill a life-long dream of earning a Ph.D., but I also benefitted from being able to focus my studies on the particular area I was interested in (life stories).

You Can Go Home Again: The Transformative Joy Of Rereading

Returning to a book you’ve read multiple times can feel like drinks with an old friend. There’s a welcome familiarity — but also sometimes a slight suspicion that time has changed you both, and thus the relationship. But books don’t change, people do. And that’s what makes the act of rereading so rich and transformative.

Juan Vidal explains why he rereads three books every year: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard, and Save Twilight: Selected Poems by Julio Cortázar.

Michael Kinsley’s ‘Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide’

Longevity breeds literature. As people (including writers) live longer thanks to medical advances, we can expect many more books contemplating the vicissitudes of aging, illness and dying. These topics, previously thought uncommercial, not to mention unsexy, have been eloquently explored recently by Diana Athill (“Somewhere Towards the End”), Roger Angell (“This Old Man”) and Christopher Hitchens (“Mortality”), among others. Now that the baby boom generation, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, “enter life’s last chapter,” Michael Kinsley writes, “there is going to be a tsunami of books about health issues by every boomer journalist who has any, which ultimately will be all of them.” Hoping to scoop the others, he has written “Old Age,” a short, witty “beginner’s guide,” with an appropriate blend of sincerity and opportunism.


Literature of the American South comprises more than just Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the works of William Faulkner. Here Emily Gatlin provides a class list of the full range of works that illustrate the Southern literary experience.

‘Literature about medicine may be all that can save us’

A new generation of doctor writers is investigating the mysteries of the medical profession, exploring the vital intersection between science and art

In telling the stories of illness, we need to tell the stories of the lives within which illness is embedded. Neither humanism nor medicine can explain much without the other, and so many people ricochet between two ways of describing their very being. This is in part because medicine has become so much harder to understand, with its designer molecules, bewildering toxins and digital cameras inserted into parts of ourselves we have never seen, nor wanted to see.

Telling the stories of illness has given rise to a movement known as “narrative medicine,” or, more broadly, “medical humanities.” We are seeing more and more memoirs by patients about their experiences of illness and by doctors about their attempts to understand their patients’ stories. Many of the books by physicians include their authors’ own experiences of being ill.

Books by physicians concerned about understanding patients’ stories of illness discussed here include the following:

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
What Doctors Feel by Danielle Ofri
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis

The Best Music for Staying Productive at Work, Backed by Science

I always used to want complete quiet when reading or concentrating, but when I went back to school I discovered that certain types of music could help me focus. This article summarizes the research demonstrating how music can increase concentration and discusses which types of music work best for this purpose.

The best part of this article is the links to examples of music for focus in these categories: classical, electronic, video game soundtracks, ambient noise, and “everything else.”

Neuroscientists create ‘atlas’ showing how words are organised in the brain

Scientists have created an “atlas of the brain” that reveals how the meanings of words are arranged across different regions of the organ.

Described as a “tour de force” by one researcher who was not involved in the study, the atlas demonstrates how modern imaging can transform our knowledge of how the brain performs some of its most important tasks. With further advances, the technology could have a profound impact on medicine and other fields.

Thinking Beyond Money in Retirement

After a career of working, scrimping and saving, many retirees are well prepared financially to stop earning a living. But how do you find meaning, identity and purpose in the remaining years of your life?


This excerpt from Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction by Erika Janik discusses the female detectives, real and literary, who preceded Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Creativity

How To Be Creative: 6 Secrets Backed By Research

We’d all like to be more creative, but how exactly do we make that happen? Here’s some advice gleaned from Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the new book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind. The advice comes from Eric, the person behind the blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

The research behind studies like those cited here is often just as fascinating as the conclusions drawn from it. So be sure to read the whole article for insight into these six ways to stimulate your creativity:

(1) Be open to new experiences: It’s the most important thing to do. Just try new stuff. (What are you ordering for lunch today? Really? Don’t get that. You always get that.)

(2) Go for a walk: It can make you more creative and it’s exercise. Two birds, one stone, baby.

(3) Take a shower: If you’re not doing this one, I don’t want to hang out with you. Period.

(4) Take some “me” time: No, not me, you. So “you” time.

(5) Take “The Outsider’s Mindset”: Think like a kid. Stop taking your everyday work for granted. What about it would be odd to an outsider? There’s gold in thinking about that.

(6) Keep trying: Most of what the great geniuses produced was utter crap. Same is true for you. But nobody needs to know about your misses. Keep trying and just count the hits.

The Unfair Truth About How Creative People Really Succeed

For anyone starting out in a creative profession, Jeff Goins, author of The Art of Work, explains that the people they envy became successful because “They knew the right people. They were in the right place at the right time. They got lucky.” Success doesn’t result simply from talent, education, perseverance, and effort. You also have to know the right people:

Networks. Partnerships. Creative collaborations. This is where enduring work originates, and, incidentally, is how we get works like The Lord of the Rings and The White Album. Creativity is not a solitary invention but a collaborative creation. And communities create opportunities for creative work to succeed.

Goins explains how he developed his own network by overcoming his shyness enough to reach out “to influential bloggers and authors, people I had watched for years and wanted to know. I asked them to meet me for coffee. And here’s the crazy part: most of them said yes.”

Read the explanation of his three-step process for developing your own supportive network:

(1) Find a gatekeeper.
(2) Connect with other people within the network.
(3) Help as many people as possible.

Don’t just sit around and wait to become lucky:

Luck comes to us all. But those who recognize it are the ones who succeed. Every story of success is really a story of community, and the way you find yours is by reaching out and taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves

Elizabeth Gilbert on the Link Between Creativity and Curiosity

Melissa Dahl interviews successful author Elizabeth Gilbert about Gilbert’s new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Whereas the common admonition is to follow one’s passion, Gilbert suggests that, instead, people follow their curiosity. Dahl says that Gilbert advises that “creativity flourishes best when it’s kept as your little pet project, not the thing you’re depending on to make your rent.”

At the beginning of the interview Gilbert says that she’s only mildly interested in the scientific research behind notions of creativity. After thinking about writing this book for 12 years, she finally put the research aside and “wrote about what I know empirically — all of this is so true to me and my experience”:

Not to dismiss all of the science — that’s all interesting and important stuff. I just don’t know if it’s going to take me where I want to be, and where I want to be is in what I call the big magic, which means suspending a lot of rational thought. I mean, listen — I have one foot with the fairies and one foot with the real world. I believe in evolution, I believe in vaccinations, I believe the world is round. I am here with everyone in the modern world. But I also think it’s a benefit to keep a piece of ourselves open to the creative process as something that’s a little mystical and magical.

For Gilbert, curiosity is what drives her to push beyond fear: “if you want to live a curiosity-driven life, you must commit to being vigilant about looking for what’s piquing your curiosity.” She further advises people to take it easy on themselves, to trust that there’s a reason why something is more interesting to them right now than is anything else.

On Creativity

These are the world’s “most creative” countries

Quartz reports on data compiled by the Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) at the University of Toronto into the Global Creativity Index (GCI):

To create their ranking, researchers defined creativity as the product of three measurable variables, “the Three Ts”: technology, talent and tolerance.

“Technology” rankings were determined by looking at investment levels in research and development, plus patents per capita. National “talent” was evaluated as a composite of the percentage of adults with higher-education degrees and the percentage of workforce involved in creative industries. Interestingly, the third factor in MPI’s creativity index was “tolerance”: a ranking based on how each country treats its immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBT residents.

When looking at the results, it’s important to keep this in mind:

Based on MPI’s definition of creativity, it comes as no surprise that there’s a strong link between each nation’s creativity ranking and its overall economic development.

It’s also important to note that the terms this report evaluates comprise a concept of creativity different from our usual notion.

Head to head: Does every creative genius need a bitter rival?

Jacob Burak examines well known rivalries between creative geniuses:

  • painters John Constable and J.M.W. Turner
  • mathematicians Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz
  • researchers into electricity Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla
  • computer pioneers Steve Jobs and Bill Gates

Burak references psychological research that found:

rivals tend to be the same age, gender and social status. True rivals know each other and, indeed, often have long, enmeshed histories. Rivals are, by definition, evenly matched – but the higher the level of their attainment, the more they propel each other on.

And rivalry can exist between entire societies and social groups, not just between individuals.

Here’s how two of the world’s most famous psychologists described rivalries:

An especially profound exploration of rivalry comes from the psychologist Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, who said that we have more in common with our rivals than we would like to admit. The qualities in our rival that arouse our hostility are exactly the ones we prefer to repress in ourselves: weakness, anxiety, greed, aggression, lust and rudeness are a few common examples. Jung called this panoply of traits ‘the shadow’.

In Freudian theory, we defend ourselves from urges we don’t want to acknowledge by denying their existence and ‘projecting’ them onto others. This makes us attribute qualities, intentions and desires to others that are actually our own. According to Jung, such urges are buried deep within the ‘shadow’ part of our mind. The less cognisant we are of the shadow inside us, the darker and denser it becomes.

Say no more often. You’ll be happier and healthier.

A long time ago I knew a woman who was moderately successful at writing books for middle-grade readers. She wasn’t a household name by any means. She once told me that she had been asked to speak at her nephew’s school, not too far from her house.

“I can’t spend my time giving talks at schools,” she told me. I thought that giving that talk would probably increase her exposure among children and their parents, who buy the books, after all. “I need to spend my time writing my next book.”

This is one of the burning questions for aspiring writers: when to talk for free and sometimes even write for free to increase their name recognition and connect with a wider audience.

In this short article author Cory Doctorow explains that creative people need to say “no” more often, for exactly the reason that my writer acquaintance gave. The best part of the article is the sample letters, reproduced from Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist, used by writers such as E.B. White, Robert A. Heinlein, and Carl Sandburg to say “no” as gently and unobnoxiously as possible.

9 Tricks Brilliant Innovators Use To Come Up With Big Ideas

When I think about creativity, I think foremost of artists such as painters, writers, and musicians. But creativity plays a large part in innovation in many life areas, including business (see the article above on the world’s most creative countries).

This article from Inc., aimed at business people, catalogs the best practices for finding ideas from the book The Idea Hunter: How To Find The Best Ideas And Make Them Happen by Andy Boynton and Bill Fischer.

Read the full explanations of why these suggestions work:

  • Get to know your competition.
  • Listen to your customers.
  • Take long walks.
  • Invite in diverse opinions.
  • Keep careful track of your ideas, and refer back to them when you’re stuck.
  • Set aside time to pursue big ideas.
  • Pay attention to news and culture.
  • Schedule downtime.
  • Turn your attention elsewhere.

With just a small change of emphasis, most of these suggestions can be adapted by people in fields other than business.

Why Creative Play Matters

Katie Simpson doesn’t break any new ground here, but it’s good to be reminded occasionally about why it’s good to take time to look up at the clouds, to color a picture with crayons, to mold a figure out of kids’ clay, or just make up stories about people who walk past you.