The Origins of the Word “Gaslighting”: Scenes from the 1944 Film Gaslight

You’re not going out of your mind. You’re slowly and systematically being driven out of your mind. — Joseph Cotton to Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film Gaslight.

Remember when the word “gaslighting” elicited knowing nods from black and white film buffs… and blank stares from pretty much everyone else?

Then along came 2016, and gaslighting entered the lexicon in a big way.

Merriam-Webster defines it as the “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

Of course, you knew that already!

“Gaslighting” is unavoidable these days, five years after it was named 2016’s “most useful” and “likely to succeed” word by the American Dialect Society.

(“Normalize” was a runner up.)

As long as we’re playing word games, are you familiar with “denominalization”?

Also known as “verbing” or “verbification,” it’s the process whereby a noun is retooled as a verb.

Both figure prominently in Gaslight.

Have you seen the film?

Ingrid Bergman, playing opposite Charles Boyer, won an Academy award for her performance. A teenaged Angela Lansbury made her big screen debut.

In his reviewThe New York Times’ film critic Bosley Crowther steered clear of spoilers, while musing that the bulk of the theater-going public was probably already hip to the central conceit, following the successful Broadway run of Angel Street, the Patrick Hamilton thriller on which the film was based:

We can at least slip the information that the study is wholly concerned with the obvious endeavors of a husband to drive his wife slowly mad. And with Mr. Boyer doing the driving in his best dead-pan hypnotic style, while the flames flicker strangely in the gas-jets and the mood music bongs with heavy threats, it is no wonder that Miss Bergman goes to pieces in the most distressing way.

In the same review, Crowther sniped that Gaslight was “a no more illuminating title” than Angel Street.

Maybe that was true in 1944. Not anymore!

(Cunning linguists that we are, had the film retained the play’s title, 2022 may well have found us complaining that some villain tried to Angel Street us…)

In a column on production design for The Film Experience, critic Daniel Walber points out how Boyer destabilizes Bergman by fooling with their gas-powered lamps, and also how the film’s Academy Award-winning design team used the “constricting temporality” of a Victorian London lit by gas to set a foreboding mood:

Between the streetlights outside and the fixtures within, the mood is forever dimmed. The heaviness of the atmosphere brings us even closer to Paula’s mental state, trapping us with her. The detail is so precise, so committed that every flicker crawls under the skin, projecting terrible uncertainty and fear to the audience.

Readers who’ve yet to see the film may want to skip the below clip, as it does contain something close to a spoiler.

Those who’ve been on the receiving end of a vigorous gaslighting campaign?

Pass the popcorn.

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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.

Jon Hamm Narrates a Modernized Version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Helping to Diagnose Our Social Media-Induced Narcissism

The Matrix gave a generation or two reason to reconsider, or indeed first to consider, Plato’s allegory of the cave. That era-defining blockbuster’s cavalcade of slick visual effects came delivered atop a plot about humanity’s having been enslaved — plugged into a colossal machine, as I recall, like an array of living batteries — while convinced by a direct-to-brain simulation that it wasn’t. Here in real life, about two and a half millennia earlier, one of Plato’s dialogues had conjured up a not-dissimilar scenario. You can see it retold in the video above, a clip drawn from a form as representative of the early 21st century as The Matrix‘s was of the late 20th: Legion, a dramatic television series based on a comic book.

“Imagine a cave, where those inside never see the outside world,” says narrator Jon Hamm (himself an icon of our Golden Age of Television, thanks to his lead performance in Mad Men). “Instead, they see shadows of that world projected on the cave wall. The world they see in the shadows is not the real world, but it’s real to them. If you were to show them the world as it actually is, they would reject it as incomprehensible.” Then, Hamm suggests transposing this relationship to reality into life as we know it — or rather, as we two-dimensionally perceive it on the screens of our phones. But “unlike the allegory of the cave, where the people are real and the shadows are false, here other people are the shadows.”

This propagates “the delusion of the narcissist, who believes that they alone are real. Their feelings are the only feelings that matter, because other people are just shadows, and shadows don’t feel.” And “if everyone lived in caves, then no one would be real. Not even you.” With the rise of digital communication in general and social media in particular, a great many of us have ensconced ourselves, by degrees and for the most part unconsciously, inside caves of our own. Over the past decade or so, increasingly sobering glimpses of the outside world have motivated some of us to seek diagnoses of our collective condition from thinkers of the past, such as social theorist Christopher Lasch.

“The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety,” Lasch writes The Culture of Narcissism. “Liberated from the superstitions of the past, he doubts even the reality of his own existence” — wonders, in other words, whether he isn’t one of the shadows himself. Nevertheless, he remains “facile at managing the impressions he gives to others, ravenous for admiration but contemptuous of those he manipulates into providing it,” and dependent on “constant infusions of approval and admiration.” Social media has revealed traces of this personality, belonging to one who “sees the world as a mirror of himself and has no interest in external events except as they throw back a reflection of his own image,” in us all. It thus gives us pause to remember that Lasch was writing all this in the 1970s; but then, Plato was writing in the fifth century B.C.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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 or on Facebook.

The Drugs Used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans

Many of us living in the parts of the world where marijuana has recently been legalized may regard ourselves as partaking of a highly modern pleasure. And given the ever-increasing sophistication of the growing and processing techniques that underlie what has become a formidable cannabis industry, perhaps, on some level, we are. But as intellectually avid enthusiasts of psychoactive substances won’t hesitate to tell you, their use stretches farther back in time than history itself. “For as long as there has been civilization, there have been mind-altering drugs,” writes Science‘s Andrew Lawler. But was anyone using them in the predecessors to western civilization as we know it today?

For quite some time, scholars believed that unlike, say, Mesoamerica or north Africa, “the ancient Near East had seemed curiously drug-free.” But now, “new techniques for analyzing residues in excavated jars and identifying tiny amounts of plant material suggest that ancient Near Easterners indulged in a range of psychoactive substances.”

The latest evidence suggests that, already three millennia ago, “drugs like cannabis had arrived in Mesopotamia, while people from Turkey to Egypt experimented with local substances such as blue water lily.” That these habits seem to have continued in ancient Greece and Rome is suggested by archaeological evidence summarized in the video above.

In 2019, archaeologists unearthed a few precious artifacts from a fourth-century Scythian burial mound near Stavropol in Russia. There were “golden armbands, golden cups, a heavy gold ring, and the greatest treasure of all, two spectacular golden vessels,” says narrator Garrett Ryan, who earned a PhD in Greek and Roman History from the University of Michigan. The interiors of those last “were coated with a sticky black residue,” confirmed in the lab to be opium with traces of marijuana. “The Scythians, in other words, got high” — as did “their Greek and Roman neighbors.” Ryan, author of Naked Statues, Fat Gladiators, and War Elephants: Frequently Asked Questions about the Ancient Greeks and Romans, goes on to make intriguing connections between scattered but relevant pieces of archaeological and textual evidence. We know that some of our civilizational forebears got high; how many, and how high, are questions for future scholastic inquiry.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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 or on Facebook.

The 10 Paradoxical Traits of Creative People, According to Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (RIP)

Despite decades of research, scientists still know little about the source of creativity. Nonetheless, humans continue to create things. Or, at least, we continue to be fascinated by creativity; now more than ever, it seems. There may be as many best-selling books on creativity as there are on dieting or relationships. The current focus on creativity isn’t always a net positive. Anyone who does creative work may be labeled a “Creative” (used as a noun) at some point in their career. The term lumps all working artists together, as though their work were interchangeable deliverables measured in billable hours. The word suggests that those who don’t work as “Creatives” have no business in the area of creativity. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi put it:

Not so long ago, it was acceptable to be an amateur poet…. Nowadays if one does not make some money (however pitifully little) out of writing, it’s considered to be a waste of time. It is taken as downright shameful for a man past twenty to indulge in versification unless he receives a check to show for it.

Csikszentmihalyi, who passed away this month, deplored the instrumentalization of creativity. He wrote, Austin Kleon notes, “about the joys of being an amateur” — which, in its literal sense, means being a devoted lover. Like Carl Jung, Csikszentmihalyi believed that creation proceeds, in a sense, from falling in love with an activity and losing ourselves in a state beyond our preoccupations with self, others, or the past and future. He called this state “flow” and wrote a national bestseller about it while founding the discipline of positive psychology and co-directing the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University .

You can see an animated summary of Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience above (including a pronunciation of Csikszentmihalyi’s name). Creativity should not only refer to skills we sell to our employers. It is the practice of doing things that make us happy, not the things that make us money, whether or not those two things are the same. This is a subject close to Austin Kleon’s heart. The writer and designer has been offering tips for training and honing creativity for years, in books like Show Your Work, a guide “not just for ‘creatives’!” but for anyone who wants to create. Like Csikszentmihalyi, he refutes the idea that there’s such a thing as a “creative type.”

Instead, in his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Csikszentmihalyi notes that people who spend their time creating exhibit a list of 10 “paradoxical traits.”

  1. Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they’re also often quiet and at rest.
  2. Creative people tend to be smart yet naive at the same time.
  3. Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.
  4. Creative people alternate between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality.
  5. Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted.
  6. Creative people are humble and proud at the same time.
  7. Creative people, to an extent, escape rigid gender role stereotyping.
  8. Creative people are both rebellious and conservative.
  9. Most creative people are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.
  10. Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment.

We may well be reminded of Walt Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself,” and perhaps it is to Whitman we should turn to resolve the paradox. Creativity involves the willingness and courage to become “large,” the poet wrote, to get weird and messy and “contain multitudes.” Maybe the best way to become a more creative person, to lose oneself fully in the act of making, is to heed Bertrand Russell’s guidance for facing death:

[M]ake your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea… 

This eloquent passage — Csikszentmihalyi might have agreed — expresses the very essence of creative “flow.”

via Austin Kleon

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

“The Hippie Temptation”: An Angst-Ridden CBS TV Show Warns of the Risks of LSD (1976)

To lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, we owe much of what has endured from Western popular culture of the mid-20th century: consider, for instance, the latter half of the Beatles’ oeuvre. In Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, Ian MacDonald describes LSD as “a powerful hallucinogen whose function is temporarily to dismiss the brain’s neural concierge, leaving the mind to cope as it can with sensory information which meanwhile enters without prior arrangement — an uncensored experience of reality which profoundly alters one’s outlook on it.”

So profound is that alteration that some came to believe in a utopia achievable through universal ingestion of the drug: “If there be necessary revolution in America,” declared Allen Ginsberg, “it will come this way.” But most Americans didn’t see it quite the same way. It was for them that CBS made its broadcast “The Hippie Temptation.” Aired in August 1967, three months after the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, it constitutes an exposé of LSD-fueled youth culture as it effervesced at the time in and around San Francisco’s countercultural mecca of Haight-Ashbury.

“The hippies present a strange problem,” says correspondent Harry Reasoner, later known as the host of 60 Minutes. “Our society has produced them. There they are, in rapidly increasing numbers. And yet there seem to be very few definite ideas behind the superficial glitter of their dress and behavior.” In search of the core of the hippie ideology, which seems outwardly to involve “standing apart from society by means of mutual help and love,” Reasoner and his collaborators delve into the nature of LSD, whose users “may see a wild complexity of images, hear a multiplicity of sounds. This is called ‘taking an acid trip.'”

Alas, “for many, the price of taking the shortcut to discovery the hippies put forward turns out to be very high.” A young doctor from UCLA’s neuropsychiatric institute named Duke Fisher argues that most LSD users “talk about loving humanity in general, an all-encompassing love of the world, but they have a great deal of difficulty loving one other person, or loving that specific thing.” Also included in “The Hippie Temptation” are interviews with young people (albeit ones cleaner-cut than the average denizen of late-60s Haight-Ashbury) placed into medical facilities due to hallucinogen-related mishaps, including suicide attempts.

“There is the real danger that more and more young people may follow the call to turn on, tune in, drop out,” Reasoner declares, in keeping with the broadcast’s portentous tone. Even then there were signs of what MacDonald calls “the hippie counterculture’s incipient commercialization and impending decline into hard drugs.” But to this day, “that there was indeed something unusual in the air can still be heard from many of the records of the period: a light, joyous optimism with a tangible spiritual aura and a thrillingly fresh informality” — a quality MacDonald finds concentrated in the work of not just The Beatles but the Grateful Dead, who sit for an interview in “The Hippie Temptation.” LSD may no longer be as tempting as it was half a century ago, but many of the creations it inspired then still have us hooked today.

via Laughing Squid

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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 or on Facebook.

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome: The Real Perceptual Disorder That May Have Shaped Lewis Carroll’s Creative World

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland isn’t just a beloved children’s story: it’s also a neuropsychological  syndrome. Or rather the words “Alice in Wonderland,” as Lewis Carroll’s book is commonly known, have also become attached to a condition that, though not harmful in itself, causes distortions in the sufferer’s perception of reality. Other names include dysmetropsia or Todd’s syndrome, the latter of which pays tribute to the consultant psychiatrist John Todd, who defined the disorder in 1955. He described his patients as seeing some objects as much larger than they really were and other objects as much smaller, resulting in challenges not entirely unlike those faced by Alice when put by Carroll through her growing-and-shrinking paces.

Todd also suggested that Carroll had written from experience, drawing inspiration from the hallucinations he experienced when afflicted with what he called “bilious headache.”  The transformations Alice feels herself undergoing after she drinks from the “DRINK ME” bottle and eats the “EAT ME” cake are now known, in the neuropsychological literature, as macropsia and micropsia.

“I was in the kitchen talking to my wife,” writes novelist Craig Russell of one of his own bouts of the latter. “I was hugely animated and full of energy, having just put three days’ worth of writing on the page in one morning and was bursting with ideas for new books. Then, quite calmly, I explained to my wife that half her face had disappeared. As I looked around me, bits of the world were missing too.”

Though “many have speculated that Lewis Carroll took some kind of mind-altering drug and based the Alice books on his hallucinatory experiences,” writes Russell, “the truth is that he too suffered from the condition, but in a more severe and protracted way,” combined with ocular migraine. Russell also notes that the sci-fi visionary Philip K. Dick, though “never diagnosed as suffering from migrainous aura or temporal lobe epilepsy,” left behind a body of work that has has given rise to “a growing belief that the experiences he described were attributable to the latter, particularly.” Suitably, classic Alice in Wonderland syndrome “tends to be much more common in childhood” and disappear in maturity. One sufferer documented in the scientific literature is just six years old, younger even than Carroll’s eternal little girl — presumably, an eternal seer of reality in her own way.

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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 or on Facebook.

Why Do We Dream?: An Animated Lesson

Why do we dream? It’s a question science still can’t answer, says the TED-Ed lesson above by Amy Adkins. Many neuroscientists currently make sense of dreaming as a way for the brain to consolidate memory at night. “This may include reorganizing and recoding memories in relation to emotional drives,” writes computational neuroscientist Paul King, “as well as transferring memories between brain regions.” You might imagine a defragging hard drive, the sorting and filing process happening while a computer sleeps.

But the brain is not a computer. Important questions remain. Why do dreams have such a powerful hold on us, not only individually, but — as a recent project collecting COVID dreams explores — collectively? Are dreams no more than gibberish, the mental detritus of the day, or do they convey important messages to our conscious minds? Several millennia before Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, “Mesopotamian kings recorded and interpreted their dreams on wax tablets.” A thousand years later, Egyptians catalogued one hundred of the most common dreams and their meanings in a dream book.

The ancients were convinced their dreams carried messages from beyond their consciousness. Many modern theorists beginning with Freud have seen dreams as purely self-referential, and neurotic. “We dream,” the lesson notes, “to fulfill our wishes.” Instead of messages from the gods, dreams are symbolic communication from unconscious repressed drives. Or, “we dream to remember,” as some contemporary neuroscientists claim, or “we dream to forget” as a neurobiological theory called “reverse learning” argued in 1983. Dreams are exercises for the brain, rehearsals, nighttime problem solving … the lesson touches briefly on each of these theories in turn.

But whatever answers science provides will hardly satisfy human curiosity about the content of our dreams. For this, perhaps, we should look elsewhere. We might turn, for example, to the Museum of Dreams, “a hub for exploring the social and political significance of dream-life.” Philosophical and scientific theories of dreaming are all speculative. “Rather than seek a definitive explanation, the Museum’s goal is to explore the generative and performative nature of dream-life — all the remarkable ways people have put their dreams to work.” Before we share and, yes, interpret our dreams with others, they remain, in Toni Morrison’s words, “unspeakable things unspoken.”

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

Alan Alda: 3 Ways to Express Your Thoughts So That Everyone Will Understand You

In need of someone to perform surgery in a combat zone, you probably wouldn’t choose Alan Alda, no matter how many times you’ve seen him do it on television. This sounds obvious to those of us who believe that actors don’t know how to do anything at all. But a performer like Alda doesn’t become a cultural icon by accident: his particular skill set has enabled him not just to communicate with millions at a time through film and television, but also to navigate his offscreen and personal life with a certain adeptness. In the Big Think video above, he reveals three of his own long-relied-upon strategies to “express your thoughts so that everyone will understand you.”

“I don’t really like tips,” Alda declares. Standard public-speaking advice holds that you should “vary the pace of your speech, vary the volume,” for example, but while sound in themselves, those strategies executed mechanically get to be “kind of boring.” Rather than operating according to a fixed playbook, as Alda sees it, your variations in pace and volume — or your gestures, movements around the stage, and everything else — should occur organically, as a product of “how you’re talking and relating” to your audience. A skilled speaker doesn’t follow rules per se, but gauges and responds dynamically to the listener’s understanding even as he speaks.

But if pressed, Alda can provide three tips “that I do kind of follow.” These he calls “the three rules of three”: first, “I try only to say three important things when I talk to people”; second, “If I have a difficult thing to understand, if there’s something I think is not going to be easy to get, I try to say it in three different ways”; third, ” I try to say it three times through the talk.” He gets deeper into his personal theories of communication in the second video below, beginning with a slightly contrarian defense of jargon: “When people in the same profession have a word that stands for five pages of written knowledge, why say five pages of stuff when you can say one word?” The trouble comes when words get so specialized that they hinder communication between people of different professions.

At its worst, jargon becomes a tool of dominance: “I’m smart; I talk like this,” its users imply, “You can’t really talk like this, so you’re not as smart as me.” But when we actively simplify our language to communicate to the broadest possible audience, we can discover “what are the concepts that really matter” beneath the jargon. All the better if we can tell a dramatic story to illustrate our point, as Alda does at the end of the video. It involves a medical student conveying a patient’s diagnosis more effectively than his supervisor, all thanks to his experience with the kind of “mirroring” exercises familiar to every student of acting. A doctor who can communicate is always preferable to one who can’t; even a real-life Hawkeye, after all, needs to make himself understood once in a while.

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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 or on Facebook.

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