How does one remember how to think?
July 31, 2006 1:09 PM   Subscribe

How does one go about "remembering how to think"? A good friend recently mentioned to me that she no longer has any motivation to think deeply about anything, be it religion, philosophy, or even which side of her toast to butter. Help me kick-start her curiosity by suggesting films and books.

We haven't seen each other in years, but we spent a week doing nothing but talking about all sorts of "deep" subjects. We discussed some concepts in theoretical physics (such as the string theory), religion (what is God?), philosophy (existentialism), and art.

I'm trying to suggest some movies, books, podcasts for her to digest in hopes that they'll motivate her to get back into it. I've come up with a few good ones (such as some Richard Linkletter films), but I'm curious to know what else might be helpful.

(As an aside, there is some medication involved, but adjusting it really isn't an option)
posted by thewhitenoise to Religion & Philosophy (28 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
For myself, the items in my life which have been most thought-provoking have been almost exclusively 'events' - deaths, births, long journeys, difficult transitions, recreational pharmacology, etc.

Books (and films to a much lesser extent) have served to refine/reinforce/reexperience these, but almost all of my philosophy has sprung from 'doing'.
posted by unixrat at 1:22 PM on July 31, 2006

Sartre's The Wall might be good if she enjoyed talking about existentialism. The characters are compelling and I often find myself thinking about (and conflicted about) their actions.

Plus, it's only 150 pages or so and in a short story format. So not much motivation is necessary.
posted by jmgorman at 1:23 PM on July 31, 2006 [2 favorites]

Encourage her to teach something. Local extension colleges are a good pick. She could also volunteer in schools. Or tutor ESL as a volunteer.

Really, any kind of project is a good excuse for thought. Building a small outbuilding can be a subject of meditation. Planning a garden, doing some community work. A meaningful outlet, a project to consider, is more likely to get the brain forming a complete circuit than a book or movie.

Also, over time the notion of "deep" can change. I have less interest in the purely philosophical over time and more interest in the thoughts around the immediate circumstance: this place, these people. Partly this is a function of getting away from school, which promotes the idea of the abstract mind with no location.
posted by argybarg at 1:27 PM on July 31, 2006

You're asking for media, and I'm sure I (and many other folks here) can deliver. I'll offer suggestions in a sec. First though, I'd like to tackle "motivation." Perhaps she already is motivated to think deep thoughts, but needs tools to help her. That sort of sounds like what you're saying. If so, I'm way too hung up on the word "motivation," but in case it's important, I'll flog it a little longer.

It's SO hard to motivate someone -- one oneself. If she has no motivation at all, then she probably won't do it. If she has some motivation, she might be able to push it or play it up.

I'm a thinker (not necessarily super-smart, but I love ideas), and my motivation is usually wanting to know something. I rarely set out to Think Deep Thoughts. I just get curious about something, research it, and as I dig deeper and deeper, so go my thoughts. At the base of all this is my hatered of mysteries. I MUST know and I MUST understand. A long time ago, I decided the world was explicable, and if you dig long enough, you WILL find the answer to any question (which is why I love AskMe). I doubt I'm right about this. I suspect there are unanswerable questions. But my working assumption is that their aren't. I will answer any question or die trying. Of course, if your friend doesn't have any curiousity, this won't work.

Besides WANTING to know the answer to a question, I can only think of two other motivators:

1) NEEDING to know anwsers (e.g. for a job). We can probably count that one out.

2) A desire to keep up with the Intellectual Joneses. There are tons of people who want to SEEM smart -- not BE smart. I'm not judging them. And I'm sure there are plenty of people who want both. But I bring this up, because there are different tactics for seeming and being. If you want to seem smart, you just need to learn how to "name-drop." Throw a few big words and names of Philosophers into your conversation, and you're good to go.

I totally confused BEING and SEEMING in college. I wanted to BE. Most of my friends wanted to SEEM. They wanted to smart-SOUNDING banter, but if anyone (usually me) tried to steer the conversation into really deep waters, they would get fed up fast. I was confused, because I thought we wanted the same thing. Why would someone who wanted depth bale when the conversation became really deep?

In my opinion, some of these recent "head-game" movies, like "Waking Life," are for SEEMERS, not BEers. But others here may disagree.

Anyway, here are some recommendations:

"My Dinner with Andre"
"Match Point"
"Fanny and Alexander"
"Citizen Kane"
"Barry Lyndon"

"The Mind's I"
"Goedel, Escher, Bach"
"Hackers and Painters"
"How Children Fail"
"The Blind Watchmaker"
"The User Illusion"
"How the Mind Works"

"In Our Time"
posted by grumblebee at 1:37 PM on July 31, 2006 [2 favorites]

Is there any possibility of being able to escort her somewhere? An afternoon visit or two to a museum, art gallery, or art-house movie would go a long way toward reviving her spirit.

While I like the media idea, I wonder if she's fallen so deeply into ennui that making the effort to read or watch them would be too much within the context of her usual surroundings. I think they would be most effective as a follow-up to an excursion.
posted by jamaro at 1:41 PM on July 31, 2006

Response by poster: Great suggestions so far, just wanted to clarify some things.

By "lacking motivation", I don't mean she doesn't want to, she just can't seem to get into it. I suspect it has something to do with a medication issue, as she has a desire to talk about it and read about it. There's just some sort of mental block. I guess it's more of an apathy.

The excursion option isn't viable, at least for a month or so (she lives 300+ miles away), but it's something I've definitely considered.
posted by thewhitenoise at 1:56 PM on July 31, 2006

The Alchemist

While not exactly "deep" in the conventional short-history-of-time way, it is a really wonderful book that touches on a real, intimate aspect of life.

Many love it, many hate it, so it's worth a shot.
posted by milarepa at 1:59 PM on July 31, 2006

I've found that (at least for me) reading Feynman can really reignite interest in learning/philosophy. He's a guy who had a lot of rough edges to his personality, but there's no question that he loved learning about everything. I'd suggest The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.
posted by Humanzee at 2:11 PM on July 31, 2006

It wasn't a book or a movie that kick-started her new spirit of inquiry. It was you who provided that impetus. I suspect that it will take a similar relationship (or relationships) to maintain this.

Is there a way she could connect with other people like you who are geographically closer?
posted by jason's_planet at 2:27 PM on July 31, 2006

Lacking any motivation to think sounds a lot like the US President. Obviously, AskMe attracts people like us, grumblebee -- people who are curious, and motivated to find answers to our questions. But if the last six years have taught us anything, it's that, hard as it is for to understand, there's people who are not curious. And shockingly, we learn in this thread that sometimes, "unadjustable medication" is involved. So I agree with unixrat -- there's nothing to be done about this, but a death in the family might shake her up. She'd watch movies, perhaps, but I'd guess any thought-provoking books would go unread.
posted by Rash at 2:30 PM on July 31, 2006

It sounds to me like a concentration problem more than anything else. Maybe she might have a look at these threads?

In any event, I suggest that she take up reading novels. It's enjoyable and provides a little bit of a mental workout that will enable her to move on to mixing in a bit of non-fiction if she wants to.
posted by teleskiving at 3:19 PM on July 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

Frontline always provokes me, scares me shitless, makes me think. And if your friend has pretty good internet connection, she can stream it from the web.
For a profound change of perspective, I like to listen to Joe Frank.
posted by Sara Anne at 3:30 PM on July 31, 2006

posted by Sara Anne at 3:32 PM on July 31, 2006

Movies that made me think or which knocked me into an interesting philosophical plane:

Faraway So Close (Wim Wenders)
Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
A.I. (Spielberg. What does it mean to be human?)
Fight Club (Indirectly. Loosened the bonds.)
Forrest Gump (No really!)
Contact (Science meets God)

The Power of Myth - Bill Moyers with Joseph Campbell. This was huuuuge on the thinky landscape. Ostensibly about myth, it winds up being about the Really Big Questions.
posted by kookoobirdz at 3:38 PM on July 31, 2006

Try the British podcast "Start the Week", available via iTunes.
posted by hazelshade at 3:50 PM on July 31, 2006

Best answer: The way I figure, best to blend an aesthetic inroad with critical material, to give a basis for diving back into the critical/analytic language of Those Bloody Scholars With Their Odd Hats.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud is a comic book about the aesthetics of comic books. It is also - and I say this as a battered and bruised former Media Studies grad student type - one of the finest pieces of media/critical theory I've ever read. Funny, engaging, in places jaw-dropping, highly informative, and overflowing with passion and intuitive pedagogy. It sneaks its scholarly work in while entertaining.

Skip goddamn Waking Life, which is a poser film that could've been written by a stoned graduate student in a long weekend. Though A Scanner Darkly is similar and entertaining, and can push toward some of Philip K. Dick's open-ended craziness.

I second Godel, Escher, Bach, though a non-math type might miss some of its elegance. (Remarkable, passionate book but more burdensome than its reputation suggests.)

Reading some Shakespeare might bathe some long-neglected neurons a bit. Getting into the line-to-line rhythm of his speech, feeling out the repeated structures and tropes and dramatic setups of his work at a larger scale...It's a nice way to learn a semi-new language, work the mind that way. And the huge body of scholarly literature might be a way of working into that kind of reading as well.

Ulysses has the same effect for me but a potentially nastier pleasure/learning curve, mainly on the last half-dozen or so chapters, their beauty aside. For shits and giggles: break out the Annotations and just muddle through Finnegans Wake. Anthony Burgess's book on Joyce, Re Joyce, would be a nice companion to either.

OK I take it all back: here's the book I'd give someone wanting to think about The Big Questions without taking a goddamn seminar:

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. There isn't much scholarship on it, but (David?) Cowart's excellent essay is online and entertaining. The book is hard for about five or ten pages, and then transporting, gorgeous, a fully-developed world rendered in a language unique to the novel and moving/creepy/complex as hell. It's essentially a fable, but what a fable.
posted by waxbanks at 3:56 PM on July 31, 2006

Oh, screw all that crap! The hell with thinking; What about feeling? Book a room someplace and get it on! :-) :-) :-) !!!
posted by sgobbare at 5:00 PM on July 31, 2006

Ideas on CBC Radio 1 might be a good suggestion - they'll usually pick pretty interesting subjects for one-hour radio documentaries. Subjects have ranged from the Cathars to virtuality to philosophies of pain to someone's doc they did on their experience being in a coma.

Usually thought provoking, passive (one can listen while doing dishes or whatever) and the voices are soooothing :)

Oh, and they do webcasts.
posted by poweredbybeard at 5:09 PM on July 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oops, here's a link to the Ideas main site, which includes a "listen to CBC online" link on the right. 9pm EST.
posted by poweredbybeard at 5:12 PM on July 31, 2006

You mentioned that her "mental block" to thinking deeply might be related to medication. I had the same experience that you are describing when I was undergoing withdrawal from a certain set of meds...twice. The two experiences were three years apart. For me (and I cannot speak for her), there was definitely something going on with my biochemistry.

Without going into details, and if it helps, I have been treated for chronic depression and an anxiety disorder, along with a thyroid problem. The meds were related to those three things.

At the time, this was very frustrating because I was adjunct faculty at two universities. My job REQUIRED that I be able to "think deeply" and track with the thinking of others. One of the courses I was teaching was an particularly complex course related to Educational Philosophy and used texts from Plato and Descartes. I really struggled with teaching during those two semesters.

What seemed to help jumpstart my brain at the time was involvement in things that were more tangible and sensory. Personally, I needed a physical anchor. This was difficult in the philosophy course. I carried a very soft and fluffy Koosh ball to class and would play with it while I was talking or listening. This helped a little bit.

Around other topics unrelated to my teaching, I had the least frustrating times at museums or out sailing or listening to music, etc. When the topic of conversation was related to something sensory (I could see/hear/smell/taste/touch something related to the topic), I had an easier time. I still struggled and I wasn't my old self, but my spouse noticed that I was having an easier time tracking and seemed more engaged.

This could have nothing to do with your friend. But since you mentioned meds, well, I thought I would throw it out there.
posted by jeanmari at 5:51 PM on July 31, 2006

For podcasts, I second Ideas and In Our Time, and in the same vein I would recommend the podcast lectures on Princeton's University Channel.

For thoughtful and thought-provoking films, try anything by Ingmar Bergman.

But I also agree with those who have said that what your friend likely needs is not only the raw material of reflection (which can be just about anything), but an engaging and interested conversational partner.
posted by Urban Hermit at 6:03 PM on July 31, 2006

While I agree that Waking Life unfortunately succumbs to metaphysical explanations all too quickly, I take issue with these allegations, waxbanks.

What the !(#@ Do We Know is such a movie. Waking Life is not--if you can actually follow the characters' monologues, they lightly touch on various subjects. Unfortunately I see them continually falling short of a real conclusion or not realising that they're fabricating false dichotomies, but it's interesting nonetheless. It's at a fast pace, but only because any more detailed explanation would make the movie 4 hours long.

I'm very interested in language and the role of humanity. As I said, Waking Life is more like getting your feet wet, but it's hardly stoner material. One thing is saying "What are words?" after a blunt, and another is actually trying to analyze how and/or why or simply posing the question: 'how can we understand abstract concepts?'
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 6:43 PM on July 31, 2006

Have you considered live theater? Plays, I mean. If she's near good live theater, that could be something new to try.
posted by amtho at 7:40 PM on July 31, 2006

It is, alas, next to impossible to get ahold of, but James Burke's PBS series Connections would be absolutely excellent for this.
posted by baylink at 8:49 PM on July 31, 2006

Why in the world would you want anyone to think deeper? If you think enough you won't know anything. The world is very shallow. What people think is deep is really just piling one thought on top of another. You might want to ask her to teach you how to stop thinking so much, or at least get her secret and post it here. The cure for deep thinking would be a Godsent.
posted by zackdog at 12:09 AM on August 1, 2006

It is, alas, next to impossible to get ahold of, but James Burke's PBS series Connections would be absolutely excellent for this.

Netflix has it!
posted by grumblebee at 6:56 AM on August 1, 2006

Why in the world would you want anyone to think deeper? If you think enough you won't know anything. The world is very shallow. What people think is deep is really just piling one thought on top of another.

zackdog, I'm sorry you feel this way, but I have no idea what you mean by "the world is very shallow." Do you mean that people are often shallow? People are not "the world."

I disagree that deep thinking is just a big stack of shallow thinking. I both shallow and deep-think all the time, and I'm sure they are very different.

Shallow thoughts are generally about transient information. For example, "What's on TV right now?" or "That girl sure is pretty." These thoughts don't penetrate beyond the here-and-now, and if they're questions (like the TV example), they are easily answered -- and once answered, they are easily shelved.

Deep thoughts are about looking under-the-hood. They are the by WHYs and HOWs. Why is there something instead of nothing? Why are people cruel to each other? Why do people cooperate? How does the universe work? Etc. These AREN'T ephemeral, and they aren't easily shelved. If answered, they tend to lead to other questions.

(The are also in-between thoughts/questions, like how does a car work; how do you program a computer; how do you make a really good chocolate cake? To me, these are great fun.)

I'm not sure why asking such questions is a negative thing for you. Doing so brings ME great joy. But I don't see how asking questions is good or bad. It's a neutral activity, which one person might enjoy and another might loath.

I can connect to your feelings in that I have terrible, rushing thoughts. I lay awake at night, thinking -- unable to sleep. But these thoughts are of a different kind: they are worries. Will I lose my job, etc. They are pretty shallow, and I can sometimes get rid of them by thinking fun deep thoughts instead.
posted by grumblebee at 7:06 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Keep her away from Ike Turner's Womans Be Thinkin too Much.
posted by neuron at 12:54 PM on August 1, 2006

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