25 Nov

Detour: Democracy with Elanthirumaran


I don’t invest much of time thinking about politics and governance.  I think they would take several years to master them.  I also think that because they are poorly documented, at least in India where I live, only a person in the middle of all this on a day to day basis can master them.

But today, I had an interesting insight into improving the quality of democracy in a meeting organized by a FaceBook group called Occum’s Saloon.

Indian democracy, though robust, is infested with rampant corruption and inefficient governance.  The options available in an election are so disgusting, most of the educated franchisee in the country doesn’t ‘stoop’ to participate in the election.  I am one of them.  I have never voted in a general election.  The choices available are outright disgusting and the process of voting is pointless.

Save Democracy

One Mr. Elanthirumaran (translates to The Victorious Young One) made a presentation about the vicious circle perpetuated by non-participating educated voters.  He had one powerful answer to ‘What is the Point (of voting)?’

His response was, “while your candidate will not win in this election, or you might not even find a worth a while candidate in this election, your coming into the the electoral democracy will make the existing political parties to sit up and think.  Slowly, but surely, they will want to cater to your needs and your issues”.

That is an argument I can’t refuse!

20 Nov

Questions No One asks about Human Sexuality

Questions No One Asks

Here are a bunch of questions about human sexuality that no one wants to ask.  Probably because the answers frighten everyone!

01: If men are genetically programmed to spread their seeds as  wide as possible, why shouldn’t we expect women to be genetically programmed to collect as varied seeds as possible so that the best one wins?

02: If women have muted sexuality, or naturally monogamous, why did men have to build societies that so severely restricts women’s independence.

03: If families are economical units lead by man-the-provider, what is going to happen to the unit in a world where women have larger average income than men?

04: Many people who are alive today are likely to live beyond 100, and spend much of that life in their sexual prime.  What will happen to marriage, monogamy and other conventional values?

05: Why do women reach their sexual prime in their late thirties, just when men start their downhill slide?  Or why do men reach their sexual prime in late teens and early twenties, exactly when most women their age are unable to even get a decent orgasm?

06: While we believe that the clitoris is the only human organ built purely for pleasure, why doesn’t it occur to us that women may be selecting men for their pleasure giving ability?

07: If size doesn’t matter, why almost every man is perennially insecure about his size?

08: Why internet search terms describing male endowment is one of the most popular search terms by heterosexual men?

09: Why internet search terms, to everyone’s surprise, show that men stay very close to few selected porn preferences whereas a woman’s taste is all over the chart and varies largely from time to time.

10: While most women don’t enjoy visual porn as much as men, why are stories like 50 shades and slash stories are very popular with women folk?

11: In the social networking age where copying others has been taken to unheard of heights, and mate search has become lot easier, what is going to happen to people’s social and sexual life?

12: While it is becoming clear that power inequality between  partners is a strongest aphrodisiac, what is going to happen to the equality movement?

13: Why is it that youngsters ridicule spiritual values that is so dear to people who are beyond their sexual prime? And the older people ridicule sex drive that determines almost every action of the youth?

14: While our values and priorities change with our age, why do we have our key social structures designed for the youthful mental state?

15: While attraction, attachment and sexual drives are three mutually independent faculties, why do we have a social structure that pins all three on a single individual.

Because we were prudes for several centuries now and never dared to ask some of the important questions, there is so much of clutter and misinformation out there.  If these questions are answered honestly, the answers will move the ground from under our feet.  I intend addressing all of them, supported by hard scientific data, neatly tucked into some innocuous-looking and academic-sounding posts!

However, this blog is not just about human sexuality.  I happen to believe that our sexuality is a huge part of who we are and without understanding it, we will never know who we truly are.  Also, without understanding our true self, we will never have a chance to be truly happy.

Since my blog is about all of human nature and not just about human sexuality, you will find the answers to these questions peppered in between several other topics that I believe are important in understanding human nature.  If you are interested in keeping track of the future posts so that you will know when your favorite topic comes up, you can do one of these things:

  • Subscribe to the blog by entering your name and email address in the form on the top-right.  Of course, your email address will not be shared with anyone.
  • Subscribe to the RSS feed (this is for the gear heads)
  • LIKE the FaceBook page you will find here.  I update this page only when I post something in this blog and you will easily miss the updates.  Hence, after LIKEing the page, you will have to click on LIKED button and select GET NOTIFICATIONS.  Otherwise, the updates from the FaceBook page tends to get lost.

By the way, if you can think of more unasked questions, please feel free to add them in the comment section below.

18 Nov

ADHD Brain

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is easily the most fascinating, misunderstood, contested and over-diagnosed psychiatric condition.  Through ADHD, we will see how our brain affects our behavior.

There is a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called Dopamine.  When you get something right, the dopamine levels in the brain go up.  Of course, getting something right is often closely linked to improving one’s chances of survival or reproduction.  Dopamine is the reward chemical.  It supplies the feel good when we solve a mathematical problem, find delicious food or a delectable mate.  Cocaine high is also supplied by drug induced dopamine.  Dopamine is also responsible for movement, motivation, impulse control, alertness and focus.

There is a neurotransmitter called Norepinephrine (NE).  NE increases secreted in your brain when your stress levels go up.  NE also increases the alertness and focus.  NE is a product of Dopamine.

A small set of the population seem to have a mutation that leaves them with sub-optimal levels of dopamine and/or NE.  Because of the sub-optimal levels of alertness/focus chemicals, unless something excites them (and increases the dopamine levels) or frightens them (and increases the NE levels), these people tend to remain distracted and under-motivated.  These people are thought of attention deficit.

There is also a difference in the way an ADHD brain in wired.  When a baby is born, the neurons inside the brain are cross wired in an almost random fashion.  As the baby grows up, surplus connections are pruned out.  This pruning is needed to build specialized modules inside the brain and make the brain more efficient.  Often, parts of an ADHD brain remains under differentiated.  As you will see later, this not always a bad thing.

It is interesting to see how these subtle changes inside the brain express as personality traits:

  • There is a portion of the brain called striatum, which is partly responsible for physical movement.  People with sub-optimal levels of dopamine in striatum can’t sit in one place.  These are the physically hyperactive types.  The physical movement seem to increase the dopamine levels in the striatum.
  • Striatum is also responsible for motivation.  Less dopamine here results in poor motivation.
  • There is a part of the brain called pre-frontal cortex (PFC) that sits just behind our forehead.  It is believed to be responsible for several functions, including acting as the breaking system of the brain.  When someone has less dopamine in the PFC area, they exert poor impulse control.  It makes them short tempered (bad) and/or spontaneous (good at times).
  • PFC also smothers the creative insights to some extent.  This is one reason why creative people often have poor impulse control.
  • PFC is responsible for forethought, planning, executing, etc.  People with less dopamine in PFC show deficiencies with these skills.
  • PFC is also thought of as the seat of working memory.  Poor dopamine levels in PFC impairs a person’s working memory and makes them poor with details.  On the other hand, they become good at dealing with the big picture (which amounts to consolidating several smaller details into one bigger package).
  • Because of poor level of dopamine in PFC, this brain type is typically disorganized.  On the other hand, some of these people who learn to organize are super-organized.
  • Poor dopamine levels in PFC also results in poor time sense.  Even estimation of time required to complete a task is difficult for them.
  • People with low level of dopamine in cerebellum become physically sluggish.  But all the action happens inside an overactive mind, encased in a still body.
  • Novelty increases dopamine levels.  People with this brain type are usually novelty seekers.
  • Routine task doesn’t generate dopamine.  While these people can handle a novel task of higher difficulty, handling even a simple routine task is such a drag for them.
  • Risk taking pumps up dopamine and norepinephrine.  So, this brain type actively goes looking for risk.  Several of soldiers, police men, stock brokers and other high risk professions are filled with this brain type.
  • Of course, verbal quarrels also increase NE.  Some people with this brain type are pugnacious, particularly when they also have a short temper.  Almost everyone with this brain type is a drama queen.
  • Dopamine is also responsible for salience.  People with sub-optimal dopamine levels forgive others easily.  Except if they also have deficient levels of serotonin in anterior cingulate gyrus, in which case they won’t easily forget a slight.
  • The sub-optimal level of serotonin is ACG is often seen in people with ADHD brain type.  ACG is like the gear shift of the brain and serotonin acts like the gear fluid.  With deficient serotonin, their brain tends to get stuck in the same state.  Combined with poor working memory, these people tend to forget the rest of the world when they lay their hands on a task that fascinates them.
  • Throughout the brain, dopamine and serotonin are in a balance.  As less serotonin is known to cause depression, ADHD brain type with less dopamine (and hence, more serotonin) is not easily susceptible to depression.  However, we live in a world that is designed for non-ADHD brain and living in this world often puts them into very high level of stress.  This high stress often makes them prone to depression and anxiety.
  • Because the wiring inside the brain is criss-crossed, this brain type often results in traffic congestion.  This traffic (data) congestion expresses itself in several ways, including dyslexia.
  • Because of the hyper-wiring, people with this brain type usually have sharper senses.  Some of them can hear very feeble sound and/or sound from wide frequency range.  Many of them wear soft and casual clothes as formal clothes (and wrist watches) are too rough on their skin.  Many of them have a nose that can overwhelm them.  As a matter of fact, any of the senses can overwhelm easily them.  Of course, more severe cases of under-differentiation results in complications which have their own jargon and we are not getting into them here.

There are two people inside every person with ADHD brain type.  One is the dull, distraction prone, absent minded, careless and low-motivation person they live most of their life as.  The second character is highly charged, super-motivated, quick, sharp, intelligent and daring person they turn into when they are in a dopamine or norepinephrine pumping situation.

In other words, the baseline of performance for these people shift from situation to situation.  This dynamically shifting baseline is not understood by most of the people, including the ones who have this brain type.  That leads them to falsely under or over estimate their self worth.

In the next post, we will see how our compulsion to generalize ruins the lives of millions of people with this brain type.

16 Nov

Meeting: Occum’s Saloon’s First Face to Face

Date: 2012 NOVEMBER 25 (SUNDAY)
Time: 10am to 2pm

Participants in 1st Occum's Face to Face

Occum’s Saloon is a FaceBook group that discusses topics about de-cluttering our understanding of the world around us. For the first time, some of the members of the group are meeting in the brick-and-mortar world. The details of the even is available from this FaceBook Event Page.

Cost: Funded by the participants


Row 1: Ann Saravanan, Arunagiri Nallasivam, Balakrishnan Kasilingam, P. Elanthirumaran
Row 2: Narasimham Jammi, Kravmaga Sreeram, Raghunandan Rao, Saravanan Balakrishnan (me)
Row 3: Shobana Balachandran, Uma Raghavan, Veerappan

14 Nov

Madonna-Whore and Generalization

Madonna-Whore Generalization

We are naturally inclined to associate only one idea with one person.  This innocuous cognitive limitation called generalization is hugely responsible for decoloring people and societies.

Sigmund Freud originally identified a condition wherein some men couldn’t get sexual arousal in a committed relationship.  He claimed that these men suffered from Madonna-Whore Complex, wherein  they could see a woman either as a saintly Madonna or debased Whore.  Of course, social biologists (and even some psychologists) these days would tell you that these men suffer from the ennui of monogamy.  But their argument can’t hold water when you consider that men marry certain type of women and sleep around with different type of women (women are no different either; but that is the topic for another post).

The reason that most people can’t see both a dependable partner and playful sex-fiend in a single person is due to the cognitive error of generalization.  We can associate only one image with one person.  Even when we look at our own self, we like to generalize!

People in marketing have known this cognitive limitations for a long time (you can read more about it in Marketing Warfare by Al Ries and Jack Trout).  For example, we all think of Toyota as ‘value for money’ car.  So, when Toyota wanted to sell luxury cars, it named it Lexus and formed a completely independent sales and service network.  When Coke did a brand extension (by coming up with more varieties like Diet Coke, etc.), people got confused about what that name stood for and it lost market share to rivals.

Remember how we are usually surprised that the topper of the class back in the school/college days ends up with just a ho-hum life.  Or, how the back benchers always seem to have a knack for coming on top in real life.  We are surprised only because we have wrongly generalized that someone who is doing good in studies must be good in everything else too.

This compulsion to want to put people into neat categories is a cognitive trick used to reduce the amount of energy spent by our brain.  When people behave in a way that demands rethinking on our part, we go out of the way to deny the reality or for the deviant to confirm.  It is a lazy way of living.  But we should not under estimate the power of mental inertia.  The entire multi-billion dollar advertising industry is there only to change our mind by working against the mental inertia.

This is a basic limitation with it origin in the core of our biology.  We have always lived with this limitation.  Our societies and social norms have integrated this limitation into the very fabric.  While generalization has its own advantage (saves on time and energy spent thinking), damages due to generalization pops up everywhere we look.

We will see several more manifestations of generalization in the future posts.

12 Nov

In Celebration of Eccentrics

Bell Curve

If you take the human population and plot any of its characteristics (height, IQ, etc.), you will find that the curve takes the shape of a bell.  Most of the people fall near the center.  As you move away from the center, the population falls off rapidly.  Farther you go from the center, the drop off flattens out.

For some reason that we don’t understand, bell curves are there everywhere.  It is so common that it is often called the “Normal Distribution”! Distribution of Human Height

The curve above shows the actual distribution of height of Americans.  The normal height for women is about 162cm and the normal height for men is about 178cm.  There are very few women who are taller than 188cm and there are very few men who are taller than 203cm.  Women tend to stick closer to the normal than men (sharper bump) and men seem to have much wider variety than women (flatter bump).  There is similar variation between men and women when it comes to IQ distribution as well. You can say that the people who are farther away from the normal have eccentrics.  For example, men who are shorter than 160cm or taller than 195cm have eccentric heights.  Similarly, women who are shorter than 145cm or taller than 177cm have eccentric heights.

To summarize it, people whose traits are clumped around the center are normal.  People who are farthest from the center are eccentric.  It is easy to understand the simple concept when it comes to measurable quantity like height or IQ.  What is interesting is that this distribution is applicable for other traits qualities as well.

Put it in other words,

  • Normal are the people whose traits are most common in a population.
  • Eccentrics are the people whose have rare traits.

A trait becomes more common in a population usually if it had an evolutionary advantage in the past.  But it is not always true.  For example, we could have lived just as happily with four or six fingers.  There is no special evolutionary advantage of having five fingers.  

Also, just because an evolutionary adaptation had been helpful in the past (and hence, it is normal in the population today) doesn’t mean that we can’t live without it today.  An example is the hair on the head.  Except that it is usually thought of as an indicator of youth, that too a weak indicator, hair on the head has no survival or mate selection advantage.  If the entire human population becomes bald overnight, no one other than the hair dressers will find their life threatened!

Interestingly, there are traits that were disadvantageous in the evolutionary past, but are considered an advantage today.  For example, Thom Hartman suggested that people with ADHD behave as if they are hunters in a farming society (this hypothesis is turning out to be more true than he imagined).  He argues that farmers produce such strong societies that every time in the past when a farming society confronted a hunting society, the farmers was completely vanquished the hunters.  However, within a farming society, people with hunter traits ‘can’ perform much better than typical farmers.

Normal is not always superior.  Normal is just that: Normal.  The most common.  Eccentrics are not always inferior.  Eccentrics are just rare.

Normal is made by mixing a little bit of each color.  It results in a dull gray. Eccentrics, on the other hand, is all of few shades and none of the rest.  Eccentrics are like a riot of colors.  A celebration of colours, if you will.  Very rarely does an eccentric come across another eccentric of matching or complimentary color.

But then again, we are all eccentric.  Some of us show it on the surface and the rest of us manage to bury our colors deep down inside in order to match colors with rest of the colorless people who have learnt to bury their own colors just as deep.  We have standardized ourselves to the least common denominator!

That is sad.

This blog will be an exercise for you to discover your true colors so that you can flaunt them proudly.  This blog will also be an exercise in learning to appreciate the colors that others display.  More importantly, this blog will an exercise to learn to live your life without muting your real self or without demanding similar harsh sacrifice from others.

From your side, you just need to make sure that you bring two things to the table: An open mind and eccentric level of IQ that falls on the right side of the normal.

Riot of Colors

Happy festival of lights!

09 Nov

Little Bit of Madness

Starry Night, showing van Gogh's madness

4 out of 5 writers are known to have incidence of bipolar disorder in their family.  1 in 2 entrepreneurs are known to have ADHD spectrum disorder.  People are known to get powerful religious visions after epileptic seizures.

What is going on here?  Why haven’t these conditions go away from human gene pool, even though they usually are detrimental to the carrier’s ability to reproduce?

Consider gayness.  Gay people don’t get a chance to pass their genes.  Gayness is an evolutionary dead end.  Then, why does gay genes still exist in the population?  Some people think that androgynous people are selected more often.  Nature, in its efforts to produce androgynous people, ends up over-doing by producing gay people.

Likewise, little bit of madness offers an evolutionary advantage, which more than compensates for the debilitations.  Nature, in it ability to produce slightly eccentric people (who are typically more successful) ends up overdoing at times.

Interestingly, how much madness is good for you is decided by how well you are able to handle your condition, if you are able to extract an advantage from it, if you are able to nullify the damages, etc.

If you are one of the people who have a beautiful mind, don’t try to be normal.  Before you do that, please think (a) what unique advantages does your eccentricity bring you and (b) how you can counter/manage its debilitations.

If you ace these two requirements, the world will praise you for your uniqueness.  Not call you mad!

At the top of this post, I’ve clip a Vincent van Gogh’s painting called ‘Starry Night’.  This work, the way he draws the stars in it, is considered to bear evidences to his epileptic seizures.
06 Nov

Importance of Human Sexuality

Human Sexuality

We can’t understand human beings without understanding human sexuality.  Recently, I had a post that discussed the orgasmic potential in women.  It was well received by people I happen to know in real life.  Whereas, for the first time, I had people unsubscribing to the blog updates!  I thought I should explain why I keep straying into human sexuality every now and then.

Under the category Mental Mess, I am posting on stuff that will help us get better clarity on things around us.  Because we are social animals, large chunk of these posts are going to be on understanding the human nature.

In other words, I believe that our biology largely determines our behavior.  I also believe that most of our biology is a product of evolution.  So, I rely on social biology to help me understand the human nature and behavior.

Long before Darwin, farmers were crossing-breeding domestic animals and (not ‘with’) plants to modify/improve the stock.  Darwin realized that this process of selective breeding happened in the wild too.  He called this process the Natural Selection (in order to benchmark it against the ‘artificial selection’ which people were already familiar).

Sometimes, natural selection acts on mate selection alone.  One such example is peacock’s tail feathers (or a diamond studded Rolex).  It has no utility other than advertising to a potential mate the fitness levels of the peacock (or, the affluence of the guy who is wearing the watch).  This type of selection is called the Sexual Selection.  It is a sub-set of natural selection.

Group Selection is another sub-set of natural selection.  It happens when one collection of individuals evolves a trait that is beneficial to the group, even though it may not be beneficial to the individual.  Our sense of spirituality is thought of as a product of group selection.

Natural selection and all its subsets all run on one type of fuel: The Selfish Gene.

Huge, HUGE, part of our nature and behavior is determined by the forces of Sexual Selection.  Till about a couple of decades ago, we completely under-estimated the impact of the forces of sexual selection on human nature.  Also, since many forces of sexual selection act only during the reproductive age, its effects are often thought of as vain by people who are outside the reproductive mind set (too young, too old, celibates, religions, etc.).

Because of the immense prudishness that surrounds human sexuality, we hesitate to look into this subject or talk about it.  As a consequence of all this confusion, general public knows next to nothing about how sexual selection makes up who we are.  Because we don’t understand sexual selection, we keep berating human behavior that is perfectly healthy or encouraging behavior that is totally unhealthy.

There is no way we are going to truly understand the human behavior without understanding how the forces of sexual selection act on us.  I believe that understanding our very nature is essential to help us redesign our society, our values, our morals, etc.  And to live happily ever after.

05 Nov

God, Evolution and Internal Compass

Internal Compass

Whenever a belief or an attitude is shared by all (or most) of humanity, it must have offered us a significant survival advantage in our evolutionary past.  After all, people without this belief/attitude were wiped off from the gene pool!

In an earlier post, I discussed about how our sense of spirituality is suspected to be an evolutionary by-product.  Scientists working on evolution suspect that our compulsion to subscribe to concepts like God and Life-Purpose might have similar evolutionary origins.

Take, for example, an animal which sees a movement in the bush.  The animal must quickly decide if it is a fake alarm (say, rustling of the wind) or a predator.  An animal which mistakes a predator for rustling of the wind will get eaten up.  Whereas, an animal which wrongly concludes the rustling of the wind to be a predator lives to see another day.  Over a period of time, the “better safe than sorry” animals, the ones who see an agent in the rustling of the wind, dominates the gene pool.

This compulsion to err on the safe side has endowed all of us with a bias.  Because of this bias, we (and all other animals) often see an agent/pattern in most random noises.  Social biology thinks that we may have invented God and Life-Purpose because we have this compulsion to imagine an invisible hand in everything.

Of course, this doesn’t disprove the existence of God.  But it certainly puts a strong argument that our internal compass might be always stuck towards the North.

02 Nov

What can OkCupid tell us about Women

In the very first post, I discussed how internet is becoming a very rich source for researchers on human behavior.  One such source is a online dating website called OkCupid.

OkCupid has a nice blog, where they keep publishing interesting pieces of researches, based on gargantuan sample size.  Compared to their studies, the regular University researches look laughably puny and homogeneous.

These are some of my favorite findings: Agewise orgasmic potential of women

Almost half the young women have difficulty reaching an orgasm.  While OkCupid doesn’t get into why, experts on the subject claim that young women have difficulty only with vaginal orgasm and that clitoral orgasm is easy.  Interestingly, women reach their peak orgasmic potential in their mid forties (no wonder that women in their forties enjoy sex much more than the younger women; they also have much more self-confidence).  But if the women exercises, she typically reaches her orgasmic peak potential by late thirties and sustains it for fifteen more years!  So, for a woman in her forties, exercising is a huge, huge advantage.  If there is a forty-something woman in your life, you know what you should gift her for the new year.  A gym membership, of course!

Curvy vs Skinny Women: Drive and Self Confidence

But be careful about the dangers of overdoing the exercise bit.  She needs exercises only to keep her physically active.  Not to make her skinny.  Because, curvy women have biggest sex drive and self confidence.  Whereas, skinny ones fare the worst.  All other body types fall somewhere in between.

By the way, I happen to intimately know one curvy woman, who has just entered her forties and exercises regularly.  I wonder what should I get her this new years! In the meanwhile, you can read the original article here.

Both men and women lie

In America, both men and women lie (I see no reason why it should be any different in other countries).  Men lie a little bit more than women, at least when it comes to talking about their income.  As they age, people become more comfortable with lying.

Male income and response received

May be men lie more about their salaries because women are the officially certified gold diggers.  If the guy earns about $100k, the woman is for him to lose!  Of course, if you go to the original post, you can see color charts.

Straight vs Gay Women

This is just my gut feeling, looking from the chart above, gay women seem to be living a full live, whereas straight women seem to be shackled by the culture (original article).    I can’t help wondering, while looking at this chart, if women will be much, much more sexually active and adventurous if our religious and cultural shackles are dismantled.

Now, here is some information you can actually use: If you want to take an attractive self-portrait, try around 4am or 4pm.  Around 9am or 9pm, you are likely to make the worst pictures (original article).  Why?  God knows!

When to take attractive self-portraits