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Monthly Archives: July 2012

Shit, Jonah Lehrer just spontaneously combusted!

One of the non-fiction writers of my generation who I most admire / envy / emulate – Jonah Lehrer – has just performed one of the steepest plummets from grace I’ve ever seen. At 31, Lehrer had already authored three best sellers: Why Proust Was a Neuroscientist, How We Decide, and Imagine, which came out in May 2012, the same month as my book. I watched in awe as Jonah appeared on all the major book promotion stops, from Start the Week to the RSA. Hell, he was even on the Colbert Report. He also had a column in the New Yorker, and did 30-40 speaking gigs a year, for which he was paid, I don’t know, maybe $15,000 a talk?

He basically had my dream job. And he also wrote really well, so I didn’t grudge him his success (well…not much). I read and thoroughly enjoyed Why Proust Was A Neuroscientist, and it was a major influence on my own book, in its clean and strong structure,  its weaving together of scientific evidence and personal stories, its vision that the sciences and the humanities could and should be brought together.

So it’s saddening, and also frightening, to see his fall. It started with reports that he had self-plagiarised himself, using lines from one article again in another article, and also using stuff from his blog in his books. My feelings about that were, OK, I can understand that its wrong to sell the same stuff twice. But so what if he used stuff from his blog in his book – my God, 60% of my book is from my blog. That’s like reprimanding a painter for copying stuff from his sketchbook. The whole point of a blog, for me, is that you sketch stuff out and learn how to say what you want well. And when you’ve said something exactly as you want to say it, it’s not surprising if you then re-use that phrasing in a book.

The new revelations, however, suggest he made up and doctored quite a lot of quotes by Bob Dylan, in his new book Imagine. It’s a bizarre thing to have done, because everyone knows that Dylan fans are complete obsessives and he was going to get busted. Particularly as the Dylan story was the one he told over and over in talks and magazine excerpts. Now, alas, he has resigned from the New Yorker, and his publishers have stopped shipping Imagine, which is a shock as Lehrer must have been paid a socking great advance by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US and Canongate in the UK (I’m guessing over half a million dollars). In fact, they’re even offering refunds to the 200,000 people who have already bought the book, which seems like overkill to me.

It reminds me of the line of the Greeks (Solon? Aeschylus? Aristotle?) – call no man happy until they’re dead. By which they meant not that happiness is a cold grave, but that there are so many ups and downs in life that you never know how things will turn out. Sometimes great success like Lehrer’s is not all it’s cracked up to be. Would he really have made up quotes, if he wasn’t under extreme pressure to produce another best-seller to support all the hype?

There was a bubble in non-fiction popular psychology…perhaps a bubble in psychology in general, that built up over the last fifteen years, thanks in particular to the incredible success of Malcolm Gladwell, Lehrer’s mentor. His popularity helped stoke a massive public demand for for popular science books that neatly encapsulated some funky idea (Blink, Flourish, Bounce, Moonwalking with Einstein, you get the picture). But the market success obviously led to pressure to condense everything down into tidy TED-friendly ten minute info-bites, which in turn created pressure to simplify and (on some occasions) falsify. And it even turns out that some of the psychology studies of the last ten years were also falsified. So the pop-psych bubble seems to be bursting, somewhat.

Well, I’m sorry for Lehrer, it must be really vertiginous to rise so quickly then fall so quickly. He really is a genuinely talented writer, you can’t fake that. And I don’t know about Imagine or How We Decide, but Why Proust Was A Neuroscientist was simply a great book, which will last. Unfortunately its success, and the timing of it, meant there was too much hype put on him, too young. I wouldn’t wish that sort of success on anyone.

Meet the psychologist behind Team GB’s cycling success

My city hosts the Olympics today, and I feel a bit anxious – like when you hear guests buzzing on the door bell, the house is a mess, and you’ve just had a raging argument with your wife. Well, I am very proud to be British, and proud to be a Londoner. I hope the games go really well and my fellow Londoners aren’t too grumpy to the tourists.

Dr Steve Peters, psychologist to the British cycling team

This evening, bicycling gold medalist Chris Hoy will carry out the UK flag in the opening ceremony. He said: ‘I never dreamed I would carry the British flag…so this is a dream come true’, which is a nice if illogical way of putting it. Earlier this week, meanwhile, Bradley Wiggins became the first Brit to win the Tour de France. Why are the British so good at cycling at the moment? One answer might be the sports psychologist that Bradley,  Chris and fellow gold medalist Victoria Pendleton all work with: Dr Steve Peters.

Steve teaches sportsmen and sportswomen how to ‘keep the chimp in the cage’ as Wiggins put it after winning the Tour. In other words, how to use your logic and reason to keep your emotions in check, not get overwhelmed, and be icy cool both in triumph and defeat. Stoicism, basically! Here’s an interview with Steve from Cycling Magazine. His book, The Chimp Paradox, is published by my publisher – I’m going to try and get him to talk to the London Philosophy Club.

Philosophy Now magazine has a cover story by Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, Oxford University’s two mad philosophers,  on the need for humans to use drugs and technology to ‘morally enhance’ ourselves and save ourselves from extinction. It’s an excerpt from their upcoming book, Unfit for the Future: The Urgent Need for Moral Enhancement. Do they really think that giving an entire country (or even the entire world) a daily dose of smart-drug Modafinil is (a) practical and (b) going to help prevent climate change? Apparently they do. They must be on some excellent drugs themselves. Meanwhile, Nature magazine wonders how much we could actually enhance human physical performance if we didn’t care about the ethics of doping.

Talking of superhumans, check out this wonderful short video from Channel 4 promoting the Paralympics, called ‘Meet the Superhumans’. Now that is what I call moral enhancement.

My favourite superhuman is David Lynch. Here, he talks about how meditation helps enhance his imagination and creativity, how it helped him unlock the secret to Mulholland Drive..and there’s also a wonderful story about how he uses random accidents to unlock creativity.

Two stories showing how humans copy ‘cultural scripts’ which they find in the arts, and how this can lead them to the most altruistic and the most destructive behaviour. Firstly, philosopher and social historian Roman Krznaric writes about the extraordinary influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and how it helped expand the sympathetic imagination of white Americans. Secondly, Australian psychologist Paul Mullen talks about how the phenomenon of the ‘lone gunman’ is a recent cultural invention which has fed off cinematic portrayals of itself like, alas, the Dark Knight.

On cafe philosophy, here’s a New Statesman write-up of a 24-hour Zizekathon at Cafe Oto in Dalston, featuring the man himself.  And here’s a piece on philosophy clubs in La Reppublica (in Italian).

A rabbi and a philosopher walk into a lift. OK, not really. But I did get into a sort of debate with the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, about Stoicism as a way of life. He wrote this column in the Huff Post about my book and why he was never attracted to Stoicism. And I responded in this column.

Finally, here’s culture MP Jeremy Hunt celebrating the start of the Olympics by hitting a woman with his bell-end.

See you next week,


PS Thanks to everyone who has bought and helped to promote the book – it’s done really well so far, the second edition has gone to print in the UK, and we’re now preparing the third edition. So far there are 15 reviews on Amazon, and it’s got an average rating of 4.8 stars. If anyone else wants to leave a review, it really helps.