I pour tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider supporting my labor of love with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:
You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:
And if you've already donated, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.
Hello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition â€“ Neil Gaiman on why we read, Bruce Lee's never-before-revealed philosophical writings on willpower, emotion, reason, and confidence, and more â€“ you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation â€“ I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
â€œNature, the soul, love â€¦ one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason,â€ 16-year-old Dostoyevsky wrote in a beautiful letter to his brother. On some elemental level, we intuit this to be true, and yet we somehow let ourselves forget it as we grow older and more reliant on the intellect as our supreme mode of knowing. We seem to remember it only in moments of suffering â€” of emotional intensity so acute and uncontrollable that it strips down our rationalizations and deposits us, naked and unguarded, into the cradle of our own being. The wisdom of the heart that we reap in that vulnerable state is of a wholly different order than the intellectual insight we synthesize through deliberate rational thought.
In The Captive & The Fugitive (public library), the fifth volume of his masterwork In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871â€“November 18, 1922) shines a penetrating sidewise gleam on this paradox of how the intellect, in its coolly rational search for facts, blinds us to the larger truths of our emotional reality.
Shortly after the protagonist has completed a rigorous intellectual analysis of his feelings for his romantic partner, Albertine, and concluded that he no longer loves her, he receives news of her death. He is suddenly overcome by such uncontainable and uncontrollable sorrow that the truth â€” a truth his intellect had rejected but his heart encoded far more deeply â€” was revealed to him: He does, after all, love Albertine tremendously.
In one particularly insightful passage, Proust channels through his protagonist, named after himself, universal insight into how our intellect blinds us to the wisdom of the heart and how pain, above all, strips down our intellectual defenses and puts us in raw, direct contact with the emotional truth of our being:
I had believed that I was leaving nothing out of account, like a rigorous analyst; I had believed that I knew the state of my own heart. But our intelligence, however lucid, cannot perceive the elements that compose it and remain unsuspected so long as, from the volatile state in which they generally exist, a phenomenon capable of isolating them has not subjected them to the first stages of solidification. I had been mistaken in thinking that I could see clearly into my own heart. But this knowledge, which the shrewdest perceptions of the mind would not have given me, had now been brought to me, hard, glittering, strange, like a crystallised salt, by the abrupt reaction of pain.
â€œI have observed many tiny animals with great admiration,â€ Galileo marveled as he peered through his microscope â€” a tool that, like the telescope, he didnâ€™t invent himself but he used with in such a visionary way as to render it revolutionary. The revelatory discoveries he made in the universe within the cell are increasingly proving to be as significant as his telescopic discoveries in the universe without â€” a significance humanity has been even slower and more reluctant to accept than his radical revision of the cosmos.
Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis â€” a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonised by microbes while they are still unfertilised eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. We then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right â€” a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.
All zoology is really ecology. We cannot fully understand the lives of animals without understanding our microbes and our symbioses with them. And we cannot fully appreciate our own microbiome without appreciating how those of our fellow species enrich and influence their lives. We need to zoom out to the entire animal kingdom, while zooming in to see the hidden ecosystems that exist in every creature. When we look at beetles and elephants, sea urchins and earthworms, parents and friends, we see individuals, working their way through life as a bunch of cells in a single body, driven by a single brain, and operating with a single genome. This is a pleasant fiction. In fact, we are legion, each and every one of us. Always a â€œweâ€ and never a â€œme.â€
There are ample reasons to admire and appreciate microbes, well beyond the already impressive facts that they ruled â€œourâ€ Earth for the vast majority of its 4.54-billion-year history and that we ourselves evolved from them. By pioneering photosynthesis, they became the first organisms capable of making their own food. They dictate the planetâ€™s carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus cycles. They can survive anywhere and populate just about corner of the Earth, from the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean to the loftiest clouds. They are so diverse that the microbes on your left hand are different from those on your right.
But perhaps most impressively â€” for we are, after all, the solipsistic species â€” they influence innumerable aspects of our biological and even psychological lives. Young offers a cross-section of this microbial dominion:
The microbiome is infinitely more versatile than any of our familiar body parts. Your cells carry between 20,000 and 25,000 genes, but it is estimated that the microbes inside you wield around 500 times more. This genetic wealth, combined with their rapid evolution, makes them virtuosos of biochemistry, able to adapt to any possible challenge. They help to digest our food, releasing otherwise inaccessible nutrients. They produce vitamins and minerals that are missing from our diet. They break down toxins and hazardous chemicals. They protect us from disease by crowding out more dangerous microbes or killing them directly with antimicrobial chemicals. They produce substances that affect the way we smell. They are such an inevitable presence that we have outsourced surprising aspects of our lives to them. They guide the construction of our bodies, releasing molecules and signals that steer the growth of our organs. They educate our immune system, teaching it to tell friend from foe. They affect the development of the nervous system, and perhaps even influence our behaviour. They contribute to our lives in profound and wide-ranging ways; no corner of our biology is untouched. If we ignore them, we are looking at our lives through a keyhole.
Kafka believed that we look at life through the narrow keyhole of our personal existence and in order to distinguish between appearance and reality, we â€œmust keep the keyhole clean.â€ Yong performs a masterful act of keyhole-cleaning in demonstrating just how intimately entwined our personal existence is with that of the microbes that inhabit our bodies â€” a relationship nowhere more counterintuitive yet rife with promise than when it comes to our mental health. Itâ€™s hardly instinctive to consider that biology, much less microbiology, can influence the seething cauldron of mental and emotional experience we call psychology. And yet given the centrality of microbes to our immune system microbes and the constant dialogue between our immune system and our central nervous system in shaping our susceptibility to stress and burnout, it pays to probe how our microbiome might interact with our mental health.
Yong notes that research into this question is still in its nascency, so most studies are small and inconclusive, but he points to several curious and promising strands of research. One fMRI study by Kirsten Tillisch found that women who consumed a microbe-rich yoghurt displayed less activity in brain areas implicated in processing emotions, compared to those who consumed a microbe-free yogurt. In a clinical trial by Stephen Collins for patients with irritable bowel syndrome, a probiotic bacterium reduced symptoms of depression. Psychiatrist Ted Dinan, who runs a clinic for patients with depression, is wrapping up a clinical trial on â€œpsychobioticsâ€ â€” probiotics that might help people manage stress and depression. Although Dinan himself is skeptical that such treatments would be effective for those with debilitating clinical depression, he is hopeful that people with milder mood disorders might find some relief.
But the most striking implication of even the very possibility that microbes might shape our moods is that they might also shape our choices and, in consequence, our very destinies. Yong considers the overwhelming range of imputations:
These studies are already forcing scientists to view different aspects of human behaviour through a microbial lens. Drinking lots of alcohol makes the gut leakier, allowing microbes to more readily influence the brain â€” could that help to explain why alcoholics often experience depression or anxiety? Our diet reshapes the microbes in our gut â€” could those changes ripple out to affect our minds? The gut microbiome becomes less stable in old age â€” could that contribute to the rise of brain diseases in the elderly? And could our microbes manipulate our food cravings in the first place? If you reach for a burger or a chocolate bar, what exactly is pushing that hand forward? From your perspective, choosing the right item on a menu is the difference between a good meal and a bad one. But for your gut bacteria, the choice is more important. Different microbes fare better on certain diets. Some are peerless at digesting plant fibres. Others thrive on fats. When you choose your meals, you are also choosing which bacteria get fed, and which get an advantage over their peers. But they donâ€™t have to sit there and graciously await your decision. As we have seen, bacteria have ways of hacking into the nervous system. If they released dopamine, a chemical involved in feelings of pleasure and reward, when you ate the â€˜rightâ€™ things, could they potentially train you to choose certain foods over others? Do they get a say in your menu picks?
These questions flirt with the conundrum of free will by making us contend with the discomfiting notion that each of us might after all be what neuroscientist Sam Harris has called â€œa biochemical puppet.â€ And although these puzzlements are still largely in the realm of the hypothetical, Yong points out that such dependencies are far from uncommon in nature. He writes:
Nature is full of parasites that control the minds of their hosts. The rabies virus infects the nervous system and makes its carriers violent and aggressive; if they lash out at their peers, and inflict bites and scratches, they pass the virus on to new hosts. The brain parasite Toxoplasma gondii is another puppetmaster. It can only sexually reproduce in a cat; if it gets into a rat, it suppresses the rodentâ€™s natural fear of cat odours and replaces it with something more like sexual attraction. The rodent scurries towards nearby cats, with fatal results, and T. gondii gets to complete its life cycle.
The rabies virus and T. gondii are outright parasites, selfishly reproducing at the expense of their hosts, with detrimental and often fatal results. Our gut microbes are different. They are natural parts of our lives. They help to construct our bodies â€” our gut, our immune system, our nervous system. They benefit us. But we shouldnâ€™t let that lure us into a false sense of security. Symbiotic microbes are still their own entities, with their own interests to further and their own evolutionary battles to wage. They can be our partners, but they are not our friends. Even in the most harmonious of symbioses, there is always room for conflict, selfishness, and betrayal.
In the remainder of the intensely interesting I Contain Multitudes, Yong goes on to explore how these lines are drawn and what we can do to make the most of those alliances. Complement it with Tiny Creatures â€” a lovely childrenâ€™s book primer on the universe of microbes â€” then grow agape at Yongâ€™s terrific and slightly terrifying TED talk about mind-controlling parasites:
â€œBefore writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone,â€ Rebecca Solnit observed in her beautiful meditation on why we read and write. â€œAt the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height,â€ Hermann Hesse asserted in contemplating the three styles of reading, â€œwe really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.â€ Both reader and writer hold this transcendent communion on the page as the highest hope for their respective reward, but it is a reward each can attain only with the utmost skill and dedication.
The separate but symbiotic rewards of reading and writing, and the skills required for each, are what W.H. Auden(February 21, 1907â€“September 29, 1973) examines in The Dyerâ€™s Hand and Other Essays (public library). Although he remains one of the most celebrated, beloved, and influential poets of the past century, it is in this posthumously collected aphoristic prose that Auden speaks most directly to his values, his ideas about literature and art, and his creative process.
The interests of a writer and the interests of his* readers are never the same and if, on occasion, they happen to coincide, this is a lucky accident.
To read is to translate, for no two personsâ€™ experiences are the same. A bad reader is like a bad translator: he interprets literally when he ought to paraphrase and paraphrases when he ought to interpret literally. In learning to read well, scholarship, valuable as it is, is less important than instinct; some great scholars have been poor translators.
Good taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure.
Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our study to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, â€œI know what I like,â€ he is really saying â€œI have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu,â€ because between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what weshould read.
The challenges of being a reader in many ways parallel those of being a writer, particularly when it comes to these tyrannical shoulds â€” nowhere more so than in the perennially asked, perennially answered with ire question of why a writer writes and for whom. Auden offers the most beautiful answer I have yet encountered, at once utterly grounding and utterly elevating:
A writer â€¦ is always being asked by people who should know better: â€œWhom do you write for?â€ The question is, of course, a silly one, but I can give it a silly answer. Occasionally I come across a book which I feel has been written especially for me and for me only. Like a jealous lover, I donâ€™t want anybody else to hear of it. To have a million such readers, unaware of each otherâ€™s existence, to be read with passion and never talked about, is the daydream, surely, of every author.
Just as a good man forgets his deed the moment he has done it, a genuine writer forgets a work as soon as he has completed it and starts to think about the next one; if he thinks about his past work at all, he is more likely to remember its faults than its virtues. Fame often makes a writer vain, but seldom makes him proud.
Every writer would rather be rich than poor, but no genuine writer cares about popularity as such. He needs approval of his work by others in order to be reassured that the vision of life he believes he has had is a true vision and not a self-delusion, but he can only be reassured by those whose judgment he respects. It would only be necessary for a writer to secure universal popularity if imagination and intelligence were equally distributed among all men.
All works of art are commissioned in the sense that no artist can create one by a simple act of will but must wait until what he believes to be a good idea for a work â€œcomesâ€ to him.
And yet what the Muse commissions is vulnerable to the basic flaw of all human intuition. â€œThe confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct,â€ Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote in exploring how our minds mislead us. By the same token, the degree by which our inspiration invigorates us need not be indicative of the merit of the art it produces. Auden articulates this with elegant wit:
The degree of excitement which a writer feels during the process of composition is as much an indication of the value of the final result as the excitement felt by a worshiper is an indication of the value of his devotions, that is to say, very little indication.
To keep his errors down to a minimum, the internal Censor to whom a poet submits his work in progress should be a Censorate. It should include, for instance, a sensitive only child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon and even, perhaps, hated by all the others and returning their dislike, a brutal, foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry rubbish.
Sincerity is like sleep. Normally, one should assume that, of course, one will be sincere, and not give the question a second thought. Most writers, however, suffer occasionally from bouts of insincerity as men do from bouts of insomnia. The remedy in both cases is often quite simple: in the case of the latter, to change oneâ€™s diet, in the case of the former, to change oneâ€™s company.
Sincerity in the proper sense of the word, meaning authenticity, is, however, or ought to be, a writerâ€™s chief preoccupation. No writer can ever judge exactly how good or bad a work of his may be, but he can always know, not immediately perhaps, but certainly in a short while, whether something he has written is authentic â€” in his handwriting â€” or a forgery.
â€œHurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present,â€ Alan Watts observed of the difficult pleasures of presence in the middle of the twentieth century, as the mechanized acceleration of modern life was beginning to take our already aggravated relationship with time to new frontiers of frustration. I thought of him one November morning shortly after I moved to New York when, already overwhelmed by the cityâ€™s pace, I swiped my brand new subway card at the turnstile and confidently marched through, only to jam my hips into the immobile metal rod. Puzzled, I looked over to the tiny primitive screen above the turnstile, which chided me coldly in cyan electronic letters: â€œSWIPE FASTER.â€ Just these two words, stern and commanding â€” no â€œPLEASE,â€ not even â€œTRY TO.â€ In the worldâ€™s fastest-paced city, even the mindless machines are temporally judgmental and make sure you remain on par.
Science was already hijacking time from the domain of metaphysics and fomenting the popular imagination with its rush of discoveries, so when Einstein and Bergson sat down for their famous debate in 1922, the moment was ripe to forever change our experience of time. (It may be a coincidence, but it is nonetheless an emblematic one, that 1955 was both the year Einstein died and the year scientists concretized the second itself by ceasing to tinker with its length, until then defined as 1/86,400 of the mutable duration of a real day.)
The impact of these and related developments on society and the human psyche are what the inimitable James Gleick explores in Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (public library) â€” a book written nearly two decades ago that has not only stood the test of time but has grown all the more perceptive and prescient in the years since.
We are in a rush. We are making haste. A compression of time characterizes the life of the century.
We have a word for free time: leisure. Leisure is time off the books, off the job, off the clock. If we save time, we commonly believe we are saving it for our leisure. We know that leisure is really a state of mind, but no dictionary can define it without reference to passing time. It is unrestricted time, unemployed time, unoccupied time. Or is it? Unoccupied time is vanishing. The leisure industries (an oxymoron maybe, but no contradiction) fill time, as groundwater fills a sinkhole. The very variety of experience attacks our leisure as it attempts to satiate us. We work for our amusement.
Sociologists in several countries have found that increasing wealth and increasing education bring a sense of tension about time. We believe that we possess too little of it: that is a myth we now live by.
Illustration by Vahram Muratyan from About Time, a minimalist illustrated meditation on our fraught relationship with time
To fully appreciate Gleickâ€™s insightful prescience, it behooves us to remember that he is writing long before the social web as we know it, before the conspicuous consumption of â€œcontentâ€ became the currency of the BuzzMalnourishment industrial complex, before the timelines of Twitter and Facebook came to dominate our record and experience of time. (Prescience, of course, is a form of time travel â€” perhaps our only nonfictional way to voyage into the future.) Gleick writes:
We live in the buzz. We wish to live intensely, and we wonder about the consequences â€” whether, perhaps, we face the biological dilemma of the waterflea, whose heart beats faster as the temperature rises. This creature lives almost four months at 46 degrees Fahrenheit but less than one month at 82 degrees.
Yet we have made our choices and are still making them. We humans have chosen speed and we thrive on it â€” more than we generally admit. Our ability to work fast and play fast gives us power. It thrills usâ€¦ No wonder we call sudden exhilaration a rush.
Gleick considers what our units of time reveal about our units of thought:
We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond. This is the heyday of speed. â€œSpeed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man,â€ laments the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, suggesting by ecstasy a state of simultaneous freedom and imprisonmentâ€¦ That is our condition, a culmination of millennia of evolution in human societies, technologies, and habits of mind.
Particle physicists may freeze a second, open it up, and explore its dappled contents like surgeons pawing through an abdomen, but in real life, when events occur within thousandths of a second, our minds cannot distinguish past from future. What can we grasp in a nanosecond â€” a billionth of a second? â€¦ Within the millisecond, the bat presses against the ball; a bullet finds time to enter a skull and exit again; a rock plunges into a still pond, where the unexpected geometry of the splash pattern pops into existence. During a nanosecond, balls, bullets, and droplets are motionless.
Illustration from Just a Second by Steve Jenkins, a childrenâ€™s book about what takes place on Earth in a single second
If the nanosecond seems too negligible to matter, it is only because we are fundamentally blinded by the biological limits of our perception. (We are, for instance, only just beginning to understand the monumental importance of the microbiome, imperceptible to the naked eye yet crucial to nearly every aspect of our bodily existence.) In 1849, when trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell became the first woman hired by the U.S. federal government for a non-domestic specialized skill, she labored as a â€œcomputer of Venusâ€ â€” a sort of one-woman GPS, performing mathematically rigorous celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe. The nanosecond was still decades away from being measured and named, so her calculations, however adroit, were crude by modern standards. Today, as Gleick points out, an error of one nanosecond translates into a misplacement by one foot in modern GPS systems. This means that just a dozen nanoseconds can steer you the wrong way altogether.
But perhaps the most striking illustration of just how frantically weâ€™ve fragmented time and how insistently weâ€™ve imbued the fragments with restlessness comes from an unlikely source â€” a mid-century social science study published in 1959 under the title â€œAssociation of Specific Overt Behavior Pattern with Blood and Cardiovascular Findings,â€ the validity of which has since failed to hold up against scientific scrutiny but the linguistic legacy of which has only grown in the half-century since: In addition to originating the notion of â€œhurry sickness,â€ this study also coined the term â€œType A,â€ which has since planted itself firmly and anxiously in our collective conscience.
This magnificently bland coinage, put forward by a pair of California cardiologists in 1959, struck a collective nerve and entered the language. It is a token of our confusion: are we victims or perpetrators of the crime of haste? Are we living at high speed with athleticism and vigor, or are we stricken by hurry sickness?
The cardiologists, Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, listed a set of personality traits which, they claimed, tend to go hand in hand with one another and also with heart disease. They described these traits rather unappealingly, as characteristics about and around the theme of impatience. Excessive competitiveness. Aggressiveness. â€œA harrying sense of time urgency.â€ The Type A idea emerged in technical papers and then formed the basis of a popular book and made its way into dictionaries.
The archetypal Type A was a person the researchers called â€œPaul,â€ whom they described unambiguously:
A very disproportionate amount of his emotional energy is consumed in struggling against the normal constraints of time. â€œHow can I move faster, and do more and more things in less and less time?â€ is the question that never ceases to torment him. Paul hurries his thinking, his speech and his movements. He also strives to hurry the thinking, speech, and movements of those about him; they must communicate rapidly and relevantly if they wish to avoid creating impatience in him. Planes must arrive and depart precisely on time for Paul, cars ahead of him on the highway must maintain a speed he approves of, and there must never be a queue of persons standing between him and a bank clerk, a restaurant table, or the interior of a theater. In fact, he is infuriated whenever people talk slowly or circuitously, when planes are late, cars dawdle on the highway, and queues form.
The study ultimately didnâ€™t live up to its hypothesis that a Type A personality predisposes to heart disease â€” the researchers failed to account for various confounds, including the facts that patients in Group A drank, smoked, and ate more than those in Group B. But what it didnâ€™t prove in science it proved in society â€” the need for a term that confers validity about an experience so prevalent and so intimately familiar to so many. (In her beautiful essay on language and creativity, the poet Jane Hirshfield has written about how, through the language of poetic image, â€œsomething previously unformulated (in the most literal sense) comes into the realm of the expressedâ€ until we begin to feel that without its existence â€œthe worldâ€™s store of truth would be diminished.â€) Gleick writes:
If the Type A phenomenon made for poor medical research, it stands nonetheless as a triumph of social criticism. Some of us yield more willingly to impatience than others, but on the whole Type A is who we areâ€”not just the coronary-prone among us, but all of us, as a society and as an age. No wonder the concept has proven too rich a cultural totem to be dismissed. We understand it. We know it when we see it. Type A people walk fast and eat fast. They finish your sentences for you. They feel guilty about relaxing. They try to do two or more things at onceâ€¦
Among the many aggravators of Type A-ness in modern life, elevators stand out. By its very nature, elevatoring â€” short-range vertical transportation, as the industry calls it â€” is a pressure-driven business. Although there are still places on earth where people live full lives without ever seeing an elevator, the Otis Elevator Company estimates that its cars raise and lower the equivalent of the planetâ€™s whole population every nine days. This is a clientele that dislikes waiting.
Gleick cites a curious and revealing passage from a 1979 report by Otis researchers studying elevator behavior:
Waiting, some stand still, others pace, and another may make small gestures of impatience such as foot tapping, jiggling change in a pocket, scanning the walls and ceiling with apparent concentrationâ€¦ At intervals, nearly everyone regards the elevator location display above the doors by tipping their head slightly back and raising their eyesâ€¦ Men, but hardly ever women, may rock gently back and forthâ€¦
The long silences, the almost library hush, that we can observe where people wait for elevators are not only what they seemâ€¦ The longer the silence the more likely one or more of us will become slightly embarrassedâ€¦ the more embarrassing and tense are the little interior dramas that we play out each within our own theater of projectionâ€¦
The actual period of waiting that elapses before a particular group may feel that waiting has become a nearly unendurable torment will probably vary significantly with the composition of the group, the time of day, and the type of building in which they are travelingâ€¦ The wait is hardly ever long, however much the subjective experience may stretch it out.
What makes the elevator so upsetting to the Type A person is that it forces upon us perpetually moving moderns the anxiety of stillness, a punishing counterpoint to the self-elected exhilaration of speed. An interesting, if discomfiting, thing to consider: At the time of Gleickâ€™s writing, elevator riders tended to fill that anxious space of time with bodily fidgeting, occasional small talk, and no doubt large quantities of quiet inner rage; today, the average elevator is filled with people hunched over their devices, heads bent, looking like a congregation of mourners â€” an alarmingly apt image, for we are now irreversibly bereaved of that bygone era of innocent fidget-filled idleness, unburdened by the tyrannical impulse for productivity. We no longer allow ourselves boredom, that crucible of creativity, even in the elevator.
Building engineers have long tried to address the collective malady of elevator impatience â€” a problem only exacerbated as buildings grow taller and taller, requiring a greater number of elevators to prevent infuriating elevator traffic jams. For a while, a fanciful solution gained traction: A pressurized â€œsky lobbyâ€ â€” a transit point in a skyscraper, wherein an air lock repressurizes elevator passengers before they plunge into a rapid descent. But as abstract and at times illusory as time may seem, it grounds us mercilessly into the creaturely reality of our biology, which put an end to the sky lobby idea. Gleick writes:
One small problem resists solution. Evolution neglected to armor the human eardrum against the sudden change in air pressure that comes with a fall of hundreds of feet at high speed. Natural selection rarely had the opportunity to work with survivors of this experience, to fine-tune their eustachian tubes in preparain for vertical transport. So at mid-century, when Frank Lloyd Wright designed a mile-high tower with 528 stories, helicopter landing pads, and quintuple-deck elevators running on atomic power, airline pilots instantly wrote to alert him to the impracticality. The age of high-altitude passenger aviation was just beginning, and the pilots knew that elevators descending thousands of feet within a minute or two would subject their passengers to severe inner-ear pain. Sure enough, decades later, the Sears Tower in Chicago had to slow its observation-deck elevators because at least one passenger had complained of a broken ear drum â€” an extreme manifestation of hurry sickness.
What remained was the low-tech solution of manipulating the psychology of human impatience, most palpably triggered by what engineers call â€œdoor dwellâ€ â€” the amount of time it takes the elevator doors to automatically close after making a stop on a given floor, programmed to last anywhere between two and four seconds. There is, of course, a way to override the automatic door dwell and win back, as it were, some of those precious blinks: the â€œDOOR CLOSEâ€ button â€” a Type A favorite and typically the most worn out one in elevators, for people press it compulsively and repeatedly despite the negligible time-saving benefits and the knowledge that pushing it three times in antsy succession is no more effective than pushing it once. Gleick considers the curious compulsion of poking this seductive yet temporally impotent button:
Although elevators leave the factory with all their functions ready to work, the manufacturers realize that building managers often choose to disable DOOR CLOSE. Buildings fear trapped limbs and lawsuits. Thus they turn their resident populations into subjects in a Pavlovian experiment in negative feedback. The subjects hunger for something even purer than food: speed.
How many times will you continue to press a button that does nothing? Do you press elevator call buttons that are already lighted â€” despite your suspicion that, once the button has been pressed, no amount of further attention will hasten the carâ€™s arrival? Your suspicion is accurate. The computers could instruct elevators to give preference to floors with many calls. But elevator engineers know better than to provide any greater incentive than already exists for repeated pressing of the button. They remember Pavlov. They know what happens to those dogs.