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What Makes the Octopus and Its Consciousness So Extraordinary

A humbling inquiry into a tentacled intelligence so wonderfully different from our own.

“While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie,” Sy Montgomery wrote in her breathtaking inquiry into how Earth’s most alien creature illuminates the wonders of consciousness. “To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege… an uplink to universal consciousness.” And, as this little boy so touchingly reminds us, feeling empathy for a creature so vastly different from us is a supreme hallmark of our humanity. But what, exactly makes the octopus so extraordinary and enthralling?

That’s what the curiosity custodians at TED-Ed — who have previously examined what depression actually feels like, how the clouds got their names, why some people are left-handed, how melancholy enhances creativity, and why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity — explore in this fascinating animated science film:

Studying how intelligence can arise along such a divergent evolutionary path can help us understand more about intelligence and consciousness in general — who knows what other forms of intelligent life are possible, or how they process the world around them.

For more on the singular scintillation of this marvelous creature and its consciousness, do treat yourself to Sy Montgomery’s bewitching The Soul of an Octopus.

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Seneca on How to Overcome Fear and Inoculate Yourself Against Misfortune

“If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.”

Seneca on How to Overcome Fear and Inoculate Yourself Against Misfortune

“Anyone with any degree of mental toughness,” artist Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in contemplating life and the art of setting priorities, “ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least.” It’s a beautiful thought, and yet a strange and discomfiting one as we grow increasingly accustomed and even entitled to the simple, miraculous conveniences of modern life. I think of O’Keeffe each time I catch myself, mortified, on the brink of fury over a wifi outage aboard an airplane — centuries of physics and privilege converging into a superhuman capability we’ve come to take for granted — and then I quickly reach for Seneca as the ultimate vaccine against this humiliating hubris.

Two millennia before O’Keeffe, the great Roman philosopher — a man of timeless wisdom on how to stretch life’s shortness by living wide rather than long — took this point to its exquisite extreme in a letter to his friend Lucilius Junior, found in the altogether indispensable Letters from a Stoic (public library).

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Writing in the month of December — a season of supreme Roman bacchanalia and intemperate festivities — Seneca offers his friend a recipe for moral resilience and constancy of mind:

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.

[…]

Let the pallet be a real one, and the coarse cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.

Seneca tempers this advice with a reality-check of privilege — for it is, after all, a luxury of the privileged to practice this as an occasional elective exercise in character-building rather than a trying daily circumstance of life:

There is no reason, however, why you should think that you are doing anything great; for you will merely be doing what many thousands of slaves and many thousands of poor men are doing every day. But you may credit yourself with this item, — that you will not be doing it under compulsion, and that it will be as easy for you to endure it permanently as to make the experiment from time to time. Let us practice our strokes on the “dummy”; let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard. We shall be rich with all the more comfort, if we once learn how far poverty is from being a burden.

[…]

So begin, my dear Lucilius, to … set apart certain days on which you shall withdraw from your business and make yourself at home with the scantiest fare. Establish business relations with poverty.

Letters from a Stoic remains a foundational text of character, essential for anyone looking to transcend the myriad hubrises of our humanity. Complement this particular portion with Albert Camus on strength of character, Emerson on the key to true personal growth, Nietzsche on why difficulty is essential for a fulfilling life, and Martha Nussbaum on agency and victimhood, then revisit Seneca on the shortness of life.

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Lou Andreas-Salomé, the World’s First Female Psychoanalyst, on Creativity and the Relationship Between the Mind and the Body, in Letters to Rilke

“All art begins [as] a calling forth of life in its still concealed mysteriousness.”

Lou Andreas-Salomé, the World’s First Female Psychoanalyst, on Creativity and the Relationship Between the Mind and the Body, in Letters to Rilke

In an era when the self-actualization opportunities for women of genius amounted to little more than becoming wives of geniuses, the Russian-born writer and intellectual Lou Andreas-Salomé (February 12, 1861–February 5, 1937) realized a life commensurate with her brilliance. At the age of fifty, already an established poet and philosopher, she trained with Freud and became the world’s first female psychoanalyst. Her extraordinary intellectual gravity and creative grace made her a muse to some of Europe’s most celebrated minds. Nietzsche, whose masterwork Thus Spoke Zarathustra was largely inspired by Andreas-Salomé, set down his ten rules for writers in a letter to her. Young Rilke became besotted with her, wrote her exquisite love letters, and dedicated his Book of Hours to her. It was at her urging that he changed his first name from “René” to “Rainer,” which she found more virile and Germanic. Even after their romance ended in 1900, she remained Rilke’s closest confidante and, in many ways, his most important influence.

Nowhere does Andreas-Salomé’s uncommon insight into the human spirit come more fully abloom than in their prolific correspondence, published as Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters (public library) and spanning a quarter century of intellectual intercourse well after the end of their affair.

In June of 1914, shortly after her correspondence with Freud about human nature, she writes to assuage Rilke’s frustration with the creative block that had befallen him:

[When] a creative period [is] about to begin in response to [one’s] new human experiences … a terrible danger is as close as a great victory. Life is easy for those people who are granted a very small portion of creativity to go along with their strong experiences and can expend the former entirely on the latter; and now and then those others, the ones who are creative by nature, succeed the other way around; but much more often the two as it were meet somewhere in the middle and die there, since they collide on their one path rather than proceed along it together.

A few days later, Rilke breaks through his creative block and sends her a newly written poem titled “Turning,” containing the following verse:

For gazing, you see, has its limits.
And the more gazed-upon world
wants to prosper in love.

Work of the eyes is done,
begin heart-work now
on those images in you, those captive ones;
for you conquered them: but you still don’t know them.

In her response, poured out of her dual identity of muse and analyst, Andreas-Salomé offers a beautiful testament to the embodied experience of creative revelation and to what John Dewey would later term the vital “live creature” aspect of the artist. She writes of Rilke’s creative breakthrough:

It has been on its way for so long, has been prepared for, indeed has already almost arrived. Your body knew of its coming, as it were, before you yourself did, yet in the way that only bodies know of things, — with such infinite innocence and directness that in the end this knowledge could temporarily create for it a new misunderstanding with the mind. Do you know by what sign this revealed itself? By the eyes, — those gazing ones… But they, these eyes, left only to themselves in their arduous searchings, beyond the bounds of that which, in their normal function, they needed only to convey to the mind, — they could in their gazing only become ever more corporeal and — confusing, as it were, the more subterranean processes with those consummated at the visibly open and observable body surface — lead only to strange forms of torment; for the “heart-work” to be done on what had previously been only artistically gazed upon would have to occur in some innermost region were it to succeed.

That success, she argues, hinges on “the great love that transforms outside and inside into a completely new,” of which she writes:

What love does in this union is dark and difficult and glorious — and stands on the side of life; who would dare or even want to guess more about it than that; and indeed, you will experience it. Certainly not without interruptions and doubts.

Three days later, having lived with the poem and let it work its slow-burning magic, Andreas-Salomé writes to Rilke again, further reflecting on the poem’s power. Embedded in her words is a meditation on what all transcendent works of art accomplish in our interiority:

There is something in it as of a newly conquered domain, one whose boundaries are still out beyond one’s ken, its compass extending farther than one could walk: one senses more terrain; senses many trails and long wanderings along paths that until now had always been shrouded in fog. And adding a little daylight, just enough so that one can see where to take the next step, would be, from one poem to the next poem, like a real advance of footsteps, one never as yet achieved, on grounds where (in contrast to “mere” art) illumination and action are still as one; this domain can indeed only be made into poetry insofar and to the extent that one has conquered it and thus made it part of a new experience. Somewhere in this realm, deep down, all art begins again with renewed force, arises as from its primordial origin, where it was magic formula, incantation, — a calling forth of life in its still concealed mysteriousness, — yes, where it was at once prayer and the most intense breaking-forth of power.

The calling forth of life that is art, Andreas-Salomé points out, happens not only in the mind but also in the body, the integration of the two being the seedbed of our selfhood and the supreme mark of the creative person:

This running up against our body … is yet the outermost outside in its most intimate sense, the first partition that differentiates us from ourselves, makes us the “inner being” lodged in it like the face in a hedgehog; and yet: our very body, with its hands, feet, eyes, ears, all the parts we enumerate as “us”; this perplexing tangle generally unfurls only in response to the loving comportment of an other, who alone legitimates, in a manner we can bear, our body as “us.” In a “creative person,” though, these components perpetually loosen and renew their ties: which is why, instead of repetition, new reality emanates from him.

Rilke and Andreas-Salomé is an immeasurably rich read in its entirety. Complement it with Georgia O’Keeffe’s magnificent letter to Sherwood Anderson on what it really means to be an artist and pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions for creativity, then revisit Rilke on how difficulty can fuel creativity and the symbiosis between the body and the soul.

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