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Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Neil Gaiman on why we read, Bruce Lee's never-before-revealed philosophical writings on willpower, emotion, reason, and confidence, and more – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation – I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
“Nature, the soul, love … one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason,” 16-year-old Dostoyevsky wrote in a beautiful letter to his brother. On some elemental level, we intuit this to be true, and yet we somehow let ourselves forget it as we grow older and more reliant on the intellect as our supreme mode of knowing. We seem to remember it only in moments of suffering — of emotional intensity so acute and uncontrollable that it strips down our rationalizations and deposits us, naked and unguarded, into the cradle of our own being. The wisdom of the heart that we reap in that vulnerable state is of a wholly different order than the intellectual insight we synthesize through deliberate rational thought.
In The Captive & The Fugitive (public library), the fifth volume of his masterwork In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922) shines a penetrating sidewise gleam on this paradox of how the intellect, in its coolly rational search for facts, blinds us to the larger truths of our emotional reality.
Shortly after the protagonist has completed a rigorous intellectual analysis of his feelings for his romantic partner, Albertine, and concluded that he no longer loves her, he receives news of her death. He is suddenly overcome by such uncontainable and uncontrollable sorrow that the truth — a truth his intellect had rejected but his heart encoded far more deeply — was revealed to him: He does, after all, love Albertine tremendously.
In one particularly insightful passage, Proust channels through his protagonist, named after himself, universal insight into how our intellect blinds us to the wisdom of the heart and how pain, above all, strips down our intellectual defenses and puts us in raw, direct contact with the emotional truth of our being:
I had believed that I was leaving nothing out of account, like a rigorous analyst; I had believed that I knew the state of my own heart. But our intelligence, however lucid, cannot perceive the elements that compose it and remain unsuspected so long as, from the volatile state in which they generally exist, a phenomenon capable of isolating them has not subjected them to the first stages of solidification. I had been mistaken in thinking that I could see clearly into my own heart. But this knowledge, which the shrewdest perceptions of the mind would not have given me, had now been brought to me, hard, glittering, strange, like a crystallised salt, by the abrupt reaction of pain.
“I have observed many tiny animals with great admiration,” Galileo marveled as he peered through his microscope — a tool that, like the telescope, he didn’t invent himself but he used with in such a visionary way as to render it revolutionary. The revelatory discoveries he made in the universe within the cell are increasingly proving to be as significant as his telescopic discoveries in the universe without — a significance humanity has been even slower and more reluctant to accept than his radical revision of the cosmos.
Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis — a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonised by microbes while they are still unfertilised eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. We then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right — a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.
All zoology is really ecology. We cannot fully understand the lives of animals without understanding our microbes and our symbioses with them. And we cannot fully appreciate our own microbiome without appreciating how those of our fellow species enrich and influence their lives. We need to zoom out to the entire animal kingdom, while zooming in to see the hidden ecosystems that exist in every creature. When we look at beetles and elephants, sea urchins and earthworms, parents and friends, we see individuals, working their way through life as a bunch of cells in a single body, driven by a single brain, and operating with a single genome. This is a pleasant fiction. In fact, we are legion, each and every one of us. Always a “we” and never a “me.”
There are ample reasons to admire and appreciate microbes, well beyond the already impressive facts that they ruled “our” Earth for the vast majority of its 4.54-billion-year history and that we ourselves evolved from them. By pioneering photosynthesis, they became the first organisms capable of making their own food. They dictate the planet’s carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus cycles. They can survive anywhere and populate just about corner of the Earth, from the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean to the loftiest clouds. They are so diverse that the microbes on your left hand are different from those on your right.
But perhaps most impressively — for we are, after all, the solipsistic species — they influence innumerable aspects of our biological and even psychological lives. Young offers a cross-section of this microbial dominion:
The microbiome is infinitely more versatile than any of our familiar body parts. Your cells carry between 20,000 and 25,000 genes, but it is estimated that the microbes inside you wield around 500 times more. This genetic wealth, combined with their rapid evolution, makes them virtuosos of biochemistry, able to adapt to any possible challenge. They help to digest our food, releasing otherwise inaccessible nutrients. They produce vitamins and minerals that are missing from our diet. They break down toxins and hazardous chemicals. They protect us from disease by crowding out more dangerous microbes or killing them directly with antimicrobial chemicals. They produce substances that affect the way we smell. They are such an inevitable presence that we have outsourced surprising aspects of our lives to them. They guide the construction of our bodies, releasing molecules and signals that steer the growth of our organs. They educate our immune system, teaching it to tell friend from foe. They affect the development of the nervous system, and perhaps even influence our behaviour. They contribute to our lives in profound and wide-ranging ways; no corner of our biology is untouched. If we ignore them, we are looking at our lives through a keyhole.
Kafka believed that we look at life through the narrow keyhole of our personal existence and in order to distinguish between appearance and reality, we “must keep the keyhole clean.” Yong performs a masterful act of keyhole-cleaning in demonstrating just how intimately entwined our personal existence is with that of the microbes that inhabit our bodies — a relationship nowhere more counterintuitive yet rife with promise than when it comes to our mental health. It’s hardly instinctive to consider that biology, much less microbiology, can influence the seething cauldron of mental and emotional experience we call psychology. And yet given the centrality of microbes to our immune system microbes and the constant dialogue between our immune system and our central nervous system in shaping our susceptibility to stress and burnout, it pays to probe how our microbiome might interact with our mental health.
Yong notes that research into this question is still in its nascency, so most studies are small and inconclusive, but he points to several curious and promising strands of research. One fMRI study by Kirsten Tillisch found that women who consumed a microbe-rich yoghurt displayed less activity in brain areas implicated in processing emotions, compared to those who consumed a microbe-free yogurt. In a clinical trial by Stephen Collins for patients with irritable bowel syndrome, a probiotic bacterium reduced symptoms of depression. Psychiatrist Ted Dinan, who runs a clinic for patients with depression, is wrapping up a clinical trial on “psychobiotics” — probiotics that might help people manage stress and depression. Although Dinan himself is skeptical that such treatments would be effective for those with debilitating clinical depression, he is hopeful that people with milder mood disorders might find some relief.
But the most striking implication of even the very possibility that microbes might shape our moods is that they might also shape our choices and, in consequence, our very destinies. Yong considers the overwhelming range of imputations:
These studies are already forcing scientists to view different aspects of human behaviour through a microbial lens. Drinking lots of alcohol makes the gut leakier, allowing microbes to more readily influence the brain — could that help to explain why alcoholics often experience depression or anxiety? Our diet reshapes the microbes in our gut — could those changes ripple out to affect our minds? The gut microbiome becomes less stable in old age — could that contribute to the rise of brain diseases in the elderly? And could our microbes manipulate our food cravings in the first place? If you reach for a burger or a chocolate bar, what exactly is pushing that hand forward? From your perspective, choosing the right item on a menu is the difference between a good meal and a bad one. But for your gut bacteria, the choice is more important. Different microbes fare better on certain diets. Some are peerless at digesting plant fibres. Others thrive on fats. When you choose your meals, you are also choosing which bacteria get fed, and which get an advantage over their peers. But they don’t have to sit there and graciously await your decision. As we have seen, bacteria have ways of hacking into the nervous system. If they released dopamine, a chemical involved in feelings of pleasure and reward, when you ate the ‘right’ things, could they potentially train you to choose certain foods over others? Do they get a say in your menu picks?
These questions flirt with the conundrum of free will by making us contend with the discomfiting notion that each of us might after all be what neuroscientist Sam Harris has called “a biochemical puppet.” And although these puzzlements are still largely in the realm of the hypothetical, Yong points out that such dependencies are far from uncommon in nature. He writes:
Nature is full of parasites that control the minds of their hosts. The rabies virus infects the nervous system and makes its carriers violent and aggressive; if they lash out at their peers, and inflict bites and scratches, they pass the virus on to new hosts. The brain parasite Toxoplasma gondii is another puppetmaster. It can only sexually reproduce in a cat; if it gets into a rat, it suppresses the rodent’s natural fear of cat odours and replaces it with something more like sexual attraction. The rodent scurries towards nearby cats, with fatal results, and T. gondii gets to complete its life cycle.
The rabies virus and T. gondii are outright parasites, selfishly reproducing at the expense of their hosts, with detrimental and often fatal results. Our gut microbes are different. They are natural parts of our lives. They help to construct our bodies — our gut, our immune system, our nervous system. They benefit us. But we shouldn’t let that lure us into a false sense of security. Symbiotic microbes are still their own entities, with their own interests to further and their own evolutionary battles to wage. They can be our partners, but they are not our friends. Even in the most harmonious of symbioses, there is always room for conflict, selfishness, and betrayal.
In the remainder of the intensely interesting I Contain Multitudes, Yong goes on to explore how these lines are drawn and what we can do to make the most of those alliances. Complement it with Tiny Creatures — a lovely children’s book primer on the universe of microbes — then grow agape at Yong’s terrific and slightly terrifying TED talk about mind-controlling parasites:
“Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone,” Rebecca Solnit observed in her beautiful meditation on why we read and write. “At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height,” Hermann Hesse asserted in contemplating the three styles of reading, “we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.” Both reader and writer hold this transcendent communion on the page as the highest hope for their respective reward, but it is a reward each can attain only with the utmost skill and dedication.
The separate but symbiotic rewards of reading and writing, and the skills required for each, are what W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973) examines in The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (public library). Although he remains one of the most celebrated, beloved, and influential poets of the past century, it is in this posthumously collected aphoristic prose that Auden speaks most directly to his values, his ideas about literature and art, and his creative process.
The interests of a writer and the interests of his* readers are never the same and if, on occasion, they happen to coincide, this is a lucky accident.
To read is to translate, for no two persons’ experiences are the same. A bad reader is like a bad translator: he interprets literally when he ought to paraphrase and paraphrases when he ought to interpret literally. In learning to read well, scholarship, valuable as it is, is less important than instinct; some great scholars have been poor translators.
Good taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure.
Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our study to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, “I know what I like,” he is really saying “I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu,” because between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read.
The challenges of being a reader in many ways parallel those of being a writer, particularly when it comes to these tyrannical shoulds — nowhere more so than in the perennially asked, perennially answered with ire question of why a writer writes and for whom. Auden offers the most beautiful answer I have yet encountered, at once utterly grounding and utterly elevating:
A writer … is always being asked by people who should know better: “Whom do you write for?” The question is, of course, a silly one, but I can give it a silly answer. Occasionally I come across a book which I feel has been written especially for me and for me only. Like a jealous lover, I don’t want anybody else to hear of it. To have a million such readers, unaware of each other’s existence, to be read with passion and never talked about, is the daydream, surely, of every author.
Just as a good man forgets his deed the moment he has done it, a genuine writer forgets a work as soon as he has completed it and starts to think about the next one; if he thinks about his past work at all, he is more likely to remember its faults than its virtues. Fame often makes a writer vain, but seldom makes him proud.
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