On self-analysis and the meaning of sanity

How does one know if he is insane? I used to joke that the main symptom of insanity was insisting on one’s own sanity—it turns out that psychiatrists don’t disagree. Traditionally, “insight” into one’s own mental illness is considered an important step on the way to recovery. Regardless of the merits and flaws of this view, there obviously have to be other markers (unless we want to conclude that the only truly sane people are those who admit their insanity); whether its effects are helpful or detrimental, insight does not erase a disorder.

(Note, here, I will avoid politically correct terms such as “mental illness” for multiple reasons.  The root causes of different disorders remain unknown; additionally, it is unclear if “mental illness” includes “temporary insanity” or mind disturbances associated with an identifiably physical illness, such as the delirium of fever).

So how do we distinguish a “sane” from a disordered mind? It seems the answer is so difficult to identify that we may begin to question whether “sanity” as a concept is meaningful.

Even well-defined symptoms like hallucinations occur in the “healthy” population—occasionally to a greater extent than those associated with psychosis. Other symptoms are even more vague, harder to define. When does introversion become indicative of depression? Where does a “good mood” fall on the spectrum from mere cheerfulness to full-blown mania?

Some psychologists only consider a trait pathological if it significantly affects the sufferer’s ability to function. But here too, the line between normal and impaired function is often blurred. Everyone has different coping mechanisms—likely some work better than others; some are more societally acceptable, whereas others carry stigma. One person may reach for a cigarette, another for a razor blade. Which of the two has the “greater ability to function”? Should we base diagnosis on the shape of someone’s crutch?

And what about self-analysis? How useful is it really to dissect one’s own feelings and reactions, to scrutinize the mind? Perhaps if we suspect that our excitement and restlessness might be symptomatic of hypomania, we may be more careful to ensure that our actions arise from rational decision-making, rather than from impulse. On the other hand, why waste the excess energy self-analyzing? If the urge to paint strikes in the middle of a sleepless night, why brush it off as a symptom of disorder, when you can just do it.insanity

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Five years in under five hours

Let’s see… what has happened in the last 5 years? For almost anyone, quite a bit. In my case, I’ve  learned a lot (and managed to get a degree in the process), experienced life on opposite sides of an ocean, met some of the most interesting people in the world (some of whom I’m fortunate enough to call my friends), and… well, I’d be lying if I said I grew up to be a responsible adult (still haven’t quite gotten the concept of taking-out-the-trash), but I did become an irresponsible grad student.

When you see someone for the first time in five years, you don’t know where to start. So much has happened, but is there anything worth saying? And yet, sometimes, the conversation is effortless. Yesterday afternoon, I reunited with a friend I met at a conference, years ago, when we were just getting our first taste of science research. And now, strolling through Central Park, watching turtles in a pond, we reminisced out loud, sharing stories, gliding through time. It wasn’t as if our half-decade apart had been erased; rather, we brought each other into the past, so we could share it.

Anyway, after our five-hour reunion, we could have easily kept talking; hopefully the next time we meet will be sooner than five years.

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Trial and Error

The key to trial and error, when it comes to figuring out what will and won’t kill you, is to not make mistakes.

I’ve been doing a pretty good job of that so far (seeing as though I’m still alive), despite numerous warnings regarding the risks of my inclination for foraging.

On my three-mile walk between my apartment and lab, I’ve identified a number of mulberry trees; since then, I’ve been stopping at every tree, to grab a few berries. Even if I don’t have time for breakfast before leaving for lab, I’m usually full by the time I finish my walk!

Now, I found a new type of berry. I’d passed the small decorative-looking trees every day, but hadn’t previously paid attention to the little round purple berries hanging from the branches. Then, one morning, I remembered a few weeks ago, seeing a woman standing under one of the trees with her dog, picking the fruits. So I approached one of the trees, pulled off a dark blue berry. It looked and felt much like a blueberry, but the tree looked nothing like a blueberry bush.

I decided to investigate further, gingerly biting into the fruit to taste the juice. It was sweet. So I was 95% sure it was safe to eat. After all we have far more taste receptors for bitter than for sweet tastes, because almost all poisons are bitter. So the fact that this berry was sweet, with not a hint of bitterness, suggested it was edible. So I ate the rest of that one berry, and continued my walk.

The next morning, having survived the previous day’s experiment, I ate a dozen or two of the berries—still suffering no ill effects. By now, I’ve added these berries (which have turned out to be juneberries—I think…) to my foraging repertoire.

I’d like to think I’d survive pretty well alone in a forest, having to subsist on berries and mushrooms and lichens. But then, as a city dweller with a fridge full of food, I can’t even imagine the high-stakes trial-and-error foraging where one has to weigh caution against hunger. So I think I’ll stick to my roadside berries, merely pretending to risk my life with every taste.

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But I don’t want to grow up

When is it no longer appropriate to consider yourself a kid? Or, what exactly signifies “adulthood”? The little things add up. I remember how strange it felt when my school-mates first started to drive—stranger yet when I got my own license. By now, I feel at ease behind the wheel, and even prefer to be the driver rather than the passenger.

Then there’s the legal drinking. As a student in the UK, my alcohol consumption was never clandestine, and I celebrated my 21st birthday without much fanfare. (That’s not to say I didn’t get drunk, of course—just that it wasn’t a big transition for me.) Until I came back to the US. It’s only when I’m asked to show my ID that it hits me—I’m doing grown-up things! I mean, what do we do for fun these days? We get together to eat, to drink, to talk. We can sit at a table for hours! I remember when the minimum requirement for a party was a patch of grass with just enough space to run around and play. These days, our parties are fueled by alcohol.

Oh, and let’s not forget money: as a grad student (notice I’m putting off being a “real person”, an adult) I actually get paid. Real money. Not that I’ve learned what to do with it. (Uh… what are taxes, again?)

And now, here I am, suitcase at my side, waiting for the (delayed) flight to take me home to my family—if only for a weekend visit. I sit alone, in an armchair, sipping red wine, typing. How must I look to the ten-year-old who just ordered coca-cola from the bar? Could it be I look like… an adult?

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Subway Sketches

Lately, I began to realize how much I miss art. On days when I’m in lab all day, there’s not much time to paint when I get home, or if there is, I’m usually too worn out to muster up any creativity. But even on these days, I spend 20 or so minutes in the subway in each direction–time I normally spend staring into space, or, on early mornings, allowing my eyelids to succumb to gravity, if not sleep.

But recently–when there are seats available, and I’m not too anxious about an experiment–I’ve started to take the opportunity to sketch.

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Dancing with the Moon (Hooch)

Two and a half years ago, on a warm summer day, I was dancing in a cornfield. Well, more specifically, I was at All Good music festival, located somewhere in Middle-of-Nowhere, Ohio, and rave-esque jazz was emanating from the stage. A dance party was inevitable. Though I’d never heard of the band before (at the time, the majority of their performances took the form of subway raves), Moon Hooch left an impression on me. Ever since then, I kept an eye out for another concert. Unfortunately, studying in the village-like Cambridge meant I was out of luck.

Now, however, having moved to New York, I find no shortage of cultural happenings. Last Saturday night, Moon Hooch took the stage.

Since I remembered the band as new and relatively unknown, I didn’t take the precaution of buying tickets in advance, but rather texted a friend at the last minute to let him know about the concert, and hopped on the subway to head south.

As we approached the venue, I realized our mistake: the concert was sold out. Turns out Moon Hooch has gained well-deserved recognition. I was happy for them, but at the moment also unhappy for us. We had arrived around 11.20; the guy at the door said to come back at midnight when the band would start playing, and that he would “have an answer” for us then.

So we went next door for ice cream, to “Il Laboratorio del Gelato”, an ice cream shop disguised as an industrial lab, and which apparently has 300 flavors, though only 48 on display. I had one scoop of passionfruit and one of sage (and also tried samples of the avocado, dark chocolate sorbet, and white peppercorn). There were also such crazy flavors as celery sorbet, butternut squash, sweet potato, earl grey, and god-knows-what-else. At 15 til midnight, we went back to the venue. At this point there were two separate queues: one for people with tickets, one for the silly people like us. The guy at the door sorted through the people with tickets first, of course, and told us again, that he must wait until midnight before he can tell us if we can get in. So we stood there, finishing our ice cream, though no longer enjoying it quite so much, now that we were out in the frigid air. To our annoyance, the group waiting right in front of us kept growing, as their friends kept showing up–I tried to stay positive, because if I were any of those people, I would certainly do the same thing, and not go to the back of the queue. After all, that’s what spot-saving friends are for!

Eventually, that entire group gave up waiting and went somewhere to get drinks (although one of the girls–who did most of the convincing to tell them that they should get drinks–didn’t look like she needed any more), so we shuffled forward. Every few minutes, someone would ask the guy at the door about our chances of getting in, and he would say, without looking up from his phone, that the band hadn’t started playing yet, so he still could tell us nothing. So we continued to wait.

From time to time, we would see groups of people walk past us, and we silently willed them to keep walking and not turn into the venue, tickets in hand. Every person who walked through those doors threatened our chances of seeing the show.

By about 12.10 or 12.15, I started hopping up and down and from foot to foot, trying to force the blood back into my frozen toes; one woman (who was now in front of us, after the large group left) looked at my feet and commented, “you must be freezing!” She was wearing boots; I was wearing converse.  Soon though, we were all hopping and laughing, bonding with the other ticket-less people, joking about all ramming down the door.

Finally, the band started playing. Collectively, we pushed forward. Two or so people were allowed in, after which the guy-at-the-door said, “one more person”, let someone else through, and then went inside himself. The couple right in front of the woman-in-boots made plans to leave, and go across the street to a bar that had music and was letting people in.  However, since now they were first in line (followed by the woman-in-boots, and then us), they decided to stick around until the guy-at-the-door came back from checking the crowd-situation inside.

And again, we waited, we hopped, we craned our necks to see through the glass. At last, the guy-at-the-door stepped out, and accounted, “we can sell six more tickets, that’s it”. That meant the couple-who-didn’t-leave (1&2), the woman-in-boots(3), me and my friend (4&5), and the guy behind us (6). (I was relieved on behalf of guy #6, because he was in line with his two friends who already had tickets.)

Thrilled at our luck, the six of us went in and bought tickets. I checked my coat, and put some napkins in my ears, as earplugs. Once I walked through the curtain and into the room in which the performance was taking place, I realized that I should have left my sweater too… two of the three musicians were shirtless, and all three were visibly dripping. As was the entire audience. We were quite in the back at first, since we got in so late, and it was impossible to move–in fact, I couldn’t even blame the bouncer for hesitating before selling us tickets.  Eventually, with some effort, we pushed our way towards the front. It remained crowded and hot and sweaty. Some shirtless guys were dancing and sweating and flinging sweat at everyone and everything around them.

But we danced, and the shirtless guys flung sweat, and the music was awesome, and everyone cheered every time the band started playing an old song, and especially when one of the saxophonists put a traffic cone in his sax to make funky sound effects.

When the music ended, we hung around near the stage, since there was no use trying to get out, given the bottleneck of people already crowding the door and waiting to pick up their coats. When the line died down, we were about to leave too–to get my coat and go. But some of the remaining audience members were going up to the musicians to shake hands and thank them and tell them they liked the show. I had been debating whether or not I should do the same, because, well, the performance was great, but I had decided that there was no reason to do that; after all, everyone was saying the same thing! I was happy to just leave, maybe buy a CD, and go home.

But at the last moment, I changed my mind, thinking “last chance, and why not? I might as well say ‘hi’ too”. So we swung around and went back to one of the saxophonists (the one who had used the traffic cone), waiting for him to finish talking to someone else. As he turned to us, I said that lame thing about how much I liked the concert, which was the only thing I could say. He asked our names, introduced himself, and we shook hands. He then asked what we do, so we replied we were grad students. When I said I was doing a PhD program in neuroscience, the sax guy said “really?!” and widened his eyes the way you imagine book characters do when the author describes them as “widening their eyes”. It turned out he was writing a book related to psychology, and asked if I could take a look and give him comments. (By now, he has sent me the document; I have it open, but have not yet made time to read it.)

We shook hands once more and then I got my coat, bought my CD, and went home. By the time I got back, it was nearly 4am, but I had upbeat jazz still bouncing around in my head;  needless to say, I didn’t sleep.

Below, the one decent photo I was able to get from the concert (it’s hard to take non-blurry pictures while dancing!)

Moon Hooch

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The smell of nostalgia

There’s no denying that autumn is upon us: endless scarves and knee-high boots stroll through the streets; pumpkins adorn every storefront; and the crisp breeze carries whirlwinds of leaves to the ground. Even before the fallen leaves accumulated enough crunch under my feet, the air began to smell like autumn.

It’s cliche to reiterate that the autumn scent evokes a feeling of melancholy, but this year, I can pinpoint the source of my nostalgia. Though I’m excited to be in New York, and I’m happy with my studies, I think I really miss Cambridge! Every time the sun scatters through the leaves of the trees lining the streets just so, I can picture myself walking to class from King’s fellows’ garden, and when the wind in my ears is especially cold, I am reminded of hurrying to a warm cafe between lectures to have lunch with friends.

Cambridge autumn is drawn out and beautiful, golden and bright. Though I’m glad to be back in a country that appreciates my favourite holiday (Halloween!), and where mini pumpkins and squash are considered more appropriate seasonal decoration for October than christmas lights, I miss the glowing leaves reflected in the Cam, I miss sketching the majestic buildings in the glimmering twilight, I even miss the draft in my room and the ladybugs in my window frame. And though many Americans might find it hard to believe, fall weather in Cambridge is definitely better!

Nonetheless, I love this time of year, and I’ve been enjoying it thoroughly. A few weeks ago, in an effort to fight off the depression I felt creeping back after a two year hiatus, I took a long walk in Central Park. At that time, the leaves were still almost completely green, yet the smell of fall was nearly overpowering.
Central Park Central Park Central Park Central ParkCentral Park

Then, on a hike with the Yuste lab (where I’m currently rotating), I got my fill of the changing colours. Though the forecast predicted rain, the clouds remained light until we got back to the city.
Lab hike

Finally, I’m even making the most of fall when it comes to food: now that I have a real kitchen, I’m actually doing my best to cook–something I never did properly in Cambridge. Last night, I even bought fresh fish, and prepared it all by myself. It’s embarrassing how proud I am. As for the fall-related food, I’ve already roasted a pumpkin and a delicata squash. The squash was delicious (I can’t wait to get another one!), but the pumpkin somehow wasn’t very sweet and its skin was too tough. So rather than just eating it straight from the oven, I decided to be more creative.  For my first experiment, I pureed half the pumpkin and added banana, yogurt, garbanzo bean flour, and eggs, and baked it into a something of a cake. It wasn’t sweet at all: I forgot to add any sugar to the already non-sweet pumpkin! But I poured a bit of agave on top and left it in the fridge overnight, so the next morning, it actually tasted pretty good!
Pumpkin cake Pumpkin cake
Then, today, I used up some more of the pumpkin to make a pumpkin-beetroot chia pudding, blending up the pumpkin with beetroot, banana, yogurt, milk, and chia seeds, as well as some leftover pieces of fruit (apple and plum) and spices (cinnamon, vanilla, fresh ginger, and I think even a sprinkle of fennel seeds). The resulting concoction sat in a mason jar in my fridge all day (to let the blended chia seeds thicken the pudding)–now that I’ve finally tasted it, I can confirm that it worked our really well!
Pumpkin beetroot pudding

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