5 Ways to Build an Alzheimer’s-Resistant Brain: Neuroscientist Lisa Genova Explains

Though not easily dealt with in mainstream entertainment, Alzheimer’s disease has inspired popular works of fiction. Take the 2007 novel Still Alice by Lisa Genova, later adapted into a feature film starring Julianne More. As a neuroscientist, Genova brought an understanding of the subject by no means common among novelists in general. Since her debut she has published four more novels, all of them built around characters suffering from neurological impairments of one kind or another. But her latest book, last year’s Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting, is a work of nonfiction, and in the video above she discusses a few of its points about how to build an “Alzheimer’s-resistant brain.”

After briefly explaining the biological processes behind Alzheimer’s (and assuring her older viewers that their day-to-day forgetfulness is probably nothing to worry about), Genova offers five ways to ward off their effects. The first is sleeping, which gives glial cells, “the janitors of your brain,” time to clear away the amyloid plaque that sets the disease in motion if left to accumulate.


Keeping a Mediterranean diet — full of “green leafy vegetables, the brightly colored fruits and berries, fatty fishes, nuts, beans, olive oils” — has similarly salutary effects. So does engaging in regular exercise, which also comes with the benefit of reducing chronic stress, a condition that inhibits the formation of neurons involved in making new memories.

Genova names yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and “being with people” as other elements of an Alzheimer’s-resistant life. But she saves for last the strategy perhaps most relevant to Open Culture readers. “If you’ve lived a life where you’re cognitively active, you’re regularly learning new things. You are building what we call a ‘cognitive reserve.’ Every time you learn something new, you’re building new synapses.” All the neural connections thus established will help you “dance around those roadblocks” put up by the early effects of Alzheimer’s or other deleterious mental conditions. This means that no matter how young you are, you’ll benefit later from forming the habit of learning new things on a daily basis. As for which new things you learn — 1,700 free courses worth of which we’ve gathered here — that’s entirely up to you.

Related content:

How Yoga Changes the Brain and May Guard Against Alzheimer’s and Dementia

How Music Can Awaken Patients with Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Former Ballerina with Dementia Gracefully Comes Alive to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake

The French Village Designed to Promote the Well-Being of Alzheimer’s Patients: A Visual Introduction to the Pioneering Experiment

The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders: A Tokyo Restaurant Where All the Servers Are People Living with Dementia

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

Sally Schmitt, the Creator of the French Laundry & Unsung Hero of California Cuisine, Gets Her Due in a Poignant, Short Documentary

One of the New York Times’ most compelling regular features is Overlooked, which gives remarkable individuals whose deaths passed unremarked by the Times obit column a rousing, overdue sendoff.

Sally Schmitt – “one of the great unsung heroes of California Cuisine” as per Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle‘s fearsome former food critic – is not one of those.

When Schmitt died earlier this spring at the age of 90, a few weeks shy of the release of her book, Six California Kitchens: A Collection of Recipes, Stories, and Cooking Lessons From a Pioneer of California Cuisine, the Times took note.


Schmitt received a grand obituary that delved into her personal history, philosophy, and her connection to Napa Valley’s The French Laundry, a three star Michelin restaurant which Anthony Bourdain hailed as the best in the world.

The French Laundry’s renown is such that one needn’t run in foodie circles to be aware of it, and its award-winning chef/owner, Thomas Keller.

Keller, however, did not found the restaurant that brought him fame.

Schmitt did, with the help of her husband, Don and their five children, who pitched in in both the kitchen and the front of the house.

Family was important to Schmitt, and having deferred her dreams for the many years it took to raise hers, she was determined to maintain balance between home and work lives.

In Ben Proudfoot‘s New York Times op-doc, above, Schmitt recalls growing up outside of Sacramento, where her mother taught her how to cook using in-season local produce.

Meanwhile, her father helped California produce make it all the way to the East Coast by supplying ice to the Southern Pacific Railroad, an innovation that Schmitt identifies as “the beginning of the whole supermarket situation” and a distressing geographic disconnect between Americans and food.

The Schmitts launched The French Laundry in 1978, with a shockingly affordable menu.

Julia Child, a fan, once “burst into the kitchen,” demanding, “My dear, what was in that dessert sauce?”

(Answer: sugar, butter and cream)

Sixteen years after its founding, The French Laundry was for sale.

Schmitt’s facial expressions are remarkably poignant describing the transfer of power. There’s a lot at play – pride, nostalgia, fondness for Keller, a “really charming young chef, who’d made a name for himself in New York…and was down on his luck.”

Schmitt is gracious, but there’s no question she feels a bit of a twinge at how Keller took her dream and ran with it.

“In high school, I was always the vice president…vice president of everything,” Schmitt says, before sharing a telling anecdote about her best friend beating her out for the highest academic honor:

I went home and cried. Yeah, I thought that I should have it, you know. And my mother said, “Let her have her moment of glory. Don’t worry. There will be moments of glory for you.”

This documentary is one, however posthumous.

Accompanying it is a brief essay in which Proudfoot contrasts the lives of his workaholic late father and Schmitt, with her “delightfully coy candor a message about the rewards of balance and the trap of ambition:”

I made this film for all of us who struggle “to stir and taste the soup” that already sits in front of us.

Another moment of glory:

In Keller’s landmark The French Laundry Cookbook, the final recipe is Sally Schmitt’s Cranberry and Apple Kuchen (with the hot Cream Sauce that so captivated Julia Child.)

Sally Schmitt’s Cranberry and Apple Kuchen with hot Cream Sauce

Serves 8

KUCHEN:

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for the pan

3/4 cup sugar

1 large egg

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 cup milk or light cream

3 to 4 Gravenstein or Golden Delicious apples

1 cup cranberries or firm blueberries

Cinnamon sugar: 1 tablespoon sugar mixed with 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

HOT CREAM SAUCE:

2 cups heavy cream

1/2 cup sugar

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan.

2. For the kuchen: Using an electric mixer, beat butter, sugar and egg together until the mixture is fluffy and lightened in texture.

3. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Add dry ingredients and the milk alternately to the butter mixture; mix just until combined.

4. Peel and core apples. Slice them into 1/4-inch wedges

5. Spoon batter into the pan. Press apple slices, about 1/4-inch apart and core side down, into the batter, working in a circular pattern around the outside edge (like the spokes of a wheel. Arrange most of the cranberries in a ring inside the apples and sprinkle remainder around the edges of the kuchen. Sprinkle kuchen with the cinnamon sugar.

6. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the kuchen comes out clean. Set on a rack to cool.

7. Combine the cream sauce ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 5 to 8 minutes, to reduce and thicken it slightly.

8. Serve the cake warm or at room temperature, drizzled with the hot cream sauce

Related Content 

Watch Anthony Bourdain’s First Food-and-Travel Series A Cook’s Tour Free Online (2002-03)

Watch 26 Free Episodes of Jacques Pépin’s TV Show, More Fast Food My Way

Watch Werner Herzog Eat His Shoe, Cooked by Chef Alice Waters (1980)

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Simone de Beauvoir’s Philosophy on Finding Meaning in Old Age

Image via Wikimedia Commons

In the legend of the Buddha, prince Siddhartha encounters the poor souls outside his palace walls and sees, for the first time, the human condition: debilitating illness, aging, death. He is shocked. As Simone de Beauvoir paraphrases in The Coming of Age, her groundbreaking study of the depredations of growing old, Siddhartha wonders, “What is the use of pleasures and delights, since I myself am the future dwelling-place of old age?” 

Rather than deny his knowledge of suffering, the Buddha followed its logic to the end. “In this,” de Beauvoir writes ironically, “he differed from the rest of mankind… being born to save humanity.” We are mostly out to save ourselves – or our stubborn ideas of who we should be. The more wealth and power we have, the easier it may be to fight the transformations of age…. Until we cannot, since “growing, ripening, aging, dying – the passing of time is predestined.”


When she began to write about her own aging, de Beauvoir was besieged, she says, by “great numbers of people, particularly old people [who] told me, kindly or angrily but always at great length and again and again, that old age simply did not exist!” The hundreds and thousands of dollars spent to fight nature’s effect on our appearance only serves to “prolong,” she writes, our “dying youth.”

Obsessions with cosmetics and cosmetic surgery come from an ageism imposed from without by what scholar Kathleen Woodward calls “the youthful structure of the look” — a harsh gaze that turns the old into “The Other.” The aged are subject to a “stigmatizing social judgment, made worse by our internalization of it.” Ram Dass summarized the condition in 2019 by saying we live in “a very cruel culture” — an “aging society… with a youth mythology.”

The contradictions can be stark. Many of Ram Dass’ generation have become valuable fodder in marketing and politics for their reliability as voters or consumers, a major shift since 1972. But, for all the focus on baby boomers as a hated or a useful demographic, they are largely invisible outside of a certain wealthy class. Old age in the West is no less fraught with economic and social precarity than when de Beauvoir wrote. 

De Beauvoir movingly describes conditions that were briefly evident in the media during the worst of the pandemic – the isolation, fear, and marginalization that older people face, especially those without means. “The presence of money cannot always alleviate” the pains of aging, wrote Elizabeth Hardwick in her 1972 review of de Beauvoir’s book in translation. “Its absence is a certain catastrophe.”

The problem, de Beauvoir pointed out, is that old age is almost synonymous with poverty. The elderly are deemed unproductive, unprofitable, a burden on the state and family. She quotes a Cambridge anthropologist, Dr. Leach, who stated at a conference, “in effect, ‘In a changing world, where machines have a very short run of life, men must not be used too long. Everyone over fifty-five should be scrapped.’” 

The sentiment, expressed in 1968, sounds not unlike a phrase bandied around by business analysts thanks to Erik Brynjolkfsson’s call for human beings to “race with the machines.” It is, eventually, a race everyone loses. And the push for profitability over human flourishing comes back to haunt us all. 

We carry this ostracism so far that we even reach the point of turning it against ourselves: for in the old person that we must become, we refuse to recognize ourselves.” 

De Beauvoir’s response to the widespread cultural denial of aging was to write the first full-length philosophical study of aging in existence, “to break the conspiracy of silence,” she proclaimed. First published as La vieillesse in 1970, the book dared tread where no scholar or thinker had, as Woodward writes in a 2016 re-appraisal: 

The Coming of Age is the inaugural and inimitable study of the scandalous treatment of aging and the elderly in today’s capitalist societies…. There was no established method or model for the study of aging. Beauvoir had to invent a way to pursue this enormous subject. What did she do? …. She surveyed and synthesized what she had found in multiple domains, including biology, anthropology, philosophy, and the historical and cultural record, drawing it all together to argue with no holds barred that the elderly are not only marginalized in contemporary capitalist societies, they are dehumanized.

The book is just as relevant in its major points, argues professor of philosophy Tove Pettersen, despite some sweeping generalizations that may not hold up now or didn’t then. But the exclusions suffered by aging women in capitalist societies are still especially cruel, as the philosopher argued. Women are still stigmatized for their desires after menopause and ceaselessly judged on their appearance at all times.

De Beauvoir’s study has been compared to the exhaustive work of Michel Foucault, who excavated such human conditions as madness, sexuality, and punishment. And like his studies, it can feel claustrophobic. Is there any way out of being Othered, pushed aside, and ignored by the next generation as we age? “Beauvoir claims that the oppressed are not always just passive victims,” says Pettersen, “and that not all oppression is total.” 

We may be conditioned to see aging people as no longer useful or desirable, and to see ourselves that way as we age. But to wholly accept the logic of this judgment is to allow old age to become a “parody” of youth, writes de Beauvoir, as we chase after the past in misguided efforts to reclaim lost social status. We must resist the backward look that a youth-obsessed culture encourages by allowing ourselves to become something else, with a focus turned outward toward a future we won’t see.

As an old Zen master once pointed out, the leaves don’t go back on the tree. The leaves in fall and the tree in winter, however, are things of beauty and promise:

There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning — devotion to individuals, to groups or to causes, social, political, intellectual or creative work… In old age we should wish still to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in on ourselves. One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, compassion.

Borrow de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age from the Internet Archive and read it online for free. Or purchase a copy of your own.

via The Marginalian

Related Content:

Ram Dass (RIP) Offers Wisdom on Confronting Aging and Dying

Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Interests Gradually Wider and More Impersonal”

Life Lessons From 100-Year-Olds: Timeless Advice in a Short Film

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

 

How a Dutch “Dementia Village” Improves Quality of Life with Intentional Design

People suffering from dementia lose their ability to take an active part in conversations, everyday activities, and their own physical upkeep.

They are prone to sudden mood swings, irritability, depression, and anxiety.

They may be stricken with delusions and wild hallucinations.

All of these things can be understandably upsetting to friends and families. There’s a lot of stigma surrounding this situation.


Taking care of a spouse or parent with dementia can be an overwhelmingly isolating experience, though no one is more isolated than the person experiencing severe cognitive decline firsthand.

While many of us would do anything to stay out of them, the sad fact is residential memory care facilities are often the end-of-the-line reality for those living with extreme dementia.

During the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, nursing home deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia increased by more than 20 percent, owing to such factors as chronic staffing shortages and a ban on outside visitors.

As DeAnn Walters, director of clinical affairs for the California Association of Health Facilities, told Politico:

We’re trying to be supporter, social worker, caregiver, friend and housekeeping for the resident. It’s putting a lot of pressure on the caregivers and the operation of the facility to make sure everyone has what they need. Before the pandemic we couldn’t even get socks on people and you’d see them walking around barefoot.

Not the vision any of us would choose for our parent’s golden years, or our own.

The Hogeweyk, a planned village just outside of Amsterdam, offers a different sort of future for those with severe dementia.

The above episode of By Design, Vox’s series about the intersection of design and technology, explores the innovations that contribute to the Hogeweyk’s residents overall happiness and wellbeing.

Rather than grouping residents together in a single institutional setting, they are placed in groups of six, with everyone inhabiting a private room and sharing common spaces as they see fit.

The common spaces open onto outdoor areas that can be freely enjoyed by all housed in that “neighborhood”. No need to wait until a staff member grants permission or finishes some task.

Those wishing to venture further afield can avail themselves of such pleasant quotidian destinations as a grocery, a restaurant, a barbershop, or a theater.

These locations are designed in accordance with certain things proven to work well in institutional settings –  for instance, avoiding dark floor tiles, which some people with dementia perceive as holes.

But other design elements reflect the choice to err on the side of quality of life. Hand rails may help in preventing falls, but so do rollators and walkers, which the residents use on their jaunts to the town squares, gardens and public amenities.

The designers believe that equipping residents with a high level of freedom not only promotes physical activity, it minimizes issues associated with dementia like aggression, confusion, and wandering.

Co-founders Eloy van Hal and Jannette Spiering write that the Hogeweyk’s critics compare it to the Truman Show, the 1998 film in which Jim Carrey’s title character realizes that his wholesome small town life, and his every interaction with his purported friends, neighbors, and loved ones, have been a set up for a highly rated, hidden camera reality TV show.

They describe The Hogeweyk as a stage for, “the reminiscence world”, in which actors help the residents live in a fictitious world. Many Alzheimer’s experts have, however, valued The Hogeweyk for what it really is: a familiar and safe environment in which people with dementia live while retaining their own identity and autonomy as much as possible. They live in a social community with real streets and squares, a real restaurant with real customers, a supermarket for groceries and a theatre that hosts real performances. There is no fake bus stop or post office, there are no fake façades and sets. The restaurant employee, the handyman, the caretaker, the nurse, the hairdresser, etc.—in short: everyone who works at The Hogeweyk uses their professional skills to actually support the residents and are, therefore, certainly not actors.

Professional care and support goes on around the clock, but rarely takes centerstage. Normal life is prioritized.

A visitor describes a stroll through some of the Hogeweyk’s public areas:

In the shade of one of the large trees, a married couple gazes happily at the activity in the theatre square. An elderly gentleman, together with a young lady, intently study the large chess board and take turns moving the pieces. At the fountain, a group of women chat loudly on colourful garden chairs. The story is clearly audible—it is about a memory of a visit to a park in Paris which had the same chairs. Passers-by, old and young, greet the women enthusiastically. A little further on, a woman is talking to a man opposite her. She is gesturing wildly. After a while, another woman joins the conversation. The two women then walk through the open front door of Boulevard 15. 

The covered passage smells of freshly-baked cookies. The scent is coming from De Bonte Hof. Amusing conversations can be heard that pause for a moment when the oven beeps in the kitchen that has been decorated in an old-fashioned style. A tray of fresh cookies is removed from the oven. Two women, one in a wheelchair, enter the venue, obviously seduced by the smell. They sample the cookies. 

The supermarket across the street is very busy. Shopping trolleys loaded with groceries are pushed out of the shop. The rattle of a shopping trolley dissipates into the distance as it disappears from view towards Grote Plein. A man reluctantly pushes the full trolley while two women follow behind him arm in arm. The trio disappear behind the front door of Grote Plein 5.


A staffer’s account of a typical morning in one of Hogeweyk’s houses reveals more about the hands-on care that allows residents to continue enjoying their carefully designed home, and the autonomous lifestyle it makes possible:

Mr Hendricks wakes up on the sofa. He unzips his fly. I jump up and escort him to the toilet just in time. I grab a roll of medication for him from the medication trolley. He is now walking to his room. We pick out clothes together and I lay them out on his bed. He washes himself at the sink. I watch briefly before leaving. Fifteen minutes later, I poke my head through the door. That’s not how electric shaving works! I offer to help, but Mr. Hendricks is clearly a bit irritated and grumbles. He’ll be a little less shaven today. We’ll try again after breakfast…

We help Mrs Stijnen into the shower chair with the hoist. She is clearly not used to it. Discussing her extensive Swarovski collection, displayed in the glass case in her room, turns out to be an excellent distraction. She proudly talks about the latest piece she acquired this year. On to the shower. The two other residents are still sleeping. Great, that gives me the chance to devote some extra time to Mrs Stijnen today. 

The doorbell rings again and my colleague, Yasmin, walks in. She’s the familiar face that everyone can rely on. Always present at 8 a.m., 5 days a week. What a relief for residents and family. She, too, puts her coat and bag in the locker. The washing machine is ready, and Yasmin loads up the dryer. The table in the dining room is then set. Yasmin puts a floral tablecloth from the cupboard on the table. Mr Hendricks lends a hand and, with some guidance, puts two plates in their place, but then walks away to the sofa and sits down. A Dutch breakfast with bread, cheese, cold cuts, jam, coffee, tea and milk is served. Yasmin is making porridge for Mrs Smit. As always, she has breakfast in bed. Yasmin helps Mrs Smit. It is now 08:45 and Mr Hendricks and Mrs Stijnen are sitting at the dining table. Yasmin pushes the chairs in and sits down herself. They chat about the weather, and Yasmin lends a helping hand when needed. 

Mr Hendricks is really grumpy today and is currently grumbling at Mrs Jansen. I’m wondering if we’re overlooking something?

Learn more about the Hogeweyk, the world’s first dementia village here.

Watch a playlist of Vox By Design episodes here.

Related Content 

The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders: A Tokyo Restaurant Where All the Servers Are People Living with Dementia

How Music Can Awaken Patients with Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Dementia Patients Find Some Eternal Youth in the Sounds of AC/DC

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Is There Life After Death?: Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, Sam Harris & More Explore One of Life’s Biggest Questions

We should probably not look to science to have cherished beliefs confirmed. As scientific understanding of the world has progressed over the centuries, it has brought on a loss of humans’ status as privileged beings at the center of the universe whose task is to subdue and conquer nature. (The stubborn persistence of those attitudes among the powerful has not served the species well.) We are not special, but we are still responsible, we have learned — maybe totally responsible for our lives on this planet. The methods of science do not lend themselves to soothing existential anxiety.

But what about the most cherished, and likely ancient, of human beliefs: faith in an afterlife?  Ideas of an underworld, or heaven, or hell have animated human culture since its earliest origins. There is no society in the world where we will not find some belief in an afterlife existing comfortably alongside life’s most mundane events. Is it a harmful idea? Is there any real evidence to support it? And which version of an afterlife — if such a thing existed — should we believe?


Such questions stack up. Answers in forms science can reconcile seem diminishingly few. Nonetheless, as we see in the Big Think video above, scientists, science communicators, and science enthusiasts are willing to discuss the possibility, or impossibility, of continuing after death. We begin with NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller, who references Einstein’s theory of the universe as fully complete, “so every point in the past and every point in the future are just as real as the point of time you feel yourself in right now.” Time spreads out in a landscape, each moment already mapped and surveyed.

When a close friend died, Einstein wrote a letter to his friend’s wife explaining, “Your husband, my friend, is just over the next hill. He’s still there” — in a theoretical sense. It may not have been the comfort she was looking for. The hope of an afterlife is that we’ll see our loved ones again, something Einstein’s solution does not allow. Sam Harris — who has leaned into the mystical practice of meditation while pulling it from its religious context — admits that death is a “dark mystery.” When people die, “there’s just the sheer not knowing what happened to them. And into this void, religion comes rushing with a very consoling story, saying nothing happened them; they’re in a better place and you’re going to meet up with them after.”

The story isn’t always so consoling, depending on how punitive the religion, but it does offer an explanation and sense of certainty in the face of “sheer not knowing.” The human mind does not tolerate uncertainty particularly well. Death feels like the greatest unknown of all. (Harris’ argument parallels that of anthropologist Pascal Boyer on the origin of all religions.) But the phenomenon of death is not unknown to us. We are surrounded by it daily, from the plants and animals we consume to the pets we sadly let go when their lifespans end. Do we keep ourselves up wondering what happened to these beings? Maybe our spiritual or religious beliefs aren’t always about death….

“In the Old Testament there isn’t really any sort of view of the afterlife,” says Rob Bell, a spiritual teacher (and the only talking head here not aligned with a scientific institution or rationalist movement). “This idea that the whole thing is about when you die is not really the way that lots of people have thought about it.” For many religious practitioners, the idea of eternal life means “living in harmony with the divine right now.” For many, this “right now” — this very moment and each one we experience after it — is eternal. See more views of the afterlife above from science educators like Bill Nye and scientists like Michio Kaku, who says the kind of afterlives we’ve only seen in science fiction — “digital and genetic immortality” — “are within reach.”

Related Content:

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Nick Cave’s Beautiful Letter About Grief

Richard Feynman on Religion, Science, the Search for Truth & Our Willingness to Live with Doubt

Michio Kaku & Brian Green Explain String Theory in a Nutshell: Elegant Explanations of an Elegant Theory

Philosopher Sam Harris Leads You Through a 26-Minute Guided Meditation

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

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Nick Cave’s Beautiful Letter About Grief

We would rather not grieve. Because we avoid it, death can leave us numb, and we may not know how to talk about it without turning loss into a lesson. “Even when it’s expected, death or loss still comes as a surprise,” writes psychotherapist Megan Devine in her book on grieving, It’s OK That You’re Not OKAnd in grief, it can so happen that “otherwise intelligent people have started spouting slogans and platitudes, trying to cheer you up. Trying to take away your pain.” Everything happens for a reason, they’re in a better place, they’d want you to be happy, this will make you stronger….! However well-intentioned, “platitudes and cheerleading solve nothing.”

Is loss a problem to be solved? Can we avoid grief without shutting out the intimacy of love? There are many sage answers to these questions. Few, for example, have written as elegantly or agonized as publicly about love and loss as singer Nick Cave of The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds. These are subjects to which he returns on album after album and in entries of his cult-favorite blog The Red Hand Files, where Cave publishes answers to an assortment of fan questions.


Musing in 2019 on whether artificial intelligence will ever produce a great song, for example, Cave states one of his major themes plainly: “A sense of awe is almost exclusively predicated on our limitations as human beings. It is entirely to do with our audacity as humans to reach beyond our potential.” From this capacity come our greatest imaginative feats, Cave writes: our ability to conjure “bright phantoms” in our deepest grief.

Cave wrote these last words in 2018 to a fan named Cynthia who told him about her family’s losses and asked the singer if he and his wife Susie communicated with their son Arthur, who died tragically in 2015. In answer, Cave avoids the cliches that Devine says do nothing for us. He neither denies the reality of Cynthia’s pain, nor does he leave her without hope for “change and growth and redemption.”

Dear Cynthia,

This is a very beautiful question and I am grateful that you have asked it. It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe. Within that whirling gyre all manner of madnesses exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence. These are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spirit guides that lead us out of the darkness.

I feel the presence of my son, all around, but he may not be there. I hear him talk to me, parent me, guide me, though he may not be there. He visits Susie in her sleep regularly, speaks to her, comforts her, but he may not be there. Dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake. These spirits are ideas, essentially. They are our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity. Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption. Create your spirits. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.

With love, Nick

Cave’s full letter, above, is as eloquent a piece of writing on grief and loss, in its way, as John Donne’s famous meditation (a poet for whom Nick Cave has a “soft spot,” he writes in another entry). At the top, you can hear a very moving reading of the text by Benedict Cumberbatch for Letters Live. Read more of Cave’s brief-but-deep meditations and lyrical replies at The Red Hand Files.

Related Content:

Nick Cave Answers the Hotly Debated Question: Will Artificial Intelligence Ever Be Able to Write a Great Song?

How Do You Help a Grieving Friend? Acknowledge Their Pain and Skip the Platitudes & Facile Advice

An Animated Leonard Cohen Offers Reflections on Death: Thought-Provoking Excerpts from His Final Interview

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

How to Get into a Creative “Flow State”: A Short Masterclass

Is “flow state” the new mindfulness? The phrase has gained a lot of currency lately. You may have heard it spoken of in rarified terms that sound like you have to be a full-time artist, professional athlete, or Albert Einstein to access it. On the other hand, we have award-winning journalist, human performance expert, and Flow Research Collective founder Steven Kotler explaining in a video that we featured recently how to achieve a flow state on command. So, does flow require a little or a lot of us? It requires, first and foremost, a shift in consciousness.

In the field of positive psychology, flow is most associated with theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose Creativity: Flow the Psychology of Discovery and Invention provided key contemporary insights into the idea. For Csikszentmihalyi, directing our activity toward material notions of security sets us up for disappointment. Flow states are best understood as actualized creativity we can manifest in almost any conditions: we can be “happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening ‘outside,’ just by changing the contents of consciousness,” he said.


For Taoists, flow means according with the nature of things as they are, which takes a lot of keeping still and letting be. Goethe used the phrase “effortless effort” to describe creative flow. Kotler’s definition is a bit more operational: Flow, he says in his Mindvalley talk above, is an “optimalized state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best.” One thing all notions of flow seem to share is a belief in the importance of what Kotler calls “non-time,” or what the Taoist calls “the doing of non-doing,” a pleasurable resting state without distraction. (Kotler takes his “non-time” between 4 and 7:30 in the morning.)

Kotler himself arrived at the flow state “through an unusual door” — which he illustrates in his talk with an MRI of a skull in profile and list titled “The Cost of Doing Business.” For an ambitious freelance journalist, that meant “2 fractured kneecaps, 2 shattered arms, 1 snapped wrist, 2 mangled ankles,” and the list goes on (including 5 concussions): a description of injuries incurred while following extreme athletes around the world. What he saw, he says, were people who had everything going against them — little education, little natural ability, and histories of “destroyed homes.”

The athletes he followed were traumatized people who would not necessarily be candidates for world-changing innovation. Yet here they were, “extending the limits of kinesthetic possibility” — doing the previously impossible by achieving flow states. Kotler’s descriptions of flow are often very Yang, we might say, focusing on “peak performance” and favoring sports examples. But his claims for flow also sound like deeply healing medicine. He talks about “triggering” flow states to “overcome PTSD, addiction, and heartbreak.” Like Csikszentmihalyi, he saw firsthand how flow states can heal trauma.

We can achieve this “altered state of consciousness” by surfing or skydiving. We can also achieve it while solving equations, translating foreign languages, or knitting scarves. As Csikszentmihalyi points out, it is not the content of an experience — or the expense in airline tickets and broken bones — that matters so much as our state of absorption in activities we love and practice regularly, which take us away from thoughts about our ever-present problems and open up the space for possibility.

Related Content:

How to Enter a ‘Flow State’ on Command: Peak Performance Mind Hack Explained in 7 Minutes

Albert Einstein Tells His Son The Key to Learning & Happiness is Losing Yourself in Creativity (or “Finding Flow”)

Creativity, Not Money, is the Key to Happiness: Discover Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s Theory of “Flow”

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

Aldous Huxley to George Orwell: My Hellish Vision of the Future is Better Than Yours (1949)

In 1949, George Orwell received a curious letter from his former high school French teacher.

Orwell had just published his groundbreaking book Nineteen Eighty-Four, which received glowing reviews from just about every corner of the English-speaking world. His French teacher, as it happens, was none other than Aldous Huxley who taught at Eton for a spell before writing Brave New World (1931), the other great 20th century dystopian novel.

Huxley starts off the letter praising the book, describing it as “profoundly important.” He continues, “The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it.”


Then Huxley switches gears and criticizes the book, writing, “Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.” (Listen to him read a dramatized version of the book here.)

Basically while praising Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley argues that his version of the future was more likely to come to pass.

In Huxley’s seemingly dystopic World State, the elite amuse the masses into submission with a mind-numbing drug called Soma and an endless buffet of casual sex. Orwell’s Oceania, on the other hand, keeps the masses in check with fear thanks to an endless war and a hyper-competent surveillance state. At first blush, they might seem like they are diametrically opposed but, in fact, an Orwellian world and a Huxleyan one are simply two different modes of oppression.

Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision but the power of both books is that they tap into our fears of the state. While Huxley might make you look askance at The Bachelor or Facebook, Orwell makes you recoil in horror at the government throwing around phrases like “enhanced interrogation” and “surgical drone strikes.”

You can read Huxley’s full letter below.

Wrightwood. Cal.

21 October, 1949

Dear Mr. Orwell,

It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.

Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.

Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

Thank you once again for the book.

Yours sincerely,

Aldous Huxley

via Letters of Note

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in March, 2015.

Related Content:

A Complete Reading of George Orwell’s 1984: Aired on Pacifica Radio, 1975

George Orwell Identifies the Main Enemy of the Free Press: It’s the “Intellectual Cowardice” of the Press Itself

Aldous Huxley Tells Mike Wallace What Will Destroy Democracy: Overpopulation, Drugs & Insidious Technology (1958)

George Orwell Explains in a Revealing 1944 Letter Why He’d Write 1984

Hear Aldous Huxley Narrate His Dystopian Masterpiece, Brave New World

Aldous Huxley’s Most Beautiful, LSD-Assisted Death: A Letter from His Widow

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

More in this category... »
Quantcast
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.