"We are social animals, after all. We need to live together, whether you like it or not. Let's spend some time contemplating 'quietly and alone' how that could work."
My very own writing last week inspired me to do exactly what it asked me to do: some contemplations. On the subject in the sentence right before the call to action; that we're social animals and want to live in groups.
As a result, both my initial (gut) reaction as well as my synthesis after some deep thinking ended up in the same area: deep in our hearts, we want to be ourselves and ourselves alone. We do however need social contacts; to learn, to have fun, to develop, to survive. Many people choose to become part of specific groups and remain loyal to that group. But my thoughts led me to believe that we do not necessarily want to be part of a specific group; rather, we want to be part of a group, suited for a specific purpose at that moment in time. And switch to another for a different purpose. Perhaps move in and out.
To be part of a group requires compromises on all kinds of fronts. Compromises that aren't always comfortable. Compromises, which sometimes so many other people have already made before you, that it becomes strange if you do not. So, you comply, you make the 'investment', you do what you're supposed to do ... or you don't. As our readers are well aware by now, we do not really like complying with the norm.
At first, I didn't like my own thoughts and conclusions. It was probably my social sense kicking in, noting I was reaching conclusions outside the norm, outside the normal social playing field. But I had to admit, my musings gave structure to the subject in such a way that it just felt right. For me. It was in fact quite a revelation. As if I finally saw something sharply that had been blurry and nagging me for some time.
Long live authenticity.
This 'The Economist' article raised an eyebrow, put a smile on my face and made me think. Often an article's title is, in my experience, crafted well to lure you into reading it, only to disappoint you content-wise.
This time ("Becoming a father shrinks your cerebrum") I was kind of expecting the same thing, but got excited after all, even though the title is somewhat misleading. It has long been established that pregnancy and childbirth causes enormous changes to a woman's body, including causing certain parts of the brain to shrink. Surprisingly, recent research has uncovered that fathers seem to endure the same faith.
Research was conducted by Magdalena Martínez-García and her colleagues of the Gregorio Marañón Health Research Institute in Madrid, and they concluded:
"[...] that there is a small but consistent decrease in the volume of the cortices of new fathers after the birth of their child."
With fathers, reductions are visible especially in the back of the cortex where visual information is processed, and in the brain area associated with daydreaming, mind-wandering and thinking about yourself and others. In part, this is similar to the brain reductions observed with mothers.
Even more interesting, other research seems to confirm that the bigger the reductions the more a mother or father feels attached to the child. It is as if the brain gets wired more towards caring and loving only your own offspring.
There is still a lot of more research to do. As noted before, changes to a woman's body as a result of 9-months hormonal and physical changes seem only logical, but how would this come about for fathers? According to The Economist it will take some time before we find out:
"Determining exactly how these pro-parental neural changes come about in men is way beyond the current skill of neuroscience."
Or, is it just sleep deprivation causing the brain reduction? Perhaps, parents just somehow pass on their brainpower to their offspring. Both by the way they raise their children as well as in a physical sense. I like that thought, but wonder how I would have looked at this before having children... 🤔
During a recent social event, I reconnected with someone from my time at University. Interesting to learn how your lives have developed in their own way. It turned out his career brought him in contact with bacteria, useful bacteria, like the ones present in probiotica products and used for producing medicines.
He told me that after spending some fruitful (and lucrative) years in this business, he noted that we as humans tend to carefully and diligently select only the useful bacterias and try to avoid all the other ones as much as possible. Present-day technology makes this possible, but -as he proclaimed- without that technology we've still made it this far. He therefore started focusing and educating himself on the usefulness of bacteria in general.
Energised by the conversation, my brain shifted into higher gear on my way back home. Many of us have the experience of our kids getting ill once they go back to school, or having dripping noses for the full four years while spending some of their time in child's daycare. They are exposed to all kinds of viruses and bacteria. Sometimes causing serious illness (for a day or two), sometimes just a cold. However, once they start getting together in Kindergarten or Primary School, they are in fact the ones who do not become ill in the first couple of weeks. They have built up a strong defense.
My conversation partner I talked to mentioned research that analysed how much dirt a baby would eat if it were crawling around in nature (back in the days), using their hands as they always do: touching everything they encounter and putting them in their mouth as often as possible. Guess. The research mentioned a number of 40-60g per day! This big scoop of dirt contains a very diverse set of bacteria and in high quantities (the research apparently mentions 10s of billions). Moreover, this 'Michelin-star' dish also contains funghi and minerals.
The most probable function of this baby behaviour: ensure your intestines grow a healthy, diverse population of bacteria to digest all the energy-containing food in the most efficient way. There is a strong connection between gut health and your general wellbeing and condition. Lots of skin diseases and imperfections have been linked to certain dietary habits (e.g. too much lactose) and thereby also -indirectly- to the types and diversity of bacteria in your gut.
Am I saying that we should eat a spoon of dirt every day? Not really, certainly not in crowded, city areas with all kinds of pollutants present. However, our current lifestyle seems to be focused on getting rid of all the 'filthy' stuff and protecting our body from getting into contact with bacteria. We've learned to do this the hard way as humankind paid a huge price when it was not paying attention to hygiene: pest pandemic is just one example, wiping out more than one-third of the European population in the 14th and frequently wrecked havoc until the 19th century.
I guess what I'm saying is that it feels as if the hygiene pendulum has moved too much to the cleanliness direction and a rebalance seems to be in order. I intend to spend some time on this topic in the coming period and find that research my friend was talking about. Curious to learn your thoughts about this.
Hygiene: too much of it can kill you, too little as well.
In our family we like to say that coincidences do not exist. Seconds after we asked our guide, who led us through his beautiful country on our holiday trip, whether we could stop for a short 'bio-break', he pulled into a parking lot where we were greeted by the biggest and most generous smile on earth. Whatever was worrying our minds (including the pressing need to visit a bathroom) vanished.
We were greeted by Mr. Welipenna Vithanage Sugathapala or the very person who was awarded the title 'World's happiest man' by several sources, including Mike Worsman of 'TheHappiest.com', who gave him his title, and the NY Times. This YouTube video gives you an impression. Mr. Sugathapala is a security guard at a local bakery in Beruwala on the South-West coast of Sri Lanka. He's not just standing near the front door. Instead, he's actively luring visitors to the bakery by smiling, whistling and making big welcoming gestures.
His energy is contagious and we felt its impact once we continued our journey. His story is, however, not full of happiness and laughter; he has troubles making ends meet on a daily basis and feed his family. Still, he entrenched himself in his happy, positive style. I had a nice chat with him and he shared a leaflet detailing his 'message to the world'.
In short, his main advice is simple and obvious; be happy with what you have, be patient, compassionate and honest. Do not spend energy on what troubles your mind and be an inspiration to others. We touched on the subject of happiness before and we noted:
"Intuitively, this ["Whatever makes you happy, do that."] makes absolute sense. When you're happy, you at least sense you have more energy. You spend your time more effectively and most probably you have far more meaningful conversations. The smile on your face induces the people you interact with to be more positive and willing to cooperate as well."
However, studies and experiments suggest that our brain is not 'wired' to be happy.
"The theory is our brains evolved this way in order to protect us; early humans had a lot more to gain from focusing on what might harm them than from what was pleasant"
Still, a smile is contagious, as is happiness. And the best thing of all: we can control this ourselves. Why not actively try to smile in the vicinity of other people at least once a day and see what happens. For instance at the start of a meeting. I'm pretty sure we can change our 'wiring' over time. We live in a beautiful world 😊.
Ah, why not use this time of the year to reiterate some great benefits of a certain dietary habit that does require you to change your usual schedule? It is, after all, the time of the year many people are full of energy to change habits and implement positive resolutions, even though we've argued this might in fact not the best time to implement behavourial changes. Still, the fact that repetition is one of the greatest teachers, made me decide to write about the benefits of (intermittent) fasting once more.
Also, the opportunity just simply presented itself on a nice plate (pun intended). I was forwarded this video on intermittent fasting. In it, Dr. Roger Seheult explains the numerous benefits of intermittent fasting.
Ever since I wrote about the effects of fasting in one of our first newsletters, I've been practising intermittent fasting and really enjoyed personal benefits. Most importantly, energy levels are constant and high during the day and having a certain rhythm has also improved my sleep.
In his video, Dr. Seheult mainly stresses the benefits of fasting on all kinds of health issues. Apart from a relatively easy way -in intermittent fasting you do not necessarily change your diet or quantities- to lose weight and reduce insuline levels, it spurs all kinds of internal mechanisms that clean, repair and heal your body. The so-called 'autophagy' process, literally meaning 'self-eating'.
I guess this is one of those things that falls in the category 'doesn't hurt trying it' but may also be outside your comfort zone. It does also impact some pretty engrained habits (by the way, you can have your black coffee during fasting 😉). What would happen IF...?
One of our readers pointed out wonderful research, published in Current Biology, that explores scientific backgrounds of why kids seem to be able to learn faster than adults.
A brain messenger called GABA has a stabilizing role in the learning process, which the researchers tested with visual training exercises:
"The findings suggest that children’s brains respond to training in a way that allows them to more quickly and efficiently stabilize new learning."
From an evolutionary viewpoint, I can see how kids' faster learning would have benefited our survival rate greatly. As the world is changing faster and faster these days, it warrants the question if adults would also benefit from child-like learning abilities. Is this another bit of evolutionary bagage that is dragging us down like most of our biases are?
Thinking of counter-evidence, I would love to see the value of the slower learning explored as well. Is the slower adult pace merely a use-it-or-lose it decay in learning abilities? Or does this slower learning come with advantages as well? I know this must also be a reflection of my struggle with declining mental power as we age 😀, but the case for diversity of approaches is a strong one. Younger and older people working on problems together might be our best strategy.
A couple of months ago, we wrote a piece on expansion and contraction of the universe. I always love these kind of deliberations, as the sheer scale of these experiments make for a great backdrop for reframing our daily worries.
If the latest theories hold up, the expansion of our universe will stop at some point and turn into contraction. Long before this moment occurs, though, something else will have happened. Nuclear fusion happening in our stars will have come to a halt, making for a dark universe. I recently read an apt analogy for these events: fireworks. Just picture a giant array of fireworks being launched and exploding, lighting up the sky. After this giant explosion, the remaining glowing bits of debris gradually fade out before the sky returns to its usual dark self.
That's it. All that we call life is because of the moment we're in during this galactic firework show. Our sun and its brothers and sisters are the exploding bits of fireworks, lighting up our sky for a couple of billion years before they fade out and implode. Since our dominant life forms are all dependent on sunlight in one way or another, this calls for an adequate dose of relativity and humility, I think.
Worshipping the sun, as many civilisations have done for millennia, might not be such a primitive idea after all.
Like physical labour, mental work can be very exhausting. I remember being completely in shambles after completing two 3-hours exams in one day. What exactly causes that feeling? The brain may use glucose for its activities, but surely not as much as when you complete an hours long running exercise?
The Economist recently featured an article 'How thinking hard makes the brain tired' explaining the current thinking (pun intended) on this subject. Cognitive control, as all the work your brain performs, is called is poorly understood. Historically, the hypothesis was that cognitive control simply uses up glucose for its work and hence at the end of the day you feel tired because you have depleted (somewhat😜) your reserves.
Meanwhile, it has become clear that the brain indeed uses glucose but only limited amounts. Scientists looking at it from a neurometabolic point of view, have discovered that brainwork results in the production of a chemical called glutamate. It is a substance common in various proteïns and plays a role in many brain activities such as learning and the sleep-wake cycle. The more you think, the more glutamate is being produced.
"In other words, cognitive work results in chemical changes in the brain, which present behaviourally as fatigue."
This may in turn explain why consuming certain substances may suppress your fatigueness. After all, the production of this substance or its destruction may well be influenced by certain other proteïns and mechanisms at work in your body. I'm certainly not advocating experimenting with this, but I do recommend the best, natural antidote to high glutamate levels: sleep.
Balancing your ego with a sense for the unity of our universe is often a matter of seeing the right illustration of the facts. A story that resonated highly with me was told by a monk who once confronted a person that thought a little bit too much of himself and needed no one. The monk pointed at a nearby tree and explained how the man's lungs could not function without trees and plants doing the reverse, turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. The mirror images of leaves and lungs could only co-exist because of each other.
Steve Jobs often sent e-mails to himself to capture what was on his mind. In a recent release of some documents from his family, one of these e-mails reminded me of the lungs & leaves story.
Accepting our dependencies might be a great step. Loving them might even be more joyous.
Most of us have heard about the substance 'dopamine' in relationship to social media. The hit you get when your post is liked, when an 'unread message' banner appears. Contrary to popular belief, however, dopamine does not control happiness.
As an experimental episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast, Tim invited guests to share great sections of their own podcasts. Andrew Huberman, professor of neurobiology at Stanford, shared a bit of a podcast episode that can best be described as a dopamine masterclass. It opened my eyes to the workings behind the substance and the way to use it to your advantage.
Dopamine can be best summed up as the molecule of more. It motivates us to continue the behaviour we're engaged in, spurring us into action. You can easily see how this is a useful evolutionary mechanism, as going out to hunt and forage was risky behaviour for our ancestors.
Now, the tricky part about dopamine is that we all have a baseline level, on top of which we get a little peak when we act in certain ways (finish a puzzle, win a race, hand in an RFP, ...) which then drops below the baseline level. This drop makes us feel miserable, spurring us into action to get another dopamine hit. More!
Huberman then goes on to explain how external rewards cause us to associate less pleasure with an activity itself, as demonstrated in the classic 1973 experiment at a Harvard nursery school. Kids being rewarded a 'gold star' for drawing lost interest in that activity after the reward was abandoned, because the dopamine hit shifted from the activity itself to receiving the reward.
If you want to reap rewards from our dopaminergic circuitry, according to Huberman, you can trick your mind into dopamine release during a hard activity by telling yourself "I'm doing this by choice and I love it!" at the moment of maximum friction. Spiking your dopamine after an activity by rewarding yourself makes the activity itself even harder.
Our earlier article (and associated podcast) about challenges put the difficult words mentioned in it, top of my mind. Therefore, it may come as no surprise that shortly after writing it, I 'stumbled' upon an article about 'panpsychism'.
Panpsychism, in short, is the theory that the smallest forms of matter (quarks, electrons, etc.) have a form of inner life; hence, all matter, from animals to sand and rocks, have a kind of experience and consciousness. This is quite different from 'common sense' that tells us that only living things have feelings and sensations.
I'm often attracted to the contrarian view, or at least a view that goes against mainstream beliefs. It forces me to consider different angles. That in itself often leads to new insights and triggers my creativity.
Apart from that, the view of the panpsychists does make a lot of sense. Agreed, there is no scientific evidence (yet), but that doesn't make it necessarily wrong. It does make it more difficult for us to accept the theory as a potential explanation. We like hard evidence.
However, we tend to forget that our scientific methods are based on measuring and explaining what an object or matter does. How do they behave under certain circumstances and what is the best theory explaining it? Our methods do not tell us what the object is. Wouldn't it make sense to apply similar theories to the microscopic world as we do to the macroscopic world?
"All we get from physics is this big black-and-white abstract structure, which we must somehow colour in with intrinsic nature. We know how to colour in one bit of it: the brains of organisms are coloured in with experience. How to colour in the rest? The most elegant, simple, sensible option is to colour in the rest of the world with the same pen [i.e. that everything has some form of experience or inner life]."
If anything, I guess neither common sense nor the panpsychists are probably right. The truth only exists between entities interacting with each other. Electrons, molecules, humans, rocks; they will all have their views on that truth.
A recent London Business School article by Rosie Parry brought several of our favourite topics together: nurturing creativity, mean-reversion tendency, preferring the known above the unknown, optimizing energy.
In its first paragraphs, the article highlighted an experiment done by in 1968, by a scientist called George Land, testing creativity in children. It essentially proved what we have discussed before: children are enormously creative ("98% of them scored at the ‘creative genius’ level"), but that ability is greatly reduced by the time they are adolescents ("only 12% were scoring anywhere near the level they had done").
Where we blamed solely our education system for these results, the article highlights other factors that are in play. One that stands out, is that our bodies seem to be always optimizing for energy. This results, amongst others, in our brains and patterns of thinking to prefer automation and 'the known'. Go where you have gone before. Fall into the groove.
“The brain uses about 20% of our energy, more than any other single organ in the body. So of course, subconsciously we’re always looking for ways to use our brains less, in case we need that energy for something else – like running from a predator.”
The good news is that we can actually try to consciously pursue to be creative and being curious about ambiguity. This concerns a separate part of the brain and can be activated by learning new things, celebrating successes and our unique strengths, as well as experiencing the personal impact we have on the world. As Professor Cable puts it:
“Ultimately, learning programming or coding or digital marketing is not the important thing – the important thing is being able to forget your assumptions in order to stay relevant.”
One of the notable effects of routine meditation is a growing awareness of your own thoughts. Instead of being part of a continuous stream of thoughts and emotions, you can sometimes (just sometimes) catch yourself and start looking at it as it flows by. It's often compared to looking at the river instead of being in the river.
Being confronted with this view, it's not all roses and sunshine. With clarity also comes the harsh reality of seeing your emotional responses to your environment. One thing that hit me most in this respect, was the incessant judgement of the actions of those around you. I found it amazing how much thought I spent on labelling and judging behaviour and events. The fact that most of these judgements are not that favourable, apparently has its roots in our Ego which thrives on comparison.
The other day, a passage from 'Autobiography of a Yogi' (Steve Jobs' favourite book) showed up on my phone's homescreen that summed it up quite nicely: "Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others!"
Apparently, this is happening on a small scale in much of our thinking. The good news is that seeing these thoughts and letting them go, feels awfully great. Letting go of judgement, even in small quantities, makes you feel so much lighter.
For quite some time, it is known that coral reefs are endangered by global warming. This is because the algae that reside within corals and provide them with food experience malfunction in their photosynthetic mechanisms at higher temperatures. Rather than producing molecular oxygen as waste of the photosynthesis, they start generating highly toxic oxygen-rich compounds, such as peroxides. You probably know the side-effects of peroxide: bleaching. For some, useful for their teeth, clothes or hair but for corals a deadly cocktail.
An article in the Economist shared some good news to combat the destruction that is happening at ever-increasing speed. There are several areas of research that are showing promising results. First of all, there are coral species that are already heat resistant. These can be found for example in the Red Sea. Research focuses on either transferring these species to endangered reefs or isolating the specific genes responsible for the heat-resistance.
Another focus area is the notion that some reefs seem to be more heat-resistant than others despite the fact that they are structurally and genetically similar. It seems that the environment they are in has a big influence. Organisms that are symbiotic to corals, for example particular types of their companion algae, seem to create more robust mechanisms of photosynthesis.
All these insights and potential solutions are promising, but large scale applicability is a challenge. Just imagine how you're going to populate the Great Barrier Reef, an area as big as Italy, with heat-resistant types coming from the Red Sea. As one of the researchers, Dr Cohen, notes:
“We have to let nature do its thing, because only nature can do it on the scale that’s necessary."
Nature will surely adapt to higher temperatures itself as well. Let this promising research not distract us from tackling the root cause.
It's funny to experience how framing and anchoring the mind works. The fact that you're more focused on and more inclined to notice persons, objects and subjects that are top of mind. Sleep is one of these subjects lately. Well, actually, it's been on our menu for quite a while.
In a podcast I recently listened to, the remark was made that our sleeping patterns used to be totally different from what they are today. Since I experience insomnia lately, this got my attention. They claimed we used to go to sleep early, then be awake for a couple of hours and spent time socializing (and other things), after which we'd back to sleep.
This revelation remained in my head and triggered doing some research on my own. Especially, because 'sleep' and more importantly 'quality of sleep' are popping up in -seemingly- almost every article I read or podcast I listen to.
Sleeping patterns have definitely evolved over the ages, but to claim that they originated from a so-called bi-phasic rest seems not true. Influenced by evolving daily occupations -from hunting to hard labor to sitting behind a desk- and associated certain levels of physical and mental fatigue, our sleeping habits have adapted. Research shows that in our hunting-gathering times, we used to go to bed relatively late in the evening and sleep through the night in one go. Come the Middle Ages, we've changed our habits to the described bi-phasic (two-parts) pattern. Today, we seem to be back to square one, 'sleep 1.0'. This website gives a fairly concise historical overview.
However, average sleeping times seem to be decreasing, negatively influencing our abilities to think creatively and perform our duties efficiently. We may be in need of some new sleeping patterns that fit our modern lifestyle.
Solutions may be right in front of us. Modern technology and increasing acceptance of working remotely, allows for a lot of flexibility in our daily schedules. Just use the 'do not disturb' mode on your phone or computer and take a nap whenever you need it. Most importantly: create a pattern that fits your needs best. This may take a bit of experimentation, but that, frankly, is the entire point. Make your own choices and find your own rhythm.
Tim Ferris' interview with Jane McGonical started with an entirely different subject: how to combat insomnia. Her answer was simple: play a videogame for 10 minutes.
This obviously goes against all the other advice that is out there to get a proper night sleep and therefore got my attention. We learned to reduce screen time and not engage in mind-occupying exercises before bed. It turns out that a certain subset of videogames seems to be very effective.
"Any visual pattern matching game where your brain is looking at colors, looking at shapes, looking at how things are arranged in space will be really good."
Researchers at Oxford University even found that playing Tetris can be used to mitigate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Apparently, playing the game for a short time results in a kind of visually overwriting of what could become a sort of compulsive repetitive cycle of imagery caused by a trauma. In other words, preventing unwanted flashbacks from traumatic events.
All avid videogamers, please hold your horses before cheering too loudly; it also turns out that just 10 minutes is really the right dose. Will you be able to control the reinforcing self-rewarding neurocircuitry?
One of our readers responded to the topic of getting different perspectives in our last newsletter by pointing me towards the Asknature.org website. The site covers a plethora of inspirational examples on how plants and animals approach the various challenges they face.
Specifically, the reader forwarded me the example of the hammerhead shark and how it combines having a nearly 360-degrees visual field by having eyes on the sides of the 'hammer' with a pretty impressive stereoscopic vision. Usually, the two are a trade-off. Having two eyes next to each other on the same surface means you can experience ('see') depth; however, you will not be able to see whatever happens behind you.
In nature, the predators often have stereoscopic vision and hence eyes next to each other on the front. Animals lower in the food chain, the 'prey' have happily sacrificed this ability by shifting the eyes to the side to enable detection of a predator coming from any angle.
Hammerheads enjoy the best of both worlds. The exact reason why they have developed this ability is not yet understood, but studying it in more detail could have many beneficial applications for humans. Discerning small objects in a vast space for example, or improved visual sensors for vehicles to maintain continuous 360-degrees awareness while being able to detect sudden, nearby dangerous situations.
There is still so much to learn from nature. An endless source of inspiration. We just need to be open-minded and keep asking ourselves questions.
As the COVID pandemic seems to take a turn for the good, my household grabbed the tail-end and got infected a few days back after 2 years of staying out of the weeds. While my 8 year old son recovered within 24 hours, I seem to have a longer struggle fighting the virus, considering the frequent chills and notifications from my Apple Watch alarming me of high heart rate while being sedentary these past days.
What always strikes me when catching a virus of some sorts, is how it affects your view of the world around you. My world just shrinks, creating a tunnel-like vision of everything around me. It's your body's way of informing you to stop focusing on the outside world for a while. In 'No Mud, No Lotus', Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
"When you cut your finger, you just wash it and your body knows how to heal. When a nonhuman animal living in the forest is injured, she knows what to do. She stops searching for something to eat or looking for a mate. She knows, through generations of ancestral knowledge, that it’s not good for her to do so. She finds a quiet place and just lies down, doing nothing. Nonhuman animals instinctively know that stopping is the best way to get healed."
While I fully understand this might not be a possibility in all situations, you might consider it a 'gold standard' to strive for, as I do. I know in the past I have struggled often with relinquishing responsibilities while ill, keeping a laptop next to me in bed, trying to keep the world turning. The 'badge of honor' we culturally assign to this behaviour might actually not be in all of our best interests. So, with that said, for now, I'll just stop.
Reading Michael Pollan's 'This is your mind on plants' (book link and interview with Tim Ferriss), investigating mind-changing substances at humankind's disposal, I bumped into a logical, but at the same time confronting conclusion:
"societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it. That’s why in a society’s choice of psychoactive substances we can read a great deal about both its fears and its desires."
Pollan's most poignant point-in-case is coffee. Reading his historical account of the success of this drug makes you understand how much of our industrial revolution and enlightenment are tightly intertwined with the rise of coffee in Western culture.
Up to the 1600's, several forms of alcohol, being a safer alternative to water, were consumed all day long, in all age groups. Workers enjoyed alcohol breaks throughout each day. Foggy brains were no obstacle to working the land, but as we moved to operating delicate machinery and doing book-keeping, alternatives were needed.
Coffee originated in the Arab world, and not being mentioned in the Koran it formed a suitable alternative to alcohol. Loosely translated, 'kahve' means 'Wine of Araby'. After spreading like wildfire in western countries, it has fueled our ability to focus and stay productive for longer periods of time.
Part of Pollan's writing exercise involved abstention from coffee for a few months, which almost prevented him from finishing the book. He was amazed how much absence of the drug inhibited his daily work, which leads to the question: if an addiction has a net benefit, how bad can it be?
I am a big proponent of ‘going with the flow’ and listening to signals your body provides. When animals feel unwell, they stop eating, find a quiet spot to lay down and rest until they recover. As humans, we tend to push through until our body starts giving more acute signals.
Another signal I grew more accustomed to is tiredness. I used to ignore this, filling my ‘work hours’ until the end of the day, only to find my real productiveness totally lacking during those hours. Nothing of any real meaning came out of it.
After discovering the wholesome qualities of a daytime nap, it has become one of my favorite guilty pleasures. While not a daily or even weekly vice, I tend to have periods where (when scheduling allows) I set an alarm for 45 minutes and doze off on the couch or on my bed. I wake up rejuvenated and armed with energy and creativity I finish my day.
One of my favorite nap-club-members is Sir Winston Churchill. A friend said of Churchill, “He made in Cuba one discovery which was to prove far more important to his future life than any gain in military experience, the life-giving powers of the siesta”. He made the nap a non-negotiable part of his day, claiming it provided him with an ‘extra day’ after his ritual.
So, fight those notions of a nap being wasteful and lazy, and experiment with napping every once in a while!
Walking through the woods last week, I realised I really enjoy Autumn. The colours, the smell, the wet grass, the low sun. Also time of the year to practice a favourite hobby: searching and harvesting fungi. The combination of being outside and amazed by the beauty of nature gives me a lot of energy.
Harvesting from nature is not without risk and it pays to do proper research and follow some courses to avoid stomach problems or worse. Some fungi are lethal and still look very attractive. For our Dutch readers, I personally enjoyed a day of fungi harvesting together with Edwin Florès. He supplies various Michelin-starred restaurants with fungi, herbs, grasses and flowers.
Autumn is essentially nature resetting and preparing for a new year. A new cycle. Nature makes it look so simple and logical. Plants growing out of the soil, will return to the soil and have, during their lifetime, planted seeds for a new generation to grow up. It's fascinating how nature decomposes and recycles. The dying and rotting process is in fact key. This takes time and we humans do not always appreciate the necessity of this process.
Giuliana Furci has an insightful short video to 'let things rot'. It is essentially a call to action to let (material) things die and rot. Let's make our lives easy and let nature do the recycling work. Is there a parallel to other aspects in our life such as routines, thoughts, norms and traditions? Could it be that leaving behind the old does not require an immediate follow-up with the new?
In our piece about the influence of our visual system on our state of mind and general wellbeing, we left the reader at the end with the main advice from Dr. Huberman to sleep well. Our visual system, daily rhythm and sleeping patterns are closely related.
"And this is because, at the fundamental layer of our biology, every cell in our body needs information about time of day."
The so-called suprachiasmatic nucleus is a collection of neurons in the hypothalamus, deep in our brain, that act as our central circadian clock. It informs every cell in our body about time of day, without having direct access to light. There is a specific collection of neurons in our eyes that communicate whether there is light or not directly to the suprachiasmatic nucleus. Therefore, circadian rhythms are closely connected to day and night.
Circadian (coming from the Latin "circa diem" or "around a day") rhythm exist in all types of organisms. It helps flowers to open and close at the right time and keep nocturnal animals from leaving their shelter during the daytime when they would be exposed to predators. In humans, it is a roughly 24-hours rhythm that makes sure the body's processes are optimized at the right moments. Though not as influential as light, other factors influence the master clock as well, such as physical exercise, social activity and metabolism.
It is a complex, multi-faceted system that thrives on balance and stability. At the same time, you have great influence and can be the choreographer of the system. Rhythm is a dancer.
Every time, I switch on the alarm in our house, I get nervous from the beeping sound indicating I have 30 seconds to be out of range of the detectors. When the alarm goes off accidentally, my reaction is completely different and resembles a form of panic, though I know exactly what will happen.
In a recent article, Michele DeMarco explains the difference between anxiety and panic. On the surface perhaps pretty obvious, but I've always noticed quite some similarities between how you feel and react, though the occassions in which they occur are widely different. Both 'modes of fear' may jeopardize running a normal life in quite different ways.
A panic attack is often unexpected, short and represents a burst of intense fear that may in turn lead to physical outings, such as intense heartbeat, shortness of breath, and dizziness. On the other hand, anxiety occurs when you worry about a future event; "the stressful anticipation of a bad outcome or perceived threat". It usually builds up gradually and may persist for weeks, even months, whilst varying in intensity.
Both mechanisms serve as an alarm system, but are driven by different parts of the brain. The so-called autonomous nervous system is on constant alert and gives its input to the amygdala, a brain area that is the core driver of fear. Anxiety is mostly associated with the prefrontal cortex, which is known for its planning and anticipation.
Knowing this, the article continues with advice on how to deal with both types of fear. The advice centers around the principle of “Admit, Acknowledge, Accept” that what you’re feeling is real. To further train your resilience against potentially being caught off-guard, you can practice "titration" (not to confuse with your chemistry lessons):
"In somatic psychology, the word “titrate” is used to describe how much emotional “flow” we let into our system’s internal reservoir. To titrate our experience is to keep ourselves in an intentional place of choice and safety by opening and closing the tap on our emotions."
I continue to find nature and how it (offers tools to) deals with different situations fascinating. Understand the workings of phenomena is often a good starting point to deduce effective coping mechanisms. Perhaps, I should just disassemble the alarm.
One of the opening quotes in the recent Tim Ferriss' podcast with Dr. Andrew Huberman lured me into listening to the entire 2.5 hours episode:
"The vision and our visual system is perhaps the strongest lever by which we can shift our state of mind and body."
Dr. Huberman specialises in how our brain controls our perceptions, our behaviors, and our health. Next to breathing, it appears that our eyes play a key role in our health and behaviour. The eyes are in fact part of our central nervous system and are the only two pieces of our brain that are placed outside the skull and in direct connection with the outside world. They basically have two functions: registering objects, shapes, colours, etc. and telling the brain whether or not to be alert or relaxed.
The interesting part is that the communication is two-ways. The eyes not only influence our inner state based on what they see. Our inner state in fact influences what we see. When we're more stressed, our pupils change and their aperture narrows, creating a more focused vision. We literally see less and zoom in on one object or task. In this case, we 'fine-slice' time and experience the whole episode as taking longer than normal. On the opposite side, when we're enjoying a holiday, time seems to fly by. The effects are similar to how our breathing changes as a result of how excited or calm we are.
"if you [...] expand your field of view, so you kind of relax your eyes [...], what you do is you are turning off the attentional and, believe it or not, the stress mechanisms that drive your internal state towards stress."
As it goes both ways, you're also able to influence your state of mind by actively changing your vision, literally: your perspective. When you're in a busy meeting and in a need of overview, going outside and relaxing your eyes to create a wide perspective will change the information, the entire experience that is delivered to your brain and body.
I find this fascinating and it amazes me how actual, 'objective' observations can yield such profound effects on our wellbeing, behaviour and philosophical ponderings:
"So one thing that’s just fundamental to how our nervous system works is that we are constantly placing our experience, both our immediate and past experience, as well as our anticipation of the future, into some sort of larger context, and our visual system, literally how we are viewing the world at that moment, dictates how we create perspective in terms of states of mind."
Apart from all advice given in the podcast, if there's one 'lifehack' Dr. Huberman consistently and repeatedly mentions, it is to sleep well. Funnily enough, but on second thought perhaps intended, that's the time our visual sensors do not receive any input!
My 'Summer' eye caught an interesting article in the Economist on travel restrictions. It critiques the way countries deal with the challenge to keep control on the Covid disease spreading.
It notes that foreign travel seems to be "once again the preserve of a happy few" with tourist-related travels 85% down compared to pre-Covid pandemic levels. More importantly, it notes that international travel rules are confusing, not consistent and sometimes illogical.
"Nearly a third of the world’s borders remain closed. Many of the remainder are open only to those who have been vaccinated or can afford tests".
This does not just impact leisure industry. People seem to get false comfort from restricting travel.
The author does present principles to solve the problem. They center around the default position to keep borders open, have universal and transparent rules whilst aiming for avoiding the import of new variants. After all, once a new variant is in a country, less than 1% of the infections in a country stem from travellers. It is really the behaviour of people inside a country that determines the spread.
Whether it was the need for a long-overdue holiday or the genuine conviction that travel restrictions give us a sense of false comfort, I belief it is good to regularly check-in on what most people accept as 'normal'. In this case, I tend to agree with the author, though movement of people is generally not supportive to containing a virus from spreading. It is time to start adjusting to the new normal, which is a life with yet another virus to deal with. There might be more.
Hygiene has been an important driver in the increase of our life expectancy and ability to effectively fight (infectious) diseases. One of the most important advices to fight the Covid pandemic was to wash your hands often. Everyone (at least in the developed world) is very much used to using soap, shampoo and other cleaning agents to keep everything clean.
At the same time, there has also been an increase in skin problems, allergies, thin hair. That's most likely not a coincidence. In general, the effectiveness of soap, especially anti-bacterial, has been a subject of debate for some time. First of all, it really depends on the active anti-bacterial component in the soap. Secondly, it seems that just rubbing your hands under a stream of water long enough may yield similar effects.
In addition, there are also big environmental impacts of humans using various types of soap, detergents and skincare products. Apart from the chemicals, they often contain microplastics that end up in the ocean's food chain with devastating effects.
Nat Eliason's recent Tweet about quitting his use of any type of soap brought my attention back to the subject. I remembered reading his blog and watching his instruction video how to quit using shampoo last year. I'm going to give it a try this Summer. Depending on how successful I am, you may find it difficult to meet me in person during this period of experimentation 😉.
Autophagy, literally meaning 'self-eating', is one of the repair mechanisms of your body that focuses on making us stronger. It is essentially your body's version of 'Spring cleaning' for cells. Damaged cellular material is broken down and healthy parts are being recycled for use elsewhere.
The cleaning process is pretty neat and involves double-layered membranes -phagophores- to encircle cells containing impurities. The resulting 'autophagosome' will subsequently merge with certain enzymes that examine the damaged cell and take out the elements that do not belong there.
Autophagy has been linked to decrease aging effects and is apparently one of the body's processes that slows down when you become older. Research also shows that the rate at which autophagy occurs seems to increase with lower levels of glucose, oxygen and nutrients. In other words: when it's been a long time since you had your food.
It is therefore no wonder that fasting, especially longer duration (days), is often associated with promoting and accelerating autophagy. I marvel at such wondrous natural ways of self-healing. I find fasting to work perfectly to keep my energy levels in check. Given the above, it now gives me even more energy.
With increasing attention for artificial intelligence, the question whether computers could act like human beings is raised more often. Recent research, however, shows that neurons in our brain are wired quite differently from how we commonly design computers with the so-called Von Neumann architecture. In computers, every part (transistor) is always fed with energy and pre-programmed to perform a certain task. Neurons in our brain seem to be part of an internal brain economy. They seem to compete with each other for attention and resources.
In the article 'Neurons gone wild', author Kevin Simler examines this view:
"Maybe the neurons in our brains are not just capable, but motivated, to be more adventurous, exploratory, or risky in the way they live their lives. They're struggling amongst themselves for influence and for staying alive. As soon as that happens, you have room for cooperation, to create alliances, coalitions, cabals, etc."
Researchers quoted in the article believe the fact there is a resource constraint causes the neurons to be selfish and incentivises them to 'hook up' with the right network of other neurons that provides them with life-sustaining energy and other raw materials.
The implications are far-reaching. If, for example, certain trauma damages part of your brain, neurons in the affected area will actively search for new connections and reorganise themselves. This process causes certain functions to restore or certain new functions to emerge.
"[...] if you blindfold yourself for eight weeks, as Alvaro Pascual-Leone does in his experiments, you find that your visual cortex starts getting adapted for Braille, for haptic perception, for touch."
Neuronal selfishness could be the perfect explanation for the brain's known plasticity, flexibility and adaptability. This is not where the analysis of the observations stops. Neurons seem to be guided by a purpose, or an internal, autonomous driving force. This opens the way to define neurons as agents, or:
"[...] an entity capable of autonomous, intelligent, goal-directed behaviour."
Intelligent does not mean, neurons will do whatever is best for you as a person. An example is when you take an addictive drug such as alcohol or nicotine. A new agent will start working around this 'source of pleasure' and slowly grow. The more you feed it, the bigger it grows, the more neurons will be attracted to that network and the more influence it will have in your brain economy. The behaviour then becomes 'sticky'.
All these agents together determine who you are as a person, what your motivations are and how you go about your daily life. You can readily see that your 'self' is hence heavily influenced by the environment you grew up in. It also shows that you can have influence on who you are and what you believe in. You can for example, actively take action to change your surrounding by moving jobs. You are however up against a powerful opponent: selfish, stubborn neurons acting in networks and fighting for their own existence.
In a 20-minute Ted-talk, Chris Anderson uncovers amazing research on building (parts of) organisms. There is more to it than just DNA or some form of programme that is being executed. It appears there are checks and balances, corrective actions. For that to happen, communication is required. We would normally attribute this intelligence, but the reality is much simpler. Researcher Michael Levin explains:
"[...] cells certainly do communicate biochemically and via physical forces, but there's something else going on that's extremely interesting and it's basically called non-neural bioelectricity. So, it turns out that all cells --not just nerves, but all cells in your body-- communicate with each other using electrical signals."
Once you're able to pick up these signals and understand them, you can learn how cells communicate. This also allows for interfering with that communication and hence influence what cells will be doing. The video shows how this could work in practice using flatworms -known for their ability to quickly grow back missing parts. Using a form of electrical intervention, the pity subjects undergo a transformation to two-headed creatures. What is even more interesting, is that if you subsequently cut these two-headed flatworms in two, each one will grow into another two-headed flatworm. The new instructions are sticky.
Fascinating research but potentially dangerous as well. They already produced the first living 'robots' using these techniques, called Xenobots. The research has many great applications though, such as in treating traumatic injuries, degenerative diseases and fighting cancer. Basically, all instances where cells do not build what you want them to build.
Some will argue it is a waste of time, others long for it: sleep, one of our favourite subjects. Research shows that chronic sleep deprivation could mess up emotional life and stress resilience.
Monica Wesseling wrote the book "Why starlings pick flowers and quivering mice are smarter" (in Dutch) on surprising insights you can learn from nature. Studies on rats show that just a week of reduced sleep (less than 50% of normal hours) already has a significant impact. The production of serotonin (the hormone that controls emotions like happiness and optimism) becomes distorted and the size of the hippocampus is reduced.
Humans are not rats, but we do share similar brains and neuro-systems setups, such as the presence of a hippocampus that is involved with learning abilities (especially explicit memorization), emotions and stress.
It takes about the same time to undo the impact of sleep deprivation as it has taken to get to that low point. Just one or two (weekend) days of sleeping in, may make you temporarily feel better, it will not fix your serotonin production system or grow back a part of the hippocampus.
This puts lack of sleep firmly into the camp of potential instigators of depression, Alzheimer's and other terrible diseases. As a side effect, most of these diseases will result in a downward spiral of hours slept. While we all know what to do about it, why is it so difficult to put into practice? Perhaps, we're not listening enough to our own body and the signals it's giving? Would nature have a solution to that problem?
One of the challenges humankind faces when it comes to reducing our environmental footprint is our diet. Besides the fact that research shows that 40% of food production goes to waste, our Western diets are 'overmeated'. Annual meat consumption in Western societies is over 70kg per capita per year with some exceeding 100kg, compared to for instance Japan where it is just 28kg. Because we need (and love) our proteïnes, we consume significant amounts of food where animals play a vital (sarcastically) role.
One environmental problem lies in how we produce meat. Even the most efficient meat, chicken, requires nine calories of input to get one calorie out. Therefore, a lot of effort and money has been spent on trying to educate and convince people to eat less meat, thereby reducing their footprint. However, in the US, the year 2019 recorded the highest per capita meat consumption recorded in history. It turns out changing our meat consumption behaviours is hardly susceptible to rational arguments.
"But what if we could make meat without the animal, why wouldn't we?"
The quote belongs to the CEO of Tyson Foods, one of the world's largest meat producers. It is exactly the approach the Good Food Institute (GFI) is promoting. In a recent Sam Harris' podcast, Bruce Friedrich and Liz Spect from the institute explain how following this strategy will likely be more successful than trying to change human behaviour.
"[...] for the vast majority of people sitting down to eat, it's really going to distill to: How does it taste and can I afford it?"
They sponsor research and projects on plant-based meat, cultivated meat, and fermentation. The goal is to make meat that tastes at least as well and is less expensive than meat from animals. If Mozes does not come to the mountain, the mountain will come to him. It's an interesting approach, which brings us back to education but on a different level.
"[...] one of the biggest bottlenecks we hear over and over for what's hampering the growth of the alternative protein industry is a gap around technical talent."
Philosophy, ethics and politics. Possibly a dangerous cocktail. A cocktail that may save lives: the Covid-19 vaccine. Combining the two, you start to get a picture of the current situation in many debates around the world. John Authers, writing for the Washington Post, covered the dilemma's facing the decision-makers.
In the article, he explains how deciding on a vaccine distribution policy is an ethical one and depends on what your goal is. If you want to prevent people dying from the disease, you should focus on vaccinating the elderly and those with a high-risk profile. If the goal is to prevent the disease from spreading, you should probably direct the vaccination programme towards medical staff, aid workers and those most likely to be present at so-called superspreader events. Ideally, you pursue both, but this raises (for the moment) insurmountable logistic challenges.
Two things need to happen to make an informed decision. First of all, science needs to provide input whether the (current) vaccines will stop you from spreading the virus. Secondly, we need to understand our moral choices and discuss them publicly.
Currently, there is hardly any scientific data on whether the vaccine stops you from spreading. In the absence of new evidence, it seems logical to serve the first doses to the elderly and high-risk group. Utilitarian thinkers -those that think we should aim to seek the greatest good for the greatest number of people- may not agree to this. This is exactly why there is a debate about vaccination strategies. There simply is a difference in (philosophical) opinions.
John Authers is not very upbeat about the absence of a public debate on these moral issues:
"At the end of a year that posed deep and troubling moral questions, the tragedy is not only that they remain unanswered, but that society at large, despite help from scientists and ethicists, have scarcely even attempted to address them."
I tend to be more optimistic. We're moving forward at a fast pace. I have faith that as soon as we get more information about the vaccines and its workings, we'll learn and adapt.
If ever there is a need for walking, it's during this pandemic. Walking is one of the best recipes against the ails caused by our mostly sedentary state, it's a hobby you do not need much tools for, gives you a jolt of fresh air and the only sport you can confidently combine with having a meeting or making a phone call (try other sports and end up at James Bond-villain-style-situations at your own peril).
Dan Pallotta makes the case for not labelling your walks as 'leisure' or 'luxury'. He feels that walks can lead to the most important work you can do. He explains the process of rehearsing for a TED Talk while doing his daily walks:
"Had I stayed home, chained to my desk, where most of us are taught that real serious work happens, the work would have been easier—but far less productive. I’d have gone online every few minutes to check a favorite news site. Grabbed a chocolate chip cookie or a glass of water. Checked my e-mail. Walking affords no such distractions. It’s just you and the work."
He goes on to point at research from Leiden University, proving people who walk at least 4 times per week are able to think more creatively, confirming benefits that artists have been touting for millennia:
Henry David Thoreau said famously, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
There is an interesting paradox that may lead to important new biological and medical insights. The so-called Peto's Paradox, named after the British epidemiologist Richard Peto, says that the rate of cancer in a species does not correlate with the number of cells an organism has. Studies have found that large animals such as elephants, rhinoceroses and whales hardly have any known cases of cancer. This is paradoxical -at least to our current understanding- because the more cells an organism has, the more likely it is that these cells start mutating uncontrollably and cause cancer.
There are at least two possible explanations, stemming from specific cancer defences in large animals. Studying and understanding these may have a big impact on the way we fight cancerous tumours. The first explanation is the presence of so-called tumour suppressor genes, which essentially ensure that a large animal's cell needs many more mutations than a human cell needs to become cancerous.
The second potential explanation for this paradox involves so-called hyper-tumours. These are best envisioned as a tumour for a tumour. Before a cancerous tumour grows big enough to become a threat another tumour takes over, draining the 'original' cancer cell from its energy sources and thus starving it. The hypothesis is that in large animals, these hyper-tumours are more present to do their job.
Both potential explanations seem logical and could be turned into treatment methods. Nature has so much to learn and inspire us! The trick is to know where to look.
I'm quite excited about the concept of brain tuning that we discussed in Q&A 010. The ability to self-consciously apply a neural filter feels very powerful and allows you to be focused on something you really want. This does not mean that brain idleness, where it meanders and leads you to new insights, is not useful. It's about the right balance. When you become too obsessed with a project, it may be a good idea to relax and shift focus.
Research has shown that the neural network grows when parts of the brain like the cerebral cortex are stimulated. The ability to learn and memorize improves. Stimulation can be mental, social and physical. Conversely, poor nutrition, lack of social contact, stress and absence of mental engagement can all contribute to deprivation.
It is well known that physical exercise, like sports or just walking, is good for your brain. Social interaction is a natural need for a human being. We experience this first-hand these days, where lockdowns make us aware we're deprived of much needed getting together with others. Mental stimulation can be exercised through trying to solve puzzles and challenges. Meditation is another form of mental stimulation. Even short 10-minute meditations will already enhance brain productivity.
For all these tips to be effective, it is important to create a habit and practice them regularly. That closes the circle: to install repeating tasks to enhance your fitness, you need focus and hence tune your brain.
In this time of year, one of our favourite pastimes is walking in the forest. Even as the lockdown has sparked a wave of families visiting the forest during week-ends, it is amazing how much activity is absorbed and how peaceful the forest still feels.
Fall is also the season that the forest shows an abundance of mushrooms in all sorts and sizes. These wonders are the fruiting and reproductive organs of the much larger organism that lives underground. The fungal network that lives underground is called the mycelium and can grow to an enormous size. One contender for the biggest single living organism on earth is actually a fungus living in Oregon spanning 8.9 square kilometers. These networks engage with the root system of plants and trees, trading their unique molecular compounds for carbohydrates that they are unable to produce themselves.
Like most phenomena in nature, my appreciation has grown with getting a glimpse of the complexity that goes on in these ecosystems. I just saw the documentary Fantastic Fungi, which explores some amazing boundaries of the current available knowledge while showing the life of these organisms in truly wonderful photography. You'll never walk the forest the same way again.
Persons that have suffered from amnesia as a result of a serious brain injury behave -on average- most like themselves in circumstances where they can act as they used to do. This may sound rather obvious. However, the important word in this sentence is 'act', because it is meant literally: how you use your arms, legs, hands, feet, body.
Ben Platts-Mills, who works for a charity that supports survivors of brain injury, notes:
"The places where they [red: amnesia patients] are most confident in their identities are the ones in which they are supported not merely to think but to do the things they love."
This phenomenon is ground for the theory that memory is not only constituted by the conscious recollection of past events but that it "involves the whole body". Another insight is that memory is often seen as the foundation of identity. This way of looking was first elaborately described by the English philosopher John Locke, regarded as one of the most influential of enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the "Father of Liberalism".
Combining the two insights feels natural to me. Someone's personality and position in this world is not solely determined by the mind or the body. It's the entire body. I even would like to go one step further: it is determined by the interaction between (human) beings. Memory will thus exist between people and will defy any damage done to your brain or your body, whether by injury or age (think of dementia!). That's comforting.
Going about our daily lives, we sometimes seem to be on automatic pilot. Days may "fly by" and experienced unconsciously. Our sensory inputs are capable of registering 40 million inputs per second. However, our conscious brain can 'only' register and process a maximum of 8,000 of those inputs per second. The rest is processed subconsciously.
The subconscious brain has a clear set of guidelines it uses to determine which sensory input demands its attention, like danger. It's the oldest part of your brain and focused on survival. The conscious brain is controlled by the brain stem, thalamus and especially the cerebral cortex. The latter is susceptible to your thoughts and can be trained.
In other words, through actively thinking about certain topics, you can ensure your conscious brain picks out those signals from your sensory neurons that could be of interest. An active neural filter! This is what explains why you 'all of a sudden' notice a lot of red cars after you've discussed the possibility of buying a red car with a friend.
If you want to actively train your neural filter, many brain trainings, efficiency improvement tools and meditation techniques essentially make use of this.
As engineers, we love the word 'optimize'. Searching for a better or smarter way of doing things is a strong driving force. Achieving progress at minimum cost. It has its own term: 'minimum effective dose' (MED).
Everyone knows that exercising is good for your health and longevity. It turns out the MED is about 20-30 minutes per day. That includes time spent on simple things like walking around the house. Doing more than 45-60 minutes of intense training creates inflammation and potential damage to body and muscles.
People like Tim Ferriss and Ben Greenfield have created a whole industry around optimizing your work-outs, daily routines and exercise time. Central theorem of their thoughts include that being fit is not equal to being healthy. It is a balancing act where alternating between different types of exercises plays an important role.
Strength for example is not just about muscle mass, but also about flexibility. This requires both super-slow movements with heavy weights as well as explosive pull-ups of small weights. The ultimate balance is reached in so-called isometric training, or keeping a certain position (like a wall-sit) for a period of time. Each exercise only requires 2-4 minutes.
It all comes down to small routines and habits. Compounded every day, they yield great results. I have, however, still a tough time taking that cold shower every day.
One of human's great advantages is its eyesight. We've finessed the art of seeing to observe the tiniest movements both in front of and around us. In the early days of our existence we soon learned that 'evil' lurked in the bushes and that we should be on the lookout. In addition, we developed the ability to see a wide range of colours, especially various grades of green and brown. This is because one of our most deadliest predator was the snake.
Moving to modern times, the WHO recently published an interesting infograph showing the World's deadliest animals.
There are a couple of interesting observations to make. First of all, against popular belief, sharks and wolfs do not present a major threat to our existence. Secondly, though still pretty deadly, snakes are not our biggest enemy. It comes in third place, a decent step below number two: the human itself.
The most deadly animal however, is much smaller, faster and produces an irritating buzzing noise: the mosquito. Apart from keeping you awake, which is detrimental to our wellbeing anyway, they are carriers of various deadly diseases. I have not seen evidence of evolutionary developments to cope with them yet. It remains to be seen whether humanity adapts or technology beats us to it.
Cow farts; popularly believed to be a large contributor to global warming because they mostly contain methane. Problem is: methane is hardly found in a cow's fart (someone is actually testing that!) and they do not seem to be farting that much. Instead, the cow burps. A lot. And it contains methane.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, tens of times better at warming the planet than carbon dioxide. It is produced through fermenting cellulose-based materials such as grass in the first of four cow stomachs, the rumen. Roughly 80-95% of methane released by a cow comes from its burps.
Scientists, some financed by the meat industry, are working to find other solutions than just cutting down the meat consumption. Meat, after all, is still a good source of vital proteins. They focus on food additives and changing the diet in such a way that the rumen produces less methane. Eating a certain type of lemongrass does the job, for example. And it improves the smell as well!
But some go even as far as to say that cows could be part of a planet cooling solution. With roughly 1.4 billion cows worldwide, that seems somewhat self-fulfilling. The problem is big enough not to quarrel about which one solution is the best, but use all the avenues we have.
Just as we have gotten used to the idea we are sharing our bodies with several billion gut bacteria, The Economist provides us with a summary of the essential role viruses have in human evolution.
With a litre of sea water containing 100 billion virus particles and a kilo of dried soil containing ten times that number, they are far outnumbering all other forms of life on the planet. Their ability to make their way into the human genome has caused between 8% and 25% of it to have viral origins. Some of that material was used for evolutionary purposes:
"For example, the ability of mammals to bear live young is a consequence of a viral gene being modified to permit the formation of placentas. And even human brains may owe their development in part to the movement within them of virus-like elements that create genetic differences between neurons within a single organism."
They conclude that, while understanding viruses better is needed to have fewer of us killed, "a virus-free existence is an impossibility so deeply unachievable that its desirability is meaningless."