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What Keeps Us 'Riveted'?

What makes performance “riveting.” Why we cry at movies, laugh at jokes, are obsessed with celebrities and sports and more.

With guest host Jane Clayson.

(Flickr/Thomas Christensen)

(Flickr/Thomas Christensen)

Looking around, everything tries to grab our attention. Headlines. Magazine covers. Movie trailers. But what is it that draws us in? What compels us to pick up a book? Listen to a particular song? Believe a particular religion? Try a new exotic food?  Jim Davies, a cognitive scientist, has looked deeply into this question of human intrigue. He finds that the evolution of our brain has a lot to do with it.  Subconscious forces at work help decide what interests us. This hour, On Point: understanding what fascinates us, what compels us, what’s “riveting.”

– Jane Clayson


Jim Davies, professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science of Carleton University and director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory. Author of “Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Makes Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe .” (@drjimdavies)

Kevin Blackistone, sports writer, frequent panelist on ESPN’s Around the Horn. Professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. (@profblackistone)

From Tom’s Reading List

National Post: The mystery of humour: Carleton University scientist investigates why we find things funny — “His “compelling foundations theory” spans our delight in finding patterns and our fascination with incongruities. It unites everything from humour, celebrity and religion to the delusions of schizophrenia, conspiracy theories and the placebo effect as different aspects of the same human cognitive dynamic. In all of these, judgments that are factually wrong can feel unavoidably right, and intensely compelling.”

The Wall Street Journal: Book Review: ‘Riveted’ by Jim Davies — “Every four years, roughly half the planet tunes in for the World Cup. One might wonder what everyone finds so interesting about watching a bunch of strangers kick a ball around for 90 minutes at a time. The cognitive scientist Jim Davies offers a few answers in his new book, “Riveted,” which aims to offer a “a unified explanation of compellingness”—a take on why we care about sports, as well as art, gossip, religion and anything else that commands our attention.”

Excerpt: ‘Riveted’ by Jim Davies

From Riveted by Jim Davies. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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  • Yar

    We are a biological machine bathed in hormones and other chemicals that change our perception of reality. Seeing is believing, yet our brain builds images out of digital pixels filling in much from memory to speed up processing. Prejudice is a necessary short cut to survival. Understanding how we think can help us get closer to understanding ourselves. To think we are purely logical defies logic. What we think changes who we are just as much as who we are changes what we think.

  • Kestrel

    The book looks very interesting, and I am eager to read it. However, I must add, Susan Blackmore, the go-to sceptic, is not necessarily correct. One can easily find fault with/question her findings. And by the way, the topics of sports and famous people bore me to death. I simply do not care about either of those subjects in the slightest. What’s wrong with me?

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      High culture versus low culture? Most people who do not worship media and sports celebrities highly idealize intellectual and high-art heroes. Do you have favorite thinkers and artists who you love and identify with? Seen from that perspective, the educated class has the same dynamic at play as mass-media’s mediated masses.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    “What makes performance ‘riveting.’ Why we cry at movies, laugh at jokes, are obsessed with celebrities and sports and more.”

    Narcissistic gratification is the common and unifying denominator. Movies is a fantasy-space where interesting and great things happen to beautiful people. Celebrities are famous, the center of attention, leading glamorous and envied lives. Sports stars are skilled and physically endowed; in a world that economically values knowledge they excel at the culture’s primitive physical games ritualized in childhood. Jokes and humor is a cognitive-space in which we laugh at our shared knowing superiority and certain others’ inferiority, stupidity and absurdity.

    The psychoanalytic explanation (narcissism) above seems the most compelling explanation of the compulsion to compellingness.

    The social and cultural explanation – the need to form group identity around the shared social representations expressed in and transmitted by the popular arts and the mass media – is also useful. We have a built-in desire to see how others’ are living and to know the culture’s social norms.

    It will be interesting to see if other perspectives, like cognitive psychology and science, have anything much to add.

    “finding patterns and our fascination with incongruities”.

    OK. That is fundamental to how the brain works. So much information comes in it is meaningless unless organized and paraphrased. That is such a basic “insight” you might have to file that under “No duh!” or “So what?”

    “It unites everything from humour, celebrity and religion to the delusions of schizophrenia, conspiracy theories and the placebo effect as different aspects of the same human cognitive dynamic. In all of these, judgments that are factually wrong can feel unavoidably right, and intensely compelling.”

    OK. Now we are talking about not only cognitive selectivity, but the interesting work done on cognitive biases. How does that explain the things we are fascinated by? As a society, very few are fascinated by the field of advanced logics studied by philosophy, mathematics and computer science although that deals with patterns and exposing incongruities. Therefore, clearly it is compelling sociological and psychological needs (group identity and narcissism) that are compelling mass interest in certain patterns and disinterest in other non-compelling patterns.

  • Ed75

    Religion doesn’t primarily make us feel one with the universe … it makes us feel one with God, to know God.

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      Humans have a herd-instinct; to feel one with the social group. In infancy, the baby was and then wished to be once again one with its mother.

  • Ed75

    Man is made for God – who is good, true, beautiful, and just. So when we see these things, we are attracted.

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      Humans are naturally attracted to what is good, true, beautiful and just. So that is why we invented this particular notion of “god.”

      • Ed75

        An interesting idea, of course I see God as the source.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    So, you are saying that the brain makes all world news local and personal? If that were true then we should be more interconnected. Yet, cognitive biases makes the world as apart as ever.

    • http://www.jimdavies.org/ Jim Davies

      I would argue that we’re more interconnected than ever. Before mass media, we could not care for problems the world over. We might not care now as much as we should, but we have charities for faraway places, foreign aid, etc.

      • Expanded_Consciousness

        This book and others argues it is not so simple and that technology may be exasperating, not reducing, out sectarian inclinations:

        REWIRE: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media


        “In Rewire, media scholar and activist Ethan Zuckerman explains why the technological ability to communicate with someone does not inevitably lead to increased human connection. At the most basic level, our human tendency to “flock together” means that most of our interactions, online or off, are with a small set of people with whom we have much in common. In examining this fundamental tendency, Zuckerman draws on his own work as well as the latest research in psychology and sociology to consider technology’s role in disconnecting ourselves from the rest of the world.”

        • miguelgarza

          Read The Axemaker’s Gift (Burke, Ornstein) or Humanity on a Tightrope (Ehrlich, Ornstein).

  • Chris

    If explaining things makes them less beautiful, then how come other research suggests that knowing more (or at least having a narrative) about your wine enhances your enjoyment of it?

    If Davies is right, then moral critics of science and naturalism are right: it leads to world disenchantment.

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      Yes. A real distinction needs to be made about explaining away and the enhancement of explanations. You explain your trauma and feel relief and move on. You explain the arts, wine, your love for a lover more fully and you do not move on and fall out of love, rather you feel more powerful toward, invested in and in love with those things.

      • http://www.jimdavies.org/ Jim Davies

        The research I’m familiar with suggests that explanations reduce the affective intensity. So explaining why you liked a cupcake makes the liking less, and explaining why you were traumatized makes the trauma less. Explaining why you love someone does not make you fall out of love, but it might reduce the emotional feeling somewhat. I don’t know of any research on that in particular. Chris, can you point me to the wine study?

        • Expanded_Consciousness

          So, all the love poetry and novels ever written and explaining love has reduced the amount of love in the world? No. It has increased it? The intellectual-emotions dichotomy is a false split. It is not always an either-or proposition. Do literary, film, history professors love their object of study less after intellectually analyzing it for years? No. More.

          “Explaining why you love someone does not make you fall out of love, but it might reduce the emotional feeling somewhat.”

          This is a poor use of the word “explaining.” You need to make the distinction between emotional-cognitive explanations that triggers the emotions and cognitive explanations that disassociate from the emotions or dismantle the emotions (trauma).

          The psychoanalysts speak of intellectualization. Focusing on the intellectual as a defense against experiencing the emotions.

          Intellectual explanations may reduce the emotions (as in trauma). Emotional-cognitive explanations can increase or decrease the emotions the emotions.

          More distinctions and less blanket statements would be better.

          • miguelgarza

            Saying that novels and poetry about love “explain” love is a bit of a stretch. I think it’s clear enough from the author’s comment that when he says “explaining why you love someone” he’s likely referring to a scientific or emotionally cool deconstruction of love. Novels and poems on the other hand are going to be less analytical. I think this is even discussed at at least one point in the show, such as when he talks about religious texts, and how they must be sufficiently subjective or imprecise to properly inspire interpretation and identification. This same idea could be applied to texts about love that, as you say, increase love.

          • Expanded_Consciousness

            It is the opposite. Talking about biochemicals is just talking about biochemicals. Poetry and novels explain love. Poetry and novels address the level where life is lived. The biological level just explains the biological level. The biological level cannot provide a comprehensive explanation of a lived phenomena. That sort of reductionism doesn’t wash.

            No matter. Talking intellectually reduces emotion. That is the big insight here? That is no news.

          • miguelgarza

            You’ve “reduced” the scope of the show to reductionism, but it certainly wasn’t reductionist itself.

            I’d say anything that isn’t fully understood by the person or group of persons receiving the information is “news” to that person or group.

          • Expanded_Consciousness

            Evolutionary psychology is often criticized as reductionist:

            “Many philosophers have criticized evolutionary psychology. Most of these critics are philosophers of biology who argue that the research tradition suffers from an overly zealous form of adaptationism (Griffiths 1996; Richardson 1996; Grantham and Nichols 1999; Lloyd 1999; Richardson 2007), an untenable reductionism (Dupre 1999; Dupre 2001), a “bad empirical bet” about modules (Sterelny 1995; Sterelny and Griffiths 1999; Sterelny 2003), a fast and loose conception of fitness (Lloyd 1999; Lloyd and Feldman 2002); and most of the above and much more (Buller 2005) (cf. Downes 2005).[6]”


          • miguelgarza

            Okay, so you don’t like evolutionary psychology. And other people don’t either. Of course lots of people do like evolutionary psychology as well. At least it’s clear what standpoint you are coming from now. But neither the disliking nor liking of evolutionary psychology proves or disproves that it’s reductionist.

            Also I’m not sure that Jim Davies is coming from a purely evolutionary psychology standpoint? And is there a single, unitary evolutionary psychology standpoint which can be labeled as reductionist? I’m reading a Steven Pinker book at the moment in which he identifies two poles of a spectrum of ideas on which evolutionary psychologists identify themselves with regards to the question of how much “innate cognitive equipment” people are born with.

            Anyways, I’m purely an amateur reader of these topics, so I cannot (without a lot of time and effort) muster up quotes or references from multitudinous experts of the field, but I find Steven Pinker among others to present interesting, sensical ideas. He references Noam Chomsky as someone along the aforementioned pole. I think Noam Chomsky has a lot of good ideas too. Sorry if you disagree with them.

            I don’t see what’s reductionist about wondering about or exploring the brain functionality behind phenomena all, or most, people have experienced. Such as, yes, love, or fascination or being enthralled by music.

            Is it reductionist to recognize that without a brain, there is no “me”? To recognize that we are intrinsically linked to our corporeal presence? From this recognition we can go on to exploring the *ways* in which our bodies, our brains, and our experiences are intertwined. Which is what was done in this show. I would not call this reductionist. It is even, I would say, the same recognition Buddha had when he said there is no I, there is only a bundle of “skandhas” (various sorts of mental or emotional experiences), and that release of attachment to any of these as “I” results in enlightenment.

            What seems reductionist to me is saying that science cannot explain anything, while art explains everything.

          • Expanded_Consciousness

            Intertwined, yes. Nature and nurture levels both exist, and all levels deserve to be studied rigorously. The problem is that reductionist biological explanatory models severely restricts interpretations of behavior. What are to take from Davies’ “compelling foundations theory”? Our brains delight in finding patterns and we are fascinated with incongruities. He did not discover this. This was known already. He is offering it as the casual mechanism for everything. This is as limiting and restrictive a worldview as any other reductionist causal theory: saying that the desire for pleasure underlies everything, or that selfishness/greed underlies everything, or that god underlies everything.

            A multi-level, multi-discipinary approach would provide fuller explanations. Narrowing explanations down and concentrating on some basic innate brain mechanism to explain all outer behavior, means he is ignoring, suppressing, downplaying, and de-valuing other factors at play.

            “Critics argue that a reductionist analysis of the relationship between genes and behavior results in a flawed research program and a restricted interpretation of the evidence, creating problems for the creation of models attempting to explain behavior. Lewontin, Rose & Kamin instead advocate a dialectical interpretation of behavior in which “it is not just that wholes are more than the sum of their parts, it is that parts become qualitatively new by being parts of the whole.”


            The problem is that these are not just academic programs. They have real-world ethical and political ramifications. For intellectual reasons and for social reasons, broad sweeping fundamental causal claims should always be treated skeptically or just outright rejected.

            “Linguist and activist Noam Chomsky has said that evolutionary psychologists often ignore evidence that might harm the political status quo.”

            Political implications: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_evolutionary_psychology#Political_stance

            Ethical implications: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_evolutionary_psychology#Ethical_implications

          • miguelgarza

            That’s fine and all, although it seems a little here nor there (are you identifying Jim Davies as an evolutionary psychologist?). I don’t see where you are getting the “reductionist” charge from with regards to this show. Sorry.

          • http://www.jimdavies.org/ Jim Davies

            I didn’t intend to write an evolutionary theory of compellingness when I started research for the book, and certainly the book is full of stuff that is not evolutionary psychology. However, I found that that’s where the meat was. You can give cultural explanations for compellingness, but cultural explanations do not explain cross-cultural similarities, which is what I was interested in. So either you think that we like religion and art for completely different reasons, or the same reasons, but if those reasons do not have to do with evolution, then what kind of explanations would we want in place of them?

          • Expanded_Consciousness

            Evolution is not the ultimate explanation of all higher-level phenomena:

            “Yet, as Stephen Jay Gould emphasizes, natural selection is given too much explanatory work to do; it is best thought of as the first-among-equal forces at work in evolution. “Fundamentalists” such as Daniel Dennett distort the pluralist approach of most working biologists and of Charles Darwin [1809-1882] himself, by claiming exclusive explanatory efficacy for natural selection (see Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 229ff). As Gould reminds us, not every contingent property or cluster is an adaptation: “Reading and writing are now highly adaptive for humans, but the mental machinery for these . . . capacities must have originated as” by-products. They were “coopted later, for the brain reached its current size and conformation tens of thousands of years before any human invented reading or writing” (113-14).”


            Lower-level and higher-level accounts of human behavior are worth studying. The problem and danger is that reductionist or nativist theories oversimplify life and draw attention away from alternatives to reductionist or nativist theories.

            A “compelling foundations theory” does not explain and can not predict all higher-level behaviors (humour, celebrity fandom, religion, schizophrenia, conspiracy theories, placebo effect, etc.). A certain cognitive dynamics are innate to the brain (such as selecting information/finding patterns), but those cognitive dynamics are a trite, basic fact of life and not a unifying explanation of all behavior. It is not explanatorily crucial that humor and schizophrenia are both produced by human brains which, by definition, sort information and find patterns. It does not explain the phenomena of humor or schizophrenia, why humor arises in one instance and schizophrenia in another instance; nor does it lead to predictions of when humor or schizophrenia will occur:

            “Moreover, even if the aim is to explain a feature of a single organism—the situation considered above by Weber (2005)—it does not follow that an explanation should exclusively appeal to the factors on the lowest level. An explanation should only include factors that are explanatorily relevant; an irrelevant factor is one whose omission from (or modification in) the explanation does not prevent the explanandum from following (Strevens 2008).”


            The goal of reductionist theories is to eliminate other theories; replace psychology with biology or physics. This ignores that certain complex systems demonstrate emergent properties that are above and beyond the component pieces of the system:

            “Math is really logic. Logic is really philosophy. Philosophy is really psychology. Psychology is really biology. Biology is really Chemistry. Chemistry is really physics. Physics is really math.” —Ben Mordecai

            Also, one should not simply try to explain all mental states by one simple common denominator. In reality, a single mental state may have multiple physical causes:

            “Multiple Realization of Higher Level Features (Many-One)

            Apart from the one-many relation between molecular and higher level kinds, Hull (1972, 1974, 1976) also points to the existence of a many-one relation as a challenge for reductionism. This turns out to be a potential problem for both theory reduction and explanatory reduction (though to differing degrees).”

            A unified causal explanation of higher level phenomenon usually results in explanatory loss:

            “It does not follow that an explanation should exclusively appeal to the factors on the lowest level. An explanation should only include factors that are explanatorily relevant; an irrelevant factor is one whose omission from (or modification in) the explanation does not prevent the explanandum from following (Strevens 2008). ”

            “In summary, the level(s) of organization a successful explanation addresses often depends on the particular explanandum. If the aim is to explain a type of phenomenon, multiple realization issues (many-one) may arise. In the explanation of a token phenomenon, the explanation should include lower level factors only to the extent that they are explanatorily relevant for that particular explanandum.”

            Humans are not explained by reductionist theories. These grand theories are not only intellectual programs which are intrinsically flawed, but they are socially dangerous and give rise to biological determinism and fundamentalism:

            “[It is] difficult to conceptualize a single, adequate conception of reduction that will do justice to the diversity of phenomena and reasoning practices in the life sciences. The multiplicity and heterogeneity of biological subdisciplines only reinforces this argument and suggests to some that we should move beyond reductionism entirely.”

            Much better is the comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach. That is the wave of the future. Grand narrative theories and reductionist fundamentalism has seen its day:

            “One of the ubiquitous features of modern biology that seems prima facie incompatible with many methodological and epistemological reductionist theses is the proliferation and flourishing of diverse biological subdisciplines, molecular and otherwise. Despite the purported “hegemony of molecular biology” (Kitcher 1999a), biological subdisciplines focused on higher levels of organization have not disappeared. As Fodor (1997) has felicitously put it: “Special sciences: still autonomous after all these years”. For some time this feature of biological research, along with many of the problems associated with theoretical reduction (especially its inapplicability to scientific practice, but also the difficulties in identifying clear-cut and distinct “levels” to reductively relate), have prompted philosophers to reject “reduction” as the appropriate (or only) relation among concepts and explanations from different domains.[14] Instead, relations of coordination driven by a commitment to unifying, integrating, or synthesizing aspects of scientific knowledge have been offered (Bechtel and Hamilton 2007, Potochnik 2011).”

            “Lindley Darden and Nancy Maull were at the forefront of this discussion with the concept of aninter-field theory (Darden and Maull 1977, Maull 1977). For example, the advent of the chromosome theory of inheritance in the 1910s bridged the previously unrelated fields of Mendelian genetics (which studied phenotypic patterns of inheritance across generations) and cytology (which dealt with the material contents of cells). This interfield theory effected a unification of these two fields but Mendelian genetics and cytology were not reduced to each other, nor did the interfield theory reduce both fields. More recent work has articulated interfield relations without relying on the notion of a theory (Bechtel 1986, Burian 1993, Grantham 2004a, 2004b, Mitchell 2002). This parallels the trend in models of explanatory reduction of moving away from theories as the only epistemic units of interest (Section 3.2), but the emphasis is on relata such as coordination, integration, synthesis, or reciprocal interaction. A rationale for these relata emerges from the demand for multidisciplinary research; the explanatory task involves coordinating diverse epistemic resources, which amounts to an implicit rejection of the “fundamentality” of one particular discipline producing the most empirically adequate explanations.”


          • http://www.jimdavies.org/ Jim Davies

            We agree on so much! You say “Much better is the comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach.” That is exactly what my book is. I do not try to eliminate psychology theories in favor of biology or physics. My work draws on findings in philosophy, psychology, economics, biology, anthropology, computer science, and probably others–I would venture to say it’s the most interdisciplinary book ever written on the subject. I’m not trying to be reductionist in the sense you mean it, that is, to eliminate theories at higher levels of abstraction. (On the contrary, I give a whole lecture in one of my classes on why trying to do this is a bad idea.) My theory doesn’t explain everything, of course, no theory does; my hope is that it helps us understand the domain better as a part of scholarly progress on the subject.

          • http://www.jimdavies.org/ Jim Davies

            There is more to the foundations of compellingness theory than pattern and incongruity–there’s only so much time in the hour to talk about a 288-page book. But the book tries to put together all the relevant science there is about what we find compelling. Mostly I’m reporting on other people’s work, so in that sense it is not new. But yes, you could say that I’m trying to explain why all things are compelling with one theory with several elements (although a recent Wall Street Journal review thought it wasn’t reduced enough!) It’s not just pleasure, it’s not just self-interest. It’s complicated. Two of the chapters barely deserve to be chapters because they contain a huge range of characteristics that barely belong together. So I don’t think I’m oversimplifying. But it sounds like you’d be critical of any theory of compellingness in general because you’d find it limiting by its very nature of being a unifying theory. My theory might be wrong, but it’s not wrong simply because it tries to explain a large set of phenomena. You’re obviously interested in the subject matter. Please give the book a read and don’t dismiss the theory based on a radio interview.

          • Expanded_Consciousness

            I’ll check out the book. You participated in your own thread unlike most authors (although all should). Thanks for the office hours, professor.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    Why is a sports journalist in this discussion? We could have any number of academics from any number of disciplines making this discussion more interesting.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    When you see a film multiple times over the years, you see it from a different perspective. You have lived more and can reflect on the film in relation to your expanding store of experiences.

    Also, natural memory degrades and changes over time. Yet movies are away to see the same photographic frames over again. One does not have to question one’s memory. *The Wizard of Oz* now is the same exact film as when you saw it as a kid.

  • Jasoturner

    If something is riveting, or compelling as the caller just said, it is almost certainly novel in some way. A breathtaking sunset is breathtaking because it is so unlike the common sunset. The world cup is fascinating because national teams playing knockout soccer with a unique blend of players is so rare. One’s first trip to Europe or Asia is absolutely compelling because of all the subtle cues that are just different enough to created a mysterious near-familiarity that is difficult to articulate and hard to get enough of.

    I would argue that fascination with celebrities, for example, is not truly riveting or compelling, but distracting – an effort to avoid novelty and retreat into a realm of the familiar, in which occasional diverting amusements can be found.

    This qualitative difference would seem to be linked to the extent that one extracts meaning or knowledge from an experience.

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      Yes, compelled by the new and novel versus compelled by the safety of the same old conformist views is crucial politically. Reactionary traditional politics and religion has destroyed and continues to destroy the world.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    How to return people to nature? Take away their technology. That ain’t going to happen, although environmental awareness is crucial for the survival of humans.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    I appreciate Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov and I have read them all in English translation.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    One again, the comments section discussion is more interesting and thorough than the on-air discussion.

    • miguelgarza

      Come on, don’t be dismissive. The show was awesome, the author’s examples were “on point,” and the discussion of what makes us tick completely relevant.

  • nj_v2

    Is riveting even a defined term among the cognitive research crowd? I listened to the show intermittently, but i don’t think i heard a precise definition.

    Is there a continuum of attention paid? Glance > cursory > momentary > lingering > extended > mesmorized…

    Where does “riveted” fit?

    • http://www.jimdavies.org/ Jim Davies

      “Riveting” is not a scientific term. The subject matter of the book is not precisely define, but it has to do with what we find important, beautiful, or attracts our attention. “Riveted” is in the title, but I use “compellingness” in the text. That is also not a scientific term, because as far as I can tell, nobody’s tried to study compellingness across multiple art forms, religions, etc.

  • http://www.jimdavies.org/ Jim Davies

    If you know of work that addresses these same problems, please point me to them. I do not know of previous work that tries to understand both art and religion, for example, using the same principles.

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      I think cognitive science (especially through revealing hard-wired cognitive biases has something to add), but there have been works in the humanities that have theorized on the underlying similarities and mechanisms that intertwine art and religion,

      • http://www.jimdavies.org/ Jim Davies

        That we go for art and religion for the same reasons? Please point me to some books.

        • Expanded_Consciousness

          We turn to art and religion for explanation, beauty, to deflect pain and disappointment. That they are both substitute satisfactions has been written about to death.

          Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art, By Julian Young


          “Mark Edmundson comments that in writing Moses and Monotheism, Freud, while not abandoning his atheism, perceived for the first time a value in the abstract form of monotheism—the worship of an invisible God, without Jesus or saints—practiced by the Jews.”:

          ‘So the mental labor of monotheism prepared the Jews — as it would eventually prepare others in the West — to achieve distinction in law, in mathematics, in science and in literary art. It gave them an advantage in all activities that involved making an abstract model of experience, in words or numbers or lines, and working with the abstraction to achieve control over nature or to bring humane order to life. Freud calls this internalizing process an “advance in intellectuality,” and he credits it directly to religion.’”


          • http://www.jimdavies.org/ Jim Davies

            Cool! Thanks!

          • miguelgarza

            Jim, check out any book by Idries Shah. He doesn’t address this topic in quite the same way but I do think he covers it–what are the sources of our predilections. Loved the show, your book sounds awesome and I’m going to check it out. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about one thing you brought up, the brain making no distinction between “real” and “simulated” inputs–I think it makes not distinction because ultimately our brain is a “simulator”–it takes inputs from the senses and then creates from those inputs an interpreted reality. I keep thinking back to the short story by Philip K. Dick about the guy who discovers he has a running tape in his chest that feeds him his reality, and that what seems to him to be “out there” is actually “in there”…

          • Expanded_Consciousness

            If we didn’t make a distinction, why don’t we run out of the movie theater?

          • miguelgarza

            Well, these are different “parts” of our brain. In the case of the movie theater it’s on the emotional level that we make no distinction but of course another part of our brain is able to discern the difference. Of course children for example are less able to make this distinction.

            Another example I think of how we do not distinguish between real and simulated is porn or erotica. People *know* it’s a movie or picture or whatnot, but it still arouses.

            Any book, any movie, any story is another example. By engaging with it, by watching or reading it, it activates the simulation of itself in our brains and we experience it, I would argue in much the same way as we experience actual people, actual interactions and experiences.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    I think they develop an intense investment in their fandom, but that there is no reason to call it “religious.” Religion is just one example of intense investment or fandom.

    Some last because they they trigger and provide fans with superior narcissistic rewards or continue to have social relevance. It has to do with their content and the dynamics in the surrounding culture. The fact that Hollywood makes remakes and reboots and turns these films into francises helps too.

  • Max Entropy

    My wife and I tend to agree about which news stories matter. But her view is that that to be worthy of attention, events need to impact our family pretty directly. OTOH, I get sucked into events that I sense can ricochet across the globe to affect us in unanticipated, unpredictable, and consequential ways, But one thing we always agree on is our bafflement about endemic celebrity worship and sports fanaticism. Like we don’t understand what Kim K says, does, or wears, or what A-Rod’s legal issues have to do with our lives or the general welfare.

    Jim’s facile explanation of why people get all wrapped up in some celebrity’s tribulations fails to satisfy me. I do not understand why such trivia so compels so many people (who are they? What are their priorities?) or has any survival advantage for our species. It seems like a manufactured distraction from what shit is going down that actually matters to large numbers of people.

    Regardless, if Jim’s book – as limited as it is – can help people stop letting themselves be distracted from real serious – even existential – challenges in front of them, then I say “read it and talk about it.”

  • ExcellentNews

    Interesting book and show. I wonder whether we have been able to unravel some of the underlying neural morphology and correlate it “what’s riveting”. For instance, is the same neural circuitry active when we are fascinated by Kim Kardashian’s antics versus when we are fascinated by an intricate electronics assembly? Or are there distinct centers that focus on social patterns, spatial patterns, novel elements…etc that compete for a central “attention processor”?

Sep 17, 2014
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson watches from the sidelines against the Oakland Raiders during the second half of a preseason NFL football game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. (AP/Ann Heisenfelt)

The NFL’s Adrian Peterson and the emotional debate underway about how far is too far to go when it comes to disciplining children.

Sep 17, 2014
Bob Dylan and Victor Maymudes at "The Castle" in LA before the 1965 world tour. Lisa Law/The Archive Agency)

A new take on the life and music of Bob Dylan, from way inside the Dylan story. “Another Side of Bob Dylan.”

Sep 16, 2014
From "Rich Hill"

“Rich Hill,” a new documentary on growing up poor, now, in rural America. The dreams and the desperation.

Sep 16, 2014
Jasmin Torres helps classmate Brianna Rameles with a worksheet at the Diloreto Magnet School in New Britain, Conn., Wednesday Feb. 22, 2012. (AP/Charles Krupa)

More parents are “red-shirting” their children in kindergarten—holding them back for a year, hoping they’ll have an edge. Does it work? We look.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Our Week In The Web: September 12, 2014
Friday, Sep 12, 2014

In which you had varied reactions to the prospect of a robotic spouse.

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Beverly Gooden on #WhyIStayed
Friday, Sep 12, 2014

Beverly Gooden — who originated the #WhyIStayed hashtag that has taken off across Twitter — joined us today for our discussion on domestic violence.

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Tierney Sutton Plays LIVE For On Point
Friday, Sep 5, 2014

We break out Tierney Sutton’s three beautiful live tracks from our broadcast today for your listening pleasure.

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