What Makes You You?

When you say the word “me,” you probably feel pretty clear about what that means. It’s one of the things you’re clearest on in the whole world—something you’ve understood since you were a year old. You might be working on the question, “Who am I?” but what you’re figuring out is the who am part of the question—the part is obvious. It’s just you. Easy.

But when you stop and actually think about it for a minute—about what “me” really boils down to at its core—things start to get pretty weird. Let’s give it a try.

The Body Theory

We’ll start with the first thing most people equate with what a person is—the physical body itself. The Body Theory says that that’s what makes you you. And that would make sense. It doesn’t matter what’s happening in your life—if your body stops working, you die. If Mark goes through something traumatic and his family says, CH“It really changed him—he’s just not the same person anymore,” they don’t literally mean Mark isn’t the same person—he’s changed, but he’s still Mark, because Mark’s body is Mark, no matter what he’s acting like. Humans believe they’re so much more than a hunk of flesh and bone, but in the end, a physical ant is the ant, a squirrel’s body is the squirrel, and a human is its body. This is the Body Theory—let’s test it:

So what happens when you cut your fingernails? You’re changing your body, severing some of its atoms from the whole. Does that mean you’re not you anymore? Definitely not—you’re still you.

How about if you get a liver transplant? Bigger deal, but definitely still you, right?

What if you get a terrible disease and need to replace your liver, kidney, heart, lungs, blood, and facial tissue with synthetic parts, but after all the surgery, you’re fine and can live your life normally. Would your family say that you had died, because most of your physical body was gone? No, they wouldn’t. You’d still be you. None of that is needed for you to be you.

Well maybe it’s your DNA? Maybe that’s the core thing that makes you you, and none of these organ transplants matter because your remaining cells all still contain your DNA, and they’re what maintains “you.” One major problem—identical twins have identical DNA, and they’re not the same person. You are you, and your identical twin is most certainly not you. DNA isn’t the answer.

So far, the Body Theory isn’t looking too good. We keep changing major parts of the body, and you keep being you.

But how about your brain?

The Brain Theory

Let’s say a mad scientist captures both you and Bill Clinton and locks the two of you up in a room.


The scientist then performs an operation on both of you, whereby he safely removes each of your brains and switches them into the other’s head. Then he seals up your skulls and wakes you both up. You look down and you’re in a totally different body—Bill Clinton’s body. And across the room, you see your body—with Bill Clinton’s personality.


Now, are you still you? Well, my intuition says that you’re you—you still have your exact personality and all your memories—you’re just in Bill Clinton’s body now. You’d go find your family to explain what happened:



So unlike your other organs, which could be transplanted without changing your identity, when you swapped brains, it wasn’t a brain transplant—it was a body transplant. You’d still feel like you, just with a different body. Meanwhile, your old body would not be you—it would be Bill Clinton. So what makes you you must be your brain. The Brain Theory says that wherever the brain goes, you go—even if it goes into someone else’s skull.

The Data Theory

Consider this—

What if the mad scientist, after capturing you and Bill Clinton, instead of swapping your physical brains, just hooks up a computer to each of your brains, copies every single bit of data in each one, then wipes both of your brains completely clean, and then copies each of your brain data onto the other person’s physical brain? So you both wake up, both with your own physical brains in your head, but you’re not in your body—you’re in Bill Clinton’s body. After all, Bill Clinton’s brain now has all of your thoughts, memories, fears, hopes, dreams, emotions, and personality. The body and brain of Bill Clinton would still run out and go freak out about this to your family. And again, after a significant amount of convincing, they would indeed accept that you were alive, just in Bill Clinton’s body.

Philosopher John Locke’s memory theory of personal identity suggests that what makes you you is your memory of your experiences. Under Locke’s definition of you, the new Bill Clinton in this latest example is you, despite not containing any part of your physical body, not even your brain. 

This suggests a new theory we’ll call The Data Theory, which says that you’re not your physical body at all. Maybe what makes you you is your brain’s data—your memories and your personality.

We seem to be honing in on something, but the best way to get to concrete answers is by testing these theories in hypothetical scenarios. Here’s an interesting one, conceived by British philosopher Bernard Williams:

The Torture Test

Situation 1: The mad scientist kidnaps you and Clinton, switches your brain data with Clinton’s, as in the latest example, wakes you both up, and then walks over to the body of Clinton, where you supposedly reside, and says, “I’m now going to horribly torture one of you—which one should I torture?”

What’s your instinct? Mine is to point at my old body, where I no longer reside, and say, “Him.” And if I believe in the Data Theory, then I’ve made a good choice. My brain data is in Clinton’s body, so I’m now in Clinton’s body, so who cares about my body anymore? Sure, it sucks for anyone to be tortured, but if it’s between me and Bill Clinton, I’m choosing him.

Situation 2: The mad scientist captures you and Clinton, except he doesn’t do anything to your brains yet. He comes over to you—normal you with your normal brain and body—and asks you a series of questions. Here’s how I think it would play out:

Mad Scientist: Okay so here’s what’s happening. I’m gonna torture one of you. Who should I torture?

You: [pointing at Clinton] Him.

MS: Okay but there’s something else—before I torture whoever I torture, I’m going to wipe both of your brains of all memories, so when the torture is happening, neither of you will remember who you were before this. Does that change your choice?

You: Nope. Torture him.

MS: One more thing—before the torture happens, not only am I going to wipe your brains clean, I’m going to build new circuitry into your brain that will convince you that you’re Bill Clinton. By the time I’m done, you’ll think you’re Bill Clinton and you’ll have all of his memories and his full personality and anything else that he thinks or feels or knows. I’ll do the same thing to him, convincing him he’s you. Does that change your choice?

You: Um, no. Regardless of any delusion I’m going through and no matter who Ithink I am, I don’t want to go through the horrible pain of being tortured. Insane people still feel pain. Torture him.

So in the first situation, I think you’d choose to have your own body tortured. But in the second, I think you’d choose Bill Clinton’s body—at least I would. But the thing is—they’re the exact same example. In both cases, before any torture happens, Clinton’s brain ends up with all of your data and your brain has his—the difference is just at which point in the process you were asked to decide. In both cases, your goal is for you to not be tortured, but in the first situation, you felt that after the brain data swap, you were in Clinton’s body, with all of your personality and memories there with you—while in the second situation, if you’re like me, you didn’t care what was going to happen with the two brains’ data, you believed that you would remain with your physical brain, and body, either way.

Choosing your body to be the one tortured in the first situation is an argument for the Data Theory—you believe that where your data goes, you go. Choosing Clinton’s body to be tortured in the second situation is an argument for the Brain Theory, because you believe that regardless of what he does with your brain’s data, you will continue to be in your own body, because that’s where your physical brain is. Some might even take it a step further, and if the mad scientist told you he was even going to switch your physical brains, you’d still choose Clinton’s body, with your brain in it, to be tortured. Those that would torture a body with their own brain in it over torturing their own body believe in the Body Theory.

Not sure about you, but I’m finishing this experiment still divided. Let’s try another. Here’s my version of modern philosopher Derek Parfit’s teletransporter thought experiment, which he first described in his book Reasons and Persons

The Teletransporter Thought Experiment

It’s the year 2700. The human race has invented all kinds of technology unimaginable in  today’s world. One of these technologies is teleportation—the ability to transport yourself to distant places at the speed of light. Here’s how it works—

You go into a Departure Chamber—a little room the size of a small cubicle.

cube stand

You set your location—let’s say you’re in Boston and your destination is London—and when you’re ready to go, you press the button on the wall. The chamber walls then scan your entire body, uploading the exact molecular makeup of your body—every atom that makes up every part of you and its precise location—and as it scans, it destroys, so every cell in your body is destroyed by the scanner as it goes.

cube beam

When it’s finished (the Departure Chamber is now empty after destroying all of your cells), it beams your body’s information to an Arrival Chamber in London, which has all the necessary atoms waiting there ready to go. The Arrival Chamber uses the data to re-form your entire body with its storage of atoms, and when it’s finished you walk out of the chamber in London looking and feeling exactly how you did back in Boston—you’re in the same mood, you’re hungry just like you were before, you even have the same paper cut on your thumb you got that morning.

The whole process, from the time you hit the button in the Departure Chamber to when you walk out of the Arrival Chamber in London, takes five minutes—but to you it feels instantaneous. You hit the button, things go black for a blink, and now you’re standing in London. Cool, right?

In 2700, this is common technology. Everyone you know travels by teleportation. In addition to the convenience of speed, it’s incredibly safe—no one has ever gotten hurt doing it.

But then one day, you head into the Departure Chamber in Boston for your normal morning commute to your job in London, you press the big button on the wall, and you hear the scanner turn on, but it doesn’t work.

cubicle broken

The normal split-second blackout never happens, and when you walk out of the chamber, sure enough, you’re still in Boston. You head to the check-in counter and tell the woman working there that the Departure Chamber is broken, and you ask her if there’s another one you can use, since you have an early meeting and don’t want to be late.

She looks down at her records and says, “Hm—it looks like the scanner worked and collected its data just fine, but the cell destroyer that usually works in conjunction with the scanner has malfunctioned.”

“No,” you explain, “it couldn’t have worked, because I’m still here. And I’m late for this meeting—can you please set me up with a new Departure Chamber?”

She pulls up a video screen and says, “No, it did work—see? There you are in London—it looks like you’re gonna be right on time for your meeting.” She shows you the screen, and you see yourself walking on the street in London.

“But that can’t be me,” you say, “because I’m still here.”

At that point, her supervisor comes into the room and explains that she’s correct—the scanner worked as normal and you’re in London as planned. The only thing that didn’t work was the cell destroyer in the Departure Chamber here in Boston. “It’s not a problem, though,” he tells you, “we can just set you up in another chamber and activate its cell destroyer and finish the job.”

And even though this isn’t anything that wasn’t going to happen before—in fact, you have your cells destroyed twice every day—suddenly, you’re horrified at the prospect.

“Wait—no—I don’t want to do that—I’ll die.”

The supervisor explains, “You won’t die sir. You just saw yourself in London—you’re alive and well.”

“But that’s not me. That’s a replica of me—an imposterI’m the real me—you can’t destroy my cells!”

The supervisor and the woman glance awkwardly at each other. “I’m really sorry sir—but we’re obligated by law to destroy your cells. We’re not allowed to form the body of a person in an Arrival Chamber without destroying the body’s cells in a Departure Chamber.”

You stare at them in disbelief and then run for the door. Two security guards come out and grab you. They drag you toward a chamber that will destroy your cells, as you kick and scream…


If you’re like me, in the first part of that story, you were pretty into the idea of teletransportation, and by the end, you were not.

The question the story poses is, “Is teletransportation, as described in this experiment, a form of traveling? Or a form of dying?

This question might have been ambiguous when I first described it—it might have even felt like a perfectly safe way of traveling—but by the end, it felt much more like a form of dying. Which means that every day when you commute to work from Boston to London, you’re killed by the cell destroyer, and a replica of you is created.1 To the people who know you, you survive teletransportation just fine, the same way your wife seems just fine when she arrives home to you after her own teletransportation, talking about her day and discussing plans for next week. But is it possible that your wife was actually killed that day, and the person you’re kissing now was just created a few minutes ago?

Well again, it depends on what you are. Someone who believes in the Data Theory would posit that London you is you as much as Boston you, and that teletransportation is perfectly survivable. But we all related to Boston you’s terror at the end there—could anyone really believe that he should be fine with being obliterated just because his data is safe and alive over in London? Further, if the teletransporter could beam your data to London for reassembly, couldn’t it also beam it to 50 other cities and create 50 new versions of you? You’d be hard-pressed to argue that those were all you. To me, the teletransporter experiment is a big strike against the Data Theory.

Similarly, if there were an Ego Theory that suggests that you are simply your ego, the teletransporter does away nicely with that. Thinking about London Tim, I realize that “Tim Urban” surviving means nothing to me. The fact that my replica in London will stay friends with my friends, keep Wait But Why going with his Tuesday-ish posts, and live out the whole life I was planning for myself—the fact that no one will miss me or even realize that I’m dead, the same way in the story you never felt like you lost your wife—does almost nothing for me. I don’t care about Tim Urban surviving. I care about me surviving.

All of this seems like very good news for Body Theory and Brain Theory. But let’s not judge things yet. Here’s another experiment:

The Split Brain Experiment

A cool fact about the human brain is that the left and right hemispheres function as their own little worlds, each with their own things to worry about, but if you remove one half of someone’s brain, they can sometimes not only survive, but their remaining brain half can learn to do many of the other half’s previous jobs, allowing the person to live a normal life. That’s right—you could lose half of your brain and potentially function normally.

So say you have an identical twin sibling named Bob who developes a fatal brain defect. You decide to save him by giving him half of your brain. Doctors operate on both of you, discarding his brain and replacing it with half of yours. When you wake up, you feel normal and like yourself. Your twin (who already has your identical DNA because you’re twins) wakes up with your exact personality and memories.


When you realize this, you panic for a minute that your twin now knows all of your innermost thoughts and feelings on absolutely everything, and you’re about to make him promise not to tell anyone, when it hits you that you of course don’t have to tell him. He’s not your twin—he’s you. He’s just as intent on your privacy as you are, because it’s his privacy too.

As you look over at the guy who used to be Bob and watch him freak out that he’s in Bob’s body now instead of his own, you wonder, “Why did I stay in my body and not wake up in Bob’s? Both brain halves are me, so why am I distinctly in my body and not seeing and thinking in dual split-screen right now, from both of our points of view? And whatever part of me is in Bob’s head, why did I lose touch with it? Who is the me in Bob’s head, and how did he end up over there while I stayed here?”

Brain Theory is shitting his pants right now—it makes no sense. If people are supposed to go wherever their brains go, what happens when a brain is in two places at once? Data Theory, who was badly embarrassed by the teletransporter experiment, is doing no better in this one.

But Body Theory—who was shot down at the very beginning of the post—is suddenly all smug and thrilled with himself. Body Theory says “Of course you woke up in your own body—your body is what makes you you. Your brain is just the tool your body uses to think. Bob isn’t you—he’s Bob. He’s just now a Bob who has your thoughts and personality. There’s nothing Bob’s body can ever do to not be Bob.” This would help explain why you stayed in your body.

So a nice boost for Body Theory, but let’s take a look at a couple more things—

What we learned in the teletransporter experiment is that if your brain data is transferred to someone else’s brain, even if that person is molecularly identical to you, all it does is create a replica of you—a total stranger who happens to be just like you. There’s something distinct about Boston you that was important. When you were recreated out of different atoms in London, something critical was lost—something that made you you.

Body Theory (and Brain Theory) would point out that the only difference between Boston you and London you was that London you was made out of different atoms. London you’s body was like your body, but it was still made of different material. So is that it? Could Body Theory explain this too?

Let’s put it through two tests:

The Cell Replacement Test

Imagine I replace a cell in your arm with an identical, but foreign, replica cell. Are you not you anymore? Of course you are. But how about if, one at a time, I replace 1% of your cells with replicas? How about 10%? 30%? 60%? The London you was composed of 100% replacement cells, and we decided that that was not you—so when does the “crossover” happen? How many of your cells do we need to swap out for replicas before you “die” and what’s remaining becomes your replica?

Something feels off with this, right? Considering that the cells we’re replacing are molecularly identical to those we’re removing, and someone watching this all happen wouldn’t even notice anything change about you, it seem implausible that you’d ever die during this process, even if we eventually replaced 100% of your cells with replicas. But if your cells are eventually all replicas, how are you any different from London you?

The Body Scattering Test 

Imagine going into an Atom Scattering Chamber that completely disassembles your body’s atoms so that all that’s left in the room is a light gas of floating atoms—and then a few minutes later, it perfectly reassembles the atoms into you, and you walk out feeling totally normal.


Is that still you? Or did you die when you were disassembled and what has been reassembled is a replica of you? It doesn’t really make sense that this reassembled you would be the real you and London you would be a replica, when the only difference between the two cases is that the scattering room preserves your exact atoms and the London chamber assembles you out of different atoms. At their most basic level, atoms are identical—a hydrogen atom from your body is identical in every way to a hydrogen atom in London. Given that, I’d say that if we’re deciding London you is not you, then reassembled you is probably not you either.

The first thing these two tests illustrate is that the key distinction between Boston you and London you isn’t about the presence or absence of your actual, physical cells. The Cell Replacement Test suggests that you can gradually replace much or all of your body with replica material and still be you, and the Body Scattering Test suggests that you can go through a scatter and a reassembly, even with all of your original physical material, and be no more you than the you in London. Not looking great for Body Theory anymore.

The second thing these tests reveal is that the difference between Boston and London you might not be the nature of the particular atoms or cells involved, but about continuity. The Cell Replacement Test might have left you intact because it changed you gradually, one cell at a time. And if the Body Scattering Test were the end of you, maybe it’s because it happened all at the same time, breaking thecontinuity of you. This could also explain why the teletransporter might be a murder machine—London you has no continuity with your previous life.

So could it be that we’ve been off the whole time pitting the brain, the body, and the personality and memories against each other? Could it be that anytime you relocate your brain, or disassemble your atoms all at once, transfer your brain data onto a new brain, etc., you lose you because maybe, you’re not defined by any of these things on their own, but rather by a long and unbroken string of continuous existence?


A few years ago, my late grandfather, in his 90s and suffering from dementia, pointed at a picture on the wall of himself as a six-year-old. “That’s me!” he explained.

He was right. But come on. It seems ridiculous that the six-year-old in the picture and the extremely old man standing next to me could be the same person. Those two people had nothing in common. Physically, they were vastly different—almost every cell in the six-year-old’s body died decades ago. As far as their personalities—we can agree that they wouldn’t have been friends. And they shared almost no common brain data at all. Any 90-year-old man on the street is much more similar to my grandfather than that six-year-old.

But remember—maybe it’s not about similarity, but about continuity. If similarity were enough to define you, Boston you and London you, who are identical, would be the same person. The thing that my grandfather shared with the six-year-old in the picture is something he shared with no one else on Earth—they were connected to each other by a long, unbroken string of continuous existence. As an old man, he may not know anything about that six-year-old boy, but he knows something about himself as an 89-year-old, and that 89-year-old might know a bunch about himself as an 85-year-old. As a 50-year-old, he knew a ton about him as a 43-year-old, and when he was seven, he was a pro on himself as a 6-year-old. It’s a long chain of overlapping memories, personality traits, and physical characteristics.

It’s like having an old wooden boat. You may have repaired it hundreds of times over the years, replacing wood chip after wood chip, until one day, you realize that not one piece of material from the original boat is still part of it. So is that still your boat? If you named your boat Polly the day you bought it, would you change the name now? It would still be Polly, right?

In this way, what you are is not really a thing as much as a story, or a progression, or one particular theme of person. You’re a bit like a room with a bunch of things in it—some old, some new, some you’re aware of, some you aren’t—but the room is always changing, never exactly the same from week to week.

Likewise, you’re not a set of brain data, you’re a particular database whose contents are constantly changing, growing, and being updated. And you’re not a physical body of atoms, you’re a set of instructions on how to deal with and organize the atoms that bump into you.

People always say the word soul and I never really know what they’re talking about. To me, the word soul has always seemed like a poetic euphemism for a part of the brain that feels very inner to us; or an attempt to give humans more dignity than just being primal biological organisms; or a way to declare that we’re eternal. But maybe when people say the word soul what they’re talking about is whatever it is that connects my 90-year-old grandfather to the boy in the picture. As his cells and memories come and go, as every wood chip in his canoe changes again and again, maybe the single common thread that ties it all together is his soul. After examining a human from every physical and mental angle throughout the post, maybe the answer this whole time has been the much less tangible Soul Theory.


It would have been pleasant to end the post there, but I just can’t do it, because I can’t quite believe in souls.

The way I actually feel right now is completely off-balance. Spending a week thinking about clones of yourself, imagining sharing your brain or merging yours with someone else’s, and wondering whether you secretly die every time you sleep and wake up as a replica will do that to you. If you’re looking for a satisfying conclusion, I’ll direct you to the sources below since I don’t even know who I am right now.

The only thing I’ll say is that I told someone about the topic I was posting on for this week, and their question was, “That’s cool, but what’s the point of trying to figure this out?” While researching, I came across this quote by Parfit: “The early Buddhist view is that much or most of the misery of human life resulted from the false view of self.” I think that’s probably very true, and that’s the point of thinking about this topic.


Here’s how I’m working on this false view of self thing.

Very few of the ideas or thought experiments in this post are my original thinking. I read and listened to a bunch of personal identity philosophy this week and gathered my favorite parts together for the post. The two sources I drew from the most were philosopher Derek Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons and Yale professor Shelly Kagan’s fascinating philosophy course on death—the lectures are all watchableonline for free.

Other Sources:
David Hume: Hume on Identity Over Time and Persons
Derek Parfit: We Are Not Human Beings
Peter Van Inwagen: Materialism and the Psychological-Continuity Account of Personal Identity
Bernard Williams: The Self and the Future
John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Chapter: Of Identity and Diversity)
Douglas Hofstadter: Gödel, Escher, Bach
Patrick Bailey: Concerning Theories of Personal Identity



Russia and US end collaboration on nuclear disarmament


By Clara Weiss
23 January 2015

Russia and the United States ended their collaboration in the disposal of nuclear waste in mid-December, according to a report in the Boston Globe on Monday. After the US, Russia is the second largest nuclear power in the world. Together Washington and Moscow own 90 percent of global nuclear weapons.

Within the framework of nuclear disarmament treaties, which came into force in the early 1990s, the US and Russia had agreed that American specialists would assist with the securing and destruction of nuclear weapons and materials so that they were not sold or passed on to terrorists.

According to the Globe report, the US has spent $2 billion to date on the so-called cooperative threat reduction programme, and had planned a further $100 million for this year. “Since the cooperative agreement began, US experts have helped destroy hundreds of weapons and nuclear-powered submarines, pay workers’ salaries, install security measures at myriad facilities containing weapons material across Russia and the former Soviet Union, and conduct training programmes for their personnel,” the newspaper wrote.

At a three-day meeting in Moscow in mid-December, the Russians declared that they rejected all further cooperation with the US in the securing and destruction of nuclear weapons. Prior to the Globe report, there had been no official statement about this ending of cooperation.

The newspaper reported that several dozen leading figures had participated on both sides, including officials from the US Energy Department, the Pentagon and the State Department, as well as several Russian military experts and government representatives.

From 1 January, the expansion of security equipment was halted at some of Russia’s seven closed nuclear sites, where large quantities of highly enriched uranium and plutonium are located. The joint securing of 18 civilian nuclear depots, as well as two sites that transform highly enriched uranium into a harmless substance, has been stopped. The construction of hi-tech surveillance systems at 13 nuclear depots and the installation of radiation detectors at Russian ports, airports and border crossings are also at risk.

The ending of cooperation did not come as a surprise. In November, the chairman of the Russian federal agency for nuclear energy, Sergei Kiriyenko, told US government representatives that Russia was not planning any new joint contracts in 2015 for nuclear disarmament.

US government officials expressed their disappointment to the Boston Globeabout the ending of cooperation. In reality, the Russian move was predictable and effectively provoked by last year’s aggressive policies on the part of the US and European Union (EU).

The ending of cooperation is above all the result of the provocative actions of US and German imperialism in Ukraine. Washington and Berlin supported a putsch last February that brought a regime to power that not only intends to join NATO, but also has raised the prospect of Ukraine’s nuclear rearmament.

Until the Budapest Agreement of 1994, the world’s third largest nuclear stockpile was in Ukraine. In the Budapest memorandum, the Ukraine government promised to relinquish all nuclear weapons. In exchange, the US, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany guaranteed the borders of Ukraine at the time.

The announcement of the ending of cooperation in nuclear disarmament reflects extreme military tensions. In the face of a civil war in Ukraine and NATO’s rearming against Russia, the Kremlin is signalling that it no longer trusts American specialists with the checking and destruction of nuclear weapons.

The nuclear disarmament New START treaty, which came into force at the beginning of 2011, will still apply. According to the Stockholm-based peace research institute SIPRI, however, the US and Russia disarmed much more slowly between 2013 and 2014 than they had done between 2012 and 2013.

According to the report, the US had reduced its total number of warheads by 400 to 7,300. Of these, 1,900 are ready to be deployed. In Russia, the total fell by 500 to 8,000, of which 1,600 are ready for deployment. According to New START, each country is expected to reduce its strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550. SIPRI expert Phillip Schell told German news channel NTV, “It is relatively clear that this has nothing to do with a genuine process of disarmament.”

Shortly before the final ratification of the treaty in 2011, cables released by WikiLeaks exposed plans for war by NATO against Russia.

Both Russia and the US are once again rearming their nuclear arsenals, although the US invests by far the largest sums of money in its nuclear weapons programme. As the New York Times reported in November 2014, the Obama administration plans to begin the investment of what will eventually amount to $1.1 trillion in nuclear weapons over the coming three decades. $350 billion is to be used up in the coming 10 years alone.

In addition, the US published a military blueprint at the end of 2014, outlining US preparations for military interventions around the globe, as well as for a third world war.

In contrast to the United States, Russia is not an imperialist country. It functions chiefly as a supplier of energy to the world market and as a sales market for global concerns. The total value of all Russian shares was put at $531 billion in November, above all due to western sanctions. This is less than one US company alone, Apple, with a share value of $620 billion.

But precisely because of Russia’s economic and political weakness, the Kremlin sees nuclear weapons as the only possibility of strengthening its position in negotiations with the imperialist powers and preparing for a potential war with NATO member states.

In this context, the cancelling of the agreement on disarming Russian nuclear weapons is a further sign of the growing danger of a war between the two nuclear powers, the US and Russia.



The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered

Posted: 01/20/2015 3:20 pm EST 
It is now one hundred years since drugs were first banned — and all through this long century of waging war on drugs, we have been told a story about addiction by our teachers and by our governments. This story is so deeply ingrained in our minds that we take it for granted. It seems obvious. It seems manifestly true. Until I set off three and a half years ago on a 30,000-mile journey for my new book, Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs, to figure out what is really driving the drug war, I believed it too. But what I learned on the road is that almost everything we have been told about addiction is wrong — and there is a very different story waiting for us, if only we are ready to hear it.

If we truly absorb this new story, we will have to change a lot more than the drug war. We will have to change ourselves.

I learned it from an extraordinary mixture of people I met on my travels. From the surviving friends of Billie Holiday, who helped me to learn how the founder of the war on drugs stalked and helped to kill her. From a Jewish doctor who was smuggled out of the Budapest ghetto as a baby, only to unlock the secrets of addiction as a grown man. From a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn who was conceived when his mother, a crack-addict, was raped by his father, an NYPD officer. From a man who was kept at the bottom of a well for two years by a torturing dictatorship, only to emerge to be elected President of Uruguay and to begin the last days of the war on drugs.

I had a quite personal reason to set out for these answers. One of my earliest memories as a kid is trying to wake up one of my relatives, and not being able to. Ever since then, I have been turning over the essential mystery of addiction in my mind — what causes some people to become fixated on a drug or a behavior until they can’t stop? How do we help those people to come back to us? As I got older, another of my close relatives developed a cocaine addiction, and I fell into a relationship with a heroin addict. I guess addiction felt like home to me.

If you had asked me what causes drug addiction at the start, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot, and said: “Drugs. Duh.” It’s not difficult to grasp. I thought I had seen it in my own life. We can all explain it. Imagine if you and I and the next twenty people to pass us on the street take a really potent drug for twenty days. There are strong chemical hooks in these drugs, so if we stopped on day twenty-one, our bodies would need the chemical. We would have a ferocious craving. We would be addicted. That’s what addiction means.

One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments — ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.

The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”

But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexandernoticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.

The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

At first, I thought this was merely a quirk of rats, until I discovered that there was — at the same time as the Rat Park experiment — a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War. Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about the head home when the war ended.

But in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.

Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.

After the first phase of Rat Park, Professor Alexander then took this test further. He reran the early experiments, where the rats were left alone, and became compulsive users of the drug. He let them use for fifty-seven days — if anything can hook you, it’s that. Then he took them out of isolation, and placed them in Rat Park. He wanted to know, if you fall into that state of addiction, is your brain hijacked, so you can’t recover? Do the drugs take you over? What happened is — again — striking. The rats seemed to have a few twitches of withdrawal, but they soon stopped their heavy use, and went back to having a normal life. The good cage saved them. (The full references to all the studies I am discussing are in the book.)

When I first learned about this, I was puzzled. How can this be? This new theory is such a radical assault on what we have been told that it felt like it could not be true. But the more scientists I interviewed, and the more I looked at their studies, the more I discovered things that don’t seem to make sense — unless you take account of this new approach.

Here’s one example of an experiment that is happening all around you, and may well happen to you one day. If you get run over today and you break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief. The heroin you will get from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the old theory of addiction is right — it’s the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them — then it’s obvious what should happen. Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets to meet their habit.

But here’s the strange thing: It virtually never happens. As the Canadian doctor Gabor Mate was the first to explain to me, medical users just stop, despite months of use. The same drug, used for the same length of time, turns street-users into desperate addicts and leaves medical patients unaffected.

If you still believe — as I used to — that addiction is caused by chemical hooks, this makes no sense. But if you believe Bruce Alexander’s theory, the picture falls into place. The street-addict is like the rats in the first cage, isolated, alone, with only one source of solace to turn to. The medical patient is like the rats in the second cage. She is going home to a life where she is surrounded by the people she loves. The drug is the same, but the environment is different.

This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts. Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.

When I learned all this, I found it slowly persuading me, but I still couldn’t shake off a nagging doubt. Are these scientists saying chemical hooks make no difference? It was explained to me — you can become addicted to gambling, and nobody thinks you inject a pack of cards into your veins. You can have all the addiction, and none of the chemical hooks. I went to a Gamblers’ Anonymous meeting in Las Vegas (with the permission of everyone present, who knew I was there to observe) and they were as plainly addicted as the cocaine and heroin addicts I have known in my life. Yet there are no chemical hooks on a craps table.

But still, surely, I asked, there is some role for the chemicals? It turns out there is an experiment which gives us the answer to this in quite precise terms, which I learned about in Richard DeGrandpre’s book The Cult of Pharmacology.

Everyone agrees cigarette smoking is one of the most addictive processes around. The chemical hooks in tobacco come from a drug inside it called nicotine. So when nicotine patches were developed in the early 1990s, there was a huge surge of optimism — cigarette smokers could get all of their chemical hooks, without the other filthy (and deadly) effects of cigarette smoking. They would be freed.

But the Office of the Surgeon General has found that just 17.7 percent of cigarette smokers are able to stop using nicotine patches. That’s not nothing. If the chemicals drive 17.7 percent of addiction, as this shows, that’s still millions of lives ruined globally. But what it reveals again is that the story we have been taught about The Cause of Addiction lying with chemical hooks is, in fact, real, but only a minor part of a much bigger picture.

This has huge implications for the one-hundred-year-old war on drugs. This massive war — which, as I saw, kills people from the malls of Mexico to the streets of Liverpool — is based on the claim that we need to physically eradicate a whole array of chemicals because they hijack people’s brains and cause addiction. But if drugs aren’t the driver of addiction — if, in fact, it is disconnection that drives addiction — then this makes no sense.

Ironically, the war on drugs actually increases all those larger drivers of addiction. For example, I went to a prison in Arizona — ‘Tent City’ — where inmates are detained in tiny stone isolation cages (‘The Hole’) for weeks and weeks on end to punish them for drug use. It is as close to a human recreation of the cages that guaranteed deadly addiction in rats as I can imagine. And when those prisoners get out, they will be unemployable because of their criminal record — guaranteeing they with be cut off ever more. I watched this playing out in the human stories I met across the world.

There is an alternative. You can build a system that is designed to help drug addicts to reconnect with the world — and so leave behind their addictions.

This isn’t theoretical. It is happening. I have seen it. Nearly fifteen years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with 1 percent of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them — to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs.

One example I learned about was a group of addicts who were given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other, and to the society, and responsible for each other’s care.

The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I’ll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country’s top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News. But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass — and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal’s example.

This isn’t only relevant to the addicts I love. It is relevant to all of us, because it forces us to think differently about ourselves. Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. The wisest sentence of the twentieth century was E.M. Forster’s — “only connect.” But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or offer only the parody of it offered by the Internet. The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live — constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.

The writer George Monbiot has called this “the age of loneliness.” We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from all human connections than ever before. Bruce Alexander — the creator of Rat Park — told me that for too long, we have talked exclusively about individual recovery from addiction. We need now to talk about social recovery — how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation that is sinking on us like a thick fog.

But this new evidence isn’t just a challenge to us politically. It doesn’t just force us to change our minds. It forces us to change our hearts.

Loving an addict is really hard. When I looked at the addicts I love, it was always tempting to follow the tough love advice doled out by reality shows like Intervention — tell the addict to shape up, or cut them off. Their message is that an addict who won’t stop should be shunned. It’s the logic of the drug war, imported into our private lives. But in fact, I learned, that will only deepen their addiction — and you may lose them altogether. I came home determined to tie the addicts in my life closer to me than ever — to let them know I love them unconditionally, whether they stop, or whether they can’t.

When I returned from my long journey, I looked at my ex-boyfriend, in withdrawal, trembling on my spare bed, and I thought about him differently. For a century now, we have been singing war songs about addicts. It occurred to me as I wiped his brow, we should have been singing love songs to them all along.

The full story of Johann Hari’s journey — told through the stories of the people he met — can be read in Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, published by Bloomsbury. The book has been praised by everyone from Elton John to Glenn Greenwald to Naomi Klein. You can buy it at all good bookstores and read more at www.chasingthescream.com.

Johann Hari will be talking about his book at 7pm at Politics and Prose in Washington DC on the 29th of January, at lunchtime at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on the 30th January, and in the evening at Red Emma’s in Baltimore on the 4th February.

The full references and sources for all the information cited in this article can be found in the book’s extensive end-notes.



Leo Tolstoy’s theory of everything

Before writing some of the greatest novels in history, Tolstoy asked some of philosophy’s hardest questions

Leo Tolstoy's theory of everything

Leo Tolstoy (Credit: Wikimedia)

Tolstoy’s first diary, started on March 17, 1847, at the age of eighteen, began as a clinical investigation launched under laboratory conditions: in the isolation of a hospital ward, where he was being treated for a venereal disease. A student at Kazan University, he was about to drop out due to lack of academic progress. In the clinic, freed from external influences, the young man planned to “enter into himself” for intense self-exploration (vzoiti sam v sebia ; 46:3). On the first page, he wrote (then crossed out) that he was in complete agreement with Rousseau on the advantages of solitude. This act of introspection had a moral goal: to exert control over his runaway life. Following a well-established practice, the young Tolstoy approached the diary as an instrument of self-perfection.

But this was not all. For the young Tolstoy, keeping a diary (as I hope to show) was also an experimental project aimed at exploring the nature of self: the links connecting a sense of self, a moral ideal, and the temporal order of narrative.

From the very beginning there were problems. For one, the diarist obviously found it difficult to sustain the flow of narrative. To fill the pages of his first diary, beginning on day two, Tolstoy gives an account of his reading, assigned by a professor of history: Catherine the Great’s famous Instruction (Nakaz), as compared with Montesquieu’sL’Esprit de lois. This manifesto aimed at regulating the future social order, and its philosophical principles, rooted in the French Enlightenment (happy is a man in whom will rules over passions, and happy is a state in which laws serve as an instrument of such control), appealed to the young Tolstoy. But with the account of Catherine’s utopia (on March 26), Tolstoy’s first diary came to an end.

When he started again (and again), Tolstoy commented on the diary itself, its purpose and uses. In his diary, he will evaluate the course of self- improvement (46:29). He will also reflect on the purpose of human life (46:30). The diary will contain rules pertaining to his behavior in specific times and places; he will then analyze his failures to follow these rules (46:34). The diary’s other purpose is to describe himself and the world (46:35). But how? He looked in the mirror. He looked at the moon and the starry sky. “ But how can one write this ?” he asked. “One has to go, sit at an ink-stained desk, take coarse paper, ink . . . and trace letters on paper. Letters will make words, words—phrases, but is it possible to convey one’s feeling?” (46:65). The young diarist was in despair.

Apart from the diaries, the young Tolstoy kept separate notebooks for rules: “ Rules for Developing Will ” (1847), “Rules of Life” (1847), “Rules” (1847 and 1853), and “Rules in General” (1850) (46:262–76). “Rules for playing music” (46:36) and “Rules for playing cards in Moscow until January 1” (46: 39). There are also rules for determining “(a) what is God, (b) what is man, and (c) what are the relations between God and man” (46:263). It would seem that in these early journals, Tolstoy was actually working not on a history but on a utopia of himself: his own personal Instruction.

Yet another notebook from the early 1850s, “Journal for Weaknesses” (Zhurnal dlia slabostei)—or, as he called it, the “Franklin journal”—listed, in columns, potential weaknesses, such as laziness, mendacity, indecision, sensuality, and vanity, and Tolstoy marked (with small crosses) the qualities that he exhibited on a particular day. Here, Tolstoy was consciously following the method that Benjamin Franklin had laid out in his famous autobiography. There was also an account book devoted to financial expenditures. On the whole, on the basis of these documents, it appears that the condition of Tolstoy’s moral and monetary economy was deplorable. But another expenditure presented still graver problems: that of time.

Along with the first, hesitant diaries, for almost six months in 1847 Tolstoy kept a “Journal of Daily Occupations” (Zhurnal ezhednevnykh zaniatii; 46:245–61), the main function of which was to account for the actual expenditure of time. In the journal, each page was divided into two vertical columns: the first one, marked “The Future,” listed things he planned to do the next day; a parallel column, marked “The Past,” contained comments (made a day later) on the fulfillment of the plan. The most frequent entry was “not quite” (nesovsem). One thing catches the eye: there was no present.

The Moral Vision of Self and the Temporal Order of Narrative

Beginning in 1850, the time scheme of Tolstoy’s “Journal of Daily Occupations” and the moral accounting of the Franklin journal were incorporated into a single narrative. Each day’s entry was written from the reference point of yesterday’s entry, which ended with a detailed schedule for the next day—under tomorrow’s date. In the evening of the next day, Tolstoy reviewed what he had actually done, comparing his use of time to the plan made the previous day. He also commented on his actions, evaluating his conduct on a general scale of moral values. The entry concluded with a plan of action and a schedule for yet another day. The following entry (from March 1851) is typical for the early to mid-1850s:

24. Arose somewhat late and read, but did not have time to write. Poiret came, I fenced, and did not send him away (sloth and cowardice). Ivanov came, I spoke with him for too long (cowardice). Koloshin (Sergei) came to drink vodka, I did not escort him out (cowardice). At Ozerov’s argued about nothing (habit of arguing) and did not talk about what I should have talked about (cowardice). Did not go to Beklemishev’s (weakness of energy). During gymnastics did not walk the rope (cowardice), and did not do one thing because it hurt (sissiness).—At Gorchakov’s lied (lying). Went to the Novotroitsk tavern (lack of fierté). At home did not study English (insufficient firmness). At the Volkonskys’ was unnatural and distracted, and stayed until one in the morning (distractedness, desire to show off, and weakness of character). 25. [This is a plan for the next day, the 25th, written on the 24th—I.P.] From 10 to 11 yesterday’s diary and to read. From 11 to 12—gymnastics. From 12 to 1—English. Beklemishev and Beyer from 1 to 2. From 2 to 4—on horseback. From 4 to 6—dinner. From 6 to 8—to read. From 8 to 10—to write.—To translate something from a foreign language into Russian to develop memory and style.—To write today with all the impressions and thoughts it gives rise to.—25. Awoke late out of sloth. Wrote my diary and did gymnastics, hurrying. Did not study English out of sloth. With Begichev and with Islavin was vain. At Beklemishev’s was cowardly and lack of fierté. On Tver Boulevardwanted to show off. I did not walk on foot to the Kalymazhnyi Dvor (sissiness). Rode with a desire to show off. For the same reason rode to Ozerov’s.—Did not return to Kalymazhnyi, thoughtlessness. At the Gorchakovs’ dissembled and did not call things by their names, fooling myself. Went to L’vov’s out of insufficient energy and the habit of doing nothing. Sat around at home out of absentmindedness and read Werther inattentively, hurrying. 26 [This is a plan for the next day, the 26th, written on the 25th—I.P.] To get up at 5. Until 10—to write the history of this day. From 10 to 12—fencing and to read. From 12 to 1—English, and if something interferes, then in the evening. From 1 to 3—walking, until 4—gymnastics. From 4 to 6, dinner—to read and write.— (46:55).

An account of the present as much as a plan for the future, this diary combines the prescriptive and the descriptive. In the evening of each day, the young Tolstoy reads the present as a failure to live up to the expectations of the past, and he anticipates a future that will embody his vision of a perfect self. The next day, he again records what went wrong today with yesterday’s tomorrow. Wanting reality to live up to his moral ideal, he forces the past to meet the future.

In his attempt to create an ordered account of time, and thus a moral order, Tolstoy’s greatest difficulty remains capturing the present. Indeed, today makes its first appearance in the diary as tomorrow, embedded in the previous day and usually expressed in infinitive verb forms (“to read,” “to write,” “to translate”). On the evening of today, when Tolstoy writes his diary, today is already the past, told in the past tense. His daily account ends with a vision of another tomorrow. Since it appears under tomorrow’s date, it masquerades as today, but the infinitive forms of the verbs suggest timelessness.

In the diaries, unlike in the “Journal of Daily Occupations,” the present is accorded a place, but it is deprived of even a semblance of autonomy: The present is a space where the past and the future overlap. It appears that the narrative order of the diary simply does not allow one to account for the present. The adolescent Tolstoy’s papers contain the following excerpt, identified by the commentators of Tolstoy’s complete works as a “language exercise”: “Le passé est ce qui fut, le futur est ce qui sera et le présent est ce qui n’est pas.—C’est pour cela que la vie de l’homme ne consiste que dans le futur et le passé et c’est pour la même raison que le bonheur que nous voulons posséder n’est qu’une chimère de même que le présent” (1:217).  (The past is that which was, the future is that which will be, and the present is that which is not. That is why the life of man consists in nothing but the future and the past, and it is for the same reason that the happiness we want to possess is nothing but a chimera, just as the present is.) Whether he knew it or not, the problem that troubled the young Tolstoy, as expressed in this language exercise, was a common one, and it had a long history.

What Is Time? Cultural Precedents

It was Augustine, in the celebrated Book 11 of the Confessions, who first expressed his bewilderment: “What is time?” He argued as follows: The future is not yet here, the past is no longer here, and the present does not remain. Does time, then, have a real being? What is the present? The day? But “not even one day is entirely present.” Some hours of the day are in the future, some in the past. The hour? But “one hour is itself constituted of fugitive moments.”

Time flies quickly from future into past. In Augustine’s words, “the present occupies no space.” Thus, “time” both exists (the language speaks of it and the mind experiences it) and does not exist. The passage of time is both real and unreal (11.14.17–11.17.22). Augustine’s solution was to turn inward, placing the past and the future within the human soul (or mind), as memory and expectation. Taking his investigation further, he argues that these qualities of mind are observed in storytelling and fixed in narrative: “When I am recollecting and telling my story, I am looking on its image in present time, since it is still in my memory” (11.18.23). As images fixed in a story, both the past and the future lie within the present, which thus acquires a semblance of being. In the mind, or in the telling of one’s personal story, times exist all at once as traces of what has passed and will pass through the soul. Augustine thus linked the issue of time and the notion of self. In the end, the question “What is time?” was an extension of the fundamental question of the Confessions: “What am I, my God? What is my Nature?” (10.17.26).

For centuries philosophers continued to refine and transform these arguments. Rousseau reinterpreted Augustine’s idea in a secular perspective, focusing on the temporality of human feelings. Being attached to things outside us, “our affections” necessarily change: “they recall a past that is gone” or “anticipate a future that may never come into being.” From his own experience, Rousseau knew that the happiness for which his soul longed was not one “composed of fugitive moments” (“ le bonheur que mon coeur regrette n’est point composé d’instants fugitives ”) but a single and lasting state of the soul. But is there a state in which the soul can concentrate its entire being, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future? Such were Rousseau’s famous meditations on time in the fifth of his Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Rêveries du promeneur solitaire), a sequel to the Confessions. In both texts Rousseau practiced the habit of “reentering into himself,” with the express purpose of inquiring “What am I?” (“Que suis je moi-même ?”).

Since the mid-eighteenth century, after Rousseau and Laurence Sterne, time, as known through the mind of the perceiving individual, had also been the subject of narrative experiments undertaken in novels and memoirs. By the 1850s, the theme of the being and nonbeing of time in relation to human consciousness, inaugurated by Augustine and secularized by Rousseau, could serve as the topic of an adolescent’s language exercise.

In his later years, as a novelist, Tolstoy would play a decisive role in the never-ending endeavor to catch time in the act. In the 1850s, in his personal diary, the young Tolstoy was designing his first, homemade methods of managing the flow of personal time by narrative means. As we have seen, this dropout student was not without cultural resources. The young Tolstoy could hardly have known Augustine, but he did know Rousseau, whose presence in the early diaries is palpable. (In later years, when he does read Augustine, he will focus on the problem of narrating time and fully appreciate its theological meaning.)  But mostly he proceeded by way of his own narrative efforts: his diary. Fixed in the diary, the past would remain with him; planned in writing, the future was already there. Creating a future past and a present future, the diarist relieved some of the anxieties of watching life pass. But in one domain his efforts fell short of the ideal: not even one day was entirely present.

“A History of Yesterday”

In March 1851, the twenty-two-year-old Tolstoy embarked on another longplanned project: to write a complete account of a single day—a history of yesterday. His choice fell on March 24: “ not because yesterday was extraordinary in any way . . . but because I have long wished to tell the innermost [zadushevnuiu] side of life in one day. God only knows how many diverse . . . impressions and thoughts . . . pass in a single day. If it were only possible to recount them all so that I could easily read myself and others could read me as I do. . . . ” (1:279).

An outgrowth of the diary, “A History of Yesterday” (Istoriia vcherashnego dnia) was conceived as an experiment: Where would the process of writing take him? (Tolstoy was writing for himself alone; indeed, in his lifetime, “A History of Yesterday” remained unpublished.)

The metaphor of self, or life, as a book, an image to which Tolstoy would return throughout his life, makes its first appearance here. 8 Rousseau, in whose footsteps Tolstoy followed in wanting to make himself into an open book, believed that self-knowledge was based on feeling and that all he had to do was “to make my soul transparent to the reader.” The young Benjamin Franklin, who was a printer, used the image in his own epitaph: He imagined a typeset book of his life and expressed his belief that it would appear once more in a new edition, “revised and corrected by the author.”

Tolstoy, in 1851, seems to have suspected that the problem lay in the narrative itself. Knowing that “there is not enough ink in the world to write such a story, or typesetters to put it into print” (1:279), he nevertheless embarked upon this project.

In the end it turned out that after about twenty-four hours of writing (spread over a three-week period), Tolstoy was still at the start of the day. Having filled what amounts to twenty-six pages of printed text, he abandoned his “History.” By that time Tolstoy was in a position to know that the enterprise was doomed, and not only because of empirical difficulties (“there would not be enough ink in the world to write it, or typesetters to put it in print”), but also because of major philosophical problems (such as the constraints inherent in the nature of narrative).

“A History of Yesterday” starts in the morning: “I arose late yesterday—at a quarter to 10.” What follows is a causal explanation that relates the given event to an earlier event, which happened on the day before yesterday: “— because I had gone to bed after midnight.” At this point, the account is interrupted by a parenthetical remark that places the second event within a system of general rules of conduct: “( It has long been my rule never to retire after midnight, yet this happens to me about 3 times a week).” The story resumes with a detailed description of those circumstances which had led to the second event and a minor moral transgression (going to bed after midnight): “I was playing cards. . . .” (1:279). The account of the action is then interrupted by another digression—the narrator’s reflections on the nature of society games.

After a page and a half, Tolstoy returns to the game of cards. The narrative proceeds, slowly and painfully, tracing not so much external actions as the webs of the protagonist/narrator’s mental activity, fusing two levels of reflections: those that accompanied the action and those that accompany the act of narration. After many digressions, the narrative follows the protagonist home, puts him to bed, and ends with an elaborate description of his dream, leaving the hero at the threshold of “yesterday.”

What, then, is time? In Tolstoy’s “History,” the day (a natural unit of time) starts in the morning, moves rapidly to the previous evening, and then slowly makes its way back towards the initial morning. Time flows backward, making a circle. In the end, Tolstoy wrote not a history of yesterday but a history of the day before yesterday.

This pattern would play itself out once again in Tolstoy’s work when, in 1856, he started working on a historical novel, the future War and Peace. As he later described it (in an explanatory note on War and Peace), Tolstoy’ original plan was to write a novel about the Decembrists. He set the action in the present, in 1856: An elderly Decembrist returns to Moscow from Siberian exile. But before Tolstoy could move any further, he felt compelled to interrupt the narrative progression: “ involuntarily I passed from today to 1825 ”(that is, to the Decembrist uprising). In order to understand his hero in 1825, he then turned to the formative events of the war with Napoleon: “ I once again discarded what I had begun and started to write from the time of 1812.” “But then for a third time I put aside what I had begun”—Tolstoy now turned to 1805 (the dawn of the Napoleonic age in Russia; 13:54). The narrative did not progress in time; it regressed. In both an early piece of personal history, “A History of Yesterday,” and the mature historical novel, War and Peace, Tolstoy saw the initial event as the end of a chain of preceding events, locked into causal dependency by the implications of the narrative order. At the time he made this comment on the writing of his novel, Tolstoy seemed to hold this principle as the inescapable logic of historical narrative.

In “A History of Yesterday,” temporal refraction does not end with a shift from the target day to the preceding day. In the description of “the day before yesterday” itself, time also does not progress: It is pulled apart to fit an array of simultaneous processes. The game of cards has come to an end. The narrator is standing by the card table involved in a (mostly silent) conversation with the hostess. It is time to leave, but taking leave does not come easily to the young man; nor is it easy to tell the story of leaving:

I looked at my watch and got up . . . . Whether she wished to end this conversation which I found so sweet, or to see how I would refuse, or whether she simply wished to continue playing, she looked at the figures which were written on the table, drew the chalk across the table— making a figure that could be classified neither as mathematical nor as pictorial—looked at her husband, then between him and me, and said: “Let’s play three more rubbers.” I was so absorbed in the contemplation not of her movements alone, but of everything that is called charme, which it is impossible to describe, that my imagination was very far away, and I did not have time to clothe my words in a felicitous form; I simply said: “No, I can’t.” Before I had finished saying this I began to regret it,—that is, not all of me, but a certain part of me. . . .

—I suppose this part spoke very eloquently and persuasively (although I cannot convey this), for I became alarmed and began to cast about for arguments.—In the first place, I said to myself, there is no great pleasure in it, you do not really like her, and you’re in an awkward position; besides, you’ve already said that you can’t stay, and you have fallen in her estimation. . . .

Comme il est aimable, ce jeune homme.” [How pleasant he is, this young man.]

This sentence, which followed immediately after mine, interrupted my reflections. I began to make excuses, to say I couldn’t stay, but since one does not have to think to make excuses, I continued reasoning with myself: How I love to have her speak of me in the third person. In German this is rude, but I would love it even in German. . . . “Stay for supper,” said her husband.—As I was busy with my reflections on the formula of the third person, I did not notice that my body, while very properly excusing itself for not being able to stay, was putting down the hat again and sitting down quite coolly in an easy chair. It was clear that my mind was taking no part in this absurdity. (1:282–83)

Written from memory, in the past tense, this narrative nevertheless strives to imitate a notation of immediate experience—something like a stenographic transcription of a human consciousness involved in the act of apprehending itself.

Some critics see this as an early instance of what would later be called the “stream of consciousness” or even read Tolstoy’s desire to describe what lies “behind the soul” as an attempt to reach “what we now call the subconscious.”  But this is a special case: a stream of consciousness with an observer. As an external observer, the narrator can only guess at what is going on in the other’s mind. As a self-narrator who describes the zadushevnui  —“innermost,” or, translating literally, the “behind-the-soul”—side of one day’s life, he faces other difficulties.

Indeed, the narrator deals with internal multiplicity, with speech, thought, and bodily movement divided, with ambivalent desires, with the dialectical drama that stands behind a motive. There is yet another layer: the splitting of the self into a protagonist and a narrator, who operate in two different timeframes. Moreover, the narrator (even when he is lost in reverie) is involved in reflections not only on the process of narrating but also on general (meta-) problems in the “historiography” of the self. Finally, he keeps referring to the residue of that which cannot be expressed and explained. How could such multiplicity be represented in the linear order of a narrative?

Time and Narrative 

Unbeknownst to the young Tolstoy, Kant had long since deplored the limitations of narrative in The Critique of Pure Reason. In narrative representation, one event as a matter of convention follows upon another. In Kant’s words, “the apprehension of the manifold of appearance is always successive”; “the representations of the parts” succeed one another. It does not follow, however, that what we represent is also in itself successive; it is just that we “cannot arrange the apprehension otherwise than in this very succession.” This is the way “in which we are first led to construct for ourselves the concept of cause”: succession suggests causality.

As yet unfamiliar with Kant’s deductions, Tolstoy attempted to break the rule of succession—to stretch the temporality of his narrative in order to account for actions and processes that occur as if simultaneously. As a result, he extended time beyond the endurance of the narrative form: the story breaks off. The narrator who describes his own being from within knows (if only subconsciously) more than he can possibly tell. Is it humanly possible to give an account of even one day in one’s own life?

There were, of course, cultural precedents. Tolstoy’s narrative strategies were largely borrowed from Laurence Sterne, who, along with Rousseau, was among his first self-chosen mentors. 13 In 1851, in his diary, Tolstoy called Sterne his “favorite writer” (49:82). In 1851–52, he translated A Sentimental Journey from English into Russian as an exercise.

Informed by Locke’s philosophy, Sterne’s narrative strategy was to make the consciousness of the protagonist/narrator into a locus of action. Locke, unlike Augustine, hoped that time itself could be captured: He derived the idea of time (duration) from the way in which we experience a train of ideas that constantly succeed one another in our minds. It followed that the sense of self derives from the continuity of consciousness from past to future.

Sterne followed suit by laying bare the flow of free associations in the mind of the narrator. One of his discoveries concerned time and narrative: Turning the narration inward, Sterne discovered that there is a psychic time that diverges from clock time. The splitting of time results in living, and writing, simultaneously on several levels. To be true to life, Sterne’s narrator digresses. The author confronted the necessity for interweaving movements forward and backward, which alone promised to move beyond the confines of time. The combination of progression and digression, including retrospective digression, created a narrative marked by experimentation, with the narrator openly commenting on his procedures.  In the end, Sterne’s experimentation—his “realistic” representation—revealed flaws in Locke’s argument: Successive representation could not catch up with the manifold perceptions of the human mind. In brief, the narrative that attempted to represent human consciousness did not progress.

By mimicking Sterne’s narrative strategy, Tolstoy learned his first lessons in epistemology: the Cartesian shift to the point of view of the perceiving individual, the modern view on the train and succession of inner thoughts, the dependence of personal identity on the ability to extend consciousness backward to a past action, and so on. Tolstoy also confronted the restrictions that govern our apprehension and representation of time—limitations that he would continue to probe and challenge throughout his life and work, even after he had read, and fully appreciated, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (in 1869, as he was finishing War and Peace).

In his first diaries and in “A History of Yesterday,” proceeding by way of narrative experiments, the young Tolstoy discovered a number of things. He discovered that there was no history of today. Even in a record almost concurrent with experience, there was no present. A history was a history of yesterday. Moreover, writing a history of the individual and a self-history, he was confronted with the need to account not only for the order of events but also for a whole other domain: the inner life. Uncovering the inner life led to further temporal refraction: From an inside point of view, it appeared that behind an event or action there stood a whole array of simultaneous processes. This led to another discovery.

Excerpted from “’Who, What Am I?’: Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self” by Irina Paperno. Copyright © 2014 by Irina Paperno. Reprinted by arrangement with Cornell University Press. All rights reserved.




Crows can remember faces and use tools. Now new research shows they also have the brain power to spontaneously solve higher-order matching tasks—without being trained to do so.

That means crows join humans, apes, and monkeys in exhibiting advanced relational thinking.

baby crow
Ed Wasserman concedes there will be skeptics and hopes the experiment will be repeated with more crows as well as other species. “We have always sold animals short,” he says. “That human arrogance still permeates contemporary cognitive science.” (Credit: David Fant/Flickr)

“What the crows have done is a phenomenal feat,” says Ed Wasserman, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa and corresponding author of the study.

“That’s the marvel of the results. It’s been done before with apes and monkeys, but now we’re dealing with a bird; but not just any bird, a bird with a brain as special to birds as the brain of an apes is special to mammals.”

For the study, published in Current Biology, two hooded crows that were at least 2 years old were placed into a wire mesh cage into which a plastic tray containing three small cups was occasionally inserted. The sample cup in the middle was covered with a small card on which was pictured a color, shape, or number of items.


The other two cups were also covered with cards—one that matched the sample and one that did not. During this initial training period, the cup with the matching card contained two mealworms; the crows were rewarded with these food items when they chose the matching card, but they received no food when they chose the other card.

Once the crows have been trained on identity matching-to-sample, the researchers moved to the second phase of the experiment. This time, the birds were assessed with relational matching pairs of items. These relational matching trials were arranged in such a way that neither test pairs precisely matched the sample pair, thereby eliminating control by physical identity.

For example, the crows might have to choose two same-sized circles rather than two different-sized circles when the sample card displayed two same-sized squares.

What surprised the researchers was not only that the crows could correctly perform the relational matches, but that they did so spontaneously—without explicit training.

“That is the crux of the discovery,” Wasserman says. “Honestly, if it was only by brute force that the crows showed this learning, then it would have been an impressive result. But this feat was spontaneous.”


The researchers acknowledge that the crows’ relational matching behavior did not come without some background knowledge.

Anthony Wright, neurobiology and anatomy professor at the University of Texas-Houston Medical School, says the discovery ranks on par with demonstrations of tool use by some birds, including crows.

“Analogical reasoning, matching relations to relations, has been considered to be among the more so-called ‘higher order’ abstract reasoning processes,” he says. “For decades such reasoning has been thought to be limited to humans and some great apes. The apparent spontaneity of this finding makes it all the more remarkable.”

Joel Fagot, director of research at the University of Aix-Marseille in France, agrees the results shatter the notion that “sophisticated forms of cognition can only be found in our ‘smart’ human species. Accumulated evidence suggests that animals can do more than expected.”

Wasserman concedes there will be skeptics and hopes the experiment will be repeated with more crows as well as other species. “We have always sold animals short,” he says. “That human arrogance still permeates contemporary cognitive science.”

The Russian Foundation for Basic Research supported the research. Anna Smirnova, Zoya Zorina and Tanya Obozova, researchers at Lomonosov Moscow State University in Russia, are coauthors of the study.

Source: University of Iowa