What Happens To Your Body & Brain If You Don’t Get Sleep? Neuroscientist Matthew Walker Explains

As an insomniac in a morning person’s world, I wince at sleep news, especially from Matthew Walker, neuroscientist, Berkeley professor, and author of Why We Sleep. Something of a “sleep evangelist,” as Berkeley News calls him (he prefers "sleep diplomat"), Walker has taken his message on the road—or the 21st century equivalent: the TED Talk stages and animated explainer videos.

One such video has Walker saying that “sleep when you’re dead” is “mortally unwise advice… short sleep predicts a shorter life.” Or as he elaborates in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “every disease that is killing us in developed nations has causal and significant links to a lack of sleep.”




Yeesh. Does he lay it on thick? Nope, he's got the evidence and wants to scare us straight. It's a psychological tactic that hasn’t always worked so well, although next to “sleep or die” sermons, there’s good news: sleep, when harnessed properly (yes, somewhere in the area of 8 hours a night) can also be a “superpower." Sleep does “wonderfully good things… for your brain and for your body,” boosting memory, concentration, and immunity, just for starters.

But back to the bad....

In the Tech Insider video above, Walker delivers the grim facts. As he frequently points out, most of us need to hear it. Sleep deprivation is a serious epidemic—brought on by a complex of socio-economic-politico-technological factors you can probably imagine. See Walker’s comparisons (to the brain as an email inbox and a sewage system) animated, and learn about how lack of sleep contributes to a 24% increase in heart attacks and numerous forms of cancer. (The World Health Organization has recently “classified nighttime shift work as a probable carcinogen.”)

On the upside, rarely is health science so unambiguous. If nutritionists could only give us such clear-cut advice. Whether we'd take it is another question. Learn more about the multiple, and sometimes fatal, consequences of sleep deprivation in the animated TED-Ed video above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The Therapeutic Benefits of Ambient Music: Science Shows How It Eases Chronic Anxiety, Physical Pain, and ICU-Related Trauma

“In forty years of medical practice,” wrote Dr. Oliver Sacks near the end of his famous career, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.” The comment might not surprise us, coming from such an unorthodox thinker as Sacks. But we might be surprised by the considerable amount of traditional scientific research linking music and mental health.

Sixty years ago, when Sacks was still in medical school, avant-garde jazz bandleader Sun Ra had a very Sacks-like experience when he played for an audience of patients in a mental hospital, and inspired a catatonic woman who hadn’t spoken for years to stand up and say ‘Do you call that music?’” The gig, booked by his manager, constituted a fringe experiment in alternative medicine at the time, not a serious subject of study among medical doctors and neuroscientists.

How things have changed in the last half-century.




Several recent studies, for example, have linked drumming, the oldest and most universal form of music-making, to reduced anxiety, pain relief, improved mood, and improved learning skills in kids with autism. Listening to and playing jazz and other forms of syncopated music, have been shown in study after study to promote creativity, enhance math skills, and support mental and emotional well-being.

But what about ambient music, a genre often characterized by its lack of syncopation, and almost certain to feature as background music in guided meditation and stress reduction recordings; in slow, relaxing yoga videos; and thousands of YouTube videos promoting supposedly stress-reducing frequencies and stereo effects? Ambient seems purpose-built to combat tension and dis-ease, and in a sense, it was.

Brian Eno, the artist who named the genre and often gets credit for its invention, wrote in the liner notes to Ambient 1: Music for Airports, “[this record is] designed to induce calm and space to think.” Whether he meant to make a scientific claim or only an artistic statement of purpose, research has validated his inferences about the salutary effects of long, slow, atmospheric music.

Noisey Associate Editor Ryan Bassil, a longtime sufferer of anxiety and panic attacks, found the statement to be true in his own life, as he explains in the video above (illustrated by Nathan Cowdry). Music from ambient composers like Eno, William Bassinski, and Fennesz helped him “ground” himself during extremely anxious moments, bringing him back into sensory contact with the present.

When Bassil looked into the reasons why ambient music had such a calming effect on his over-stimulated nervous system, he found research from artist and academic Luke Jaaniste, who described an “ambient mode,” a “pervasive all-around field, without anything being prioritized into foreground and background.” Immersion in this space, writes Bassil, “can help the listener put aside what’s on their mind and use their senses to focus on their surroundings.”

We may not—and should not—ask music to be a useful tool, but ambient has shown itself particularly so when treating serious neurological and psychological conditions. Forensic psychiatrist Dr. John Tully of London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience traces the form back to Bach and Chopin, and especially Erik Satie, who “was the first to express the idea of music specifically as background sound,” and who had no qualms about music serving a specialized purpose.

The purpose of what we broadly call ambient has evolved and changed as classical, minimalist avant-garde, and electronic musicians have penned compositions for very different audiences. But no matter the intent, or where we draw the genre boundaries, all kinds of atmospheric, instrumental music has the therapeutic power not only to reduce anxiety, but also to ease pain in surgical patients and reduce agitation in those suffering with dementia.

When he performed with his group Darkroom at the Critical Care Unit at University College London Hospital, writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough found out that ambient music had significant benefits for patients trapped in what he calls “a suburb of hell”: the ICU. Stays in intensive care units correlate closely with later PTSD and what was once called “ICU psychosis” in the midst of traumatic emergency room experiences. Sedation turns out to be a major culprit. But music, especially ambient music, brought patients back to themselves.

Hear the 2016 Darkroom performance at the University College London Hospital ICU further up, and read more about Fernyhough’s research and performance at Aeon. The science of how and why ambient works the way it does is hardly settled. Where Fernyhough found that patients benefited from a lack of predictability and an ability to “escape the present moment,” Bassil’s research and experience uncovered the opposite—a sense of safe predictability and enhanced sensory awareness.

Physiological responses from person to person will vary, as will their tastes. “One person’s easy listening is another’s aural poison,” Fernyhough admits. But for a significant number of people suffering severe anxiety and trauma, the droning, minimal, wordless soundscapes of ambient are more effective than any medication.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The 1855 Map That Revolutionized Disease Prevention & Data Visualization: Discover John Snow’s Broad Street Pump Map

No, he didn’t help defeat an implacable zombie army intent on wiping out all life. But English obstetrician John Snow seems as important as the similarly-named Game of Thrones hero for his role in persuading modern medicine of the germ theory of disease. During the 1854 outbreak of cholera in London, Snow convinced authorities and critics that the disease spread from a contaminated water pump on Broad Street, leading to the now-legendary infographic map above showing the incidences of cholera clustered around the pump.

Snow’s persistence resulted in the removal of the handle from the Broad Street pump and has been credited with ending an epidemic that claimed 500 lives. The Broad Street pump map has become “an enduring feature of the folklore of public health and epidemiology," write the authors of an article published in The Lancet. They also point out that, contrary to popular retellings, the “map did not give rise to the insight” that the pump and its germ-covered handle caused the outbreak. “Rather it tended to confirm theories already held by the various investigators.”




Snow himself published a pamphlet in 1849 called “On the Mode of Communication of Cholera” in which he argued that “cholera is communicated by the evacuations from the alimentary canal.” As he reminded readers of The Edinburgh Medical Journal in an 1856 letter, in that same year, “Dr William Budd published a pamphlet ‘On Malignant Cholera’ in which he expressed views similar to my own.” Germ theory had a long, distinguished history already, and Snow and his contemporaries made sound, evidence-based arguments for it.

But their position “largely went ignored by the medical establishment,” notes Randy Alfred at Wired, “and was opposed by a local water company near one London outbreak.” The accepted, mainstream scientific opinion held that all disease was spread through “miasma,” or bad air. Pollution, it was thought, must be the cause. After the pump handle’s removal, Snow published an 1855 monograph on waterborne diseases. This was the first public appearance of the legendary map—after the removal of the handle.

Helping to inform Snow’s map, another investigator, parish priest Henry Whitehead had “concluded that it was the washing of soiled diapers into drains which flowed to the communal cesspool that contaminated the pump and started the outbreak,” writes Atlas Obscura. Whitehead, a former critic of germ theory, later pointed out that the removal of the pump handle didn’t actually stop the epidemic, which, he said, “had already run its course” by that point.

Nonetheless, Snow and other proponents of the theory were vindicated, Whitehead had to admit, and Snow's intervention “had probably everything to do with preventing a new outbreak.” The simple, yet sophisticated data visualization would lead to radical new ways of conceptualizing disease outbreaks, helping to stop or prevent who knows how many epidemics before they killed hundreds or thousands. Snow’s map also deserves credit for giving “data journalists a model of how to work today.”

It was hardly the first or only data visualization of cholera outbreaks of the time. "As early as the 1830s," Visual Capitalist points out, "geographers began using spacial analysis to study cholera epidemiology." But Snow's was by far the most influential, and effective, of them all. In his TED talk above, journalist Steven Johnson (author of The Ghost Map:The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World) tells the story of how the outbreak, and Snow's theory and map, "helped create the world that we live in today, and particularly the kind of city that we live in today."

Read a Q&A with Johnson here; head over to The Guardian's Data Blog to see Snow's visualization recreated over a modern, satellite-view map of London and the Soho neighborhood of the famous Broad Street pump; and learn more about Snow and deadly cholera outbreaks in the crowded European cities of the early 19th century at the John Snow Archive and Research Companion online.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Sleep Can Become Your “Superpower:” Scientist Matt Walker Explains Why Sleep Helps You Learn More and Live Longer

"I'll sleep when I'm dead": those words have been a mantra to hard-living types everywhere since Warren Zevon first sang them back in 1976, but as Berkeley sleep scientist and Why We Sleep author Matt Walker sees it, taking them to heart is a "mortally unwise" choice. The example of Zevon himself, who died at the age of 53, would seem to validate that judgement, but it also comes backed by serious research. In the TED Talk "Sleep Is Your Superpower" above, Walker builds on what we all know — that we need to sleep, regularly and without interruption — by explaining "the wonderfully good things that happen when you get sleep, but the alarmingly bad things that happen when you don’t get enough, both for your brain and for your body."

Not only, for example, do "you need sleep after learning to essentially hit the save button on those new memories so that you don’t forget," you also "need sleep before learning to actually prepare your brain, almost like a dry sponge ready to initially soak up new information."




As anyone who has tried to pull an all-nighter before a big test has felt, sleep deprivation shuts down your "your memory inbox," and any incoming files just get "bounced" without being retained. But deep-sleep brainwaves, as Walker puts it, act as a "file-transfer mechanism at night, shifting memories from a short-term vulnerable reservoir to a more permanent long-term storage site within the brain, and therefore protecting them, making them safe."

Improper sleep threatens not just learning but life itself: compromised sleep means a compromised immune system, hence the "significant links between short sleep duration and your risk for the development of numerous forms of cancer" now being discovered. "The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life," as Walker starkly puts it. As far as how to improve your sleep and, with luck, elongate your life, he has two main pieces of advice: "Go to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time, no matter whether it’s the weekday or the weekend," and "aim for a bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees, or about 18 degrees Celsius," slightly cooler than may feel normal. We'd also do well to remember the importance of breaking the habit of staying on the internet late into the night — or more specifically, having stayed up well past midnight writing this very post, I'd do well to remember it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Oliver Sacks Promotes the Healing Power of Gardens: They’re “More Powerful Than Any Medication”

Early European explorers left the continent with visions of gardens in their heads: The Garden of Eden, the Garden of the Hesperides, and other mythic realms of abundance, ease, and endless repose. Those same explorers left sickness, war, and death only to find sickness, war, and death—much of it exported by themselves. The garden became de-mythologized. Natural philosophy and modern methods of agriculture brought gardens further down to earth in the cultural imagination.

Yet the garden remained a special figure in philosophy, art, and literature, a potent symbol of an ordered life and ordered mind. Voltaire’s Candide, the riotous satire filled with gardens both fantastical and practical, famously ends with the dictate, “we must cultivate our garden.” The tendency to read this line as strictly metaphorical does a disservice to the intellectual culture created by Voltaire and other writers of the period—Alexander Pope most prominent among them—for whom gardening was a theory born of practice.




Exiled from France in 1765, Voltaire retreated to a villa in Geneva called Les Délices, “The Delights.” There, writes Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker, he “quickly turned his exile into a desirable condition…. When he wrote that it was our duty to cultivate our garden, he really knew what it meant to cultivate a garden.” Enlightenment poets and philosophers did not dwell on the scientific reasons why gardens might have such salutary effects on the psyche. And neither does neurologist Oliver Sacks, who also wrote of gardens as health-bestowing havens from the chaos and noise of the world, and more specifically, from the city and brutal commercial demands it represents.

For Sacks that city was not Paris or London but, principally, New York, where he lived, practiced, and wrote for fifty years. Nonetheless, in his essay “The Healing Power of Gardens,” he invokes the European history of gardens, from the medieval hortus to grand Enlightenment botanical gardens like Kew, filled with exotic plants from “the Americas and the Orient.” Sacks writes of his student days, where he “discovered with delight a very different garden—the Oxford Botanic Garden, one of the first walled gardens established in Europe,” founded in 1621.

“It pleased me to think,” he recalls, referring to key Enlightenment scientists, “that Boyle, Hooke, Willis and other Oxford figures might have walked and meditated there in the 17th century.” In that time, cultivated gardens were often the private preserves of landed gentry. Now, places like the New York Botanical Garden, whose virtues Sacks extolls in the video above, are open to everyone. And it is a good thing, too. Because gardens can serve an essential public health function, whether we’re stressed and generally fatigued or suffering from a mental disorder or neurological condition:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.

“In forty years of medical practice,” the physician writes, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.” A garden also represents—for Sacks and for artists like Virginia Woolf—“a triumph of resistance against the merciless race of modern life,” as Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings, a pace “so compulsively focused on productivity at the cost of creativity, of lucidity, of sanity.”

Voltaire’s prescription to tend our gardens has made Candide into a watchword for caring for and appreciating our surroundings. (It’s also now the name of a gardening app). Sacks’ recommendations should inspire us equally, whether we’re in search of creative inspiration or mental respite. “As a writer,” he says, “I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. The effect, he writes, is to be “refreshed in body and spirit,” absorbed in the “deep time” of nature, as he writes elsewhere, and finding in it “a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth,” and a remedy for the alienation of both mental illness and the grinding pace of our usual form of life.

via New York Times/Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Exercise May Prove an Effective Natural Treatment for Depression & Anxiety, New Study Shows

Image by cuegalos, via Flickr Commons

Maybe it seems intuitive that exercise would be prescribed to treat anxiety and depression, lower stress levels, and make people happier. After all, exercise and nutritional interventions are regularly discussed in the context of the U.S.’s other major killers: heart disease, diabetes, various cancers, even Alzheimer’s. How often have we heard about the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle or over-processed foods? Or read about remedies from walking, yoga, and spin cycling to the Mediterranean diet?

But mental health is seemingly different—the disease model that guided depression research for so long has faltered. “We do not have a biology for mental illness,” writes Derek Beres at Big Think. Researchers lack a medical pathology for mood disorders that affect overall health, careers, relationships, and quality of life for millions. The antidepressants once sold as a cure-all and prescribed to dizzying degrees proved to have limited efficacy and unfortunate side effects. No one seems to know exactly how or why or if they work. “Mental health scripts are guesswork,” Beres writes, “more of an art than science.”




Where does this leave the state of mental health research these days? One team of scientists at the University of Vermont found evidence that exercise significantly improved mood in patients with severe and chronic mental illnesses. As Newsweek reports, “a total of 100 patients signed up to participate in the study,” whose results were published recently in the journal Global Advances in Health and Medicine. The study volunteers came from “wards that dealt with conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, borderline personality disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and schizophrenia.”

After a workout schedule that included cardio, resistance, and flexibility training, four times a week for sixty minutes at a time, as well as nutritional programs “tailored” for each patient, 95 percent of the participants “said their mood has improved… and 63 percent said they were ‘happy’ or ‘very happy,’ rather than ‘neutral,’ ‘sad,’ or ‘very sad.’” 97.6 said they were motivated to continue working out and eating better. “The research yielded positive outcomes in all areas investigated,” write authors David Tomasi, Sheri Gates, and Emily Reyns of the study’s results. They conclude that physical exercise may contribute to “a more balanced and integrated sense of self.”

The researchers also recommend exercise as a treatment before the prescription of psychiatric drugs. There may not yet be a clear medical explanation for why it works. But that may be because modern medicine has only recently begun to see the mind and the body as one, at a time when our cultural evolution sends us hurtling toward a greater artificial divide between the two. “We’ve constructed a world in which most of the population survives by performing minimal physical activity.” A world soon to be engulfed in VR, AR, self-driving cars, and an “internet of things” that promises to eliminate the few physical tasks we have left.

We are in danger of forgetting that our mental and emotional health are directly tied to the needs of our physical bodies, and that our bodies need to move, stretch, and bend in order to stay alive and thrive. Read more summary of the study at Newsweek and see the full results from Global Advances in Health and Medicine here.

via Big Think/Newsweek

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

How Carl Jung Inspired the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous

There may be as many doors into Alcoholics Anonymous in the 21st century as there are people who walk through them—from every world religion to no religion. The “international mutual-aid fellowship” has had “a significant and long-term effect on the culture of the United States,” writes Worcester State University professor of psychology Charles Fox at Aeon. Indeed, its influence is global. From its inception in 1935, A.A. has represented an “enormously popular therapy, and a testament to the interdisciplinary nature of health and wellness.”

A.A. has also represented, at least culturally, a remarkable synthesis of behavioral science and spirituality that translates into scores of different languages, beliefs, and practices. Or at least that’s the way it can appear from browsing the scores of books on A.A.’s 12-Steps and Buddhism, Yoga, Catholicism, Judaism, Indigenous faith traditions, shamanist practices, Stoicism, secular humanism, and, of course, psychology.

Historically, and often in practice, however, the (non)organization of worldwide fellowships has represented a much narrower tradition, inherited from the evangelical (small “e”) Christian Oxford Group, or as A.A. founder Bill Wilson called them, “the ‘O.G.’” Wilson credits the Oxford Group for the methodology of A.A.: “their large emphasis upon the principles of self-survey, confession, restitution, and the giving of oneself in service to others.”

The Oxford Group’s theology, though qualified and tempered, also made its way into many of A.A.’s basic principles. But for the recovery group's genesis, Wilson cites a more secular authority, Carl Jung. The famous Swiss psychiatrist took a keen interest in alcoholism in the 1920s. Wilson wrote to Jung in 1961 to express his “great appreciation” for his efforts. “A certain conversation you once had with one of your patients, a Mr. Rowland H. back in the early 1930’s,” Wilson explains, “did play a critical role in the founding of our Fellowship.”

Jung may not have known his influence on the recovery movement, Wilson says, although alcoholics had accounted for “about 13 percent of all admissions” in his practice, notes Fox. One of his patients, Rowland H.—or Rowland Hazard, “investment banker and former state senator from Rhode Island”—came to Jung in desperation, saw him daily for a period of several months, stopped drinking, then relapsed. Brought back to Jung by his cousin, Hazard was told that his case was hopeless short of a religious conversion. As Wilson puts it in his letter:

[Y]ou frankly told him of his hopelessness, so far as any further medical or psychiatric treatment might be concerned. This candid and humble statement of yours was beyond doubt the first foundation stone upon which our Society has since been built.

Jung also told Hazard that conversion experiences were incredibly rare and recommended that he “place himself in a religious atmosphere and hope for the best,” as Wilson remembers. But he did not specify any particular religion. Hazard discovered the Oxford Group. He might, as far as Jung was concerned, have met God as he understood it anywhere. “His craving for alcohol was the equivalent,” wrote the psychiatrist in a reply to Wilson, “on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.”

In his reply letter to Wilson, Jung uses religious language allegorically. AA took the idea of conversion more literally. Though it wrestled with the plight of the agnostic, the Big Book concluded that such people must eventually see the light. Jung, on the other hand, seems very careful to avoid a strictly religious interpretation of his advice to Hazard, who started the first small group that would convert Wilson to sobriety and to Oxford Group methods.

“How could one formulate such an insight that is not misunderstood in our days?” Jung asks. “The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to a higher understanding.” Sobriety could be achieved through “a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism"—through an enlightenment or conversion experience, that is. It might also occur through “an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends.”

Though most founding members of AA fought for the stricter interpretation of Jung's prescription, Wilson always entertained the idea that multiple paths might bring alcoholics to the same goal, even including modern medicine. He drew on the medical opinions of Dr. William D. Silkworth, who theorized that alcoholism was in part a physical disease, “a sort of metabolism difficulty which he then called an allergy.” Even after his own conversion experience, which Silkworth, like Jung, recommended he pursue, Wilson experimented with vitamin therapies, through the influence of Aldous Huxley.

His search to understand his mystical “white light” moment in a New York detox room also led Wilson to William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. The book “gave me the realization,” he wrote to Jung, “that most conversion experiences, whatever their variety, do have a common denominator of ego collapse at depth.” He even thought that LSD could act as such a “temporary ego-reducer” after he took the drug under supervision of British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond. (Jung likely would have opposed what he called “short cuts” like psychedelic drugs.)

In the letters between Wilson and Jung, as Ian McCabe argues in Carl Jung and Alcoholics Anonymous, we see mutual admiration between the two, as well as mutual influence. “Bill Wilson,” writes McCabe’s publisher, “was encouraged by Jung’s writings to promote the spiritual aspect of recovery,” an aspect that took on a particularly religious character in Alcoholics Anonymous. For his part, Jung, “influenced by A.A.’s success… gave ‘complete and detailed instructions’ on how the A.A. group format could be developed further and used by ‘general neurotics.’” And so it has, though more on the Oxford Group model than the more mystical Jungian. It might well have been otherwise.

Read more about Jung's influence on AA over at Aeon.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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