The Power of Introverts: Author Susan Cain Explains Why We Need to Appreciate the Talents & Abilities of the Quiet Ones

Ours is a loud culture of nonstop personal sharing, endless chatter, and 24-hour news, opinion, and entertainment. Even those people who prefer reading alone to the overstimulating carnival of social media feel pressured to participate. How else can you keep up with your family—whose Facebook posts you’d rather see die than have to read? How else to build a profile for employers—whom you desperately hope won’t check your Twitter feed?

For the introvert, maintaining an always-on façade can be profoundly enervating—and the problem goes far beyond the personal, argues author Susan Cain, reaching into every area of our lives.

“If you take a group of people and put them into a meeting,” says Cain in the short RSA video above, “the opinions of the loudest person, or the most charismatic person, or the most assertive person—those are the opinions that the group tends to follow.” This despite the fact that research shows “zero correlation” between being the loudest voice in the room and having the best ideas. Don’t we know this all too well.




Cain is the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a book about leadership for introverts, the group least likely to want the social demands leadership requires. And yet, she argues, we nonetheless need introverts as leaders. “We’re living in a society now that is so overly extroverted,” she says. Cain identifies the phenomenon as a symptom of corporate capitalism overcoming predominantly agricultural ways of life. Aside from the significant question of whether we can change the culture without changing the economy, Cain makes a timely and compelling argument for a society that values different personality types equally.

But can there be a “world where it’s yin and yang” between introverts and extroverts? That depends, perhaps on how much credence we lend these well-worn Jungian categories, or whether we think of them as existing in binary opposition rather than on a spectrum, a circle, a hexagram, or whatever. Cain is not a psychologist but a former corporate lawyer who at least seems to believe the balancing act between extroverted and introverted can be achieved in the corporate world. She has given talks on “Networking for Introverts,” addressed the engineers at Google, and taken to the TED stage, the thought leader arena that accommodates all kinds of personalities, for better or worse.

Cain's TED talk above may be one of the better ones. Opening with a moving and funny personal narrative, she walks us through the barrage of messages introverts receive condemning their desire for quietude as somehow perverse and selfish. Naturally solitary people are taught to think of their introversion as "a second-class personality trait," Cain writes in her book, "somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology." Introverts must swim against the tide to be themselves. “Our most important institutions," she says above, "our schools and our workplaces, they are designed mostly for extroverts, and for extroverts' need for stimulation.”

The bias is deep, reaching into the classrooms of young children, who are now forced to do most of their work by committee. But when introverts give in to the social pressure that forces them into awkward extroverted roles, the loss affects everyone. “At the risk of sounding grandiose,” Cain says, “when it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best.” Paradoxically, that can look like introverts taking the helm, but out of a genuine sense of duty rather than a desire for the spotlight.

Introverted leaders are more likely to share power and give others space to express ideas, Cain argues. Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks exemplify such introverted leadership, and a quieter, more balanced and thoughtful culture would produce more leaders like them. Maybe this is a proposition anyone can endorse, whether they prefer Friday nights with hot tea and a novel or in the crush and bustle of the crowds.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Kintsugi: The Centuries-Old Japanese Craft of Repairing Pottery with Gold & Finding Beauty in Broken Things

We all grow up believing we should emphasize the inherent positives about ourselves. But what if we also emphasized the negatives, the parts we've had to work to fix or improve? If we did it just right, would the negatives still look so negative after all? These kinds of questions come to mind when one ponders the traditional Japanese craft of kintsugi, a means of repairing broken pottery that aims not for perfection, a return to "as good as new," but for a kind of post-breakage reinvention that dares not to hide the cracks.

"Translated to 'golden joinery,' Kintsugi (or Kintsukuroi, which means 'golden repair') is the centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver, or platinum" says My Modern Met.




"Beautiful seams of gold glint in the cracks of ceramic ware, giving a unique appearance to the piece. This repair method celebrates each artifact's unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing it with new life."

Kintsugi originates, so one theory has it, in the late 15th century under the culturally inclined shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, during whose reign the sensibilities of traditional Japanese art as we known them emerged. When Ashikaga sent one of his damaged Chinese tea bowls back to his motherland for repairs, it came back reassembled with ungainly metal staples. This prompted his craftsmen to find a better way: why not use that gilded lacquer to emphasize the cracks instead of hiding them? The technique was said to have won the admiration of famed (and not easily impressed) tea master Sen no Rikyū, major proponent of the imperfection-appreciating aesthetic wabi sabi.

You can hear and see these stories of kintsugi's origins in the videos from Nerdwriter and Alain de Botton's School of Life at the top of the post. The clip just above offers a closer look at the painstaking techniques of modern kintsugi, which not only survives but thrives today, having expanded to include other materials, repairing glassware as well as ceramics, for example, or filling the cracks with silver instead of gold. And what could underscore the current global relevance of kintsugi more than the fact that the craft has inspired not one but two TEDTalks, the first by Audrey Harris in Kyoto in 2015 and the second by Maddie Kelly in Adelaide last year. We all, it seems, want to repair our cracks; kintsugi shows the way to do it not just honestly but artfully.

h/t the nugget

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Stress Can Change Your Brain: An Animated Introduction

We hear the mantra of “self-care” in ever-widening circles, a concept both derided and celebrated as a “millennial obsession,” with the acknowledgment—at least in this NPR think piece— that self-care was central to the philosophies of antiquity, from Aristotle to the Stoics.

In philosophy, self-care exists as a set of ethics. The reasons for this may often be couched in high-minded discussions of civics, sexual politics, and existential self-actualization. These days, doctors and researchers are making urgent appeals for our mental and physical health, and the science of stress is an unsurprisingly rich field of investigation at the moment.




It’s hard to overstate the negative effects of stress on the body over time. Increased stress hormones have been linked in study after study to overeating and obesity, lowered immune response, drug use and addiction, memory impairment, heart disease, and many other debilitating and life-threatening conditions. “The long-term activation of the stress-response system,” writes the Mayo Clinic, “and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones—can disrupt almost all your body’s processes.” (The video below makes this harrowing point with some helpful, animated comic relief.)

When we experience chronic stress, it raises our blood pressure and affects our cardiovascular system, increasing the chances of heart attack or stroke. The even worse news—reports the TED-Ed video at the top of the post—is that chronic stress weakens our ability to make sound decisions about our well-being, by changing the size, structure, and function of our brain.

We’re familiar with the symptoms of chronic stress: “sleeping restlessly,” becoming “irritable or moody,” “forgetting little things,” and “feeling overwhelmed and isolated.” Continuous stress, from our work lives, home lives, social and political lives, can cause shrinking in parts of the brain responsible for memory, spatial recognition… and stress regulation.

Research shows that high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones can cause shrinking of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and decision-making. Stress can inhibit neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to adapt to new circumstances—and neurogenesis: the ability to produce new brain cells.

Conversely, stress increases the size of the amygdala, which activates fight-or-flight responses, which in turn increase the strain on our heart and blood vessels.

All of these effects can set the stage in later life for major depression, forms of cognitive decline and dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Most unsettlingly, as the video notes, these effects can be passed down to the next generation, furthering the cycle of chronic stress in our children and theirs. Persistent stress “filters down” to DNA, making it genetically inheritable.

Given the incredible amount of stress most people seem to be under, this science can seem like a diagnosis of doom. We all know that chronic stressors assail us all day long, without asking whether we want them in our lives or not. An increasing amount of our daily stress, I’d hypothesize, may indeed come from the growing realization of how little control we have over many stressful situations.

But the TED explainer ends with good news, and it’s been there all along—we can find it in the ancient Greeks, in Buddhist practices, and many other traditions, both active and contemplative. We can control our responses to stress, and thus reverse and modulate the effects of cortisol on our system. The best, proven, ways to do so are through exercise and meditation (and, I'd add, good nutrition).

These activities will not eradicate the conditions of inequality, injustice, or instability that stress us all out—a great many of us more than others. But practicing “self-care” inasmuch as we are able with stress-relieving disciplines and practices will better equip us to respond to the state of the world and the state of our lives by interrupting the biological mechanisms that, over time, make things much worse. Find some helpful resources below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Reality Is Nothing But a Hallucination: A Mind-Bending Crash Course on the Neuroscience of Consciousness

If you've been accused of living in "a world of your own," get ready for some validation. As cognitive scientist Anil Seth argues in "Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality," the TED Talk above, everyone lives in a world of their own — at least if by "everyone" you mean "every brain," by "world" you mean "entire reality," and by "of their own" you mean "that it has created for itself." With all the signals it receives from our senses and all the prior experiences it has organized into expectations, each of our brains constructs a coherent image of reality — a "multisensory, panoramic 3D, fully, immersive inner movie" — for us to perceive.

"Perception has to be a process of 'informed guesswork,'" says the TED Blog's accompanying notes, "in which sensory signals are combined with prior expectations about the way the world is, to form the brain’s best guess of the causes of these signals."




Seth uses optical illusions and classic experiments to underscore the point that “we don’t just passively perceive the world; we actively generate it. The world we experience comes as much from the inside-out as the outside-in," in a process hardly different from that which we casually call hallucination. Indeed, in a way, we're always hallucinating. “It’s just that when we agree about our hallucinations, that’s what we call ‘reality.’” And as for what, exactly, constitutes the "we," our brains do a good deal of work to construct that too.

Seventeen minutes only allows Dash to go so far down the rabbit hole of the neuroscience of consciousness, but he'll galvanize the curiosity of anyone with even a mild interest in this mind-mending subject. He leaves us with a few implications of his and others' research to consider: first, "just as we can misperceive the world, we can misperceive ourselves"; second, "what it means to be me cannot be reduced to — or uploaded to — a software program running on an advanced robot, however sophisticated"; third, "our individual inner universe is just one way of being conscious, and even human consciousness generally is a tiny region in a vast space of possible consciousnesses." As we've learned, in a sense, from every TED Talk, no matter how busy a brain may be constructing both reality and the self, it can always come up with a few big takeaways for the audience.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Case for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valuable “Deep Work” Instead, According to Prof. Cal Newport

A familiar ding comes from your pocket, you look up from what you’re doing and reach for the smartphone. Before you can think, "it can wait," you’ve disappeared into the screen like little Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist. Taken by a ghostly presence with designs upon your soul—your time, emotional well-being, creativity—Facebook. Someone has requested my friendship! You like my video? I like you! Why, I’ve got an opinion about that, and that, and that, and that…. All the little performative gestures, imprinted in the fingers and the thumbs.

Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, WhatsApp, VKontact, Sina Weibo…. Just maybe, social media addiction is a global epidemic, a collection of emotionally, socially, and politically, toxic behaviors. As Suren Ramasubbu reports, “social media engagement has been found to trigger three key networks in the brain” that make us think intensely about our self-image and public perception, create new neural pathways, and release dopamine and oxytocin, which keep us coming back for more little red hearts, tiny thumbs-ups, and diminutive gold stars (good job!).




While the nature of addiction is a controversial topic, it will arouse little disagreement to say that we live—as Georgetown University Computer Science Professor Calvin Newport writes in the subtitle of his book Deep Work—in a “distracted world.” Newport’s prescription will go down less easily. Quit, drop out, tune out, opt out, get out of the Matrix, Newport argues, more or less, in his book and his TEDx talk above. He acknowledges the oddity of being a “millennial computer scientist book author, standing on a TED stage” who never had a social media account and urges others to give up theirs.

Any one of his overlapping demographics is likely to have a significant web presence. Put all of them together and we expect Newport to be pitching a startup network to an audience of venture capitalists. Even the story about why he first abstained could have made him a minor character in The Social Network. But feelings of professional jealousy soon turned to wariness and alarm. “This seems dangerous,” he says, then lets us know—because we surely wondered—that he’s okay. “I still have friends. I still know what’s going on in the world.” Whether you’re convinced he’s happier than the rest of us poor saps is up to you.

As for the claim that we should join him in the wilderness of the real—his argument is persuasive. Social media, says Newport, is not a “fundamental technology.” It is akin to the slot machine, an “entertainment machine,” with an insidious added dimension—the soul stealing. Paraphrasing tech guru and iconoclast Jaron Lanier, Newport says, “these companies offer you shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bytes of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold.” But like the slot machine, the social media network is a “somewhat unsavory source of entertainment” given the express intent of its engineers to make their product “as addictive as possible,” comparable to what dietitians now call “ultra-processed foods”—all sugar and fat, no nutrients.

Newport names another objection to quitting—the necessity of social media as an essential business tool—then pivots to his book and his commitment to what he calls “deep work.” What is this? You can read the book to find out, or get a Cliff’s Notes version in Brian Johnson’s video above. Johnson begins by contrasting deep work with “shallow work,” where we spend most of our time, “constantly responding to the latest and loudest email and push notification for social media, or text messages or phone ringing, whatever.”

While we may get little endorphin boosts from all of this heavily mediated social activity, we pay a high price in stress, anxiety, and lost time in our personal, professional, and creative lives. The research on overwork and distraction supports Newport's conclusions. The real rewards come from deep work, he argues, that which we do when we have total focus and emotional investment in a project. Without getting too specific, such work, Newport says, is not only personally fulfilling, but valuable “in a 21st century economy” for its rarity.

Social media, on the other hand, he claims, contributes little to our work lives. And as you (or maybe it’s me) scan the open social media tabs in your overloaded browser, and tune in to the cluttered state of your mind, you might find yourself agreeing with his heretical proposition. You might even share his talk on social media. Or decide to follow us on Facebook and/or Twitter.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Evelyn Glennie (a Musician Who Happens to Be Deaf) Shows How We Can Listen to Music with Our Entire Bodies

Composer and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, above, feels music profoundly. For her, there is no question that listening should be a whole body experience:

Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch. Sound is simply vibrating air which the ear picks up and converts to electrical signals, which are then interpreted by the brain. The sense of hearing is not the only sense that can do this, touch can do this too. If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear or feel the vibration? The answer is both. With very low frequency vibration the ear starts becoming inefficient and the rest of the body’s sense of touch starts to take over. For some reason we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration, in reality they are the same thing. It is interesting to note that in the Italian language this distinction does not exist. The verb ‘sentire’ means to hear and the same verb in the reflexive form ‘sentirsi’ means to feel.

It’s a philosophy born of necessity—her hearing began to deteriorate when she was 8, and by the age of 12, she was profoundly deaf. Music lessons at that time included touching the wall of the practice room to feel the vibrations as her teacher played.

While she acknowledges that her disability is a publicity hook, it’s not her preferred lede, a conundrum she explores in her "Hearing Essay." Rather than be celebrated as a deaf musician, she’d like to be known as the musician who is teaching the world to listen.

In her TED Talk, How To Truly Listen, she differentiates between the ability to translate notations on a musical score and the subtler, more soulful skill of interpretation. This involves connecting to the instrument with every part of her physical being. Others may listen with ears alone. Dame Evelyn encourages everyone to listen with fingers, arms, stomach, heart, cheekbones… a phenomenon many teenagers experience organically, no matter what their earbuds are plugging.

And while the vibrations may be subtler, her philosophy could cause us to listen more attentively to both our loved ones and our adversaries, by staying attuned to visual and emotional pitches, as well as slight variations in volume and tone.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She’ll is appearing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why We Love Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”: An Animated Music Lesson

Remember listening to Peter and the Wolf as a child, how the narrator would explain that certain instruments correspond to particular characters:  the duck - an oboe, the wolf - three horns, and so on?

In the above TED-Ed lesson (memorably animated by Compote Collective), music historian Betsy Schwarm fulfills much the same role for The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi. (Stream it here.)

Why are we so drawn to this Baroque concerto? Is it because we associate it with brunch?

The hundreds of movies and commercials that have featured it?




(Director Robert Benton chose Vivaldi rather than an original composer for the score of Kramer vs. Kramer, arguing that "Concerto in C Major for Mandolin & Strings” captured the troubled Manhattan couple’s refined lifestyle far better than the John Williams-esque bombast the ear associates with some many other cinematic hits of the period. The 1979 film’s success sent "The Four Seasons” to the top of the charts.)

These pleasant associations no doubt account for some of our fondness, but Professor Schwarm posits that the stories contained in the melodies are what really reel us in.

Basically, we’re in the thrall of a musical weather report, reveling in the way Vivaldi manages to bring to life both the birdies’ sunny spring song and the sudden thunderstorm that disrupts it.

Summer rolls out the meteorological big guns with a hailstorm.

Autumn’s cooler nighttime temperatures keep the wine-flushed peasants from turning their harvest celebrations into a full-on bacchanal.

Winter? Well perhaps you’re tucked up contentedly in front of the fireplace right now, gratified to be hearing your own comfort echoed in the largo section.

Inspired by the landscape paintings of artist, Marco Ricci, Vivaldi penned four poems that drive the movements of his most famous work. Their translations, below, are nowhere near as eloquent to the modern listener’s ear, but you'll find that reading them along with your favorite recording of the Four Seasons will corroborate Professor Schwarm’s thesis.

Spring – Concerto in E Major

Allegro

Springtime is upon us.

The birds celebrate her return with festive song,

and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes.

Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven,

Then they die away to silence, and the birds take up their charming songs once more.

Largo

On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.

Allegro

Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dance beneath the brilliant canopy of spring.

Summer – Concerto in g-minor

Allegro non molto

Beneath the blazing sun's relentless heat

men and flocks are sweltering,

pines are scorched.

We hear the cuckoo's voice; then sweet songs of the turtle dove and finch are heard.

Soft breezes stir the air….but threatening north wind sweeps them suddenly aside. The shepherd trembles, fearful of violent storm and what may lie ahead.

Adagio e piano - Presto e forte

His limbs are now awakened from their repose by fear of lightning's flash and thunder's roar, as gnats and flies buzz furiously around.

Presto

Alas, his worst fears were justified, as the heavens roar and great hailstones beat down upon the proudly standing corn.

Autumn – Concerto in F Major

Allegro

The peasant celebrates with song and dance the harvest safely gathered in.

The cup of Bacchus flows freely, and many find their relief in deep slumber.

Adagio molto

The singing and the dancing die away

as cooling breezes fan the pleasant air,

inviting all to sleep

without a care.

Allegro

The hunters emerge at dawn,

ready for the chase,

with horns and dogs and cries.

Their quarry flees while they give chase.

Terrified and wounded, the prey struggles on,

but, harried, dies

Winter – Concerto in F-minor

Allegro non molto

Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds;

running to and fro to stamp one's icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.

Largo

To rest contentedly beside the hearth, while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.

Allegro

We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling.

Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.

We feel the chill north winds coarse through the home despite the locked and bolted doors…

this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.

 


You can download the Wichita State University Chamber Players’ recording of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” for free here.

See how well you retained your TED-ED lesson with a multiple choice quiz, then read more here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in less than three weeks. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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