January 3rd, 2019

Welcome back to Butter for the Brain! I apologize for the dearth of newsletters for the past few months, but I hope to get back to my weekly (or bi-weekly, or monthly, we’ll see) meditative practice of assembling newsletters for those I love. My absence, in some part, can be blamed on my major preoccupation for this past few months: medical school. This semester I set off on the long journey of an MD-PhD dual degree program. (For those passing through Philadelphia sometime in the next eight-plus years, please say hello!) It has been fascinating to observe my own indoctrination into the often insular and reticent hierarchy of medicine, and it has been thrilling to be whisked from new experience to new experience. I am humbled as I reflect upon the sheer amount of information that has been crammed between the folds of my brain (at least for the time being) in only the last few months.

While most medical knowledge can be found in some form or other somewhere on the internet, there is no replacement, in my opinion, for the experience of learning in a cadaver lab. Before entering medical school, I, as I am sure you do as well, had a vague notion of what a liver was, and that I had one. Nevertheless, it was a wholly other experience to hold a liver in my hands, to experience its enormity, its purple-brown-maroonish color, the thick veins tunneling into its core. I have formed an experiential memory of a liver, which will rise to the surface of my consciousness whenever I palpate a patient’s liver, or order a hepatic panel, in my future practice.

A common gripe among medical students is that anatomists of the past have simply taken things for which we already have perfectly fine names, and assigned them new names to make themselves sound smart. The cheekbone becomes the zygomatic process. The ankle becomes the talocrural joint. But I can think of another field that contemplates often ordinary human experiences and rehashes them in less familiar language: poetry. Poetry is not, or at least should not be, an exercise of flexing one’s intellectual authority through esotericism. Poetry cloaks the familiar in unfamiliar language constructions because the aesthetic quality of the language births new meaning, new atmosphere, new emotions, that could not be sufficiently expressed in plain speak.

Over the course of my anatomy experience I have gained an appreciation for the poetic quality of anatomical jargon. The meaning of anatomical terms is not limited to the physical space occupied by the corporeal structure to which they refer. If one allows their gaze to linger on one of these terms, they often unfurl to reveal fragments of medical history and vivid Classical imagery. Take, for example, one of my favorites: the sartorius, a long, thin muscle which extends diagonally across the front of your thigh from your hip to the inside of your knee and assists in the process of bending at the hip and turning your knee outward. The name of the muscle is derived from the Latin word sartor, which means tailor. It is thought to be a reference to the cross-legged squat distinctive of the profession, perhaps resulting in tailors having particularly defined sartorius muscles. (Alternatively, the name may reference the muscle’s insertion at the inseam, a measurement required for tailor-made trousers.)

The metaphorical nature of many anatomical terms facilitates an understanding of our insides by drawing similarities to our experiences on the outside. These metaphors can serve as a tool in the larger process of distilling the overwhelming complexity of the human body into something familiar and digestible. When we call the topmost vertebra the atlas, we call to mind the Greek Titan of the same name who was condemned to carry the weight of the celestial heavens on his shoulders for all of eternity. In this way, the process of naming a structure gives it a certain narrative and significance. We name what we believe to be important, and we discern what is important by pointing to the things which have a name. I will leave you with a favorite quote of the philosopher and writer Iris Murdoch: “We like nature when it seems to be purposefully constructed and we like art when it seems to be pointless.”

For this edition of Butter for the Brain, I compiled a playlist of some of my favorite tracks from 2019. While this list is in no way comprehensive, it is broad, spanning the delicate soundscapes of Yoshio Ojima’s “Une Collection Des Chainos II” to the distant deep cuts off of D. Tiffany’s “Rarez.”

Kyle Cobban, a Chicago-based high school art teacher, makes surrealist pencil drawings that juxtapose intricate, realist figures with stark shapes against white backgrounds. I particularly like his works on Priority Mail envelopes, which play on his regular themes of familiarity and home.

Stephanie Shih similarly explores the themes of home in her sculptures of Asian grocery items and foodstuffs, intended to evoke a shared nostalgia within members of the Asian-American diaspora through hazy renditions of clearly recognizable products. Shih states that she has folded over 1,000 clay dumplings, an homage to the meditative and laborious process carried out by generations of Chinese women before her.

My family has recently adopted the tradition of listening to podcasts as we’ve crisscrossed the eastern seaboard on a dizzying series of road trips. Like seemingly everyone these days, our favorite genre for consumption has been true crime. 22 Hours: An American Nightmare, from WTOP, a local news outlet in Washington DC, more than delivers with the unbelievable story, thorough analysis, and the personal perspective that had characterized hugely popular productions like Serial. (Apple PodcastsStitcher)

I recently revisited a gorgeous Oscar-nominated short from Ru Kawahata and Max Porter.  Negative Space, is a profound and technically dazzling account of a son’s relationship with his father, which illustrates a notion of inheritance that stretches beyond the genes in our DNA.

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,

June 25th, 2019

Recently, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about death and dying. I am guessing that I have just lost a great deal of my readership right then and there; but for those who persist, I urge you to hang on. Too often we postpone these conversations until they are absolutely necessary: when we are faced with our own imminent death or the death of a loved one. But I suspect that opening the dialogue before we are enveloped by impending grief may make decisions and conversations less intimidating when the time does come. And come it will.

Death is both essentially philosophical and deeply personal. As such, there are a seemingly endless number of questions that swirl within its domain: Why does death feel fundamentally negative to us? Is death something to be feared? Is it possible to have a “good” death? What does it look like for me? And what about the afterlife? As I gear up to enter the health profession, I’ve been thinking about how our healthcare system grapples with death.

For the sake of full disclosure, I can’t say that I arrived at this topic by a chance pondering on a sunny day. I just returned from a trip in which I helped moved my grandmother, who has been ailing with cancer for the last several years, into hospice care. It was a dizzying week – we were swept up into a typhoon of paperwork and thrust into the middle of an unsettling standoff between her oncology team, hospital physicians, and the hospice care workers. All the while, my grandmother, suspended between the false hope given by her oncologists and utter exhaustion from the treatment that has ravished her body, suffered from debilitating pain.

Sociologists use the term “medicalization” to describe the creeping influence of the profession of medicine on all areas of human life and society – generally to negative effect. If we reflect on the way our society grapples with death in the modern age, it is difficult to deflect these charges of medicalization. Death has lost its status as an essential and meaningful aspect of life. Instead, the language that we use suggests that we are “at war” with death – cancer must be “conquered,” a physician’s foretelling of how much time a terminal patient has left is something to be “proven wrong.” We have eschewed rituals around caring for those near the end – there is no mainstream equivalent for maternity leave when caring for a dying relative. Instead, we place our loved ones in the hands of medical institutions: hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice care centers.

In my musings I don’t intend to place blame on any patients, their family members, or even their physicians. Rather, I get the sense that well-intentioned individuals have been swept up in a health system that has lost self-awareness of its own boundaries. Medicine does not hold the sum total of the human experience within its domain, and is too often motivated by metrics more easily quantifiable than quality of life.

Healthcare must instead distinguish between the process of illness and the process of dying. This is no easy task, as death essentially involves the breakdown of the physical body. But perhaps all cannot simply be reduced to our physical form. Medicine can combat illness by providing curative or comforting treatment that increases one’s quality of life. But when a patient embarks on the process of dying, Medicine must humbly retract its slick, synthetic tubing, its needled fingers, its cytotoxic chemicals, to allow space for the non-physical – for meaning.
It’s been a couple years at this point, but Japanese Breakfast’s breakout album Soft Sounds from Another Planet (2017) (SpotifyYouTubeBandcamp) still pops up in my regular listening rotation. The sound of Soft Sounds is cosmic and abstract, even distant; nevertheless, it reads as intensely raw and intimate. Luckily, Japanese Breakfast has satiated my appetite for the time being with a couple singles recorded at the W Hotels Sound Suite in Bali: “Essentially” (SpotifyYouTube), along with a stirring cover of the Tears for Fears hit, “Head Over Heels” (SpotifyYouTube), which tickles my soft spot for New Wave.
Enjoy these images from Corso Zundert, a parade of giant, colorful floats carpeted in dahlia flowers (!). Every year since 1936 the floats (constructed entirely by volunteers) have traversed the streets of the tiny town of Zundert, Netherlands.
For those who already nurse a bit of aerophobia (fear of flying), this may not be the best recommendation for you. For the rest of us, I found this investigative piece from the Atlantic on the missing Malaysian Airlines flight to be a study in longform journalism. Part mystery, part psychological thriller, part political drama, with some technical stuff thrown in the for the nerds out there, it is well worth your time.
Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese art popular during the Edo period depicting scenes of ukiyo, a term literally meaning “floating world” which refers to the hedonistic lifestyle characteristic of the time (think sumo wrestling, kabuki, and courtesans). Ukiyoemon Mitomoya has adapted the ukiyo-e style to the modern day, satirizing everything from the banality of white-collar life in Japan to Western politics.
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,

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!

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Much love,