April 14th, 2019

I recently asked a few of my friends to recount what they believed to be the origin of their moral compass (a light conversation starter, I know). Their answers were diverse. Most credited the teachings of their parents or their religious upbringing. (Though some insisted their morals in fact contrasted with those of their parents or their religion.)

Even if some particular moral principles, such as attitudes towards marriage, gender, and dietary restrictions, differ between religions, there does seem to be some continuity in the basic moral principles that underlie belief systems. If I had to guess, you’d be hard pressed to find a culture on this planet that doesn’t place some sort of inherent value in the lives of other humans. (Such a culture would likely cease to exist if its members had no qualms about killing its other members when they got hungry.) Is it possible that this urge to respect other humans is something that is woven into our fabric of being, irrespective of cultural context?

Twentieth-century French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas localized the basic moral principle to a feature that we all possess: a face. In his first book Totality and Infinity, Levinas (in his characteristically opaque prose) poses:

“This infinity, stronger than murder, already resists us in his face, in his face, is the primordial expression, is the first word: ‘you shall not commit murder.’ The infinite paralyses power by its infinite resistance to murder, which, firm and insurmountable, gleams in the face of the Other, in the total nudity of his defenseless eyes, in the nudity of the absolute openness of the Transcendent (pg. 199).”

Levinas’s concept of the face only ricochets off of our traditional notion of the physical face. Rather, he intends to capture the feeling that there is a whole person in there, with agency and individuality not unlike our own, that we experience when we glimpse the face of another. The face is the physical tether by which we grasp another’s humanity, a portal into their subjectivity. Simply seeing the face of a human, and thus conceiving of them as complete person, is enough to usher in our respect for them, and to deter us from doing harm to them. In other words, the first moral principle, ‘you shall not commit murder,’ is baked into our existence and is summoned upon perception of another human face.

Though Levinas’s postulation on the origin of morality may seem a bit ‘far out’ at first, it holds more water than one might think. Take Stalin’s cliché for example: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.” Or consider the way in which the introduction of visuals into the coverage of the Vietnam War, the first “television war,” incited a wave of moral outrage and anti-war sentiment on an unprecedented scale.

If we are so moved by faces alone, then what explains the possibility and prevalence of violence between humans? If it is true, as Levinas suggests, that “It is my responsibility before a face looking at me as absolutely…  that constitutes the original face of fraternity (pg. 214),” then how are we so often able to look someone in the face and still wish them harm? If we are asking these questions, then we surely do not fully comprehend Levinas’s concept of the face.

Only a minority of the time, and with a minority of people, do we truly see their face when we look at their physical face. When we do harm to another, or see another as less-than, we are not viewing them in their fullest humanity.

I have some hope that we can habituate those rare moment of the profound sight of the face. Religion, in its purest form, seeks to do just that through the codification of moral principles and the incorporation of rituals into daily light that bring the faces of others into focus. Sometimes we even see a face in fictional characters, the stories of strangers, or even our pets. Perhaps I am just a hopeless optimist, but I like the sound of a morality that is embedded in each of us, awaiting a summons from the shape of another.

Have you ever had one of those moments of existential condensation, where the scale of your world suddenly shrinks and you find yourself a figurine in some larger being’s miniature model world? Amy Bennett, for whom I have recently fallen head over heels, captures just that sensation while playing with themes of time, transitions, and human proximity and distance. Her process is unique and impressive: “I am interested in the fragility of relationships and people’s awkwardness in trying to coexist and relate to one another. To that end I create miniature 3D models to serve as evolving still lifes from which I paint detailed narrative paintings. Using cardboard, foam, wood, paint, glue, and model railroad miniatures, I construct various fictional, scale models. Recent models have included a town, neighborhood, lake, theater, doctor’s office, church, and numerous domestic interiors. The models become a stage on which I develop narratives.”

So I’m not usually a fan of relegating any musician’s work to the status of “dinner music” or “elevator music” or, more aptly, “homework music.” That being said, I do listen to a lot of music while I do my work, and I’ve been particularly inspired recently while tying away to the droning, undulating soundscape “Signals Bulletin” from Japanese producer ASUNA and German producer Jan Jelinek, released last week (SpotifyYouTubevinyl).

If I had to guess, my secret crush on linguistics probably stems from my daily hour-long bus rides to my high school with my dear friend Dan, a then-amateur, now-professional linguist. While Dan is away documenting endangered languages in Indonesia, I must settle for one of my favorite new podcasts, The Allusionist, which explores the English language with both humor and scholarly depth. Listen on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher.

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,

March 29th, 2019

While flipping through photos with my parents from my recent travels I found myself frustrated with the divergence between the images and the experience of the moments they depicted. The photos themselves were still about as beautiful as an iPhoto could be – the peachy morning light glinting off the glassy canals in Amsterdam, the up-lit grandeur of the Grand-Place against the opaque night sky in Brussels, a neon sunrise over Icelandic glaciers. But they left much unsaid. A photo could not depict the organic charm and understated historic gravity of Amsterdam, the awe of accidentally stumbling upon the most stately square in all of Europe, the surrealness of a sunrise lasting two hours in a palette of colors I once thought inaccessible to nature.

Kierkegaard, in his first work Either/Or, articulates this distinction between the aesthetics of an experience and the aesthetics of the depiction of an experience:

“It is quite true that there is a misunderstanding among many people that confuses what is esthetically beautiful with what can be presented with esthetic beauty. This is very easily explained by the fact that most people seek esthetic satisfaction, which the soul needs, in reading, in viewing works of art, etc.; whereas there are relatively few who themselves see the esthetic as it in in existence, who themselves see existence in an esthetic light an do not enjoy only the poetic reproduction.”

What is beautiful in our experience of our world often differs from what is beautiful in our ways of representing the world – poetry, photography, music, visual art, even storytelling. Kierkegaard attributes this difference to the trouble of temporality in depiction:

“…an esthetic representation always requires a concentration in the Moment, and the richer this concentration is, the great the esthetic effect. In this way, and only in this way, the happy, the indescribable, the infinitely rich moment—in short, the Moment—gains its validity.”

Experiences that can more easily be condensed in time are more easily represented through art and story. (Kierkegaard uses the example of erotic love and marriage to illustrate this contrast. Erotic love is unveiled in discrete pockets of passion; thus, it is easily distilled as a poem or a scene in a film. The course of marriage unfurls over the majority of a lifetime – expressed in an extended series of daily happenings that would likely bore the reader or viewer.)

Is seems to me that ease of depiction affects not only what we choose as a subject of art. Even further, this ease of depiction affects what we choose to set out to experience in real life as well. We often engage in (consciously or not) crafting a narrative of self, both retrospectively and prospectively. We act in a film of which we are simultaneously the screenwriter. We do what we think we should, according to the story of who we think we are, and who we want othersto think we are.

When we are driven by this ethics of depiction, we value experiences that are “Instagrammable,” stories that can easily be retold to impress or entertain. As technological progress makes the tools for artistic representation and self-crafting more and more accessible (think ubiquitous phone cameras and endless profiles), we must be careful that we do not miss those indescribable, quiet but sublime, slivers of the human experience in the process. Kierkegaard again possesses words beyond my grasp:

“…you believe only a restless spirit is truly alive, and all who are experienced believe that only a quiet spirits is truly alive. For you, a turbulent sea is a symbol of life; for me it is the quiet, deep water. I have often say beside a little running stream. It is always the same, the same gentle melody, on the bottom the same green vegetation that undulated with quiet ripples, the same tiny creatures that move down there, a little fish that slips in under the cover of the flowers, spreads its find against the current, hides under a stone… It is not showy, and yet at times it has a sheen that nevertheless does not interrupt its usual course, just as when the moon shines on that water and displays the instrument on which it plays its melody.”

In addition to bagfuls of stroopwafels and salty licorice (yes, I am perhaps the only non-Scandinavian person on the planet who took to it on first bite), I brought home a new fandom for New York artist Daniel Arsham, whose work is on currently exhibiting in a retrospective at the Moco Museum in Amsterdam. The collection included a series of surrealist manipulations of the physical environment, as well as eroded artifacts of outdated technology and trends, as if they were uncovered in a future archeological dig.

The Claymation of animator, painter, and illustrator Kate Isobel Scott, based in The Hague, Netherlands, oozes nostalgia and charm. Scott balances a childlike, DIY aesthetic with impressive detail and clear forethought – each item that appears in her animations adopt personality and agency.

Ukrainian pastry chef Dinara Kasko takes the exacting science of baking to a new level using 3-D printed molds to turn meringue and sponge cake into architectural masterpieces. Anyone who is a fan of cathartic cake decorating videos may not survive a scroll through her Insta feed.

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,

March 10th, 2019

Unfortunately, or fortunately, you will have to settle for a bit of an abbreviated newsletter this week, and likely zilch next week, as I am currently galivanting through The Netherlands and Belgium and would like to avoid getting my laptop stolen in a hostel. But anyway, cue the minimal musings…

When I tell people I’m into philosophy, I am more often met with something along the lines of “Oh, yeah, like, bioethics?” I generally nod and smile, but the reality is that, despite the fact that I am going into medicine, I generally shy away from bioethics and the field of ethics at large. It is not that I don’t care about it, or think that it important. Quite the contrary – providing some guidelines for our conduct and how we treat each other is probably the most gallant pursuit of philosophy. Rather, the field strikes me as slippery; in their work, ethicists often examine a question working within a specific ethical system (e.g. utilitarianism, Kantian ethics) or jumping off from a specific set of assumptions. But I often feel as if ethicists lack the tools to evaluate and compare these systems and assumptions.

A great deal of my discomfort with the field of ethics is derived from the unresolved tension between moral relativism (generally the trendy view in non-philosophical intellectual circles since it was formalized by William Sumner in the early 20th century) and belief in the existence of first moral principles. Moral relativism states that moral judgements are only relative to a particular culture and historical period. This position challenges individuals who believe that there are indeed universal moral principles that apply to all humans, either divinely revealed or deduced through reason (as in the case of Kantian ethics).
The influence of these two conflicting positions on our dialogue at large cannot be understated, but it is often not explicitly articulated. Thus, I find that they are often applied inconsistently. For example, one might insist that we cannot make moral judgements about another present-day culture, but will readily make moral judgements on the actions of a historical figure. I, myself, am wholly unresolved on the question. Empirical and historical evidence is strongly in favor of a position of moral relativism – attitudes towards particular moral questions such as polygamy, arranged marriages, suicide unquestionably vary between societies. But I cannot help but feel as if we all agree that the moral things to do is to treat other humans with respect – as both rational beings like ourselves, and complex individuals with their own unique and rich experience of the world. And what follows from this respect are principles of gender equality and protection of the rights of minorities (among others) – principles that often are violated in other societies (and our own) in a way that is worthy of a negative judgement. I’d love to read some of your thoughts on the question during my travels – so please reply with your own musings!

The fluorescent photography of British fashion photographer Miles Aldridge aggressivly confronts themes of popular culture, femininity, and 1950s Americana.

This week I’ve found myself repeatedly indulging in the Emma-Jean Thackray remix of Hector Plimmer’s “Sunshine” (SpotifyYouTube), featuring the luxurious vocals of And is Phi. Who knew a crooner could be so uplifting?!

We all learned the scientific method in middle school — a scientist proposes a hypothesis then tests it. But what do you do when you don’t even know what language to use when crafting your hypothesis? Call in some philosophers of course!

Enjoy this outstanding article from Quanta magazine on the showdown between neuroscientists and philosophers over competing theories of consciousness.

For those suspicious of the conscious character of our pets, I encourage you to look at my cousin-in-law Rob Wayne’s series of photographs of his pet pooch Doug — a window into inner world of an especially expressive pup.

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,

March 3rd, 2019

This past Thursday I floated out of my research lab, in awe of the capabilities of molecular biology. The actual practice of research would appear surprisingly mundane to an outsider; in my case, I spend a lot of time moving miniscule quantities of liquid from one container to another (punctuated by some mouse husbandry). But even if the physical manifestation of research can often be banal, the actual sub-microscopic manipulations that one can perform are astounding. I can take DNA out of one thing, swap out some of the letters of the genetic code, and stick it back into something else. I can get the complete sequence of an organism’s DNA, or find every place where a specific protein binds to that DNA. In the mid-nineties it took hundreds of scientists and $2.7 billion dollars to sequence the first human genome. Now, a measly undergrad like myself could do the same for less than $2,000.

It is stupefying that a hundred years ago we didn’t even really know what DNA was, and now we’re able to sophisticatedly study and manipulate our own genetic material (generally for the better, sometimes for the worse). But science does not move forward uniformly. As much as we know about genetics, we know shockingly little about other extremely fundamental aspects of our own physiology. Take sleep, for example. We spend about a third of our life doing it, but we have a very primitive scientific understanding of its purpose, mechanism, and pathology.

Biologists, generally, are biased towards teleology – they assume that most biological processes or entities aim at a particular function or purpose. (This notion, a clear component of Darwinian evolution, can be traced back as far as Aristotle’s Physics.) Thus, sleep, a thing that all humans do a lot, must, itself, have a purpose.

The argument for a purpose to sleep is bolstered by studies using the most powerful resource in the sleep researcher’s toolbox – sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation impairs cognitive functioning, memory, and attention, increases morbidity for cardiovascular diseases, and may even increase pain sensitivity.

Sleep doesn’t just affect our brains – it causes cellular changes in our pancreatic tissue, fat tissue, immune cells, and skin as well. But sleep deprivation, as a scientific tool, is more of a sledgehammer than a scalpel. We need alternative approaches to sleep research to get at some of the finer mechanistic details that explain our need to sleep.

A recent article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience makes a fascinating case for expanding our study of sleep beyond the anthropomorphic lens of human health – instead zooming out to study the function of sleep across all animals. Sleep has been identified in “every animal carefully examined” – from mollusks to roundworms to jellyfish. Even animals that don’t have a central nervous system, such as the upside-down jellyfish of the genus Cassiopea, show sleep behavior during the night.

If sleep is a fact of life for all animals, even those without a brain, is it possible that sleep is a fundamental fact of life? What happens when we expand our investigation to organisms that couldn’t possibly exhibit what we would consider sleep behaviors, like plants or bacteria? Botanists, dating back to the 18th-century, have documented plants responding to daily changes in their environment and following strong circadian rhythms. Even light sensitive bacteria have their own cyclic responses to night and day – these bacterial molecular clocks can be replicated in a test tube containing just three different proteins and an energy source.

There are cycles to be found all over biology – in the timing of the cell cycle during the replication of cells, in the menstrual cycles of female animals, in the metabolic fluctuations of nearly all our cells. Through these oscillations, life, in its many realizations, becomes firmly rooted in time – a push and a pull between setting our own internal biological clocks and responding to the cycles in the external world. Is sleep, or something like it, a fundamental force of life – the way that gravity is a fundamental force in physics?

Even our human experience of sleep undergoes its own oscillations. One moment we glorify minimizing our restful hours, generally in the name of productivity. (I’m sure many of my college-aged readers are familiar with the standoffs over who has pulled the most all-nighters this semester.) In the next moment, we’ve added “sleep hygiene” to the lists of things that fall under the umbrella of “wellness.” But knowing what constitutes good sleep-hygiene (Straight-through eight hours a night? “Split” sleep? Naps?) is about as bewildering as knowing what constitutes a good diet (No fats? Lotsa fats? No carbs? Paleo? Intermittent fasting?). Perhaps the best move (at least until sleep science catches up a bit) is not to focus on making sleep just another thing to be good at (and stress about), but rather to appreciate it as a mysterious foundation of our experiences, and something that we share with the living world at large.

Contrary to connotation, aesthetics is everywhere in science! One of those places is a technique called immunohistochemistry, where different molecules in a cell or tissue are “tagged” with chemicals and them imaged using fluorescent light. Derek Song, an MD-PhD candidate at Penn, curates an Instagram of stunning immunohistochemistry images – blurring the lines between science and art.

Yes, fat is beautiful!
Actin fibers in skin fibroblasts.
Epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition.

This article from Vice News’s culinary division “Munchies” begins with a poem from Angela Jackson:

all night
she watch the pot, cooked
her grits thick for hours
(not the quick kind) till grains disappear
into smooth with a slick
coat on top
hot enough
for a man to wear
(she said) on both
his faces.

Cynthia R. Greenie tells the alternate story of scalding grits (boiled cornmeal, and a southern culinary staple, for my northern friends), as a weapon in the hands of Southern black women against abusive male partners on the battlefield of domestic warfare. Famously, the singer Al Green took a pot of boiling hot grits to the bare back, and the act has since become a symbol, rearing its head in cultural phenomena ranging from the advice of Tyler Perry’s Madea to the confessionals of R. Kelly.

This week in music, give a listen to New Atlantis, a recent release from Efdemin, an acclaimed German DJ with a residency at the legendary Berlin club Berghain. The album offers classic techno beats made for the dancefloor, juxtaposed with forward-thinking ambient and Avant Garde tracks.

As in immunohistochemistry, aesthetics is a crucial aspect of the culinary sciences as well. Although I can always appreciate ugly delicious food (also David Chang’s Netflix Series, Ugly Delicious) – think of a nice putrid brown liver pate or Japanese curry – there’s a little something extra to every food experience that tickles the beauty sensor in your other senses as well. Feast your eyes of these little works of art from pasta chefs in New York, caught between the calls for authenticity and individuality, in this article from New York Magazine’s Grub Street column.

I’ll leave you with the quiet sublimity of the woodblock prints of Hasui Kawase (1883-1957), depicting the austerity and serenity of Japan.

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,

February 24th, 2019

In preparation for a trip to Japan this spring, I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to pick up a bit of Japanese. Initially, I just wanted to learn a few phrases to ease the logistics of moving around in a country sparse with English-speakers. Now, however, my aims stretch beyond just that. I am eager to soak up every drop of the Japanese culture that I can during my visit, and much of culture is expressed in language – spoken or written.

When catching the speech of an unfamiliar language, the words, packaged into garbled chunks of sound, hardly rise above the din of ambient noise. Unfamiliar writing, especially in unfamiliar character systems, consists of masses of coordinated lines. In this way, we gloss over the foreign. When we learn a language, however, our experience of these sounds and scribblings are permanently altered. Learned words and characters, newly infused with the breath of meaning, lift off the plane of the sensory manifold and drift into the realm of the understanding.

I’ve become addicted to the feeling of new sounds stretching and slipping in between the neurons in my brain, new shapes straining from the grain of the page with the newfound force of familiarity.  I now know the word 家族 (ka-zo-ku) to mean “family.” And when I see these two little line-creatures I don’t just say the word “family” in my head. Rather, I think of my mother, and father, and sister, Perri (and even my dog Mabel). I feel the certain warmth, security, tenderness that appears in my inner sense when I conjure the thought “family.”

As in my concept of “family,” our thoughts often overflow the verbal declaration of words in our inner sense. Philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch illustrates this phenomenon beautifully in her 1951 paper “Thinking and Language”:

“Words do not occur as the content of thought as if they were cast upon a screen and there read off by the thinker… The meaning-character of uttered speech often demands an awareness of gesture, tone, and so on, as well as of context, for its full understanding… The thought is not the words (if any) but the words occurring in a certain way with, as it were, a certain force and colour… there is a region where words occur but in a more indeterminate imagining manner (indeterminacy is a main characteristic of the mental image) and not at all like a rehearsed inner speech.”

When we have trouble “articulating our thoughts,” even in our native language, we are having trouble taking the infinitely rich array of images, abstract notions, emotions, sensations, and reducing them to a finite set of symbols. As such, even simple words such as “family” carry additional “thought baggage” that is specific to each individual’s experiences and vocabulary. (It is perhaps this “thought baggage” that both necessitates and facilitates metaphor and poetry.)

What does this say, then, for the task of translation? How can we transfer the meaning of words and all of their “thought baggage” between different languages? When we work with two different languages, we are working with two non-overlapping nets through which to filter our inner sense. This requires a process of dissolving the thought which has been distilled in one language back into thought, then re-distilling it in the other language. It seems that there is only one way in which this process can be done: carefully.

For an example, let us call upon a brain-buttering essay (gifted from my friend Sofia) by Ilya Kaminsky on the process of translating the work of Paul Celan. Celan (1920-1970) was a Romanian-born poet whose parents died in Nazi concentration camps while he studied medicine in Paris. The trauma of the Holocaust was the primary theme of much of his famously opaque poetry, which he wrote in German, his mother-tongue, despite fluency in several other languages. Celan, chose to “break” German, eschewing conventional structure and meaning, as demonstrated in this excerpt from a translation of his most famous work, “Deathfugue” from John Felstiner:

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink
this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod ist ein Meister aus 

Kaminsky asks and answers: “Why break a language? To wake it up.” Celan chose to “break” his mother tongue, which was insufficient to express his trauma as a victim of the Holocaust, in a process of “reclaiming” the language to express this trauma.

But, if it is difficult enough already to transport “thought baggage” between languages, how does one translate a broken language? Again, carefully. In the above translation, Felstiner departs from the literal translation of the German, instead “breaking” English in the same way that Celan intended to break German. He even chose to retain some of the German words in the English translation, transforming the work from a unilingual to a bilingual poem in an attempt to retain the sense of “foreignness” in the original work.

Preserving meaning in the process of translation is tricky – and risky – business. In one historical instance, the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews having horns, depicted in art and culture for centuries, has its root in a faulty translation. St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators (ironically), mistranslated the “radiance” (“karan”) around Moses’s head when he descended from Mt. Sinai as “horned” (“keren”) in his translation of the Torah (Hebrew bible) into Latin.

The complexity multiplies when we consider that the boundaries of language exist in forms other than our traditions distinction between, say, Swahili and Hindi, or Indonesian and Russian. If we further divide the population on the basis of the “thought baggage” that comes with the meaning of words (founded in shared experiences), we create new, more specific languages. This subdivision can be carried out until we even define a language between two people, or between an individual and their own thoughts. From this perspective, every instance of communication, every time we reach outside of the language of our own inner sense, is an exercise of translation. One that must be carried out, as you guessed it, carefully.

Many of the common objects in my life have a new secret life in my eyes since I discovered the work of Japanese artist Tatsuya Tanaka. Tanaka’s photographs, which are released daily in the form of a calendar, play with scale and semblance, turning everyday objects into the architecture of a miniature world. (You can also easily summon Tanaka’s work to your Instagram feed.)

Sometime between now and its release in 2015 I stumbled across the album Comme Ca (SpotifyYouTubeBandcamp) from a myserious artist named Domenique Dumont. To my great excitement, this past October the French label Antinote released another album, Miniatures de Auto Rhythm (SpotifyYouTubeBandcamp), from the Paris-based producer, now revealed to be the Latvian duo of Artus Liepins and Anete Stuce, with the same sun-streaked, ethereal, soundscapes of their debut release.

If you’re withdrawing from the addictive cultural moment that was the Fyre Festival documentaries, block out a little time in your day to indulge in this article from New York Magazine’s The Cut on the recent meteoric rise (and impending fall) of Tulum, Mexico, a paradise for Instagram influencers and “the next stop after Ibiza on the global DJ party circuit.”

It is fun to ponder what any pre-20th-century Western artist would think of the walls of art museums in our day – empty rooms with lights going on and off, blocks of color on a canvas. The arrival of abstract art was a paradigm shift that required the boldness and ingenuity of artists such as the formerly-overlooked Hilda af Klint (1862-1944). Klint’s work, wondrously warm and feminine in contrast to much of the abstract art that followed, is riddled with symbols of the occult, and perhaps serves as a sort of manifesto of her mystical-prophetic worldview. Regardless of your feelings on her brand of spiritualism, Klint made beautiful art in a time beyond her own. Catch the exhibition of her work at the Guggenheim before it ends on April 23rd!

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,

February 17th, 2019

In Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus, Socrates equates his work as a teacher to the citizens of Athens with the work of a midwife. Socrates, himself, doesn’t give his students knowledge. Rather, he probes and questions his students in such a way that they give birth to knowledge themselves. I find this to be a rather enchanting conception of the student-teacher relationship, but one that sharply diverges from the practice of education in the modern era. While of course every teacher wishes for their students to flourish to their maximal potential, a great deal of the educational process involves handing over the concrete content of knowledge as well.

Gotthold Lessing, a German Enlightenment-era playwright and philosopher, has a wildly different notion of education than Socrates. Lessing began his modestly-titled essay “The Education of the Human Race,” with the premise:

“What education is to the individual man, revelation is to the whole human race.”

Here Lessing puts forth a theory of education in which education is analogous to religious revelation. In a religious revelation, God imparts divine knowledge upon humanity. Controversially, Lessing believed that it is possible that collective humanity could have stumbled upon the same divine knowledge if they thought long and hard enough. But, God sped up the process by sending this moral knowledge through Moses, then later Christ.

Lessing found this process of revelation similar to the process of educating an individual student. If the student had a long of enough lifespan – it would have to be nearly infinite – they could deduce all of the scientific and philosophical truths of the world on their own. This student would have time to carry out all of the scientific experiments that have ever been performed. If the student observed the photoelectric effect enough times, they, like Einstein, would deduce that light must have both wave-like and particle-like properties. If the student had enough time to ponder the questions of human existence, they too would have posited Descartes’ cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore  I am.” Because we don’t have near-infinite lifespans, though, we require a teacher. The teacher collects the knowledge that has been deduced by the lives of the past during their brief flicker in human history. They then package that knowledge for the student’s consumption, so the student can pick up where the rest of humanity left off and continue the process of knowledge collection – teaching themselves and, hopefully, future humanity, as well.

Lessing’s conception of education raises two major question. Firstly, would a human really arrive at the whole of human knowledge on their own if given sufficient time? If we follow the advice of 20th-century historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, probably not. According to Kuhn, in his hugely influential work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, intellectual progress is not a linear path. Rather, an individual scientist or thinker is strongly influenced by the paradigm in which they work. This paradigm strongly influences the questions their investigate, the methods they use to investigate these questions (whether it be the polymerase chain reaction for biology, or formalism for literary critics), and the ways in which they interpret the results that they collect. Oftentimes thinkers can become trapped in these paradigms – hesitant to challenge what they learned from their own teachers in their textbooks, even when the evidence that they collect contradicts their education.

This brings us to the second question: If our education is akin to revelation, does this mean that we have a near-religious reverence for our teachers? I’m inclined to say yes. In our finite life spans it is impossible for us to go back and test every conjecture stated in a textbook or journal article. (And time is not our only limited resource – most intellectual enterprises require extensive funding and infrastructure, whether it be in the form of a public library or a bustling research hospital.) Thus, we place tremendous faith in our teachers and the academic institutions in which they operate.

The atheist’s first line of attack against religion is: How can you possibly believe in something that can’t be proven by, or even contradicts, science? My question would be: Why exactly do we trust science, and larger academia? Is our relationship to academia in some sense religious? The purpose of this discussion is not to recommend extreme cynicism towards academia – I intend to center my own life around scientific research. Rather, I hope to tip off an acknowledgement of the blind faith that we often place in our teachers, a healthy doubt towards our sources of “knowledge,” and the confidence to challenge the paradigm in which we operate.

I’ve been pouring over the work of self-taught Chinese fashion photographer Zhong Lin. In an interview with It’s Nice That, Lin states that her “primary goal is to capture the moment in between shots.” And that she does, in both her editorial work and her most recent series exploring the theme of bullying.

This week in music: on Valentine’s Day, M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel, a duo who produce music under the moniker Matmos, released the first single off of their upcoming album Plastic Anniversar(SpotifyYouTubeThrill Jockey Records), to celebrate the couple’s anniversary. The album was recorded using exclusively sounds derived from plastic objects from Bakelite dominos to pinpricks of bubble wrap to silicone gel breast implants (!) with the intent to explore our intimate relationship with a substance that has only entered the realm on human experience in the modern era: “At once hyper-familiar in its omnipresence and deeply inhuman in its measured-in-centuries longevity and endurance, plastic supplies, surrounds and scares. Seemingly negligible, plastic is always ready to hand but also always somewhat suspect, casting toxic shadows onto the everyday.”

Inflating the auditory possibilities of the mundane is not uncharted territory for Matmos, whose 2016 album Ultimate Care II (SpotifyYouTubeThrill Jockey Records) was produced entirely from the sounds of washing machines. This past Fall when I first got my hearing aids I felt like I was living a Matmos track in real time – all of the little sounds that fade into the pleats of daily life were suddenly amplified into an overwhelmingly rich soundscape. I sat in my car and crinkled a Jolly Rancher wrapper for five whole minutes because I was so mesmerized by the new sound coming out of this little plastic instrument.

I was gifted this fascinating interview by my friend Emily from one of my favorite science news publications, Nautilus. Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall are a couple (and a married couple!) of philosophers of science at UC Berkeley who have shifted their focus from the abstract to the actual: investigating how information and our consensus on truth and falsity spreads in our society, especially during the process of information transfer between the scientific community and the general public.

Okay, so I know there was lotsa yarn stuff in last week’s newsletter, but I couldn’t resist sharing the work of Liisa Hietanen, a Finnish artist who crochets life-size replicas of her fellow villagers in her tiny town of Hameenkyro in their natural habitats, going about their daily lives. I was especially taken by the statues of her elderly neighbors, exuding warmth and wisdom.

That’s all for this week! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,

February 10th, 2019

I’ve spent the last few months pinballing across the country for graduate school interviews, relishing in the chance to sit down for one on one conversations with some of the individuals leading the charge of biomedical innovation. I’ve left most of these interactions floating a few inches off the ground – awed by the technological capabilities of humanity and eager for the future of medicine. A statement from a physician scientist at one of my recent interviews, however, got me thinking: he said, very matter of fact, “Progress in medicine is extending the human lifespan.”

I held my tongue, but the hair on the back of my neck bristled a bit at this statement. Is progress in medicine really just extending the human lifespan? What about enhancing the subjective quality of life? Easing suffering? Finding meaning and existential peace? What do we do when extending the human lifespan prolongs suffering? What is progress, anyway? And how do we judge whether we’ve achieved it?

It seems that progress essentially involves some sort of movement. And judging movement seems to involve a comparison to some sort of standard. (Think about when you’re sitting in a car. You determine whether you’re moving based on the movements of the other cars and your surroundings.) This standard is either something that we can move towards (as in enlightenment), or away from (as in ignorance).

The progress that is perhaps most easily conceptualized forms of progress are scientific progress. In scientific progress we move towards a complete understanding of the universe. The indubitability of our scientific progress is evidenced by our technological progress, in which we have dramatically expanded our abilities to manipulate this universe. Even the predictions of the Weather app on your phone would have been revered as the world’s greatest prophecies a hundred years ago.

Progress in other forms, such as philosophical or ethical progress, is much harder to quantify. The philosopher David Chalmers measures the progress of a discipline in what he calls “convergence to the truth.” While there is some disagreement at the frays of particle physics, by and large there is consensus on the majority of the facts in the hard sciences. You’d be hard pressed to find a scientist that didn’t think that DNA is the genetic material, or that water is made of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. But anybody who has taken an introductory philosophy, or ethics, or sociology, or even psychology course knows that studying these disciplines is studying disagreement, a lack of consensus, competing theories. If we consider the Western study of ethics, one might say that we’ve actually moved farther away from consensus within the field, which nearly unanimously espoused Judeo-Christian principles during the Renaissance. Yet, as competing theories have arisen within the field of ethics – moral relativism, feminist thought, utilitarianism, deontology – we still have a feeling that there has been ethical progress since the Renaissance.

I’ll pose another question: are we ourselves moving, or is our standard moving? To return to the sitting in a car analogy – have you even been sitting in your car, parked in a parking spot, when the car next to you starts backing up, and you mistakenly think that your car is, in fact, the one moving? How can we determine if true progress is occurring if we’re having trouble pinning down our standard against which to measure it in the first place?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, insists that our notion that there has been progress from the hunter-gatherer state of early man to our complex societal structures now is an illusion. Rousseau insists that the “Natural” state of man, in which man regards himself as “the sole spectator to observe him, and as the sole being in the universe to take an interest in him” is preferable to our modern condition. We often consider our increasing social inter-connectedness to be a marker of progress – we are moving towards a more global world. But Rousseau would argue that if we didn’t have social connections, we also wouldn’t have notions of property ownership, reputation, and power. And if we didn’t have property ownership, reputation, and power, we also wouldn’t have theft, vanity, and inequality. In other words, we’ve created most of our own problems in the modern world. And there is something to be said for the fact that many of our contemporary ills – obesity, lung cancer, drunk driving, more controversially depression, anxiety, and racial discrimination – are more recent, and perhaps artificial, additions to the human condition.

Let’s turn our attention back to scientific and technological progress. It’s easy to see how scientific progress has palliated human suffering. Child birth used to be a saliently life-threatening ordeal. We can pop an Advil when we have a headache. Planes and trains give us the folly of experiencing natural beauty in other parts of the world that would have been previously inaccessible in a lifetime. Feminine hygiene products (need I say more?). Many of the products of technological progress that beget further progress, namely the burning of fuel, synthetic materials such as plastic, artificial intelligence, social media, may spell doom for humanity.

This is hardly a new idea. For a while now we have known that we may be the arbiters of our own destruction. But, going forward, it may be valuable for us to more deeply consider our standards of progress. In the words of H.L. Mencken “change is not progress.” Our angst for movement, our cravings for novelty and productivity, may blind us from what we truly want out of our brief existence.

To start this week off, I’m going to relay a list of a few of my favorite podcasts that have graced my ears this past year. For those who haven’t discovered Podcasts quite yet, beware. Once you’re hooked to this contemporary form of storytelling, it’s difficult to not fill every waking hour of free auditory space with this form of media.

In no particular order:

Believed: NPR’s Believed takes a deep dive into the story of the abuse by USA Gymnastics National Team doctor Larry Nassar, focusing in on some of the astoundingly strong women at the center of the case whose names weren’t necessarily recognizable as Olympians.
Apple PodcastsGoogle Play
The Argument: Three Op-Ed columnists from the New York Times debate some of the central issues in politics, giving credence to positions across the political spectrum.

Apple PodcastsGoogle Play
30 for 30: You may be familiar with the 30 for 30 documentary series on ESPN, whose films explore some of the central moments and themes in sports history, and their intersection with cultural and political phenomena. Well, what do you know, 30 for 30 also has a stellar podcast! My favorite season focuses on the life of and controversy surrounding Bikram Choudhary, the Indian yogi responsible for helping to commercialize the practice of Yoga in America, and for inventing Bikram Yoga, or “Hot Yoga.”

30 for 30 Bikram Podcast
The Dropout: This podcast comes from ABC News, so it errs on the side of drama rather than art, but don’t let that stop you from lapping up every drop of the blood-curdling story of Theranos, a fraudulent biotech company that claimed to possess the (too-good-to-be-true) technology to instantaneously run a barrage of medical laboratory tests on a single drop of blood, and its cunning and narcissistic leader, Elizabeth Holmes.

Apple PodcastsGoogle Play
Dr. Death: This horrifying story of a neurosurgeon in Texas, who left 31 of the 38 patients he operated on either maimed or dead, will having you begging your friends to listen so you can discuss the question: was he simply incompetent, or was he a cold-blooded killer?

Apple PodcastsWondery
Bodies: Each episode starts with a medical mystery pertaining to women’s health, but unfurls into a subtle and intricate examination of the individuals stories of these women, and the historical and cultural forces shaping their experiences of their bodies.

Apple PodcastsGoogle Play

In another form of auditory storytelling, I recently discovered the lush inner world of saxophonist and composer Bendik Giske, who has me running through the hazy, post-club, pre-dawn streets of Berlin with him in his recent release Surrender (SpotifyYouTubeBandcamp) off the Smalltown Supersound label.

I was also reminded this week of how much I love Jenny Hval’s 2018 EP The Long Sleep (SpotifyYouTubeBandcamp) – brainy, poetic, cathartic, while retaining a sort of early 2000’s innocence to the sound.

Whether you’re recovering from the Polar Vortex, or bemoaning the rebound of winter after a brief tease of spring weather here in Charlottesville, you may find reprieve in entering the saccharine, glitter-speckled, rainbow-oozing miniature worlds of Australian artist Tanya Schultz aka Pip and Pop.

In a particularly fruitful Goodwill trip yesterday (largely thanks to the Goodwill goddess herself, Mary Garner McGehee), I could not resist but purchase a ridiculously large crocheted chain necklace/belt/sash, which I am telling myself is somebody’s handmade masterpiece. It seems that everyone is doing everything in crochet these days (especially food, or little Japanese creatures called amigurumi), and I am all about it. I was particularly taken by this life-size, anatomically correct crocheted cadaver from Shanell Papp, to go along with knitted human brains from psychiatrist-turned-artist Dr. Karen Norberg.

Lastly, as Valentine’s Day approaches, I suggest that you read the New Yorker’s interview with Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist who has become a world authority on couples therapy and the topics of love, sex, intimacy, and infidelity. She has even started a podcast called “Where Should We Begin?” in which each episode features one of her real-life couples therapy session.

If you have Valentine’s Day plans with a special someone, I wish you the best. If you don’t, consider taking the night to be extra kind to yourself. I, for one, have big plans to make myself and friends a Nordic dessert – perhaps a Toscakaka, a caramel-almond cake, or Pulla, Finnish cardamom-spiced sweet buns.

That’s all for this week! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,