Astonish Yourself: 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life

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I came across Astonish Yourself: 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life when I took my kids to the California Science Center in Los Angeles a few weeks ago and found it in the gift store. It was written by philosopher Roger-Pol Droit, a researcher at the Centre de Recherche Scientifique and, as the title indicates, contains 101 mental and perceptual exercises you can perform on yourself.

In his introduction, Droit says the purpose of the experiments is to "provoke tiny moments of awareness," and to "shake a certainty we had taken for granted: our own identity, say, or the stability of the outside world, or even the meanings of words." Most of the experiments require about 20 minutes to complete, and often involve nothing more than merely thinking about something.

Some of the experiments you'll probably want to try when you are alone at home (like calling your name repeatedly for 20 minutes, or repeating some other word to drain it of its meaning), but others can be performed anywhere (like imagining that the world was "created from nothing, just an instant ago" and will vanish "like a light going out" in 20 minutes).

Some of the experiments you can't really plan in advance; they'll happen by accident, like when you wake up without knowing where you are -- a magical experience I love having, but Droit explains how to make the best use of this five-second-long "delicious lightness of a mystery without menace" the next time it happens: "What you do not know, for a tiny interval of time, is what the place is called, where it is, and you you are doing there. But you're certain that you are somewhere, and will find out very soon... try not to lose hold of this rare moment of perfect suspension between doubt and confidence, certitude and ignorance, anxiety and satisfaction."

One of the things I've learned from doing just a few of the exercises in this book is how hard it to stop being so busy and slow down enough to do the experiments. I don't want to stop sitting in front of my computer, playing games, reading a book, tending to chickens, tidying the house, or a million other things that tug at me, but a few minutes after getting started with one of Droit's exercises, I feel good about taking a break from those habitual behaviors.

Astonish Yourself: 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life

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  1. The Science Center is one of the best FREE things to do in Los Angeles. My kids NEVER get tired of going there, and the gardens and other museums around are awesome, too.

    We should do a Boing Boinger bring-yer-kids LA takeover of that place.

  2. This reminds me of something I used to do as a child, to attempt to imagine an eternity in practical terms. I would begin to see time delineations slowly become arbitrary and useless, stretching out far beyond a natural human lifespan, generations, my grade-school knowledge of human and even natural history, and ultimately hit a slight adrenalin rush at the realization of a true, platonic timelessness.

    This sounds like a wonderful book.

  3. I recommend staring at yourself in the mirror and saying “I am [your name].” For some reason this always sends me into immediate detachment, as though I were a fictional character, looking at my life from outside. It used to freak me out as a kid, but I kept on doing it. It breaks down the subject/object, I/Thou wall in a way that’s pretty terrifying — having a sense of I/Thou separation seems to be necessary for sanity — but fascinating.

    (Maybe that’s just me. I’m interested if it works for anyone else.)

  4. “Some of the experiments you can’t really plan in advance; they’ll happen by accident, like when you wake up without knowing where you are”
    Pfff, I can plan that EASY, Did this one in Uni 1.Get cash 2.Go to a Bar (DON’T DRIVE there) 3.Drink the money away 4.Leave with a stranger, Drink more with them. 5. Wake up NOT knowing WHERE you are! 6.Walk of shame across campus…

  5. After traveling for weeks, staying in a different hotel room most nights, I’ve experienced the waking up in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was phenomenon when I got home. It happens for about 3 nights after my return. I associate my bedroom’s floor plan with the last hotel I stayed in. It’s kind of disconcerting but deliciously mind bending, like travel is, really.

  6. The one disappointment with this book is the lack of reference in each experiment to which philosophy/er it relates. Such a hindrance does not allow you to follow up on the author’s perception-altering intent. ‘How can I find more?’ With a LOT more time and difficulty.

  7. i used to work in a hotel for 2 months. after a while, i’d start waking up (sometimes in the middle of the night), wondering where I was, and how I got there. It was pretty freaky.

  8. Astonish Yourself is great, yeah. And when your kids get a little older they can read one of Rogers other Books-“The Cult of Nothingless”, which is about Buddhism in the hands of deranged Western Thinkers like Hegel, who reportedly used to scare visitors to his home with a large statue of the Buddha in the front foyer.

  9. I’m surprised no one mentioned Prometheus Rising, one of the many priceless works of Robert Anton Wilson

  10. I find waking up not knowing where I am scary. It’s disorienting, which I find highly unpleasant.

  11. One weird aspect of perception can be demonstrated by the following:

    Take a pen, or any stick like thingie, doesn’t matter the length, and touch something with it (try differently textured objects, wood, carpet, rough stone, etc.)

    What’s weird, and this was something I was always aware of in a way, but didn’t really realise I was aware of it, or that it was weird, is that you actually feel the pen coming into contect with the world in a very real way, almost like you would if you used your finger, you can feel the texture, but most importantly the sensation is localised at the tip of the object, as if you actually had nerve endings in there. It even works with your eyes closed.

    It’s a good way of demonstating that body awareness and localisation of sensation are all in the mind. An obvious thing in a way, but something that’s outside our day to day experience.

  12. This has been one of my favorite books for years! It’s great to talk about, and even more fun to do the experiments. Calling my own name in a room for 20 minutes (as if you were somebody else waiting for your self to answer) was one of the oddest feelings.

    Good to see this book getting some well-deserved attention!

  13. I bought this book a few years ago. I meant to make it part of the permanent cargo of my bag, but I keep forgetting to.

    My favorite that I remember: Imagine a pile of hands.

  14. Sounds a bit like my jamais-vu seizures (a form of temporal lobe epilepsy). I get those for free.

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