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What is real?

Science writer Nicholas Wade recently wrote a book about the role of race in the development of human culture. According to his thesis, the different races possess more or less of certain collections of genes and some of these genes are responsible for human behavior therefore certain races are genetically predisposed towards certain behaviors*. This is controversial because it implies that in some sense, races can’t change and efforts to help them do so may be doomed to failure.

* Summarizing what Wade is saying is close to impossible and I’m sure people could niggle with what I’m saying here but I feel it’s close enough for this discussion.

Many people disagree with Wade’s theory and one frequent rebuttal is that race itself doesn’t exist—it is, they frequently say, a “social construct.” By this they mean, the division of race has no real meaning in nature. For example, the term species divides animal groups who can’t reproduce with each other. In that sense, species is a real term. But race is much harder to define. Different races (called sub-species by people who debate this stuff) can have sex with each. One might point out the differences of skin color and appearance between different races but that gets messy quickly. There are plenty of light skinned blacks or Asian looking Caucasians etc.

In this sense, I tend to agree that race is a social construct. But, as you think about it, so in pretty much everything. Words have meaning because enough of us got together and agreed they have meaning. If we didn’t all agree that a cup was a cup and that its purpose was to hold things to drink, it wouldn’t be a cup. If everyone on earth died then cups would no longer exist. They might exist in the sense that their matter would still exist (assuming the earth wasn’t destroyed or what have you) but as an object—a category—cups would be extinct. The definition of cups is a man made distinction which has no objective meaning.

(Of course, definitions are kind of blurry. Some people might look at a tall cup and claim it’s a flower vase. And we also hear about weird German words that have no translation in English.)

This reminds me of a few tidbits I’ve read in relation to Buddhist thought. There is a notion there that you can experience an object before you apply all the man-made definitions and correlations related to it. I suppose we all do this for a nanosecond before we mentally identify an object. For the briefest of moment, before you identify a cup, you experience it as some undefined thing. (This moment is so fast it’s questionable whether you can say we “experience it” but there you have it.)

Watching my dad and his wife, both in their 90s, I see a certain breakdown of this system of categories, this taxonomy, that we apply to everything around us. They might be baffled by what a fairly basic object is, or they might understand it but mislabel it; there’s a lot of calling things with words that rhyme with the real name—cup could become pup for example. I suppose this is what life was like when we were babies—everything was just a thing, and often we probably couldn’t even differentiate between things. A newspaper next to an apple next to a kitten was just a pile of “stuff” in our new minds.

This leads to an interesting point. What babies and demented people have in common are essentially brains that don’t categorize well. The neurons of their brains have limited connections (either because the connections haven’t formed yet as in the case of babies, or because they have deteriorated as in the case of older adults.) This would imply that the meaning we apply to the objects we encounter is literally wired into our brains. It’s the structure of our brains that applies meaning. From this one can presume that a brain structured differently would find different meanings in the world. (Say the brain of an autistic child. Or an alien. Or a sentient computer.)

It really leads to the question of “what is real.” Our words are not real. Our categories are not real. The only thing really real that I can see is the physical matter of the universe. Even the distinctions between these bits of matter (e.g. molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks etc.) are not really real.

This is heavy shit to think about. It’s giving me a headache.

Hooray for salt?

You may have heard the recent allegation that saturated fat, long thought to be evil, is actually fine. (This NY Times op-ed has details.) Along with red wine, coffee and chocolate, saturated fat seems to be another substance that the medical and diet industries got wrong for years.

When the revised opinion of saturated fats hit the news, I passed it on to several people in conversation. They would usually say something like, “Oh, so it’s ok for me to eat pepperoni pizza?” I would have to warn them, “That food is high in salt and salt is still bad.”

Except, maybe not. Peruse this NY Times editorial.

The current average sodium consumption in the United States is about 3,400 milligrams per day. This is mostly ingested in processed foods and is equivalent to the amount of sodium in about 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt. Dietary guidelines endorsed by the federal government and leading medical groups recommend reducing the average to 2,300 milligrams for the general population and 1,500 for groups deemed at greater risk, like adults older than 50, African-Americans, people with high blood pressure and diabetics, among others.

There is considerable evidence that lowering sodium can reduce blood pressure, but there is scant evidence that reducing blood pressure from levels that are not clearly high will necessarily reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes and death.

Previous studies have found little evidence to support those low recommended sodium targets. Now a large study by researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, which tracked more than 100,000 people from 17 countries on five continents, has found that the safest levels of sodium consumption are between 3,000 and 6,000 milligrams.

My dad is on a 1500 milligram a day limit. Should I be worried that it’s too low? Maybe.

Other studies have found that very low levels of sodium can disrupt biochemical systems that are essential to human health or trigger hormones that raise cardiovascular risks.

To be fair, as the article states, the science is not settled here. But given that the track record of the health nannies is becoming more and more dubious I think an extra slice of pizza is justifiable.

Happy hospitals?

Many, many times here have I commented on my belief that pain has a significant emotional component. And, as I make my way in the world, I often see little clues supporting this thesis. For instance, today’s NY Times has an article on an effort to redesign hospital rooms to be more pleasent. One hospital first set up a test room to try out some happier designs.

After months of testing, patients in the model room rated food and nursing care higher than patients in the old rooms did, although the meals and care were the same.

But the real eye-opener was this: Patients also asked for 30 percent less pain medication.

Reduced pain has a cascade effect, hastening recovery and rehabilitation, leading to shorter stays and diminishing not just costs but also the chances for accidents and infections. When the new $523 million, 636,000-square-foot hospital, on a leafy campus, opened here in 2012, the model room became real.

So far, ratings of patient satisfaction are in the 99th percentile, up from the 61st percentile before the move. Infection rates and the number of accidents have never been lower.

This proves I am right about everything and all who oppose me should be punished.

Depression hurts (literally)

An idea I’m often talking about on this blog is the notion that emotions are felt as physical sensations. They are not merely ailments of the soul (which, of course, I don’t believe in) but are ailments of the body. This statement seems benign, but I think it’s really quite revolutionary, turning on end many of our assumptions about emotional states. For one thing, if emotions are physical feelings, perhaps negative emotions can be removed by removing their corresponding physical sensations (which is what pretty much any one does when they calm their nerves by having a drink, or use to sex to, as rapper Peaches once advised, “fuck the pain away.”)

In a thread about depression, a reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog connects the emotional to the physical.

On a different note, another thing people don’t understand about severe depression is that it’s a physical experience. Aside from the lack of energy, which seems to be universal, the physical aspect is different for different people. For some people I’ve known, depression physically hurts. For me, it takes the form of a hollowness in the stomach. At my worst, in the bout that eventually led to my diagnosis, I could not eat at all. The very idea of food made me sick. I ended up in the hospital with an IV, having all sorts of tests done, and losing 20% of my body weight. It was months before I could eat any but the blandest of foods.

My mention of that Peaches tune got me thinking about her and I dug up this old video for the song. Never really got into her (I never liked her beats) but she had a certain kind of genius I suppose.

Does the experience of being blackout drunk inform our understanding of consciousness?

Many years ago—decades really—I was at a party in Waikiki. I got completely smashed on booze (maybe pot too, I don’t recall). The next day I woke up and worriedly ran a mental rundown of the previous night. I realized I couldn’t recall leaving the party and getting home. A friend of mine had driven us to the party and presumably driven me home, but I couldn’t recall walking to her car or the ride back. The was concerning as the car had been parked many blocks from the party which meant I had no memory of walking through the populated street scene that is Waikiki on a Saturday night.

As I think back on this, it occurs to me that this kind of event is very interesting from the point of view of analyzing consciousness and it prompts some interesting questions. Was I conscious during that walk back to the car but not forming any memories? (By this I mean, was there some cohesive entity in my body experiencing the walk but not recording the experiences in memory?) Or was I not conscious at all? (Was there no entity experiencing anything to be recorded in memory?)

I admit it’s a little hard to wrap one’s head around these questions. But it makes me wonder whether what we call memory and what we call consciousness are actually the same thing. Or at least tightly integrated.

It might seem a little odd to even question whether some entity was conscious while I was walking back through Waikiki. After all I was walking, and likely babbling drunkenly at my friend. But a lot of research of the past 100 years does seem to point to the idea of a kind of unconscious or subconscious—a part of the brain that can perform actions and movements without us being aware of it. And frankly, we are unaware of some of our actions all the time in life—does you monitor each step as you walk? Are you explicitly aware when you turn the key in your car ignition while daydreaming about the weekend and chugging some coffee? Human beings can, it seems, run on automatic for at least short periods.

Let’s say you had no way of forming memories, even for a few seconds. (There are, of course, people with very limited short term memory (like the guy in “Memento”) but usually they can remember at least a few minutes.) Could you be conscious? I’m guessing this is what babies in the womb experience. My gut guess here is that they are conscious in a sense (e.g. there is an entity experiencing their perceptions and whatnot) but it’s a very different kind of consciousness that what we experience as defined, ego aware humans.

I dunno… it’s a mystery. But I’m intrigued with the idea that memory and consciousness are united in some way.

The latest head transplant news

Wrap your head around this!

Italian doc: I’ve found the key to head transplants

An Italian scientist has claimed that head transplants could be possible, after what he says is a major breakthrough in the technique. But another expert told The Local said the whole idea was potentially unethical.

Er, gee, you think?

This stuff isn’t as crazy as it sounds. A Russian scientist active in the 20th century did achieve some success with dog head transplants.

Vladimir Petrovich Demikhov was a real Soviet scientist. And he did the weirdest experiments with dog heads, keeping them alive separated from their bodies and transplanting them to other dog bodies.

He also attached heads and other parts to different dogs, resulting in weird hybrids that only survived for a few months. This research inspired the american doctor Robert White, another WW2 surgeon who followed the Soviet lead, performing the same experiments with rhesus monkeys.

Truth is, the science still seems to be in its infancy. Don’t expect human head transplants walking among us anytime soon.

However, the fact that it’s even considered as feasible is pretty astounding. And it raises all sorts of potential dramas. Will dying, mega-wealthy tycoons attempt to transplant their heads onto the bodies of teenage runaways? Will people be able to extend their life a few decades by living as mechanically supported human heads in a jar?

One can only hope.

Over the Rainbow

Here’s a video I shot of myself playing a instrumental version of Harold Arlen’s classic tune.

The danger of multitasking

I found myself observing an interesting tic of the brain last night and thought I would share it with eager readers.

I was tooling around in the garage while also reinstalling Windows 7 on a computer. I decided I would lock the garage door and around the same time the log in screen on the computer came up. As I prepared to type in my password I thought, “Caps-lock is on, make sure you turn it off” (or something to that effect.)

Of course caps lock was not on—I’d simply somehow correlated my locking of the door with having turned caps-lock on. In essence, my brain had transferred the property of “locked-ness” from one thing I was working on to another.

Thus is the danger of multitasking.

The Slenderman hallucination

I have, lately, been reading Oliver Sacks’ “Hallucinations,” a neurology focused tome about the titled subject. I’ve come away with the sense that many people, especially people with various ailments of the brain such as epilepsy, have remarkably real hallucinations—not shadows moving out of the corner of their eye, but realistic, moving apparitions. An obvious conclusion is that much of what humans have reported throughout history as ghosts or demons are, in fact, these hallucinations.

At one point in the book a person described seeing a hallucinated image of a threatening tall, thin man. I thought, gee, this sounds a bit like that “Slenderman” character from creepy pasta stories. Slenderman was in the news recently when two girls reported that they stabbed a classmate to appease this imagined dark demon. Lo and behold a day or two I stumble across an update to that story.

Doctors: Stabbing suspect sees fictional beings

One of two preteens accused of stabbing a classmate 19 times to please a fictional horror character was ordered Friday to receive treatment rather than stand trial, based on doctors’ testimony that she claims to see and have conversations with things others cannot — including unicorns and a Harry Potter villain.

Dr. Kenneth Robbins, a psychiatrist hired by the girl’s defense attorney, testified that the girl believes she can communicate telepathically with Slender Man and was more worried about offending the specter than going to prison.
“If she says the wrong thing, if she somehow upsets Slender Man, not only hers, but her family’s lives, could be in danger,” Robbins explained.
Dr. Brooke Lundbohm, a court-appointed psychologist, said the girl described Slender Man as “a person she has a strong bond with, she idolizes and believes to be real.”

The girl sounds a lot like some of the people described in Sacks’ book.

I’ve read a bit about similar neurological ailments and related states of odd consciousness like hypnosis. I get the sense that some people are more susceptible to these states than others; some people are more able fall into alternate realities. I find myself far removed from that phenomenon; a doctor once tried to hypnotize me and failed and I have never had any hallucination I took to be real. (I do occasionally hear sounds while asleep that I think are real and wake up, but I don’t think that’s uncommon.) As I read about people who can more easily slip into hallucinated realities, I find myself a bit jealous. I imagine there’s an element of “magic” in such people’s live that I would like to experience.

Movies continue to suck

Not long ago, in the pages of acid logic, I complained that modern, big budget movies were sucking.

Big budget movies seem less and less interesting while low budget flicks that almost fall between the cracks win my love. Another big film of the summer, “Man of Steel,” was a complete waste of time. I was so bored by Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy that I didn’t even bother with “The Hobbit.” I found no reason to waste any time with the new Star Trek. These movies seem indistinguishable from each other and I don’t think I’m alone on this view.

This trend seems to be continuing. The Hollywood Reporter notes: Box-Office Slump: Hollywood Facing Worst Summer in Eight Years
The article doesn’t specially point to stupid plots as the leading cause, but I think that’s a big part of it. Technological change is, of course, also an issue.

Filmmaker Jon Favreau agrees that the popularity of television and new technologies are altering viewing habits. “I think times are changing. We have to acknowledge that and not try to chase what used to be,” says Favreau, who is currently prepping Jungle Book for Disney.

I’d argue much of television’s success is that it has gotten much better story wise. I’m a big fan of Law & Order, and while I haven’t seen them I understand shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men etc. are well crafted. TV is doing what the great film dramas of the 70s (Scorsese, Coppola etc.) did.

All that said, I was pretty impressed with the recently released “Snowpiercer.” Part of its strength however, was that it didn’t have the “produced by committee” feel of many Hollywood flicks.

Thus I have spoken.