Inside the nuanced science of serotonin and the underappreciated upside of being a sensitive creature.
By Maria Popova
“An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her stunning meditation on relationships. A happy human relationship, it turns out, is contingent not upon the nature and delivery process of these truths, particularly the difficult truths, but upon the nature of the hearer — upon our emotional orientation and sensitivity, which appears to be encoded in our DNA via a particular gene that regulates serotonin in the brain. So indicates the fascinating research of U.C. Berkeley psychophysiologist and behavioral neuroscientist Robert Levenson.
Known as 5-HTTLPR (serotonin-transporter-linked polymorphic region) and located on chromosome 17 of your DNA, this gene comes in two varieties — one with a short allele and the other with a long allele. Decades of research have revealed a strong positive correlation between the short-allele type and a high precedence of depression, anxiety, and attention disorders, suggesting that people with the short allele respond more negatively to emotional friction within a relationship and seeding the assumption that having this gene is plainly problematic for one’s psychoemotional health. But Levenson’s lab uncovered a much more nuanced and surprisingly optimistic reality — rather than predisposing to more negative emotional responses, the short allele appears to predispose simply to more emotional responses, serving as a kind of psychoemotional magnifying glass that renders all emotions, the lows as well as the highs, more deeply and intensely felt. Levenson explains:
“The slow and painful transformation of a passionate and narrowly egotistical being into a man who gives himself over wholly to some great work or other that devours him, destroys him, lives in his blood, is a trial every creative being must endure.”
By Maria Popova
“The end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own,” Marcel Proust wrote as he considered why we read. “There is some Proust in me, and through Proust, bit by bit, I become aware of my own possibilities,” the great Polish painter Józef Czapski (April 3, 1896–January 12, 1993) reflected in his journal a generation later while interned as a prisoner of war in a Soviet labor camp alongside four thousand of his fellow Polish officers. Only seventy-nine of them would survive. The rest, alongside eleven thousand more Polish prisoners from other camps, would vanish without a trace somewhere in Siberia.
Survival was, of course, largely a matter of luck. But those who lived also owed their survival to the courageous, desperate, ennobling choice to nurture the resilience of their inner lives with intellectual and creative work that offered an escape, however temporary, from the anguishing depression and a restoration of their human dignity. While their compatriot Helen Fagin, who would survive the Holocaust and live past 100, was using literature to help young women endure in a Nazi ghetto in Warsaw, Czapski and his comrades, crammed into a dilapidated former convent previously occupied by Finnish prisoners with bunks infested by bedbugs, organized a series of literary and historical lectures to keep their minds and spirits alive.
When the authorities discovered the gatherings and deemed them antirevolutionary, some of the speakers were immediately deported, or worse. But the lectures continued in secret — a testament to the memorable words of Rebecca West, who asserted while traveling through the same region at the same time that “if during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe.”
Czapski himself delivered several unscripted, soaring, intricately interwoven meditations on literature and creativity through the lens of Proust — whose novel In Search of Lost Time he had first devoured thirteen years earlier while recovering from typhoid fever and heartbreak — later published as Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (public library). Addressing the forty or so fellow prisoners who came to listen to him at twilight in their soaked shoes after a hard day’s labor in the camp, where temperatures often dropped to negative forty-five, Czapski worked entirely from memory and illustrated his lectures with colorful diagrams densely populated by linkages between concepts as varied as love, solitude, the motives of composition, the forms of joy and suffering, and Bergson’s philosophy of time — a vibrant embodiment of what Oliver Sacks called the “buzzing, blooming chaos” of creative genius at work.
Czapski, who lived to nearly a hundred, reflects on the salvational value of these intellectual excursions away from the brutality of camp life and the suffocating weight of survivor’s guilt:
The joy of participating in an intellectual undertaking that gave us proof that we were still capable of thinking and reacting to matters of the mind — things then bearing no connection to our present reality — cast a rose-colored light on those hours spent in the former convent’s dining hall, that strangest of schoolrooms, where a world we had feared lost to us forever was revived. It was incomprehensible to us why we alone, four hundred officers and soldiers, were saved out of fifteen thousand comrades who disappeared without a trace somewhere beyond the Arctic Circle, within the confines of Siberia. From those gloomy depths, the hours spent with memories of Proust, Delacroix, Degas seemed to me among the happiest of hours.
He wrests from Proust’s example a model of literature’s most humanistic offering:
Proust shone a penetrating light into the most secret recesses of the human soul that the majority of humanity would prefer to ignore.
Revising Anna Karenina, Tolstoy rewrote a long passage in order to hide his own opinion from the reader. But in Resurrection, the grand novel of his old age, we meet didacticism all too clearly, the author voicing certain key ideas so often that it produced the opposite effect, putting readers off, and so even Tolstoy, by lowering the artistic standard of his work, weakens rather than strengthens the radiance of his ideas.
Proust is the complete opposite. In his work we come across an absolute absence of bias, a willingness to know and to understand as many opposing states of the human soul as possible, a capacity for discovering in the lowest sort of man such nobility as to appear sublime, and in the seemingly purest of beings, the basest instincts. His work acts on us like life, filtered and illuminated by a consciousness whose soundness is infinitely greater than our own.
Every great book is profoundly tied in one way or another to the very matter of the life of its author. But this link is even more pronounced and perhaps more integral to the work of Proust. The very theme of [In Search of Lost Time] is Proust’s life, transposed; the principal character writes in the first person, and page after page reads like a barely concealed confession.
The ensuing heartbreak produces the same result — a feeling of unreality, and the awareness that the pleasures of life and a final understanding of it exist in the act of creation, the sole true life and true reality.
From the particularity of Proust’s novel, Czapski draws out the universal human journey — the savage, fraught, transcendent process of self-refinement:
The slow and painful transformation of a passionate and narrowly egotistical being into a man who gives himself over wholly to some great work or other that devours him, destroys him, lives in his blood, is a trial every creative being must endure.
With an eye to “the extreme sense of responsibility Proust brought to each of his sentences” — immense, interminable sentences stretching past and beyond the page, saturated with a richness of language that revolutionized the era’s conventions of concision, fractalized into myriad references, allusions, and parenthetical revelations — Czapski considers the importance of this diffuse structure, both of form and of thought, to creativity itself:
Only by pushing a form to its furthest limits can one possibly manage to begin to convey the essence of a writer.
A scientist, on the verge of a discovery, can succeed only by giving his search the full attention of all his faculties, he is in no condition to think of anything else. In the same way, for the writer, it is not this or that idea he expounds by which we ought to measure the contribution that he has given to his country, but rather by the limits he pushes against in the realization of his form. Even among the greatest writers, single-mindedness weakens the effect of a work and can be a disservice, not only from an artistic point of view, but also in consideration of the very ideas that the writer had wanted to serve.
To be or not to be, bravely answered through the lens of could be.
By Maria Popova
“The present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. At bottom, choice and action always begin with “what if” — the mightiest spring for the utopian imagination, the fulcrum by which every revolution rolls into being. What if this world were freer, more beautiful, more just? “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in weighing the transformative power of the speculative imagination. “We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”
Although we don’t yet know it, the story begins with an unborn child imagining himself into being as he imagines a better version of the world to be born into. Where he sees war, he imagines turning the soldiers’ guns into bird perches and shepherd’s flutes. Where he sees drought and famine, he imagines pulling rainclouds over the desert like enormous kites.
He places his child-body between the “gorging, ordering, shouting, and decreeing” orange-haired politician on the TV screen and the people mesmerized before it. He sits on the ocean shore and imagines it clean of human-inflicted pollution, buoying colorful fish.
He falls asleep on a mossy patch in the forest, listening to the wisdom of the trees. He sees heartache and tears, and imagines them salved by love.
“We have to hug,” he decided, “and not be afraid of kisses. What if we start saying ‘I love you,’ even if we’ve never heard it before?”
And looking out into this world, so imperfect yet so improvable, the child decides, in the final spread of the book, to be born.
In praise of sentences that pull you in with all their teeth.
By Maria Popova
“Literature,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his insightful meditation on storytelling, “was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him… Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”
Not a boy but a girl, not a canine beast but a feline one, and still the tall grass converge to illuminate the shimmering mesmerism of storytelling in one of the most soulful and sinewy contributions to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — my labor of love eight years in the making, collecting 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us by some of the most inspiring humans in our world: poets, physicists, songwriters, artists, entrepreneurs, philosophers, deep-sea divers.
Farmer, poet, doula, and performer Laura Brown-Lavoie writes:
Did you ever read a sentence you loved the way you love your favorite animal? My favorite animal is a lioness; how she doesn’t have a mane but she always has some blood around her mouth. And how the lionesses work together like good friends when they want to kill something. I’ve never seen a lioness in person or touched one or slept in the same bushes where a lioness lives, but I’ve known since I was a little kid that I love them the most.
Sometimes when I’m reading a good book and I’m under a blanket and no one’s trying to talk to me, I forget that I’m reading. The tall grass of the story grows up around me, and I’m just another silent creature whose heart beats in that world. If I sit still and keep reading that way, sometimes a sentence stalks by as lovely as a lioness. Blood around its mouth; that fresh, that killer. I read it once, and I know I have to read it again, not look away, watch closely how it moves.
And then I start to notice my eye muscles moving my eyeballs back and forth again, and see the black of the letters on the gray of the page, and I’m just plain reading under a blanket. It’s still fun. But the reason I read is for the lionesses. For the sentences that pull me in with all their teeth.
In a lovely meta-testament to the sentiment of her letter, Brown-Lavoie (to whom I was introduced by the wondrous Sarah Kay, another contributor to A Velocity of Being) also composed one of the most imaginative and delightful author bios in the book:
Laura Brown-Lavoie is writing stories at the library with dirt on her knees. Born, like we all are, of physical labor, of sunlight and rain. Laura’s stories are born in a war-waging country, written by a war-hating woman. Her poems grow like weeds from the cracks in the asphalt of Providence streets and get hung upside down in the kitchen to dry.