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,

February 3rd, 2019

This week I was slogging through the scientific literature when I stumbled this delightfully poetic sentence that had slunk its way into a paper on stochastic gene expression:

“Life is a study in contrasts between randomness and determinism: from the chaos of biomolecular interactions to the precise coordination of development, living organisms are able to resolve these two seemingly contradictory aspects of their internal workings.”

Stochastic gene expression isn’t as complicated of a concept as it sounds. Consider a pair of identical twins, the paradigm case of “Nature vs. Nurture.” Identical twins have the exact same genetic material. This means that they have the exact same blueprint upon which to build their bodies as they develop. Their “Nature” is identical. So how do identical twins end up with discernible differences in their personalities and even physical appearance? The obvious answer is “Nurture” – there are slight differences in their environments in which the twins are raised, which are reflected in differences in the twins’ identity.

But what if both “Nature” and “Nurture” were held constant? What if the twins had the exact same genetic material and environment? The scientific consensus is that the identical twins would still be different. This is due to stochastic gene expression. There is inherent randomness to the way in which our DNA is “expressed,” or translated from its genetic code to the structure of our bodies. If we return to the analogy of your DNA as the blueprint to your body, the process of expression is akin to the contractors building the structure dictated by that blueprint. But gene expression machinery isn’t too dissimilar to real-life contractors – there is no accurate way to predict exactly when your structure will be completed. The timing of the expression of your genetic code is inherently random. This randomness in timing ensures that even if two cells, or organs, or organisms have the exact same genetic material and are placed under the exact same environmental conditions, they will still be fundamentally different.

Randomness is weird. And it’s not surprising that randomness appears at the quantum mechanical level, where basically everything is weird. But it’s unnerving that randomness appears at higher levels in biology and even psychology and microeconomics. Classically, human decision-making was conceived as a process in which a rational agent chooses what they prefer based on essentially a cost-benefit analysis. Over time, however, cognitive scientists have replaced this “rational choice theory” with probabilistic and quantum-mechanical theories of choice, which more accurately describe observed patterns of human decision-making. These contemporary theories frame randomness as an essential contributor to our actions and, thus, our identities.

Raj and van Oudenaarden say: “Life is a study in contrasts between randomness and determinism.” This statement implies that nature is a system that incorporates both randomness and determinism. But this conception is at odds with the way in which we experience the natural world. Both our scientific and daily practical lenses rely on a strictly deterministic conception of nature – linear causation as guided by the Laws of Nature. Randomness is at odds with the notion of a scientific “mechanism,” the dominant framework for scientific investigation.

Our difficulty in grappling with randomness is perhaps best displayed in the realm of computer science. Computers are essentially an extension of human rationality – we have designed computers to reflect the most basic human cognitive functions of first order logic. And because we have trouble conceiving of true randomness, our computer does too. In fact, as of now, it is impossible for a computer to generate a truly random set of numbers, sequence of coin flips, etc. Rather, any computer algorithm employing randomness is only really pseudo-random, relying on seeding or drawing from seemingly random processes in nature, such as atmospheric noise.

We generally consider determinism to be the greatest threat to our notion of free choice. If the physical processes in the world, our brain included, are strictly causally determined, then free choice is an illusion and neurobiological mechanisms are responsible for all our thoughts, decisions, and action. Randomness, however, which is increasingly recognized by science as an essential aspect of nature, may give both determinism and free choice a run for their money.

Max Loeffler is a Berlin-based illustrator with a distinct reality-bending, psychonautic dot art style. Though most of his work is editorial illustration and album artwork, he has also crafted a disturbingly magnetic alternate universe in his two personal projects: Daymare Boogie and The Psychic Vault.

While you’re sucked into Max’s gnarled reality, complete the ambiance with the eerie bop “1997” from Danvers (SpotifyYouTubeBandcamp).

And Shit and Shine’s “You Were Very High” (SpotifyYouTubeDiscogs) sounds like the auditory product of radiation exposure, riddled with genre-bending mutations and dysfunction. But it powered me up a hill like no song ever has on a recent run, so give it a listen.

I have mad respect for seven layer dip and mini hotdogs, but if you feel like your Super Bowl party was lacking that one little something it was probably this: Corn Cheese, a classic Korean bar snack (anju). We halved the recipe when we made it. We royally regretted that decision.

Straight out of my college kitchen. Add togirashi please.

And lastly, to celebrate artists doing whatever the hell they want, I bring you the eccentric clutches of Kent Stetson, a Providence-based artist whose work is the Platonic ideal of a conversation starting accessory. (And all of the hand bags are hand-made in a studio in the great state of Rhode Island!)

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. Archived newsletters can be found 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,

January 27th, 2019

Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me
Sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in

Sappho, Fragment 40

This past week I was so taken by these two lines of poetry, a Sapphic fragment translated by Anne Carson, that I wanted to send them out, pinging from molecule to molecule, reverberating through the ether, to the ears of all. What was it about these little lines that so gripped me? If I had to pinpoint my favorite part, it would be the phrase “melter of limbs” – a suggestion that Eros, Love, is a force so powerful that it melts together the limbs of its victims (beneficiaries?) into a single solid, sticky mass.

How does one define an abstract concept such as Love? (Or, as Haddaway would have it, “What is Love?”) How do we know when we are indeed experiencing the thing that everybody is talking about? The process of ascribing meaning to things, even simple things like “noodle,” or “Marie Curie,” or “unicycle,” is a contentious topic within the Philosophy of Language. The process seems to go something like this: people within a certain cultural and historical context point at something in the world; then, they sort of subconsciously agree upon a set of attributes that are had by that thing. For example, we agree that a noodle is a long and skinny thing made out of some kind of grain that is made to go in your belly. There are many types of noodles (ramen, spaghetti, tagliatelle, soba, etc.), that look different, but we agree that they are all noodles. And there are also things that don’t really fit our definition, like zoodles (which are made out of zucchini, not grain) that are controversial to many noodle-namers. (See the internet’s “Is a Hot Dog a Sandwich debate?” for a particularly good example of the violence that can be brought about by meaning attribution.)

But anyway, back to Love – how the heck are we supposed to go about giving meaning to the terms we use to describe things that reside in our inner sense? We can all point at noodles — they exist in the world. But how do we go about pointing at something like Love? How do we come to some agreement about what we’re even talking about in the first place?

In The Rhetoric, Aristotle suggests that we use “metaphors to give names to nameless things.” In other words, we solidify meaning for a fuzzy concept by likening it to a less fuzzy concept. In the Sapphic fragment above, we describe Eros (Love) with the term “limb loosener.” Even if we can’t imagine Love as an abstract concept, we can imagine a desire for another person so strong that it loosens our limbs from our body in their direction. In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson describes metaphor as “a virtuoso act of imagination [that] brings the two things together, sees their incongruence, then sees also a new congruence, meanwhile continuing to recognize the previous incongruence through the new congruence.” We bring two things close together and exchange some of their meaning between them, while still holding them apart as two distinct things. Love is not literally a process of limb loosening, but following the act of metaphor, we have fleshed out the concept of Love with a little physical imagery (as well as given a richer, more poignant sense to the thought of limb loosening as well). (I’m also sympathetic to the psycho-linguistic idea that the fact that we have a term for Love is what facilitate our experience of it, but that’s for a another newsletter blurb.)

In some sense the act of Love, itself, is a metaphor. Love is a process of drawing two individuals close. They let each other in, exchange their vulnerability and identity. The lovers give each other sharper boundaries, as they discover who they are in each other. Perhaps even a new synergistic entity is formed in their commonality: the couple. But they are still held apart by the necessity of their existence as two separate beings – two separate consciousnesses and two separate bodies.

As such, there is always a space between two lovers, a gap. And into this gap we peer and project, wondering what our other half is thinking, feeling, thinking about us, feeling about us. It is in this gap that we make false assumptions about each other, positive or negative, idealizing or vilifying.

In Plato’s The Phaedrus, Socrates suggests that we convince people of meaning by drawing similarities between some things and holding other things apart as distinct. Thus, metaphor, the act of drawing similarities, is a tool of persuasion, and something of which to be weary. Socrates may have a point – in our act of metaphor we must mind the gap, whether it be between two concepts or two lovers.

James Blake asks a similar question in the track “Are You in Love?” off of his very recent release Assume Form (SpotifyYoutubeDiscogs), for which you should set aside some time to give a thoughtful listen if you haven’t had the chance yet. His falsetto on the title track, reaching into the gap between his own thoughts and his lover’s, is limb loosening itself.

If you’re looking for something a bit more experimental, try Parish Council’s Pear and Biscuits Classical (Spotify), just out this week, which you can download for free on their label Tasty Morsel’s website. The cerebral soundscapes will surely stretch any of your previous conceptions of classical music.

For another example of art that will stretch your traditional conceptions of the medium, here’s some ballet. Those that know me well know that I am a complete and total ballet nerd (the technical term is balletomane). What drew me to ballet originally was not the archetypal productions like The NutcrackerSwan Lake, or The Sleeping Beauty, but rather the neoclassical work of George Balanchine, whose mid-century choreography to the music of other innovators of the time such as Igor Stravinsky, still reads a strikingly contemporary and brushes against the sublime. (Watch this video of Agon to see what I mean.)

New York City Ballet, the company founded by Balanchine, is still in the business of innovation, as in this piece commissioned and performed by the company from choreographer Kyle Abraham. The piece is set to music by James Blake, Nico Muhly, and, yes, Kanye West. In a set of solos, principal dancer Taylor Stanley brings you into his bottomless inner world.

You can hear Taylor’s own commentary in the other solo from this piece here:

Carve out a little time for this short documentary on a group of North Korean refugees living and working in the UK. The art direction and cinematography brilliantly reflect the color palette of North Korean art and propaganda.

Speaking of North Korean propaganda, Nick Bonner has curated a collection of fascinating and shockingly beautiful ephemera from the hermit kingdom. His book, Made in North Korea: Graphics From the Everyday Life in the DPRK, pokes at line between advertising (whether it be for consumer goods or ideology) and art. Bonner’s collection is now on exhibit at the Koryo in Seoul.

Lastly, Russian artist Oleg Dou’s stunning photo manipulations add a tangible eroticism to classic Renaissance clichés.

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. Check out newsletters from the past at butterforthebrain.blog. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,

January 20th, 2019

We often, at least linguistically, frame the origin of some types of thought as external to us — outside our locus of control. Dreams “arise” during sleep. Ideas “come to us.” We can prime ourselves for brainstorming by, say, standing in a hot shower for a bit, but spontaneous thought is something that drifts towards us like a dandelion in a breeze.

At the same time, we often consider these same thoughts and their products as securely within the realm of personal responsibility. We praise artists for the originality of their work. Scientists for their ability to think outside a paradigm. Mathematicians for their creative approach to a proof. Philosophers for their ability to see a frame experience in a new light. By the same token, we scorn individuals for having “dirty” thoughts, or for acting on unsavory impulses.

In Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, the main character, Kafka Tamura, ensconced in a dense forest with a book on Adolf Eichmann, finds a note penciled in in the margin by his friend:

“It’s all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It’s just like Yeats said: In dreams begin responsibilities. Flip this around and you could say that where there’s no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise.”

Here Murakami lays bare the paradox of the responsibility for spontaneous thought. The instant a thought arises, even in the abstracted form of a dream, it becomes part of us. Thus, for it we are responsible.

Both scientific and philosophical accounts of spontaneous thought are in their infancy. Philosophers are still in the business of trying to define the terms of the discussion (mind-wandering, dreaming, brainstorming, creativity, etc.), drawing heavily on common use and poetic metaphor. As such, a metaphysics of spontaneous thought still lies ahead in the future. Questions left to address: Can a thought spring up from nowhere without any initial stimulus? What tips the first domino in a chain of thoughts? What gives some thoughts the character of intentionality, while others seem to be outside of our control? Is there any meaning in this last question at all, or is free choice an illusion?

In cognitive science, there has been some excitement surrounding the notion that quantum mechanics can describe patterns of human thought (the original journal article, if you’re feeling ambitious). The quantum mechanical conception is conceivable under decision-making scenarios, which have a fixed set of choices, each with an assigned probability, but breaks down a bit at the edges of the conscious mind, where thoughts drift in from outside the current vignette. What is the origin of a thought that isn’t a choice in a decision making process? Is there some near-infinite set of thoughts that could possibly occur at any instant, presumably based on combinations of past thoughts and experiences? What is the process of defining, and modifying the probability that a certain thought will arise?

Furthermore, the quantum mechanical approach fails to take into account the phenomenological experience of the other half of the paradox: that of responsibility and ownership of our thoughts. If our proclivities for our thoughts are reduced to statistical probabilities, from where does the feeling that our thoughts are ours come?

We consider the contents of our thoughts, especially our spontaneous thought, to be a main constituent of our self-hood. Our own thoughts (summed up, perhaps, with the thoughts that others have about us) form our identity. I can’t help but feel grief at the notion of our creativity and individuality being reduced to a mathematical model…

Addendum: From my vague understanding of the practice, meditation often reframes an individual’s outlook on the control of their thoughts. A cliché states that during meditation you observe the thoughts that drift into your head and let them go. If you have any experiences in meditation that engage with these questions, please write in!

Jacob Read, also known as Jerkcurb, is a South London-based musician and illustrator whose work simultaneously channels a post-apoctolyptic nihilism and 1950s nostalgia. (Some may recognize him from his collaborations with another British crooner, King Krule.) Start with his dazzling music video for Night on Earth and listen to Midnight Snack off the same 2016 release (SpotifyApple MusicYoutube).

I generally try to dissuade myself from thinking too far into the future (especially about things which I cannot control), for the sake of my sanity. But that didn’t stop me from getting a kick out of this article in New York magazine (which is also a podcast) featuring predictions on what the world will look like in 20 years, with experts in their respective fields acting as the soothsayers.

If you have a love of miniatures as deep as mine (fairy houses, dollhouses, those tiny Japanese cooking videosminiature horse stables), you will be tickled by Rosa De Jong’s “Micro Matter” sculpture series.

And in a similarly microscopic, but more somber universe, Miyu Kojima, an employee at a company that cleans up kodokushi, or lonely deaths, started crafting haunting miniature replicates of the scenes which she has encountered. Kojima’s work, in addition to being an artistic marvel, is intended to draw attention to the social crisis of loneliness in Japan, a crisis which is unfortunately taking hold on our continent as well. (Warning: the work may be disturbing to some viewers.)

That’s all for this week! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts tobutterforthebrain@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,

January 12th, 2019

As I, and I assume a great deal of this newsletter’s subscribers, hurdle towards another semester of academic courses, I have been pondering the notion of delayed gratification. Our time spent in the classroom, whether it ends following our state-mandated high school education, or spans decades of graduate and professional degrees, is generally oriented towards a post-graduate state of affairs. We pursue certificates, degrees, letters after our names to gain credibility and access to a profession, a way of being, a legitimate claim to an aspect of our identities. We “suffer” through training now to achieve respect and wealth later.

In some sense, the notion of delayed gratification is philosophically absurd. The internal tension of delayed gratification is unveiled as we oscillate between our conception of ourselves as we are now and our conception of our future selves. Martin Heidegger, in his seminal work Being and Time, characterizes humans as essentially “beings-towards-death” – beings “thrown” into the inescapable reality that we will, at one time or another, die. In other words, the possibility of our death at any moment is a factor that universally and fundamentally shapes our experience of the world. As such, any exercise of delayed gratification requires willful ignorance of our status as “beings-towards-death.” We must trust that we will live long enough to reap the benefits of our present labors. We prioritize the experience of our future selves over the experience of our current selves.

Don’t get me wrong, delayed gratification is often necessary to achieve the things in our lives that bring us satisfaction and wellbeing. If your life-long dream is to be an Olympic gymnast, you’re going to have to endure some physical discomfort to get there. As Americans, we often attribute value to enduring the process of delayed gratification. We proscribe nobility to those in the throes of hardship.

Sometimes, though, it is easy to get caught up in the addiction to glorified suffering, the anxiety of constant striving, and to lose sight of the supposed rewards, the things in life that bring us genuine satisfaction. Thus, it is important for us to examine our pursuits in light of our understanding of delayed gratification. Is what we are currently engaged in (doing schoolwork, for example) actually unpleasant? Or do we simply interpret it as such because it is societally framed in this way? Is the future self, or the future life we envision for our future self, really the unadulterated bounty that we envision? How can we equilibrate on a balance of present and future enjoyment?

I don’t pretend to have it all figured out, but hopefully immersing yourself in some of the art found in this newsletter and beyond, the product of someone else’s toil, can be a small pleasure that is experienced in your “now.”

To start things off with a crisp, sweet treat, flip through this gallery of William Mullan’s photographs of “Odd Apples” and appreciate the fruits of an evolution that sometimes has a sense of humor.

This week I’ve been drawn into the increasingly popular world of Japanese stationary, where the daily tasks of writing and planning are elevated to simple pleasures through thoughtful design and a nod to both contemporary minimalism and Imperial-era Japan. I finally gave in and ordered a journal from the conspicuous company Midori, whose webpage describing the features of its paper products is a work of art in itself. (It reminds me of alluring presentation of the features of the newest MacBook Pro or iPhone XYZ on the Apple webpage.) Even more striking are Omoshiroi Blocks, memo pads which reveal dazzlingly intricate objects, buildings, or landscapes as the sheets are used.

In the auditory realm, I’ve been bopping to Heat, this past fall’s from reclusive Japanese producer Shinichi Atobe off the Berlin-based label DDS (Spotify, YoutubeDiscogs). In the process, I’ve been reminded of how much I love his 2017 album From the Heart, It’s a Start, A Work of Art (SpotifyYoutube,Discogs). If you’re new to Atobe, maybe listen to that one first.

For something a little less chilly, try this New Years treat from Drrreems: grapefruit grind (SpotifyApple Music).

And to leave you off with some weird for the week, Enric Sant’s paintings of aggregates of human bodies are equal parts disturbing and gorgeous.

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,

January 4th, 2019

Hi friends,

We often accept it as a fact of the world that the sciences and the humanities stand in opposition to each other. We go so far as to categorize individuals as “science people” or “humanities people” – instilling in each group some fear of, or at least intimidation by, the other (as tribal division so often does). We cloister young students into specialized “STEM” and “Arts” schools. There is frequently condescension from one category of academic discipline to the other: scientists believe the work of artists to be mere speculation; artists believe the scientists to be encumbered by dogma and fettered to a mistaken notion that we can arrive at absolute truths.

As a soon-to-be-professional scientist, as well as an armchair philosopher and wannabe artist, I have long been interested in the points in which the sciences and arts draws close to each other until they kiss: when the arts, hypocritically, descend into their own process of hypothesis testing and theory creation; when scientific explanation slips into poetry; those moments in which the absolute truth of science and the relativism of art cohabitate the same crevices.

Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French-Algerian philosopher whose explored the absurd, a philosophical term intended to express the inherent tension between the human desire to seek a stable notion of truth or some greater meaning in life, and the interminable inability to confidently tie down this truth or meaning. Camus gorgeously illustrates the way in which the process science becomes an exercise of creative expression in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus:

“You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science was there to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art. What need had I of so many efforts? The soft lines of these hills and the hand of evening on this troubled heart teach me much more. I have returned to the beginning.” The Myth of Sisyphus (20), Albert Camus

Camus seems to consider the notion that scientific explanation spirals into poetry as a disappointment – some indication of the failure of science, and thus in the whole truth-seeking enterprise. I, on the other hand, find the necessity of poetry in science to be a stunning illustration of the way in which we reflect the natural world in ourselves. We rely on poetry to render the scientific as real. The process of fixing abstract scientific concepts within imagery and time and space make those concepts immediate and conceivable. In other words, poetry is necessary for us to understand science. (If you’re feeling ambitious, read Machamer, Darden, and Craver’s articulation of the new mechanical philosophy for a formal philosophical treatment of this stuff.)


If you’re into this whole science-as-poetry thing, I’d highly suggest you pick up Italo Calvino’s The Complete Cosmicomics, a very 1960’s collection of short stories narrated by a shape-shifting, all-knowing being named Qfqfq that is equal parts a work of retrospective science fiction, comedy, semiotic philosophy, and poetry. It has been one of the most pleasurable reading experiences that I have had in a while, due to passages such as:

“…at the bottom of each of those eyes I lived, or rather another me lived, one of the images of me, and it encountered the image of her, the most faithful image of her, in that beyond which opens up, past the semi-liquid sphere of the irises, in the darkness of the pupils, the mirrored hall of the retinas, in our true element which extends without shores, without boundaries.” The Cosmicomics: The Spiral, Calvino.


In the same aesthetic as Cosmicomics, photograhper Reuben Wu transforms images of landscapes familiar to our world into extraterrestrial visions with a romantic brush stroke of light or the incorporation of the trace of a planetary orbit.

Screen Shot 2019-01-05 at 2.07.25 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-01-05 at 2.07.51 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-01-05 at 2.08.32 PM.png

This week try out New York-based percussionist Eli Keszler’s October release Stadium (SpotifyYoutubeDiscogs)especially the track “Measurement Doesn’t Change the System at All” (an allusion to quantum mechanics, if I suspect correctly).




For those of us looking to escape the January chill, in least in your inner world, give a listen to Arooj Aftab’s most recent composition, Siren Islands (SpotifyBandcamp). If one could inflate sound waves with air, I suspect it would sound something like this.

I have eagerly begun preparations for a trip to Japan following my graduation. As such, this charming, Microsoft Paint-style short film from Dante Zaballa further stoked my excitement.


In the same vein, enjoy this octopus from Masayo Fukuda, done in the style of kirie, a Japanese art of paper-cutting in which negative space is cut from a single piece of white paper to create an image.


I hope to see you next week! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms in always appreciated as well. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,


December 28th, 2018

Hi Friend,

If you’re wondering why you’re receiving this email, it’s because I thought you might like this sort of thing.

I’ve spent the last couple days bathing in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, relishing in the distinct lightness elicited as each of the author’s speculations unfurls into something that sounds like a universal truth. To quote one of these moments:

“We have more and more universities and more and more students. If students are going to earn degrees, they’ve got to come up with dissertation topics. And since dissertations can be written about everything under the sun, the number of topics is infinite. Sheets of paper covered with words pile up in archives sadder than cemeteries, because no one ever visits them, not even on All Souls’ Day. Culture is perishing in overproduction, in an avalanche of words, in the madness of quantity (pp. 103).”

I would like for this newsletter to be a small remedy to the perishing of culture from overproduction. I, for one, am easily overwhelmed by the insurmountable amount of available content on the web and elsewhere, to the point that I’ll sometimes miss out on my daily dose of culture altogether. Butter for the Brain will be a weekly (hopefully) newsletter with a little nosh for the noggin. I would love for the content to be mostly contributed by all of you – if a piece of art, writing, music, whatever catches your eye, please send it over and it will appear in the next newsletter. Original content is even more coveted! This week will be a small taste of what is to come, if people are up for this whole thing.

If you know anyone who may enjoy the arrival of Butter for the Brainin their inbox, please forward the newsletter and fill out this form so they can be permanently added to the Listserv. Likewise, if you are not interested in receiving the newsletter, let srl9tu@virginia.edu know that as well (no hard feelings).


For this week:

Seoul-based artist Miwon Yoon began her career as an animator, but has since shifted towards illustration, where she has found wide acclaim. I, for one, was seized by her delicate illustrations of food for Magazine F.



This week in music delivers a stunning 1974 crooner form Norwegian jazz singer Karin Krog (SpotifyDiscogsYoutube), and one of the most comprehensive LPs originating from a single artist: a 2017 compilation of experimental artist Geoffrey Landers’ mostly unreleased works from 1979-1987, spanning new wave, ambient jazz, avant-pop, and minimalism (SpotifyDiscogsYoutube).

Screen Shot 2018-12-26 at 8.17.27 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-12-28 at 7.55.59 AM.png

If you happened to miss Flaubert Again, a prose poem (?) by Anne Carson featured in an October New Yorker issue, be sure to carve out a few minutes before bedtime to give it a read.


And lastly, I give you the unnerving, trapping work of photographer Alex Prager, whose staged scenes of the mundane expertly dance the line between realism and surrealism.




Milan Kundera devotes a chapter of The Unbearable Lightness of Being to unpacking the concept of kitsch – not as in “poor taste because of excessive sentimentality” but rather a Nietzschean notion of an aesthetic ideal associated with an ideology. Kundera mostly speaks of the agrarian Communist kitsch, but kitsch has its place in most cultures. The American holiday season has its own potent kitsch: fuzzy socks, a flickering fireplace, and a cozy mug of peppermint cocoa nestled within the confines of an Instagram frame; Christmas trees and their related antics; a champagne-soaked New Years soiree riding the line between raucous and classy, topped with a midnight kiss. But the holiday season rarely lives up to this kitsch and that is okay – turn loose the burden of a perfect holiday and instead savor the time with family, fill those invaluable extra few vacation hours with a weighty read (I’ll be relishing in Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus myself), and join my mom and I in baking Miss Edna Faust’s Blue Ribbon Pound Cake (God bless Miss Edna and her dense, moist, decadent gift from the heavens).

Much love,