Category Archives: Modern life

How Reading Rewires Your Brain

Reading

There is no doubt in my mind that modern society traps its subjects in an unhealthy and unsuitable environment. That stark realization motivates many of my stories (see here and here, for example). The most disturbing symptom of how toxic our culture has become is the increasingly acerbic mutual distrust evident in current politics. Little wonder so many feel depressed, powerless, and alienated.

Rather than utilizing technology to better our lives, we let it rule us. Distracted by smart phones, buffeted by inescapable sensory overload, and hobbling our discourse in 140-character outbursts at each other, we’re incapable of understanding our own inner selves, much less that of others.

Fortunately, the tonic for the condition we find ourselves in is close at hand — if only we would use it, as this eye-opening piece in big think proclaims:

Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with reading comprehension and emotional intelligence as well. You make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you.

All of these benefits require actually reading, which leads to the formation of a philosophy rather than the regurgitation of an agenda, so prevalent in reposts and online trolling. Recognizing the intentions of another human also plays a role in constructing an ideology. Novels are especially well-suited for this task. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology found overlap in brain regions used to comprehend stories and networks dedicated to interactions with others.

The beauty of it all is that when you read, you gain more than just the knowledge contained in the text. The very act of reading builds “white matter” in the brain, thereby boosting the brain’s interconnectivity and ability to function more efficiently.

In the United States — yes, the United States1 out of 4 children grow up without learning to read. That’s intolerable. Want to do your part to make the world a better and happier place? Read, and do what you can to help others read.

And if you really get ambitious, and have the nerve to try it, write something beautiful.

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Fate’s Daughters

SciFan

SciFan Magazine has published my latest story, “Fate’s Daughters.” It’s available in both e-book and paperback format on Amazon.

The protagonist, Dr. Thomas Lear, delves into Scottish mysticism to master the secrets of da-sheallahd, or second sight, and uses that knowledge to prove the existence of spin-off “daughter” universes, the most profound and disturbing theory in quantum mechanics. Lear discovers how to find and observe alternate versions of his life, and learns what would have happened if he hadn’t made choices he has long regretted.

He also learns all choices, good or bad, have repercussions — and that even what we think are good choices can have shocking consequences.

An instructor leading an improv workshop I attended at Queen City Comedy in Charlotte inspired this story. E.B. urged everyone to “let go” and react honestly to the scenes they were acting out. At one point she said, “We’ve forgotten how to focus! The only thing that matters is happening in the place and moment you’re living in right now.” Her words hit me, and I kept thinking about them after the workshop was done. That advice is just the medicine we need in our distracted age.

BTW, if you want to know more about daughter universes and quantum mechanics, Space.com has this short, helpful article, one of the pieces I read researching the science behind the story.

I am indebted to several beta readers for their invaluable insights as this piece evolved, including the Dark & Stormy Plotters League, which is the sci-fi/fantasy critique group of the Charlotte Writers’ Club. But I want to give special thanks to Cathleen Townsend for her inspired suggestions, all of which I incorporated into the manuscript. I salute l’artista migliore!

Quote of the day

Flannery O'Connor

“Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong even though this is the first generation to face total extinction because of these advances.” – Flannery O’Connor

Thomas Bowdler’s Revenge!

Shakespeare censored

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had a happy ending. In Hamlet, Ophelia accidentally drowned. And when Lady Macbeth gazed upon her guilty hand, she cried, “Out, crimson spot!”

Doesn’t sound quite right, does it? But those are some of the edits Thomas Bowdler made to render Shakespeare less violent and less frightening. Bowdler’s 1818 The Family Shakespeare removed what Bowdler called “those words and expressions… which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”

In fact, Bowdler’s work was appreciated in Victorian times, and poet Algernon Charles Swinburne credited Bowdler for making Shakespeare approachable for children. But today, the word “Bowdlerize” signifies the reworking of a piece to make it less offensive, but also weaker and less effective.

Before we start feeling superior to those stuffy old Victorians, we need to pay attention to a growing neo-Bowdler campaign to tone down text that could offend. Sadly, some publishers are resorting to “sensitivity readers” whose explicit job is to Bowdlerize manuscripts:

Before a book is published and released to the public, it’s passed through the hands (and eyes) of many people: an author’s friends and family, an agent and, of course, an editor.

These days, though, a book may get an additional check from an unusual source: a sensitivity reader, a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as “dealing with terminal illness,” “racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families” or “transgender issues.”

The Chicago Tribune story cites the case of author Veronica Roth, whose novel Carve the Mark was denounced “for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.”

That’s sad. It’s a rough-and-tumble world out there, and if you can’t handle viewpoints that challenge your sensibilities, you’re in for some rude shocks.

I see this as yet another symptom of a society that’s self-segregated itself into prickly, snarling little dens of conformity. Too many people see the world through a pre-fabricated lens and as a result, cannot cope with views from outside their cocoons. If all you know of the world comes from Fox News or Huffington Post, you feel you must condemn all who fail to uphold the One True Way.

Get away from that computer. Go outside. Talk to real people. At the very least, dare to consider ideas from outside your “Favorites” list.

Terrorism, Hope, and Ebenezer Scrooge

Scrooge

I can’t help but think of what Christmas will be like for the 14 families who lost loved ones in the San Bernardino massacre last week, or for the families of the three who were gunned down at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facilities last month.

Even for those of us who were not immediately affected, there is still that haunting reminder of the needless suffering we, as humans, inflict on each other.

And yet — and yet — we should not let ourselves give in to despair. Tempted as we may be to concede that evil appears entrenched in the human heart, we cannot surrender our hope that there is a spark of good in everyone, a spark worth noticing and perhaps even cultivating as best we can. As hard as it is to imagine, I believe the shooters in both tragedies thought they acted for worthy reasons.

Robert Dear, Jr., the Colorado Springs killer, ranted in court, “I’m guilty. There’s no trial. I’m a warrior for the babies.” Twisted? Yes. Egomaniacal? No doubt. But even this murderer believed he was protecting the innocent and helpless.

As for Farook and Malik, we can only speculate that they considered themselves warriors for their faith. Nevertheless, whatever was churning through their minds when they abandoned their six-month-old baby and drove to the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health with two .223-caliber semi-automatic rifles and pipe bombs, their actions certainly warranted the swift and decisive response the SWAT team meted out.

That said, we cannot ignore the powerful forces that work on terrorists such as Dear, Malik, and Farook. Modern alienation devastates the isolated individual, and many dedicate themselves to what appears as a last, desperate effort to accomplish something significant and worthwhile. In his article, The Psychological Sources of Islamic Terrorism, Dr. Michael J. Mazarr of Georgetown University writes:

Mass technological life tranquilizes people, drains us of our authenticity, of our will and strength to live a fully realized life. The result of this process is alienation, frustration, and anger. A few themes stand out from this broad concept.

One has to do with the burdens of freedom and choice. By breaking the chains of tradition and conformity, modern life offers a bewildering, paralyzing degree of choice about everything from career paths to marriage partners to fashion. When you can potentially be anything, the existentialists worry, you may in fact be nothing — and have no identity at all.

Alienation from tradition and from others is not freedom, but a curse. In our frantic pursuit of material gain, we lose sight of life’s true purpose. No one has better enunciated the antidote than the protagonist of A Christmas Carol, that classic fantasy tale of Christmas. After the three spirits teach him what Christmas means, Ebenezer Scrooge makes his famous vow:

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!” ― Charles Dickens, from his novella A Christmas Carol

Stubbornly seeking the spark of good that’s buried even in the heart of old Ebenezer Scrooge gives us hope, real hope, because very often we do indeed find that spark if we simply open our eyes to it. That insight into human nature makes for better fiction, too. The best literature can be a means to form and strengthen social ties because it helps us appreciate the hidden feelings of others. In my novella Aztec Midnight, the protagonist, Jon Barrett, must find and deliver an ancient Aztec relic to men who have kidnapped his wife. However, a local militia stands in his way — not because its members are evil, but because the relic will empower the drug cartels that terrorize them. Jon Barrett’s dilemma is one we can all appreciate.

Want to help make Christmas the season of hope it was meant to be? You can start by reading a good book. Or better yet – by giving one.