Archive Page 2
May 1st, 2013 by Wil
Recently, I read something to the effect that humans can differentiate between half a million smells. So I thought I would really make a point to smell the world more. Today I was jogging and I passed a row of some plants or grass or something and was hit with a smell. It was, and I’m amazed I’m using this world to describe a smell, but it was beautiful. Really pleasant and magical.
As I was walking back from my run it struck me that smells are beautiful in a unique way. Generally we use the word beautiful to describe things we see. These are people or objects, and even as we are amazed at their beauty, we covet them. Their beauty creates a yearning. With sound, the term beautiful is usually applied to music. And again, we want the song, we are filled with need. To some degree this is true with strong tastes – food or drink; We must have it again and again. Touch is a more ethereal sense but we do covet a lot of things that appeal to touch – warm things, plush things, rugs, coats etc. (Sex of course involves the sense of touch.)
But smell is different. We don’t seek to own smells, indeed we know we can’t. We’re (mostly) content to enjoy them and let them pass.
Now you might be saying, “What about perfumes?” Yeah, I thought of that, but, speaking for myself, I don’t really covet perfumes. I’ve never smelled a perfume and thought, “I have to have that.” Perfumes aren’t really about the smell itself, they are about making you smell like that smell. A perfume is more like a mask than an object that exists on its own terms.
Thus I have spoken.
April 30th, 2013 by Wil
I’ve long been a part of a email list which discusses the topic of repetitive strain injuries (RSI). Whereas RSI is not much of a problem for me these days, I still follow the discussions on the list. There’s really two camps of people on the list: 1) People who believe de-stressing techniques such as meditation/yoga will alleviate RSI, and 2) People who believe RSIs are largely physical, structural problems that can be relieved via practices like massage/surgery/ergonomics/electrotherapy.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you know I reside in the former group. (Truthfully, most people on the list are probably open to both ideas but they clearly have a dominant belief.)
Meditation comes up a lot on the list. Today someone was addressing an obvious question: If meditation is so great for you, why is it so hard (and often boring?) Why does our mind resist calm? His reason was sound and thought provoking.
Lots of meditation has shown me how my mind is built to resist the ‘inner journey’ of using yoga and deep relaxation to slow it down and get it to release stuff and let me see how it works. My theory is it has to be like this because if we all went after the bliss this can bring we would all have been a bunch of wimpy meditators and eaten by predators a long time ago!
It makes sense – in the world of our ancestors we had to pay attention! We couldn’t be sitting around in nirvana. Our mind resists efforts geared towards its deconstruction.
He continues on a tangent that sounds a little elitist but is probably correct.
Evolution favours diversity – only some can do this inner journey which produces the sages [who] keep us from going too crazy and destroying ourselves. Others cant and are useful for more real world things.
There’s another possible theory here. Earth is under observation by an aggressive alien lizard race who plan on conquering us. They planted the concept of meditation in our minds hoping that the practice will spread until most of humanity exists in a meditative trance. Then they will attack our planet, eat our young and rape our grandmothers!
But I’m just being silly. It’s nothing to worry about. Go back to meditating.
April 26th, 2013 by Wil
There’s a neuroscience parlor trick that goes like this: you stand in front of a mirror in such a way that one of your arms is hidden behind your back. You have a friend come up behind you and place their arm so that it looks like their arm is yours. Then you gently stroke your friend’s arm, creating the illusion that you are stroking your own arm. Many people will report feeling as if it is their arm (currently untouched behind their back) being stroked.
There are also variations of this trick using blindfolds and people petting your nose or you arranging mirrors in such a way that what appears in a mirror to be your figure is really one half of you combined with an inversion, but the gist is the same. I tried this sort of thing once and didn’t have much success though I also didn’t apply much gusto.
As I’ve mentioned before, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has utilized techniques like this to relieve amputees of phantom limb pain.
The point being that it seems like we can easily trick our body (or more accurately, our brain) into thinking it is feeling something that it is not.
This reminds me of an interesting experience I had. I was at a park and staring into the gently lapping water of a lake. I was in a pretentious spiritual mood and thought to myself that I should try and become the water. Water seems like a very zen state – devoid of boundaries, always moving, ever malleable. I was thinking this, watching the water and something happened. It hard to explain but all of a sudden I felt like I was the patch of water I was viewing. I felt… “floaty” and as if I had no obvious beginning or end (e.g. the edge of my body was gone.) It was not a really amazing or frightening sensation, more amusing. It lasted a few seconds and was over.
Now, I don’t think I had some sort of spiritual experience; I think this was probably related to the techniques described above. Just as people’s brains can be lured into thinking a foreign arm is not their own, my brain – fueled by a little willpower and fanciful thinking – came to believe that it was the water and so it adjusted its sensations accordingly. (I recognize this is weird and unusual, but I don’t think it’s impossible. It seems to be similar to what many people report during meditation.)
This may all tie in with mirror neurons; they are the somewhat controversial allegation that we have neurons in our brain that fire when we see other people doing things. For example, when you watch someone shoot a basketball there are neurons that fire that would also fire if you were shooting the basketball yourself. I’ve never heard of mirror neurons responding to actions by non living substances, such as water, but maybe mine, in fact, were at the moment described above.
UPDATE: There’s an additional element to consider here. Could this all tie in with people’s out of body experiences? Perhaps in those cases a person’s sense of their body shuts down all together and they get that “floating” sensation. It wouldn’t explain the visual aspects (e.g. people saying “I could see my body lying below”) but it’s worth noting that scientists have managed to trigger out of body experiences in people via a kind of brain stimulation.
April 26th, 2013 by Wil
Even the most sophisticated and intellectual among us (myself, for example) have picked up a copy of People magazine when stuck at an Airport with nothing to read. For some reason, staring at pictures of the beautiful and famous is a way to pass the time. It turns out monkeys are no different. They will “pay juice” to look at pictures of higher ranking monkeys.
Researches have found that monkeys will “pay” juice rewards to see images of high-ranking monkeys… They say their research technique offers a rigorous laboratory approach to studying the “social machinery” of the brain and how this machinery goes tragically awry in autism — a disease that afflicts more than a million Americans and is the fastest growing developmental disorder.
It seems, sadly, that monkeys are just as guilty as us when it comes to celebrity obsession.
Male monkeys will also pay juice to look at pictures of female monkey butts. But that seems perfectly reasonable.
April 25th, 2013 by Wil
A couple weeks ago I was thinking about the financial meltdown of 2008. I was wondering whether – had I somehow been unaware of this meltdown (via living under a rock or something) – would I have lived my life any differently? (Aside from living under a rock.) I decided it was likely that, no, I wouldn’t have. Basically, this constant news chatter about the financial situation was really of no practical value to me other than fodder for conversation.
Now, I freely grant that there are some people who would have benefited from following this particular news story – especially people who work in the world of finance. But I am not one of them.
A similar train of thought occurred to me at one point during the recent Boston Marathon bombing story. The cops had shot the first bomber and the manhunt was on for the second. I got the impression that people I knew were avidly following the news story, frequently checking the web and TV news for updates. I was thinking, “It’s one guy versus the entire Boston Police Department – of course they’re going to find him!” The constant news blather about the topic was largely meaningless.
But to have this view – that news is mostly crap – flies in the face of common wisdom. We are constantly reminded how uninformed we the public are. We’re supposed to follow the news because that symbolizes that we care about the world. Don’t you care about this earthquake in China, or these starving polar bears in Tibet, or the fact that children’s public education scores have dropped to new levels, or Congress’s malfeasance, or the rise of prescription drug deaths or…
To be honest, not really. Or at least I recognize I only have so much attention to give to these topics and if I want to achieve various goals I have set out for myself, I need to restrict my attention to the news (and other similar distractions: facebook, email, blogs etc.)
I was pleased to see the following article appear over at the Guardian (which, lest you thing I was checking for news, I actually saw linked off a blog. (Not that that’s much better.)) News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier. The author makes a number of arguments against the consumption of news; this one stood out in particular.
News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is “learned helplessness”. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news consumption, at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression.
I was also interested in this point about online news; it makes a lot of intuitive sense.
Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.
That’s really the crux of my complaint – news interrupts. I’m not saying it should be avoided completely but we should manage our time when interacting with it.
April 23rd, 2013 by Wil
I’ve been reading another neuroscience tome entitled “The Pleasure Center.” It’s not captivating reading but has an interesting nugget about our visual systems. It’s noted that children have difficulty in discerning the letters p, b, q and d from each other. Why is this? Because these letters are basically the same shape, just in different positions or invertions. We have the ability to recognize objects when they’re in various positions – it wouldn’t be very helpful if you could only recognize food when it was “right side up” – but that tendency works against us when identifying symbols that change meaning depending on their position.
April 22nd, 2013 by Wil
Lately I’ve been considering the idea of writing down some of the various episodes of my life so that I can be aided in their recall years from now. I’m talking about various adventures, profound experiences and sexual conquests that have occurred to me. For them to be lost would be a shame, both for my pleasure as well as the good of humanity. My dad wrote an autobiography several years ago from which he now frequently enjoys reading.
But I’m also aware that the process of writing down memories tends to alter them. When you force yourself to recall an event you often find yourself putting greater weight on parts of the memory then you had during previous more passive episodes of recall. Like, you might force yourself to recall your 13th birthday party and then all of a sudden you remember that some kid who you had a fight with years later was there and you fixate on his presences at the party, perhaps soiling the memory when you recall it in the future. The memory morphs from “my fun 13th birthday party,” to “that party that fucker David Alvira was at!”
I also have to note that in the past when I’ve written down memories I have… shall we say, embellished things? Not out of a need to aggrandize myself, but merely because I’ve forgotten the exact facts. I might not recall exactly which friend I shared some activity with, so I just chose the best candidate out of friends I had at the time. The problem is that then the memory gets re-encoded with that friend as the partner in crime. Then, years later I’m telling the story to someone and they say. What do you mean that was X? That was me!”
This all leads up to the question: what is a memory? This question can be asked from a number of views – the psychological view, the neuroscientific view, the biological view – but I’m asking from the subjective view. When I recall a memory what am I really experiencing? I’ll recall a memory right now: my trip to New York this past fall. I recall my brother’s apartment where I stayed, his pet rabbit, the rather cold whether (it was right after the hurricane hit) a walk down the east side of Central Part anxiously looking for a bathroom (had to pee bad!), a nice stroll through Central Park when the re-opened it, having beers with my brother’s friend. Basically a cascade of memories. But what are the contents of those sub-memories? I recall that walk through Central Park but I certainly couldn’t map out the path I took. I couldn’t provide an account of the people I saw. I don’t recall what I was wearing. I have, at best, a collection of fleeting moments, vague mental snapshots. And I’m glumly aware of the fact that I may, in future years, confuse events that happened in that stroll through Central Park with other strolls. Memories are malleable and interconnecting which makes them ultimately untrustworthy.
April 19th, 2013 by Wil
Hoarding strikes me as a problem unique to modern times. My suspicion is that people are made anxious by this ever changing world and their obviously meaningless existence within it so they latch on to familiar objects to stabilize them. But it can only end in death as this article so eloquently explains. New Jersey hoarder found dead, mummified inside own apartment
Two months after being reported missing, a New Milford woman was found dead in her trash-strewn apartment, her mummified body hidden beneath clothing and debris that had apparently concealed her presence during earlier searches, authorities said.
Alice Klee, 68, was found on her bedroom floor Friday by her landlord, who was there to open a window after getting court permission to clean out the apartment, said Police Chief Frank Papapietro.
“It was by chance that he caught her hair sticking out under the debris,” Papapietro said Monday.
In her own way, Alice Klee died like the great Egyptian Pharaohs – mummified and surrounded by cats. If you have a drink in your hand this morning, raising your glass… to ALICE KLEE!!!
Oh yeah… that burns as it goes down…
April 18th, 2013 by Wil
CBS has a report noting that famous people in performance fields (sports, music etc) die younger than famous people in more boring fields (business, military.) I would have guessed performance stress would be the major killer, perhaps indicated by heart attacks, but cancer seems to the be the major culprit, indicating that people in these demographics make poor health decisions (smoking, booze, etc.) Some intellectuals have theories about the psychological mechanisms at work.
Study author Richard Epstein, director of the Clinical Informatics & Research Centre at The Kinghorn Cancer Centre in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, said in a press release that while the study can’t prove that choosing the performing arts or an athletic career means choosing an earlier death, it does bring up some interesting points.
“First, if it is true that successful performers and sports players tend to enjoy shorter lives, does this imply that fame at younger ages predisposes to poor health behaviors in later life after success has faded? Or that psychological and family pressures favoring unusually high public achievement lead to self-destructive tendencies throughout life? Or that risk-taking personality traits maximize one’s chances of success, with the use of cigarettes, alcohol or illicit drugs improving one’s performance output in the short term? Any of these hypotheses could be viewed as a health warning to young people aspiring to become stars,” he commented.
Honey Langcaster-James, a psychologist who specializes in celebrity behavior, warned the BBC that there are very few celebrities so the pool isn’t big enough to really study the effects of fame on people’s lifespan. Still, she had some theories on why performance-related fame may lead to an earlier demise, including “the pressure to live up to a public image, which can lead to risky behaviors” or “particular personal characteristics predispose people to wanting a career in the public arena.”
However, there’s not a wide spread in death ages; a sports performer is, at worst, losing 5 years by choosing their vocation. And famous people still seem to live longer than the national average.
April 15th, 2013 by Wil
I’ve become intrigued with the idea that the fundamental experience of being alive has been changing over the course of human history. I don’t mean basic changes like we’ve got more stuff or less hunger, but rather that the very nature of how we perceive and conceive of the world around us is shifting. You might recall my musing about a writer who argued that human beings were not even conscious 3000 years ago. Or my conception that as we’ve become more assaulted by distractions like phone calls and email alerts we’ve become less able to focus on the creation and enjoyment of ornamental art.
Today I came across a relevant section in David Byrne’s “How Music Works.” He notes…
Marshall McLuhan famously proposed that after the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, we shifted from an acoustic culture to a visual one. He said that in an acoustic culture, the world, like sound, is all around you and comes at you from all directions at once. It is multi-layered and non-hierarchical; it has no center or focal point. Visual culture has a perspective—a vanishing point.
I’m not sure I totally buy this. Sound isn’t exactly “everywhere” – we can tell if a sound came from our left or our right; we can tell if a sound is coming from far away or close. And I’d even say there’s a certain hierarchy to sounds. Loud or novel sounds demand our attention more so than softer or common ones. (Of course, maybe that’s just my visual culture trained brain imposing a hierarchy on acoustic culture.) Nonetheless, I agree with the gist – the acoustic world is much more ephemeral and ghostlike than the visual world of objects. The acoustic world is harder to define, which is Byrne’s next point.
McLuhan claims that our visual sense began to get increasingly bombarded by all the stuff we were producing. It began to take precedence over our auditory sense, and he said that the way we think and view the world changed as a result. In an acoustic universe one senses essence, whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies. He claims that in a visual universe one begins to think in a linear fashion, one thing following another along a timeline, rather than everything existing right now, everywhere, in the moment.
Again I have some small qualms with these statements but the point is made. Certainly we seem to live in a world obsessed with defining things. One need look only at genres of music; people don’t just listen to pop music, they listen to “West Coast post-modern indie pop.” (And they have no use for anyone who doesn’t!) The argument some would make is that we’ve gotten so obsessed with defining things that we no longer really experience them.
We’re so used to the hierarchy of the visual universe that it’s hard to imagine life without it. It seems like such an essential aspect of our life experience that we presume it must be innate – built into the brain. But I recall neurologist Oliver Sacks observations of a man who – after being blind his whole life – regained sight. It wasn’t really a gift; he could see but he struggled to comprehend what he saw. I discussed this in my old acid logic piece “Making Sense of the Senses.”
With the cataracts gone the outside visual world flowed into Virgil’s brain, but he could not map what he saw to objects he had only experienced with his other senses. During Virgil’s initial moment of sight…
… he had no idea what he was seeing. There was light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out of the blur came a voice that said, “Well?” Then, and only then, [Virgil] said, did he finally realized that this chaos and light and shadow was a face — and, indeed, the face of the surgeon.
Sacks contemplated the dilemma of this moment.
… when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for 45 years — having had little more than an infant’s visual experience, and this long forgotten — there were no visual memories to support a perception, there was no world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them.
After regaining sight, Virgil struggled with seemingly basic components of seeing. He could see all the elements of a tree — the leaves, the roots, the branches — but had difficulty combining them into a single object. He struggled to understand shapes. Movement baffled him. He had to practice looking at household objects from different angles to gain the understanding that they were one single thing. And his eyes would fatigue much faster than a normal person. Eventually, Virgil lost his vision a second time, though the exact cause for this is unclear.
McLuhan might have argued that Virgil was at the center of a devastating collision between the visual and non-visual universes.
I’m taking pains here to not insinuate that one way of observing the world is better than the other. But I will say there’s a part of me that yearns to escape the endless defining and categorization that seems built into modern life (and often passes for some kind of intellectual activity when it’s more often mere mental masturbation.) I’d like to experience things more simply and fully. To better experience the essence of things.