On first glance I passed over Your Brain On Love, a Diane Ackerman article on the New York Times psychology blog with a Valentine-ish title that indicated the kind of soft piece I usually skip. But a Facebook recommendation sent me back for a second look, and this time I read further and was excited to find an important, convincing piece about the psychology of love that happens to touch directly on some very difficult and esoteric points about the nature of self that I've been struggling to express on this blog.
Diane Ackerman, whose A Natural History of the Senses I enjoyed years ago, wrote this piece to communicate a fact that isn't widely understood: the emotion we call love has a clear physical and neurobiological presence. This physical presence can be seen clearly on standard brain scans, and the neural signals correlate with verbal surveys of elderly spouses who still gaze with wonder upon their spouses. The fact that love has a strong physical presence in our brains appears to be beyond scientific doubt.
Furthermore, Ackerman explains, the brain regularly changes as a result of the physical affects of loving or being loved. These changes impact every aspect of our conscious and subconscious lives, making each of us deeply dependent, to our very core, to our very sense of self-identity, on our connections with others. Our social selves, it turns out, are the deepest selves we have. Our loved ones provide the basic infrastructure of our minds.
A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post titled In Gatsby's Tracks: Locating the Valley of Ashes in a 1924 Photo, detailing my search for some exact locales described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. Using the novel's text and a zoomable historical map of Queens, New York, I was able to conclude that some vivid scenes described in the book took place at the triangle where a railroad and a street converge just east of the Van Wyck Expressway and south of the town of Flushing, Queens. George and Myrtle Wilson's auto garage would have stood at this spot, and the haunting sign for eye doctor T. J. Eckleberg would have been visible at this spot too.
This blog post has become one of the most popular pages on Literary Kicks, and since I now realize that many people share my fascination with Fitzgerald's "valley of ashes" I'd like to show you the photos I took while I was researching this locale, which I'd never bothered to put up before.
Three quotes I like, not necessarily related in any particular way:
When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed,- and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went before the sun, and spake thus unto it:
Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest!
For ten years hast thou climbed hither unto my cave: thou wouldst have wearied of thy light and of the journey, had it not been for me, mine eagle, and my serpent.
But we awaited thee every morning, took from thee thine overflow, and blessed thee for it.
Lo! I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that hath gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it.
I would fain bestow and distribute, until the wise have once more become joyous in their folly, and the poor happy in their riches.
Therefore must I descend into the deep: as thou doest in the evening, when thou goest behind the sea, and givest light also to the nether-world, thou exuberant star!
Like thee must I go down, as men say, to whom I shall descend.
Bless me, then, thou tranquil eye, that canst behold even the greatest happiness without envy!
Bless the cup that is about to overflow, that the water may flow golden out of it, and carry everywhere the reflection of thy bliss!
Lo! This cup is again going to empty itself, and Zarathustra is again going to be a man.
Thus began Zarathustra's down-going.
What do the following scenarios have in common?
- A football stadium erupts in cheers when the home team scores.
- An army advances towards the enemy in a battle.
- A family watches TV together.
- Two people meet, fall in love, get married, stay together for life.
- Twelve poker players glare at each other as the final table of a tournament begins.
- A fire department storms into a burning building and saves several lives.
- A group of marine scientists and ecologists rescue a shoreline from an oil spill.
- Members of a small town church gather for a weekend's worship.
- A high school drama department puts on a musical play.
- A political party conducts an intensive national voter drive on election day.
- A classroom gathers for a teacher's lesson.
Let's also throw in these somewhat different situations, and look at them in a similar light:
What do all these scenarios have in common? In all of these cases, an outside observer who wishes to understand exactly what is taking place will have to consider not only the isolated thoughts and motivations of each individual person, but also the dynamics of the group as a whole. Each person in each scenario has a private set of feelings, desires, fears, ideals, motivations. But the group itself seems to exert a strong force, often creating a sense that the group has its own feelings, desires, fears, ideals and motivations separate from those of each individual in the group. As the activity plays out, the intentions of the group will often take precedence over the intentions of each individual in the group.
A family watches TV together. Two of them want to watch a comedy, one wants to watch basketball, one wants to watch a cooking show. They flicker through the channels and find "American Idol". No mathematical equation of (2 * comedy) + basketball + cooking could possibly equal "American Idol", and in fact none of them would enjoy watching this show if they were alone. But they do enjoy watching it together, and the next night they happily gather in the same room to do it again.
Since our weekend debates about ethics often revolve around the word "empathy", it occurred to me that we should find out exactly what the word means. Let's hit up Wikipedia and see what we find:
Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion. The English word was coined in 1909 by E.B. Titchener as an attempt to translate the German word "Einfuhlungsvermogen", a new phenomenon explored at the end of 19th century mainly by Theodor Lipps
I'd like to hunt down these etymological hints for a future article, but first I want to examine the meaning of the word. Does "empathy" indicate a person's rational awareness of another person's feelings, or rather does it indicate an emotional concern with another person's feelings? The word is often popularly used in the latter sense: if I am empathetic with you, I care about your well-being. But the Wikipedia definition draws a prominent distinction between "empathy" (the intellectual awareness of another person's feelings) and "compassion" (a concern for another person). "Empathy", then, seems to have no necessary moral substance. It's possible to feel empathy with someone while also wishing them harm. Empathy is only the antenna, the awareness, the sense.
This distinction may be too finely drawn for some people's tastes, as it disagrees with the popular use of the term. But the distinction between awareness (empathy) and concern (compassion) does seem useful, and I am willing to go along with this strict definition of the term from now on, and differentiate between "compassion" and "empathy" as needed in future discussions.
But an even tougher controversy involving the meaning of "empathy" becomes apparent in the next section of the Wikipedia page, titled "Theorists and definition". This controversy appears to be so active that Wikipedia throws up its hands and offers a list of possible definitions from various theorists, presenting a fascinating dichotomy between two popular meanings of the word. Here's the section in full:
1. Isn't this a great book cover? Woolgathering is not a new Patti Smith book, and it shouldn't be mistaken for a sequel to her great Just Kids. In fact, I first bought this when it was a great little Hanuman book that looked like this:
The Hanuman book looked cool, but I think the newly republished New Directions version's cover art may be even better. Shepherd, tend thy flock.
2. Occupy St. Petersburg? Bill Ectric draws some connections between Nikolai Gogol's financial satire Dead Souls and more recent high finance scams.
3. Steve Silberman asks: What kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, really?
In a nod to my childhood fascination with Halloween and things that go bump in the night, I still reserve the month of October for books about dark subjects. I’ll sample the latest in horror fiction or bury myself in non-fiction accounts of unsolved mysteries or infamous killers. This year, my October selections were two recent works of historical non-fiction: Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King and Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast by Jay M. Smith.
At a glance, these books might seem to have little in common, other than the fact that they both take place in France. Monsters of Gévaudan, after all, is about the well-documented events that took place in the rugged, rural mountains of south-central France from in the 1760’s, when a mysterious creature – known simply to the French as La Bête – viciously attacked over 200 women and children, killing at least half. Death in the City of Light, on the other hand, takes place in more modern times, telling the story of a mad doctor who used the chaos of the Occupation to murder scores of Parisian Jews and gangsters eager to flee the beleaguered city. But beyond the French connection and the murderous monsters at the center of each book, many more striking similarities exist.
(As the English-speaking world eagerly awaits the translation of the newest Haruki Murakami novel, 1Q84, here's Meg Wise-Lawrence's appreciation of the Japanese author's full body of work. Meg teaches English at Hunter College in New York City.)
How often does literature truly transport you?I remember walking out of the theater after first seeing Mad Max in The Road Warrior in 1981. I was shocked to find a sunny day in New Jersey, and not post-apocalyptic outback. When I read Ray Bradbury’s “Rain,” I felt soaked. Usually the transformative effect is more prevalent in movies -- Terry Gilliam, David Lynch and Wim Wenders come to mind.
To read the novels and short stories of Haruki Murakami is to enter an alternate universe that is uncannily similar to your own, and yet different enough that it brilliantly illuminates your own life. To read Murakami -- to engage with art -- is to enter an altered state of consciousness, to experience a reader-writer mindmeld. You don’t want the trip to end, but when it does you know you’ve been transformed -- even if it was just for a few seconds in the bright sun after a good movie.
Murakami’s books pay off. They are the odd friend you can’t explain but you know your other friends will like. Pick any of his works, and you’ll be invited into a semi-familiar, alien world, where his characters are guides. In Sputnik Sweetheart, Sumire is going through a Jack Kerouac phase, carrying a “dog-eared copy of On the Road or Lonesome Traveler” in the pocket of her tattered, oversized herringbone coat. Her passions are literature and music; she’s working on crafting a “Total Novel” but the magic hasn’t happened yet. Murakami’s narrator says, “If she’d been able to grow a beard, I’m sure she would have.” She meets the lovely, older Miu who had “a vague sense that [Kerouac] was a novelist of some kind.” Wasn’t he a Sputnik? She asks.
Magic Trip, a new film by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, tells the story of novelist Ken Kesey's 1964 road trip across America in a painted bus with a troupe of fanciful hippies and legendary beatnik Neal Cassady at the wheel.
This bus trip was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's 1968 bestseller Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is also currently in production as a Gus Van Sant film (this will presumably come out near the same time as the long-awaited film of On The Road, which means two major Hollywood films featuring Neal Cassady's driving skills will hit the screens at the same time). Magic Trip, a modest and straightforward documentary, has at least one claim to authenticity over the eventual Van Sant work: it presents the actual film footage produced by the camera-wielding hippies as they drove across the country in 1964.
I wouldn't make a very good creationist, since I believe completely in Darwin's theory of natural selection and human evolution. I know that the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelmingly persuasive. I find most religious creation myths childish and inane, and I've been known to snicker about creationist museums in Kentucky or Miss USA Pageant candidates who find the question "should evolution be taught in school?" hilariously tough to answer.
However, I try to check myself before laughing too hard, or else I might commit my own fallacy and conclude too glibly that anyone who does not believe in Darwinism today must be mentally addled or badly miseducated. I might allow myself to feel intellectually superior to creationists, and this would be a dangerous overstep. As an elaborate scientific theory about the distant past, Darwin's great discovery will never have the same force of persuasion as any theory that can be simply proven with direct experimentation. The evidence for evolution requires explanation, assumption and interpretation; it is not directly and immediately obvious. If I forget this basic fact, I might commit the error of lumping the theory of evolution in with more urgent and alarming recent theories and reports about man-made climate change. I might conclude that conservative politicians are engaged in a "war on science", and draw a hard line: if you don't believe in both global warming and evolution, you are a liar and a fool.