Brain Pickings

Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen

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A touching celebration of the “intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.”

“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” visionary neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning maps the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.

The book is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches if City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…

But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.

On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:

I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”

In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.

Dr. Sacks's official portrait as a UCLA resident, taken at the neuropathology lab in 1964 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Nowhere does Dr. Sacks’s grace shine most luminously than in the disarming vulnerability — sometimes pensive, often poignant, always profound — with which this great seer discusses the heartbreak of not being seen himself, especially when it comes to the most intimate frontier of the human psyche. He recounts a pivotal conversation with his father as he was about to depart for his university studies at Oxford at the age of eighteen:

“You don’t seem to have many girlfriends,” he said. “Don’t you like girls?”

“They’re all right,” I answered, wishing the conversation would stop.

“Perhaps you prefer boys?” he persisted.

“Yes, I do — but it’s just a feeling — I have never ‘done’ anything,” and then I added, fearfully, “Don’t tell Ma — she won’t be able to take it.” But my father did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. “You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.” Then she left and did not speak to me for several days. When she did speak, there was no reference to what she had said (nor did she ever refer to the matter again), but something had come between us.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks for Brain Pickings)

This experience, which left an indelible imprint of shame on young Oliver’s mind, is doubly perplexing and heartbreaking in the context of his parents’ credentials — both were prominent physicians, which would ordinarily imply the unsuperstitious critical thinking that science espouses. In fact, his mother, a female surgeon and anatomist at the dawn of the twentieth century, was a trailblazer for women in science — so much so that his father would jokingly refer to himself as “the husband of the eminent gynecologist Elsie Landau.” And yet even here, Dr. Sacks is able to transcend the personal devastation and perform the great act of empathic inquiry that became the raw material of his work — a dedication to considering the complex reality of another, very different mind:

We are all creatures of our upbringings, our cultures, our times. And I have needed to remind myself, repeatedly, that my mother was born in the 1890s and had an Orthodox upbringing and that in England in the 1950s homosexual behavior was treated not only as a perversion but as a criminal offense. I have to remember, too, that sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.

And herein blooms a vibrant example of the very thing that makes the book so extraordinary — the elegance with which Dr. Sacks bridges the observations of the mind with the tribulations of the heart:

My mother did not mean to be cruel, to wish me dead. She was suddenly overwhelmed, I now realize, and she probably regretted her words or perhaps partitioned them off in a closeted part of her mind. But her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.

That paralyzing inhibition followed him into university, but because guilt is a judgment of reason and the heart has its own emotive will, he eventually found himself falling in love for the first time — in spite of himself, in spite of his mother’s anguishing admonition, in spite of his brother’s well-meaning but woefully misguided effort to alleviate his sexual shyness by introducing him to a kindly French prostitute, who sensed young Oliver’s predicament and instead had “a nice cup of tea” with him.

Oliver Sacks in Oxford in 1953 (Photograph: David Drazin)

At Oxford, he met a young fellow named Richard Selig — a Rhodes scholar of enormous “vitality and love of life,” who “bore himself like a lion.” Dr. Sacks recounts those first flutterings of love:

We got talking; I suspect that it was he who started a conversation, for I was always too shy to initiate any contact and his great beauty made me even shyer… His knowledge of the world was far greater than mine, even given the disparity of age (he was twenty-four; I was twenty), far greater than that of most undergraduates who had gone straight from school to university with no experience of real life in between. He found something interesting in me, and we soon became friends — and more, for I fell in love with him. It was the first time in my life I had fallen in love. I fell in love with his face, his body, his mind, his poetry, everything about him. He would often bring me just-written poems, and I would give him some of my physiology essays in return.

[…]

We would go on long walks together, talking about poetry and science. Richard loved to hear me wax enthusiastic about chemistry and biology, and I lost my shyness when I did so. While I knew that I was in love with Richard, I was very apprehensive of admitting this; my mother’s words about “abomination” had made me feel that I must not say what I was. But, mysteriously, wonderfully, being in love, and in love with a being like Richard, was a source of joy and pride to me, and one day, with my heart in my mouth, I told Richard that I was in love with him, not knowing how he would react. He hugged me, gripped my shoulders, and said, “I know. I am not that way, but I appreciate your love and love you too, in my own way.” I did not feel rebuffed or brokenhearted. He had said what he had to say in the most sensitive way, and our friendship continued, made easier now by my relinquishing certain painful and hopeless longings.

But just as young Oliver was making peace with the fact that he and Richard will only ever be friends — lifelong friends, perhaps — life took one of its cruel turns. One day, Richard showed up in Oliver’s room, concerned about a lump in his groin and asked his friend — since he was a medical student — to take a look. Oliver’s fears were confirmed — it was a malignant tumor. Richard was told he had no more than two years to live, and he never spoke to Oliver again. “I was the first to recognize the deadly import of his tumor,” Dr. Sacks writes with wistfulness so palpably and heartbreakingly unmitigated by the lapse of six decades, “and perhaps he saw me now as a sort of messenger or symbol of death.”

He was so devastated that his studies began to suffer and his parents decided it was best for him to take a leave from Oxford and spend some time in “a friendly and supportive community with hard physical work from dawn till dusk” — so, in 1955, he joined a kibbutz. The experience was transformative in not just the intended ways:

I had gone to the kibbutz as a pallid, unfit 250 pounds, but when I left it three months later, I had lost nearly 60 pounds and, in some deep sense, felt more at home in my own body.

Oliver Sacks in Greenwich Village in 1961, on his new BMW R60 (Photograph: Douglas White)

This was the start of Dr. Sacks’s love affair with the world of physique and strength training — a deeply personal proto-demonstration of something he’d later come to demonstrate as a pioneering neurologist: that the mind is indivisible from the body. In the years that followed, as he returned to clinical work, he also began weight training with a clinician’s systematic rigor. Eventually, he sliced through the country on the back of his beloved motorbike, armed with a camera and a newfound love for landscape photography — this, it bears repeating, is a man of ample talents — and made his way to Venice’s famous Muscle Beach. There, he came to be known as Dr. Squat for squatting with a gobsmacking 600 pounds — a feat by which he set the California state record in 1961. (Having done bodybuilding myself in a past life, my admiration for Dr. Sacks doubled.)

Dr. Squat setting the California state record in 1961

Eventually, Dr. Squat traded in his bike leathers and weightlifting belt for the white coat of Dr. Sacks. He fell in love again with a young man named Mel, only to have his heart broken by Mel’s conflicted rejection:

We enjoyed each other’s company for a year — the year of my internship at Mount Zion. We would go on weekend motorbike rides together, camping out, swimming in ponds and lakes, and sometimes wrestling together. There was an erotic frisson here for me, and perhaps for Mel too. Erotic with the urgent opposition of our bodies, though there was no explicit sexual element, nor would an observer have thought we were anything more than a couple of young men wrestling together. Both of us were proud of our washboard abdominals and would do sets of sit-ups, a hundred or more at a time. Mel would sit astride me, punching me playfully in the stomach with each sit-up, and I would do the same with him.

This I found sexually exciting, and I think he did too; Mel was always saying, “Let’s wrestle,” “Let’s do abs,” though it was not a purposively sexual act. We could work our abdominals or wrestle and get pleasure from it, at one and the same time. So long as things went no further.

I felt Mel’s fragility, his not fully conscious, lurking fear of sexual contact with another man, but also the special feeling he had for me, which, I dared to think, might transcend these fears. I realized I would have to go very gently.

But like those of us who have experienced the devastating disappointment of failing to dissolve another’s private conflictedness by the sheer force of love, Dr. Sacks discovered that all the gentleness in the world was hapless against the hard edges of Mel’s inner inhibitions. When the erotic and romantic tension between them became too much to bear, Mel left, leaving behind the cold ashes of a could-have-been. Its unlived potentiality — like all great unrealized longings — reveals itself as scar tissue of the soul as Dr. Sacks looks back a lifetime later:

I had had dreams, in our “honeymoon” period, that we would spend our lives together, even into a happy old age; I was all of twenty-eight at the time. Now I am eighty, trying to reconstruct an autobiography of sorts. I find myself thinking of Mel, of us together, in those early, lyrical, innocent days, wondering what happened to him, whether he is still alive… I wonder if he will read what I have just written and think more kindly of our ardent, young, very confused selves.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks for Brain Pickings)

The heartbreak of this almost-romance catapulted Dr. Sacks into a harrowing bout of amphetamine addiction, which he barely survived. After a couple of other short-lived infatuations, he entered a somewhat undeliberate period of celibacy that would last nearly four decades. What he didn’t find in romantic love he found in his work with patients — a profound sense of purpose and a deep love for how his work touched human lives. He writes:

It was crucial for me to find something with meaning, and this, for me, was seeing patients… I found my patients fascinating, and I cared for them. I started to taste my own clinical and therapeutic powers and, above all, the sense of autonomy and responsibility which I had been denied when I was still a resident in training.

Over the decades that followed, that fusion of fascination and love propelled Dr. Sacks into becoming the most influential neurologist of our time, irrevocably changing our understanding of the human mind and how it shapes the spirit. And because life has a way of dancing with its own strangeness, it was through the love of his work that Dr. Sacks finally found the love of his life. (As some wise friends have memorably advised, “If you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.”) Dr. Sacks writes:

Shortly after my seventy-fifth birthday in 2008, I met someone I liked. Billy, a writer, had just moved from San Francisco to New York, and we began having dinners together. Timid and inhibited all my life, I let a friendship and intimacy grow between us, perhaps without fully realizing its depth. Only in December of 2009, still recuperating from knee and back surgeries and racked with pain, did I realize how deep it was. Billy was going to Seattle to spend Christmas with his family, and just before he went, he came to see me and (in the serious, careful way he has) said, “I have conceived a deep love for you.” I realized, when he said this, what I had not realized, or had concealed from myself before — that I had conceived a deep love for him too — and my eyes filled with tears. He kissed me, and then he was gone.

[…]

There was an intense emotionality at this time: music I loved, or the long golden sunlight of late afternoon, would set me weeping. I was not sure what I was weeping for, but I would feel an intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

On the Move, the dedication page of which reads simply “for Billy,” is unsynthesizably transcendent in its totality — so immensely rewarding, so rich in private human truth and shared human wisdom, that compressing it into anything less than the full 416 pages is an injustice. As Dr. Sacks bids the world adieu, he leaves us with this miracle of a book — the ultimate gift of “love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.”

Photographs courtesy of Oliver Sacks; special thanks to Kate Edgar

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Spineless: Susan Middleton’s Mesmerizing Photographs of Marine Invertebrates

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Visual verses celebrating the glorious grandeur of life on our pale blue dot.

The mystery of marine life has compelled humanity for millennia, from ancient Indian mythology to Aristotle, who was the first to outline the distinction between invertebrates and vertebrates in his Historia Animalium. Perhaps because we ourselves sprang from the oceans, these creatures and their habitats have long lent themselves to our tendency toward thinking with animals. Even David Foster Wallace turned to the primordial seas of metaphor in his legendary Kenyon College commencement address, which came to be known as This Is Water after its central clarion call for “awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water. This is water.’”

In Spineless (public library), visual artist, educator, and explorer Susan Middleton turns her luminous lens to one particularly underappreciated aspect of these real and essential invisibilia: the exquisite and enigmatic world of marine invertebrates, which represent 98% of the known animal species in the oceans and are thus the backbone of life on our blue planet, on which 97% of the water is ocean. Indeed, this is water.

Red-eye medusa (Polyorchis penicillatus)

© Susan Middleton

Using a special photographic technique she developed, Middleton captures an astounding diversity of creatures, ranging from giant squid to tiny translucent jellyfish to two species so new to science — the Kanola squat lobster and the Wanawana crab — that they have been formally named based on the very individuals in the book. Her photographs are at once austere and deeply alive — against the plain black or white background, these creatures fill the frame with striking intimacy of presence.

Opalescent nudibranch (Hermissenda crassicornis)

© Susan Middleton

Stubby squid (Rossia pacifica)

© Susan Middleton

Middleton’s fascination with marine invertebrates began more than a quarter century earlier, while working on a project to photograph one hundred endangered species. One of them was the shrimp tadpole — a tiny, unassuming, yet utterly remarkable creature that lived on Earth long before fish evolved and has remained practically unchanged for 250 million years, developing clever strategies for survival despite its defenseless body. Middleton writes:

That was the beginning of my obsession with the world of invertebrates.

Ever since, I have been fascinated by the bizarre beauty and inherent mystery of this realm of life. The photographs herein are intended to reveal the exceptional shapes, patterns, textures, and colors of these remarkable creatures. Colorful, quirky, quivery, spindly, spiky, sticky, stretchy, squishy, slithery, squirmy, prickly, bumpy, bubbly, and fluttery, the invertebrates appear almost surreal, even alien.

Gold-banded hermit crab (Dardanus brachyops)

© Susan Middleton

Indeed, the most rewarding aspect of Middleton’s project extends far beyond its undeniable aesthetic mesmerism and into a more profound appreciation of not only the incredible diversity of these life forms but also the incredible diversity among them — each animal is revealed as an individual, with palpably distinctive likeness and behavior, even within a species. We are suddenly reminded that if we are to heed Jane Goodall and truly live our lives in Rilke’s widening circles by continuing to expand our circles of compassion to nonhuman animals, we cannot exclude these weird and wonderful beings.

Pink brittle star

© Susan Middleton

Orange-rimmed flatworm (Mayazoon orsaki)

© Susan Middleton

For Middleton herself, who has dedicated her life to capturing and conveying the realities of creatures quite different from ourselves — often ones gravely endangered by our human solipsism and the destructive entitlement it engenders — this has been a centerpiece of the project. To gaze at life forms with powers of perception so vastly different from — and often superior to — our own is to invariably ask what it’s like to experience the world in this alien way, what life is like for that being. Middleton puts this awareness beautifully:

This recognition has opened me to a larger world and a profound assemblage of energies beyond the human.

White phantom crab

© Susan Middleton

Hanging stomach jellyfish (Stomotoca atra)

© Susan Middleton

Pacific giant octopus

© Susan Middleton

It is almost inconceivable that a photograph could sing to the soul the way a Mary Oliver poem does, and yet embraced by Middleton’s compassionate curiosity, these marvelous creatures join together in a chorus exhorting us to begin belonging to this world immediately, because “There is so much to admire, to weep over. / And to write music or poems about.” Middleton emerges as a poet of photography, each image in Spineless a visual verse that renders us a little more awake to the glorious grandeur of this world we share with so many other beings, a little more reluctant to contribute to its destruction with our small everyday choices, which are the building blocks of our civilizational acts.

Complement this treasure of a book, which features a foreword by oceanic patron saint Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earle, with Jane Goodall on our human responsibility.

Photographs courtesy of Abrams

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Body, Soul, and the Elusive Seedbed of Our Identity: Lewis Carroll on the Material and Immaterial Forces of Life, in a Letter to a Little Girl

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The perplexity of why your identity endures even if all the cells in your body are wholly replaced every seven years.

“I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul,” Rilke wrote in a beautiful 1921 letter, “since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” The relationship between the material and immaterial forces of life has occupied poets and physicists like for as long as we humans have been aware of our mortality and able to articulate that awareness. More recently, it has prompted philosophers to pose such fascinating questions as how we know who we are if our present selves are unrecognizably different from past ones.

That immutable inquiry is what mathematician and writer Charles Dodgson, better-known as Lewis Carroll (January 27, 1832–January 14, 1898), explores in one of the many witty and wise missives collected in The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download) — the indispensable volume that also gave us Carroll on how to alleviate our discomfort with change and his three tips for overcoming creative block.

In the fall of 1885, one of Carroll’s “child-friends” — he had many largely epistolary friendships with children throughout his life, including the real-life little girl who inspired his Wonderland — wrote to him after reading Thomas Carlyle’s 1836 philosophical novel Sartor Resartus and finding herself particularly captivated by Carlyle’s treatment of the relationship between the body and the soul. The subject — perhaps unsurprisingly, given the profound transcendentalist undertones of Alice in Wonderland, published two decades earlier — was also of deep interest to Carroll, who wrote to his young friend:

My dear Edith, —

One subject you touch on — “the Resurrection of the Body” — is very interesting to me, and I have given it much thought (I mean long ago). My conclusion was to give up the literal meaning of the material body altogether. Identity, in some mysterious way, there evidently is; but there is no resisting the scientific fact that the actual material usable for physical bodies has been used over and over again — so that each atom would have several owners. The mere solitary fact of the existence of cannibalism is to my mind a sufficient reductio ad absurdum of the theory that the particular set of atoms I shall happen to own at death (changed every seven years, they say) will be mine in the next life — and all the other insuperable difficulties (such as people born with bodily defects) are swept away at once if we accept S. Paul’s “spiritual body ,” and his simile of the grain of corn. I have read very little of “Sartor Resartus,” and don’t know the passage you quote: but I accept the idea of the material body being the “dress” of the spiritual — a dress needed for material life.

Complement The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, which is nothing short of addictive in its totality, with Carroll on how to feed the mind, his four rules for digesting information, and his tips for making email more civil, then revisit Carl Sagan’s timeless treatise on science and spirituality and Rebecca Goldstein on the perplexity of why you and your childhood self are the same person despite a lifetime of material changes.

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Project 1 in 4: Drawings Illuminating the Everyday Realities of Life with Mental Illness

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A revelatory reality check and a clarion call for life-saving compassion.

“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless,” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother from the grip of mental illness. The great Dutch painter endures as one of the key figures we’ve enlisted in perpetuating the perilous “tortured genius” myth — a travesty of the the actual relationship between creativity and mental illness and among the many symptoms of our culture’s pathological delusions about what it’s really like to live with a mind that continually and uncompromisingly antagonizes, sabotages, and corrupts one’s wellbeing.

Project 1 in 4 by School of Visual Arts student Marissa Betley explores the everyday realities of life with mental illness — which affects one in four people in America and adds up to a societal cost of $300 billion per year — through a series of drawings based on the experiences, struggles, and coping strategies of people Betley interviewed, who had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD, and a range of other disorders.

With elegant directness, she exposes the stigmas and misconceptions to which we continue to cling as we oscillate between the equally perilous poles of romanticizing and invalidating psychoemotional anguish. Beneath the mere relaying of these experiences, however revelatory in and of itself, is a deeper call for compassion — a reminder that, as Betley puts it, “love and support makes all the difference.”

Reminiscent in spirit of artist Bobby Baker’s courageous visual diary of mental illness and the breath-stopping Drawing Autism project, but substantially different in style, Betley’s deliberately unelaborate drawings capture the concrete and acute suffering that mental illness engenders — a piercing counterpoint to the epidemic of mistaken beliefs that mental illness amounts to something as vague as a sense or as light as a mood.

Project 1 in 4 is part of the annual 100 Days Project initiative by the SVA Masters in Branding program, which assigns students the task of envisioning a creative operation, performing it for one hundred consecutive days, and documenting the ongoing process publicly. It has previously sprouted such wonderful efforts as Randy Gregory’s 100 Ways to Improve the NYC Subway and Jennifer Beatty’s 100 Hoopties, and was originally inspired by legendary graphic designer Michael Bierut’s assignment to his students at the Yale School of Art.

Betley’s project is part public service, part private inquiry — a beautiful embodiment of Aristotle’s famous proclamation that one’s greatest potential for purposeful contribution lies at the intersection of one’s passions and the world’s needs. When I spoke with her about the project, she shared the personal motivation behind the dry statistics of mental illness:

I’ve seen firsthand how serious and debilitating these illnesses can be. They can be remarkably devastating. While professional help is key, what’s equally important is unwavering support from family and friends. I thought, if I could just find a real human way to raise greater awareness then maybe I could help break down the stigmas surrounding mental illness that are preventing people from getting the help they need. Maybe the project could even save lives.

See more on the project site, complement it with the fascinating research on the relationship between REM sleep and depression, and heed positive psychology founding father Martin Seligman’s simple exercise for bolstering mental health.

For some pause-giving perspective, revisit the story of how trailblazing journalist Nellie Bly forever changed our treatment of mental illness.

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Montaigne on “Curation,” the Illusion of Originality, and How We Form Our Opinions

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“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

I often think of reading not as the acquisition of static knowledge but as the active springboard for thinking and dynamic contemplation — hence the combinatorial, LEGO-like nature of creativity, wherein we assemble building blocks of existing knowledge into new formations of understanding that we consider our original ideas. But long before our contemporary conceptions of how creativity works, French Renaissance polymath and proto-blogger Michel de Montaigne (February 28, 1533–September 13, 1592) articulated this magpielike quality of the mind, so very central to ideation.

In Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays (public domain; public library) — the same indispensable volume that gave us the great philosopher’s ideas on death and the art of living — he writes:

A competent reader often discovers in other men’s writings other perfections than the author himself either intended or perceived, a richer sense and more quaint expression.

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne by Salvador Dalí, 1947. Click image for details.

Half a millennium before Mark Twain proclaimed that “substantially all ideas are second-hand” and long before we drained the term “curation” of meaning by compulsive and indiscriminate application, Montaigne observed:

I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.

But what makes Montaigne’s meditation so incisive — and such an urgently necessary fine-tuning of how we think of “curation” today — is precisely the emphasis on the thread. This assemblage of existing ideas, he argues, is nothing without the critical thinking of the assembler — the essential faculty examining those ideas to sieve the meaningful from the meaningless, assimilating them into one’s existing system of knowledge, and metabolizing them to nurture a richer understanding of the world. Montaigne writes:

We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make it our own. We are in this very like him, who having need of fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any with him home… What good does it do us to have the stomach full of meat, if it do not digest, if it be not incorporated with us, if it does not nourish and support us?

Three centuries later, Thoreau — another of humanity’s most quotable and overquoted minds — made a similar point about the perils of mindlessly parroting the ideas of those who came before us, which produces only simulacra of truth. The mindful reflection and expansion upon existing ideas and views, on the other hand, is a wholly different matter — it is the path via which we arrive at more considered opinions of our own, cultivate our critical faculties, and inch closer to truth itself. Montaigne writes:

Aristotle ordinarily heaps up a great number of other men’s opinions and beliefs, to compare them with his own, and to let us see how much he has gone beyond them, and how much nearer he approaches to the likelihood of truth; for truth is not to be judged by the authority and testimony of others; which made Epicurus religiously avoid quoting them in his writings. This is the prince of all dogmatists, and yet we are told by him that the more we know the more we have room for doubt.

Complement Montaigne’s Complete Essays — a timeless trove of wisdom on such diverse facets of existence as happiness, education, fear, and the imagination — with his enduring wisdom on how to live and Salvador Dalí’s rare and whimsical illustrations for his essays.

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