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This is the weekly email digest of the daily online journal Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — how to become a gifted listener; a tender illustrated fable about our capacity for change; the courage to defy cynicism and revise the world’s givens — you can catch up right here. If my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation – for a decade and a half, I have spent tens of thousands of hours, made many personal sacrifices, and invested tremendous resources in Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free and alive thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

The Good Luck of Your Bad Luck: Marcus Aurelius on the Stoic Strategy for Weathering Life’s Waves and Turning Suffering into Strength

Most people live with a great deal more suffering than is visible to even the most proximate and sensitive onlooker. Many have survived things both unimaginable and invisible to the outside world. This has been the case since the dawn of our species, for human nature has hardly changed beneath the continually repainted façade of our social sanctions — human beings have always been capable of inflicting tremendous pain on each other and capable of triumphal healing.

There is, however, a peculiar modern phenomenon that might best be described as a culture of competitive trauma. In recent times, the touching human longing for sympathy, that impulse to have our suffering recognized and validated, has grown distorted by a troubling compulsion for broadcast-suffering and comparative validity. Personhoods are staked on the cards dealt and not the hands played, as if we evolved the opposable thumbs of our agency for nothing. In memoirs and reality shows, across infinite Alexandrian scrolls of social media feeds, the unlucky events of life have become the currency of attention and identification.

Drawing by Art Young from Trees at Night, 1926. (Available as a print.)

There is a way, with moderate moral imagination and considerable countercultural courage, to subvert this tendency without turning away from the reality and magnitude of suffering that we do live with — a way to esteem in attention and admiration not the unluckiness of what has happened to us but the luckiness that, despite it, we have become the people we are and have the lives we have by the sheer unwillingness to stay in that small dark place, which is at heart a willingness to be larger than our hurt selves.

It is not a new way of reframing personal narrative (which, after all, is the neuropsychological pillar of identity). It is a very old way, common to many of the world’s ancient traditions but most clearly and creatively articulated by the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180).

Marcus Aurelius

Because the modern mind calculates validity of vantage point by estimating the comparative value of suffering, it must be observed that, later in life, Marcus Aurelius had it easier than most of his contemporaries, being Emperor; it must also be observed that, earlier in life, he had it harder than most, being a fatherless child and a queer teenager in Roman antiquity, epochs before the notion of LGBTQ rights, or for that matter most human rights. It is hardly surprising that he turned to Stoicism for succor and training in living with the uncertainty of events and the certainty of loss.

His timeless Meditations (public library), newly translated and annotated by the British classics scholar Robin Waterfield, were the original self-help — Marcus wrote these notebooks primarily as notes to himself while learning how to live: how to live with more agency, equanimity, and even joy in a world violently unpredictable at all times and especially so in his time.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese artist Hokusai, 1831. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In one of those self-counsels, Marcus Aurelius considers the key to regarding one’s own life, and living it, with positive realism:

Be like a headland: the waves beat against it continuously, but it stands fast and around it the boiling water dies down. “It’s my rotten luck that this has happened to me.” On the contrary, “It’s my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I still feel no distress, since I’m unbruised by the present and unconcerned about the future.” What happened could have happened to anyone, but not everyone could have carried on without letting it distress him. So why regard the incident as a piece of bad luck rather than seeing your avoidance of distress as a piece of good luck? Do you generally describe a person as unlucky when his nature worked well? Or do you count it as a malfunction of a person’s nature when it succeeds in securing the outcome it wanted?

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

With an eye to “what human nature wants” — what life ultimately demands as it lives itself through us, and what our highest answer is — he concludes:

Can what happened to you stop you from being fair, high-minded, moderate, conscientious, unhasty, honest, moral, self-reliant, and so on — from possessing all the qualities that, when present, enable a man’s* nature to be fulfilled? So then, whenever something happens that might cause you distress, remember to rely on this principle: this is not bad luck, but bearing it valiantly is good luck.

Complement with an equally counterintuitive and perspective-broadening modern case for the luckiness of death and Alan Watts on the ambiguity of good and bad luck, then revisit other highlights from the indispensable Meditations: Marcus Aurelius on how to handle disappointing peoplethe key to living with presencethe most potent motivation for work, and how to begin each day for maximum serenity of mind.

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Place, Personhood, and the Hippocampus: The Fascinating Science of Magnetism, Autonoeic Consciousness, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote in her lyrical love letter to her native Highlands, echoing an ancient intuition about how our formative physical landscapes shape our landscapes of thought and feeling. The word “genius” in the modern sense, after all, originates in the Latin phrase genius loci — “the spirit of a place.”

I find myself thinking about Shepherd as I return to the Bulgarian mountains of my own childhood, trekking the same paths with my mother that I once trudged with tiny feet beside her, astonished at the flood of long-ago feelings rushing in with each step, astonished too at how effortlessly I navigate these routes I have not walked in decades.

The psychological, neurocognitive, and geophysical underpinnings of these astonishments are what M.R. O’Connor explores in Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World (public library) — a layered inquiry into the science and cultural poetics of how we orient in space and selfhood, illuminating the stunning interpenetration of the two.

“View of Nature in Ascending Regions” by Levi Walter Yaggy from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography, 1893. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

In a passage evocative of Rebecca Solnit’s memorable observation that “never to get lost is not to live,” O’Connor takes the telescopic perspective of evolutionary time to consider the cognitive handicap beneath this existential gift:

Life on earth has created millions of Ulyssean species undertaking epic journeys at scales both large and small. Getting lost is a uniquely human problem. Many animals are incredible navigators, capable of undertaking journeys that far eclipse our individual abilities. The greatest migration on earth belongs to the Arctic tern, a four-ounce argonaut that travels each year from Greenland to Antarctica and back again, a distance of some forty-four thousand miles. Flying with the wind, the tern’s return itinerary isx a globe-trotter’s fantasy, circumnavigating Africa and South America.

[…]

One of the devices that an animal needs to navigate is a “clock” — an internal mechanism for measuring or keeping time. The daily mass migration of zooplankton in the world’s oceans requires them to know when dawn and dusk are approaching. It would seem this is a simple response to light stimuli, but deep-sea zooplankton, which live at depths below where light penetrates, also migrate in accordance with the length of day at different latitudes. Even slightly more complex migrations can demand multiple clocks.

Perhaps the most astonishing internal clock belongs to the bioluminescent Bermuda fireworm, which swarms the tropical waters precisely fifty-seven minutes after sunset on each third evening after the full Moon in the summer. Such a feat suggests that this tiny marine organism, with a fraction of a fraction of the cognitive capacity of a human, is internally equipped with three different timekeeping devises: a regular twenty-four-hour diurnal clock, a lunar clock with a 27.3-day cycle, and an interval timer to tick out the exact minutes past sunset.

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. (Available as a print and as a wall clock.)

O’Connor marvels at the staggering evolutionary array of timekeeping devices that allows migratory species to keep partaking of the dance of life:

Animals that complete annual migrations or multiyear migrations have to possess a yearly clock, one that is finely attuned to the lengths of days and nights and their changes across each season. In all, evolution seems to have produced annual clocks, lunar clocks, tidal clocks, circadian clocks, and, perhaps for those that migrate under cover of darkness, a sidereal clock — which measures the time it takes a star to appear to travel around the earth.

Besides their intricate internal timekeeping mechanisms, many nonhuman animals are endowed with equally intricate space-mapping mechanisms. Each migration season, humpback whales travel more than ten thousand miles far from land to return to the precise place where they were born. There are bird species — European pied flycatchers, blackcaps, and indigo buntings among them — that appear to orient by the pole star in their nocturnal flight; there are insect species — ants and bees among them — that perform triumphs of trigonometry with their light-sensitive photoreceptors, calculating spatial distances by polarized light to find the most direct route home after a winding pathway of foraging. With their mere milligram-brains of one million neurons — a grain of sand to the Mont Blanc of our eighty-six billion — and 20/2000 vision that renders them blind by human standards, honeybees make hundreds of foraging trips per day, meandering many miles from home, then compute the “beeline” back. African ball-rolling dung beetles, Namibian desert spiders, and southern cricket frogs use the stars of the Milky Way as their compass, just like some of the most courageous members of our own species once used the constellations to find their way to freedom from the moral cowardice of tyranny: To ensure they were moving northward, migrants on the Underground Railroad were instructed to keep the river on one side and “follow The Drinking Gourd” — an African name for Ursa Major, or The Big Dipper.

“Planetary System, Eclipse of the Sun, the Moon, the Zodiacal Light, Meteoric Shower” by Levi Walter Yaggy from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography, 1887. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

Like all reality-radicalizing discoveries that defy the limiting creaturely intuitions we call common sense, the notion that animals might use magnetism for navigation was long derided as something more akin to spiritualism than to science. Humphry Davy — the greatest chemist of the Golden Age of chemistry, charismatic pioneer of the scientific lecture as popular entertainment — was keenly interested in the mystery of animal magnetism. A century after him, Nikola Tesla — a dazzling mind epochs ahead of his time in myriad ways, whose legacy shapes so much of our daily lives and whose name is now the measuring unit of magnetic fields — stood a chance of cracking the mystery, given with his twin passions for pigeons and magnetism, but the opprobrium of the scientific establishment was too impenetrable and the technology was not yet there. It wasn’t until 1958 that a young German graduate student — Wolfgang Wiltschko — was tasked with disproving animal magnetic navigation once and for all. Instead, he ended up proving it: In the then-dubious experiment he was asked to replicate, the birds he let loose in a space with no light source could, just like in the original experiment performed by a fellow student, still orient effortlessly.

O’Connor writes:

The notion that animals have a bio-compass that can “read” the earth’s geomagnetic field has now emerged as the most promising explanation of animal navigation. In addition to those marathon migratory species, nearly every animal that has been tested thus far demonstrates a capacity to orient to the geomagnetic field. Carp floating in tubs at fish markets in Prague spontaneously align themselves in a north-south axis. So do newts at rest, and dogs when they crouch to relieve themselves. Horses, cattle, and deer orient their bodies north-south while grazing, but not if they are under power lines, which disrupt the magnetic field. Red foxes almost always pounce on mice from the northeast. These organisms must all have some kind of organelle that functions as a magneto-receptor, the same way an ear receives sound and an eye receives space.

Magnetism with Key by Berenice Abbott, 1958, from her series Documenting Science.

We human animals navigate the world not only by orienting in space, but by orienting in time. Mental time travel — the ability to rememeber and reflect, to imagine and plan for the future — is what made us human. It is also the pillar of our personal identity — the narrative string that links our childhood selves to our present selves to make us, across a lifetime of physical and psychological changes, one person.

That string is known as autonoeic consciousness, from the Greek noéō: “I perceive,” “I fathom” — our capacity for mental self-representation as entities in time that can reflect on our own lives as continuous and coherent phenomena of being. In the blink of evolutionary time since the dawn of neuroscience in the 1930s, one area of the brain has emerged as the crucible of both our autoneoic consciousness and our spatial navigation: the hippocampus. O’Connor writes:

The hippocampus has sometimes been described as the human GPS, but this metaphor is reductive compared to what this remarkable, plastic part of our minds accomplishes. While a GPS identifies fixed positions or coordinates in space that never change, neuroscientists think what the hippocampus does is unique to us as individuals — it builds representations of places based on our point of view, experiences, memories, goals, and desires. It provides the infrastructure for our selfhood.

An astrocyte in the human hippocampus. One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s little-known ink drawings.

Because a self is a pattern of experiences, memories, and impressions, constellated according to an organizing principle, and because sleep is when the hippocampus consolidates memories to draw from them those organizing patterns, sleep is essential to our sense of self. O’Connor quotes MIT neuroscientist Matt Wilson:

During sleep you try to make sense of things you already learned… You go into a vast database of experience and try to figure out new connections and then build a model to explain new experiences. Wisdom is the rules, based on experience, that allows us to make good decisions in novel situations in the future.

The hippocampus is a hard-won glory of evolution, but it is not singular to us — rudiments of it and variations on it are found in some of our fellow animals across the rungs of neural complexity:

Even birds, which last shared an ancestor with humans 250 million years ago, as well as amphibians, lungfish, and reptiles, have what is called a medial pallium. Similar to the mammalian hippocampal formation in vertebrates, the medial pallium is also involved in spatial tasks in these species, raising the possibility that certain properties of spatial cognition were conserved as organisms diversified and split, while other properties adapted to particular ecologies or selective forces. But despite the profound evolutionary commonalities between humans and other vertebrates and the way the hippocampus relates to cognitive functions of memory and navigation, the question remains: why did we make such a leap in terms of hippocampi’s size and role in our lives? Or as psychologist Daniel Casasanto puts it, “How did foragers become physicists in the eye blink of evolutionary time?”

Part of the answer might lie in the remarkable plasticity of the hippocampus. After the now-iconic 2000 study of the brains of London taxi drivers — which found that their elaborate qualification exam, requiring the memorization of thousands of city landmarks and 25,000 streets, resulted in significant increase in synapses and gray matter in the hippocampus — scientists have been studying what we can do to protect and even bolster our primary instrument for navigating space and selfhood.

O’Connor points to the work of McGill University neuroscientist Véronique Bohbot, who has devised a hippocampal health regimen of recollection and navigation exercises of incrementally increasing difficulty that deliver marked structural growth of gray matter. VeboLife — the neurocognitive fitness training program she has devised — teaches people to navigate the familiar environment in deliberately novel ways, challenging trainees to reconfigure their default routes by taking new paths that require them to attend to new details and make new mental maps in the process.

Optimal hippocampal health appears to be — like the optimal experience of life itself — a matter of paying active and mindful attention, interrupting the “intentional, unapologetic discriminator” our brain has evolved to be, savoring the specifics of each unrepeatable moment.

With an eye to how our hippocampal acuity determines the quality of our lives, O’Connor wonders:

Maybe wayfinding is an activity that confronts us with the marvelous fact of being in the world, requiring us to look up and take notice, to cognitively and emotionally interact with our surroundings whether we are in the wilderness or a city, even calling us to renew our species’ love affair with freedom, exploration, and place.

And yet as much as we throb with wanderlust, we are animated by an intense connection to the landscapes and topographies of our formative years. An emotion known as topophilia, which I experienced while revisiting those mountain trails of my childhood, furnishes this affective-spatial memory that renders childhood as much a time as a place.

Major rivers and mountains of the world compared by length and height, from Atlas de Choix, ou Recueil des Meilleures Cartes de Geographie Ancienne et Moderne Dressees par Divers Auteurs by J. Goujon and J. Andriveau, 1829. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

O’Connor writes:

Often the places we grow up in have outsized influence on us. They influence how we perceive and conceptualize the world, give us metaphors to live by, and shape the purpose that drives us — they are our source of subjectivity as well as a commonality by which we can relate to and identify with others. Maybe it’s because of the vividness of their sensory impressions, their genius for establishing deep relationships to their early environments, that children have a strong capacity for the human emotion called topophilia.

[…]

Across cultures, navigation is influenced by particular environmental conditions — snow, sand, water, wind — and topographies — mountain, valley, river, ocean, and desert. But in all of them, it is also a means by which individuals develop a sense of attachment and feeling for places. Navigating becomes a way of knowing, familiarity, and fondness. It is how you can fall in love with a mountain or a forest. Wayfinding is how we accumulate treasure maps of exquisite memories.

In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating Wayfinding, O’Connor maps the most thrilling shorelines of our evolving territories of understanding: astounding findings indicating that people from migratory populations have measurably longer alleles of the dopamine receptor gene associated with exploratory behavior than people from sedentary communities; ancient feats of navigation passed down the generations in native cultures to challenge the Western social theory of culture; music as a metaphor for the relationship between organisms and their environment. For a lyrical counterpart, complement it with Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost.

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Between Restlessness and Rapture: Autumn and the Sensual Urgency of Aliveness

When autumn comes with its ecstasy of sweetness in the orchard and its symphony of color in the forest, it staggers us with something difficult to name, some bewildering harmonic of the transcendent and the transient — each ripening apple an aria of delight, each bright falling leaf a sigh, a homily, a dirge without music.

Looking back on her life in its final year, the great French writer, actor, and mime Colette celebrated autumn and the autumn of life as a beginning, not a decline — the season of “those who have nothing more to lose and so excel at giving.” Two generations later, while navigating a season of bereavements, Pico Iyer discovered in autumn existential training ground for finding beauty in impermanence and light in loss. We call it “fall,” but something swells in us as the days grow shorter and the trees more skeletal — the quiet uprising of resilience that readies us for the self-renewal of wintering.

The Cowarne Apple, 1811. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (public library) — his love letter to the spirituality of science and the wonder of the wilderness — the poetic ornithologist and wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham considers the singular and sensual enchantment of autumn:

Fall is the time when nature speaks most clearly to me. In autumn one is treated to an orgy of sights, sounds, and smells that can be wonderfully overwhelming. The stifling late-summer heat is mercifully cleared by cooler air overnight. Breathing is suddenly easier and the soaking sweat evaporates. You want to inhale deeply enough to take in every molecule wafting on the wind. The tired sameness of September’s deep green fades then flames into October’s vermilion sumacs and scarlet maples, lemon-yellow poplars and golden hickories. In those days of crispness I want to linger long enough to hear every sound and look far enough to see into forever.

Reflecting on the natural restlessness the season seems to stir in us and other animals, he writes:

The Germans have a fine word for it: zugunruhe. A compound derived from the roots zug (migration) and unruhe (anxiety), it describes the seasonal migration of birds and other animals. In this wanderlust I want to go somewhere far away, to fly to some place I think I need to be. Nature is on the move, too, migrating, storing, and dying. Everything is either accelerating or slowing down. Some things are rushing about to put in seed for the next generation. A monarch butterfly in a field full of goldenrod is urgent on tissue-thin wings of black and orange to gather the surging sweetness before the frost locks it away. Apple trees and tangles of muscadines hang heavy. The fruit-dense orchards offer a final call to the wildlings. Foxes, deer, coons, possum, and wild turkeys fatten in the feasting. The air is spiced with the scent of dying leaves. The perfume of decay gathers as berries ripen into wild wine. Even the sun sits differently in an autumnal sky, sending a mellower light in somber slants that foretell the coming change.

The droning katydids, tired from their months-long work of filling the hot wet nights with song, hang on into October. But soon choirs of thousands dwindle to hundreds, and then just one or two. A persistent cricket tries hard to fiddle in time but the first freeze throws a wrench into his rhythm. The rustling riot of turning, falling leaves and the mysterious moonlit chirps of migrant songbirds winging their way to faraway places make my heart race… When the moon glows in a mid-November sky like a pallid sun, I, too, am so soaked in wanting and wood’s lust that I might as well wander like a warbler in the joyous urgency of it all.

The Triumph of Life by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Complement with Henry Beston — a father-figure for generations of such lyrical nature writers — on harvest and the human spirit, then revisit poet Diane Ackerman’s wonderful notion of living as an “Earth ecstatic” and a breathtaking animated poem about our connection to nature and each other, inspired by the seasonal migration of starlings.