March 2nd, 2020

As you may have suspected, given the recent drought of “Butter for the Brain” newsletters, I have been suffering from a good bit of writer’s block since I entered medical school. I’ve spent the last few weeks asking myself why this is the case. Objectively, I should have more fodder on which to muse than ever. This past year I have moved to a new city. I have embarked upon training in a profession with enough daily drama to propel the careers of writers from Shonda Rhimes to Atul Gawande. I am more scientifically engaged than ever, as I set my brain loose on itself, shifting my research focus to the neural circuits underlying awareness.
I pondered my writer’s block while I was walking to class this morning, simultaneously flipping through Neurology flashcards. I was halfway along my journey across the Walnut Street bridge when a sudden gust of wind nearly knocked my phone into the black shards of the Schuylkill river glinting angrily below. I regained my footing and shoved my hand, still frozen into a claw around the icy glass of my phone, into my pocket. The flashcards would have to wait for fairer weather.
I spent the rest of the walk grumbling about the fact that I would now have to find time somewhere else in my day to complete the flashcards that I had allotted for my walk to class from 7:32am to 7:57am. As I neared my destination, I realized how far I’d fallen. Why was I wasting my mental energy stressing about fifteen minutes of lost productivity? And what is this thing we call “productivity” anyway?
For most of human history, “productivity” was associated with the act of actually using the energy stored within your muscles and neurons to create a physical object, generally an agricultural object that you could then use to reenergize those muscles and neurons. I would venture to guess that most of my modern readers, however, now associate “productivity” with a vague notion of maximizing self-betterment within a given time frame. This self-betterment is often associated with advancing oneself in their given career or educational tract, but we also consider activities such as working out, keeping up on current events, or, ironically, meditation, to be “productive.”
My ponderings on productivity were echoed by a genius Opinion video released by the New York Times this week (I highly recommend a watch):
The Times video cites a prediction by British economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930 that, as technological advances continued to augment productivity, we would have to work less and less until only a 15 hour work week would be sufficient to live a comfortable life. Instead, the opposite has become the case. Instead of utilizing technology to maximize our leisure time, we work longer hours than ever.
Bertrand Russell argues for a controversial position in his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness.” The essay is dated, yet his core message still rings true in 2020. For Russell, the virtuousness of “productivity” is a myth confabulated by aristocratic landowners to maximize the work output of their serfs to supplement their own leisure. Danger arises when we consider “productivity” to be the purpose of a human life. Instead, humans are actually living their life in moments of leisure.

Russell’s virtuous leisure is not the same as laziness; he is not advertising multi-season Netflix binges or spelunking the cave that is the weird side of YouTube. In fact, our increasing propensity to choose entertainment in the form of passive consumption of inanity might be a product of our work culture. It takes far less mental energy to numb out to the latest Bravo show than slogging through some Hegel or Proust. Thus, after a long day at work, we are far less likely to reach for the “harder,” but potentially more fulfilling, source of entertainment. Russell is advocating for the mental space to pursue hobbies, cultivate our tastes in art, music, and literature, spend time with our families, and engage in holidays and rituals.
In citing Russell, I don’t intend to suggest that we all quit our jobs and descend into hedonism. A not insignificant amount of work will always be necessary to secure a comfortable life. We can serve society at large with our work. And work is often required to meet goals that will bring us genuine satisfaction. Rather, I hope that next time you look to “optimize your time” or feel stress at the thought of lost productivity, you can reflect on what is driving your work in the first place. Is this productivity contributing to finding genuine satisfaction, or is it driven by competition, greed, or the passive pressure of a societally fabricated virtue?
I have many more thoughts on consumption, production, work, and the “good life” – this musing is only meant to be starting point for a larger conversation. Please send any thoughts you have to!
I’ve long been fascinated by aesthetic predictions of the future. A ride through EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth (the giant golfball at Disney World), for instance, reveals a vision of what we thought a sleek, technologically advanced world of tomorrow would look like in 1982, yet it can’t seem to escape the design trends of its time. This strange sort of future-facing nostalgia is embodied in the work of Berlin-based illustrator Max Guther, whose hyperreal 3D aesthetic falls somewhere between the Sims, Wallace and Gromit, and Ex Machina.
In the auditory realm, this week I bring you two 2020 albums that have set the bassline for my new year. Moses Sumney’s grae (SpotifyYouTubeBamdcamp) is a project that is set to be released in two parts (we’ve only received part one so far). In his expansive signature falsetto, Sumney explores and embraces his multiplicity as an artist (track titles include “also also also and and and” and “Neither/nor”). Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) contributed significantly to the electronic compositions, which should be reason enough to give it a listen.
It’s 60 degrees and sunny day in Philadelphia today, and Australian DJ Mall Grab’s new EP Sunflower (SpotifyYouTubeBandcamp) made the perfect soundtrack for bopping around the city. I dare you to try to sit still while listening to the EP’s eponymous track.
I hope that we can all agree that New York City’s proposed ban on plastic bags is a good thing, and long overdue. That being said, losing an object that has so long been an unexamined constant in our daily lives often gives it a new poignancy upon reflection. This week in The New York Times Annalissa Quinn explores the many faces of New York’s plastic bags, and the ways in which they can reflect where we go and what we consume.
Alex Moy’s animated short “Idle, Torrent” is a gorgeous example of the wide vocabulary that can be expressed with simple line, color, and movement alone. The labor and commitment required for the medium make every piece of hand-drawn animation awe-worthy, but there is something special about the meditative, organic flow of Moy’s work that has me watching on repeat.
I’ll leave you with a few selections from the boldly colored yet quietly poignant work of Spanish illustrator Maria Medem.
That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to Older newsletters are archived at 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,

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