Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Why Brain Power Is Suddenly The New Status Symbol

On an arctic Sunday morning in central London, an unlikely crowd has gathered in a draughty Victorian meeting hall to hear a sermon. They don’t look like your average God botherers. The “urban trendy” quota is set to maximum, and the majority of the chatty, well-heeled crowd are wearing those chunky-knit beanies that are, like, so in right now. Standing among them, I overhear conversations laced with “Kierkegaard this…” and “phenomenology that…”

brainy
Brainy is suddenly chic

It’s the latest indicator that geeks and chic have collided head on. Four weeks into the decade, and the Teenies are already shaping up to be the era where hefty brain power becomes the new status symbol. If the 1980s were about power and the 1990s about soul, then the Noughties ended up being about shopping — rabid materialism followed by a crash.
Yet from the crash a new story is emerging — one with an altogether higher IQ. The 450 eager souls who braved the cold snap to hear a nonsecular diatribe on a weekend morning suggest so. It’s part of the SundaySermon series run by the School of Life, an alternative learning centre that set up shop in 2008, and has become so fashionable it now shares a PR company with Lanvin. Today’s speaker is the American essayist Barbara Ehrenreich, speaking out against the tyranny of positive thinking. We sing a couple of songs (Don’t Worry, Be Happy, and Accentuate the Positive — they love irony here), and then she lets rip, dismantling the notion that individuals thrive by keeping chipper about everything from poverty to cancer.
It’s catnip to the gathered urbanites, but it isn’t the only outlet for a new intellectual curiosity. Intelligence2 holds events that attract everyone from Karl Rove to Bernard-Henri L√©vy, with thousands turning up to its live debates and millions more worldwide watching online. TED, an American organisation that invites specialist speakers (from neuroscientists to Hollywood directors) to give an 18-minute talk on any subject, now regularly clocks up 200m views online. Back in the UK, you can even go literary nightclubbing at Book Slam, where top authors (Lionel Shriver, Hanif Kureishi) alternate between reading their work and manning the decks. Meanwhile, the surprise Christmas bestseller was Flip It, a self-help book that promises to sort your brain for clearer thought.
So, why the sudden brain fetish? “Well, I think cynicism is on the wane,” says Chris Anderson, the British former journalist who now runs TED from his office in New York. “There was a hole in the existing media diet. On the one hand, you had the dramatic but bleak news of the day, and on the other celebrity tittle-tattle. The brain-nurturing stuff that people love was being squeezed out. Also, the fact that, in some parts of the world, fewer people have been going to a church or place of worship, so they have unintentionally lost out on that sense of community participation in an idea that’s bigger than them. Psychological research shows that a core element to leading a happy life is to spend part of your time thinking about ideas or purposes that are bigger than you are.”
Morgwn Rimel, the School of Life’s impossibly youthful American director, agrees. “When you’re in a consumer society, one of the ways to make yourself feel better is to spend. When that doesn’t feel right any more, or isn’t possible, you look for other outlets. It’s not just about mental wellbeing or self-help; it’s about cultivating your mind — but without being snobby or pretentious.” The most popular talks, she concedes, are always on the topics of love and work, but the approach is anything but Bridget Jonesy. A recent workshop may have been titled “How necessary is a relationship?”, but the conversation took in the poet David Whyte and the psychologist Anthony Storr’s book Solitude.
So who are the crowds merrily signing up for all this? It’s not cheap — some courses cost hundreds of pounds. It seems the urge mostly arrives after the first, frantic flush of youth departs, with most attendees in their thirties and forties. (“The battlefield of life,” says Rimel.) “In my twenties, I was busy just living,” says Michelle Newell, a 32-year-old schools consultant. “I was socialising and working, but a lot of the time I didn’t stop to think. Then I got tired of consuming goods and services, so I’ve started to consume experiences. For many people now, it’s a badge of honour to say, I’ve been to this talk or read this book.” She pauses. “I know I’m looking to fill my life with something, well, a bit more meaningful.”
Another keen brain expander is Amanda Burgess, a 29-year-old legal counsel at an investment bank. “I’ve gone mad for these things in the past year,” she says. Now a typical month sees her paying regular visits to her book group, taking a course on self-betterment though brain expansion and catching a lecture by George Steiner at Intelligence2. “I love it all,” she says. “Like a lot of people, I feel that in my career I have a narrow and deep understanding of one thing, so part of the reason why I’m seeking to learn more is to become less naive.” She goes momentarily wide-eyed. “My girlfriends tease me for having nerd pursuits.” Tell them it’s super-trendy, I say. Rimel laughs at the idea that brains are the new black. “Well, it’s a different kind of night out,” she says, smiling, “and more than just fashionable.”


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