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Marcus Aurelius helped me survive grief and rebuild my life
It's a common misconception that to be a Stoic is to be in possession of a stiff upper lip.
'When I was a child, when I was an adolescent, books saved me from despair: that convinced me that culture was the highest of values.'
From The Woman Destroyed (1967) by Simone de Beauvoir
It's a common misconception that to be a Stoic is to be in possession of a stiff upper lip, to be free from the tumultuous waves of one's emotions. But what this interpretation of Stoicism gets wrong is that our emotions, even the most painful ones, need not be our enemies if we can learn to think of them as our guides. This might seem obviously false, or like the words of a person who has never encountered real suffering. But it was during one of the worst crises of my life that I found my way to Stoicism and, through Stoicism, to something that's as close to acceptance as I think it's possible to find on this plane of existence.
In September of 2013, my husband suddenly developed the strangest of illnesses. Describing him as sick seems almost farcical as there weren't fevers or tumours or anything really that we could point to and say: 'This – this is what is wrong.' But there was weakness and fatigue. And above all, there was confusion. It took a couple of months, but eventually he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis: a rare autoimmune disease that we were told normally afflicts women under 40 and men over 60, neither of which he was, and that, all things considered, was relatively minor, and that we could likely expect to go spontaneously into remission over the next five to 10 years. However, the prognosis turned out to be as off the mark as his chances of developing the disease in the first place. Two days before Thanksgiving, his body began to fail him. The man who had once carried me over a threshold no longer had the strength in his neck to lift his own head off a pillow. I called 911 over his objections and he was brought, protesting, to the hospital where he was ultimately admitted to the intensive-care unit. From there, he continued to decline.
I walked in on Thanksgiving morning as the nurses were moving him to change the sheets on his bed. What I witnessed will stay with me for the rest of my life: the man I love, the father of the one- and five-year-olds I had left at home, went into total respiratory failure. His entire body turned as purple as an eggplant, and I stood by while an emergency intubation was performed to save his life. For just under a month, he persisted with tubes and machines performing all of his bodily functions. He had few moments of lucidity, most of them in fear, but none more fearful than when I signed the consent form over his objections to have a tracheotomy placed because, I was told, it had ceased to be safe for him to remain intubated the way he was.
That tracheotomy, however, would prove to be what killed him. I would be what proved to kill him. Because, after the crisis was over, after he started to walk again, and after he came home from rehab to have what would prove to be one last Christmas with his children, he asphyxiated in his sleep – a mucus plug, caused by the damage done to his trachea – killed him just as we had begun to plan for a second chance at life.
I got through the wake and the funeral on an unholy combination of Xanax, vodka and sheer force of will. The first free moment I had afterwards, though, I headed to what has long been my happy place: the Mabel Smith Douglass Library on the Rutgers New Brunswick campus. I had gotten it into my head that I could find the comfort I desperately needed, if only I could read the Phaedo and convince myself of the immortality of the soul. I can't say the attempt was successful. And I'm still sorry for the poor librarian who had to make sense of my desperate tears at not finding Plato where he was supposed to be. But when she got me to where the books had been moved, it was Marcus Aurelius' Meditations that I took off the shelf, and that has made all the difference since.
The book's pages contain such simple wisdom that it can seem almost silly to say that I needed to see it written down, but Aurelius' injunction to 'fight to be the person philosophy tried to make you' was the battle cry I needed. I don't think it's an overstatement to say that what I found within the pages of the Meditations rescued me from the despair that was threatening to devour me. Suddenly widowed, with two small children I felt utterly unequipped to vouchsafe through the journey toward adulthood, there was footing to be found in Aurelius' instruction 'not to be overwhelmed by what you imagine, but just do what you can and should'. I still had no idea how I would handle my children's graduations, or puberty, or afford braces, let alone college, but it was a reminder that I didn't need to solve those problems now.
Aurelius reminded me that where I was wasn't just where I was but when – and that there was no advantage to be found in unsticking myself from time. I'd be lying if I said I learned to stop panicking immediately or instantly. But I learned to repeat to myself the instruction to 'never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.' And I learned to take stock of the tools I had and how they could be used to solve the problems of the present rather than catastrophising the unknowns of the future.
But the passage that made the biggest difference – the passage I return to year after year, as deathiversaries or new milestones threaten to drown me in waves of grief – is a reminder that the narrative we construct around what happens to us is, ultimately, up to us. No matter how terrible what happened was, it is still our choice whether to understand our story as one of crippling defeat or a miraculous victory against the odds – even if all we do is get back up and learn to stand again.
I won't and can't say that the death of my husband at just 33 years old is not a misfortune. Nor would I or could I say that I don't think it's an injustice for my two children to live almost the entirety of their lives without their father. But we have endured and prevailed, and that, I've learned to see, is a great good fortune I can celebrate.
Losing a loved one is, as Aurelius says, something that could happen to anyone. But not everyone remains unharmed by it. We mourn, we are not unaware of what we've lost. But what we've gained is the perspective that 'true good fortune is what you make for yourself'. We hold tighter to each other, to the truth that life is fleeting, and that each moment of joy that finds its way to us is a gift to be treasured. And, perhaps most importantly, we learn that, while we don't get to decide when we get shipwrecked, we do get to decide what we rebuild out of the debris.
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Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.
Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?
Some scientists have studied near death experiences (NDEs) to try to gain insights into how death overcomes the brain. What they've found is remarkable, a surge of electricity enters the brain moments before brain death. One 2013 study out of the University of Michigan, which examined electrical signals inside the heads of rats, found they entered a hyper-alert state just before death.
Scientists are beginning to think an NDE is caused by reduced blood flow, coupled with abnormal electrical behavior inside the brain. So the stereotypical tunnel of white light might derive from a surge in neural activity. Dr. Sam Parnia is the director of critical care and resuscitation research, at NYU Langone School of Medicine, in New York City. He and colleagues are investigating exactly how the brain dies.
Our cerebral cortex is likely active 2–20 seconds after cardiac arrest. Credit: Getty Images.
In previous work, he's conducted animal studies looking at the moments before and after death. He's also investigated near death experiences. “Many times, those who have had such experiences talk about floating around the room and being aware of the medical team working on their body," Dr. Parnia told Live Science. “They'll describe watching doctors and nurses working and they'll describe having awareness of full conversations, of visual things that were going on, that would otherwise not be known to them."
Medical staff confirm this, he said. So how could those who were technically dead be cognizant of what's happening around them? Even after our breathing and heartbeat stops, we're conscious for about 2–20 seconds, Dr. Parnia says. That's how long the cerebral cortex is thought to last without oxygen. This is the thinking and decision-making part of the brain. It's also responsible for deciphering the information gathered from our senses.
According to Parnia during this period, "You lose all your brain stem reflexes — your gag reflex, your pupil reflex, all that is gone." Brain waves from the cerebral cortex soon become undetectable. Even so, it can take hours for our thinking organ to fully shut down.
Usually, when the heart stops beating, someone performs CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). This will provide about 15% of the oxygen needed to perform normal brain function. "If you manage to restart the heart, which is what CPR attempts to do, you'll gradually start to get the brain functioning again," Parnia said. “The longer you're doing CPR, those brain cell death pathways are still happening — they're just happening at a slightly slower rate."
CPR may help retain some brain function for longer. Credit: Getty Images.
Dr. Parnia's latest, ongoing study looks at large numbers of Europeans and Americans who have experienced cardiac arrest and survived. "In the same way that a group of researchers might be studying the qualitative nature of the human experience of 'love,'" he said, "we're trying to understand the exact features that people experience when they go through death, because we understand that this is going to reflect the universal experience we're all going to have when we die."
One of the objectives is to observe how the brain acts and reacts during cardiac arrest, through the process of death, and during revival. How much oxygen exactly does it take to reboot the brain? How is the brain affected after revival? Learning where the lines are drawn might improve resuscitation techniques, which could save countless lives per year.
"At the same time, we also study the human mind and consciousness in the context of death," Parnia said, “to understand whether consciousness becomes annihilated or whether it continues after you've died for some period of time — and how that relates to what's happening inside the brain in real time."
For more on the scientific perspective on a near death experience, click here:
That's as fast as a bullet train in Japan.
The way an elephant manipulates its trunk to eat and drink could lead to better robots, researchers say.
Elephants dilate their nostrils to create more space in their trunks, allowing them to store up to 5.5 liters (1.45 gallons) of water, according to their new study.
They can also suck up three liters (0.79 gallons) per second—a speed 30 times faster than a human sneeze (150 meters per second/330 mph), the researchers found.
The researchers wanted to better understand the physics of how elephants use their trunks to move and manipulate air, water, food, and other objects. They also wanted to learn if the mechanics could inspire the creation of more efficient robots that use air motion to hold and move things.
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash
While octopuses use jets of water to propel themselves and archer fish shoot water above the surface to catch insects, elephants are the only animals able to use suction both on land and underwater.
"An elephant eats about 400 pounds of food a day, but very little is known about how they use their trunks to pick up lightweight food and water for 18 hours, every day," says lead author Andrew Schulz, a mechanical engineering PhD student at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "It turns out their trunks act like suitcases, capable of expanding when necessary."
Sucking up tortilla chips without breaking them
Schulz and his colleagues worked with veterinarians at Zoo Atlanta, studying elephants as they ate various foods. For large rutabaga cubes, for example, the animal grabbed and collected them. It sucked up smaller cubes and made a loud vacuuming sound, like the sound of a person slurping noodles, before transferring the vegetables to its mouth.
To learn more about suction, the researchers gave elephants a tortilla chip and measured the applied force. Sometimes the animal pressed down on the chip and breathed in, suspending the chip on the tip of its trunk without breaking it, similar to a person inhaling a piece of paper onto their mouth. Other times the elephant applied suction from a distance, drawing the chip to the edge of its trunk.
Elephants inhale at speeds comparable to Japan's 300 mph bullet trains.
"An elephant uses its trunk like a Swiss Army knife," says David Hu, Schulz's advisor and a professor in Georgia Tech's School of Mechanical Engineering. "It can detect scents and grab things. Other times it blows objects away like a leaf blower or sniffs them in like a vacuum."
By watching elephants inhale liquid from an aquarium, the team was able to time the durations and measure volume. In just 1.5 seconds, the trunk sucked up 3.7 liters (just shy of 1 gallon), the equivalent of 20 toilets flushing simultaneously.
Soft robots and elephant conservation
The researchers used an ultrasonic probe to take trunk wall measurements and see how the trunk's inner muscles work. By contracting those muscles, the animal dilates its nostrils up to 30%. This decreases the thickness of the walls and expands nasal volume by 64%.
"At first it didn't make sense: an elephant's nasal passage is relatively small and it was inhaling more water than it should," Schulz says. "It wasn't until we saw the ultrasonographic images and watched the nostrils expand that we realized how they did it. Air makes the walls open, and the animal can store far more water than we originally estimated."
Based on the pressures applied, Schulz and the team suggest that elephants inhale at speeds comparable to Japan's 300-mph bullet trains.
"By investigating the mechanics and physics behind trunk muscle movements, we can apply the physical mechanisms—combinations of suction and grasping—to find new ways to build robots," Schulz says.
"In the meantime, the African elephant is now listed as endangered because of poaching and loss of habitat. Its trunk makes it a unique species to study. By learning more about them, we can learn how to better conserve elephants in the wild."
The paper appears in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The US Army Research Laboratory and the US Army Research Oﬃce 294 Mechanical Sciences Division, Complex Dynamics and Systems Program, funded the work. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the sponsoring agency.
Source: Georgia Tech
Original Study DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2021.0215
The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century, but where's the science behind it?
At the age of 16, when Tony Kofi was an apprentice builder living in Nottingham, he fell from the third story of a building. Time seemed to slow down massively, and he saw a complex series of images flash before his eyes.
As he described it, “In my mind's eye I saw many, many things: children that I hadn't even had yet, friends that I had never seen but are now my friends. The thing that really stuck in my mind was playing an instrument". Then Tony landed on his head and lost consciousness.
When he came to at the hospital, he felt like a different person and didn't want to return to his previous life. Over the following weeks, the images kept flashing back into his mind. He felt that he was “being shown something" and that the images represented his future.
Later, Tony saw a picture of a saxophone and recognized it as the instrument he'd seen himself playing. He used his compensation money from the accident to buy one. Now, Tony Kofi is one of the UK's most successful jazz musicians, having won the BBC Jazz awards twice, in 2005 and 2008.
Though Tony's belief that he saw into his future is uncommon, it's by no means uncommon for people to report witnessing multiple scenes from their past during split-second emergency situations. After all, this is where the phrase “my life flashed before my eyes" comes from.
But what explains this phenomenon? Psychologists have proposed a number of explanations, but I'd argue the key to understanding Tony's experience lies in a different interpretation of time itself.
When life flashes before our eyes
The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century. In 1892, a Swiss geologist named Albert Heim fell from a precipice while mountain climbing. In his account of the fall, he wrote is was “as if on a distant stage, my whole past life [was] playing itself out in numerous scenes".
More recently, in July 2005, a young woman called Gill Hicks was sitting near one of the bombs that exploded on the London Underground. In the minutes after the accident, she hovered on the brink of death where, as she describes it: “my life was flashing before my eyes, flickering through every scene, every happy and sad moment, everything I have ever done, said, experienced".
In some cases, people don't see a review of their whole lives, but a series of past experiences and events that have special significance to them.
Explaining life reviews
Perhaps surprisingly, given how common it is, the “life review experience" has been studied very little. A handful of theories have been put forward, but they're understandably tentative and rather vague.
For example, a group of Israeli researchers suggested in 2017 that our life events may exist as a continuum in our minds, and may come to the forefront in extreme conditions of psychological and physiological stress.
Another theory is that, when we're close to death, our memories suddenly “unload" themselves, like the contents of a skip being dumped. This could be related to “cortical disinhibition" – a breaking down of the normal regulatory processes of the brain – in highly stressful or dangerous situations, causing a “cascade" of mental impressions.
But the life review is usually reported as a serene and ordered experience, completely unlike the kind of chaotic cascade of experiences associated with cortical disinhibition. And none of these theories explain how it's possible for such a vast amount of information – in many cases, all the events of a person's life – to manifest themselves in a period of a few seconds, and often far less.
Thinking in 'spatial' time
An alternative explanation is to think of time in a “spatial" sense. Our commonsense view of time is as an arrow that moves from the past through the present towards the future, in which we only have direct access to the present. But modern physics has cast doubt on this simple linear view of time.
Indeed, since Einstein's theory of relativity, some physicists have adopted a “spatial" view of time. They argue we live in a static “block universe" in which time is spread out in a kind of panorama where the past, the present and the future co-exist simultaneously.
The modern physicist Carlo Rovelli – author of the best-selling The Order of Time – also holds the view that linear time doesn't exist as a universal fact. This idea reflects the view of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that time is not an objectively real phenomenon, but a construct of the human mind.
This could explain why some people are able to review the events of their whole lives in an instant. A good deal of previous research – including my own – has suggested that our normal perception of time is simply a product of our normal state of consciousness.
In many altered states of consciousness, time slows down so dramatically that seconds seem to stretch out into minutes. This is a common feature of emergency situations, as well as states of deep meditation, experiences on psychedelic drugs and when athletes are “in the zone".
The limits of understanding
But what about Tony Kofi's apparent visions of his future? Did he really glimpse scenes from his future life? Did he see himself playing the saxophone because somehow his future as a musician was already established?
There are obviously some mundane interpretations of Tony's experience. Perhaps, for instance, he became a saxophone player simply because he saw himself playing it in his vision. But I don't think it's impossible that Tony did glimpse future events.
If time really does exist in a spatial sense – and if it's true that time is a construct of the human mind – then perhaps in some way future events may already be present, just as past events are still present.
Admittedly, this is very difficult to make sense of. But why should everything make sense to us? As I have suggested in a recent book, there must be some aspects of reality that are beyond our comprehension. After all, we're just animals, with a limited awareness of reality. And perhaps more than any other phenomenon, this is especially true of time.