07 Aug

Talking eyes


Have you ever met someone with his or her eyeball tattooed?  And if you have, have you ever tried to hold a conversation with them?  I am guessing you probably haven’t.  But you sure have held a conversation with someone wearing sunglasses.  If that conversation was with a person you don’t trust or you don’t know that person yet, do you remember the uncomfortable feeling you had?  The uncomfortable feeling comes because you can’t see that person’s sclera.

Sclera is the white of an eye.  Sclera of most animals have black or brown in color.  Also, in most animals, the iris is large and it occupies most of the eye socket.

With humans, our eyelids are horizontally elongated, increasing the opportunity for the eyeballs to become more visible.  Human eyeballs have lost all pigmentation so that they are clearly contrasted against the human skin.  The human iris comes in dark colors, clearly contrasting against the eyeball.  Our iris is smaller than the that of other animals, further increasing the visibility of the white of the eye.  All of this make it easy for humans to track each other’s eyes.  Even dogs have learnt to track human eyes (though, they can’t track the eyes of other dogs).

We have talking eyes.  Our sclera and iris are designed to talk and to be listened to.  Even infants can track eye movements.  They can track a care giver’s eye movement even before they can track their head movements!

Eye movement is very much a part of our body language repertoire.  For any body language to work, all of us must be using the body gestures the same way.  So, most of the body language gestures are common across our species.  In fact, many body languages are common across the species too.  That’s why we can clearly tell when a lion is angry.

Since the eye movement is part of our body language, we have a pre-defined vocabulary for our eye-talk.  Unfortunately, not much of it is well understood or documented.  Except for a bit of detective work done by NLP (watch this video).

Eye Accessing Cues

NLP has discovered when you try to recall a picture, your eyes move to ‘your’ left-top.  Or when you try to build a new image in your mind, your eyes move to your right-top.  Similarly, when you try to recall some sound you’ve heard, your eyes move to your left and when you are build up a sound, your eyes move to your right.  And when you are having an internal dialog, your eyes tend to move to your left-bottom.  When you get in touch with some tactile experience, your eyes tend to go to your right-bottom (more in this article).  So, when someone is describing about a fun conversation they had last night, and their eyes keep going to their right (and not left), then you know that the person is probably lying!

Our talking eyes are one more evidence that we have been mutually-cooperating social animals for millions of years.  If we had lived in a free-for-all, me-first, devious society, advertising your intent with talking eyes would be a bad thing to do.  If you can’t believe that next guy will do the right thing, you won’t advertise that your are looking at something interesting, like food or a potential mate.

Advertising your intent openly to everyone means (a) you believe that you will not be exploited and (b) your intent (to share the food, for example) will be returned when the time comes.  These two are social traits are deeply embedded in our genetic code and white sclara is just one such places where it shows.

It is in our nature to be social (see the previous post about our fundamentally social nature).  To say that humans need to be forced to cooperate, or that we should be bound by rules to act fair, or that we are selfish in nature, are all total hogwash.  Such claims are testament to lack of understanding of how we work down deep inside.

Down deep inside, we are cooperative social animals with a selfish me-first streak (more about this later).  We are neither this, nor that.  We are a fine balance between honey bees and leopards.  If that is not complicated enough, the point of equilibrium keeps shifting from time to time!

01 Aug

John Galt was a Psychopath


So was Howard Roark.  And, very probably, Ayn Rand was a psychopath too.  But they were all so called ‘high functioning’ psychopaths.  In other words, they have a psychopath’s psychological make up, but they have used the traits constructively.

For reasons that I don’t quite understand, twentieth century was the century of psychopaths.  May be industrialization happened too fast that we didn’t have time to learn to live with strangers.  Or the World Wars (another product of rapid industrialization) promoted leaders with psychopathic tendencies.   Or may be we were tired of living in a close nit society for too long that we were wallowing in our new found individuality.

Whatever may be the case, twentieth century idolized the lone wolves.  Towards the end of the Twentieth Century, we recognized our true social nature.  And we are just beginning to understand how important it is for our physical and psychological well being that we are emotionally connected to other people.

Few posts ago, we saw the SCARF model proposed by David Rock, which identified five central human drives (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness).  Couple of earlier posts addressed Status and Fairness.  This post is about Relatedness.

We are beginning to see research coming out from all over the world, showing that the quality of life and the longevity are tightly correlated with the quality and (to an extent) the quantity of meaningful relationships we have.  Meaningful relationships will include people with who we can have a real conversation or do something with full immersion, people who care for our wellness dearly and people we care for deeply.  People can have such relationships with pets or even plants.

Our default state of response to strangers is suspicion and fear.  Strangers are treated as enemies unless proven otherwise.  For our threat antennae come down, we need to know that the strangers mean no harm.  Hence, for a person who lives among people he or she doesn’t know well enough, the whole world is made up of enemies.  Everywhere they go, they are treated with hostility and the fear that others are always out to get them.

Add loneliness to this constant state of fear, it is no surprise that lone wolves are a bitter and unhappy lot.

Fortunately, a little while ago, longevity scientists have begun to notice a strange anomaly with the people who lived in well nit societies.  It appeared that they lived much longer and happier, and with far less lifestyle diseases, than the normal people.  Even tending to live plants seemed to have some positive effect on people!

And then, the internet and the social networks came along and the fabric of society changed once and for all.

Today, we are much more connected in every sense possible than we ever where in the past.  The trend will only continue.  Because the world is so very networked, we have more number of people to relate to than ever before.  Because we share more online, our relations are typically deeper than they were in the yesteryears.  Similar thinking people are now able to discover each other from different corners of the world.

Good practices discovered in one part of the world spreads to the other parts very swiftly.  More importantly, xenophobia is on the decline.  And meaningless or outdated taboos are falling down one after another.  Because the world is so well connected, there is a free flow of scientific and productive ideas and even the lay people are beginning to discover their creative and thinking skills.  And the world is going to become richer, and happier, by many folds over.

Because we have discovered the necessity and joy of relatedness, the world today is much happier and richer than it ever was.  Because we are so well connected, there is never likely to be a Third World War.  When it comes to networking, we have barely begun to scratch the surface.  What we have seen as the benefits of networking is nothing compared with what is waiting to happen.

Given how beneficial networking ‘among the masses’, isn’t it strange that lone wolves like John Galt and Howard Roark wanted to create an utopia that was made by, and made for, a handful of intellectually gifted people who had near zero social skills!  To understand this anomaly, we should take a quick look at the typical personality features of high functioning psychopaths (taken from the book “Wisdom of the Psychopaths“; a more elaborate character set is here):

  1. Ruthlessness
  2. Charm
  3. Focus
  4. Mental Toughness
  5. Fearlessness
  6. Mindfulness
  7. Action

Galt, Roark, Dagny Taggart or any other protagonist created by Ayn Rand almost always had all the 7 features given above. The epitome, I think, is the way she explains child rearing as an objective profession (or sorts) that one opts in!  Anyone who is oblivious to the magic of rearing having and raising a child, in my mind, must be a psychopath.

29 Dec

Who gave You Your Morals?


In the last post, we saw SCARF model proposed by David Rock, identifying five strong human motivations (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness & Fairness).  The last post also discussed Status.  In this post, we will discuss the Fairness, or morality.

The most important paradigm shift on morality is this:

Fairness and other morals are hard coded in our genes!

The conventional belief is that the moralities have been given to us by religions.  But the more we understand how humans and other animals work, the more it becomes clear that

Religions have simply documented the moral values that we have inherited through our genes.

Unfortunately, religions have done a poor job of documenting morality.  Given that most of the religious teachings are hundreds or thousands of years old, they suffer from two disadvantages:

  1. The clarity of thought applied (while documenting the moral values) in the distant is substantially poor when compared with today’s rigorous standards
  2. The power of today’s science and mathematics to segregate the nuts and bolts of morality was not available in the past.  For the ancient thinkers, morality was too large to grasp, too dynamic to pin down and contained too many black boxes to make sense of.

Here is a wonderful TED video that shows morals are hard coded in the genes: Do Animals have Morals? (17 min).  The capuchin monkeys shown at 13 minute mark in the video have a brain that weighs about just 3.5% of a human brain!  Still, they clearly understand what is fair.  Understanding of fairness has been observed even in small fishes with pinhead sized brain, or in insects with no central nervous system.  If we know how to look, morality is seen in every animal.

Here is why the genetic origin of morality shouldn’t be surprising:

Proteins come together to form genes.  Genes, to chromosomes.  Chromosomes to organs to an organism.  Individual organisms come together to form a society/colony.

Each of these collectives has their own set of rules that must be preserved across time and generations.  Else, the process of formation of collectives stop from happening.

Chemical and physical rules govern the coagulation of organs into an organism (or upstream).  Morality is the rules that govern as to how individual organisms come together to form a colony/society.

Without morality, we will have no societies.  Because, morality is the fabric that holds us all together into a society.  The fabric of the society.

This idea has a few very interesting implications:

  • Since we don’t find many humans wanting to live in isolation for extended period of time, we can speculate that our ancestors who didn’t crave for fairness perished.  For today’s humans, fairness is a basic necessity.  Perceived lack of fairness and morality in other people can make us do funny things.
  • Since fairness is built into our genes, we should expect the world to become a more just place to live with time.
  • Morality is a component of the society.  Moral values usually give more importance to the society, than the benefit of an individual.
  • All agents of morality (including the religions) will mostly put the benefit of the society above the benefit of an individual.
  • We don’t need the religious teachings to tell us what is right and what is not.
  • Because of the poor standards of thinking of understanding involved in the religious teachings, we will be much better off if we replace the religious teachings with scientific understanding of moral values.
25 Dec

Seek Status. Be Happy.

Seek Status

If you are a corporate type, I am sure they have already bored you to death with Abraham Maslow’s human need pyramid.  Maslow proposed that human beings start addressing their needs from the bottom most layer.  Typically, after the bottom layer is addressed, they move to the layer above.  How-much-ever popular Maslow’s pyramid is, I can never figure out what self-actualization is!

Maslow's Pyramid

Fortunately, there is a delightfully alternative human-drive model that works for me.  Proposed by David Rock, the SCARF Model identifies five human needs that have huge impact on our decisions.  And it is not as if one of them is more important than the other.


Maslow and all other teachers before him (including the religious teachers) completely missed the human hunger for status.  Almost every religion, without an exception, preach that status seeking is evil or trivial thing.  People readily die in order to retain their status.  In fact, almost every one is spending their whole life pursuing status.

With the help of modern science, animal studies and hard data, we now clearly know that having high status adds a few years to one’s life.  Not only that, we now know that the people/animals with lower status suffer much higher levels of stress and anxiety, making even their shorter life much less pleasant.

Status seeking is a selfish act, done to benefit the self and near-self.  Selfishness in itself is not a bad thing till such time it affects others in an unfair manner.  Unfortunately, status seeking is a win-lose game; for one person to win, other(s) must lose.  An individual’s status seeking threatens the status of (few) others in the group.  Sometimes, the entire group is threatened by an individual’s status seeking.  Groups almost always hate status seekers.

Religions are a product of group selection.  They almost always put the benefit of the group above that of the individual.  Religions always belittle an individual’s self-centered reward seeking behavior.  Ironically, religions smuggle an individual’s reward-seeking mechanism to serve the group.  If we look at it from this point of view, a religion is a parasite on its member, though a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with the host might exist.

Interestingly, status seeking is driven by sexual selection.  Status seeking is usually an expression of the mate selection drive.  An individual’s status seeking drives roughly correlates with the level of androgens and other gonadal hormones in their body.  People are most status seeking in their sexual prime.  Kids and elderly, with their low gonadal hormone levels, more readily cooperate.  Men, with their higher androgen levels, are much more competitive than women.


  1. Seek, and win, Status; it is good for your health and well being
  2. Your status-run will threaten your peers
  3. Institutions put their selfish motive above your individual welfare when they teach you not to seek status
  4. As you grow old, your status-seeking drive might diminish.  And, you might think that the status seekers are all foolish.

We’ll look at “Fairness” in the next post.

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!