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Nietzsche on Dreams as an Evolutionary Time Machine for the Human Brain

“Dreams carry us back to the earlier stages of human culture and afford us a means of understanding it more clearly.”

Nietzsche on Dreams as an Evolutionary Time Machine for the Human Brain

We spend a third of our lives in a parallel nocturnal universe and the half-imagined, half-remembered experiences we have there are in constant dynamic interaction with our waking selves. Our nightly dreams are both fragmentary reflections of our conscious lives, rearranged into barely recognizable mosaics by our unconscious, and potent agents of psychic transmutation — a powerful dream can cast an unshakable mood over the wakeful hours, or even days, that follow it. Science is only just beginning to shed light on the role of dreams in memory consolidation and mood, but their nature and purpose remain largely a mystery. “We feel dreamed by someone else, a sleeping counterpart,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his beautiful ode to dreams.

Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) saw this sleeping counterpart as our link to primitive humanity — an atavistic remnant of the pre-rational human mind. Nearly two decades before Freud’s seminal treatise on dreams, Nietzsche explored the mystique of the nocturnal unconscious in a portion of Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (public library | free ebook) — his altogether terrific 1879 inquiry into how we become who we are.

In a section on dreams and civilization, he writes:

In the dream … we have the source of all metaphysic. Without the dream, men would never have been incited to an analysis of the world. Even the distinction between soul and body is wholly due to the primitive conception of the dream, as also the hypothesis of the embodied soul, whence the development of all superstition, and also, probably, the belief in god. “The dead still live: for they appear to the living in dreams.” So reasoned mankind at one time, and through many thousands of years.

Therein lies Nietzsche’s most intriguing point: Sleep, he suggests, is a kind of evolutionary time machine — a portal to the primitive past of our sensemaking instincts. He paints the sleeping brain as a blunt Occam’s Razor — in seeking out the simplest explanations for our daily confusions, it ends up succumbing to the simplistic. This, Nietzsche argues, is how superstitions and religious mythologies may have originated:

The function of the brain which is most encroached upon in slumber is the memory; not that it is wholly suspended, but it is reduced to a state of imperfection as, in primitive ages of mankind, was probably the case with everyone, whether waking or sleeping. Uncontrolled and entangled as it is, it perpetually confuses things as a result of the most trifling similarities, yet in the same mental confusion and lack of control the nations invented their mythologies, while nowadays travelers habitually observe how prone the savage is to forgetfulness, how his mind, after the least exertion of memory, begins to wander and lose itself until finally he utters falsehood and nonsense from sheer exhaustion. Yet, in dreams, we all resemble this savage. Inadequacy of distinction and error of comparison are the basis of the preposterous things we do and say in dreams, so that when we clearly recall a dream we are startled that so much idiocy lurks within us. The absolute distinctness of all dream-images, due to implicit faith in their substantial reality, recalls the conditions in which earlier mankind were placed, for whom hallucinations had extraordinary vividness, entire communities and even entire nations laboring simultaneously under them. Therefore: in sleep and in dream we make the pilgrimage of early mankind over again.

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud, Freud’s cross-dressing niece, from a philosophical 1922 children’s book about dreams

Just like the dreaming self contains vestiges of every self we’ve inhabited since childhood, to be resurrected in sleep, Nietzsche argues that the dreaming brain contains vestiges of the primitive stages of the human brain, when our cognitive capacity for problem-solving was far more limited and unmoored from critical thinking. Nearly a century before modern scientists came to study what actually happens to the brain and body while we sleep, he writes:

Everyone knows from experience how a dreamer will transform one piercing sound, for example, that of a bell, into another of quite a different nature, say, the report of cannon. In his dream he becomes aware first of the effects, which he explains by a subsequent hypothesis and becomes persuaded of the purely conjectural nature of the sound. But how comes it that the mind of the dreamer goes so far astray when the same mind, awake, is habitually cautious, careful, and so conservative in its dealings with hypotheses? Why does the first plausible hypothesis of the cause of a sensation gain credit in the dreaming state? (For in a dream we look upon that dream as reality, that is, we accept our hypotheses as fully established). I have no doubt that as men argue in their dreams to-day, mankind argued, even in their waking moments, for thousands of years: the first causa, that occurred to the mind with reference to anything that stood in need of explanation, was accepted as the true explanation and served as such… In the dream this atavistic relic of humanity manifests its existence within us, for it is the foundation upon which the higher rational faculty developed itself and still develops itself in every individual. Dreams carry us back to the earlier stages of human culture and afford us a means of understanding it more clearly.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree

Nietzsche considers the cognitive machinery of this dreamsome deduction:

If we close our eyes the brain immediately conjures up a medley of impressions of light and color, apparently a sort of imitation and echo of the impressions forced in upon the brain during its waking moments. And now the mind, in co-operation with the imagination, transforms this formless play of light and color into definite figures, moving groups, landscapes. What really takes place is a sort of reasoning from effect back to cause.

[…]

The imagination is continually interposing its images inasmuch as it participates in the production of the impressions made through the senses day by day: and the dream-fancy does exactly the same thing — that is, the presumed cause is determined from the effect and after the effect: all this, too, with extraordinary rapidity, so that in this matter, as in a matter of jugglery or sleight-of-hand, a confusion of the mind is produced and an after effect is made to appear a simultaneous action, an inverted succession of events, even. — From these considerations we can see how late strict, logical thought, the true notion of cause and effect must have been in developing, since our intellectual and rational faculties to this very day revert to these primitive processes of deduction, while practically half our lifetime is spent in the super-inducing conditions.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s wonderful notion that the poet is “the spiritual heir of primitive humanity,” Nietzsche adds:

Even the poet, the artist, ascribes to his sentimental and emotional states causes which are not the true ones. To that extent he is a reminder of early mankind and can aid us in its comprehension.

Human, All Too Human is a spectacular read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with the science of how REM sleep regulates our negative moods and the psychology of dreams and why we have nightmares, then revisit Nietzsche on the power of music, how to find yourself, why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, and his ten rules for writers.

BP

Van Gogh on Heartbreak and Unrequited Love as a Vitalizing Force for Creative Work

“Nothing awakens us to the reality of life so much as a true love.”

It is when life bends us to its will and we don’t break that we learn what we are made of — nowhere more so than in heartbreak, that outermost extremity of the discomfiting principle that frustration is essential to satisfaction in love.

In the summer of 1881, while visiting his parents, Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) fell in love with a woman named Cornelia Adriana Vos-Stricker — a beautiful, recently widowed young mother. Cornelia was touched by Vincent’s kindness to her little boy — Van Gogh had a great affection for children — and a friendship developed between them. But it was quickly warped by romantic lopsidedness — Vincent fell passionately in love with Cornelia, who was too raw with grief to open up to the possibility of a new life. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, she rebuffed him gently yet firmly. But like any hopeful lover confronting hopelessness, Van Gogh warded off dejection with denial and, mistaking her gentleness for ambivalence, led himself to believe that he still had a chance if only he tried harder. (Most human heartbreak stems from this half-arrogant, half-naïve tendency of ours to believe that we can change the course of events and the feelings of others by bending, twisting, and exerting ourselves a little bit more, as if the entirety of their free will was a function of our own actions.)

Although Van Gogh’s infatuation ultimately ended in heartbreak, in the process of working through it he found himself and his art came alive in a new way — a beautiful and poignant reminder that our sorrow and our creative vitality spring from the same source.

‘Self-Portrait with Straw Hat’ by Vincent van Gogh

In a touching letter to his brother Theo from September of 1881, found in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us the beloved artist on principles and how inspired mistakes move us forward — 28-year-old Van Gogh writes:

This summer a deep love has grown in my heart for [Cornelia], but when I told her this, she answered me that, to her, past and future remained one, so she never could return my feelings.

Then there was a terrible indecision within me what to do. Should I accept her “no, never never,” or considering the question as not finished or decided, should I keep some hope and not give up? I chose the latter.

And up to now I do not repent of that decision, though I am still confronted by that “no, never never”… For myself [I have] kept some courage… I hope to continue to do so, and to keep melancholy and depression far from me, meanwhile working hard, and since I have met her I get on much better with my work.

[…]

It is no unreasonable or unjust desire to wish that [she] and I might see each other, speak to each other, and write to each other, in order to become better acquainted, and in this way to get a better insight into whether we are suited for each other or not… I hope not to leave a single thing undone, that may bring me nearer to her, and it is my intention:

To love her so long
Till she’ll love me in the end.

Four days later, Van Gogh writes to his brother again, even more resolute in his decision to keep hope alive:

There is a love serious and passionate enough, not to be chilled by many “no, never nevers”… For love is something positive, so strong, so real that it is as impossible for one who loves to take back that feeling, as it is to take his own life… Life has become very dear to me, and I am very glad that I love. My life and my love are one.

Torn between compassion for Cornelia’s grief and agony over her refusal to open her heart to him, he adds:

In that inexpressible anguish of soul, rose a thought in me like a clear light in the night, namely this: whosoever can resign himself, let him do so, but he who has faith let him believe! Then I arose, not resigning but believing, and had no other thought than “she, and no other”…

So I remain calm and confident through all this, and that influences my work, which attracts me more than ever, just because I feel I shall succeed. Not that I shall become anything extraordinary, but “ordinary,” and then I mean by ordinary, that my work will be sound and reasonable, and will have a right to exist, and will serve to some end. I think that nothing awakens us to the reality of life so much as a true love…

As the summer sets into fall, Van Gogh — who was always animated by the intimate dialogue between love and art — continues learning to find solace in the love he is feeling as an invaluable reward in its own right, independent of what he may or may not receive in return. He reflects:

Since the beginning of this love I felt, that unless I gave myself up to it entirely, without afterthought, without any restriction, with all my heart, entirely and for ever, there was no chance for me whatever, and even so my chance is slight. But what is it to me whether my chance is slight or great? I mean must I consider this when I love? No — no reckoning, one loves because one loves.

By mid-November, he becomes even more attuned to the love in his own heart as a gateway to self-discovery and a new mode of being. He writes to Theo:

If you were in love with the same sort of love as I, and, boy, why should you ever have another kind of love, then you would discover something quite new in yourself… We are used to do most of our work with our brains — with a certain diplomacy, with a certain sharp calculation. But now fall in love, and look here, you will perceive to your astonishment that there is still another force that urges us on to action, that is the heart.

In a sentiment that Henry Miller would come to echo in contemplating the vital balance of giving and receiving, and one which calls to mind poet and philosopher David Whyte’s assertion that “heartbreak is how we mature,” Van Gogh considers what the anguish of this unrequited love taught him about himself and about life’s most perennial truths:

What kind of love was it I felt when I was twenty? … I only wanted to give, but not to receive. Foolish, wrong, exaggerated, proud, rash, for in love one must not only give, but also take, and reversing it, one must not only take but also give. Whoever deviates either to the right or to the left, he falls, there is no help for it.

Complement this particular portion of the sorrowfully stunning Ever Yours with Kafka’s beautiful and heartbreaking love letters and Charlotte Brontë on unrequited love, then revisit Nicole Krauss’s sublime letter to Van Gogh across space and time and the story of how he found his purpose.

BP

Don’t Heed the Haters: Albert Einstein’s Wonderful Letter of Support to Marie Curie in the Midst of Scandal

“If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.”

Don’t Heed the Haters: Albert Einstein’s Wonderful Letter of Support to Marie Curie in the Midst of Scandal

Few things are more disheartening to witness than the bile which small-spirited people of inferior talent often direct at those endowed with genius. And few things are more heartening to witness than the solidarity and support which kindred spirits of goodwill extend to those targeted by such loathsome attacks.

In 1903, Marie Curie (November 7, 1867–July 4, 1934) became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. It was awarded jointly to her and her husband, Pierre, for their pioneering research on radioactivity. On April 19, 1906, she was widowed by an accident all the more tragic for its improbability. While crossing a busy Parisian street on a rainy night, Pierre slipped, fell under a horse-drawn cart, and was killed instantly. Curie grieved for years. In 1910, she found solace in Pierre’s protégé — a young physics professor named Paul Langevin, married to but separated from a woman who physically abused him. They became lovers. Enraged, Langevin’s wife hired someone to break into the apartment where the two met and steal their love letters, which she promptly leaked to the so-called press. The press eviscerated Curie and portrayed her as “a foreign Jewish homewrecker.”

Upon returning from a historic invitation-only science conference in Brussels, where she had met Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18 1955), Curie found an angry mob in front of her home in Paris. She and her daughters were forced to stay with a family friend.

At the 1911 Solvay Conference. Curie leaning on table. Einstein second from right. Also in attendance: Max Planck, Henri Poincaré, and Ernest Rutherford.
At the 1911 Solvay Conference. Curie leaning on table. Einstein second from right. Also in attendance: Max Planck, Henri Poincaré, and Ernest Rutherford.

Einstein considered Curie “an unpretentious honest person” with a “sparkling intelligence.” When he got news of the scandal, he was outraged by the tastelessness and cruelty of the press — the tabloids had stripped a private situation of all humanity and nuance, and brought it into the public realm with the deliberate intention of destroying Curie’s scientific reputation.

A master of beautiful consolatory letters and a champion of kindness as a central animating motive of life, Einstein wrote to Curie with wholehearted solidarity and support, encouraging her not to give any credence to the hateful commentaries in the press. The letter, found in Walter Isaacson’s terrific biography Einstein: His Life and Universe (public library), is a testament to the generosity of spirit that accompanied Einstein’s unparalleled intellect — a masterwork of what he himself termed “spiritual genius.”

curieeinstein

Einstein, who would later remark that “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted,” writes:

Highly esteemed Mrs. Curie,

Do not laugh at me for writing you without having anything sensible to say. But I am so enraged by the base manner in which the public is presently daring to concern itself with you that I absolutely must give vent to this feeling. However, I am convinced that you consistently despise this rabble, whether it obsequiously lavishes respect on you or whether it attempts to satiate its lust for sensationalism! I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance in Brussels. Anyone who does not number among these reptiles is certainly happy, now as before, that we have such personages among us as you, and Langevin too, real people with whom one feels privileged to be in contact. If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.

With most amicable regards to you, Langevin, and Perrin, yours very truly,

A. Einstein

Shortly after the scandal, Curie received her second Nobel Prize — this time in chemistry, for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium. To this day the only person awarded a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, she endures as one of humanity’s most visionary and beloved minds. The journalists who showered her with bile are known to none and deplored by all.

Complement with Kierkegaard on why haters hate and Anne Lamott’s definitive manifesto for how to handle them, then revisit Mark Twain’s witty and wise letter of support to Helen Keller when she was wrongly accused of plagiarism and Frida Kahlo’s compassionate letter to Georgia O’Keeffe after the American painter was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.

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