Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

15 AUGUST, 2012

A List of “Rare Things” From 11th-Century Japanese Court Lady Sei Shonagon, World’s First Blogger

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“Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.”

Between the 990s and the early 11th century, Japanese court lady Sei Shonagon set out to record her observations of and musings on life, Japanese culture, the intricacies of the human condition. Her writings were eventually collected and published in The Pillow Book (public library) in 1002. An archive of pictures and illustrations, records of interesting events in court, and daily personal thoughts, many in list-form, this was arguably the world’s first “blog” by conceptual format and Sh?nagon the world’s first blogger*.

Among her lists was this lovely meditation on “rare things”:

71. Rare Things–

A son-in-law who’s praised by his wife’s father. Likewise, a wife who’s loved by her mother-in-law.

A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly.

A retainer who doesn’t speak ill of his master.

A person who is without a single quirk. Someone who’s superior in both appearance and character, and who’s remained utterly blameless throughout his long dealings with the world.

You never find an instance of two people living together who continue to be overawed by each other’s excellence and always treat each other with scrupulous care and respect, so such a relationship is obviously a great rarity.

Copying out a tale or a volume of poems without smearing any ink on the book you’re copying from. If you’re copying it from some beautiful bound book, you try to take immense care, but somehow you always manage to get ink on it.

Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.

For a related treat, see these 5 vintage versions of modern social media.

* Thanks to reader Paul Simon for the tip

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14 AUGUST, 2012

6 Rules for Creative Sanity from Radical Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich

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“Never yield to the expediencies of life except where it is basically harmless.”

A student of Freud’s and a radical pioneer of early psychoanalysis, Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was a fascinating and often misunderstood mind who influenced a generation of public intellectuals, including William Burroughs, Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer. Where’s the Truth?: Letters and Journals, 1948-1957 (public library), following previous installments, is the fourth and final volume of Reich’s autobiographical writings, culled from his diaries (a favorite trope around here), letters, and laboratory notebooks. What emerges is an intimate portrait of the fringe scientist’s hopes and fears, aspirations and insecurities, doubts and convictions.

Reich with his dog, Troll, on the porch outside his study at the Orgone Energy Observatory (The Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust via FSG)

But nothing bespeaks his inherent idealism more crisply than this journal entry dated June 7, 1948, in which Reich lists his six necessary conditions for creative sanity — an aspirational, if overly ambitious and pedantic, blueprint to the secret of happiness and the life of purpose.

To stay sane in an insane world as a creative man or woman he or she must:

  1. Keep one’s life financially independent.
  2. Continue unabated to exercise one’s power of creativity in concrete, strenuous tasks, always seeking perfection as near as possible.
  3. Carefully cherish LOVE of a partner with full gratification, of the total emotional being if possible, of the body in a clean way if necessary.
  4. Keep out of the trap of confusion by the average man and woman, helping others to keep out of the trap too as best they can.
  5. Keep one’s structure clean like brook water through knowing and correcting every mistake, making the corrected mistake the guiding lines to new truth.
  6. Never yield to the expediencies of life except where it is basically harmless or where the main line of development is not impeded for the duration of one’s life.

Where’s the Truth? is utterly absorbing and illuminating throughout — highly recommended.

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13 AUGUST, 2012

Anaïs Nin on Life, Hand-Lettered by Artist Lisa Congdon

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“You live out the confusions until they become clear.”

UPDATE: After a flurry of requests, the quotes are now available as prints. Enjoy.

It’s no secret I’m an obsessive reader of famous diaries, most recently those of French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977), one of the most dedicated diarists in modern literary history. Her sixteen tomes of published journals, spanning more than half a century between the time she began writing at the age of eleven and her death, are a treasure trove of insight on literature, culture, human nature, and the life of meaning.

Earlier this month, I asked the inimitable Wendy MacNaughton to illustrate Susan Sontag’s insights on love, as synthesized from the writer’s diaries. Now, I’ve turned to another extraordinary illustrator, Lisa Congdon ( ), and asked her to bring to life some of my favorite highlights from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) in the style of her lovely 365 Days of Hand Lettering project.

The results took my breath away — enjoy:

You can find Lisa’s stunning prints on 20×200 and Etsy, and follow her on Twitter.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3 is sublime in its entirety — highly recommended.

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13 AUGUST, 2012

The Science of Sleep: Dreaming, Depression, and How REM Sleep Regulates Negative Emotions

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“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation. Dream images are the product of that creation.”

For the past half-century, sleep researcher Rosalind D. Cartwright has produced some of the most compelling and influential work in the field, enlisting modern science in revising and expanding the theories of Jung and Freud about the role of sleep and dreams in our lives. In The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives (public library), Cartwright offers an absorbing history of sleep research, at once revealing how far we’ve come in understanding this vital third of our lives and how much still remains outside our grasp.

One particularly fascinating aspect of her research deals with dreaming as a mechanism for regulating negative emotion and the relationship between REM sleep and depression:

The more severe the depression, the earlier the first REM begins. Sometimes it starts as early as 45 minutes into sleep. That means these sleepers’ first cycle of NREM sleep amounts to about half the usual length of time. This early REM displaces the initial deep sleep, which is not fully recovered later in the night. This displacement of the first deep sleep is accompanied by an absence of the usual large outflow of growth hormone. The timing of the greatest release of human growth hormone (HGH) is in the first deep sleep cycle. The depressed have very little SWS [slow-wave sleep, Stages 3 and 4 of the sleep cycle] and no big pulse of HGH; and in addition to growth, HGH is related to physical repair. If we do not get enough deep sleep, our bodies take longer to heal and grow. The absence of the large spurt of HGH during the first deep sleep continues in many depressed patients even when they are no longer depressed (in remission).

The first REM sleep period not only begins too early in the night in people who are clinically depressed, it is also often abnormally long. Instead of the usual 10 minutes or so, this REM may last twice that. The eye movements too are abnormal — either too sparse or too dense. In fact, they are sometimes so frequent that they are called eye movement storms.

But what has perplexed researchers is that when these depressed patients are awakened 5 minutes into the first REM sleep episode, they’re unable to explain what they are experiencing. This complete lack of dream recall in depression has showed up in study after study, but it’s been unclear whether it’s due to patients’ reluctance to talk with researchers or to truly not forming and experiencing any dreams. That’s where recent technology has helped shed light:

Brain imaging technology has helped to shed light on this mystery. Scanning depressed patients while they sleep has shown that the emotion areas of the brain, the limbic and paralimbic systems, are activated at a higher level in REM than when these patients are awake. High activity in these areas is also common in REM sleep in nondepressed sleepers, but the depressed have even higher activity in these areas than do healthy control subjects. This might be expected — after all, while in REM these individuals also show higher activity in the executive cortex areas, those associated with rational thought and decision making. Nondepressed controls do not exhibit this activity in their REM brain imaging studies. This finding has been tentatively interpreted… as perhaps a response to the excessive activity in the areas responsible for emotions.

Cartwright spent nearly three decades investigating “how a mood disorder that affects cognition, motivation, and most of all the emotional state during waking shows itself in dreams.” What proved particularly difficult was understanding the basis for this poor dream recall during REM sleep, since anti-depressants suppress that stage of the sleep cycle, but early research suggested that this very suppression of REM might be the mechanism responsible for reinvigorating the depressed.

This brings us to the regulatory purpose of dreaming. Cartwright explains:

Despite differences in terminology, all the contemporary theories of dreaming have a common thread — they all emphasize that dreams are not about prosaic themes, not about reading, writing, and arithmetic, but about emotion, or what psychologists refer to as affect. What is carried forward from waking hours into sleep are recent experiences that have an emotional component, often those that were negative in tone but not noticed at the time or not fully resolved. One proposed purpose of dreaming, of what dreaming accomplishes (known as the mood regulatory function of dreams theory) is that dreaming modulates disturbances in emotion, regulating those that are troublesome. My research, as well as that of other investigators in this country and abroad, supports this theory. Studies show that negative mood is down-regulated overnight. How this is accomplished has had less attention.

I propose that when some disturbing waking experience is reactivated in sleep and carried forward into REM, where it is matched by similarity in feeling to earlier memories, a network of older associations is stimulated and is displayed as a sequence of compound images that we experience as dreams. This melding of new and old memory fragments modifies the network of emotional self-defining memories, and thus updates the organizational picture we hold of ‘who I am and what is good for me and what is not.’ In this way, dreaming diffuses the emotional charge of the event and so prepares the sleeper to wake ready to see things in a more positive light, to make a fresh start. This does not always happen over a single night; sometimes a big reorganization of the emotional perspective of our self-concept must be made — from wife to widow or married to single, say, and this may take many nights. We must look for dream changes within the night and over time across nights to detect whether a productive change is under way. In very broad strokes, this is the definition of the mood-regulatory function of dreaming, one basic to the new model of the twenty-four hour mind I am proposing.

Towards the end of the book, Cartwright explores the role of sleep and dreaming in consolidating what we call “the self,” with another admonition against memory’s self-editing capacity:

[In] good sleepers, the mind is continuously active, reviewing experience from yesterday, sorting which new information is relevant and important to save due to its emotional saliency. Dreams are not without sense, nor are they best understood to be expressions of infantile wishes. They are the result of the interconnectedness of new experience with that already stored in memory networks. But memory is never a precise duplicate of the original; instead, it is a continuing act of creation. Dream images are the product of that creation. They are formed by pattern recognition between some current emotionally valued experience matching the condensed representation of similarly toned memories. Networks of these become our familiar style of thinking, which gives our behavior continuity and us a coherent sense of who we are. Thus, dream dimensions are elements of the schemas, and both represent accumulated experience and serve to filter and evaluate the new day’s input.

Sleep is a busy time, interweaving streams of thought with emotional values attached, as they fit or challenge the organizational structure that represents our identity. One function of all this action, I believe, is to regulate disturbing emotion in order to keep it from disrupting our sleep and subsequent waking functioning.

The rest of The Twenty-four Hour Mind goes on to explore, through specific research case studies and sweeping syntheses of decades worth of research, everything from disorders like sleepwalking and insomnia to the role of sleep in knowledge retention, ideation, and problem-solving.

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