TED Conversations

David Levine

Research Scientist, University of Tennessee


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What book have you read that everyone should read and why?

Many books have a profound effect on us and stay with us for the rest of our lives. Help us all to discover this new gem that we may not have found!

For example "The Giving Tree" for its lessons on unconditional love and selflessness

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    Jan 10 2014: Doc I am a old guy and read a lot about everything. Not long ago a TED member, Pat Gilbert, hosted a conversation on Lincoln. He posed some questions and the conversation grew rather large and people did not want to see Lincoln in any light other than what Mrs Mary Jane elementary school taught them. Books reflect the thought and biases of the writer. Because of the conversation I dug into Lincoln and his papers, life, law practices, financial dealings, and much about the civil war.

    Although it completely changed the way I see Lincoln .. I found that my research into the subject was more satisfying than any book published on him.

    It also taught me that when faced with the facts most people will defend the version of what they believe.

    I like writers like Dan Brown. You do not have to believe the story line of the di Vinci Code but go along for the ride through the world of art, mathematics, and history. I challenge him often and found that he did his home work on the facts.

    So here is my point ... took me a while to get there .... read and enjoy anything and everything but remember it is the author driving the train ... when your done look up the points of interest ... by keeping a open and active mind you will open up a whole new world of adventure, art and travel.

    We should do our own research in all things ... religion, politics, finance, etc ... otherwise your just another sheep in the pasture.

    Thanks for letting me share with you. Bob.
    • Jan 10 2014: Bob,

      Books are just arrangements of stuff readers use to create/recreate thoughts, to actually get the writer's thoughts and biases from the book one has to decode the material just as the writer would. Most cases the reader just thinks they decode the material just as the writer would, though often the reading involves 'distortions' the reader introduces without being aware of it. I agree with the claim that "when faced with the facts most people will defend the version of what they believe". I also concur "read and enjoy anything and everything" just remember that the reader is driving the vehicle and some can take it off road especially when they got the gift of dyslexia :-) Indeed "keeping a open and active mind you will open up a whole new world of adventure, art and travel". I like to say that I laugh at jokes three times... 1- the one I got 2- when I get the intended joke 3- at the correspondence (or lack of it) of 1 and 2 . finally we certainly ought do our own research without falling for the common errors, and fallacies
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      Jan 10 2014: Robert,

      One of the best posts I've read in a long time. Beautifully said.
  • Jan 15 2014: The Bible. I find it to be like a plumb line that even when I think it could be wrong, it actually ends up correcting me.
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    Jan 14 2014: A book I recommend sometimes to specific persons is "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson.
    Besides the interesting facts about the past and the evolution of science, there is a lot of "lessons learned" material. If you're willing to read between the lines. To think about how and why progress was made, or on the other hand delayed.
    All with the purpose to avoid the same kind of pitfalls in our digital age.
    • Jan 14 2014: I havn't read that one yet. He's a great writer. I was thinking about "At Home: A Short History of Private Life" For me it shows how corporations have taken over the roles of servants in older times. They have made a fortune in doing so. Bryson's writing style is so relaxed and the book is full of information about "the home". It's a great read.
  • Jan 14 2014: Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. It completely changed the way I view the world.
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      Jan 14 2014: I will add this to my list! I enjoyed Outliers by Gladwell.
      • Jan 14 2014: David,

        For some reason I never got around to reading the tipping point. I do have it I just have not dedicated the time to reading it. I would recommend Gladwell's
        Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
        and from worth of mouth the last one he wrote:
        David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
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          Jan 15 2014: Thanks, another to add to the list! Gladwell is perfect for my walks (for some reason I like his work on audiobooks). I find my self replaying many chapters but that just makes we walk a bit more!
        • Feb 6 2014: You should. It gives new insight in right time for right things to do.
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    Jan 10 2014: I am hoping that each person who reads this whole post finds just 1 or 2 books that become magic for them. The thought of that just makes me smile.
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    Jan 18 2014: All the books of DOSTOEVSKI ...
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    Jan 14 2014: Great question. I can't just choose one but I will try and limit myself to five.

    1. Pride and Prejudice. It's just a beautifully written classic.Simple as that.
    2. Winnie the Pooh. A delight as a child, and an important reminder of childhood as an adult. I still can't read the last chapter without crying.
    3. Siddhartha. A book to come back to at different times in your life to remind yourself that you are on a journey.
    4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Incredibly well written and brilliantly insightful with respect to autism.
    5. The BFG. My favourite of his books and let's face it, nobody should grow up without the words of Roald Dahl and illustrations of Quentin Blake in their life!

    Yep, that was as hard as I expected it to be. My brain is still being flooded with "oh but what about...". Interestingly, it's the books I read as a child that are coming to me the most.
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    Jan 12 2014: THANK YOU for this lovely post and question. I started a blog years ago, readthat.blogspot.com, with the intention of keeping track of significant books that I'd read, but it was a very solitary endeavour. What I was really after was what has happened in response to your post: people volunteering their *best* reads.
    My book suggestion: Bhagavad Gita As It Is.
    I should point out that there are many more or less secular scholars who have voiced their appreciation for the Gita over the years, so it is a philosophical as well as religious classic.
    But my main reason for suggesting this one book - and I have read thousands, both secular and religious - is that it is a very human discussion about duty, identity, and happiness, all things that occupy most of us most of the time. And it deals with these topics in unexpected and delightful ways.
    For those who are dead set against reading the Gita, my alternative suggestion is The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse. It is about the life of a scholar who lives about three thousand years in the future. It is marvelous and magical and funny.
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      Jan 12 2014: That post makes you braver than me.
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      Jan 13 2014: The Glass Bead Game, also called Magister Ludi is one of my favorites as well. Do I remember correctly that that masterpiece was the impetus for Hesse's being awarded the Nobel? One fundamental idea the book tackles is the interaction, or lack of interaction, between scholarship and "real life" and the challenges and potential of their interface.
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        Jan 15 2014: Yes! That book, along with his corpus of other published work, won him the Nobel Prize for literature.
        Have you read "Narcissus and Goldmund" ? It's my brother's favorite book, also by Hesse.

  • Jan 12 2014: I wish I could read these books when I was growing up.

    - "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jarrod Diamond - gives basic introduction of no less five topics with which kids are generally bored to near death (politics, sociology, linguistics, philosophy, technology); the reference/notes section alone will supply enough material to chew on for years to come.
    - "The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West" by Niall Ferguson - how secret behind the curtain politics lead to WWI and how WWII became unavoidable. Serious reading and will shine a different light on the Henry Kissinger's ideas laid out in his "Diplomacy". Also, how Europe managed to pretty much decimate itself socially and what came out of it. Not to mention the analysis paragraph alone that should be required reading in schools (theory of "us" and "them" and why it is okay to kill "them").
    - "The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Good review of fragility versus robustness and how big biz tend to make themselves fragile and whine about it when hit hard by problems. Also, read how economists in general did not see the 2008 problem until it happened regardless. And see for yourself that politicians in general have no idea about a lot of things happening largely beyond their control.
    - "The Ascent of Money" by Niall Freguson, another good book dealing with money and why it became so darn important that entire countries can suffer through no fault of their own. Good brief history of stock/commodity markets, bonds, derivatives and why these matter and in which way. Sadly, leaves out topics covered by Nassim Taleb, but the two should probably read together anyhow.
    - "The Brain that changes itself" by Norman Doidge and why genetics, while important, is only half the story. Also, "Survival of the Sickest:The Surprising Connections Between Disease and Longevity" by Sharon Moalem and Jonathan Prince just to see how little we still know about genetics, too.
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    Jan 11 2014: The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. How to be spiritual without being religious! A book - a practice - for the 21st century.
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      Jan 11 2014: Hmmm.. Interesting....and a subject oft ignored by most secular authors with the exception of perhaps Harris and maybe Dennett
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        Jan 14 2014: Excellent point on both … Sam Harris is a contemplative who practices meditation, and Daniel Dennett enjoys singing liturgical music in choirs … perhaps their bark is worse than their bite?
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          Jan 14 2014: Not too sure dogs come into it? More seriously though I would posit that the trait 'spiritual' in the sense of a property that revered and sought awe is a real objective trait that Harris and Dennett have a lot of and seemingly Hitchens and Dawkins either do not, or are embarressed by their potential to exibit.
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    Jan 10 2014: Great topic. Should be fascinating finding out which books make tedsters tick.

    My Recommendation: 1984 - by George Orwell.

    My Reason: Maintained its impact on me (in varying magnitude) over a decade... and that's no mean feat! When an author's surname defines a genre of political and social dystopia, you know there's substance to an 'Orwellian' classic. 'Thought Police', 'Double Talk(Speak), 'Big Brother' (is watching you), Room 101,... I could go on... all those words and concepts introduced to the world in the thin guise of 'fiction'. Animal Farm astounded with its simplicity and brevity in allowing us to see the true nature of revolution, but 1984 had me reeling from the profundity of its foresight and insight. And 'Winston Smith' presents us with the ultimate dilemma.
  • Jan 13 2014: "Lean In"

    by Sheryl Sandberg

    Because, even while I am still in the process of reading, it has already changed how I look at my most fundamental behavioral patterns. If I had read these explanations earlier in my life, I probably would have made some decisions differently - not only in regard to work.

    This book really get's to the roots of the problems regarding women and equality without blaming either gender for a situation that is far more complex than the current discussion makes it seem.

    Respect to Sheryl for having the guts to speak out on such an emotional topic that still seems to be a miss-perceived minefield!

    In my opinion, it is a mandatory read for BOTH genders, because understanding these issues could empower our society in many ways.

    Thanks David for the simple, yet great question for the TED community - got inspired for new reading material by the comments :)
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    Jan 10 2014: Couple of books!
    If you are really into books -specially philosophy- "Leviathan" is amazing, it defines everything that you need a definition for in the way you think, and if you want to get attracted to philosophy "101 Philosophy problems" can really blow you mind (for heaven sake don't start philosophy with "Sophie's World"), and if you want a book to finish very soon, "The Art of War" won't disappoint you.
    In non-philosophical books, "1984" and Shakespeare's plays are awesome.
    When I was younger, "A Series of Unfortunate Events" really worthed to be read.
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      Jan 10 2014: I agree with your 'Sophie's World' comment. It's where I started ... and stopped. Although, to be fair, I know some have found it mind-blowing. '101 Philosophy Problems' sounds fun, though, so I'm off to the library! Thanks, Amirpouya (and David)
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        Jan 11 2014: Fortunately 101 was what I started with.
        Actually I borrowed that 10 times from my high school's library and finaly bought that about two months ago.
        There are good books like that, like "Reason and Religious Belief", which has articles from both different ideas in each subject, or "50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need to Know" is even better, which I've just started to read.
        Unfortunately ther are a huge number of books in philosophy just saying how ancient philosophers thought, like Sophie's World etc., killing new ideas and passion.
        It's interesting, one of the greatest and almost the first of philosophers, Socrates, never wrote a book or article, because he believed philosophy is not a thing to be taught from a book, it must to be argued on from both sides, the teacher and the student !
        You find a good book, you go to reading once more. Promised !
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    Jan 27 2014: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is my all time fav, I reckon everyone who hasn't read the book should read it
    it's Awesome......
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      Jan 27 2014: This one is on my ipad - I bought it a year ago and never got to it. Thanks for the reminder! I have a 4 hour flight next week - perfect.
      • Jan 27 2014: I thought the title of this book interesting, so read a review. Pretty good review, but it seems the book it's a review of isn't! Wasting four hours on a flight is one thing. Wasting four hours of your life is something else. You might want to have a back-up book, just in case. ;01
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        Feb 9 2014: ya simply can't go wrong with this book :)
    • Feb 8 2014: You can't be disappointed by this book it's wonderful since the front page to the last! You travel with the main character around the world and it takes you wonder about the life.
  • Jan 24 2014: Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. In a world where the richest 1% of the population controls roughly 40% of the world's wealth, it seems like achieving wealth for wealth's sake is the goal itself, not for what you can do with the money. While there are exceptions, they are few enough that they continue to make the news. Through a very different format and unique "teacher," Ishmael introduced me to the concept of "takers" vs. "leavers" in a way I had never thought about, but which has even broader implications for today's inequities. It made me think about my actions and relationships and ask myself: how do I want to net-out when I leave this world?
  • Jan 20 2014: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith

    Firstly this book is an example of what a significant role the imagination or day dreaming can play in transforming your immediate surroundings. This book also gives you a fascinating insight into a Brooklyn of the past and a candid but emotional window on the characters lives and feelings.
  • Jan 20 2014: "We Die Alone" is my choice. This book tells the story about the Norwegian resistance fighter Jan Baalsrud that during World War II conducted an incredible escape from German soldiers. He evaded capture for roughly two months, suffering from frostbite and snow blindness. During this periode he amputated nine of his toes to stop the spread of gangrene.

    The original Norwegian title is "nine lives" and this book shows how important it is to never give up.
    It also shows just how far humans can push themselves
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    Jan 19 2014: wow !!!! Thank You David Levine, for your question. i just realised that if we can read all the books prescribed by every participant in this forum, i think we can make a better world.
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    Jan 19 2014: I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m pretty sure if I had I’d still be saying ‘The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil’ by Philip Zimbardo. I started reading it after watching his Psychology of Evil talk. We’re capable of some pretty terrible actions and inaction. Most of us tend to think, ‘In situation XYZ, I’d be the good guy, the one who doesn’t conform, who doesn’t electrocute the learner, who steps in and helps’ etc. Most of us are wrong. But, if we are aware of our fallibility, the ways in which we can fall, and the factors that can lead us to fall, surely we’ll become less susceptible to falling. And if we’re aware of the conditions that can lead others to fall, then we can make sure we don’t put those conditions in place.

    Also, the Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler. Even the act of reading a little each night during a hectic, stressful period of life made me feel more tranquil and better able to cope. Research I’ve read on self-control makes me suspect it would have the same effect for anyone with qualities like compassion among their core values.

    And the Bible, too, because of its cultural influence. It’s also got some nice gems of wisdom.
  • Jan 18 2014: No question in my mind at all, in terms of a non-fiction book: "The Wholeness of Nature" by Henri Bortoft. This book is an essential read, especially for practising scientists. I believe every scientific education must include a course on the philosophy of science which exposes the source of many scientific attitudes. Such a course would be an eye opener as is this book.
  • Jan 18 2014: At this point, If I could only choose one book ,and if we're looking at fiction it would be Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End. I read it about two years ago and it was stimulating-- there are so many non-plot levels to the story that keep you engaged. It's very well written! It lingered with me for weeks after I finished reading.
  • Jan 18 2014: The book which open my eyes about world around me is The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.
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    Jan 15 2014: I see that it's been mentioned a few times but I'm going to say it for a different reason than the other's gave.

    The bible, read the whole of it (preferably NKJ, NIV or RSV). Read all of it without spiritual guidance by any clergy or family member. Read it as it is and make up your mind about what it says, DON'T listen to clergy! Don't skip the first half and don't ever think that there was a time that murder, rape and genocide were more or less morally okay.

    Now you read that book and you come back to me and say that the book is divine, meaning that everything in it is right and good. You read that and then tell me that you believe in the God that is portrayed in that book, and tell me that that God needs our worship.

    Penn Jillette has a good Big Think video about this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3rGev6OZ3w
    • Jan 15 2014: Jimmy,

      When one read a book one needs to know how to interpret the words and get to the intended message... especially when the language used just isn't one's own...
      The book is divine for those who know how to interpret it, it isn't for those who don't know how to read it!
      As was sort of implied in your post 'without spiritual guidance' individuals just wouldn't get the right message nor be able to truly know the Got that is portrayed though the book. KNOW that God doesn't need our worship nor needs us; it is we who need God and who need to be a certain way.
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    Jan 14 2014: Lots of good suggestions here.

    I found Stephen Pinker's "The Blank Slate" fascinating and informative on the 'nature vs nurture' debate.
  • Jan 14 2014: Excellent question David!

    I would highly recommend two books:

    So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport - This book shows that following your passion is just bad advice and is not practical. He offers other ways and introduces many others who are very happy with their work and their contribution to the world

    The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster - This is a children's book although anyone can read it. It was one of my favorite books growing up and really made me question and ponder upon the everyday things in life.
  • Red Fox

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    Jan 14 2014: For those who wonder why true researchers are a thing of the past and present day researchers are bound by an agenda set before them by those who fund such research "The Body Electric" by Dr Robert O Becker, twice Nobel nominated makes a riveting read for whomever is interested in the betterment of mankind at large. Stem cell research, tissue and bone regeneration and the possibility of enabling the disabled to walk again is an exciting concept, and seemingly may not be beyond the realm of possibility should his research ever be rekindled. His funding was withdrawn because he went against advice to not publish his findings and published anyway, hence incurring the wrath of the establishment resulting in his funding being withdrawn sending him into early retirement. As happens with most true researchers of the past, he is now banished into the mists of time and forgotten.
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      Jan 14 2014: Interesting book- I read it maybe 20 or more years ago and have it on my bookshelf at work. I believe he did get a bit controversial advocating against power lines. I believe (and again I may be remembering wrong) that he tried electrical currents for cancer as well.
    • Jan 19 2014: It seems to be an idea that is gaining currency, the idea that research is only funded if it produces the outcome that is wanted by the funding body.
      It is true that quite a number of trials of pharmaceuticals, funded by the manufacturer, are not published if the drug does not come out looking good.
      However, the much promoted idea that climate science is only funded if it supports the link between CO2 levels and rising temperatures is one that really needs to be challenged.
      If anyone can produce evidence for this, please do so. What climate scientists are being accused of would a conspiracy of scientific fraud, and on a global scale. Let the accusers show evidence, and not simply make un-supported accusations, please, for the sake of truth.
      • Jan 21 2014: Being new to TED you'll have to forgive me for not knowing exactly how it works, but…

        David…Bjorn Nordenstrom inserted two wires directly into breast cancers in women and by passing an electrical current through those wires was able to destroy the cancer. Another name which will fade into obscurity due to lack of information. We all have electricity in our bodies and electro medicine is a fascinating area of research, not that I know too much about it, but it does prompt considerable thought.

        Elisabeth…All research and published findings can be tainted or biased by selection. Figures and statistics can be manipulated and distorted to suit vested interests and promote the masses to consider such findings based solely on that which is presented to us in the material published. For lay persons such as myself it is our job to read between the lines of published material and question.
        • Jan 21 2014: Thanks for your reply Red Fox. I am also new to TED. I do have a science background, as a Medical Practitioner. I am therefore trained to look at research, and to evaluate it.
          The norm in medical research is for independent researchers to try to replicate the results of earlier research to assess its validity. The results of a single researcher do not mean anything if other researchers, from other centres throughout the world do not get the same outcome.
          I cannot comment on the research of Bjorn Nordenstrom. A Wikipedia search says that much of it was never published [making it difficult to evaluate or to replicate].
          The phrase in your comment that I took exception to was the statement, "true researchers are a thing of the past. . ."
          Nobel prizes are still given for research that adds to human knowledge.
          There have been gigantic leaps of understanding in all areas of scientific research in the last 20 years, and we need to understand and celebrate them.
          It's never to late too learn more science, and about how the world of science works. The project of science is not to have a monopoly on truth, but to seek it always, and throw out old ideas as our theories are better able to predict, and are in accord with, measurable outcomes.
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    Jan 13 2014: Hidden Music by Rumi - naively beautiful
    The Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen - gut wrenching and honest
    The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway - really well written and simple with a great story
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    Jan 13 2014: Every introvert out there should read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a world that can't stop talking. It's a must read. It honestly brings out the best in introverts. I felt a lot better about myself after reading it.
  • Jan 13 2014: Such a great question David. Thank you!

    If you have a child or care about children and the future of the human race, you MUST read "The Continuum Concept" by Jean Liedloff.

    And if your mind tells you that you already 'get' it or know what she's talking about, ignore that until you've read at least 70 pages.
  • Jan 13 2014: I suggest two books for understanding how the world works: people who haven't read them waste a lot of time discussing reality as it is not!
    1 Thinking, Fast and Slow, by the Nobel-prizewinning Daniel Kahneman [2011]
    2 The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein. Political essentials in one book. My only reservation for this is that if you have not read widely enough beforehand, it may be too big a jump from your current position for you to take. It would be a good idea to go first to YouTube and watch "What I've Learned About US Foreign Policy_ The War Against the Third World"; and a couple of things by John Perkins.
    For simple practical advice - almost anything about Permaculture.
    • Jan 13 2014: Jonathan,

      Just like depth of view stems from two separate plain views, I consider that Thinking Fast and Slow requires the emergence of a third integrative deeper thinking way. In a way the title has the three parts though most think in dualistic two ways and miss the deeper way of thinking ... singular way of thinking that integrates them all...
      • Jan 14 2014: Interesting viewpoint, Esteban. I don't have it in front of me, but I believe the author hints at this sort of synergy, when he discusses how to react when you detect a situation when one's thinking is likely to be flawed or biased: not to try and eliminate that flawed thinking, but rather to be aware, and react appropriately.
        • Jan 14 2014: Hi Jonathan,nice consciousness.
        • Jan 14 2014: Jonathan,

          Asking a dyslexic to try to eliminate that 'affliction' rather than helping them to instill advantageous 'coping' schemata for 'the gift' is akin to seeking to eliminate that flawed thinking rather than dealing with it effectively. For example I learned that to deal with dyslexia to ALWAYS take several approaches and corroborate congruence . In other words ALWAYS check 'answer' using alternate procedures ensuring consistency. I highlight 'answer' because we could be talking about 'perceptions' 'models' 'reality' 'biases' 'experiments' 'thoughts'. I could had said: ALWAYS check 'model/perception/experiment/thinking' using alternate procedures ensuring consistency. Do note that - The issue with reacting when one detects a situation when one's thinking is likely to be flawed or biased- could be simplified and generalized by: 'ALWAYS'! That is, ALWAYS be aware one's thinking is likely to be flawed or biased and SEEK appropriate 'coping' schemata for that 'gift' to minimize/constrain negative side effects while capitalizing on positive side effects.

          Daniel Kahneman seems to me to mostly focus on exposing two ways of thinking (fast and slow) sort of using one eye and the other eye without delving deeper into what I termed 'timeless thinking' (thinking that extends throughout time past-present-future and even further ... what happens outside of time). For example, presently sustainability seems to be something that businesses/society have begun to realize is vital to enduring operations. Its about 1- the means (short sighted gains - fast thinking - surviving the moment) 2- the ends (long term profits - slow gains- living more moments ) 3- 'Persisting' ( dealing enriching meaningful existences that can be and would likely be replicated and expanded).

          'Switch - How to change things when change is hard' by Chip and Dan Heath, is a book that delves into focusing on what one seeks by recognizing what be while cultivating what one seeks.