03 Aug

Refusing Anti-ageing is accepting Death

All Roads Lead to Death

For life to sustain, several million things must happen in a particular order.  But death can occur in any of the million ways.  There lies the secret behind the apparent immortality of mortality.  Death doesn’t have any special status in the greater scheme of things.  We just need to jump too many hoops to avoid death.  I believe that the Universe doesn’t care if we live.  And that It doesn’t care if we die.

We all avoid death for one reason or other.  For some of us, it is the fear of the physical pain.  For some, it is the pending responsibilities.  Others can’t bear the tears of near and dear.  Some don’t want to die without seeing the wonders that the future has to offer (detour: Isn’t it interesting that many of our reasons to live are driven by what we mean to others?).  And then, there are people who continue to live because can’t find a good reason to die.  I always find it surprising as to how so many people claim that they are not scared of dying.  Whereas, these same people won’t hesitate to kill if their life is threatened.

Even though everyone is scared of dying, we always ridicule the people who went chasing after immortality.  We have stories and legends where the chasers of immortality always have sorry ends (but often, in our legends, heroes who chase the noble are gifted immortality).  These stories are not far from reality.  People who went chasing immortality, longevity or youthfulness always failed.  It is nice for us to think of them as desperate and greedy.  It probably justifies our own laziness.

When it comes to wanting immortality, vast majority among us take the defeatist attitude.  Nothing else explains why we are uncomfortable with the idea of immortality.  After all, if we have a good reason to live today, there is no good reason to not want to live tomorrow.  Or the next year.  Why should it be OK for us to accept death in fifty years from now, when it not OK to want to die today?

Granted, in our youthful swagger, it is normal for us to want not to live into the frailties of senescence.  But when senescence creeps on us slowly, it turns out that it is not such an unbearable thing after all!  Our justification of accepting death on the ground that ‘senescence is unacceptable’ appears baseless.  But given that I am one of those people who vehemently cry “keep me fit or give me death”, I can look at this group sympathetically.

Modern anti-ageing techniques, though they are far from perfected as of now, can easily add one or two additional decades of healthy living to most of us.  But surprising number of people think too low of taking it up.  It is perfectly OK for them if the death creeps on them slowly.  But wanting to jump on the anti-ageing bandwagon is too painful to them for two reasons: One, it amounts to accepting our desperation to want to live another day.  Two, reminds us that death is real.

For the people among us who avoid anti-ageing, state of default seem to be safe and non-threatening. Having taken an emotional decision not to act, we go around inventing false justifications as to why we chose default over action.

Don’t.

Take anti-ageing seriously.  It looks funny to you because it is positive healthcare.  Healthcare is usually focused fixing things that are broken.  In other words, conventional medicine is about coming from negative to zero.  Anti-ageing takes something that may or may not be broken and makes it better.  It is a process where the final destination is positive.

Anti-ageing alone can add thirty to forty years to your life, at the very least.  You can absolutely not come across any other single action that can add so many healthy years to your life. Period.

01 Aug

John Galt was a Psychopath

Psychopaths

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 Jul

Naming a Brand

Naming a Brand

If you are, like me, don’t have an inheritance or a nest egg to see you through the rest of your life on this planet with your present level of creature comforts, it is a good idea to start a business, that is, if you haven’t started on already.  If you run a business or planning to start one, ‘how to name it’ becomes a frequently asked question.

Many seasoned business persons don’t sweat over this issue (what kind of a name is Videocon; and who will sell washing machines and smartphones under that brand).  May be they are right, may be it all depends on the execution.  But then, you will name a brand only once; but if you get a great name, you will reap the benefits through out the life of the brand [I wish my parents knew this :-( ].  Hence, not taking the effort to come up with a proper name is sheer laziness.

Here is a set of filters you can use while finding a nice name for your brand.  All of them are simple.  All you have to do is sit in a quiet place and scribble down a bunch of names.  Don’t be scared if you have to come up hundreds of options.  Then you start rejecting the ones that don’t pass through these filters.  I am sure you will come up with a name that you and your children will be proud of.  No creativity required!

1. UNIQUE SOUNDING

The brand name is the handle by which everyone comes to remember the brand. Some names are so generic, holding on to them is like grabbing an eel. A generic name easily slips from the mind. An unique name, on the other hand, is like an ergonomically designed handle. These are some of the unique sounding names that immediately come to my mind: 3M, RedBull, Minkle, Wipro and Tata.

2. ROLLS ON YOUR TONGUE EASILY

If you have an unique name that is difficult to yell out loud, it is not going to stay in people’s mind. For example, who remembers Minnesota Minerals and Mining (3M‘s real name)? Vedanta is to regal, though it’s tougher on the tongue than Sterlite (which is more popular). GMR is more easy on the tongue than GVK. Coke is better than Coca cola. Accenture rolls on the tongue too (even though it is a bit too long, in the Business Consultancy business, it is one of the shortest names). Better still, can you come up with a name that people love to pronounce? Something that people use often just because they love the way it sounds, like Jack Nicholson?

3. NOT TOO LENGTHY

If the name is longish, you are going to have a tough time while designing a logo. Moreover, with a long name, people are going to make up an acronym instead of using the proper name of your business/brand. And there is a very good chance that the acronym will sound horrible. Companies like 3M, Coke, Mac, Cat, GE, GM, IBM, etc. all had long names.  They are extremely lucky that their abbreviated names are unique and roll on the tongue. Not everyone gets that lucky.

4. USES PROPER SPELLING

Don’t pick name like Klassic or Classik. It’s too much of hassle to remember the spelling variation. All your customers searching for you in Google will land up at Classic Furniture, not Classik Furniture. By the way, Classik also fails the first filter (i.e. unique sounding). A name like Classik is worse than a name like, for example, Saravana Furniture!

5. COMMUNICATES WHAT YOU DO

If you have limitless advertisement budget, you can take a meaningless name like Accenture and spend cart loads of money to tell what you are doing. But if you are a small company or a start-up, the name of your business must describe what you do. Don’t name your business after God, founder, dog or other such irrelevant thing. It’s such a wasted opportunity. From this point of view, Coca Cola, General Motors, General Electrics, International Business Machine, FaceBook, Microsoft and Google are good choices. Pepsi, Saravanabhava, Sangeetha, Starbucks, Accenture and Minkle are bad.

6. COMMUNICATES WHAT YOUR USP IS

Your USP (Unique Selling Proposition) is the reason why your customers are doing business with you. If only you can find a name that communicates your USP, you can compromise on few other requirements. Accenture is a name that subliminally communicates superior capabilities. Lexus communicates luxury. And what do you think is the winning entry: RedBull, of course! If you are looking for names that don’t communicate the USP, they are there everywhere: IBM, Microsoft, FaceBook, Saravana Stores, GRT…

7. DOT-COM DOMAIN NAME IS AVAILABLE

If you can get the .COM domain of your name, without prefixes or suffixes, that is an wonderful advantage in itself.

8. SATISFIES NUMEROLOGICAL REQUIREMENT

I am not into numerology and I can’t tell you much about this filter. But if you believe in numerology, this won’t be a laughing matter for you.

By the way, there is also a 9th filter: Common Sense. Don’t forget it.

29 Dec

Who gave You Your Morals?

Fairness

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.

SCARF Model

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.

Summary:

  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.

22 Dec

Anoxia of a Negative Thought

Happiness

We’ve heard people claiming that we use only 20% of our brain (or is it 10%).  It’s wrong!  We know beyond doubt that the brain is a finite resource and the demand placed on it often surpasses the resources available.

When the brain is assigned more than one task, they compete inside the brain for resources and the energy hungry tasks usually are sacrificed.  Of course, unless it is more critical or more rewarding (in which case, other tasks are sacrificed).

The neocortex (and particularly, the Pre-Frontal Cortex) is central in high cognition (though, higher cognition occurs outside the cortex too).  It is also the most energy inefficient part of the brain.  Evolutionarily, it is the most recent part of the brain, whereas the rest of the brain has been around for millions of years more.  The rest of the brain has had time to evolve better efficiency.

Neocortex is the part of the brain where you hold a thought and process it.  It is also where we hold a negative thought and ruminate over it.  If such a thought is about something that happened in the past, we call it sadness or regret.  If the negative thought is about the future, we call it worry.

Ruminating the past doesn’t change a thing.  We all know it but we often find ourselves unable (the thought it too powerful) or unwilling (we feel guilty to let go) to extricate ourselves from this thought pattern.  The sad thing here is that none of this will ever change the past.  But the rumination will deprive our ability to be available to the people and the challenges that are right in front of us today.

But there is a very interesting perspective to worrying that is not immediately obvious.  When we are facing a future challenge, we ‘usually’ do not need more than a few seconds (if not minutes) of thinking to find the solution.  If we are unable to find a solution after a short reflection, we probably lack data/skill and we need to go out and get some.  In the former case, worrying is a meaningless sacrifice of our mental health.  In the later case, worrying stunts our ability to acquire additional resources that will help us actually solve the problem.  Either way, worrying extracts huge cost from us.  Almost always, it is a wasteful exercise.

Here is a simple technique to stop from dwelving in a past or future negative event:

Do something that shifts the flow of blood (i.e. energy) from the neo-cortex!  It is that simple!!

Get up and walk.  Exercise.  Dance.  All these things shift the energy flow inside your brain to the regions that have the motor control.  If you are good at it, sing a song, play a music or simply listen to a type of music that doesn’t accentuates your negative mood.  Play with kids, play with pets, go to a movie, go to some chat room, spend time with friends.  Start a movement, contribute time to a cause, join a mission, join a competition.  Meditate. Cook.  Shop.  Party.  Watch a movie.  Fall in love.  Travel.  Bunjee jump.  Wear Spandex and fight crime.

The choices are limitless.  The point is to get on to something that shifts the blood flow from the structures that ruminate or worry, to anything other structure in the brain.  All the grand strategies that are taught to stop worrying/ruminating all boil down to this simple thing.

Most of the typical anti-worry or anti-rumination methodologies work ‘on’ the negative thought.  While working on a thought, you must hold it in your mind.  The more you hold a thought in your mind, the more deeply entrenched it becomes and the more difficult it is to extinguish it.  There lies the simple elegance of the shift-blood-flow technique.  It takes just a second to implement and it doesn’t ever involve working ‘on’ the negative thought!

20 Dec

Laser Beam, Table Lamp and DLPFC

Lights

We often focus like a laser beam: Precise and with high intensity.  When we focus like a laser, anything that is not under the beam vanishes from our attention, including our  perception of time.  We are usually under flow state and we are reasonably confident about cracking the problem that we are focusing on.

When we focus like a laser, a portion of our brain called Dorsolateral Pre-Frontal Cortex becomes highly active.  DLPFC is involved in our executive functions, working memory, self control, etc.

Other than laser focus, there is a diametrically opposite powerful mental state: Illuminate like a table lamp!  The light has no specific agenda.  But it has its fingers in every pie there is.  This is the state of mind we typically acquire when we become spontaneously creative.  Examples include composing a new tune, writing a poem, flirting with someone special, etc.

Interestingly, when our mind lights up like a table lamp, the DLPFC become under-active!

DLPFC often underlies the difference between the well-organized disciplinarian and the artsy-creative types.  The former has overactive DLPFC and the later has under-active DLPFC.

Each mental state has its own advantage.  There are times where we need to focus like a laser and there are time where we need to bounce around like the photons from a table lamp.  Usually, every individual is good in one type of thinking.

But there is a ridiculously simple way to acquire each mental state:

Mimic a laser beam or a table lamp with your attention!

Don’t think.  Just visualize your light source and mimic it with your attention.  You can shift your mental state in a jiffy.  With that, your whole persona changes!

19 Dec

Escape Velocity of Life Extension

Escape Velocity of Life Extension

One of the best kept secrets of medical industry is that life extension techniques are here and now!  We have known for decades that stuff like micro-nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.), hormone balancing, etc. can easily give additional 10 to 20 ‘fit’ years to an ageing individuals. However, for incredibly silly reasons, these techniques are not widely known or practiced.

For example, benefits of most of the micro-nutrients have been known for several decades.  No one can take a patent on them and there is not enough money for pharmaceutical companies to promote them.  All over the world, unfortunately, most of the (not all) physicians limit their post-college education to sales presentations given to them by medical representatives.  With no medical representative to show a nutrition therapy in front of a physician, nutrition therapy has become an orphan that no one cares about.

Hormone balancing, on the other hand, has a different story.  During the later part of twentieth century, many pharmaceutical companies have sold poor mimics of human hormones, resulting in several adverse side effects.  Consequently, hormones replacement strikes terror in the minds of the lay public and under-educated physicians.  Given that hormones are used by the body as the elixir of youth and vitality, ignoring their potential benefit because we are ill-informed is really sad.

But things are changing fast.  More and more physicians are waking up to simple, yet effective, ways to dramatically increase the fitness levels of the ageing.  People in the anti-ageing industry and patients undergoing age-management therapy, routinely claim that their biological age has been reversed by 10 to 20 years.  If not more.

10 to 20 bonus fit years is no small thing.  But that’s all we can hope to gain from today’s science.  However, there is an interesting aspect: With the breakneck speed at which science is progressing, it is generally believed that before the bonus time (of 10 to 20 years) runs out, newer understanding will come along, giving us additional 10 to 20 fit years.  And…so…on.

This speed of medical breakthroughs, which will ultimately give us immortality, is loosely called the ‘escape velocity of age extension’.  Most of the people in the know believe that the escape velocity is already here.  I tend to agree with them!

Of course, they could be completely wrong.  But what if they are right?  If you were born in the 1960’s or earlier, it is time to sit up and take notice.

18 Dec

Human is Changing

Transhuman

Evolution, the blind watchmaker, has been toying around with various models of biological entities for the last three and a half billion years.  And if you subscribe to panspermia (that the first life form originated somewhere else in the Universe and floated to the earth as star dust), God know how many years of evolution was under play before the three and a half billion years of evolutionary drama started on earth!

Evolution builds on top of evolution.  Because of this, as the time progresses, evolutionary changes happen in exponential speed.  Unfortunately, or brains are not geared up to perceive geometric progression.  That speed of evolution picked up with appearance of intelligent humans on earth.

‘Natural vs artificial’ is a false dichotomy.  Brick and mortar, soot and sewer are products of evolution, just as a honeycomb is a product of evolution.  Extending that thinking…

all the human achievement, including science, technology, philosophy, arts, modern medicine are all products of evolution

Ray Kurzweil of MIT has figured out a neat way to predict the progress of information technology.  Kurzweil has proposed (this video) that

  • By 2020, we will have computer inexpensive hardware that are as powerful as a human brain (but we won’t have the software yet)
  • By 2029, we will have reverse engineered all the regions of human brain, giving us a good understanding of how the software of the human brain works.
  • By 2045, we will have machines that are just as powerful as humans.  While the intelligence of human brain is limited by its biology, capabilities of the machines will continue to grow in exponential pace.

Unbelievable as they might sound, Kurzweil has been accurately predicting major technological events from the mid 1980’s onward.  While Kurzweil maintains that it is hard to see how things will turn out beyond this point, it is obvious that the pace of improvement of technology will change who we are and what are our values.  As a result,

the very definition of human is changing!

These changes that are going to hit us with warp speed.  Understanding them will help us to prepare ourselves for both good and the bad that are in store for us.

Welcome to the future…

Where, you might be among the first to defy death!

Or, be among the last to celebrate life!!

25 Nov

Detour: Democracy with Elanthirumaran

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
Venue: AT JAMMI MIND SPACE, CHENNAI (map)

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

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

02 Nov

Gender on the Neocortex

Mean Bean Counter

The moment a speaker starts “the human brain is the most complex thing in the Universe”, I lose all respect for them.  I am sure they have turned every rock in the Universe and looked underneath before making such a tall claim.  Or, why can’t they perceive that two human brains is more complex than one human brain.  Or, how exactly do they define complexity?  Or brain?

Similarly, when someone says that we use only 10% of the our brain, you can immediately conclude that this person doesn’t understand evolution.  Since we know that human brain is an energy-expensive organ in the body, and that evolution just won’t build such a wasteful organ.

Another brain myth, but less well knows is the number of cells we carry in the brain: 100 billion neurons and 1 trillion glial cells (neurons do the thinking and glial cells do the housekeeping).  But recent studies give us very reliable cell count in the brain.  We know know that we have about 85 billion neurons and 86 billion glial cells.  In all, about 170b in total.  Not the originally claimed 1,100b.

We humans are very proud of our huge cerebral cortex.  We believed that it is brimming with neurons.  Even though our cerebral cortex occupies 80% of the brain, it has only 20% of total neurons!  Interestingly, the cerebellum (‘small brain’ in Latin), a small inconsequential bulb of the brain that hangs behind the big-mean-cerebral cortex, contains 80% of all the neurons; whereas it is only 10% by volume!  By the way, we only have a vague idea of what cerebellum does.  The state of the art in neuroscience is truly embarrassingly primitive.

We love to think that the human brains are somehow different from rest of the primates.  Anatomically speaking, the only difference between us and other primates is the brain size.  Human brain seem to be just a blown up version of monkey brains.

I save the best for the last: In the neocortex (the seat of human uniqueness, including intellect and executive functions), men have 21% more neurons than women (23b/19b) and 33% (65b/49b) more glial cells!  I don’t think anyone knows what to make out of this information because men and women have very similar average IQ.

Of course, I don’t know the significance any of the other information in this post either.  At this point in time, all of them seem to be completely useful pieces of trivia.  But I will end up remembering them anyway.  You, my reader, I am sure you will end up remembering at least the last one for sure!

29 Oct

Sexual Ornament

Sexual Ornament

We didn’t grow a large brain to help ourselves find better food, fend from predators or to change the very landscape of the planet, like we are doing today.  We evolved a large brain hundreds of thousands of years before we did all that.

In his book Descent of Man, Charles Darwin discusses two types of evolutionary pressures:  Natural Selection and Sexual Selection.  Natural selection arises from the struggle to survive (fangs and hooves).  Sexual selection (antlers and peacock tail feathers) arises from pressure to reproduce.  There are two types of sexual selection.  One is challenge between the same sex to outwit one another (intrasex).  Other is a challenge to charm and attract the opposite sex more successfully (intersex).

A feature that evolved due to intersex sexual pressure is called a sexual ornament.  It is usually un-fakeable.  For example, only a healthy antelope can afford huge antlers.  Similarly, only a healthy peacock can afford a long and lustrous tail feathers.  To start with, an animal needs plenty of nutrition (i.e. physical fitness) to build and maintain a sexual ornament in top condition.  Sexual ornaments also adds more handicap, often in the form of burden over animal’s ability to move around freely.

For the huge cost that an animal suffers, sexual ornaments usually have zero utility value.  They don’t help the animal to fend a predator, catch/gather food, shelter from nature or increase the longevity.  If at all, sexual ornaments increases the animal’s chances of dying an early death!  If you think for a moment, there is a common theme for all sexual ornaments: Only I can afford the wastage!

In his wonderful book The Mating Mind, psychologist Geoffrey Miller puts forward a hypothesis that the brain developed as a sexual ornament.  During the initial days, Miller proposes, women selected men for men’s ability to excite and entertain the women.  Over time, pressurized by choosy women, men ended up developing larger and larger brain.  Of course, women were not left behind either.  They needed to evolve an equally intelligent brain to appreciate what men produced.

These are some of the implications of Miller’s ‘ornament brain’:

  • In a romantic situation, wastage (and luxury) is essential.  Waste is what keeps a fitness indicator honest!  A act or gift of high romance usually carries huge cost on the giver, but zero utility value to the receiver (e.g. diamond, flower, poetry, etc.)
  • Brain evolved as an entertainment system; we eventually hijacked it for doing rocket science
  • All activities that put a high demand on the brain are perceived as sexy.  Examples are singers, sportsmen (excelling in sports is a matter of the brain; not just the brawn), actors, poets, etc.  Of course, if you work in Intel you might find nerdyness sexy too!
  • Men are major producers and women are major consumers
  • While men are usually busy searching for women who would appreciate their sexual ornament, women are busy sifting through all suitors.  It is wrong to think that women don’t actively participate in the mate selection process.
  • Monogamous species do not have to develop sexual ornamentation (in all monogamous species, both the sexes look identical).  Humans developed sexual ornamentation because they were (moderately) polygynous (at best, serially monogamous) by nature.
29 Oct

Honest Signal

Honest Signal

There is a term called “honest signalling” in evolutionary biology.  It is not a new insight, but it is going to form basis for some of the key discussions we are going to have in the future.

Peacock’s tail is a wonderful example of a honest signal.  The luxury of the tail fathers correlates well with the fitness level of the animal which carries it.  A peacock with lower fitness can’t fake a luxurious tail feathers.  So, peahens have come to use the fitness of the tail feathers as a primary mate selection criteria.

Gazelles are known to stot (quadruple jumping) in the presence of a predator.  By stotting, the gazelles  signal their fitness level to the predator (Hey, look, I am very fit.   No use chasing me.  Find someone else easy).  As a weaker animal can’t stot as well as a fitter animal, stotting turns out to be a honest signal.

In humans, wealth indicators are easily understandable honest signals.  A Rolls Royce car is a honest signal of one’s financial resources.  Or, a Nobel prize is a reliable indicator of one’s mental resources.  Great skin, shining nails or lustrous hair is a honest signal of someone’s physical fitness.  But with humans, there is one ‘not so obvious’ fitness indicator: The Brain!

While a Nobel prize might be a reliable indicator of one’s cognitive resources (but then again, several Nobel prize winners had notoriously troubled family lives), brain itself is thought of as a honest signals of an individual’s genetic fitness.  In a wonderful book Mating Mind (which has cart load of politically incorrect assertions), Geoffrey Miller claims that the large humans brain evolved as a honest signals of genetic fitness.

No other animal has evolved large brain because large brain is a pain.  Consider these:

  • Large brain is simply redundant for eking out a life on this planet.  After all, none of the other animals have bothered to evolve a large brain.
  • Our brain is metabolically very expensive.  We end up spending about one fifth of our energy budget on the upkeep of the brain.
  • Large brain makes child birth a very risky venture for both the mother and the child.
  • Large brain made it difficult and awkward for us to move quickly like most of our primate cousins could.

A large brain has loaded us with plenty of disadvantages.  There must have been some compelling evolutionary advantage that the large brain brought us.  Otherwise, evolution would have weeded it out.

If we think that the intelligence of a large brain gave us any survival advantage, you may  be wrong.  After all, till the advent of agriculture, our life was hardly any different from that of any other animal on the planet.  We were not even the top predators on earth, even though we evolved our large brains some 200,000 years ago!  Why did we go through so much of trouble and evolve such large brain if it didn’t afford us any survival advantage?

Geoffrey Miller argues that a large brain evolved as a honest signal of the genetic fitness of the individual who carries it.  So, we have probably come to regard all ‘products of mind’ highly.

This has several interesting implications.  We will address them tomorrow.

26 Oct

Selfish Gene vs Altruistic Human

Altruistic Animal

There is a human gene called DRD4.  A mutation in the DRD4 gene can give ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyper Activity) to the people who have the mutation.  People who have ADHD have difficulty with controlling their impulse.  Many of them marry young, have early pregnancy, have many kids, etc.  In all, there is every reason to expect the DRD4 mutation (and ADHD) is going to increase in the human population.

ADHD, of course, can pre-dispose a person to several setbacks.  Learning difficulty is the most well known affliction of ADHD.  People with ADHD are more vulnerable to addictive behavior, temper outbursts, poor job performance, etc.  About 65% of the inmates in Western prisons suffer from ADHD spectrum disorders.

DRD4 is clearly behaving in a way that is detrimental to the carrier animals.  But the same behavior is helping the gene to maximize the number of its own copies in the population.

Genes behave in a way that increases the number of its copies.  Over time, any gene that doesn’t doesn’t toe the line gets ‘subsumed’ by other aggressive genes. Because our language lacks adequate words to describe such behavior, we talk as if the genes are people (anthropomorphic thinking) and claim that the gene is behaving selfishly and we call such a gene a selfish gene.  Obviously, the gene is not people and it doesn’t think or act.  More importantly, genes don’t have any objective or motive.  They are mindless.

While the genes always act in a purest self-serving way (or they perish), sometimes their behavior is counter intuitive.  Altruism is one such paradox.  An altruistic animal seem to be an evolutionary dead end.  But among pack/herd animals, taking care of one another had increased the chances of all the animals in the pace/herd.  Over time, only the animals with altruistic genes were alive and the rest perished.  While altruism appears self-less, it is in reality promoted by a gene acting in pure selfish fashion.

But when an animal feels altruistic, the feeling of altruism is very real.  Even though the altruism is a product of a selfish gene, that is a mere technicality.  It is like saying “oxytocin release in your brain makes a mother bond with her child”.  Of course it is true.  But the technicality doesn’t make the mother-child bonding any less real.

We often confuse the selfish motives of our genes with the motives an the animal.  We shouldn’t.  We are not our genes.  We are not more.  We are not less either.  We are different.

25 Oct

IQ and Gender Politics

Man, Woman & IQ

Way back in 1932, Scotland got the IQ of all the 11 year old kids in the country, about 80,000 of them, tested.  The population was made up of equal number of boys and girls.  Called the Scottish Mental Survey (SMS), till this day, SMS is the largest such test carried out anywhere in the world.  The test methodology and the findings of SMS have not been contested seriously till today.  SMS has become the gold standard to understand the gender difference in IQ.  The result of the test is plotted in the chart below.

Scotland Mental Survey

The chart shows the number/percentage of girls of various IQ, plotted against the number/percentage of boys.  Let’s see that result test implies.

  1. Boys and girls are equally smart.  Boys had an average IQ of 100.5 and girls had an average IQ of 100.6, the difference being insignificant.
  2. 85% of the girls are smarter than the boys.  Can you guess why the (Second Wave) feminists never used this proof to argue that women or smarter than men?  Well, you must take a look at “4” below
  3. Lower the IQ, you will find more boys than girls.  This may be one of the reasons why there are more boys with learning disability issues.
  4. Now, this is the kicker: Higher the IQ, you will find more boys than girls!  At around IQ 140 (little above the IQ of University Professors and PhD holders), there are 35% more boys than girls.  Given how smooth this curve it, if I dare extrapolating it to 160-165 range (where all the Nobel laureates loiter), we have a 65:35 boys to girls ratio!  It means that at this range, there are 70% more boys than girls.

Interesting.  If you have noticed the distribution, something more interesting shows up.  It appears as if women the are made in an assembly line with better quality control (so, they confirm closer to the mean of 100).  Whereas, men are made on an assembly line that requires some fine tuning (so, their quality is all over the chart).

I wonder why most of us never know anything about this study, even though it was conducted 80 years ago and no one has been able to find any serious flaw in it till today.  My guess is, gender politics!

By the way, you can click on this link to download an academic paper, discussing the results of the Socttish Mental Survey 1932.  Before you go away, please remember that IQ is not the only indicator for success in life.  It doesn’t even test all types of intelligence that there is.

24 Oct

Spirituality for an agnostic

Spirituality

Spirituality is one of the most misused words out there.  The word ‘spirituality’ is like a closet in a teenager’s room: Anything goes in there, but nothing ever comes out.  For example, according to Wikipedia, the term spirituality can be used when dealing with any of the following:

  • Immaterial reality
  • Inner path leading to essence of a person
  • Deepest value and meaning by which people live
  • A person’s inner life
  • Larger reality
  • A more comprehensive self
  • Joining with other human beings
  • Joining with nature, cosmos and/or define
  • Source of inspiration/orientation for life
  • Going beyond the worldly experience

You can stretch spirituality to fit it on everything or nothing.  You and me can be talking about spirituality, but we may be talking two very different things.  I think the confusions is caused by the limitation of the English language.  Sanskrit, on the other hand, has much more specific terms for each of the above.  It is unfortunate that we are letting this knowledge die.  But we are digressing.

Regardless of what anyone means about spirituality, whenever they use this word, I think they are talking about something bigger than themselves of which they are a sub-set.  The super-set may be a group of people, a set of social rules, some guiding principal, nature, cosmos, divine, etc.

This 18 minute long TED video talks eloquently about the evolutionary basis of spirituality.  As the speaker Jonathan Heidt points out, at times we all experience a powerful dissolution of the self and a sense of merging with something much bigger than us.  When we encounter one of these perception warps, it is usually a life changing (or life ending) experience.  We call these transcendental experience a spiritual experience.

Only hitch with spiritual feelings is this: The purpose of these powerful emotions lie deep in our evolutionary past.  In the past, the humans who put their community above the self survived and the ones who put self above community perished.  So, all of us today happily merge into something bigger.  Since the reason for this transcendental and powerful feelings are not obvious, we tend to attribute all kind of reasons to explain them, ranging from merging with a soul mate to merging with the God.

For an agnostic like me, spirituality is the “anything related to my super-set“.  Simple.  It works regardless of whichever context I see that word coming up in.