"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

Love, poetry, women and war

"Some people think of reading only as a kind of escape. Books are much more. They are a way of being fully human." Susan Sontag

I am lately cursed (or blessed, depending on the lens through which I see it) by having a proverbial plate full of projects, which means my attention can flit between them like a moth dancing erratically among multiple flames – the vagaries of war, the human fallout of conflict, the sketchy stories of people I’m interviewing about exile, and the daily offerings from my scientific life.

Based on the advice of writers from Stephen King to David Foster Wallace, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, Zadie Smith and many more, when I cannot write my designated daily quota of 500 words on one subject, I turn to reading.  I scour the net, my bookshelves and every local bookshop, in search of inspiration, thirsty for facts that might ultimately furnish each of my projects with added authenticity.

It turns out not to be such a wasted pursuit, shameless procrastination though it may be.  These are the gems I have discovered this week:

How thankful I am to be a childless woman by choice in Europe in the 21st century, after reading that working women in 1980s Romania were required to bear five children so as to reverse the falling birth rates of the time.  Under the deeply ruinous policies of Nicolae Causescu, women were forced to breed and those who remained childless were punished with higher taxes.  This from Geert Mak’s 'In Europe: Travel’s Through the 20th Century', which also captured a tragic sense of desperation in a people’s longing for warfare as the preferred alternative to a grim reality in 1980s Bucharest, writing:  “People in this country are wild about magical events, preferably accompanied by lots of death and doom, because after that, reality always comes as something of a relief.”

"You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better.” Courtesy of the blog that keeps on giving, brainpickings, an enviably well-crafted orchestration of art, creativity, science, psychology, philosophy and so much more.  And via our inexhaustible fascination with cats;' Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology' is a brilliant tale about the oscillating emotional experience of what it is to be human, artfully put together by Caroline Paul and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton. Whether you’re a cat freak or not, this is a must-read for an insight into the desperation of love, loss and loneliness.

The extent of human devastation following the Second World War made life in peacetime almost as unbearable as life during conflict. In 'Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945', Tony Judt details the facts, figures and human stories of the millions of people plunged into an unprecedented refugee crisis as the war ended. Survivors of the concentration camps and forced labour, as well as over 30 million who were forcible expelled across border by Hitler and Stalin, struggled in the face of poverty, famine and fallen industry and agriculture. 

The verbs we use can be used to measure our creativityAccording to a new study by neuroscientists at Michigan State University, who assessed the verbal responses of 193 participants to a series of nouns, those who gave creative answers were indeed the most creative as measured by the more in-depth methods. The research, highlighted by Science Daily, could be used to create better educational and training programs to help people foster their creativity.  Lead researcher Jeremy Gray said: "Innovation doesn't just come for free – nobody learns their ABCs in kindergarten and suddenly writes a great novel or poem, for example. People need to master their craft before they can start to be creative in interesting ways."

The deeply disturbing victimisation of women through the abusive practice known as “gaslighting”, where a woman is tricked into doubting her own sanity. Interviewed on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour (the procrastinator’s heaven and hell), the novelist Elizabeth Forbes spoke of what she discovered while researching her latest novel, the 'Nearest Thing to Crazy'.  A deeply disturbing phenomenon, which takes it names from the 1944 film Gas Light in which Ingrid Bergman is deceived into thinking she is mad, where sociopathic partners plot to ruin their spouse’s lives.  

The genius that is Bill Murray is a seasoned poetry reader, taking to the stage to lend his inimitable voice to the works of Cole Porter and Billy Collins, among others.  From the wonderful website Open Culture that perfectly demonstrates what education should truly be about, shared generously, free of charge and enthusiastically.

The New Internationlist celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.  Since it was first published in 1973 the magazine has expertly documented the developments - and lack thereof - across the globe in the vein of internationalism, the pursuit of which is unpicked in a new blogging series.  In this Guardian article, co-editor Hazel Healy charts how things have changed in the past 40 years from a period of optimism to one where the power structures and wealth divides that prevail in so-called developing countries have never been more divisive.

Female genital mutilation is thought to have affected a staggering 66,000 women in the UK.  And that is just a conservative estimate quoted by the BBC among others reporting on the issue.  Medics, GPs and nurses are being urged to take greater steps to identify women who may be at risk from a practice that has been widely condemned as tantamount to child abuse.  New guidelines have been produced by the Royal Colleges of Midwives, Nursing and Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, outlining that health professionals should identify girls at risk of FGM as early as possible.

The tactic of "shock therapy", where large scale disasters are turned into economic opportunities, was first used in Augusto Pinochet's Chile.  Writing in 'The Shock Doctrine', Naomi Klein notes how Milton Friedman officiated the deeply immoral art of disaster capitalism as advisor fo Pinochet, imposing drastic economic changes from deregulation to tax cuts, while the country was in a state of schock following Pinochet's coup.

Neuroscience may have something to tell us about why artistic tastes differ between people.  As reported in the New Scientist, neuroaesthetics - the application of neuroscience to art appreciation - is being used to analyse the biological basis for why certain people prefer certain art forms where others think differently.  By combining brain imaging and evolutionary psychology, academics hope to provide new insights into human reasoning and aesthetic pleasure.  Anjan Chatterjee, writing in 'The Aesthetic Brain: How we evolved to desire beauty and enjoy art',  suggests our opinions are linked to the reward system in the brain; we feel pleasure when we see something that appeals to our basic drives.   While Arthur Shimamura, in 'Experiencing Art: In the brain of the beholder', suggests that our opinions are formed not only by perception, but also by an awareness of the cultural context, alongside how we biologically experience the physics of light.

The pleasure of a blue sky moment

The lost art of letters