Bilding Police, Medics and Others

“A painting has many functions. It’s a cultural artifact, an aesthetic object, an insight into a time and a place, and a piece of commerce.” as this New York Times article Off the Beat and Into a Museum correctly states.

But it is so much more. It is an invitation to sharpen our senses, to wonder, to challenge our perspectives, to broaden our mind, to grow a little bit, and to get to know our friends and colleagues much better.

The “sharpen our senses” part is what the NYT article is about: police officers, medics and other professionals who have to find answers in visual data, are learning to be more perceptive by looking at art. A side effect of this very pragmatic use of art as a tool seems to be that the colleagues get to know each other in new ways.

One wonders if, as perceptions differ, they also get to know themselves better too, which is what Bildung is about. (No, I did not misspell the headline; “bilding” must be the English present participle of the verb bild derived from the noun Bildung.)

Luckily, one does not have to wait for one’s employer to send one to the art museum in order to become a better visual analyst, one can go there out of one’s own initiative, alone or bringing a friend.

This kind of social activity has a number of advantages over going out for drinks or meals together: it is usually cheaper, it sparks new and other kinds of conversations, and one doesn’t gain weight. It even beats shopping: two hours in a museum is WAY cheaper than two hours in a department store or mall (especially if one can bring one’s own lunch), but if one does choose to eat there or to have coffee, the ambiance is generally peaceful and most museums have now figured out that museum foods should be as aesthetically pleasing as the content of the exhibitions.

The really great advantage, though, is that visits to museums with a friend, generally stay with us longer than any shopping spree or even the physical products we might buy. There are visits to museums 20 years ago and insights from them that I remember to this day, not a single visit to a department store or a mall can come to mind.

The sculpture featured at the top is from the Gardermoen Airport in Oslo. I have no idea what the artist (or the airport authorities) were thinking!

The Pestalozzi Expert in Switzerland

We had never heard about Pestalozzi before we started this project. As I googled Pestalozzi, I found this website and Arthur Brühlmeier, whom I met in Switzerland on March 26th and April 14th, and who has let me borrow some of his Pestalozzi books.

We need to explore Switzerland and Pestalozzi much more, so I hope that Tomas and I can both meet with Brühlmeier in a not too distant future. – For now, I just neet to get stared reading…

Chinese Bildung at Harvard

The enculturation, self-cultivation, personal development, and cognitive complexity that we explore as Bildung, is universal. It may express itself differently and be called different things in different cultures, and not all regimes may appreciate individuality and personas who go against the norms, but in all cultures is there a difference between being 10 years old, 25 years old or a grandmother.

Confucius’ teachings focused on the right way of the gentleman and his personal development. One of his sayings goes:

At fifteen, I was bent on study;
at thirty, I could stand;
at forty, doubts ceased;
at fifty, I understood the laws of Heaven;
at sixty, my ears obeyed me;
at seventy, I could do as my heart lusted, and never swerve from right.

This development didn’t just happen by itself, though, it was a path through life that took a constant effort.

Apparently, this effort is the new black at Harvard. According to this article in the Atlantic: Why Are Hundreds of Harvard Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy? professor Michael Puett’s course Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory has become the third most popular course at the university; only Intro to Economics and Intro to Computer Science are more popular.

If one wants to know what the popular Harvard class is all about, one needs to look no further than The Guardian where the popular professor and co-author Christine Gross-Loh share some Confucian advise: Forget mindfulness, stop trying to find yourself and start faking it.

The sudden media interest in Confucius and professor Puett is no doubt due to his and Gross-Loh‘s new book: The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life. I have not read the book, but Confucius is always worth reading, and Bildung one can always enjoy more of!


The mind as a self-organizing, open system

Our brain is a physical structure, built by a genetic blueprint that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years from the earliest vertebrates via reptiles and mammals to primates and eventually ourselves. When the fetus is around four months old, the brain begins generating the earliest form of proto-mind that can sense sound, taste and smell. From the last trimester and for the rest of our life, our brain keeps generating our mind.

Nature and cultures are self-organizing, complex, open systems evolving through iterations, variations and selection. According to the latest scientific research, so are the minds that our brains generate.

Charles Darwin described the evolution of life as a constant process of reproduction, variation and selection. There had been people before Darwin who realized that species were evolving, but Darwin’s stroke of genius was that he explained how: In order for life to continue, individuals have to procreate, hence reproduction. But reproduction doesn’t just produce identical copies of the parents, there are variations in the next generation: some are shorter than average, some faster, the fur may be darker, or the feathers brighter – in plants, the seeds may produce more drought resilient offspring than the “parents”. As offspring struggle to survive, some variations turn out to be more advantageous in the local environment than others, and the individuals with the beneficial traits can reproduce more and have more offspring. This way, reproduction and variation have led to a “selection”; the environment selected the fittest in that context and let them be more successful at reproduction.

The context is essential here. What it means to be fit depends on the surroundings; what benefits survival in one environment may be deadly in another. Also, fitness may just as well be about cooperation as competition. When birds eat berries and poop out the seeds far away, the bird and the plant are cooperating to survive. Not that they know it, it just happens to be so; had the one not been there, the other would not have proliferated as well. Context and interaction are essential.

Through this shockingly simple process of reproduction, variation and selection by context, biological life has evolved on our planet for 3.5 billion years. From free-floating DNA-molecules in the primordial soup, to single-cells, to multi-cell organisms, to vertebrates, reptiles, mammals, primates, and eventually humans. The global ecosystem is a self-regulating, complex multitude of inter-competing and mutually benefitting ecosystems and biotopes, wrapping the surface of the Earth in life. Below us, minerals and burning rock, above us, solar radiation and gasses, and in the thin layer where we can survive: water, oxygen and organic material.

There are still people who deny the evolution as the origin of life and, in particular, the origin of the human species. This is not only sad because it deprives them of understanding who we truly are as humans, it is also highly damaging. First, because we are nature too; we are part of that eco-system and we depend upon it and have an impact on it. Without understanding the inner workings of nature, we are killing vast parts of it and cannot preserve it. Second, as technologies and technological demands increase, as the climate changes and more people migrate, it becomes increasingly dangerous that basic science is not recognized and understood, and by some even flat out denied. One of the fears about accepting the theory of evolution is that it would mean abandoning moral values and religion, but as we shall see later in this book, evolution is not an obstacle to moral values or a religious life, quite the contrary.

An evolutionary process similar to the one in nature, takes place in cultures and cultural development: actions, thoughts, technological improvements, scientific knowledge, music, aesthetic styles, ideas, cooking recipes, rituals, prayers, crafts, fashion etc. are reproduced, variated and chosen among by us for their beauty, usefulness, taste, efficiency, and improvement of our lives. We constantly copy, modify and select from the cultural heritage, be it heritage that is familiar to us, or something that we encounter for the first time. We do so because it serves a number of purposes and is meaningful to us. It improves our lives when we choose right, when we encounter or retrieve the right kind of knowledge and turn it into the right kind of action. Life becomes meaningful when we enjoy beauty, sing, share meals, pray, contemplate existential truths, dream, hope, play a game, do sports, create art, knit a sweater, read books, conduct scientific research, hang out with friends, or join a political movement.

The culture that we received and is passing on to future generations evolves because we engage with it and reproduce it, create new variations and select from it. As we encounter other cultures than the one we grew up in, either through media or because we travel or migrate or because others do, these cultures may inspire us and we add some of it to our own culture.


The Brain

The brain can be described in four parts: the reptile brain, the limbic system, cortex, and prefrontal cortex. All four parts are interconnected networks of neurons or brain-cells that communicate by sending little packages of molecules between one-another, the so-called neuro-transmitters.

The reptile brain is the core of our brain and our spine. It is the part of our brain that keeps us alive and allows us to breathe, digest food, sleep, move our limbs etc. Some basic or “lower” emotions such as fear, hunger and sex drive also come from this part of the brain, as do our reflexes. Like all other mammals, we share this brain-structure with fish, birds and reptiles, hence the name.

The limbic system consists of a number of brain areas around the reptile brain and create our “higher” emotions such as empathy, love, shame, hope, joy, sadness, pride, etc. We share the limbic system with all mammals, but ours is the most complex by far and so are our emotions.

Around the limbic system, we find the cortex, the folded outer part, which takes care of learning, memory and most of what we perceive as thinking and decision-making. Different parts of the cortex solve different tasks, and we find here the mirror-neurons that allow us to read the body language and facial expressions of others. We also share the cortex with all mammals and, again, ours is the most complex by far.

It is the cortex that allows us to know what, say, a hammer is and constructs the concept of a hammer for us. If you think of a hammer right now, different parts of your cortex are working together to create in your mind the image of a hammer. Depending on whether you are right-handed or left-handed, the corresponding hand-related part of your brain is active too, as is your emotions concerning hammers, i.e. neurons in your limbic system and the reptile brain. If you are the DIY kind of person, you probably feel a little sense of joy thinking about the hammer, if you are the clumsy type with ten thumbs, you may feel a slight discomfort. This is your cortex, limbic system and reptile brain working together, telling you either “Yesss, tools! :-D” or “Uak! I’m gonna hurt myself and ruin something! :-o”

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the cortex right above our eyes. It generates our sense of time, logical thinking, planning, language, and the rest of our “higher” cognitive skills. It is the prefrontal cortex that allows us to play an instrument, compose music, read and write, imagine, create poetry, be religious, have moral values, and to postpone pleasant things and take up unpleasant endeavors instead. The prefrontal cortex allows us self-awareness and self-control. All mammals have some prefrontal cortex but it may be only rudimentary, such as in rodents. With larger mammals such as cats, tigers, dogs, horses, and elephants, there is a bit more of it, and in primates, it is noticeable. But the human prefrontal cortex is way bigger and more complex than the prefrontal cortex of any other species. The prefrontal cortex allows us to decide that even if we dread handling that hammer, those nails do not drive themselves into the wall so we can put a mirror there, and therefore: “I better get up and fix it. Hrmpf!”

In order for us to become emotionally, mentally and intellectually healthy and rounded persons, and in order to develop a maturity of mind suiting our age and the surrounding society, all parts of our brain must function, interconnect and evolve, as must our relationships, education and Bildung. What we experience and how we deal with it, literally shapes the physical structure and connections of our brain over time.

Developmental Psychology

Psychological development is one-directional: from less to more complexity. What we find challenging, fun, interesting, accomplishable, significant, or meaningful becomes more complex with age. What caches our attention and amuses us when we are 5, 10, 30, or 60 are very different things, but the overall pattern is that the level of complexity goes up along with our years. Only in case of disease, stress, trauma, dementia, or the like may it go the other way.

As we mature, our psychology and perspectives on ourselves and on others change and become more complex too. We not only understand the outer world better and see more details and patterns in our surroundings; we also understand our inner worlds, ourselves and other people better. We become increasingly able to take other people’s perspective and to understand our own behavior seen from their point of view.

As this complexity increases, so do our inner or existential freedom and available choices. Not just because we see more options but also because emotionally, we are increasingly released from outer as well as inner constraints. As children our spectrum of choice is limited both by what parents and other adults allow us to do, by our general lack of knowledge and capabilities, and by the way that instincts and emotions rule over us. Only as we mature do we gradually learn how to choose which emotions to heed. The other side of this “inner complexity freedom-to-choose-coin” is that our responsibilities and sense of responsibility increase along with it.

Our minds and these changes in our minds are products of our brains, and as we mature, our brains gradually rewire themselves; our brains literally change as we evolve and mature as persons.

Before we get into our psychological development, we shall take an extremely brief look at the brain, the mind, the evolution of the brain, and complexity as such. We only include this introduction to have a shared frame of reference, not in order to explore the brain, evolution or complexity as such.

Goethe against school shootings

How many of today’s 24-year-old men would think and write like this:

A wonderful serenity has taken possession of my entire soul, like these sweet mornings of spring which I enjoy with my whole heart. I am alone, and feel the charm of existence in this spot, which was created for the bliss of souls like mine.  I am so happy, my dear friend, so absorbed in the exquisite sense of mere tranquil existence, that I neglect my talents.  I should be incapable of drawing a single stroke at the present moment; and yet I feel that I never was a greater artist than now.

When, while the lovely valley teems with vapour around me, and the meridian sun strikes the uppersurface of the impenetrable foliage of my trees, and but a few stray gleams steal into the inner sanctuary, I throw myself down among the tall grass by the trickling stream; and, as I lie close to the earth, a thousand unknown plants are noticed by me: when I hear the buzz of the little world among the stalks, and grow familiar with the countless indescribable forms of the insects and flies, then I feel the presence of the Almighty, who formed us in his own image, and the breath of that universal love which bears and sustains us, as it floats around us in an eternity of bliss; and then, my friend, when darkness overspreads my eyes, and heaven and earth seem to dwell in my soul and absorb its power, like the form of a beloved mistress, then I often think with longing, Oh, would I could describe these conceptions, could impress upon paper all that is living so full and warm within me, that it might be the mirror of my soul, as my soul is the mirror of the infinite God!

O my friend — but it is too much for my strength — I sink under the weight of the splendour of these visions!

Researching the German Romanticism, I read Goethe’s Die Leiden des junge Werther / The Sorrows of Young Werther from which the above quote originates, and was amazed.

It is a well written, rather short novel in which the main character is 24-year-old Werther. We read his letters to his friend Wilhelm and thus follow how Werther falls in love with Lotte and ends up committing suicide because his love is not returned. What struck me was not so much the story but:

  1. The richness of Werther’s emotional life, which ranges from the above quoted romantic absorption by nature to almost cynical observations about the lack of enculturation in certain other people, to anger and frustration, deep, innocent fondness of playing with Lotte’s young siblings, utter shame when he commits an irreversible social faux pas, and, finally, distress, pain and desperation towards the end.
  2. That Goethe was only 24 when he wrote it (apart from the suicide it is overwhelmingly autobiographical).
  3. That, apparently, an emotional life as rich as the one described in young Werther was so normal 240 years ago that his generation identified with it and the novel became an immediate bestseller and led to a series of suicides in young men.

I did not give this further consideration, though, until I stumbled upon the two articles Teaching Men to be Emotionally Honest and A Master’s Degree in … Masculinity? in New York Times this Monday, both dealing with the limited emotional life “real men” are allowed today.

The first article explores how the only emotion men are allowed to show is anger, and how it cripples them and may even be one of the reasons for the school shootings:

Some cultural critics link such mounting emotional vulnerability to the erosion of male privilege and all that it entails. This perceived threat of diminishing power is exposing ugly, at times menacing fault lines in the male psyche. Experts point to sexual assaults on campus and even mass murders like those at a community college in Oregon and a movie theater in Colorado. These gunmen were believed to share two hypermasculine traits: feelings of profound isolation and a compulsion for viral notoriety.

Considering the kind of emotions men show in the majority of pop-culture consumed by today’s 24-year-old males, have we lost a crucial part of ourselves in Western civilization since Goethe? Did people in general have richer emotional lives some 200 years ago?And if so, how do we get it back?

Could a novel like Werther capture a young audience today? (I bet the average German high-school student could answer that question and that the answer would be eye rolling.)

And if anger and feelings of profound isolation drive the school shooters, is there literature that might connect them to other emotions?


Fact 1 Happiness

It is usually the Danes who are the happiest people in the world. In 2015, however, the Swiss were happiest. The Danes were not too happy about this, but apparently they did not get too sad because as of 2016, the Danes are again the happiest people in the world, the Norwegians are number 2, the Swiss are in 3rd place and no Nordic country falls outside the Top Ten:

  1. Denmark
  2. Norway
  3. Switzerland
  4. Netherlands
  5. Sweden
  6. Canada
  7. Finland
  8. Austria
  9. Iceland
  10. Australia

You may find the full report and more info here:

The question is, of course: Why are the people of the Nordic countries so happy all the time? And why is it always countries like Switzerland, Netherlands and Canada we compete with in these international surveys?


Fact 2 Competitiveness

Can the Nordics outperform the EU and the US?

The World Economic Forum measures competitiveness among countries, and though Switzerland was number 1 in 2014-15, the Nordic countries were close to the top as well: Finland 4, Sweden 10, Norway 11, Denmark 13, and Iceland 30. – You may read the full report here.

Given that market size plays a part in the overall ranking, these six small countries are doing pretty well!

Taken together, in 2011 the four largest Nordic economies, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland outperformed the EU average on all parameters, and on 8 out of 12 compared with the United States, according to the report The Nordic Way by The World Economic Forum and the Swedish think tank Global Challenge.

If you want to see how individual countries are holding up, The World Economic Forum has a really cool analytical tool here:

As we are going to explore in The Nordic Secret, the book as well as this website, we think that the secret behind our competitiveness is the same in Switzerland and the Nordics.

Nordic competitiveness


Fact 3 Modern Values

As one can tell from the World Value Survey 2015, the Nordic countries stand out.

Secular-rational values go hand in hand with education and science and allow for religious assumptions and traditional power structures and ways of thinking to be challenged. This challenging of old ideas allows for innovation, economic growth and harvesting the fruits of education and scientific progress.

Survival vs. self-expression values say something about how much each individual is free to pursue their dreams and how much one can stand out from the crowd. This again allows for innovation and new perspectives on things. But it requires not just a culture that is open to individuality and personal eccentricity, but also a society that is rather robust and feels safe and secure. When there is a collective sense of the group being threatened, be it by austerity or outer enemies, most humans feel safer if the group is not also challenged from within by too much diversity and people who want to do things differently.

Sweden, in the far, top right corner, is the country with the highest score on self-expression values and on secular-rational values is only outranked, but Japan scores considerably lower on self-expression. Norway and Denmark are the countries closest to Sweden when the two scales are combined and, still combining secular-rational and self-expression values, next in line are Finland, Netherlands and Iceland.