Archive for November, 2006

It’s smart to be lazy, Pt. 2

Recently a posting on our need for sleep aroused a few from the slumber of an overworked life. If you have trouble remembering it, maybe you should sleep. I know I should. A new study at Princeton shows that sleep deprivation may prevent neurogenesis by elevation of corticosteroids in the hippocampus (which incidentally, is a region of the brain and not a groovy university grounds). An alternative approach to boosting your memory and mental acuity may be to remove your adrenal glands. That way you don’t produce steroids in response to stress in the first place. Of course you may die as a result, so sleep is probably the go.

So that’s what the internet looks like

Let me be the first to admit that the technology sector of my brain is not highly developed.

Despite using the internet every day, most of us don’t understand it. It’s an omnipresent mystery, it just is and we use it. Envisage a bunch of 0s and 1s catapulting down fiber optics and satellites showering us with electromagnetic waves - this onslaught of code transforming into precise detailed communication (of any form) on our monitors, anywhere on the planet and perhaps one day, beyond. Phenomenal stuff. It brings to mind a letter of Shoghi Effendi (1936) which included this in its predictions:

“A mechanism of world intercommunication will be devised, embracing the whole planet, freed from national hindrances and restrictions, and functioning with marvelous swiftness and perfect regularity.”

So it’s great for a visual person like me to finally have it pointed out by those in the know - the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis, to be precise - this is what the internet looks like. Oh, now it makes sense.

A brain cell, you shouldn’t have!

Though you may be blissfully unaware, there is a lone brain cell in that lovely cranium of yours that belongs to me. Every single time someone sites this blog or mentions my name, that loyal neuron you hold in trust for me lights up in a dazzling cascade of depolarisation. Ions cross membranes and a current is fired down the Misagh axon. It’s really quite splendid to behold, and modern neuroscience has proven it.

The mind-blowing thing is, the neuron won’t fire when you think of another member of my family, or anything else you might associate with me, such as bad writing, hairy (but taut) abdomens or big (but straight) teeth. Only when you think of me.

I am truly flattered. That you should have a neuron specially dedicated to me is a civil and kind gesture. That you should feed it with oxygen and glucose to keep it bright and sparky is also appreciated. I only hope that you do not smoke or engage in any frivolous activity that might harm my cell. In return I can guarantee you prime real estate in my head - a charming cottage block with panoramic views of my hypothalamus.

Though we have known about regional specificities and synergies of the brain for some time, the discovery of neuron-level specificity of thought is a groundbreaking. It takes us a step closer to being able to actually trace specific thought patterns leading to an expression, or even divulging a person’s motive - scary.

But a deeper question remains; where does thought come from? What elicits the creative impulse, or the spark of reason? Sure scientists can pinpoint where it takes place - its itinerary and route of travel - but how does it actually rise from its non-existent polarised state to embark on an electrifying journey into existence? Is the answer in the mind’s interface with a greater metaphysical reality, the elusive soul? Could it be beyond cell and protein, beyond empirical observation? Or is it just that homo sapiens have not delved deep enough into the infinitely microscopic yet?

From Discover Magazine:

Brain Scientists Find Single Cells That Can Think

You may not be devoted to Halle Berry, but at least one of your brain cells is. Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at Caltech, and Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon at the University of California at Los Angeles, revealed this spring that their research team had discovered individual brain cells that fire in response to particular people and places. A Bill Clinton neuron lights up at photos of the former president, but not for other ex-presidents, males—or Hillary. Such faithful neurons conflict with the conventional wisdom—a single cell is not supposed to know so much. With almost as many neurons in the neocortex as stars in the galaxy, there still aren’t enough for every possible input, and the researchers suspect that brain cells get reserved only for important people—like Bart Simpson. Still, every idea may leave its own electrical trace. “Someday,” says Koch, “we may be able to track the footprints of your thoughts.”- Jessica Ruvinsky

Catch my attitude: Emotional contagion

Anxiously Concerned,  an insightful Baha’i-inspired blog, discusses a New York Times  essay by Daniel Goleman (author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships) on the link between positive relationships and health. Goleman describes the discovery of mirror neurons in the brain that cause us to adopt the emotional state of those around us:

Research on the link between relationships and physical health has established that people with rich personal networks — who are married, have close family and friends, are active in social and religious groups — recover more quickly from disease and live longer. But now the emerging field of social neuroscience, the study of how people’s brains entrain as they interact, adds a missing piece to that data.

The most significant finding was the discovery of “mirror neurons,” a widely dispersed class of brain cells that operate like neural WiFi. Mirror neurons track the emotional flow, movement and even intentions of the person we are with, and replicate this sensed state in our own brain by stirring in our brain the same areas active in the other person.

Mirror neurons offer a neural mechanism that explains emotional contagion, the tendency of one person to catch the feelings of another, particularly if strongly expressed. This brain-to-brain link may also account for feelings of rapport, which research finds depend in part on extremely rapid synchronization of people’s posture, vocal pacing and movements as they interact. In short, these brain cells seem to allow the interpersonal orchestration of shifts in physiology.

Commentary from Anxiously Concerned:

The article goes on to assert that emotional closeness allows the biology of one person to affect the biology of another to a greater extent. In essense, the greater the level of intimacy between two people, the greater the emotionally uplifting effect their presence can have on each other. This leads to the finding cited in the article that “the emotional status of our main relationships has a significant impact on our overall pattern of cardiovascular and neuroendocrine activity.”

The concepts of neural mirrors and emotional contagion shed scientific insight on the notion expressed in the following passage from the Bahá’í Writings, articulated simply and elegantly by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

“I want you to be happy . . . to laugh, smile and rejoice in order that others may be made happy by you.”

In another passage, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá alludes to the implications of the principle of contagion for education:

“Education must be considered as most important, for as diseases in the world of bodies are extremely contagious, so, in the same way, qualities of spirit and heart are extremely contagious. Education has a universal influence, and the differences caused by it are very great.”

The parallels between these long standing teachings of the Bahá’í Faith and the cutting-edge discoveries of science continually amaze. The last quotation from Abdu’l-Bahá seems to point to an even deeper implication of the concept of contagion–that beyond affecting our health or mood in a particular circumstance, the contagious influence of those around has a profound effect on our spiritual and moral development, particularly in the case of long-standing relationships. It certainly is something to ponder!

Public opinion, meet wisdom.

Public Opinion is a creature of habit. A long-limbed, colossally influential organism exercising daily reach in all life. She lives, breathes, digests what’s offered before her and as she grows, she grows on you. In the lazy humdrum of the passing days, she is reposed on the couch of heedlessness because apathy is a stupefying disease and her immunity is low. Then at certain magical moments, when the conditions are just right, she unfolds her blinding, blossomed form that embodies the very core of what is perspicacious, potent and wakeful in the world. It is during these moments that she incites revolution - of ideas and thoughts - and lifts us up. And pushes us forward.

She is the oppressor at one morrow and the defender of the oppressed at another. And wherever she rests in this spectrum at any given point, she’s a force to be reckoned with.

In democracy she is the known voice of the people. This is where she, it’s supposed, is the self-evident truth. But even when clamped beneath the claw of tyranny, she is, in the quiet pain, coursing timidly below the surface, betwixt its calloused claws, simmering and gathering herself, waiting for the day to rear her beauteous head. For when she finally speaks, her voice is heard.

Public opinion is the ultimate settler. It holds within its grasp the political, civil and ideological stance of society. As Mark Twain remarked, “Its name is Public Opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it is the voice of God…” Or is it?

It’s certain that the voice of the people matters a tremendous deal, and it prevails. Problem is, as a marker it is often flawed, hailing a misconception, prejudice or an uninformed conclusion as undeniable truth. And there’s the rub. At such time, this god of Twain is a hollow idol. Rather than an organic philosophy in flux and progress, it is stubborn and impermeable to wise counsel or the potent spark latent in the clash of a different idea. Herein stem all the tragedies of humanity.

She is reposed…

Public opinion’s stronghold on policy, in most current modes of governance and industry, is moulded by the politics of profit, blame and whatever sways votes. It is true that public opinion results in policy, sure, but partisan politics can guilefully and craftily twist public opinion to suit any policy it purports. So the question remains, is public opinion the voice of the people or the voice the people are given?

After all, even in the lands of freedom and justice for all, public opinion is too often conceived, fed and polled by money for money, or power for power. So I must ask: With what form of mallet can we crack this chicken and egg dilemma?

The child-like, open and non-cynical pursuit of truth is, perhaps, life’s weighty task. According to Albert Einstein, “The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.” Following the habits of others, the ideas and beliefs of others, and acting as others, is the easy work of the ungracefully aged, inertia-driven and inspiration-devoid. Is this limitation of the mind not self-inflicted oppression? “There is no greater oppression than to seek after the truth and not be able to find it,” writes Baha’u'llah.

This conundrum where truth and wisdom play chess with public opinion is where our collective conscience comes to life. Here Socrates’ words in the Crito apply sharply, where he advises his friend to follow the opinion of the wise rather than the public one:

But why should you, blessed Crito,
care about what the many think?
For the most reasonable, who are more worth considering,
will think these things were done as they actually were.

…If only, Crito, the many were able
to accomplish the greatest evil,
so that they would also be able to do the greatest good,
and that would be beautiful;
but now they do neither one;
for they are able to make one neither wise nor unwise,
but they do whatever happens by chance.

So when a sheep to public opinion, human activity is a game of chance? And so we wait for the next tipping point, opinion’s next shift over a precipice of chance, neither good nor bad, and into freefall, unfettered and released into new ideas, and, we hope, good habits? And then will we look back and laugh at our old ways, wondering what took us so long? Why all the suffering? You bet we will, because if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s change. But when is a tipping point? As every 5 year old passenger astutely poses in that salient universal question, “Are we there yet?” The answer is no. But ask long enough and it’s bound to be yes. Then, of course, after a short respite, we repeat that question on the way to another destination.

I was reading a statement from a man content under oppression that sums our situation well - whether you refer to his original context (political) or more aptly, a cultural, spiritual or ideological one: “We may be forfeiting our freedoms, as you say, but… why would we risk everything to take on the regime? We have to wait until society itself is disillusioned, and the masses open their eyes.”

Waiting for the masses… This is the general pre-occupation of an apathetic lot, this humanity, you and I. I guess we just hope that some people, somewhere, don’t wait. These sort exist you know, and as their juvenile passengers repeat that perennial and annoying question, they drive.

Find them, and ask their opinion.

It’s smart to be lazy

After a week of examinations on the sleepy subject of sedation, I have risen from slumber today with sleep on my mind. Sleep, our trustee respite from another day’s toil and trouble, is terribly underrated. As we witness a “wellness revolution” of vitamins, organic food and chiropractic, I wonder why sleep’s importance has escaped our cultural radar.

It’s trendy to be attentive when it comes to eating and exercise. We scan nutritional labels and numbers (which only dieticians really understand) with the hawk-eyes of a true consumer, munch on green things to boost our morale and excuse our otherwise bad habits, and pop endless “natural” pills (none of which grow on trees, incidentally) in the hope of looking or feeling younger. We pay half our weekly income to attend a communal space where we lift heavy things with body parts not built for lifting and gyrate curiously to hyperactive rhythms, because it’s more chic than running around the block or doing push-ups.

Meanwhile, we look at those who sleep more than us with criticism, branding them as lazy. I know that amongst my closest friends, the nappers always get paid out on. As I yawn I can’t help but wonder, is this fair?

After all, my napping friends are generally nice people. Is it something to do with their rested, clear minds and energised spirits? Or are lazy people nicer people by virtue of their chromosomes? When we’re hypoglycaemic, we’re grumpy. It should make sense, then, that when we’re hyposleepic, we’re grumpy. I know I am.

According to all the research, good sleep gives you a productivity edge. Apparently our natural circadian rhythms dip in desparation for an afternoon siesta. Where do you think flamenco dancers get their energy?

There is also evidence that our less upright, robust-browed ancestors were big on the afternoon power nap, and today’s hunter gatherers uphold this fine tradition.

Some of the most productive and influential people on the planet do it, from state leaders to CEOs. But of course, their henchman and employees and taxpayers aren’t supposed to. The employee can get a coffee to increase his productivity, though research shows that it’s not beneficial. But he can’t nap.

If it makes the big wigs more productive and functional, wouldn’t we all benefit? Wouldn’t be it be a better world if we all power-napped?

The modern world killed off the nap
A tribute to the soft pleasures of dozing, backed up by hard science

…This year, researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, reported that they took test subjects who had had only five hours of sleep the night before and let them have naps of varying durations.

They found that even a 10-minute nap made the subjects feel less sleepy and more vigorous, and led to improved cognitive performance.

It’s official then. It’s smart to be lazy.

Lost in transition

Dear esteemed reader,

I say reader in singular form because for all I know there is just one of you. Firstly let me state my categorical appreciation for your loyalty in perusing these pages - these opinions, snippets of news, these poor substitutes for wit and insight and the odd attempt at what had previously been known as writing.

Secondly, let it hereby be known that this blog, formerly hosted at a location which shall remain undisclosed, is now hosted here. In the rigours of transition, my postings have arrived dishevelled, starved of their former adornment and in a somewhat skeletal form. Nevertheless I am thankful for their arrival alive. I regret, however, to inform you that your fair comments did not survive this frightfully stormy sojourn, though I am sure they are now in a better place. May the ripples cast by your thoughts and comments last eternally, and may you and others continue to grace my postings with more from whence the others so thoughfully traversed.

I take this opportunity to also refer you to two blogs, which alter egos of mine may (or may not) frequent as supposed authors, and which deserve a status undoubtedly more premium than this questionable excuse for a blog: The Neocrats, an international force comprised of the out-famous Mogogo, Saleem, Mandel Cola, Lincoln and Sarmad, whose piercing wit no earthly force shall endure, and The Ponderous Folk, an unlikely aggregation very soon to be engaged in a high enterprise (but you must watch their space for now).

Friends, Nomans, I also request the borrowing of your patience, for this blog shall experience a patch of rest during a period of cessation of bombardments on my behalf. This is not due to lack of want, but my pre-occupation with a week of postgraduate exam preparations in a very sleepy subject (sedation, to be precise).

Till we should collide again,

A. Moving Form


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