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The Psychology and Philosophy of Memory


Memory refers to the system, or systems, by which the mind registers, stores, and retrieves information for the purpose of optimizing future action.

Memory can be divided into short-term and long-term memory, and long-term memory can be further divided into episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memory records sense experiences, while semantic memory records abstract facts and concepts, with episodic memories eventually seeping into semantic memory. Interestingly, the distinction between episodic memory and semantic memory is already implicit in a number of languages in which the verb ‘to know’ has two forms, for example, in French, connaître and savoir, where connaître implies a direct, privileged kind of knowledge acquired through sense experience.

There is, naturally, a close connection between memory and knowledge. The connaître and savoir dichotomy is also pertinent to the theory of knowledge, which distinguishes between first-hand knowledge and testimonial knowledge, that is, knowledge gained through the say-so of others, often teachers, journalists, and writers. In the absence of first-hand knowledge, the accuracy of a piece of testimony can only be verified against other sources of testimony. Similarly, the accuracy of most memories can only be verified against other memories. For most if not all memories, there is no independent standard.

Episodic and semantic memory are held to be explicit or ‘declarative’, but there is also a third kind of memory, procedural memory, which is implicit or unconscious, for knowing how to do things such as reading and cycling. Although held to be explicit, episodic and semantic memory can influence action without any need for conscious retrieval—which is, of course, the basis of practices such as advertising and brainwashing. In fact, it is probably fair to say that most of our memories lie beyond conscious retrieval, or are not consciously retrieved—and therefore that memory mostly operates at an unconscious level. ‘Education’, said BF Skinner, ‘is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.’

A mysterious type of memory is prospective memory, or ‘remembering to remember’. To send my mother a birthday card, I must not only remember her birthday, but also remember to remember it. Whenever I omit to set my alarm clock, I find myself waking up just in time to make my first appointment, even when I have only slept three or four hours. This suggests that, even in sleep, the mind is able to remember to remember, while also keeping track of the time.

Memory is encoded across several brain areas, meaning that brain damage or disease can affect one type of memory more than others. For example, Korsakov syndrome, which results from severe thiamine deficiency and consequent damage to the mammillary bodies and dorsomedial nucleus of the thalamus, affects episodic memory more than semantic memory, and anterograde memory (ability to form new memories) more than retrograde memory (store of old memories), while sparing short-term and procedural memory. Alzheimer’s disease on the other hand affects short-term memory more than long-term memory, at least in its early stages.

As a psychiatrist, I am often asked to assess people with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia, and am all too aware of the importance of memory in our daily lives. Without any memory at all, it would be impossible to: speak, read, learn, find one’s way, make decisions, identify or use objects, cook, wash, dress, or develop and maintain relationships. To live without memory is to live in a perpetual present, without past, and without future. One couldn’t build upon anything, or even engage in any kind of sustained, goal-directed activity. Although there is wisdom in being in the moment, one cannot always or entirely be in the moment. In Greek myth, the goddess of memory, Memosyne, slept with Zeus for nine consecutive nights, thereby begetting the nine Muses. Without memory, there would be no art or science, no craft or culture.

And no meaning either. Nostalgia, sentimentality for the past, is often prompted by feelings of loneliness, disconnectedness, or meaninglessness. Revisiting our past can lend us much-needed context, perspective, and direction, reminding and reassuring us that our life is not as banal as it might seem, that it is rooted in a narrative, and that there have been—and will once again be—meaningful moments and memories. If weddings and wedding photographs are anything to go by, it seems that we go to considerable lengths to manufacture these anchor memories. Tragically, people with severe memory loss can no longer revisit the past, and may resort to confabulation (the making up of memories) to create the meaning and identity that everyone yearns for. I once visited a nursing home in England to assess an 85-year-old lady with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. She insisted that we were in a hotel in Marbella: she was planning her wedding and didn’t have time to talk to me. When I asked her what she did the day before, she replied, with a twinkle in her eye, that she hit the town for her bachelorette (hen night), and that her glamorous friends spoilt her rotten with champagne and fancy cocktails. The search for meaning is deeply ingrained in human nature, so much so that, when pressed to define man, Plato replied simply, ‘a being in search of meaning’.

It could be argued that, like confabulation, nostalgia is a form of self-deception, in that it involves distortion and idealization of the past. The Romans had a tag for the phenomenon that psychologists have come to call ‘rosy retrospection’: memoria praeteritorum bonorum, ‘the past is always well remembered.’ And memory is unreliable in other ways as well. ‘Everyone’, said John Barth, ‘is necessarily the hero of his own life story’. We curate our memories by consolidating those that confirm or conform to our idea of self, while discarding or distorting those that conflict with it. We are very likely to remember events of existential significance such as our first kiss, or our first day at school—and, of course, it helps that we often rehearse those memories. Even then, we remember just one or two scenes, and just the main features, and fill in the gaps and background with reconstructed or ‘averaged’ memories. Déjà-vu, the feeling that a situation that is currently being experienced has already been experienced, may arise from a near match between the current situation and an averaged memory of that sort of situation. Our memories are filtered through our interests and emotions, and through our interpretation of events. Two people supporting opposing teams in a football match, or opposing political parties in an election, will register and recall very different things, and would likely disagree about ‘the facts’.

Broadly speaking, emotionally charged events are more likely to be remembered, and it has been found that injections of cortisol or epinephrine (adrenaline) can improve retention rates. But if a situation is highly stressful, memory may be impaired as cognitive resources are diverted to dealing with the situation, for example, escaping from the gunman rather than registering his clothing or facial features. In addition, any attention paid to the gunman is likely to focus on the gun itself, leading to a kind of peripheral blindness. This has important implications for the accuracy of eyewitness testimony, which might also be distorted by the use of leading or loaded questions. In a famous study, Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction, Loftus and Palmer asked people to estimate the speed of motor vehicles when they smashed / collided / bumped / hit / contacted each other, and found that the verb used in the question altered perceptions of speed. In addition, those asked the ‘smashed’ question were subsequently more likely to report having seen broken glass. After a traumatic event, to cope with unbearable stress, a person might go so far as to dissociate from the event, for example, by losing all memory for the event (dissociative amnesia) or even, as Agatha Christie once did, assuming another identity and departing on a sudden, unexpected journey (dissociative fugue). So emotion improves memory, but stress and trauma hinder it.

It is generally thought that, of all the senses, it is the sense of smell that triggers the most vivid memories. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to the amygdala and hippocampus, which are heavily involved in memory and emotion. These three structures—the olfactory bulb, the amygdala, and the hippocampus—form part of the limbic system, a ring of phylogenetically primitive, ‘paleomammalian’ cortex that is the seat of memory, emotion, and motivation. In a famous passage now referred to as ‘the madeleine moment’, Marcel Proust describes the uncanny ability of certain smells to recapture the ‘essence of the past’:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

Killing two birds with one stone, here are 10 ways to improve your memory that also shed light on its workings:

1. Get enough sleep. If you read a book or article when very tired, you will forget most of what you have read. Sleep improves attention and concentration, and therefore the registration of information. And sleep is also required for memory consolidation.

2. Pay attention. You cannot take in information unless you are paying attention, and you cannot memorize information unless you are taking it in. It helps if you are actually interested in the material, so try to develop an interest in everything! As Einstein said, ‘There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.’

3. Involve as many senses as you can. For instance, if you are sitting in a lecture, jot down a few notes. If you are reading a chapter or article, read it aloud to yourself and inject some drama into your performance.

4. Structure information. If you need to remember a list of ingredients, think of them under the subheadings of starter, main, and dessert, and visualize the number of ingredients under each subheading. If you need to remember a telephone number, think of it in terms of the first five digits, the middle three digits, and the last three digits—or whatever works best.

5. Process information. If possible, summarize the material in your own words. Or reorganize it so that it is easier to learn. With more complex material, try to understand its meaning and significance. Shakespearean actors find it much easier to remember their lines if they can understand and feel them. Focus on the bigger picture, not the details, and don’t remind everyone of everything. In the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar.’

6. Relate information to what you already know. New information is much easier to remember if it can be contextualized. In a recent study looking at the role of high-level processes, Lane and Chang found that chess knowledge predicts chess memory (memory of the layout of a particular game of chess) even after controlling for chess experience.

7. Use mnemonics. Tie information to visual images, sentences, and acronyms. For example, you might remember that your hairdresser is called Sharon by picturing a Rose of Sharon or a sharon fruit. Or you might remember the colours of the rainbow and their order by the sentence, ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle in Vain’. Many medical students remember the symptoms of varicose veins by the acronym ‘AEIOU’: Aching, Eczema, Itching, Oedema, and Ulceration.

8. Rehearse. Sleep on the information and review it the following day. Then review it at growing intervals until you feel comfortable with it. Memories fade if not rehearsed, or are overlain by other memories and can no longer be accessed.

9. Be aware of context. It is easier to retrieve a memory if you find yourself in a similar situation, or similar state of mind, to the one in which the memory was formed. People with low mood tend to remember their losses and failures while overlooking their strengths and achievements. If one day you pass the cheesemonger in the street, you may not, without her usual apron and array of cheeses, immediately recognize her as the cheesemonger, even though you know her fairly well. If you are preparing for an exam, try to recreate the conditions of the exam: for example, sit at a similar desk, at a similar time of day, and use ink on paper.

10. Be creative. Bizarre or unusual experiences, facts, and associations are much easier to remember. Because unfamiliar experiences stick in the mind, trips and holidays give the impression of ‘living’, and, therefore, of having lived a longer life. Our life is just as long or short as our remembering: as rich as our imagining, as vibrant as our feeling, and as profound as our thinking.

The Problem of Knowledge


Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s own ignorance. —Confucius

What if we are being radically deceived? What if I am no more than a brain kept alive in a vat and fed with stimuli by a mad scientist? What if my life is but a dream or computer simulation? Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, I would be experiencing not reality itself, but a mere facsimile. I couldn’t be said to know anything at all, not even that I was being deceived. Given the choice between a life of limitless pleasure as a brain in a vat and a genuine human life along with all its pain and suffering, most people opt for the latter, suggesting that we value truth and authenticity, and, by extension, that we value knowledge for its own sake.

But even if we’re not being deceived, it is not at all clear that we can have any knowledge of the world. Much of our everyday knowledge comes from the use of our senses, especially sight. ‘Seeing is believing’, as the saying goes. French is one of many languages that has two verbs for ‘to know’: savoir and connaître, where connaître implies a kind of direct, privileged kind of knowledge acquired through sense experience. But appearances, as we all know, can be deceptive: a stick held under water appears to bend, the hot tarmac in the distance appears like a sparkling lake, and almost 40% of the normal population have experienced hallucinations of some kind, such as hearing voices. Our sense impressions are also subject to manipulation, as, for example, when a garden designer uses focal points to create an illusion of space. My mind interprets a certain wavelength as the colour red, but another animal or even another person may interpret it as something entirely else. How do I know that what I experience as pain is also what you experience as pain? You may react as I do, but that need not mean that you are minded like I am, or even that you are minded at all. All I might know is how the world appears to me, not how the world actually is.

Beyond my immediate environment, much of what I count as knowledge is so-called testimonial knowledge, that is, knowledge gained by the say-so of others, often teachers, journalists, and writers. If a piece of testimonial knowledge conflicts with our worldview, we tend, in the absence of non-testimonial evidence, to check it against other forms of testimony. If a friend tells me that Melbourne is the most populous city in Australia, I might carry out an Internet search and find that it is actually Sydney, even though I have never been to Australia and cannot be sure of what I read on the Internet.

Knowing that Sydney is the most populous city in Australia is a case of declarative (or propositional) knowledge, knowledge that can be expressed in declarative sentences or propositions. I know, or think that I know, that ‘Prince Harry is married to Meghan Markle’, ‘Paris is the capital of France’, and ‘democracy is the least worst form of government’. Apart from declarative knowledge, I also have know-how, for example, I know how to cook and how to drive a car. The relationship between knowing that and knowing how is not entirely clear, though it may be that knowing how collapses into multiple instances of knowing that.

For me to know something, say, that Mount Athos is in Greece, it must be the case that (1) I believe that Mount Athos is in Greece, and (2) Mount Athos is actually in Greece. In short, knowledge is true belief. True beliefs are better than false beliefs because they are, in general, more useful. Some beliefs, such as that my wine has been poisoned, are more useful than others, such as that my neighbour has 423 stamps in her collection. Some true beliefs, such as that I am a coward, can even be unhelpful, and we deploy a number of psychological mechanisms such as repression and rationalization to keep them out of mind. Inversely, some false beliefs, such as that my country or football team is the best, can be helpful, at least for my mental health. But on the whole we should seek to maximize our true beliefs, especially our useful or otherwise valuable true beliefs, while minimizing our false beliefs.

If knowledge is true belief, it is not any kind of true belief. People with paranoid psychosis often believe that they are being persecuted, for example, that the government is trying to have them killed. Clearly, this cannot count as knowledge, even if, by coincidence, it happens to be true. More generally, beliefs that are held on inadequate grounds, but by luck happen to be true, fall short of knowledge. In the Meno, Plato compares these true beliefs, or ‘correct opinions’, to the statues of Daedalus, which run away unless they can be tied down ‘with an account of the reason why’, whereupon they become knowledge. Knowledge, therefore, is not mere true belief, but justified true belief. Knowledge as justified true belief is called the tripartite, or three-part, theory of knowledge. Setting aside any intrinsic value that it may have, knowledge is more useful than mere true belief because it is more stable, more reliable.

Fine, but what does justification demand? I justify my belief in manmade global warming by the current scientific consensus as reported by the press. But what justifies my belief in the current scientific consensus, or in the press reports that I have read? Justification seems to involve an infinite regress, such that our ‘justified’ true beliefs have no solid foundation to rest upon. It may be that some of our beliefs rest upon certain self-justifying foundational beliefs such as the famous I think therefore I am of Descartes. But few beliefs are of this kind, and those that are seem unrelated to the bulk of my beliefs. In practice, most of our beliefs seem to rest upon a circular or circuitous chain of justification, which, if large enough, might be held to constitute adequate justification. The problem, though, is that people can choose to live in different circles.


People typically justify, or try to impose, their beliefs by means of arguments. Arguments provide reasons (or premises) in support of a particular claim or conclusion. There are two broad kinds of argument, deductive and inductive. In a deductive or ‘truth-preserving’ argument, the conclusion follows from the premises as their logical consequence. In an inductive argument, the conclusion is merely supported or suggested by the premises. More often than not, arguments are implicit, meaning that their rational structures are not immediately apparent and need to be made explicit by analysis.

A deductive argument is valid if the conclusion flows from the premises, regardless of the truth or falsity of the premises.

All organisms with wings can fly. (Premise 1, False)

Penguins have wings. (Premise 2, True)

Therefore, penguins can fly. (Conclusion, False)

This deductive argument is valid, even if it is unsound. For a deductive argument to be both valid and sound, all of its premises have to be true.

All mammals are warm-blooded. (Premise 1, True)

Bats are mammals. (Premise 2, True)

Therefore, bats are warm-blooded. (Conclusion, True)

Though a deductive argument appears to bring out a truth, that truth was already contained in the premises. For an inductive argument, the equivalent of soundness is cogency. An inductive argument is cogent if its premises are true and they render the truth of the conclusion probable. Every flamingo that I’ve ever seen has been pink. Therefore, it’s very probable that all flamingos are pink, or that flamingos are generally pink.

A third form of reasoning, abductive reasoning, involves inference to the best explanation for an observation or set of observations, for example, diagnosing a disease from a constellation of symptoms. But once broken down, abductive reasoning can be understood as a shorthand form of inductive reasoning.

Obviously, arguments often fall short. A logical fallacy is some kind of defect in an argument, and may be unintentional or intentional (with the aim to deceive). A formal fallacy is a deductive argument with an invalid form: the argument is invalid regardless of the truth of its premises. An informal fallacy is an argument that can only be identified by an analysis of the content of the argument. Informal fallacies are frequently found in inductive arguments, and often turn on the misuse of language, for example, using an ambiguous word with one meaning in one part of the argument and another in another (fallacy of equivocation). Informal fallacies can also distract from the weakness of the argument, or appeal to the emotions rather than to reason: “Will someone please think of the children!”

Science principally proceeds by induction, through the study of large and representative samples. An important problem with inductive reasoning is that the observations involved do not in themselves establish its validity, except by induction! A turkey that is fed every morning without fail expects to be fed every morning, until the day the farmer wrings its neck. For this reason, induction has been called ‘the glory of science and the scandal of philosophy’. This is an even bigger problem than it seems, since inductive arguments usually supply the premises for deductive arguments, which, as we have seen, are merely a priori. The 20th century philosopher Karl Popper argued that science actually proceeds by deduction, by making bold generalizations and then seeking to falsify them (or prove them wrong). He famously argued that if a proposition cannot be falsified, then it is not in the realm of science. But if Popper is right, then science could never tell us what is, but only what is not.

As we have seen, justification is hard to come by. But there is another problem lurking in the tripartite theory of knowledge. In 1963, Edmund Gettier published a two-and-a-half page paper showing that it is possible to hold a justified true belief without this amounting to knowledge. Here is my own example of a Gettier-like case. Suppose I am sleeping in my bed one night. Suddenly, I hear someone trying to unlock the front door. I call the police to share my belief that I am about to be burgled. One minute later, the police arrive and apprehend a burglar at my door. But it was not the burglar who made the noise: it was a drunken student who, coming home from a party, mistook my house for his own. While my belief was both true and justified, I did not, properly speaking, have knowledge. Responses to the Gettier problem typically involve elaborating upon the tripartite theory, for example, stipulating that luck or false evidence should not be involved. But these elaborations seem to place the bar for knowledge far too high.

As Gettier made clear, it is not so easy to identify instances of knowledge. Instead of defining the criteria for knowledge and, from these criteria, identifying instances of knowledge, it might be easier to work the other way, that is, begin by identifying instances of knowledge and, from these instances, derive the criteria for knowledge. But how can we identify instances of knowledge without having first defined the criteria for knowledge? And how can we define the criteria for knowledge without having first identified instances of knowledge? This Catch-22, in one form or another, seems to lie at the bottom of the problem of knowledge.

A Short Philosophy of Wine


Bacchus, by Caravaggio (c. 1595)

Wine lovers know that wine is so much more than a drink, but how to explain the love of wine to those who do not already share it?

When you uncork a bottle of mature fine wine, what you are drinking is the product of a particular culture and tradition, a particular soil and exposure, a particular climate, the weather in that year, and the love and labour and life of people who may since have died. If you know how to read it, the wine, like a book, will speak to you of all those things and more.

The wine is still changing, still evolving, so much so that no two bottles can ever be quite the same. By now, the stuff has become incredibly complex, almost ethereal. Without seeking to blaspheme, it has become something like the smell and taste of God. This moving mirror, this transdimensional distillate, will send shivers down your spine. It will make you burst into laughter. It will knock you right out of yourself, release you from the abstract and self-absorbed prison of the mind and redeliver you into the magic and mystery of the world as though you had just been reborn. Remarkably, every wine that can do this does it in its own way, meaning that there can be no end to your journey.

To get the most out of wine, you will need to sharpen your senses, and you will need to deepen your knowledge. By wine, we become more aware of our senses, and we begin to develop them, especially the neglected, almost vestigial, senses of smell and taste. By awakening our faculties, we begin to experience the world more intensely. We also begin to experience it in a different way, almost as though we were a different kind of animal. Through wine, I have learnt a great deal about geography, geology, agriculture, biology, chemistry, gastronomy, history, languages, literature, psychology, philosophy, religion… By wine, I have communed with, and actually visited, many parts of the world—and should add that wine regions, with their gardened slopes and goldilocks climates, make for the most agreeable destinations. Blind tasting has accelerated my development. It has also taught me about the methods of the mind, and, in the process, made me less bigoted, less dogmatic. On so many levels, wine offers a medium and motivation to apprehend the world. It is, ultimately, a kind of homecoming, a way of feeling at home in the world.

Wine is also an ideal vehicle for alcoholic intoxication, serving to loosen the mind and dissolve the ego. Wine brings people together, helps them be together, and be inventive together, as in the Greek symposia and Roman convivia, in which measured drinking could lead to expansive elation and creative conversation and the voicing of disruptive ideas and perspectives. Wine also played a central role in the secret rites of Greek mystery cults such as the Dionysian Mysteries and the Cult of Cybele, which aimed above all at ecstatic union with the divine—an idea that has survived to this day in the sacramental blood of Christ. Dionysus, who, like Jesus, died and was reborn, was the god of wine, regeneration, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy. He was an important god—no doubt, in certain periods and places, the most important—and most fervently celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox.

Let me paint a picture of a Dionysian orgy. The procession begins at sunset, led by torchbearers and followed by wine and fruit bearers, musicians, and a throng of revellers wearing masks and, well, not much else. Closing the parade is a giant phallus representing the resurrection of the twice-born god. Everyone is pushing and shoving, singing and dancing, and shouting the name of the god stirred in with ribaldry and obscenity. Having arrived at a clearing in the woods, the crowd goes wild with drinking, dancing, and every imaginable manner of sex. The god is in the wine, and to imbibe it is to be possessed by his spirit—although in the bull’s horn the booze may have been interlaced with other entheogens (substances that ‘generate the divine from within’). Animals, which stand in for the god, are hunted down, ripped apart with bare hands, and consumed raw with the blood still warm and dripping.

The Dionysian cult spread through the Greek colonies to Rome. In 186 BC, the Senate severely restricted it through the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus (‘senatorial decree concerning the Bacchanalia’). According to the Roman historian Livy, the decree led to more executions than imprisonments, with many committing suicide to avoid indictment. Illicit Bacchanalia persisted but gradually folded into the much tamer Liberalia in honour of Liber Pater (‘Free Father’), the Roman god of wine and fertility who so resembled Bacchus/Dionysus as, eventually, to merge into him. The 4th century reign of Constantius II marked the beginning of the formal persecution of paganism by the Christian Roman Empire. But the springtime fertility orgy survived through the centuries, albeit in attenuated forms. At last, unable to suppress it, the Church integrated it into its calendar as Carnival.

The Dionysian impulse for irrationality and chaos can be understood as a natural inversion of, and release from, the habitual Apollonian order and restraint imposed by the state and state religion—and blind tasting, with its emphasis on reason and deduction, as an attempt to unite the Apollonian and Dionysian and attain to the ever receding dream of civilization. In the Birth of Tragedy (1872), the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche recognizes the Dionysian impulse as a primal and universal force:

Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises. As its power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self. In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St. John’s and St. Vitus’s dancing we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea.

By diverting the Dionysian impulse into special rites on special days, the orgy kept it under control, preventing it from surfacing in more insidious and perfidious ways. More than that, it transformed it into an invigorating and liberating—and, in that much, profoundly religious—celebration of life and the life force. It permitted people to escape from their artificial and restricted social roles and regress into a more authentic state of nature, which modern psychologists have associated with the Freudian id or unconscious. It appealed most to marginal groups, since it set aside the usual hierarchies of man over woman, master over slave, patrician over commoner, rich over poor, and citizen over foreigner. In short, it gave people a much-needed break—like modern holidays, but cheaper and more effective.

‘Ecstasy’ literally means ‘to be or stand outside oneself’. It is a trance-like state in which consciousness of an object is so heightened that the subject dissolves or merges into the object. Einstein called it the ‘mystic emotion’ and spoke of it as ‘the finest emotion of which we are capable’, ‘the germ of all art and true science’, and ‘the core of the true religious sentiment’. More than ever before, modern society emphasizes the sovereign supremacy of the ego and the ultimate separateness and responsibility of each and every one of us. From a young age, we are taught to remain in tight control of our ego or persona with the aim of projecting it as far out as possible. As a result, we have lost the art of letting go—and, indeed, no longer even recognize the possibility—leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience. Letting go can threaten the life that we have built or even the person that we have become, but it can also free us from our modern narrowness and neediness, and deliver, or re-deliver, us into a bigger and brighter world. Little children have a quiescent or merged ego, which is why they brim with joy and wonder. Youth and ecstasy are the echoes of a primordial wisdom.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Concise Guide to Wine 2e

The Myth Of Narcissus and its Meaning


A person with narcissistic personality disorder has an extreme feeling of self-importance, a sense of entitlement, and a need to be admired. He is envious of others and expects them to be the same of him. He lacks empathy and readily lies and exploits others to achieve his aims. To others, he may seem self-absorbed, controlling, intolerant, selfish, or insensitive. If he feels obstructed or ridiculed, he can fly into a fit of destructive anger and revenge. Such a reaction is sometimes called ‘narcissistic rage’, and can have disastrous consequences for all those involved.

The myth

Narcissistic personality disorder is named for the Greek myth of Narcissus, of which there are several versions. In Ovid’s version, which is the most commonly related, the nymph Echo falls in love with Narcissus, a youth of extraordinary beauty. As a child, Narcissus had been prophesized by Teiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, to ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself’.

One day, Echo followed the grown up Narcissus through the woods as he went about hunting for stags. She longed to speak to him but dared not utter the first word. Overhearing her footsteps, the youth cried out, ‘Who’s there?’ to which she responded, ‘Who’s there?’ When at last she revealed herself, she rushed out to embrace Narcissus, but he scorned her and pushed her away. Echo spent the rest of her life pining for Narcissus, and slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice.

Some time after his encounter with Echo, Narcissus went to quench his thirst at a pool of water. Seeing his own image in the water, he fell in love with it. But each time he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to disappear. Narcissus grew ever more thirsty, but would not leave or disturb the pool of water for fear of losing sight of his reflection. In the end, he died of thirst, and there, on that very spot, appeared the narcissus flower, with its bright face and bowed neck.

The meaning

What does this myth mean? On one level, it is an admonition to treat others as we would be treated, and in particular to be considerate in responding to the affections of others, which, as with Echo, are often so raw and visceral as to be existential. Poor Echo had no self and no being outside of Narcissus.

On another level, the myth is a warning against vanity and self-love. Sometimes we get so caught up in our self, in our own little ego, that we lose sight of our bigger picture and, as a result, pass over the beauty and bounty that is life. Paradoxically, by being too wrapped up in ourselves, we actually restrict our range of perception and action and, ultimately, our potential as human beings. And so in some sense, we kill ourselves, like so many ambitious people.

Our self, our ego, is nothing but an illusion, nothing more substantial than Narcissus’s reflection in the pool of water. Ultimately, Narcissus’s ego boundaries dissolve in death and he merges back into the world in the form of a flower.

Echo had not enough ego, and Narcissus far too much: the key is to find the right and dynamic equilibrium, to be secure and yet to dissociate.

Is Wine Blind Tasting a Sport?



Wittgenstein famously claimed that games could not be defined. But in 1978, Bernard Suits more or less successfully defined a game as ‘a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’.

In that much, sports resemble games. They also resemble games in that they take place outside of ‘real life’, and in that they have no tangible product: when they do have a tangible product, such as fish in angling, then this is largely incidental, and the fish are returned to the river.

There are games like scrabble or monopoly that are clearly not sports. But are all sports games, as Suits claimed? While many sports like football and golf are also games, some sports like running, skiing, and rock climbing are not so obviously games other than in that they are voluntary and unnecessary. In ordinary language, we speak of ‘playing football’ or ‘playing a round of golf’, but not of ‘playing running’ or ‘playing skiing’. But if we are running from a lion, our running is neither a game nor a sport.

Culture and politics aside, what is it that makes a sport a sport? If scrabble and monopoly are not sports, then this is surely because they do not involve any physical activity, or because physical activity is not their primary purpose and any physical activity incurred is merely secondary or incidental.

In 2015, the English Bridge Union (EBU) challenged a decision by Sport England not to recognize bridge as a sport, a decision with consequences since it would deprive bridge from government and lottery funding. The EBU lost their High Court battle on the grounds that bridge does not involve physical activity any more than, as Sport England argued, ‘sitting at home, reading a book’.

But physical activity on its own is not enough. The primary purpose of working out on a cross-trainer is physical activity, but this is classed as exercise rather than sport. What is needed for sport is not physical activity per se, but skill in the exercise of physical activity, with some athletes going so far as to test the limits of human performance.

In 2005, Sport England recognized darts as a sport, presumably because darts involves skill as well as physical activity. By that account, video gaming, although targeted at a representational world rather than the real world, might also make the cut. Chess on the other hand is probably not a sport because, although it involves some physical activity, this physical activity is not particularly skilled, and, in any case, is not the primary purpose of chess. It is perfectly possible to get someone to move our chess pieces for us and still be counted as playing chess: in that much, the physical activity associated with playing chess is not central or even secondary but merely incidental.

If I, as an amateur, decide to go skiing for a couple of days, is my skiing exercise or sport? The answer depends on my own attitude, whether I am skiing primarily to keep fit, or for the sheer thrill of pushing myself or simply being in the world: and I think that this potential for thrill, for exaltation, for a certain kind of joy—rather than just panting and sweating—is an important part of what makes a sport a sport.

Well what if I meet a friend and we race each other down the mountainside? Does this competitive dimension make my skiing more of a game and therefore more of a sport? A person who develops a certain skill, whether in skiing or in baking or in any field of human endeavour, naturally wishes to measure that skill in competition with others who also lay claim to that skill. It is this competitive aspect that makes many sports so compelling to watch, although competition is by no means essential to popular spectator sports such as gymnastics and figure skating. What’s more, a sport need not make compelling watching to be counted as a sport: angling, cricket, golf, canoeing, and weight lifting are probably not the most exciting to watch, but are nonetheless sports.

Wine blind tasting is one of my favourite pastimes. Fiercely fought competitions are popping up all around the world, and some of these competitions even have audiences. So can blind tasting be counted as a sport? Scrabble and monopoly are not sports because they do not involve any physical activity, but blind tasting clearly does involve some kind of physical activity, namely, tasting, and, as the name suggests, tasting is its primary purpose and not merely secondary or incidental. Moreover, this physical activity is highly skilled, and, in some cases, can be said to test the limits of the human body.

It might be objected that the physical activity involved in blind tasting is not locomotor but gustatory, involving not the musculoskeletal system in tandem with the cardiovascular system but ‘passive’ senses such as olfaction, taste, and touch. It might further be objected, and this is an argument that I myself have made, that the real limitation in blind tasting is not in the tasting apparatus as such but in the cognitive appraisal of the wine, and thus that blind tasting is more like chess than snooker or darts—although it must be said that snooker and darts also involve an important cognitive element. Finally, it might be added that the thrill or joy in blind tasting lies more with the cognitive aspect than the tasting aspect, although that does depend on the wine.

But unlike with chess, with blind tasting it is not possible to delegate the physical component: you cannot get someone to do the tasting for you and still be counted as blind tasting. In that much, blind tasting is more of a sport than chess, which the International Olympics Committee already recognizes as a sport.

As any athlete will attest, cognition is an important part of any sport: why create arbitrary distinctions between the primarily physical and the primarily mental, or between the musculoskeletal system and the specialized senses? Are the nose and the tongue and the brain not also part of the body? And are they not also trainable, fatiguable, fallible, mortal? Chess, bridge, and maths have their associations, players, teams, training, rules, competitions, professionals, spectators, drama, and tears—everything, in fact, but a skilled, primary physical activity. And blind tasting even has that.

Now pass me a napkin.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

What is the Meaning of Life?


The question of the meaning of life is perhaps one that we would rather not ask, for fear of the answer or lack thereof.

Historically and still today, many people believe that humankind is the creation of a supernatural entity called God, that God had an intelligent purpose in creating us, and that this intelligent purpose is the ‘meaning of life’. I do not propose to go through the various arguments for and against the existence of God. But even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating us, no one really knows what this purpose might be, or that it is especially meaningful. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system such as the universe increases up to the point at which equilibrium is reached, and God’s purpose in creating us, and, indeed, all of nature, might have been no more lofty or uplifting than to catalyse this process in the same way that soil organisms catalyse the decomposition of organic matter.

If our God-given purpose is to act as super-efficient heat dissipators, then having no purpose at all is better than having this sort of purpose because it frees us to be the authors of our own purpose or purposes and so to lead truly dignified and meaningful lives. In fact, having no purpose at all is better than having any kind of pre-determined purpose, even more traditional ones such as to please or serve God or improve our karma. In short, even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating us (and why should He have had?), we do not know what this purpose might be, and, whatever it might be, we would rather be able to do without it, or at least to ignore or discount it. For unless we can be free to become the authors of our own purpose or purposes, our lives may have, at worst, no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable and potentially trivial purpose that is not of our own choosing.

Some might object that not to have a pre-determined purpose is, really, not to have any purpose at all. But this is to believe that for something to have a purpose, it must have been created with a purpose in mind, and, moreover, must still be serving that original purpose. Some years ago, I visited the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the South of France. One evening, I picked up a beautiful rounded stone called a galet which I later took back to Oxford and put to good use as a book-end. In the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, these stones serve to capture the heat of the sun and release it back into the cool of the night, helping the grapes to ripen. Of course, these stones were not created with this or any other purpose in mind. Even if they had been created for a purpose, it would almost certainly not have been to make great wine, serve as book-ends, or seem beautiful to passing human beings. That same evening over supper, I got my friends to blind taste a bottle of Bordeaux. To disguise the bottle, I slipped it into one of a pair of socks. Unlike the galet, the sock had been created with a clear purpose in mind, albeit one very different from (although not strictly incompatible with) the one that it had assumed on that joyful evening.

Some might yet object that talk about the meaning of life is neither here nor there because life is merely a prelude to some form of eternal afterlife and this, if you will, is its purpose. (Usually, the idea of an eternal afterlife is closely allied with that of God, but this need not necessarily be the case.) One can marshal up at least four arguments against this position. (1) It is not at all clear that there is or even can be some form of eternal afterlife that entails the survival of the personal ego. (2) Even if there were such an afterlife, living for ever is not in itself a purpose, and so the question arises, what is the actual purpose of the eternal afterlife? If the eternal afterlife has a pre-determined purpose, again, we do not know what this purpose might be, and, whatever it might be, we would rather be able to do without it. (3) Reliance on an eternal afterlife not only postpones the question of life’s purpose, but also dissuades or at least discourages us from determining purposes for what may be the only life that we do have. (4) If it is the brevity or the finiteness of human life that gives it shape and purpose (not something that I personally believe), then an eternal afterlife cannot, in and by itself, have any purpose.

So whether or not God exists, whether or not He gave us a purpose, and whether or not there is an eternal afterlife, we should strive to create our own purpose or purposes. To put it in Sartrean terms, whereas for the galet it is true only that existence precedes essence, for the sock it is true both that essence precedes existence (when the sock is used on a human foot) and that existence precedes essence (when the sock is used for an unintended purpose, for example, as a bottle sleeve). We are either like the rock or the sock, but whichever we are, we are better off creating our own purpose or purposes.

Plato once defined man as an animal, biped, featherless, and with broad nails; but another, much better, definition that he gave was simply this: ‘A being in search of meaning.’

Human life may not have been created with any pre-determined purpose, but this need not mean that it cannot have a purpose, nor that this purpose cannot be just as good as, if not much better than, any pre-determined one. And so the meaning of life, of our life, is that which we choose to give it.

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