Thursday, September 27, 2012

Making Your Brain Happy

The 2011 book by David DiSalvo, WHAT MAKES YOUR BRAIN HAPPY AND WHY YOU SHOULD DO THE OPPOSITE, was recommended to me by a friend.  I read it, and am glad I did.  For me, this book explained a lot.

DiSalvo's basic premise is this: The human brain evolved to conserve its resources in everyday life, so as to save them for the life-threatening situations where they are really needed.  Thus, your brain will usually take the "easy way out" because any other way creates mental discomfort.  This discomfort can be detected with functional MRI, where during some kinds of decision-making, the parts of the brain light up that cause anxiety (such as the amygdalae), and the parts that produce reward-feeling rev down (ventral striatum).  

What kind of decisions?  Those that go against the norms of one's peer group, or seem likely to cause friction with people one cares about, or will entail risk to something you value: security, belonging, comfort, reputation.  The result is that we try to minimize this discomfort by looking only at evidence that confirms what we already believe and discounting evidence that doesn't.  Your brain wants consistency and certainty. It even wants to "coast" if it can: Some studies show that for between 30 to 50 percent of our waking time, most of us are mentally "elsewhere,"  operating on automatic pilot.  This is why, for instance, you find yourself driving to your job when it's Saturday and you meant to go to the dry cleaner's.

Alas, in order to be just, or creative, or even fully aware of the world, consistency and certainty often must be sacrificed.  This may be why artists are so often prone to depression.  The world looks more chaotic to their driven, not-at-ease brains.

There is a lot more about neural activity in this fascinating book.  Highly recommended. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Mirrored at the Movies

A few days ago I saw THE WORDS, the new movie that is the writing and directorial debut of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal.  I really enjoyed it -- but possibly for the wrong reasons.  For authors, THE WORDS is part memory, part wish-fulfillment, part nightmare, all of which overwhelmed any sense of  objective artistic judgment that I might have brought to it.
The film is about a struggling fiction writer (played by Bradley Cooper).  For the first third of the script, Rory Jansen wrestles with blank pages, blank computer screens, blank results.  He cannot get the words to flow as he wishes, and this part of the movie feels so true that I was wincing in memory.  Especially since "memory" included writing sessions as recent as, oh, yesterday.

As the internal and external pressures mount (Rory is running out of money, and his family out of patience), he finds a manuscript: old, yellowed, anonymous, and brilliant.  This may not be enormously plausible, but then again, Hadley Hemingway lost a satchel of her husband's manuscripts on a train.  Rory first reads the novel and then retypes it just to get the feel of successful prose.  This is not far-fetched; I know many writers who have done this with famous stories as they teach themselves to compose.  But then, under still more pressure, Rory claims the novel is his own.

The movie is actually more complicated than that, since it is three stories set inside each other, all connected to this particular set of words.  THE WORDS is about the desire to write, the perks and costs of fame, and the choices we all make.  Unfortunately, the last part of the film turns both preachy and muddy (I thought the last line really confused things), but overall I enjoyed this movie.

I'm just not sure why.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Three Technologies

Three technologies have recently come to my attention: one small, one medium-sized, one large (I feel like Goldilocks).  The first is my new foldable, portable treadmill.  Since Seattle is known for rain, I bought this so that I can walk indoors.  I also had thought it would be nice if the dog walked on it with me.  I had visions of the two of us puffing companionably along as we watched the NBC Nightly News.  However, this is not going to work.  Here is the dog refusing to set foot on the thing, despite the presence of her favorite treat:
 Moving up in sophistication, e-readers came up during a discussion I had yesterday with a class at the University of Washington.  Their professor, Dr. Howard Chizeck, brought me in to give a talk on SF, science, and society.  When I asked how many students used e-readers, I was surprised to find that there were only two.  "I like the feel of real books," they all said.  And then, devastatingly to someone who loves her Kindle, "My grandparents use e-readers.  Not us."  Is this true?  Are e-readers already obsolete with the young generation of engineers?
Most sophisticated, here is a link to a video of DARPA's astonishing Legged Squad Support System (LS3), a robotic "mule."  This thing can move easily over rugged terrain (the DARPA press release says "gracefully," but that's stretching it a bit) and can pick itself up if it falls down.  We are one step closer to Imperial Walkers.  And a long way from my manual treadmill.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Happy At The Movies

Editors, it is rumored, don't much like stories about writers.  Writers do (mild narcissism, undoubtedly).  Probably the same applies to movies.  Still, I didn't expect much from the beginning of RUBY SPARKS, and I left loving it.

The premise is as old as Galatea (in another medium): a writer creates the perfect woman on paper, and she becomes real.  Worse, his "perfect woman" is one of those kookie, free-spirit types that I usually find annoying.  After Calvin, the writer, overcomes his shock and disbelief, there is an idealized series of loving-couple scenes, youthful division, that in their own way are also cliches: a video arcade, a beach walk, etc.  I wasn't exactly bored because Paul Dano as the nerdy, relationship-challenged Calvin has one of the most mobile and expressive faces ever, but I wasn't enchanted, either.

Then, in the second part of the film, things changed.  They begin to find fault with each other, at first the usual tiny rifts that successful couples negotiate.  But Calvin does not know how to negotiate.  All he knows how to do is write.  So he hauls out the manuscript in which he created Ruby and tries to rewrite her.  Again.  And again.  And he can't make her perfect.  All this becomes a writing technique in itself, "literalizing the metaphor," in which Ruby stands for not only love but also for writing fiction.  She is being twisted and forced in an attempt to make her a perfect echo of the writer.  Calvin cannot go past who he is, and fiction demands that writers become other characters in order to solidly create them.

By the end of the movie, his pain and horror are frozen on that mobile face, and I had chills of recognition.  For both meanings of the metaphor.

Zoe Kazan is good as Ruby, but this movie belongs to Paul Dano.  Every writer should see it.