Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Biophilic Work Places

Edward O. Wilson wrote an entire book on a phenomenon he called Biophilia. The biophilia hypothesis states that humans, having evolved in natural surroundings, have a psychological need for more natural surroundings. Plants and animals make us happy. Well, it seems that plants do in fact go a long away toward making us happy with our jobs, as Clara Moskowitz observes. One of the unfortunate ideas to come out of Modernism was anti-nature architecture, resulting in offices without windows and barren public housing structures whose primary function seemed to be the dehumanization of anyone living there. Turns out that humans need natural light, and we need to see plants. And it seems that plants even win out over natural light: 69% of those who had plants but no windows said they were satisfied with their jobs, while only 60% of those with windows but no plants said they were satisfied, which is practically the same as those without either windows or plants: 58% of those people were satisfied (it's best to have both: 82% satisfaction). My guess is that having animals around would also benefit people. Perhaps they should next study the effects of having fish and/or birds in the office (I'm guessing dogs and cats might be a bit much). If employers want more productive employees (and we know happy employees are more productive than unhappy ones), they need to take such ideas as biophilia seriously.

Those who build apartment complexes, whether for public housing or not, also need to keep in mind the fact that humans evolved on the African savannas. Large grassy areas with the occasional tree and some flowers can make all the difference in the world when it comes to your residents taking care of the place.

We also need to have our architecture reflect our biophilic needs. Those needs extend too to a need for a basic level of complexity in our surroundings. Nature has a 1.2-1.6 (when analyzed on a 2-D plane) fractal dimension (a range investigated by Jackson Pollock in his drip paintings). We have a lot of information about what makes humans comfortable with their surroundings. Isn't it time we took that information into consideration in our architecture and interior design?

Monday, May 19, 2008

On Literature and Health

Is it possible for literature to help make us healthy? Such an idea has fell into disfavor, with postmodernists in particular pointing to the Nazis as art-lovers, suggesting that art does not necessarily make us good people. Fair enough. If we look at all art as a group, it is hard to come to the conclusion that art per se results in any sort of moral improvement. But does that mean there is no such thing as a form or style or content of art or an art which could result in moral improvement?

In "Narrative Construction and Health," Kitty Klein says that if "highly negative experiences are difficult to assimilate into one's understanding of oneself and the world," it is because we don't have a sufficient knowledge base (memories of previous events) "to understand and interpret the stressful event" (Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences, ed. David Herman, 63. Stanford, CA: CSLI Pub.), then perhaps we should help people develop such a knowledge base. Before such an event, and certainly after one, works of literature which deal with the same traumatic situations should be assigned. The reader assimilates works of literature into their own knowledge base -- including the emotions expressed. As a consequence, those who have read the right kinds of literature (fiction, memoirs, etc.) with the right kind of guidance should be more prepared to deal with traumatic events. By allowing us to have a context for stressful situations, we will be able to assimilate our feelings and memories better, preventing them from becoming intrusive. After a stressful event, writing a story about it also helps (as it did Goethe as he wrote "The Sorrows of Young Werther"). Writing a story contextualizes the event, which gives it meaning and, when fictionalized, a story can put distance between you and the event. It is often the absence of meaning which makes an event cause a person to dwell on a situation, trying to place the event into some sort of context. By giving the event meaning, through some sort of narrative, the person is able to assimilate the event psychologically and emotionally. By writing a fictionalized account, with the event happening to someone else, one is able to see that it's not really a unique event, that it could happen to someone else. By writing such a sympathetic story, we are able to have someone who can suffer with us -- misery loves company because at least we know we're not alone. Further, a story changes a particular event into a universal/conceptual event -- which brings us back to the argument that it allows us to be able to assimilate the event into the world, to see that it's a part of existence, not just for us, but for others as well.

Klein observes that expressive writing (which focuses on thoughts and feelings) of several stories (3-4) about a problem until a coherent story was developed (one could imagine that revision would also help) not only produces psychological health in all but those who experienced the most severely disruptive traumas, but also improved physical health (lower blood pressure, improved immune systems, arthritis relief, etc.) (66-71) by 23%. The soul and the body are one, the former emergent from the latter, but in turn influential on the body too. If we improve our souls, our bodies will improve as well.

So it seems likely that literature can improve our health. The evidence is in for writing, as noted above. A more difficult study, but one which I think would be worth while to pursue, would be to see if there is a relationship between the kinds of literature read and an individual's ability to deal with traumatic events. If one's inability to deal with a psychologically traumatic event is related to lack of experience, literature can, through the fact that humans are sympathetic and do feel the pain of others, as brain research has shown, give us the experiences we need to deal with traumatic events in a more healthy way -- before the fact, rather than after it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Few Articles on Not Having a Classical Education

Over at The New Criterion, Victor Davis Hanson has an excellent article on the value of a classical education titled The New Learning That Failed. Certainly the postmodern approach is a dismal failure -- if the goal is to create and graduate educated people. If the goal is to prepare people for dictatorship, then the universities have been doing a fantastic job. Of course, nobody knows this because they haven't been reading the classics, which warn us about these sorts of things, as I subtly point out in an article I wrote for The Prometheus Institute.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Reading Habits

I have gotten into the habit of reading several books at the same time. Most people read one book at a time, but when you do that, you sometimes find yourself in the situation of not being in the mood to read that book, and so you read fewer things over time. But if you read several books in several genres, you'll find yourself reading much more, since there's a better chance of your wanting to read something you're reading. I typically read something creative (poetry, fiction, plays), something philosophical, and something scientific so that no matter what my mood, I'm ready to read it. Further, moving back and forth among books and genres allows me to see connections I would have otherwise missed. Thus, this approach to reading also allows for more complex thinking and understanding. Give it a try and see what happens.

So, what am I reading now?

"The No Plays of Japan" -- Arthur Waley, tr.
"The Aeneid" by Virgil -- Robert Fagles, tr.
"Emerson's Essays"
"Briefings on Existence" by Alain Badiou -- Norman Madarasz, tr.
"Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences" == David Herman, ed.
"The Nurture Assumption" by Judith Rich Harris

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Welcome to the blog of The Emerson Institute for Freedom and Culture. Here you will find occasional postings, random thoughts, and updates. I am Troy Camplin, Ph.D., director of EIFC, Inc. The EIFC is a free market think tank whose primary mission will be to promote cultural and societal change through the arts and humanities. While other think tanks seek to change the minds of elected officials, EIFC will seek to influence the culture at large through the promotion of pro-liberty, pro-values, meaningful works in the arts and humanities. If liberty is to survive, it must have support from the people and the culture. If we have a culture which promotes freedom, truth, beauty, meaning, value, and virtue, we will have people who will support freedom, truth, beauty, meaning, value, and virtue in their lives as a whole, including in their politics. We believe the best way to rejuvenate the culture is through a form of natural classicism, which recognizes that the world is complex, self-organizing, creative, and free. Further, we will seek to educate the public about the importance of the arts and humanities to their lives and to the culture at large. Any real and lasting societal change must start in the culture -- in the arts and humanities. If the people are to believe in freedom, truth, beauty, meaning, value, and virtue, then our arts and humanities must create or reconstruct freedom, truth, beauty, meaning, value, and virtue.  in works which address themselves to the average person and not just the specialist. In other words, we must support works that provide a counterpoint to those postmodern works which promote an overly simple, irrational, unbeautiful, anti-value, anti-meaning, immoral worldview that undermines rather than reinforces the creative freedom inherent in the world. Through journals and newsletters, articles and books, scholarly panels, media appearances, special projects, and this blog, EIFC will strive to reflect the reality of the world as a complex, creative, beautiful, value-laden, meaningful and, thus, conducive to freedom.