Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World

Solitude:  A Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris

As an introvert, I tend to gravitate to books that shed light on spending time alone. Sometimes the book is worth the walk across the bookstore and other times, not so much. Solitude:  A Singular Life in a Crowded World, by Michael Harris, is definitely worth the trip.

Harris’ writing style is engaging–intelligent without being academic. He is the author of The End of Absence, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction.  He writes about media, civil liberties, and the arts for dozen’s of publications–including The Washington Post, Wired, Salon and The Globe and Mail. His expertise shines through in Solitude.

Synopsis

Harris’ premise is that “in our drive to staunch loneliness, we have sacrificed solitude. ”  He writes, that “fueled by our dependence on mobile devices and social media, we have created an ecosystem of obsessive connection.”

Citing research by Anthropologist Robin Dunbar, explains the concept of the ‘social brain’. By studying various species of monkeys, Dr. Dunbar discovered that there was a direct relationship between the size of their neocortex and the size of the communities.  Also, the larger the group, the more time its members spent in social grooming.  The purpose of social grooming in monkeys is not only to keep their fur clean, but also to express affection and make peace with others.  Social grooming helps them to build and maintain good social relationships.

While we’re not cleaning our social contacts, Dunbar suggests that on-line connection is our form of social grooming.  Harris goes on to suggest that, due to the size of our communities, the speed of connection and social media’s addictive qualities, we are seldom, if ever, truly alone.

What Have We Lost as Solitude Decreases?

What have we lost by being almost continually connected?  The author explains how our creativity suffers when we don’t have time to daydream and let our minds wander. He gives many examples of great scientific advances that were made as a result of solitude (discoveries by Newton and Einstein to name a few), and voices concerns by scientists about what great thoughts may not happen because we are too stimulated to think deeply.

Another part of ourselves we may have lost, is our personal sense of choice.  We’ve all experienced the selection of items, websites, etc. that are curated for us based on our life on-line.  Harris suggests, that when we are supplied with items and activities based on our current likes, we are denied the opportunity to discover new things that may lead us to grow and develop new tastes, interests and skills.

When we are fed websites that suggest the ‘top 10’movies, restaurants, books and other forms of entertainment, do we as a culture, curtail our choices down to what has become popular?  Do we really have a ‘personal style’?

Solitude in Death?  Not necessarily!

Death used to be seen as the ultimate solitude, but is this still the case?  How far will we go to avoid knowing that we are unreachable?  According to Harris, our need to be connected goes as far as the creation of a start-up called Eterni.me. Harris explains:

“For about $10 a month, the service will collect your personal data in order to build and avatar that can stand in for you after your demise.  This avatar will know everything about you worth knowing, and your friends/admirers, ancestors will be able to grill it for details.  It will look like you too, and will converse with others so that they may feel connected–if not exactly to you then to the embodiment of your digital slime.  In a sense, what Eterni.me offers is a Skype from the beyond.”

Why I recommend Solitude:  A Singular Life in a Crowded World .

Books provide various things to the reader. Some books are purely entertainment, and are best enjoyed quickly–like a novel that we can’t put down. Others, like reference books, share facts–we dip into them when needed. This is a ‘thinking’ book–to be enjoyed slowly and pondered over.

One of the things I love about Harris’ text is his use of personal experiments.  He spends periods of the book detailing his attempted, and often failed, attempts at solitude as he undergoes a social media fast or spends a week alone in the middle of the woods. His realizations are enlightening and amusing.  Harris recognizes the difficulty in becoming disconnected.

My curious nature appreciates the degree to which the author includes various fields of research as he explores his topic.  His interviews are informative and led me to look into areas that I didn’t know about before reading his book.

This book stayed with me for quite awhile after I finished as it made me much more aware of not only my level of solitude, but also how my on-line and social media interactions shape my perspectives and choices.  I’ll never look at the Amazon.ca suggested list in the same way!

Now a warning about what can happen if we’re allowed to be “immortal”…Enjoy!

 

 

Book Review: The Highly Sensitive Person

About 18 years ago, when I first discovered Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You (1999) I realized that I had been given a tremendous gift.

Growing up, I’d often been told that I was “too introverted and sensitive”. These conversations left me feeling that there was something wrong with me.  Finally, there was an alternative way to think about how I operated in the world–as well as research that explained why I behaved the way that I did, and tools to cope.

Over the years, I’ve often recommended this book to family, friends and clients.  Dr. Aron has gone on to write The Highly Sensitive Child:  Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them (2002) and the The Highly Sensitive Person in Love (2000).  While I’ve found all of the books to be useful, The Highly Sensitive Person is my favourite.

What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

There isn’t a simple definition of an HSP, and this concept is all about arousal.  Everyone has an optimal level of arousal–we want to be neither too bored nor too stimulated.  The difference between an HSP and others is that their nervous system becomes more aroused than other people who are in the same situation.  This different arousal level may lead HSP’s to spend more time recharging their batteries by spending time alone in quiet environments.  They may frequently feel overwhelmed.

An example:  while on vacation, a long day of sight-seeing, followed by dinner at a noisy restaurant may be enough stimulation for an HSP.   He wants nothing more than to return to his room and read a book.  Meanwhile his friend may be ready to head to the bar and continue the party. Neither way of being is better than the other, just different.

Synopsis

This book is a wonderful primer on the world of HSP’s.  Right at the beginning there is a useful questionnaire to help you to determine if you may be highly sensitive.  What follows is a description of the positives and negatives of sensitivity.  If you are reading the book from the perspective that “there is something wrong with me”, seeing a list of the benefits of high levels of sensitivity can feel freeing.

This book also addresses where HSP’s fit in western culture–a place where extroversion is seen as the ideal.

“You and I are learning to see our trait as a neutral thing–useful in some situations, not in others–but our culture definitely does not see it, or any trait as neutral.  The anthropologist Margaret Mead explained it well.  Although a culture’s newborns will show a broad range of inherited temperaments, only a  narrow band of these…will be the ideal.”  

“What is the ideal in our culture?  Movies, advertisements, the design of public spaces, all tell us we should be as tough as the Terminator, as stoic as Clint Eastwood, as outgoing as Goldie Hawn.  We should be pleasantly stimulated by bright lights, noise, a gang of cheerful fellows hanging out in a bar.  If we are feeling overwhelmed and sensitive, we can always take a painkiller.” (pg. 15)

Once Dr. Aron has laid the ground work regarding HSP traits and possible causes (genetics, brain development) she goes on to describe the experience of high sensitivity in infancy, childhood and adolescence.  She provides very clear explanations about the connection between high sensitivity and infant/youth attachment to caretakers–especially how high levels of sensitivity can be more easily managed by having needs met by caretakers.

The book goes on to examine HPS’s in social relationships, work life and intimate relationships.  Each section is structured on the concepts of self-knowledge, re-framing (looking at something in a different way), healing and tools or coping strategies.

There is a chapter on the specifics of HSP’s experience when dealing with the medical profession (doctors and medications).  As a psychotherapist, I was especially interested in the role of psychotherapy in supporting individuals who identify as highly sensitive.  Dr. Aron provides an overview of specific therapies that may be beneficial for HSP clients.

The book concludes with thoughts on spirituality and HSP’s–ultimately the search for meaning.

Why I Recommend This Book

You probably have noticed that I am a big fan of The Highly Sensitive Person, but why have I recommended it to so many people?

  • Dr. Aron has written the book from a very ‘strengths-based’ perspective.  While she is realistic about the downsides of having highly sensitive characteristics, she focuses much more on the positives enjoyed by HSP’s.  The book is entitled “Highly Sensitive People“, not “Overly Sensitive People“!
  • The book is full of questionnaires, exercises and stories that encourage the reader to engage with the book and learn about themselves in the process.
  • After setting the ground work of basic knowledge, and helping the reader to place themselves in the information, the following chapters explore the HSP experience in different areas of life.
  • There is a wealth of tools provided to help the reader deal with specific situations that they may be encountering.
  •  The book is written in clear, concise language.  The author has found a way to explain the concepts in such a way as they are easily understood, while recognizing the intelligence of the reader.
  • An information section has been included for health-care professionals, teachers and employers working with highly sensitive people that spells out specific tips and recognizes strengths of HSP’s that may be overlooked in busy environments.
My One Pet Peeve

When I read the book from the perspective of a psychotherapist, I am a bothered by the perception that it’s HSP’s and the rest of the world.  I believe that high sensitivity isn’t at one extreme with extroversion at the other–instead there is a continuum–both between groups of people and each individual.  Where we fall on the spectrum is based on health, circumstance, stress levels, etc.  However, as the book is setting out to explore the world from the perspective of highly sensitive people, and encouraging them to feel powerful in their position, my concern is a small one.