Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

26 NOVEMBER, 2013

Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? Scientists and Writers Answer Little Kids’ Big Questions about How Life Works


Why we cry, how we know we aren’t dreaming right now, where the universe ends, what books are for, and more answers to deceptively simple yet profound questions.

In 2012, I wrote about a lovely book titled Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds, in which some of today’s greatest scientists, writers, and philosophers answer kids’ most urgent questions, deceptively simple yet profound. It went on to become one of the year’s best books and among readers’ favorites. A few months later, Gemma Elwin Harris, the editor who had envisioned the project, reached out to invite me to participate in the book’s 2013 edition by answering one randomly assigned question from a curious child. Naturally, I was thrilled to do it, and honored to be a part of something as heartening as Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? (public library) — a compendium of primary school children’s funny, poignant, innocent yet insightful questions about science and how life works, answered by such celebrated minds as rockstar physicist Brian Cox, beloved broadcaster and voice-of-nature Sir David Attenborough, legendary linguist Noam Chomsky, science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach, stat-showman Hans Rosling, Beatle Paul McCartney, biologist and Beagle Project director Karen James, and iconic illustrator Sir Quentin Blake. As was the case with last year’s edition, more than half of the proceeds from the book — which features illustrations by the wonderful Andy Smith — are being donated to a children’s charity.

The questions range from what the purpose of science is to why onions make us cry to whether spiders can speak to why we blink when we sneeze. Psychologist and broadcaster Claudia Hammond, who recently explained the fascinating science of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets all warped while we’re on vacation, answers the most frequently asked question by the surveyed children: Why do we cry?

It’s normal to cry when you feel upset and until the age of twelve boys cry just as often as girls. But when you think about it, it is a bit strange that salty water spills out from the corners of your eyes just because you feel sad.

One professor noticed people often say that, despite their blotchy faces, a good cry makes them feel better. So he did an experiment where people had to breathe in over a blender full of onions that had just been chopped up. Not surprisingly this made their eyes water. He collected the tears and put them in the freezer. Then he got people to sit in front of a very sad film wearing special goggles which had tiny buckets hanging off the bottom, ready to catch their tears if they cried. The people cried, but the buckets didn’t work and in the end he gathered their tears in tiny test tubes instead.

He found that the tears people cried when they were upset contained extra substances, which weren’t in the tears caused by the onions. So he thinks maybe we feel better because we get rid of these substances by crying and that this is the purpose of tears.

But not everyone agrees. Many psychologists think that the reason we cry is to let other people know that we need their sympathy or help. So crying, provided we really mean it, brings comfort because people are nice to us.

Crying when we’re happy is a bit more of a mystery, but strong emotions have a lot in common, whether happy or sad, so they seem to trigger some of the same processes in the body.

(For a deeper dive into the biological mystery of crying, see the science of sobbing and emotional tearing.)

Joshua Foer, who knows a thing or two about superhuman memory and the limits of our mind, explains to 9-year-old Tom how the brain can store so much information despite being that small:

An adult’s brain only weighs about 1.4 kilograms, but it’s made up of about 100 billion microscopic neurons. Each of those neurons looks like a tiny branching tree, whose limbs reach out and touch other neurons. In fact, each neuron can make between 5,000 and 10,000 connections with other neurons — sometimes even more. That’s more than 500 trillion connections! A memory is essentially a pattern of connections between neurons.

Every sensation that you remember, every thought that you think, transforms your brain by altering the connections within that vast network. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, you will have created a new memory, which means your brain will have physically changed.

Illusionist Derren Brown, who has previously weighed in on the psychology of gullibility, answers 5-year-old Evie’s question about how we can be sure that life isn’t just a dream, touching on the limits of our perception of “reality”:

Often we have dreams and they feel so real that we might wonder whether we’re dreaming right now too. It feels like you’re wide awake now, but doesn’t it feel like you’re wide awake in dreams too? How on Earth can you tell the difference? Maybe you’ll wake up in a moment and realize you weren’t reading this book — because it never existed!

Well, at least you know you’re probably real. Because even if you were having a dream right now, there would have to be a you somewhere who was having that dream about yourself. But before your head starts spinning too fast, here’s the important thought. We only ever really know about the stuff we see and hear and feel, and that’s only a tiny part of what’s around us. (For example, you can’t see what’s happening in the next room, or in someone else’s head.) We can only guess at what’s real from the little bit we know about — and often we get it very wrong. … So even though you’re probably not dreaming, it’s worth remembering that you’re only aware of a small part of what’s real, too.

(Meanwhile, it’s been argued elsewhere that the probability that you are dreaming right this moment is 1 in 10.)

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, who has previously studied why our brains are wired for optimism, answers 8-year-old Maia’s question about why we don’t have memories from the time we were babies and toddlers:

We use our brain for memory. In the first few years of our lives, our brain grows and changes a lot, just like the rest of our body. Scientists think that because the parts of our brain that are important for memory have not fully developed when we are babies, we are unable to store memories in the same way that we do when we are older.

Also, when we are very young we do not know how to speak. This makes it difficult to keep events in your mind and remember them later, because we use language to remember what happened in the past.

In answering 8-year-old Hannah’s question about what newspapers do when there is no news, writer and journalist Oliver Burkeman, author of the excellent The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, offers a primer on media literacy — an important caveat on news that even we, as alleged grown-ups, frequently forget:

Newspapers don’t really go out and find the news: they decide what gets to count as news. The same goes for television and radio. And you might disagree with their decisions! (For example, journalists are often accused of focusing on bad news and ignoring the good, making the world seem worse than it is.)

The important thing to remember, whenever you’re reading or watching the news, is that someone decided to tell you those things, while leaving out other things. They’re presenting one particular view of the world — not the only one. There’s always another side to the story.

Nobel-winning biologist Sir John Gurdon makes a beautiful addition to history’s best definitions of science in answering 7-year-old Louise’s question about what “the whole point of science” is:

Science makes continuous advances in the quality of human life.

Brian Cox, who has a penchant for illuminating the mysteries of life and of the universe, articulating the poetics of science and championing its cultural value, answers six-year-old Josh’s question about whether the universe has an edge:

We don’t even know how big the Universe is! We can only see a small part of our Universe – the part that light has had the time to travel across to reach us during the 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang. Anything further away can’t be seen, simply because the light from these distant places hasn’t reached us yet.

The part we can see is pretty large, however. It contains around 350 billion large galaxies, each containing anything up to a trillion suns. This part, which is known as the observable Universe, is just over 90 billion light years across. But we are sure that the Universe extends far beyond this. It may even be infinitely big, which is impossible to imagine!

When Honor, age 11, asks Noam Chomsky whether new technology is always good, he answers:

Technology is usually fairly neutral. It’s like a hammer, which can be used to build a house or to destroy someone’s home. The hammer doesn’t care. It is almost always up to us to determine whether the technology is good or bad.

Mary Roach, who has a singular gift for making intensely interesting what mainstream culture considers “gross,” answers two little boys’ collective question about why sweetcorn comes out the other end looking just like it did when we ate it:

A kernel of corn has a tough, fibrous ‘seed coat’ that stands up to the acids and digestive juices in your stomach — much the way a leather jacket protects a motorcycle rider. Corn is famous for its ability to pass through the body intact, or at least in recognizable pieces. For this reason, it can be used as a ‘marker food’ to measure how long it takes food to travel all the way through you.

The next time your family eats corn on the cob, you can do an experiment. Make a note of the date and time when you eat the corn, and then again when you next catch sight of it. The number of hours in between is the ‘transit time’ for your own intestines. (Some people might object to looking into the toilet, but based on your question, you won’t have a problem. You have a healthy curiosity, and that’s great!)

If you chew your corn thoroughly and break open the seed coat, your body should be able to absorb the good nutrients inside. Birds don’t have molars to break open seeds, so they poop them out whole, and then the seeds sprout where they land. Plants don’t have legs or cars, so this is one way they get around. The pooping birds help the plants populate the far corners of the land.

The seeds of the baobab tree, on the African savannah, are so tough that chimps can’t chew them up. So they eat them twice. They pluck the undissolved (but softened) seeds out of their poop and run them through their digesting machinery again. The second time around, the seeds break apart. You’ll be happy to learn that when the chimps are done, they wipe their lips with tree bark.

Phonetics professor John Wells answers 6-year-old Angelina’s question about whether animals like sheep and cows have accents:

Unlike human beings, animals don’t have languages. They do produce “vocalizations” (dogs bark, cats meow, sheep bleat, cows moo, birds chirp), but these are not language, even though they are a means of communicating.


Different breeds of dog may have different kinds of bark, and you may even be able to recognize an individual dog’s bark just as you can an individual person’s voice. But a dog’s bark does not depend on where it grew up and who its friends are or where it went to school — which are the main things that determine your accent or mine.

Scientists have found that whales in different oceans make different kinds of vocalization, and the calls of some species of birds vary from one location to another. So we could perhaps say that whales and birds can have local “accents” or “dialects.” But domestic cows and sheep are different. Where they grow up and live is decided by the human beings that own them.

And my answer, to 9-year-old Ottilie’s question about why we have books:

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, know how the world works, and, in the process, know ourselves more deeply in a way that has nothing to with what you read them on and everything to do with the curiosity, integrity and creative restlessness you bring to them.

Books build bridges to the lives of others, both the characters in them and your countless fellow readers across other lands and other eras, and in doing so elevate you and anchor you more solidly into your own life. They give you a telescope into the minds of others, through which you begin to see with ever greater clarity the starscape of your own mind.

And though the body and form of the book will continue to evolve, its heart and soul never will. Though the telescope might change, the cosmic truths it invites you to peer into remain eternal like the Universe.

In many ways, books are the original internet — each fact, each story, each new bit of information can be a hyperlink to another book, another idea, another gateway into the endlessly whimsical rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit — because the landscape of your life is different, new, “reloaded” by the very act of living.

Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? is absolutely wonderful in its entirety — a curiosity quencher for all ages and an especially enchanting primer bridging science and everyday life for young minds.

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20 NOVEMBER, 2013

War, Peace, and Listicles: Leo Tolstoy on Money, Fame, and Writing for the Wrong Reasons


A lament on being “self-confident and self-satisfied as only those can be who are quite holy or who do not know what holiness is.”

Celebrated as a titan of literature, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828 – November 20, 1910) wasn’t always a man of timeless wisdom on how to live well and immutable insight on what makes great art. In his 1879 memoir of emotional crisis, A Confession (public library), he recounts with exquisite self-awareness and harrowing remorse his early days of breaking into writing — a time during which he had become blinded to the deeper meaning of life by the lustrous promise of fame and money, embodying Orwell’s cynical assertion that “all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy”:

During that time I began to write from vanity, covetousness, and pride. In my writings I did the same as in my life. To get fame and money, for the sake of which I wrote, it was necessary to hide the good and to display the evil. And I did so. How often in my writings I contrived to hide under the guise of indifference, or even of banter, those strivings of mine towards goodness which gave meaning to my life! And I succeeded in this and was praised.

The pursuit of that praise became a religion at the altar of which Tolstoy began to worship zealously as he came to believe that the artist’s goal was to teach mankind — a proposition at which he winces in hindsight, realizing that to teach requires to know what is meaningful to be taught:

I was considered an admirable artist and poet, and therefore it was very natural for me to adopt this theory. I, artist and poet, wrote and taught without myself knowing what. For this I was paid money; I had excellent food, lodging, women, and society; and I had fame, which showed that what I taught was very good.

This faith in the meaning of poetry and in the development of life was a religion, and I was one of its priests. To be its priest was very pleasant and profitable. And I lived a considerable time in this faith without doubting its validity.

But in a couple of years, he began to doubt this religion of authorship-as-sainthood and to notice its toxic hypocrisies, which both he and his circle of peers — his “personal micro-culture,” as William Gibson might say — embodied. And still, he found himself at once repelled by the duplicity of the acclaim he had worked so hard for and attracted to the status it bestowed upon him:

Having begun to doubt the truth of the authors’ creed itself, I also began to observe its priests more attentively, and I became convinced that almost all the priests of that religion, the writers, were immoral, and for the most part men of bad, worthless character, much inferior to those whom I had met in my former dissipated and military life; but they were self-confident and self-satisfied as only those can be who are quite holy or who do not know what holiness is. These people revolted me, I became revolting to myself, and I realized that that faith was a fraud.

But strange to say, though I understood this fraud and renounced it, yet I did not renounce the rank these people gave me: the rank of artist, poet, and teacher. I naively imagined that I was a poet and artist and could teach everybody without myself knowing what I was teaching, and I acted accordingly.

From my intimacy with these men I acquired a new vice: abnormally developed pride and an insane assurance that it was my vocation to teach men, without knowing what.

Leo Tolstoy at age 20, 1848

His most poignant lament, however, is chillingly prescient of today’s linkbait “journalism” of ceaseless listicles and vacant slideshows published by those who seek easy riches rather than the enrichment of a reader’s soul — or their own souls — with articles like “20 Amazing Things You Didn’t Know about Miley Cyrus’s Cat.” Tolstoy writes:

We were all then convinced that it was necessary for us to speak, write, and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible, and that it was all wanted for the good of humanity. And thousands of us, contradicting and abusing one another, all printed and wrote — teaching others. And without noticing that we knew nothing, and that to the simplest of life’s questions: What is good and what is evil? We did not know how to reply, we all talked at the same time, not listening to one another, sometimes seconding and praising one another in order to be seconded and praised in turn, sometimes getting angry with one another — just as in a lunatic asylum.


It was terribly strange, but is now quite comprehensible. Our real innermost concern was to get as much money and praise as possible. To gain that end we could do nothing except write books and papers. So we did that. But in order to do such useless work and to feel assured that we were very important people we required a theory justifying our activity. And so among us this theory was devised: “All that exists is reasonable. All that exists develops. And it all develops by means of Culture. And Culture is measured by the circulation of books and newspapers. And we are paid money and are respected because we write books and newspapers, and therefore we are the most useful and the best of men.” This theory would have been all very well if we had been unanimous, but as every thought expressed by one of us was always met by a diametrically opposite thought expressed by another, we ought to have been driven to reflection. But we ignored this; people paid us money and those on our side praised us, so each of us considered himself justified.

A Confession is immeasurably poignant in its entirety, at once timeless and timely whenever it is read. Complement it with this rare recording of Tolstoy reading from his Calendar of Wisdom shortly before his death.

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18 NOVEMBER, 2013

Stay: The Social Contagion of Suicide and How to Preempt It


“We are indebted to one another and the debt is a kind of faith — a beautiful, difficult, strange faith. We believe each other into being.”

If you’ve ever known someone who committed suicide, or have contemplated it yourself, or have admired a personal hero who died by his or her own hand, please oh please read this. Because, as Jennifer Michael Hecht so stirringly argues in Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It (public library), numerous social science studies indicate that one of the best predictors of committing suicide is knowing suicide — a fact especially chilling given more people die of suicide than murder every year, and have been for centuries. Suicide kills more people than AIDS, cancer, heart disease, or liver disease, more men and women between the ages of 15 and 44 than war, more young people than anything but accident. And beneath all these impersonal statistics lie exponential human tragedies — of those who died, and of those who were left to live with their haunting void.

To be sure, Hecht’s interest in the subject is far from the detached preachiness such narratives tend to exude — after two of her dear friends, both fellow writers, committed suicide in close succession, she was left devastated and desperate to make sense of this deceptively personal act, which cuts so deep into surrounding souls and scars the heart of a community. So she immersed herself in the science, philosophy, and history of suicide searching for answers, emerging with an eye-opening sense of everything we’ve gotten wrong about suicide and its prevention. She writes:

As I examine the history of how, in the West, we have understood self-killing, I also will put forward what might seem to be a contrarian position, a nonreligious argument against suicide. It is a philosophical argument but parts of it can or even must be told in terms of history, and parts must be demonstrated through modern statistics. One of the arguments I hope to bring to light is that suicidal influence is strong enough that a suicide might also be considered a homicide. Whether you call it contagion, suicidal clusters, or sociocultural modeling, our social sciences demonstrate that suicide causes more suicide, both among those who knew the person and among the strangers who somehow identified with the victim. If suicide has a pernicious influence on others, then staying alive has the opposite influence: it helps keep people alive. By staying alive, we are contributing something precious to the world.

Hecht argues that, historically, our ideologies around suicide have set us up for “an unwinnable battle”: First, the moralistic doctrines of the major Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam condemned suicide as a sin that “God” forbids, one more offensive than even murder because you were stealing directly from divinity with no time left for repentance — a strategy based on negative reinforcement, which modern psychology has demonstrated time and again is largely ineffective. Then came The Enlightenment, whose secular philosophy championed individual agency and, in rebelling against the blind religiosity of the past, framed suicide as some sort of moral freedom — a toxic proposition Hecht decries as a cultural wrong turn. Reflecting on such attitudes — take, for instance, Patti Smith’s beautiful yet heartbreaking tribute to Virginia Woolf’s suicide — Hecht makes the case, instead, for two of history’s relatively unknown but potent arguments against suicide: That we owe it to society and to our personal communities to stay alive, and that we owe it to our future selves:

Both religious and philosophical writers have written marvelous things about both these ideas, but they are often in the background. The reason is that a foreground argument has gotten all the press: Religious people have tended to lean heavily on the argument that God forbids suicide. Meanwhile, in response, secular, philosophical people have insisted that we are free to take our own lives. In my experience, outside the idea that God forbids it, our society today has no coherent argument against suicide. Instead, many self-described open-minded, rationalist, sophisticated thinkers emphatically defend people’s right to do it. How did the secular philosophical worldview come to claim people’s right to suicide? How did those in the modern world — who fight death so fiercely elsewhere — come to accept or at least leave unchallenged an ideology that kills? The answer is a fascinating story of a reaction against religion that somewhat accidentally led to a dark fatalism.

She traces the evolution of these attitudes:

Religion took a wrong turn by relying so heavily on divine disapproval of suicide, and on corporal (even postmortem) punishment of the offender, and secular philosophy took a wrong turn when it concluded that without God and religion, man was his own master and thus people should be free to kill themselves.


The Enlightenment enhanced the value of the self above that of community and tradition and made of each man and woman an independent being. … Thus, built right into the world’s most momentous revolution about the value of average individual human beings was a mechanism by which they were invited to judge their own lives, possibly to find them without value or worth, and to end them.


The advance of modernity brought new concern for individual rights and private property, and these, as well as the rise of the scientific medical profession, began to have an effect on government policies. In the seventeenth century suicide had still been seen, in part, as the work of the devil. By the eighteenth, “melancholia” was the dominant term in discussing suicide — and melancholia was the purview of doctors. From the worst sin possible, suicide became relatively value neutral; it could even be seen as virtuous when enacted in protest against an insult to one’s ideals. By the twentieth century, there was a general sense among secularists that people had a right to suicide, and a right to make the decision on their own.

And yet our deep-seated unease about suicide is as old as antiquity can record: Even Plato, in crafting history’s best-known image of a suicide — Socrates’s famous death scene — paradoxically had Socrates state in that very same dialogue that suicide is wrong. Plato’s Socrates also urged his countrymen to stay alive because of what they owed their country and their fellow citizens. Even among the Enlightenment philosophers who condoned suicide as honorable, there were the essential voices of dissent, perhaps most notable of whom was Immanuel Kant with his moving meditations on the important relationship between the individual and society — he condemned suicide as an assault against humanity, an act by which you rob the universe of your own potential goodness. Hecht synthesizes:

We are humanity, Kant says. Humanity needs us because we are it. Kant believes in duty and considers remaining alive a primary human duty. For him one is not permitted to “renounce his personality,” and while he states living as a duty, it also conveys a kind of freedom: we are not burdened with the obligation of judging whether our personality is worth maintaining, whether our life is worth living. Because living it is a duty, we are performing a good moral act just by persevering. In one of the most crucial statements in the history of suicide, Kant writes: “To annihilate the subject of morality in one’s person is to root out the existence of morality itself from the world as far as one can, even though morality is an end in itself. Consequently, disposing of oneself as a mere means to some discretionary end is debasing humanity in one’s person.” Human beings must understand themselves as a force of good, a force of morality. As human beings, it is our job to preserve these ideals. This goes a step beyond Aristotle’s community or Rousseau’s reminder of survivor’s pain, and speaks instead of something larger. To be human is a powerful, profound thing that deserves a lot of patience.

Victor Hugo made that point even more poignantly when he wrote in Les Misérables:

Die, so be it, but don’t make others die. … Suicide is restricted. … As soon as it touches those next to you the name of suicide is murder.

Hecht also points to John Milton, whose meditations on staying alive are among history’s “most subtle yet robustly useful.” Left by his first wife and widowed by his second, he was almost as unlucky in love as he was in politics when he sided with Oliver Cromwell and ended up going into hiding to avoid execution, then went fully blind at the age of 44. And yet his stirring sonnet “On His Blindness” speaks to everything Hecht argues for:

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His State
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Hecht extracts from it eloquent affirmation for her own argument against suicide:

Often people demand a great deal from themselves and their lives and are despondent when reality does not measure up. Milton has long been understood as having offered consolation for this affliction, reminding us that we do not always have a say in the role that we play in the world and that sometimes we must learn to see the service we are giving when we are doing nothing but waiting.

One particularly glaring modern disconnect Hecht points out is that while many people today don’t subscribe to any religion, our culture’s main argument against suicide remains about God. Instead, she seeks to excavate and reinstate those saner, sager historical arguments about suicide asserting “that it is wrong, that it harms the community, that it damages humanity, that it unfairly preempts your future self.” Even the title of the book speaks to this conviction and the moral firmness with which Hecht believes we should address suicide, in such stark contrast with the Enlightenment’s negligent permissiveness — it isn’t titled Please, Stay, like a gentle invitation encouraging the desired behavior, but simply Stay, like a strict directive against the undesirable, a command issued to a dog who is about to do the wrong thing. (She offers, however, one important disclaimer: Her argument is about what’s known as “despair suicide,” or what she calls “darkness in the midst of life,” and not about end-of-life management for the fatally ill. Nor is she passing judgment on those who have committed suicide. “I assign no blame to those already lost, I only feel sorrow for them,” she writes.)

The firmness of Hecht’s argument befits the findings of modern psychology — suicide is exceptionally socially harmful:

Throughout history an optimistic cavalcade of people has sidestepped the religious debate and put forward sound reasons to resist suicide based on each of our relationships to humanity, especially friends and family. Today’s sociological studies back up the historical claim that we need one another — or, rather, the specific claim that suicide causes suicides.

This is true not only of suicides we know directly, but also of ones we witness in popular culture. She cites the work of sociologist David Phillips, who found that in the month after Marilyn Monroe’s overdose, there was a 12% spike in suicides in America — a phenomenon Phillips called the “Werther Effect,” after Goethe’s novel. This effect is only amplified in small, close-knit communities: Recently revealed Pentagon data showed that in 2012, Americans were killing themselves at the mind-boggling rate of nearly one a day, leading to more deaths by suicide than in combat. To put this in even more alarming perspective, since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, more soldiers have died by their own hand than fighting.

The most profound and chilling contagion of all, however, happens during childhood — Hecht cites a Johns Hopkins University study, which found that if a parent commits suicide before their child is 18, that child is threefold as likely to commit suicide at some future point as her peers with non-suicidal parents. (For some heartbreaking anecdotal evidence, look no further than Sylvia Plath — her son Nicholas, despite the timelessly life-affirming letters his father sent him and the charming children’s books his mother wrote for him, took his own life at the age of 46; Plath had gassed herself to death when he was a year old.) Childhood incest survivors are also found to be particularly vulnerable to suicide, as are female rape victims, who are 13 times more likely to attempt suicide than the average women.

Even for those with no first-hand vulnerabilities, media reports of suicide can pose a significant danger, especially if they identify with the victims in some way. Hecht considers the fascinating findings of social contagion research:

One insight from this research is that “like affects like.” Suicide influence is strongest on those who are close to the victim in some way, or like them, in all meanings of that word. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that the report of suicide results in a rise in suicides of those similar to the victim in age and gender. Beyond the sociological and epidemiological studies, the notion of suicide influence is a common truth of clinical psychology. Counselors consider it a risk factor for suicide when a person reports having known someone who died this way. The sociological fact that suicide influences suicide leads to a philosophical idea: that it is morally wrong to kill oneself. A key predictor of suicide is knowing a suicide, and that means that in killing yourself you are likely to be killing someone else too, by influence. This claim can be shown to be valid in poetic as well as scientific terms.

Reflecting on the social contagion of suicide, Hecht writes:

Rejecting suicide is a huge act within a community. I also think it changes the universe. Either the universe is a cold dead place with a little growth of sentient but atomized beings each all by him- or herself trying to generate meaning, or we are in a universe that is alive with a growth of sentient beings whose members have made a pact with each other to persevere.

Additionally, Hecht argues that the tenacity we develop as we endure even the most blinding of that “darkness in the midst of life” blossoms into a most valuable kind of character-building. She cites Keats, who called the world a “veil of soul-making”:

Keats saw the terrible pain of life as necessary to the development of a full human being. While the heart suffers acutely, the mind is nurtured and matured through the information garnered by the anguished heart. In his extended metaphor there is no other way for a human being to be tempered into personhood. In that sense the world, with all its difficulties, is a school.


Childhood formed us all, and the more we suffered then, the harder it can be to accept ourselves as adults. True, the road to self-awareness is arduous. Some realizations bring us to low feelings much like grief, and much like grief the only solution is to live through it. We come out wiser on the other side. As Robert Frost wrote, “The only way around is through.”

Nietzsche, too, argued that human suffering is necessary for the soul’s growth and admonished against “the religion of comfortableness,” which he believed hindered true happiness. Like Albert Camus, he envisioned happiness and unhappiness as “sisters and even twins that either grow up together or … remain small together”:

Nietzsche urges us to see that human suffering is necessary, but what is not necessary is painfully regretting that suffering. Our condition hands us difficulty, and unless we are careful to stop ourselves, we add more difficulty to our lot by fearing and loathing that difficulty. We suffer and then hate ourselves for suffering. We are much better off accepting the pain, seeing it as universal, noting that it can be borne, and, when possible, expressing it.

Returning to those Enlightenment philosophers like Hume and Rousseau who opposed suicide as socially unjust, Hecht writes:

If you have any energy at all for participating in this world, perhaps live now only for those small kindnesses and consolations you can render. Perhaps seek to help those equally burdened by sadness. Confess your own sadness to those in sorrow. Your ability to console may be profound. The texts urge human beings to try to know that they are needed and loved. We all deserve each other’s gratitude for whatever optimism and joy we can hustle into this strange life by sheer force of personality, even by that most basic contribution, staying alive.

She later adds, referencing Hamlet’s famous contemplation of suicide by way of “a bare bodkin”:

It is an intellectual and moral mistake to see the idea of suicide as an open choice that each of us is free to make. The arguments against suicide ask us to commit ourselves to the human project. They ask humanity to set down its daggers and cups of hemlock and walk away from them forever. Let us be done with bare bodkins.

Citing David Foster Wallace — one of modern history’s most worshipped, even fetishized fallen heroes, who shared some of the most memorable wisdom on life yet took his own at the age of 46 — Hecht points to his famous words on heroism and reframes it:

Often our courage is needed not to dramatically change reality but to accept it and persist in it.

She cites another celebrated author who took her own life, Anne Sexton, and this heartbreaking note on the pain of life, found in one of her letters:

I don’t want to live. … Now listen, life is lovely, but I Can’t Live It. I can’t even explain. I know how silly it sounds … but if you knew how it Felt. To be alive, yes, alive, but not be able to live it. Ay that’s the rub. I am like a stone that lives … locked outside of all that’s real. … I wish, or think I wish, that I were dying of something for then I could be brave, but to be not dying, and yet … and yet to [be] behind a wall, watching everyone fit in where I can’t, to talk behind a gray foggy wall, to live but to not reach or to reach wrong … to do it all wrong … believe me, (can you?) … what’s wrong. I want to belong. … I’m not a part. I’m not a member. I’m frozen.

Hecht pulls from it a universality that lies at the heart of her case against suicide:

Sexton’s expression of anguish is extraordinary. Yet such feelings are not uncommon. To live through this painful feeling is hard work and requires prodigious courage. That courage comes first from recognizing that we are not alone. Sexton’s confession here is of feeling cut off from community, yet she expresses something that a huge number of people experience. If we can grasp that commonality, the pain can become easier to bear.

Ultimately, Hecht argues for cultivating a culture of suicide resistance and attaching honor not to the act of suicide, as some Enlightenment philosophers did, but to perseverance itself. By equipping ourselves with alternative responses to life’s suffering, she proposes, we’ll work towards removing suicide from our list of options — a strategy that hopes to bar it as a psychoemotional possibility much like a barrier on a bridge can preempt the physical act of jumping. Optimizing for such a moment of pause, Hecht suggests, might be the small miracle that allows us to catch our breath and persevere:

If we can take suicide off the docket for the moment, that moment may turn out to be enough.

The very reason to do that, Hecht reiterates in returning to her core argument, is not for our present suffering selves but for each other. She puts it beautifully:

We are indebted to one another and the debt is a kind of faith — a beautiful, difficult, strange faith. We believe each other into being.

Stay is more than a must-read — it’s a cultural necessity. Complement it with what the psychology of suicide prevention teaches us about controlling our everyday worries.

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