Brain Pickings

Susan Sontag on Being in the Middle versus Being at the Center

By:

Why true neutrality is not an abstinence from taking sides of but an act of compassion.

“The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in reflecting on how language shapes our capacity for fantasy. And because language is intricately entwined with everything from our cognitive function to gender politics to the evolution of creativity, it also shapes our experience of reality — and of ourselves in reality — even more profoundly.

From Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — her superb 1978 conversation with Jonathan Cott that was among the best books of 2013 and also gave us Sontag on the false divide between “high” and pop culture, how our cultural polarities imprison us, and love, sex, and the world between — comes Sontag’s characteristically insightful meditation on the inherent intelligence and ingenuity of language in helping us navigate the world and orient ourselves not only in relation to it but in relation to ourselves as well. She tells Cott:

What’s so wonderful about language is that we have these positive and negative words for the same thing. That’s why language is an infinite treasure. When we say in the middle, we think of someone who wants to remain equidistant from certain alternatives because he or she is afraid to take sides. But being in the center — isn’t that interesting? The whole thing changes.

[…]

One can think of it in the time sense. But “being in the center” is opposed to being marginal, and you don’t want to be in the margin of your own consciousness, or your own experience, or your own time. John Calvin, of all people, said, “The world is sloped on either side, therefore place yourself in the middle of it.” Meaning that you can fall off. We all know in our own lives that people are falling off the world all the time — they get onto that slope and then they start to slide. And that’s another sense of being in the middle. But to be on level ground is what you want to do because life is very complicated and you don’t want to just be hanging on by your bitten-down fingernails on one end of things, which is what happens to a lot of people because they can’t see anymore. And from where they’re hanging, it’s just a struggle not to fall off completely.

Susan Sontag on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

When Cott relays the famous anecdote that Johann Sebastian Bach preferred playing the alto or tenor parts in an orchestra because being in the middle allowed him to truly hear the music around him, Sontag responds with a remark doubly poignant in the context of today’s net neutrality debates and why they matter:

That’s so interesting about Bach. I think it’s wonderful. There’s an active notion of neutrality that people don’t understand. Transcendent neutrality isn’t an attitude of “I won’t take sides,” it’s compassion. Where you do see more than just what separates people or sides.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview is truly an exceptional and wonderfully wide-ranging treasure. Sample it further here, here, and here, then revisit Sontag on love, education, “aesthetic consumerism” and the violence of photography, and why lists appeal to us.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Censorship and What Freedom of Speech Really Means: Comedian Bill Hicks’s Brilliant Letter to a Priest

By:

“‘Freedom of speech’ means you support the right of people to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with.”

In early June of 1993, several months before cancer took his life at the age of thirty-two, beloved comedian Bill Hicks received a letter from a priest, bemoaning the “blasphemous” content in Hicks’s live television special Revelations and reprimanding British broadcaster Channel 4 for having put it on the air. Writing a mere eight days before his fatal pancreatic cancer diagnosis — a young man still oblivious to his imminent tragic fate — Hicks decided to respond to the missive personally, in what became one of the most lucid and beautiful defenses of the freedom of speech ever articulated, on par with Voltaire’s piercing admonition about censorship and Madeleine L’Engle’s timeless words on the subject.

From Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) — the same wonderful compendium by Shaun Usher that gave us young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life, E.B. White’s heartening response to a man who had lost faith in humanity, and Eudora Welty’s impossibly charming lesson in how to apply to your dream job — comes Hicks’s brilliant, thoughtful, and immeasurably important response.

Hicks writes:

Dear Sir,

After reading your letter expressing your concerns regarding my special ‘Revelations’, I felt duty-bound to respond to you myself in hopes of clarifying my position on the points you brought up, and perhaps enlighten you as to who I really am. Where I come from — America — there exists this wacky concept called ‘freedom of speech’, which many people feel is one of the paramount achievements in mankind’s mental development. I myself am a strong supporter of the ‘Right of freedom of speech’, as I’m sure most people would be if they truly understood the concept. ‘Freedom of speech’ means you support the right of people to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with. (Otherwise, you don’t believe in ‘freedom of speech’, but rather only those ideas which you believe to be acceptably stated.) Seeing as how there are so many different beliefs in the world, and as it would be virtually impossible for all of us to agree on any one belief, you may begin to realize just how important an idea like ‘freedom of speech’ really is. The idea basically states ‘while I don’t agree or care for what you are saying, I do support your right to say it, for herein lies true freedom.

It’s worth pausing here to note that in the DNA of the Christian Church, as an institution, is a compulsion to do precisely the opposite — to suppress the views that contradict its dogmas. One need only look to Galileo’s trails to appreciate how far back and how deeply these foundations of power-maintenance through censorship run. (But, of course, there’s always Flannery O’Connor to clarify the difference between dogmatic religion and faith.)

With his characteristic blend of snark and keen cultural insight, Hicks continues:

While I’ve found many of the religious shows I’ve viewed over the years not to be to my liking, or in line with my own beliefs, I’ve never considered it my place to exert any greater type of censorship than changing the channel, or better yet — turning off the TV completely.

Hicks moves on to the part of the letter that disturbed him the most:

In support of your position of outrage, you posit the hypothetical scenario regarding the possibly ‘angry’ reaction of Muslims to material they might find similarly offensive. Here is my question to you: Are you tacitly condoning the violent terrorism of a handful of thugs to whom the idea of ‘freedom of speech’ and tolerance is perhaps as foreign as Christ’s message itself? If you are somehow implying that their intolerance to contrary beliefs is justifiable, admirable, or perhaps even preferable to one of acceptance and forgiveness, then I wonder what your true beliefs really are.

If you had watched my entire show, you would have noticed in my summation of my beliefs the fervent plea to the governments of the world to spend less money on the machinery of war, and more on feeding, clothing, and educating the poor and needy of the world … A not-so-unchristian sentiment at that!

Ultimately, the message in my material is a call for understanding rather than ignorance, peace rather than war, forgiveness rather than condemnation, and love rather than fear. While this message may have understandably been lost on your ears (due to my presentation), I assure you the thousands of people I played to in my tours of the United Kingdom got it.

Whether or not the priest himself got it, even after the letter, is another story open for speculation.

Letters of Note is a spectacular collection in its entirety, featuring opinionated, vulnerable, beautiful, blunt, and deeply human contributions from such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, Richard Feynman, Jack Kerouac, Emily Dickinson, Flannery O’Connor, Leonardo da Vinci, and more. Sample three of my favorites here, here, and here. Usher continues to dig up even more gems and to share them on Letters of Note, one of the most wonderful corners of the internet.

You can watch Hicks’s Revelations below. It, along with the rest of his legacy, can be found on this essential collection of his work.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Rethinking the Placebo Effect: How Our Minds Actually Affect Our Bodies

By:

The startling physiological effects of loneliness, optimism, and meditation.

In 2013, Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted a mind-bending debate on the nature of “nothing” — an inquiry that has occupied thinkers since the dawn of recorded thought and permeates everything from Hamlet’s iconic question to the boldest frontiers of quantum physics. That’s precisely what New Scientist editor-in-chief Jeremy Webb explores with a kaleidoscopic lens in Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion (public library) — a terrific collection of essays and articles exploring everything from vacuum to the birth and death of the universe to how the concept of zero gained wide acceptance in the 17th century after being shunned as a dangerous innovation for 400 years. As Webb elegantly puts it, “nothing becomes a lens through which we can explore the universe around us and even what it is to be human. It reveals past attitudes and present thinking.”

Among the most intensely interesting pieces in the collection is one by science journalist Jo Marchant, who penned the fascinating story of the world’s oldest analog computer. Titled “Heal Thyself,” the piece explores how the way we think about medical treatments shapes their very real, very physical effects on our bodies — an almost Gandhi-like proposition, except rooted in science rather than philosophy. Specifically, Marchant brings to light a striking new dimension of the placebo effect that runs counter to how the phenomenon has been conventionally explained. She writes:

It has always been assumed that the placebo effect only works if people are conned into believing that they are getting an actual active drug. But now it seems this may not be true. Belief in the placebo effect itself — rather than a particular drug — might be enough to encourage our bodies to heal.

She cites a recent study at the Harvard Medical School, in which people with irritable bowel syndrome were given a placebo and informed that the pills were “made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.” As Marchant notes, this is absolutely true, in a meta kind of way. What the researchers found was startling in its implications for medicine, philosophy, and spirituality — despite being aware they were taking placebos, the participants rated their symptoms as “moderately improved” on average. In other words, they knew what they were taking wasn’t a drug — it was a medical “nothing” — but the very consciousness of taking something made them experience fewer symptoms.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

This dovetails into recent research confirming what Helen Keller fervently believed by putting some serious science behind the value of optimism. Marchant sums up the findings:

Realism can be bad for your health. Optimists recover better from medical procedures such as coronary bypass surgery, have healthier immune systems and live longer, both in general and when suffering from conditions such as cancer, heart disease and kidney failure.

It is well accepted that negative thoughts and anxiety can make us ill. Stress — the belief that we are at risk — triggers physiological pathways such as the “fight-or-flight” response, mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. These have evolved to protect us from danger, but if switched on long-term they increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes and dementia.

What researchers are now realizing is that positive beliefs don’t just work by quelling stress. They have a positive effect too — feeling safe and secure, or believing things will turn out fine, seems to help the body maintain and repair itself…

Optimism seems to reduce stress-induced inflammation and levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. It may also reduce susceptibility to disease by dampening sympathetic nervous system activity and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter governs what’s called the “rest-and-digest” response — the opposite of fight-or-flight.

Just as helpful as taking a rosy view of the future is having a rosy view of yourself. High “self-enhancers” — people who see themselves in a more positive light than others see them — have lower cardiovascular responses to stress and recover faster, as well as lower baseline cortisol levels.

Marchant notes that it’s as beneficial to amplify the world’s perceived positivity as it is to amplify our own — something known as our “self-enhancement bias,” a type of self-delusion that helps keep us sane. But the same applies to our attitudes toward others as well — they too can impact our physical health. She cites University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, who has dedicated his career to studying how social isolation affects individuals. Though solitude might be essential for great writing, being alone a special form of art, and single living the defining modality of our time, loneliness is a different thing altogether — a thing Cacioppo found to be toxic:

Being lonely increases the risk of everything from heart attacks to dementia, depression and death, whereas people who are satisfied with their social lives sleep better, age more slowly and respond better to vaccines. The effect is so strong that curing loneliness is as good for your health as giving up smoking.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

Marchant quotes another researcher, Charles Raison at Atlanta’s Emory University, who studies mind–body interactions:

It’s probably the single most powerful behavioral finding in the world… People who have rich social lives and warm, open relationships don’t get sick and they live longer.

Marchant points to specific research by Cacioppo, who found that “in lonely people, genes involved in cortisol signaling and the inflammatory response were up-regulated, and that immune cells important in fighting bacteria were more active, too.” Marchant explains the findings and the essential caveat to them:

[Cacioppo] suggests that our bodies may have evolved so that in situations of perceived social isolation, they trigger branches of the immune system involved in wound healing and bacterial infection. An isolated person would be at greater risk of physical trauma, whereas being in a group might favor the immune responses necessary for fighting viruses, which spread easily between people in close contact.

Crucially, these differences relate most strongly to how lonely people think they are, rather than to the actual size of their social network. That also makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, says Cacioppo, because being among hostile strangers can be just as dangerous as being alone. So ending loneliness is not about spending more time with people. Cacioppo thinks it is all about our attitude to others: lonely people become overly sensitive to social threats and come to see others as potentially dangerous. In a review of previous studies … he found that tackling this attitude reduced loneliness more effectively than giving people more opportunities for interaction, or teaching social skills.

Illustration by André François for 'Little Boy Brown,' a lovely vintage ode to childhood and loneliness. Click image for more.

Paradoxically, science suggests that one of the most important interventions to offer benefits that counter the ill effects of loneliness has to do with solitude — or, more precisely, regimented solitude in the form of meditation. Marchant notes that trials on the effects of meditation have been small — something I find troublesomely emblematic of the short-sightedness with which we approach mental health as we continue to prioritize the physical in both our clinical subsidies and our everyday lives (how many people have a workout routine compared to those with a meditation practice?); even within the study of mental health, the vast majority of medical research focuses on the effects of a physical substance — a drug of some sort — on the mind, with very little effort directed at understanding the effects of the mind on the physical body.

Still, the modest body of research on meditation is heartening. Marchant writes:

There is some evidence that meditation boosts the immune response in vaccine recipients and people with cancer, protects against a relapse in major depression, soothes skin conditions and even slows the progression of HIV. Meditation might even slow the aging process. Telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, get shorter every time a cell divides and so play a role in aging. Clifford Saron of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, and colleagues showed in 2011 that levels of an enzyme that builds up telomeres were higher in people who attended a three-month meditation retreat than in a control group.

As with social interaction, meditation probably works largely by influencing stress response pathways. People who meditate have lower cortisol levels, and one study showed they have changes in their amygdala, a brain area involved in fear and the response to threat.

If you’re intimidated by the time investment, take heart — fMRI studies show that as little as 11 hours of total training, or an hour every other day for three weeks, can produce structural changes in the brain. If you’re considering dipping your toes in the practice, I wholeheartedly recommend meditation teacher Tara Brach, who has changed my life.

But perhaps the most striking finding in exploring how our beliefs affect our bodies has to do with finding your purpose and, more than that, finding meaning in life. The most prominent studies in the field have defined purpose rather narrowly, as religious belief, but even so, the findings offer an undeniably intriguing signpost to further exploration. Marchant synthesizes the research, its criticism, and its broader implications:

In a study of 50 people with advanced lung cancer, those judged by their doctors to have high “spiritual faith” responded better to chemotherapy and survived longer. More than 40 percent were still alive after three years, compared with less than 10 percent of those judged to have little faith. Are your hackles rising? You’re not alone. Of all the research into the healing potential of thoughts and beliefs, studies into the effects of religion are the most controversial.

Critics of these studies … point out that many of them don’t adequately tease out other factors. For instance, religious people often have lower-risk lifestyles and churchgoers tend to enjoy strong social support, and seriously ill people are less likely to attend church.

[…]

Others think that what really matters is having a sense of purpose in life, whatever it might be. Having an idea of why you are here and what is important increases our sense of control over events, rendering them less stressful. In Saron’s three-month meditation study, the increase in levels of the enzyme that repairs telomeres correlated with an increased sense of control and an increased sense of purpose in life. In fact, Saron argues, this psychological shift may have been more important than the meditation itself. He points out that the participants were already keen meditators, so the study gave them the chance to spend three months doing something important to them. Spending more time doing what you love, whether it’s gardening or voluntary work, might have a similar effect on health. The big news from the study, Saron says, is “the profound impact of having the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find meaningful.”

Philosopher Daniel Dennett was right all along in asserting that the secret of happiness is to “find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.”

Each of the essays in Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion is nothing short of fascinating. Complement them with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss on the science of “something” and “nothing.”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.